MET:Semiotic Domains: Gaming Technology and Learning in the Military

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--Original entry by Nicholas Pettit Template:TOC left

Video game-based military training has three general learning objectives: interaction, reproducibility, and visibility. A player-learner’s transfer of skills from virtual worlds to reality measures the effectiveness of video game-based training (Fletcher, 2009).[1] Gee (2003) places video games in an educational framework on the premise that they are learning tools and not "a waste of time". He argues that semiotic domains—areas where people “think, act, and value in certain ways”(pp. 19)—enable people to learn using specific literacies. Video games--specifically first-person shooter (FPS) games--are therefore semiotic domains where soldiers can demonstrate literacy (Gee, 2003).[2] Serious play in military training incorporates specific design grammar that enable active learning, a precursor to deep learning. Although a FPS game is an effective military learning tool, its potential as a medium for deep learning is challenged by the need for new gaming technologies and further research on player-learner performance.

Gaming Platforms Used in Military Training

Developed in the mid-1980's by video game companies contracted by the US military, SIMNET is the “grandfather” of FPS games. Before SIMNET, military simulators focused only on reproducing singular tasks for military training such as landing an aircraft onto a carrier. However, SIMNET stand-alone consoles enabled many different kinds of units such as tanks, aircraft, etc. to simulate combat on a network (Herz & Macedonia, 2002).[3] It is also the first FPS game design to incorporate free play, which makes SIMNET a semiotic domain because it prompts player-learners to think, act, and value decisions (Gee, 2003).[4] Player-learners in SIMNET encounter each other on a virtual battlefield, not through scripted scenarios.

Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) are also video game designs with free play, and are particularly favoured by the military. Played on the Personal Computer (PC) and sixth-generation video game consoles such as Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation 2, the military began using MMOGs for training in the early-2000s (History of video game consoles, n.d.).[5] FPS MMOGs are the ideal platform for video game designs because they can potentially enable thousands of soldiers--in multiple locations--to simultaneously simulate combat.

Advantages of Military Video Game-Based Training

FPS games save millions of dollars in military training budgets. SIMNET used affordances like $90 Commercial-off-the-shelf (COT) radios instead of $30,000 military field radios for soldiers to communicate with during simulations (Harz & Stern, 2008).[6] In particular, a service branch like the US Marine Corps (USMC) is most affected by budget cuts because it does not use platforms such as aircraft, ships, or tanks. In 1997, the USMC Modeling and Simulation Management Office became the first service branch to use a COT FPS game in military training—Marine Doom (Riddle, 1997).[7] Virtual bullets are cheaper than real ones, which holds more truth than ever. Citing the need to cut $2.5 billion from the military budget by 2015, Brig. General Denis Thompson announced that the Canadian Army adopted Call of Duty: Black Ops II as part of its training program (Brewster, 2013).[8]

Another advantage to video game-based military training is the portability and network capabilities of gaming technology, which make physical centres for combat simulation increasingly unnecessary. Distributive technology is particularly useful on board ships or at embassies where training with live ammunition is difficult (Riddle, 1997).[9]

Benefits of Military Video Game-Based Training

Fidelity

Instruction and Decision-Making in Game Design

Two early FPS games used in military training throughout the 1990's—SIMNET and Marine Doom—introduced new semiotic domains to military training. Therein these games established FPS games as a learning medium for the military. As the original multiplayer FPS game, SIMNET is a model for how FPS game designs should incorporate the nature of military training (Miller & Thorpe, 1995).[10] SIMNET reflects the step-by-step decision process embedded in the military instructional process by requiring player-learner teams--units--to select weapons and ammunition and then decide when to use each.

Marine Doom took a step further than SIMNET in reproducing military training. Marines played Marine Doom in their standard unit—the fire team—which consists of a commander, two file men, and a machine gunner. Playing Marine Doom involves repetitive decision making to acquire advantageous positions prior to engaging enemies (Riddle, 1997).[11] Both FPS games applied the most fundamental social practice of the military--making step-by-step decisions in a repetitive process--within specific affinity groups.

