Mario meets the military

Last Thursday, science and technology scholar Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi gave a lecture titled “What is it Now? An Ethnographic Study of Defense Simulations-in-the-Making,” which explored the social implications of video war games.

Ghamari-Tabrizi spent 2003 through 2005 researching defense simulations that have served as recruiting and training tools for the armed services. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Ghamari-Tabrizi spent several months at multiple sites throughout the country where the military was collaborating with the entertainment industry.

It may seem strange for the military to be developing video games, but the program has been very successful. America’s Army, a first-person shooter computer game, is the brainchild of West Point economics professor Colonel Casey Wardynski, who believed that a game would help with recruiting. With 8.2 million registered players, the game has proven to be popular. According to “The Potential of America’s Army the Video Game as Civilian-Military Public Sphere,” a master’s thesis by MIT graduate Zhan Li, this success, along with America’s Army’s realistic presentation of Army uniforms, weapons, and missions, led it and similar games to be used in training.

The convergence of media and training simulators is not new. Airlines have used simulators for years to train pilots. Additionally, the Marine Corps used a modified version of the video game Doom II, called Marine Doom, to train recruits in 1996. One of the reasons that video games are valuable to training sessions is that they are thought to increase a soldier’s willingness to fire his weapon, according U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

America’s Army is not the only game developed by the military that has been commercially released. Full Spectrum Warrior, a creation of the Institute for Creative Technologies, is a squad-based tactical action game. Full Spectrum Command is a training program for higher-level officers. Real War, the commercial release of a real-time strategy game, was developed by the military for strategic training. According to The Washington Times, the CIA is also reportedly developing a game to train analysts, though without plans for a commercial release. Each of these non-traditional training vehicles aims to enhance officers’ decision-making abilities. Terrorist organizations such as Hamas and al-Qaeda also have their own games.

The goal of these games is to advance the state of immersive training simulation. Despite the military’s best efforts, Ghamari-Tabrizi concluded that simulations cannot possibly replicate the exact environments that exist on the battlefield. Overtraining may actually be dangerous because it can lead to complacency and overconfidence, she added.

Ghamari-Tabrizi also brought up an example of how media convergence affects soldiers after deployment. Soldiers assigned to convoy duty, whom Ghamari-Tabrizi admits were not exactly A students in high school, have reported having a hard time thumbing through their manuals when under fire. To solve this problem, the army has rolled out an electronic version of its manual on a Gameboy-like device, which is easier for many Generation X and Y soldiers to navigate.

Video games, working by desensitization, are now being utilized as a form of therapy for troops coming home who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Simulations find fidelity in part because of our cultural experience with technology,” Ghamari-Tabrizi explained.

The only way for the games’ visual accuracy to be effective is to offer a compelling experience to their players; even technology is no substitute for authenticity.

Ghamari-Tabrizi said, “The trainee’s inner experience was key over the razzle-dazzle of graphics.”