Computer Games as Military Training

Every couple of months, it seems, there’s some flurry of excitement over the military’s interest in using some computer game as a training tool. The idea seems reasonable, on the surface; how well it really works in practice is another matter entirely. In part, this is because computer-based training, as it is today, can only take you so far; sitting in front of a computer won’t improve your marksmanship, or help you learn how to clear a jammed SMG. If it doesn’t hone or develop skills, though, it can at least drive home some very important lessons about tactics, teamwork, and situational awareness.

I’m not really a video gamer, and I’m not in the military; I don’t have access to the simulations they use. What I do have access to are everyday commercial video games. So, in the interests of science, I bought a copy of Battlefield: 2142, a fairly popular “first-person shooter”, installed it, then played it for a few hours – I mean, performed research. What I took away from this experience might be fairly surprising…

For those who haven’t played it, BF:2142 is a first-person real-time combat simulator set a couple hundred years in the future (hence the “2142”.) It’s designed for conflicts between sides of – I think – 6-48 people each. Aside from victory – achieved by killing a certain number of enemy soldiers, or seizing – and holding – a sufficient number of geographic “objectives” – the principal objective seems to be scoring as many “points” as possible – points which are given for a large number of tactically significant actions; score enough points and you advance through the ranks, acquiring a better variety of weapons and equipment. The scoring system is somewhat biased to strongly encourage a very high degree of teamwork and cooperation, and it helps – if in a roundabout way – to reinforce one of the game’s fundamental truths: teamwork is the road to victory.

Fundamentals aside, having played the game for a while, on several different servers, with a wide variety of teammates and opponents, there are some other, less obvious, tactical lessons that players pick up – even if they don’t necessarily realize they’re doing so.

One of the first and most obvious lessons concerns the game’s vehicles: a variety of tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as lighter utility vehicles. The latter can be destroyed fairly easily, but the heavily armored stuff is basically invulnerable to small-arms fire. A lot of players seem to overlook the importance of vehicles, both to their side and the enemy; against a team armed with nothing but sniper and assault rifles, a single guy in a tank can dominate the battlefield (there’s nothing quite like rounding the corner in a tank and seeing a squad of five snipers standing there going “uh oh”). If that seems obvious, it’s because it is. But, given that today’s military is emphasizing urban counter-insurgencies as opposed to the cold-war scenarios of massed armies clashing, it’s important that we not forget this, lest we experience a repeat of Grenada, where nobody thought to pack anti-armor weapons, so a couple of Soviet-made APCs chased American special forces around the island for a couple hours until helicopters arrived to destroy them.

Closely related to this is the inarguable lesson that some pieces of equipment so fantastically dominate the battlefield – here I’m talking about the game’s “battlewalkers”, which are pretty much small battlemechs, and a “mother of all armored personnel carriers” called a “Goliath” – that they exert an influence on tactics and behaviour even when they’re not presently in action. The real-world lessons and parallels are striking: in the game, tanks and battlewalkers (can) dominate the battlefield, so teams spend a lot of time and energy doing things to thwart them: either traveling in areas they can’t reach, opting to carry weapons which can damage them, or making them high-priority targets and concentrating on capturing or destroying them. In the Middle East, we started going around in heavily-armored vehicles after snipers and IEDs became a problem; the insurgents responded by making better (explosively-formed projectile) IEDs. We altered our tactics to be less reliant on vehicles, and spent millions (billions?) of dollars of anti- and counter-IED technologies; what the insurgents will come up with next is anybody’s guess. (My money is on new employment of EFPs – new tactics, rather than new equipment.)

Another surprising thing I noticed was just how little actual communication is required to wage a war when everyone knows what they’re doing. I know it flies in the face of all the advanced projects out there – like “network-centric warfare” – which are designed to greatly improve the communications capabilities of individual soldiers, but a team of fairly experienced individuals can be amazingly effective, because everyone knows what needs to be done. You don’t have to say “stay here and cover me”, or “you two, guard the flanks there and there”; good players with experience know what needs to be done, and do it.

Closely related to this is the importance of situational awareness. The game does reward the quick, the brash, and the impatient – usually with a little bit of glory followed by a whole lot of death. This brings up a thorny issue with games like this, though: there are a very finite number of “battlefields”, and players quickly get to know them very, very well. This knowledge influences – one could say “poisons” – situational awareness to a great extent. For example, you come into a plaza for the first time; it’s surrounded by six-story buildings on three sides. Theoretically, someone could be in any of those windows, and you could take fire from any direction. In (game) reality, people can’t get into any of those buildings – only onto the second-story balcony of one of them. So, the experienced player enters the plaza, checks the balcony, checks behind a retaining wall, and is good to go, knowing nobody’s home. Not particularly realistic, but probably not a huge issue.

One thing Battlefield 2142 teaches – and which other games have been emphasizing for years, as well – is the importance of controlling mobility during a conflict. While you can’t blow up bridges in this game, there are all sorts of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, and a few other fun area-denial weapons which get used to good effect to inhibit or impede the opponent’s movement. There’s actually a quite important lesson here for military leaders fighting low-intensity conflicts, counterinsurgencies, and the like: don’t be predictable. If you keep using the same avenues of travel, a competent adversary will notice, and will put nasty little surprises in your way. Most “objectives” in Battlefield 2142 can be approached from three, sometimes more, directions, but most people approach them the same way every time: right where their opponents are expecting them. Guess where the mines and other toys get put?

I don’t consider myself a particularly good player – I’ve hardly been weaned on video-game controllers and fighting games the way a lot of today’s younger players have been – and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more of a “follower” than a “leader”. That said, I’ve noticed a few valuable leadership lessons from playing BF2142. The best squad leaders – or, put another way, the squad leaders who achieve the best results – are those who draw a fine line between micro-managing and, er, macro-managing. What I mean is this: Your squad is at point A, and you want them to attack point E, which is clear on the other side of the battlefield (a mile away, say.) The leader who says “attack E” is likely to be disappointed by the results; a lot can happen between here and there in the midst of a firefight. Instead, the leader who says “let’s move to point C”, then, once there, says “let’s attack point E” (or, “let’s move up to D, then attack E”) is likely to get better results. I know it’s popular to want to have leaders be “big picture” people, and leave “details” to subordinates, but the problem with objectives, I’ve found, is that people get fixated on them as an end, and basically disregard the means of getting there.

In part, this highlights two other annoying truths of the virtual (and real) battlefield: big, unified forces kick lots and lots of butts, but only in one spot; splitting that force up into a couple smaller groups means you get to do just as much butt-kicking, but you get/have to do it in more places, and have to work hard doing it. Going back to our “attacking E from A” scenario, one of the big advantages of having everyone advance to C, and then D, is that you’re keeping the fighting force reasonably unified. (In essence, you’re pre-positioning your forces.) Having your squad move together from C or D to E means everyone is more likely to not only arrive at the party at the same time (“fashionably late” doesn’t cut it in a firefight) but to arrive as a unified force. Just saying “attack E” means people are going to wind up attacking the enemy stronghold on their own, from three different directions, arriving over the span of several minutes – not a particularly effective tactic, from what I’ve seen. (I guess that all can be summed up as “plans are good”.)

I’m certainly not claiming that wargames like Battlefield 2142 are particularly realistic; they’re not. But, while they can foster some really bad tactical habits among players, they do – or at least could – have value in the positive lessons they can and do teach. That players might not consciously realize what they’re learning until it’s pointed out to them, honestly, probably makes the lessons all the more poignant. After all, the goal is for people to do stuff, rather than think about thinking about stuff… right?

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on October 7th, 2008| Comments Off on Computer Games as Military Training

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