Realistic Game Content

An FPS game design used for military training must reproduce specific signals (pictures, sounds, symbols, etc.) for its semiotic domain to enable player-learners to experience the military world realistically. The graphics of a video game is what Gee calls design grammar (Gee, 2003).[12] Marine Doom incorporates realistic equipment and environmental details in its graphical content, which are similar to physical objects that they encounter in real training. For example, Marine Doom graphics depict bunkers, M-16 rifle, M-249 machine guns, and tactical wire (Lenoir & Lowood, 2003).[13] Marines actively learn by moving through the semiotic domain to interact content that prepares them for real training.

Operation Flashpoint incorporates high fidelity using more advanced graphics than Marine Doom. The School of Armour (SOA), a branch within the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) modified the game to complement the training program of its armored personnel. The Ultra OWS, SM1, Bionix, and Bronco—vehicles used in the SAF armored division—are accurately depicted. In tandem with the SOA, the SAF School of Combat Engineers (SOCE) added equipment-specific items such as booby traps, mines, and tactical wire as content. Fong (2004) suggests that the modifications made by SOA and SOCE to Operation Flashpoint prepares soldiers for future learning because the realistic game content gives them a "clear understanding of the ground picture" (pp. 272) prior to real field exercises (Fong, 2004).[14] Interacting with realistic military content in a video game offers soldiers a new way to experience their world because they preview real training environments. The outcome is that soldiers demonstrate future learning by using FPS semiotic domains to think more deeply about how they will interact with real training environments.

Selective Fidelity in Military Video Game Design

Gaming hardware is a crucial component of the “look and feel” factor necessary to make learning objectives in video game-based military training realistic. SIMNET only includes affordances necessary for combat operation. SIMNET manned vehicles have controls specific to military vehicles like tanks, LCD monitors in place of port holes, etc. to reproduce realistic control/display interactions (Miller & Thorpe, 1995).[15] Gaming hardware specific to a type of unit enhances high fidelity combat simulation because it develops the identity of the player-learner as an infantryman, pilot, etc. Moreover, SIMNET is also a medium for active learning because a player-learner has to think how to use specific affordances from a certain perspective.

Innovative Learning Tools

In the late-1990's, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) developed Computer-Generated Forces (CGFs). The Synthetic Theater of War program designed semi-automated CGFs, which are opponents with artificial intelligent (AI) that instructors and player-learners exercise some control over (Zyda, 1997).[16] In effect, CGFs are affordances that made FPS semiotic domains more complex by increasing active learning. Player-learners must not only interact with each other, but also with the CGFs by engaging them in attrition. For example, Full Spectrum Command (FSC) utilizes semi-automated CGFs which player-learners manipulate with deployment controls and fragmentary orders (Beal & Christ, 2004).[17]


For a video demonstrating how player-learners manipulate FSC CGFs see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgeOvsvUquA


Moreover, SIMNET adapted the “flying carpet”, a software tool that enabled commanders to zoom in on specific units, which enables them to quickly refer to the interrelated parts of the semiotic domain and visualize virtual battlefields from any viewpoint (Lenoir & Lowood, 2003).[18] This affordance enables commanders not only to operate within the semiotic domain in a different way than their subordinates, but to also think critically about all of its interrelated parts before they issue orders (Gee, 2003).[19] Similarly, the Janus computer system creates two-dimensional battlefield maps and displays infantry units (up to brigade-size) on those maps, which makes it a useful reference tool that enhances visibility like the "flying carpet." However, unlike the "flying carpet", Janus manipulates the information it displays, which increases its value as a learning/assessment tool (Beal & Christ, 2004).[20]

FSC incorporated Janus into its game play to promote deep learning. The software prompts FSC player-learners to process information, reality, engage in social negotiation, and conduct reflective practice. In FSC combat simulations, Janus programmers plot the player-learners' in-game movements of CGFs to create maps. In after action training sessions, instructors use the data displayed by Janus as an assessment tool to point out flaws in a player-learners' battle plan and prompts them to reevaluate the movement of their CGFs and strengthen their battle plans (Beal & Christ, 2004).[21] Janus thereby achieves deep learning in the FSC gaming experience because player-learners use it to visualize information, collaborate with programmers and instructors, and initiate reflective practice--all necessary activities for producing a successful battle plan.

