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May 15th, 2009
11:50 PM ET

Can a Hollywood video game make soldiers smarter?

Potential recruits play virtual-combat games at an Army recruiting center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Potential recruits play virtual-combat games at an Army recruiting center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Suzanne Simons
CNN Executive Producer and Author

Just over a year ago, a U.S. staff sergeant in Iraq decided to practice his shooting skills. His target: the Koran, Islam's holiest book. The military issued a formal apology, promptly dismissed the soldier from his regiment and reassigned him back to the U.S.

But news of the shooting had already made its way onto YouTube, and a firestorm of outrage ignited across the Islamic world. Protests turned deadly in Afghanistan, with several people killed, including one of the NATO soldiers trying to control the crowds.

Back at the Army's Intelligence and Cultural Awareness Center at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, commanders knew they had a problem. The Army is no longer living in the age of the old-fashioned boots and firearm soldier. Now it's sending young soldiers into cultures they don't know.

And the meteoric rise of social networks, on which anyone can post messages or video, means whatever these soldiers do can be reported - or undermined - instantly around the world.

"The advent of social networking has changed the world. The soldiers who I see coming from basic to the intel center, what is the first question they ask? Are you wi-fi?" says Maj. Gen. John Custer, Fort Huachuca's top officer.

Custer says the Army now needs not only trained linguists, but also soldiers who understand the cultures in which they're fighting. We've entered the age, he says, of the "strategic private."

And that means it needs a quick but high-impact way to train them.

A third of the men and women the Army has deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are 20 to 24 years old. And many, Custer says, were reared on video games. And that presented an opportunity.

Custer turned to a group of former military men who know the video game world. Like Russ Phelps, who spent a career in the Navy before starting a gaming company called InVism.

"I was watching the rise of the gaming world and the impact and the power it was having over how people were interacting with information and I thought there is something here," Phelps told me.

An Arabic linguist, Phelps worked with two other companies, Combat Film Productions and Quest Pictures, on the Army's mission to create a vivid, engaging cultural training tool that would also allows soldiers to see the consequences of their battlefield decisions. The Army also wanted to track how much cultural knowledge soldiers were retaining.

The result is an immersive cultural simulation that is part video game, part Hollywood blockbuster in the style of action-film director Jerry Bruckheimer. Check out the intro video here. The training game itself is not publicly available.

Here's how it works: the movie-like game puts the soldier into a mission in Iraq and then stops along the way to ask what the soldier what he or she would do. Then the game continues based on their decisions. The soldiers see people in the movie hurt or helped, or killed or saved, as a result of their decisions, just as they would in a real-life scenario.

Ken Robinson, a former Army Ranger and CNN contributor now working as a Hollywood guru, is the project's executive producer. He's convinced that by grabbing the soldier's attention with stunning graphics and compelling characters, and then engaging them in the decision-making process, the project will pay off on real-world battlefields.

"They're gonna live," says Robinson. "They're gonna make choices on the battlefield that will prevent their first choice from being to use their weapon. They're gonna use their mind."

Using realistic story lines and actors with military experience, Robinson believes that soldiers will more deeply connect with the real human beings in the video game more than they would with the more generic and simplistic virtual characters, called avatars, that are used in other training exercises.

"Nobody cares about an avatar that gets killed, you just get another avatar," Robinson told me.

Steve Wilson, Chief of Training at Fort Huachuca, says the realistic characters also help give soldiers a stronger sense of connection with fellow soldiers, and be better able to deal with the shock and stress of the life and death situations they'll soon face for real: "It's a band of brothers mentality. You are building a camaraderie."

Can cultural sensitivity save lives? Does it really matter if a U.S. soldier knows the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni? General Custer thinks so:

"If an untrained soldier walks through a market, he's gonna come back and tell you 'there are a lot of tomatoes here today,' " Custer tells me. "The guy who has cultural training is gonna come back and say 'all the Sunnis in the market are talking about al-Dari, a meeting tonight."

Pvt. Nicole Wright, 20, has taken the training, doesn't know yet when she'll be deployed, but knows it's coming. "I'm going to be a little more aware of what I'm looking for, the people and the environment."

Spec. Andrew Omernick, 23, who grew up playing video games, called the training "a significant step forward."

The previous training used lectures and textbooks. Is a video game the answer? What about criticism that video gamers are detached, that they don't really understand the value of life? Custer dismisses that criticism, saying the first time a car bomb goes off in Iraq, soldiers will know what real death is.

Every soldier who takes the DVD immersion course is given both a pre- and post-test to measure the change in their cultural acuity. But there is an even more immediate feedback about whether or not the Army has achieved its mission of connecting with young privates. "If it were a video game" in the commercial market, says Omernick, "I'd buy it."

