G.I. Joystick: New Video Games Train Today's Troops

Veterans in Virtual Iraq

USC's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) has built a reputation for designing games that make commercial edutainment software look like child's play--games that help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, let soldiers practice securing and rebuilding an Iraqi city, and even encourage them to develop their skills at negotiation.

The official ICT logo. Note the USC Trojan red and gold color scheme.

The ICT undertakes all of this cutting-edge games research at an unassuming office building on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Marina Del Rey. The first stop on my tour there is to play Virtual Iraq, the PTSD treatment tool developed by Dr. Albert "Skip" Rizzo that allows a psychologist to expose Iraq War veterans to the sights, sounds, vibrations, and smells they associate with their traumatic memories, as a form of exposure therapy.

Watching the aftermath of a car bombing from a Humvee in Virtual Iraq.
While I stepped through every extreme scenario--mortar fire, car bombs, ambush by insurgents--Rizzo says that it often takes veterans with PTSD several sessions before they can do anything besides sit in the Humvee.

Once the patient feels ready, the psychologist can increase the intensity of the experience, tailoring the environment to match the patient's memories. If things get too intense, one click sends the patient back into a "safe zone"--an empty section that has nothing but a fellow soldier.

The Virtual Iraq setup in the flesh.
In person, the physical setup doesn't look like much--just an office chair sitting on a platform over a subwoofer, next to a nondescript PC with a rather low-resolution VR headset and a USB gamepad attached to a mock M4 carbine. This was intentional, says Brad Newman, a technical artist for Virtual Iraq: By keeping costs low, designers ensured that the setup could be easily re-created in other clinics.

The visuals may be outdated (the art comes from Full Spectrum Warrior, another ICT project), but Newman tells me that for soldiers with PTSD, merely feeling the rumble of the Humvee engine or seeing an Iraqi marketplace will trigger memories. As a gamer--and not a PTSD-afflicted veteran--I was struck by one thing in particular about Virtual Iraq: the lack of a "fire" button. I am carrying a mock rifle, but it's just there to make the situation feel more realistic to the soldiers--the weapon doesn't actually fire. "We're not designing a cathartic revenge fantasy." Rizzo says, "Some do, but we don't. We want to prepare these soldiers for civilian life."

Securing SimCity

Next up is UrbanSim, a training tool for battalion commanders, where I am charged with securing the fictional city of Al-Hamra within 15 days.

I have at my disposal an array of nonaggressive and "kinetic" (the Army-given euphemism for "violent") options; with them, I must make a series of decisons that will kill insurgents, fix the war-torn city, and try and win the support of the citizenry. Each of these aspects of life in Al-Hamra is measured by a Line of Effort--an on-screen bar graph that measures the city's security, infrastructure, and goodwill toward my troops.

One component of UrbanSim is PsychSim, an ICT project that controls the behavior of all non-Army characters--from local insurgent forces to Iraqi police units to the mayor of Al-Hamra. While the insurgents' actions are simple (they focus either on destroying buildings or on recruiting more insurgents), the mayor's interests fall somewhere between the insurgents' and mine.

The first thing I learn from UrbanSim is that my mission is complicated. I take a unit away from fighting insurgents to build a school, figuring that I'll build goodwill among Al-Hamra's citizens. Oops. The insurgents respond by recruiting near the school, making the area unsafe. Down goes my civil security bar.

This episode is a jarring reminder that at heart UrbanSim is a military training tool, designed to prepare conmmanders on the ground for counterinsurgency work. It's not meant to be played like a classic nation-building sim (Civilization, for example), where you can win without going to war. I certainly won't be securing Al-Hamra through simple diplomacy.

"There are many viable strategies, but aggressively pursuing civil security is the most consistently rewarding," says UrbanSim's project lead, Ryan McAlinden. And that strategy makes sense in the context of a war zone: UrbanSim is part of the classroom training at the Army's School for Command Preparation at Fort Leavenworth, and the Army's goal isn't to train a generation of battalion commanders who don't use guns. Yet UrbanSim forces me to consider the civilians as more than just obstacles to a peaceful city, and I find myself playing far less aggressively than I have ever played any normal strategy game. The characters here feel more human.

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