Immersion: Historical Narratives

SIMNET recreated the Battle of 73 Hastings during Operation Desert Storm, which increased the visibility of the knowledge-building process of tactical operations by allowing soldiers to redesign the battlefield. Project Odin constructed a three-dimensional simulation of the battlefield for SIMNET using photographs from the battle and the position coordinates of units. Not only did player-learners engage in active learning by reenacting the battle, they were also critically learning by innovating this semiotic domain in SIMNET. Player-learners used new units and tactics to modify the Battle of 73 Hasting and thereby expanded collective knowledge of this particular military engagement (Lenoir & Lowood, 2003).[22] Furthermore, through the manipulation of this particular domain at its "meta-level", the SIMNET design enhanced active learning by enabling player-learners to envision unpredictable outcomes of the battle (Gee, 2003).[23]


For a video on the reproduction of the Battle of 73 Hastings in SIMNET see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFUAYeeoedE (1: 37 to 2: 38)

Criticism

Selective Fidelity in Commercial Video Game Design

Integration of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) video games can reduce the effectiveness of video game-based military training if design grammar does not holistically reproduce military environments. Gaming content carries specific situated meanings within the FPS family of semiotic domains used for military training which cannot be ignored (Gee, 2003).[24] Commercial game designers do not consistently use a military perspective when designing FPS games. The gaming industry may make military environments look real, but they do not design units with realistic behavior because designers interpret selective fidelity differently than the military. For example, game designs that do not manipulate tanks to move slowly when they cross mud (assuming that mud is incorporated), or do not incorporate different armor values for areas of its hull to reproduce realistic vulnerabilities, etc. (Zyda, 1997).[25]

Design grammar that does not reflect holistic military fidelity will negatively affect military training. For instance, a tank commander using an FPS game to train with his or her crew will not be inclined to instruct subordinates to maneuver through difficult terrain because his or her attention will instead focus on other objectives. Whatever those other objectives are, they would not be realistically attainable without resolving the issue of difficult terrain. Incomplete or inaccurate design grammar of a FPS game results in an impartial, or absent transfer of skills in military training.

More importantly, game designs that appear to have military value can prove to be unsuitable semiotic domains for military training. Before FPS MMOGs includes realistic military design grammar such as FSC or Operation Flashpoint, the military experimented with COT MMOGs like Neverwinter Nights, which is a semiotic domain in a fantasy setting. Although its design grammar appeared to have military value--firebombs and flying goblins served the same function as artillery and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)--soldiers had a difficult time taking the training seriously. They could not identify how Neverwinter Nights related to their affinity group (Alexander, Brunye, Sidman & Well, 2005).[26] Neverwinter Nights is therefore an inappropriate FPS semiotic domain because soldiers internally view the training value of FPS games through particular design grammar--gaming content that accurately depicts military environments.


For a video that illustrates the gaming content of Neverwinter Nights see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UGbwG9u0mE

Stress

FPS games discourage active learning because designs do not sufficiently reproduce stress, which is a key component of a soldier's identity within an affinity group as a first responder. Infantry Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who observed video game-based military training concluded that player-learner behavior largely exists in an amusement context rather than a stressful one. Design grammar that does not reproduce stress is a major problem given that nearly all military operations produce some level of stress (Hancock, Morris & Shirkey, 2004).[27]

Interpolity

Interpolity is another disconnect between the gaming industry and military in the development of FPS game designs which simulate multi-unit combat. Commercial developers encrypt the design grammar of their video games so that they cannot be used on competitor systems. This translates to military instructors being unable to interpolate video games on a common platform. As a result, they cannot facilitate video game-based training for soldiers with different skill sets. For instance, an air force pilot training in Holobyte Inc. and an infantry soldier training in Back to Baghdad cannot use these games to interact with each other in a single semiotic domain (Zyda, 1997).[28] The impact that a lack of interpolity in video game designs has on military training is that it prevents knowledge-building. The pilot and the infantryman have no opportunity to critically learn together through reflection exercises based on a shared gaming experience. Interpolity in game design prompts soldiers with specific skills to learn from others through the unique perspective of a particular game.