Editor’s Note: Suzanne Simons is author of “Master of war: Blackwater’s Erik Prince and the Global Business of War.” (Collins/Harpercollins June, 2009)


Filed under: 360° Radar • Military • Suzanne Simons • Technology
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Vickie Show Me State

    Isn't this sending out a message, that, "war" is a game?

    May 17, 2009 at 7:59 pm |
  2. Tia Benning

    I am an officer currently serving in the U.S. Army. I lead, mentor, and discipline new soldiers volunteering to serve their country during a time of war. That, in itself is to be commended. I have realized the soldiers of today’s Army possess a very different mindset from the type of mentality I had when I joined and are further distinct from the mindset my father possessed when he joined over 35 years ago. The video game is not the “one stop shop” answer for training soldiers in preparation for deployment but is definitely a strong step in the right direction. It is our responsibility as military leaders to find out what captures the attention of the younger generations and build training aids based on such technology. Further, the use of such technology does not exclude the military’s responsibility of establishing and cultivating discipline, physical and mental toughness in our new recruits; the standard has not changed yet the approach to obtain the desired result is diverse.
    Today’s soldier can simultaneously play video games, blog on the internet, text their friends, download music onto their I-Pods all while watching their favorite television show. The military has made significant strides by taking advantage of rapidly emerging technology and combining it with the interests of the younger generations to not only train them on a level that will hold their interest but also raise cultural awareness in preparation for a real world mission. The military, just like any other organization, must transform or be left behind.

    May 16, 2009 at 11:36 pm |
  3. Loretta Koon

    We are dealing with cultures we have little, or no knowledge of. If that alone was not bad enough, we have our every movement broadcast on YouTube, or other internet sites. The world is our audience. The army has to prepare it's soldiers for "CULTURE SHOCK" . They have got to educate these soldiers in what will be required from them and what will not be tolerated! Imagine fighting in a country where you do not understand their culture, don't speak their language, find their food strange, have weather that is unbearable, have sanitary conditions that are pathetic, find sleeping (if you can at all) difficult, THEN every day have to fight for your life while friends around you are dying. And your question was " Can a Hollywood video game make soldiers smarter"?

    May 16, 2009 at 10:28 pm |
  4. Terry, TX

    Interesting story...but the post of Ronvan was great...basic training cut by 2 weeks because of "summer school" recruits....oh no....you can't do the required training then don't sign up. His points were true and alarming... we don't need politics in the Army....

    May 16, 2009 at 8:02 am |
  5. Dina Levine

    Why has none of the liberal media covered this gallup poll?
    Gallup's stunning abortion poll: Pro-life beats pro-choice

    There's more hope for America than I thought.

    May 16, 2009 at 7:47 am |
  6. mike

    why cany they go after street gangs on rico ? the are a criminal entity

    May 15, 2009 at 11:39 pm |
  7. Annie Kate

    After years of telling us that video games are bad for our children because they make death and killing too sanitized and unfeeling, it is interesting that the military has found a way to use a video game to do exactly the opposite of this while instilling cultural awareness at the same time. The only part I find a bit hard to swallow is the claim that in making decisions on the battlefield would come from reasoning instead of their gun – when you are engaged with the enemy he isn't taking the time to think it out, he's trying to kill you. If you take time to think your decision through you might just be pushing up daisies because you delayed killing him.

    May 15, 2009 at 9:05 pm |
  8. JC-Los Angeles

    The words Hollywood and smarter most certainly do not belong together.

    May 15, 2009 at 8:16 pm |
  9. ronvan

    Just another tool to be used. But, as a 23yr. Army vet let me offer you the following. My son went to basic training. It was cut 2 weeks because they had "summer school people" in their class and they had to go back to school. My wife & I went to his graduation. I was so upset I couldn't talk. These "soldiers" could not march" looked like they had 1 week training, uniforms sloppy and salutes that were disgraceful! Also during my working at Ft. Benning I talked with many soldiers, enlisted & officer, and majority agreed that todays Army is to political! Decisions being made on personal career opportunites not military. Their weapons & equipment are far superior to what I had available. What I see is a lack of "gut check" upon entry into service.
    NO more yelling/berating soldiers, treat them nice. 'STRESS CARDS"
    You CAN determine, in basic training, how soldiers react to stress and pick out those that need "special treatment" or even reclassification. EVERY soldier needs to understand that their main mission is to KILL their enemy. To instill them with making a thought process to shoot or not shoot creates a split second decision that is life or death. War is NOT a nice clean business. I would be in leavenworth if I were still in the military!

    May 15, 2009 at 10:25 am |
  10. marcia bunn

    thanks. interesting.

    May 15, 2009 at 10:10 am |