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Postcard from GDC 2005: SGS - Making Game-Based Learning & Training Pervasive in the Armed Forces and Elsewhere

March 9, 2005

The military is very heavily invested in the 'serious games' industry, as interviews with companies such as BreakAway Games support. Michael Macedonia, CTO of the government-owned U.S. Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, knows this better than many, and discussed it in detail in his lecture on the first day of the Serious Games Summit at GDC 2005.

Why do games work in training? Can they really teach someone how to be a soldier? Macedonia argues the position that yes, they can. He says that our brains are predisposed to respond to simulation. The new discipline of neuroesthetics tells us that the brain reacts positively to art and engaging visual stimulus, and it is this property of the mind that allows us to immerse ourselves in interactive entertainment.

Macedonia outlined the long history of military simulation and serious games, which dates back to Link Aviation's development of "blue box" flight trainers in 1940, which though not virtual, helped train some 500,000 pilots in World War II, and ranges to SimNet LAN networking in 1986, some of the first online multiplayer environments.

Now, as technology becomes less of a factor, and graphical systems that the military paid $200,000 for in the past decade are now available even in the home, the viability of serious games coming from the development is very real. He advises that developers and hardware makers alike should be aware of so-called inferior technologies, and diversify their business portfolios, or face winding up like so many disc drive manufacturers. This follows with the recent trend of 'modding' extant off-the-shelf games for serious games application - a method which is cheaper and somewhat less specific than creating completely original IP, but also better than attempting to use off-the-shelf products as is, which has been attempted in the past. The military's needs change rapidly as well, so Macedonia urged the audience not to become complacent.


Currently in use is a missile system interface, the design of which is based on the PlayStation 2 controller. According to Macedonia, senior officials polled a group of soldiers about what would be their ideal method of control for missile guidance, and that design was resultant. He maintains that it is important, on both the hardware and software side, to make the technology fit the user, not force the user to fit the technology.

Macedonia submitted several reasons why the military finds games interesting for training purposes. Today's complex missions, cyber warfare, robotics (there are over 300 unmanned aerial military vehicles in operation now, 200 of these in Iraq), lack of spectrum and space (i.e. training facilities are being encroached upon by rampant urbanization). These trainers can inform soldiers not only in combat scenarios, but also humanitarian assistance and peace keeping. He also cited cultural understanding as something one can actually accomplish through serious games, although did not specifically address this.

Referencing data from the Marine Corps, Macedonia went on to list those properties of networked serious games that are particularly appealing to the military: Robust communities, multiplayer, scenario creation, open database, after-action review, developer engagement, validation and accreditation, and technical support. These are the things he says developers should keep in mind when proposing serious games to the government.

Pandemic's Full Spectrum Warrior

Though real-time trainers are still an important part of military training, serious games like Full Spectrum Leader and Full Spectrum Command (which later became the commercial title Full Spectrum Warrior) are useful in teaching team management in a limited actual physical space, but a larger virtual urban space. The military is mostly interested in making games that are not just first person shooters, but first person 'thinkers', which teach not only shooting technique, but strategy, tactics, and ability to follow orders.

In terms of those other applications for military serious games, Macedonia mentioned that hospitals and research facilities have been using VR to help patients cope with fear, through exposure therapy. Games have been proven to help people get over their fear of flying, heights, spiders - and with this in mind, the military is currently evaluating the effectiveness of using Full Spectrum Warrior to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the Q&A, members of the audience asked Macedonia how he felt about using virtual reality to teach actual real-life combat skills and ethics, especially given the recent political outcry at violence in games. Macedonia responded that it's very tough to teach people to think, and especially difficult to instill judgment in an 18 year old. Experience, of course, is the best teacher. But with these games the military hopes to create virtual veterans. Veterans not only with combat, but also other aspects of military life, understanding the true role of the soldier.

He is very optimistic about the future of serious games as military applications. "You can see evidence in the soldiers' performance," says Macedonia . "They come back, and they say that their training prepared them."


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