Evaluating In-Game Performance

Instructors conducted a face-to-face evaluation for Neverwinter Nights, and issued a questionnaire evaluating the game experience of FSC. Although the evaluation of Neverwinter Nights ascertained that player-learners did not take the game seriously and the evaluation of FSC revealed that gaming controls and displays distracted them from the gaming experience, neither method assessed the value of the player-learner's actions in each semiotic domain (Beal & Christ, 2004).[29]

According to Sebastian (2013), there is no way to assess player-learners within virtual environments apart from the actions of their avatars. Observing in-game avatars does not measure a player-learner's level of engagement, or if they genuinely acquired tactical knowledge rather than simply mastering game play. The “number of kills” or “number of missions” (pp. 4) accomplished do translate to an effective assessment because actionable intelligence is needed to analyze play-learner performance (Sebastian, 2013).[30]

Moreover, in spite that distributive technology has made long-distance training in the military easier, eliminating central locations for simulation training further complicates assessment because instructors cannot collect face-to-face data (Sebastian, 2013).[31] For example, "substantial experimenter oversight" (pp. 8) was necessary throughout the Neverwinter Nights experiment to ensure that participants understood their learning objectives (Alexander, et. al., 2005).[32] Face-to-face data are primary sources in educational assessments of video game-based military training.

Further Research and Design Development

Constructivism

In an effort to further assess how MMOGs promote deep learning, Bonk and Dennen (2005) propose a study to determine the degree of constructivism present in MMOGs. They hypothesize that a high sense of realism correlates with higher player satisfaction, longer effect of learning outcomes, and that highly active learning environments will increase performance (Bonk and Dennen, 2005).[33] The FSC questionnaire applies elements of the kind of study Bonk an Dennen propose. It reports that 88% of participants rated their satisfaction with the fidelity of the training program to be "adequate to excellent" (pp. 20). The questionnaire was also an important reflective activity for the participants of the FSC experiment because its questions made an effort to detect constructivism (Beal & Christ, 2004):

  • "The interface with FSC during mission planning and during mission execution.
  • Identify three features you liked best and three features you liked least about FSC.
  • In spite of the possible limitations you may have encountered with FSC, what are its advantages or potential for improving decision-making skills....” (pp. 21).[34]

Measuring the level of player satisfaction through questionnaires is necessary in determining how skills transfer from FPS semiotic domains to reality.

Psychological Impact of Graphics

FPS semiotic domains for military training must incorporate unpredictable stress through powerful signals in design grammar. Hancock, et. al. (2004) suggest that designers need to increase the graphical intensity of warfare and insert realistic war scenes throughout game play. They report that a study involving a 15-min clip from Saving Private Ryan and footage from the WWII-Invasion of Normandy shown before player-learners played Delta Force OTS increased their “mission success”scores (pp. 114).[35] However, they conclude that there is no known way to measure how long the effect of video game stress lasts and suggest further experimentation on this subject

Coordinating Development: the Gaming Industry and Military

In addition to the plethora of COT video games that the military incorporates into its training, the US military closely coordinates with the gaming industry to maximize the potential of game design development. In 1999, the US Army established the Institute of Creative Technology (ICT) at the University of California to work with both the entertainment and gaming industry to develop synthetic experiences for the military. ICT employs civilian video game designers to design console-based games for military and commercial purposes. For example, the ICT developed C-Force for the X-box and FSC for the PC—games which focus on company command, communication, and strategy (Lenoir & Lowood, 2003).[36]

The ITC is a nexus of internal and external knowledge-building. Civilian contributors are people who Gee refers to as individuals who help design semiotic domains externally with differing social practices than the military. Civilians who enjoy playing FPS games are not only potential military recruits, but also people who help the military rethink and value video game designs. The ITC is therefore a crucial resource that interrelates internal and external views of video game design with the purpose of transforming them into better designs for military training.

Herz and Macedonia (2002) argue that the gaming industry and military are inseparable because of the benefit each give the other in developing video game designs. The military gives the gaming industry an impetus for design while the gaming industry drives design development in response to the demand of millions of player-learners (including soldiers) who enjoy playing video games—particularly FPS games of interest to the military. America’s Army is an example of a popular FPS MMOG that civilians continuously modify to improve the its design grammar. Released by the US Army in 2002 as a global public relations initiative, America’s Army has 41 versions to-date (America’s Army, n.d.).[37]


For a video on the America’s Army community see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SM9_0EetArc (1:11 to 2:16)

Future Technologies

Networks

Server technology must facilitate FPS MMOGs more efficiently to improve the integration of gaming technology and player-learner knowledge acquisition. Integrating gaming technology in shared worked spaces inhibits player-learners by limiting their potential to learn specific knowledge within rigid military schedules. Soldiers who can train anywhere—including their homes—maximizes the distributive value of gaming technology (Smith, 2009).[38]

Network latency is also a problem because when soldiers fire a gun or change positions, an appropriate response is approximately 33 milliseconds, or less. However, signals travelling through fiber optic cables do not consistently match soldiers’ realistic response time even with the best internet service providers. This problem is exasperated by the need to expand networked simulation because higher network traffic slows the travel of signals (Zyda, 47).[39] Moreover, slow latency makes operation in FPS semiotic domains less efficient, and as a result, exploring them to actively learn becomes a frustrating experience.

