U.S. Troops Training on Video Games

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The Pentagon takes its video-game training for soldiers so seriously, it just opened a project office for building and deploying new games. Noah Shachtman, author of Wired.com's defense blog, Danger Room, reports.

ALISON STEWART, host:

The U.S. military caught on to something about videogames a while ago. They're great training tools for the U.S. troops.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

STEWART: As well as recruiting tools, too. And like the gaming industry itself, the military is taking its videogame involvement just a step further. In fact, the Army is taking it so seriously, it just opened up its own project office for building and deploying games.

Noah Schactman is the Wired.com defense blog editor, Danger Room. You're always lurking around seeing what the Army is up to. Nice to see you in person, Noah.

Mr. NOAH SCHACTMAN (Editor, Danger Room, Wired.com): Thank you.

STEWART: All right. So let's roll this back just a little bit. How did the military discover that these games were not only good training tools, but also good recruiting tools?

Mr. SCHACTMAN: The military's had a long relationship with games. In fact, there are some early, early flight simulators on the Boardwalk at Coney Island back in the '40s that the military used to train potential pilots. And back in the '90s, we all remember that game "Doom." It was kind of like the first 3D shoot 'em up game. And the Marines used that to train soldiers I guess to battle, you know, demons and flaming eyeballs with tentacles and stuff like that. You know, the kind of thing you see…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHACTMAN: …in Iraq and Afghanistan.

STEWART: Let's fast forward to '07. There's this new entity known as TRADOC -Training and Doctrine Command project office for gaming.

(Soundbite of snoring)

TOURE, host:

Oh, sorry. What's that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Hey, you wrote about it, buddy. What's going to be going on at TRADOC?

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Basically, the idea is to take some of the really boring, stayed simulations that everybody uses throughout the military and add some videogame whiz-bang to them because, look. I mean, the 19's and 20-year-olds in the Army are just like 19's or 20-year-olds everywhere. They play videogames all the time. And so the idea is to add some of that pizzazz to, you know, some simulations that the Army uses already.

TOURE: So do you really think that these first person shooter games that look so realistic are really able to help us and help soldiers learn how to fight?

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Well, I mean, I don't think it's going to help you talk to an imam in Fallujah or anything like that. But I do think that there's a building up of hand-eye coordination that's really helpful. And, look. A lot of activities these days that are done in the military are kind of videogamey. You direct a drone from one town to another. You know, you lay out some battle plans out. It looks a lot like videogames. So I don't about the first person shooter, but, you know, a lot of those jobs are very videogamey.

STEWART: Now, are they actually recruiting people from the videogame - the world of videogame technology, to come in and help them? Or are they developing these processes in house?

Mr. SCHACTMAN: No, they're going to - they're not trying to train up a new cadre of, you know, captains and majors that are aces at developing videogames. They're going to just hire people that already do it. And they've already got this partnership at the - at USC, University of Southern California, called the Institute of Creative Technology. That is a partnership between the Army and USC to develop very cool, Hollywoodish simulations. So they've done stuff like this before.

STEWART: We're going to ask you to stick around.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Okay.

STEWART: Noah Schactman is the author of Wired.com's defense blog, The Danger Room. We're going to continue to have this discussion about using these videogames by the U.S. Army. I know you got to try one or two.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: So I want to hear about that experience in just a little bit. Stay with us here on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

Coming up: something near and dear to Toure's heart, our Best of Best of List of '07. What are we going to be talking about, Toure?

TOURE: We're going to be talking about Amy Winehouse and why she's the best album of the year.

STEWART: As well as M.I.A. Who else is on the list?

TOURE: Who's not on Rolling Stone's list? And Amy Winehouse - M.I.A. is number one. So there's a lot of questions we're got to get to the bottom of.

STEWART: Stay with us. Rachel Martin will also be dropping by with some more news. You're listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: We're talking to Noah Schactman here at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. He is the author of Wired.com's defense blog, Danger Room. But he's really interested in why Toure likes Amy Winehouse more than the Dap-Kings. So you're going to have to stick around to hear about that in our segment.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: All right.

STEWART: We've got you here, buddy, to talk about technology.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Okay. All right.

STEWART: But you can stick around for the music talk if you want.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Thank you.

STEWART: You tried out some of this new gaming technology that the Army is hoping to use. And you - it's like "Guitar Hero" in Iraq. Okay, first of all, tell me what the new gaming technology is, and then tell me the Iraq story.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: So the real way-out gaming technology is that these games would somehow respond not just to how you are playing, but how you feel and how engaged you are in the game.

So I tried out this one game down at the naval research lab in Washington, and they hooked me up to a heart monitor and a brain monitor. I forget if that's EEG or EKG, but one of those two - the one that monitors brain activity. And the more relaxed I was, the more bad guys they send at me to try and occupy my attention. And then the more occupied my attention got, the more they drop the number of bad guys and, you know, let me have an optimal gaming experience.

STEWART: So, also, one of the things they're also trying to do, we were talking about during the break, is trying to simulate not only your physical behavior, but sort of social behaviors and the idea of trying to teach people how to fight the enemy.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Right. I would say this is out of the department of bong hits.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHACTMAN: At the Army, the idea is, okay, let's simulate everything about human behavior in Iraq, like its culture, its politics, everything. Then we'll turn that into software-based agents, and then we'll run our battle plans against these software-based agents. Yeah.

STEWART: Okay.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: As one guy I really respect who's a lieutenant colonel pointed out, it's like you can't predict who's going to win the Iowa caucuses, and now, you're going to replicate freewill. No.

STEWART: Not so much. And "Guitar Hero" in Iraq. You were learning to play it there because?

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Well, that's the thing, is soldiers are nuts about videogames. And so, for example, in Iraq, I was with a bomb squad up in Taji, which is just north of Baghdad, and there were some downtime in between missions. And so I'd always been really bad at "Guitar Hero," but they had "Guitar Hero" there. And after a couple of days up in Taji, I was, you know, I was killing it.

STEWART: So it brings it right back…

TOURE: Figuratively only.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Yeah.

STEWART: Yes.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Yes. Oh, yes. Thank you.

STEWART: Bring it right back to the original premise, that videogames are a great tool for this young Army.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Yeah. Yeah. It's really counterintuitive, but it's true.

STEWART: You saw it first hand.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Yeah.

STEWART: Hey, Noah Schactman, thanks for coming to the studio.

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Hey, no problem.

STEWART: We'll link up to your blog, defense blog, The Danger Room at Wired.com. Come back with some more weird stuff, okay?

Mr. SCHACTMAN: Okay.

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