Much more than a game

‘America’s Army' provides an enterprise platform for Army training

What began as an online effort to attract potential recruits has taken on a new life in the Army as an enterprise tool. “America’s Army,” a free online game that shows players what it’s like to be a soldier, was launched July 4, 2002. But beyond its recruiting role — still a major goal — the game has been adapted for training, weapons systems prototyping and even helping combat veterans readjust to life outside a war zone.

Central to these multiple uses is the effort the America’s Army team has made to ensure that no single department or organization in that service owns the game or its vast libraries of assets. These assets include avatars — or graphical representations — of soldiers, people, vehicles, weapon systems, terrain, cities, maps, combat scenarios, rules of engagement and more.

“America’s Army has pushed to reuse the same elements for many purposes,” said Col. Casey Wardynski, originator of the game, associate professor of economics at the U.S. Military Academy, and director of the Army’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis. “We can build one soldier avatar and use it again and again. When we build something in America’s Army, the U.S. government owns it completely ... and [it] can therefore be used for any application or use of the game. So costs keep going down. ”

After America’s Army went live, requests started coming in to use the game for purposes other than recruiting, such as training. That was the case with the Common Remotely Operated Weapons Station. A CROWS is installed inside an armored vehicle or building to protect soldiers from enemy fire. Sitting inside the CROWS, a gunner can remotely fire a weapon that sits atop the vehicle or building. The station was fielded without a training device other than operational CROWS-equipped vehicles, so America’s Army developers were asked to build a basic skills trainer, Wardynski said.

“The trainer shows exactly what the operator sees in the CROWS system,” said Sgt. 1st Class Gary Woodruff, a combat weapons developer who works on CROWS at the Training and Doctrine Command based at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. “The tool makes it possible to link three users together in training so they can practice working together in the same scenario. It trains for multiple skills, including the whole combat experience, not just operating the weapon.”

The trainer was introduced in Balad, Iraq, in 2006. “After the very first time they used the basic skills trainer, it’s been the required way to train,” Woodruff said. Since 2006, the trainers have been distributed throughout Afghanistan and Iraq.

By linking multiple users, soldiers can learn to work together instead of learning one at a time in a real CROWS-equipped vehicle.

The tool is also used for prototyping, as with the rapid-response missile (RRM), a weapon that, if built, could strike with precision in complex urban environments. “The Army wants to hit only targets [that might be] especially difficult or that are located next to a friendly or a noncombatant,” said John Meadows, who heads RRM prototyping at the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.

Initially, America’s Army was supposed to simulate control screens and hand controllers for the RRM, but its use expanded quickly to the entire weapon system. “We put a full simulation of the missile in the game so soldiers can give feedback on how the weapon operates,” Meadows said. “By the end, soldiers will have participated in the design so they’ll have ownership, and it’ll be a better device.” Prototyping a system in software is always cheaper than doing so in hardware. “Without America’s Army, we would have to build a custom computer, custom software, all our own graphics and all the scenarios, so there would have been lots of upfront costs,” Meadows said.

With America’s Army, the only new elements are the graphics and dynamics specific to the missile system, and the software runs on a standard PC.

Although no firm date has been set for completion of the prototype, it will be put on disks and distributed to soldiers to get their feedback.

If the RRM becomes a reality, America’s Army will build the trainer, Meadows said.

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, injured soldiers relearn how to drive under noncombat conditions with a simulator built by America’s Army. The simulator is one element in the treatment of wounded soldiers entering civilian life or returning to active duty. The hospital partnered with the Army Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point (CEP) to help these soldiers learn and apply to their recovery the basics of enhanced performance, such as goal-setting, attention control and energy management.

In training for combat, soldiers learn they are targets at all times. A warfighter “must drive offensively and defensively at the same time,” said Maj. Bruce Bredlow, assistant director at CEP. “When they come back from battle, they must almost go through decompression to learn how to drive normally again.”

CEP called in America’s Army to develop a driving simulator for soldiers to use as they recover at Walter Reed. Those who use the simulator, which is still in development, will be able to practice necessary new skills, such as using hand controls if they have lost their legs. The simulator can also help soldiers who’ve suffered from perceptual changes, such as those resulting from brain trauma, become aware of those changes.

For soldiers who’ve driven in Iraq, where every soda can could be an improvised explosive device and stop signs are routinely ignored, the simulator can help lose the sense of always being a target and adjust to driving in noncombat conditions. By using third-party biofeedback software, integrated into the simulator by America’s Army, soldiers can learn to detect and understand their own possible combat-ready reactions to a situation, then retrain themselves with visual and sound cues.

“It is a modality that will help soldiers achieve optimal performance considering their injuries, [whether those are] amputation, mental or brain injury,” said Lt. Col. Stephanie Daugherty, chief of the occupational therapy clinic at the Walter Reed center. “We can adapt the simulator for whatever the individual needs.”

Daugherty said the simulator can offer soldiers a visually realistic simulation of driving. “It gives them exposure and confidence before really driving.”

Through the linkage with CEP’s techniques for enhanced performance, the simulator can help soldiers perform more tasks than relearn how to drive. “If we can address these issues, increase functional performance and improve quality of life, then soldiers can make career and life decisions with all the information that’s available about their capabilities,” Daugherty said.

The next big thing for the game will be the release of Version 3.0 of America’s Army this fall. “We are migrating training applications to the 3.0 Version,” said Frank Blackwell, the game’s software manager, located at AMRDEC. “We’re doing an unmanned aerial and ground vehicle training simulation and an Apache helicopter simulation for the recruiting side. We’re adding a Blackhawk door gunner to the virtual Army experience. We’re constantly enhancing the public game.”

About the Author

Bridget Mintz Testa is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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