In spite that SIMNET is a platform facilitating thousands of player-learners, it can not simulate large-scale military operations because the design does not have the network capabilities to allow more than a few consoles to interact in simulated combat. However, MMOGs like the World of Warcraft (WoW) use servers that host a maximum of 40,000 users (How many people are in a realm?, n.d.).[40] FPS MMOGs like America’s Army can theoretically also achieve this, but higher latency is required to facilitate large-scale combat simulations with sophisticated design grammar. For example, America’s Army only hosts 16-players in story missions (America’s Army: True Soldiers, n.d.).[41] FPS MMOG designs that achieve similar server capabilities as WoW have the potential to realize the learning outcome envisioned by the SIMNET design.

Gaming Content

To rectify the fidelity issue of individual units collectively aggregating to higher levels or reverting to their original state when progressing through the stages of a game, FPS semiotic domains must have disaggregated design grammar. Automatic aggregation unrealistically adjusts the value of the design grammar pertinent to combat simulation (i.e. the health of an avatar or CGFs). Units must progress through a game in a disaggregated state for the design to accurately reproduce fidelity (Zyda, 1997).[42]

Moreover, CGFs should model human behavior in executing complex tasks such as flight simulation or operating a tank. Zyda (1997) argues that not only is it crucial that player-learners cannot tell the difference between CGFs and humans, but designers must also not allow player-learners to exploit logic gaps in CGF routines. An example of this was in 1996 when Gary Kasparov exploited the logic patters that the IBM computer Deep Blue employed during a famous game of chess. The military needs to develop CGFs that adapt to human behavior by acquiring knowledge in real time for later use. Moreover, CGFs should use more complex AI natural language. They should have the capability to interpret voice input and should be able to respond with the appropriate level of stress ( Zyda, 1997).[43] Thus CGFs should demonstrate active learning by thinking and acting as player-learners do.

The military also needs FPS game designs that incorporate non-threatening space for spectator units to simulate observer roles. It is beneficial for novice player-learners to be spectators in FPS games because they can observe how more skilled player-learners train (Zyda, 1997).[44] Most importantly, military instructors can assume spectator roles to conduct in-game assessments by interactively observing player-learner performance.

Augmented Reality (AR): a New Family of Semiotic Domains for Military Training

AR is a copy of the real world which uses computer-sensor technology to augment its physical properties. The US military has already integrated AR as an affordance for real training (Augmented Reality, n.d.).[45] In 2012, the USMC announced its Augmented Immersive Team (ATTI) system, which uses a head mounted display (HMD) device connected to a backpack computer for superimposing its design grammar, such as pictures of military equipment and vehicles, onto real landscapes (Peck, 2013).[46]

File:AR Superimposed.jpg
Augmented reality superimposed on landscape

AR is promising gaming technology because it incorporates reality into FPS semiotic domains. Furthermore, an AR FPS is not constrained by the network limitations of MMOGs because soldiers could train in real military environments. A potential disadvantage to using AR FPS games for military training instead of console FPS games is that AR FPS semiotic domains would not be risk-free per se. Soldiers using AR in their training would nevertheless experience the world in new and appealing ways through a paradigm shift in active learning. However, it remains unclear if AR video game-based military training can promote deep learning.

As of January 2014, the US Army Contract Command (ACC) issued a sources-sought notice for the Army Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 15.1, which is a demonstration conference scheduled for October and November 2014. Keller (2014) reports that the US military is explicitly requesting AR technology that small units can adapt for military training exercises (Keller, 2014).[47]


For a video demonstrating the gameplay of an AR FPS game--BLAM for the iPhone--see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1M2MzMFj8Tg

See Also

Semiotic_Domains

Real-world_Applications_of_Simulations

External Links

SIMNET: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SIMNET

Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT): http://ICT.USC.EDU ICT.USC.EDU

Full Spectrum Command (FSC): http://www.quicksilver.com/fsc.php

America's Army: http://www.americasarmy.com/

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