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Posted on Sep 9, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Off-the-Shelf Computer Games Aid Military Training

Gerald D. Swick

The entire group examines the enemy plans from Intel and the friendly plans from Maneuver, comparing them to determines their side’s COA.

Using wargames to prepare for actual war is nothing new; militaries around the world do it. What may surprise you is that the military forces of the United States, with their vast budgets and resources, are utilizing off-the-shelf computer games for training—exactly the same games you play for fun.

Dr. James SterettDr. James Sterrett, simulations instructor from the Digital Leader Development Center, located at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, brought the program to the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, to demonstrate how these consumer goods are helping prepare America’s military for combat.

Of course, this begs the question: Why use a general-audience PC simulation when the U.S. can develop specialized sims, and its arsenal contains the real stuff that gets used in large-scale wargames anyway?


"Simulations in the military often train rather than educate," Dr. Sterrett observed. "Training prepares you to do a specific task, such as cleaning a rifle. Education prepares you to think, to analyze.

"A simulation can cost millions, so the simulation is run to get to certain intended training points. There is less opportunity for going off the track, for being creative, because it costs too much to run the scenario twice. A game allows people to play it over and over and learn what works and what doesn’t.

"In live sims, cost often forces artificiality. It can cost $1 million dollars a day for a carrier to be at sea, whether it is taking an active part in the wargames or has been ‘sunk.’ Hence, a carrier may be sunk repeatedly in a simulation—and, yes, contrary to popular belief, carriers are often ‘sunk’ in live wargames, but they are brought back to avoid wasting money."

Off-the-shelf simulation games, then, offer an affordable and hence, more flexible, alternative, one in which the player can try new things, learn from mistakes and possibly come up with new approaches to strategy or tactics.

Of course, the military adds several levels of preparation and after-action analysis. When Carl von Wargamer sits down to blow things up on his computer for a few hours of relaxation, he looks over the on-screen situation, decides on a course of action and starts mousing, whether playing alone or online.

The U.S. military, on the other hand, has a bank of computers so all players are in the same room. Each player (or group of players) is assigned a role:

  • Commander, who approves, disapproves or modifies plans created by other players
  • XO (executive officer), who coordinates the staff
  • Maneuver control, which keeps tabs on the current situation and assesses it compared to the plan; develops contingencies; reports to rest of staff
  • Fire support, which sets target priorities and assigns assets, i.e., deploys artillery
  • Intel, which assesses what the enemy will do
  • Future ops, which develops contingency plans for tomorrow and makes sure assets will arrive on time.

In reality, there would also be other jobs, such as logistics, that are not always part of a game.

[continued on next page]

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1 Comment

  1. You present a delightful reflection on a pastime that I regularly enjoy. I have long had an interest in military figures, and for some time a friend and I devoted our efforts to the representation of the clashes set during our own American Civil War. It was an excellent way to get a more solid grasp of the difficulties involved in moving and conducting an army, and to explore possible alternatives for actions that history has marked as mistakes. Likewise we have gifted our senses with computer battles using such classic computer games as Sid Meier’s “Gettysburg”.
    However, when I stepped onto the field of Gettysburg this year, acting as a reenactor in the 2nd US cavalry, I found myself experiencing something like I have never known amid our miniature soldiers or our warrior shaped computer pixels. A whole now realm of battle was opened to me, and not in the form I had expected. When the blue-clad boys rode out along a rail fence to set up a skirmish line, I could hardly see the battle because of the limits of the hill from which they fought. Terrain had suddenly become a reality to me. Additionally, when I went out as a dismounted member of the 17th PA cavalry, I can hardly reflect on the overall course of the battle since I was all too occupied by the brown and gray clad figures directly in front of me, and by the process of getting more cartridges into my Sharps carbine. I remember a moment in which the Lieutenant announced the advance of cavalry upon our right flank, and ordered the right end of the line to “refuse”, or move back at an angle. We managed it after some difficulty, but I would perhaps have been oblivious of their approach had I not been informed, and I don’t know what eventually became of those Rebels. I immediately went back to placing powder charges and caps in their respective places amid my weapon.
    As much as I tried to foster a belief in the danger of the situation, I always had the comfort of being free from the disconcerting “Zing” of passing lead. I do believe that games of the nature we are speaking can be training tools of real effectiveness, but can also supply a misleading separation from the reality of the events. In playing “Call of Duty 2”, I found that running across open spaces while jumping up and down was an effective way to greatly reduce the chances of being hit. To imagine such a thing being conducted on the training grounds would be cause for laughter. I guess this leads me to two conclusions. Nothing beats direct field training; and, those who revel in their success at cutting down enemies on their computer should be careful not to consider themselves soldiers.
    Cheers to you Mr. Swick for the article. It’s delightful to see that ACG is actively involved in the wargamer’s hobby.


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