While games in recent years have marketed themselves by focusing on their increasingly realistic approaches to warfare, the army has long been aware of the benefits video games provide when used in military training.
“The military was actually responsible for the funding that created video games,” said Corey Mead, an assistant professor of English at Baruch College.
Mead is currently writing a book about how the military is using video games to train soldiers, titled, War Play: Video Games and the Future of Conflict, that is due in fall 2013.
“Video games stem from early preparation for nuclear war and the technologies that were developed came out of either academic research centers or corporate research centers or actual military research centers where the funding was to develop the technology for advanced thermal nuclear war.”
Mead concluded, “Eventually it was sort of people just going off on their own and programmers having fun which created the first video game.”
This research spawned one of the earliest video games called Spacewar! from 1962 in which two players try to destroy each others’ spaceships.
When “Doom,” one of the first blockbuster video games, arrived in 1993 the army started to use modified versions of these games as part of their training.
Today, the army has incorporated video games into their training to the point that every single soldier interacts with them at some point during their training.
One of the most widely used games in the military according to Mead is Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2), which was developed in 2007.
The developer, Bohemia Interactive, boasts that the game gives you the ability to import your own terrain as well as design almost any imaginable scenario.
The predecessor to VBS2, simply called Virtual Battlespace, was first used for mission rehearsal in 2005 when the Australian Defense Force used the game to recreate as Samahaw, Iraq right before deployment.
James Namkung was in the army from 2004 to 2008. He explains that when he joined he went through a simulator that was meant to improve his marksmanship.
“It was like a big projector screen and you had a dummy rifle,” said Namkung. “It kind of felt real actually. It was very realistic. Then it’s like you learn how to shoot. You pretty much see a target and you shoot without actually shooting any live rounds. That’s what it is, it was just like a video game.”
However, he stressed that the video games used by the army is a far cry from usual arcade experience.
“At the arcade it’s like point and shoot,” Namkung said. “[In the army] you had to look down the barrel and sights and shoot so it’s different.”
He went on to explain that the training sessions would last for about an hour but were only used during the early stages of his four-year army stint.
Namkung expressed optimism regarding the use of video game simulations in the military naming pilots as one group who benefit greatly from them.
“Pilots use a lot of video games,” he said. “They probably put in the most time behind the simulator. It’s less expensive than actually using any real airplanes.” He also noted that the marksmanship simulation he went through was a lot safer than live training.
Mead commented, “the budgetary aspect of it is a huge factor, especially now that the Pentagon’s funding is being cut.”
He stated that one of the problems that have arisen during the training is that as more and more soldiers grow up with video games. An 18-year-old who joins the army today was born the year after Doom came out, they appear more interested in trying to beat the game than to learn from them.
Namkung admits that there might be some truth to this statement as more and more new recruits grow up playing popular first person shooters such as Call of Duty but that he never had any such problems during his training.
“It’s definitely a learning process,” he said.
He went on to add that he is in favor of using more video games “as long as it’s applicable.”
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exposed the soldiers’ need to successfully interact with foreign cultures. The army has started to use video games to help soldiers improve in this area.
In these games soldiers are taught how to behave in presence of the local population.
Mead noted that one of the things soldiers are taught is that waving is an offensive gesture in Iraqi culture and has to be avoided at all costs.
He added that while these games are focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan for now, he thinks that new games will be developed as the Pentagon shifts its focus to other regions.