Army Simulator Shows Strengths and Flaws


Video gamers expect to have superpower strengths.

Overweight couch potatoes can throw like Joe Montana, shoot like an Army sniper and run like an Olympic sprinter. A 4-year-old can race virtual cars alongside a 70-year-old -- never mind if one can't drive and the other has cataracts.

Everyone can be a superstar.

So when the U.S. Army wanted to create a realistic avatar -- an electronic image intended to represent the player -- many in the gaming industry wanted nothing to do with it.

"They moonwalked away from the requirement," said Marco C. Conners, an Army gaming expert at the National Simulation Center at Fort Leavenworth. "The whole goal of Internet games is everybody is a hero."

The Army wanted a high-tech virtual training system that would take into account the player's weight, height, physical features and marksmanship skills -- or lack thereof. Fatigue could be measured. Human frailties would be taken into account. Leaders would know the strengths and weaknesses of their squad.

And now they have it. Army officials at the National Simulation Center started testing the personalized avatars this year and plan to step up those tests in early 2013. So far, they say, the results have proved powerful.

The personalized avatars are created using scores from tests the Army regularly conducts to gauge physical fitness, marksmanship and other attributes.

The avatars will complement a new computer program called the dismounted soldier training system. That program allows the military to train an entire squad of walking soldiers on a virtual battlefield.

The military has used virtual training for years, but the dismounted soldier training is the first time the military has had the capacity to train members of a squad to communicate and work together just as they would on a battlefield.

But the dismounted training program has a few major flaws. It can't account for the fact that not everyone shoots with precision, or that not everyone can run at the same speed.

As the program stands, overweight soldiers have no problem keeping up with their comrades.

Army Staff Sgt. Cory Hickson pointed out the obvious dangers of unrealistic expectations by pointing to his boss, who is shorter and more slender than Hickson's brawny frame.

"If it showed that he was a super-strong soldier that could lift me five miles without sweating, that would give us a false impression," Hickson said.

The false sense of reality could be fatal on a battlefield, said Army Col. John T. Janiszewski, director of the National Simulation Center.

The personalized avatar program is still being fine-tuned and isn't likely to be implemented for at least a year. But it's already getting positive reviews from Hickson and others.

During a test run this year, Conners said, some soldiers were alarmed at their personal avatar's overall performance and appearance.

"I look fat," one grumbled.

"Well, that's because you are fat," another said bluntly.

A subsequent survey proved revealing as well.

Soldiers said they were motivated to improve their avatars' performance and appearance. The comments came from the same soldiers who conduct regular physical fitness and marksmanship tests. They are hardly out of touch with their body mass index score and overall physique, but seeing their video likenesses perform was a game changer.

It wasn't an outcome that developers at Fort Leavenworth had expected. But it wasn't shocking either.

Soldiers going into combat don't want to let each other down, Janiszewski said.

The photo helps with that process, he said. In the current program, soldiers don't readily know who stands around them because all the faces are programmed in advance by game developers. The new system allows the Army to take a photo with something as basic as a camera phone and within minutes create an eerily similar character. That also increases the effectiveness of training.

"If a unit is conducting a real operation, it's important to know who is on your left and your right," Janiszewski said. "Just like in a sport. In football, you know the capability of your teammate."

Leaders also rely on simulations to help get an idea of their squad's ability, he said.

Janiszewski said it took a while for the Army to embrace gaming for training. But now that it has, he said, the additional training will help soldiers survive on the battlefield.

"For us, it's a home run," Janiszewski said.

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