Military finds video games' serious side

November 19, 2001|By Alex Pham | Alex Pham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Video games aren't just for fun anymore.

As games grow increasingly realistic, the military is turning to them as inexpensive ways to enhance real-life skills, from piloting airplanes to staging war.

Microsoft Corp.'s Flight Simulator games were among the first used for training. The Flight Safety International Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., has used the games for years to teach students basic navigation, instrument reading and flight procedures. Another game, Fleet Command, from Jane's Combat Simulations, has been used by the U.S. Naval Academy. And the Army licensed the technology behind Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, an anti-terrorism game from Ubi Soft Entertainment.

More recently, the Army teamed up with the University of Southern California and game developer Pandemic Studios to create tactical war games over the next two years. The games will combine the Army's tactical guidelines with game designs from Rob Sears, who produced Mech Commander and Mech Warrior 3.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps is opting for an "off-the-shelf" approach. It uses Operation Flashpoint, a game published by Codemasters Inc. The Marines have directed Coalescent Technologies Corp. in Orlando, Fla., to modify the game for training squad commanders.

But the modifications so far have been minor, thanks to the game's malleable engine, which can support any number of newly concocted weapons and vehicles, said Michael Woodman, Coalescent's program manager.

This turns out to be a critical element if simulators are to keep up with real-world advances in technology - and sartorial requirements. In addition to modeling an AV-8B Harrier, Coalescent created a replica of the Marines' new uniform. Such details are important for creating an experience that draws people in and suspends their disbelief.

Many of the modifications are plug-and-play. The game's engine does much of the heavy lifting, and users simply plug in values for such things as the vehicle's weight, maximum velocity and ability to take damage. The same goes for weapons.

The unprecedented processing power of today's personal computers allows the physics of a weapon to be modeled fairly accurately in a $40 PC game. In Operation Flashpoint, simulated real-time weather can affect not only a player's visibility but also a bullet's trajectory. The game's developers, Bohemian Interactive Studios in Prague, took the effort to map actual stars into the game, which can be used at night to navigate without a map.

Computing power also gives developers the ability to create realistic computer-controlled foes that behave according to a set of pre-defined rules.

And it makes possible games that let players go anywhere, do anything and interact with any object in the game.

"Whatever vehicle you find, whatever object you come across, you can use," said Jonathan Smith, executive producer at Codemasters. "That's the main element of realism, in the sense that the game doesn't try to construct the way to interact with it. It enables you to come to your own conclusion in your own way."

Operation Flashpoint comes with a set of missions, but it also has a tool that lets players create their own missions and play out the scenarios with multiple players, either over a local area network or via the Internet. As a result, the Marines can set up their own scenarios - freeing hostages, securing a road, neutralizing a convoy, storming a beach. They also can place specific vehicles and weapons within each mission, choose the weather conditions, set the time of day and plant enemy troops or snipers in various stages of alertness.

That flexibility has led Coalescent to consider the game for a number of agencies it works with to make simulation systems, from the Secret Service to local fire departments.

Why simulate on a computer what soldiers can do in field exercises? One answer is cost. Conducting live exercises is expensive, said Woodman, a retired Marine Corps major. And tinkering with a $40 game is far less costly than building a simulation from the ground up, he said. Another reason is access. Marines often serve six months at a time on ships where they can't carry out field exercises. A computer simulation helps them keep their skills sharp, he said.

There are things a computer can't do, of course. It can't teach a player how to shoot because virtual shooting bears no physical resemblance to real-world marksmanship. It also can't simulate peripheral vision, at least not on the PC. And it can't instill the same degree of palm-drenching fear that a real-life situation would present. But it can reinforce procedures learned in class.

"It's still a game so it's not going to be an exact replication of the real world," Woodman said. "But we think it's close enough to provide good training."

Alex Pham writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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