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Video game offers cultural-awareness training

Aug. 19, 2009 - 04:25PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 19, 2009 - 04:25PM  |  
"Spc. Tran" and "Sgt. Chase" react to anonymous small-arms fire during a scenario gone wrong in the Army 360 Cultural Awareness Program.
"Spc. Tran" and "Sgt. Chase" react to anonymous small-arms fire during a scenario gone wrong in the Army 360 Cultural Awareness Program. (COMBAT FILM PRODUCTIONS)
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The newest tool in the Army's cultural awareness training kit doesn't exactly hark back to "Space Invaders," "Missile Command," or even "Doom," the wildly popular first-person shooter video game of the 1990s. But it is targeted squarely at today's "gaming generation."

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The newest tool in the Army's cultural awareness training kit doesn't exactly hark back to "Space Invaders," "Missile Command," or even "Doom," the wildly popular first-person shooter video game of the 1990s. But it is targeted squarely at today's "gaming generation."

"Army 360" is a Hollywood-style, live-action training series that commanders hope will appeal to the Army's game-loving foot soldiers.

"Soldiers, especially this generation, take on information in different ways than my generation," said Maj. Gen. John Custer, commanding general of the Army Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca, Ariz. "[People in] my generation are digital immigrants or digital illegal immigrants. They don't capture information the same way this generation does."

And it was that realization that led Custer and his team, who are responsible for providing cultural training to an Army that deploys around the globe, to push for the development of Army 360.

"The biggest challenge for a [Training and Doctrine Command] schoolhouse is to remain relevant, because we face the most incredibly adaptive enemy we've ever faced," Custer said. "We have to evolve with commercial technology."

Cultural awareness is critical to soldiers preparing to deploy overseas, especially to hostile areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Custer said.

"It's more about the handshake than the hand grenade," he said. "We want to put soldiers through the most intense training we possibly can. We want people to understand that seemingly simple decisions build and build and may come back to haunt them."

Virtual decisions

Army 360 consists of a series of episodes where soldiers take on characters played by real actors and make decisions for those characters as the training moves along.

Soldiers wear a 3D visor, use a virtual glove and listen to binaural audio so they are immersed in the scenarios.

Army 360 offers programs specific to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.

Each program can be tailored to fit a unit's needs and schedules, based on what the commander or S-2 wants, Custer said.

"It's a constructive scenario, so the people [the soldiers] see in the first [set of training] might be there in the second one, in the eighth one," he said. "They make bad decisions, it may come back to haunt them. They make good decisions, they add up."

The training can be basic, intermediate or advanced, and it can be compressed or lengthened based on the unit's schedule and needs.

"In a schoolhouse you can make mistakes all day long," he said. "We don't kill anybody just because they're in the bursting radius of a mistake. You go in theater, if you say the wrong thing you can get somebody killed, and that's what we want to get away from."

The Army, partnering with InVism, a Denver, Colo.-based technology and services company, began to develop Army 360 about 18 months ago. The first soldiers received the training in early 2009, Custer said.

Deciding how to develop interactive, simulation-type training that is effective was not easy, Custer said.

"If you've been playing … any of the real … games out there and somebody comes in to you with some simulation that is just pathetic, you don't learn from it. You just laugh at it," he said. "We wanted to get to a point where we think it optimizes the learning experience without belittling soldiers or confounding them."

So far, most of the soldiers who have completed Army 360 training are those attending the Intelligence Center, Custer said. But Custer also has mobile teams that will travel to various units to provide this and other types of training.

During the week of Aug. 10, Custer had 63 mobile teams deployed conducting intel-related training. At least six to eight of those teams were conducting cultural awareness training.

Intelligence officers across the Army can request a mobile training team from the Intelligence Center, to include training on cultural awareness and Army 360, Custer said.

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