The truth about 'hyper-realistic' video games as war simulators

The current state of military trainers.

Mixed in among the insane ramblings of Norway mass killer Anders Behring Breivik is a familiar claim: The same video games enjoyed by millions of adults and children around the world are also used by the world's military forces for training and indoctrination.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, a sequel to the game that Breivik told an Oslo court last week he used to prepare for the killing spree that left 77 dead last summer, earned $775 million in sales in its first five days last year.

Breivik told a packed Oslo courtroom last week that he used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to familiarize himself with the use of holographic sights and to develop his tactics.

It is highly unlikely, though, that any established military force would use the game in its current state for weapons training, according to experts on the sorts of military simulators that are used to train armies.

While video game simulators are increasingly used to augment real-world training of fighting forces, the technology behind them includes the sorts of advancements that would be impossible to replicate in a person's home. And the minutia of detail they rely on is often shed when a game is created for entertainment.

"Commercial games' objective is entertaining," said J.C. Herz, author of Joystick Nation. "If it is entertaining it sells more copies and that's how the developers get paid. Entertainment is job one.

"In military trainers entertainment is not job one, two or three. Mission training is job one, and missions are not entertaining."

The priority for the sorts of game-like software used for training the military is to build skills and to make sure that a soldier follows the rules of engagement, said Herz, who studied simulators and military training for the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency.

"There is no video game that will train you to shoot a gun, the only way to do that is to fire one," she said. "If you don't know whether to turn left or right at an alley, a game can train you to do that."

In fact, that is how some militant groups, including the Hezbollah, do use readily available retail video games for training.

But, Herz points out, that training isn't the sort Breivik likely used or needed.

"He set off a bomb and then walked into a campground and shot a lot of people," she said. "That doesn't require mission rehearsal in a video game."

"Video games, at their best, deliver not a realistic experience, but a hyper-realistic one."

While off-the-shelf video games aren't designed to be instructional, that doesn't mean the technology used to create games can't also be used to create simulators designed for military training. Next year, developer Crytek plan to release futuristic first-person shooter Crysis 3. In the game, an augmented super-soldier has to fight off an alien invasion that has overtaken and changed New York City.

But the technology used to create that game, CryENGINE, is also used by a subsidiary of the developer to create military simulations. RealTime Immersive was specifically established by Crytek to use their technology to help develop those training simulations.

"The applicability is endless and is growing, but just to name a few areas, the CryENGINE technology is being used for military, energy, law enforcement, and architectural purposes," said John Brooks, CEO of RealTime Immersive.

In one example on the company's website, the technology is used to help teach firefighter's first-responder management. Another exmple shows how the technology can be used to create visually realistic simulations of Predator drone flights and ground warfare. But, Brooks points out, there is a significant difference between their simulations and a game like Call of Duty.

"There are two things being repurposed by the entertainment industry—the game itself, and the technology that was used to make the game," he said. "You mentioned Call of Duty, which is a very visually entertaining game with the parameters not necessarily matching real life situations. Although they represent a weapon that you would find in several military organizations, the bullet ballistics are different than real life. A simulation would take into account many different factors, such as wind conditions, bullet drop-off, bullet piercing abilities, and so forth. These values in a game are usually fine-tuned and balanced for good game play and don't necessarily reflect real life."

The military also uses much more complex video game-like simulators to augment their real world training.

Special Forces units at Fort Bragg, for instance, use the Laser Shot Virtual Shoot House. The building is designed to allow soldiers to blow in doors, fire live ammo at life-sized enemies and feel the thump of shots being fired back. The latest version of these shoot houses, designed by Texas-based Laser Shot, include smell emulators and a new technology that can project in the middle of a room, moving, life-sized holograms that can react to being shot.

The holograms are created by projecting video onto a fine wall of mist sprayed into a specific spot in a room. A complex 3D algorithm then tracks bullets fired by training soldiers, determining when a round has pierced the image and the avatar reacts accordingly, said Kevin Bass, director of software development at Laser Shot. Other enemies appear on the building's interior walls, which are high-tech video screens that can self-seal after a bullet passes through them.

"The hologram stuff is still in its infancy," Bass said. "The idea is that instead of looking into a screen of characters, you become part of that virtual world."

In California, some of the shoot houses are designed to increase the interior temperature to more than 100 degrees during training.

"Military training is about how to do what you need to do under the fatigue and cognitive strain you will be under," Herz explains.

But both forms of military simulator concentrate on teaching things like the rules of engagement or how to tactically approach a specific conflict. Video games, at their best, deliver not a realistic experience, but a hyper-realistic one, Herz says.

"In a real battle you don't see a pink cloud of vaporized blood explode around a person," she said. "There is so much detail around these games that aren't in real battles. They are more detailed than real life. In a real combat situation none of that registers."

Video games are more about theatricality and entertainment that true realism.

"Realistic is you run out of ammo," Herz said. "There are no crates in the real world that you can shoot to get more."

And even the best simulators are designed to work in concert with live training, Brooks said.

"In our opinion, live training will always be the best; however, the virtual technology element in collaboration with live training brings superior performance and results, which provide many benefits, such as less loss of life, lower cost of ownership, and better decision-making," he said.

Video games, certainly the sort available at most stores, will likely never be effective tools for preparing for warfare or criminality. And they're certainly not the reason bad people do bad things.

"I think it is important not to get caught up in the mythology that video games that allow people to run around firing automatic weapons somehow make people into sociopaths," Herz said. "It's true that sociopaths will be attracted to them just like people with addictive personalities will be attracted to gambling, but that doesn't mean we should outlaw blackjack for everyone."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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