Game On for NATO Virtual Training

January 18, 2011
By Rachel Eisenhower, SIGNAL Connections

NATO’s innovative arm, the Allied Command Transformation (ACT), demonstrated a new way to improve the alliance’s military effectiveness using virtual worlds. Developers from the command presented a game called Boarders Ahoy! at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC), and the program received the People’s Choice Award for the Best Serious Game.

I/ITSEC is a venue for showcasing cutting-edge games for business, government and academia. Developers were challenged to create technologically sound programs that solve problems and provide users with a rewarding experience. The top 12 games, including Boarders Ahoy!, were presented to conference attendees and evaluated based on problem solving, technical quality, and playability and enjoyment.

The command’s path to the competition began in 2008, explains Wayne Buck, ACT modeling and simulation analyst and project manager for Boarders Ahoy! “We consider ourselves NATO’s leading agent for change,” he says, and ACT researchers have started to investigate virtual worlds to advance the alliance’s educational programs. The initiative hit a roadblock when developers could not find existing standards for creating virtual worlds. Then Buck came across the I/ITSEC Serious Games Showcase and Challenge. “They had size/compatibility standards, and I wanted to prove that a game we could build would fit to those standards.”

It took developers three months and roughly $100,000 to create Boarders Ahoy!, making it an inexpensive and fast way to transform training, he relates. The game focuses on maritime interdiction operations in support of operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean and NATO’s anti-piracy mission around the Horn of Africa.

Students taking part in the game receive course materials and live instruction in a virtual classroom. They participate in an immersive team-based mission to board and search a suspect merchant shipping vessel. The game tracks their scores, challenging them to meet all training objectives. This prepares students for live training missions at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre in Crete, Greece.

Buck believes the game stood out at I/ITSEC because of its realism and uniqueness. Boarders Ahoy! is “absolutely practical,” he says. “It’s based on requirements from the field that will help the people do the job they do every day, which is training sailors and airmen.”

ACT researchers hope Boarders Ahoy! is a jumping-off point for future technologies to improve NATO’s training. The command is partnering with Engineering and Computer Simulations Incorporated to develop a series of virtual worlds within the Nexus Virtual World platform.

Paul Thurkettle, education and training technology, NATO ACT, believes a major benefit of virtual training is the ability for students to reenact and solve problems multiple times. If a student plays the game and scores 5 percent, he or she can come back the next day and think of a different approach, says Thurkettle.

The cost of virtual training is another incentive to develop similar programs. “Simulations cost a lot less than a real plane, especially when they crash,” Thurkettle says, and he predicts that in some cases virtual worlds eventually could replace traditional classroom environments.

ACT is continuing to develop Boarders Ahoy! with its partners at the Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre. Developers performed a game demonstration with the center in October and hope to have another workshop this March based on the feedback and suggestions they received. In the future, they would like to invite other centers of excellence to look at the game as well.

“It’s still a very new world for us,” Thurkettle says, and the first step is getting people excited about the initiative. He believes it is just as important to appeal to the three-star generals as it is the new recruits. “Our challenge is to make the young guy of today accept our technology because it’s as good as his Xbox or PS3 and to convince the other guys it’s not just a game … it’s better.”