It's very easy to fall into the trap of viewing simulated training as a game. With the prevalence of military-themed video games available to the general public, many people, including troops, grow up, or adapt to, playing virtual war. Despite the fact that I know training is different than playing, and despite the fact that I’d already talked at length with sources who drove home this point, when I went to experience Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS 3) in person, I expected to have fun playing with my avatar.
My visit to PEO STRI to research the August article It Might be Virtual, But It Is Not a Game turned out quite differently. This simulation is high fidelity, and it was hard. My inexperience with the weapons came through, because the technology’s avatars reflect real-world skill levels. I’m not an expert in real life; I certainly wasn’t an expert in the game.
And quite frankly, it was scary. More than once, nearby explosions rocked my avatar and for a while I could not see clearly, walk straight or make decisions. Enemies fired at me, but I could not get my aim in line to defend myself. One time, I made the mistake of getting out of a low crawl position. I stood up. Then, I was dead. The game coordinators were kind enough to regenerate me, but in the real world which this emulates, I would no longer exist.
Sounds obvious, right? But think about it for just a minute. I mean, really consider it. This simulation helps prevent exactly that scenario when used correctly. Life, and victory, depend on the split-second decisions made under extreme stress. With the right training, the right decisions are easier. Fidelity matters. Flexibility matters. With VBS 3, groups can customize for exactly what their troops need.
Craig Porter, a product coordinator for gaming at PEO STRI, is a retired soldier so he understands firsthand the need for accurate training. He wants users and potential users to think of VBS 3 like a Lego set. Customers can take the pieces to create the models they need, building the right environment for their mission success and survivability. His fellow product coordinator, Cheryl Long, echoes his sentiments and points out that these various offerings come standard. Users don’t have to find funds to upgrade to more robust packages.
Additionally, VBS 3 is part of the MilGaming community so any computer-savvy service member can build models and upload them for others to use. This approach falls in line with all the talk by the military of needing a more horizontal information sharing structure. It might not be intelligence, but it’s an approach that takes advantage of the skills resident in the military. For a force facing budget shortfalls and personnel reductions, such a setup is a boon for any leaders smart enough to take advantage of it.
Simulated training has long been an opportunity for units to train less expensively than in live environments. As realism increases, the exercises become not only fiscally wise but also sometimes more accurate. John Matthews, PEO STRI’s project director for gaming, explains that in 2004-2005 as units prepared to deploy to Iraq, their convoy training in Florida involved driving down I-4, hardly a route fraught with enemy fire or IEDs. In VBS 3, unit members can acquire a much better sense of what they will face in an overseas environment, whether it’s the Middle East, the Asia Pacific or anywhere else.
Though I’ve been covering government technology for years, I have a renewed appreciation for the importance of accurate training. I hope the military continues to put an emphasis on this trend, because its benefits are manifold, and might be measured in lives and limbs.