GAMETECH: Armies using video games to prepare for real-life battlefields

“WAR isn’t about racking up a kill count, it’s about surviving with your soul intact.” So says Ryan Placchetti, lead writer on the gaming adaptation of Apocalypse Now. Placchetti is better-placed than most to comment — he served with the US army on a tour of Iraq in 2005.

“I love that the lead developers have committed to creating a game experience that captures the essential emotional and philosophical impact of war,” Placchetti says of the adaptation, which is seeking development funding online. 

“I have always been turned off by the unhealthy audience disconnect fostered by war-inspired games.”

Apocalypse Now: The Game is relying on crowd-funding for its development but, at present, donations seem to have stalled. 

Considering the legendary troubles associated with the cinematic source material, perhaps this means development is well on track.

In the meantime, with Placchetti’s comments in mind, here are six games that the US military have used to train their troops for the realities of war, none of which involve the smell of napalm in the morning.

Tactical Iraqi Language and Culture Training System

Before deployment to Iraq in 2007, army troops were introduced to Iraqi customs and gestures through this scenario-based training experience. 

The game created military settings and situations for players to navigate, in which Iraqi language and customs were needed to successfully progress. 

It supposedly reduced ‘months of training’ to just 80 hours of interactive training. 

Of the games on this list, Tactical Iraqi veers more towards ‘corporate learning tool’ than video game, but in that regard it was well ahead of its time.

Multipurpose Arcade Combat Simulator

Even as far back as the Super Nintendo era, the US military was using video games to train troops. The Multipurpose Arcade Combat Simulator (MACS) was a glorified Duck Hunt, a repurposed light gun game shaped around a replica of a Jäger AP-74 gun. 

The game was designed to test a soldier’s aim and familiarise them with the handling of a weapon. Like VIRTSIM (see below), this was as much a physical experience as a digital one.

Virtual Reality Training Simulator (VIRTSIM)

An open space, the size of a basketball court, was used to create VIRTSIM, along with rubber pads and a weapon-mounted controller. 

Using this space, soldiers can be trained to respond to different kinds of incoming fire and attacks that the army otherwise couldn’t recreate.

Full Spectrum Warrior

The only truly successful big-budget game on this list, Full Spectrum Warrior was critically acclaimed as tactical

strategy for the masses, one that forced players to think carefully about how to approach each scenario and how to employ small infantry troops. 

There were two versions created – one for the military, in which the player only commanded the troops, and a second version for commercial release, in which players also controlled the soldiers directly.

America’s Army

Perhaps the most controversial game on this list is America’s Army, due to its highly effective propaganda qualities. 

The US army itself developed and published this series of games, which began in 2002 on PC and has since migrated to Xbox and mobile. 

The goal of America’s Army was to be “engaging, informative, and entertaining” in the form of a first-person shooter and the latest version even featured real-world soldiers who distinguished themselves in combat.

Virtual Battlespace 3

Used by the US military but publicly available for purchase, the Virtual Battlespace series allows users to create custom battlefields and scenarios for players to navigate. It teaches land navigation, combat scenarios and platoon-level group strategies, among other things. 

It’s no surprise that a low-budget video game adaptation of Apocalypse Now is struggling to find funding. 

In many ways the qualities of the film — the sense of journey and the aesthetic overload — are too close to gaming for an adaptation to distinguish itself. 

Gaming is already a master of such sensibilities and has arguably surpassed what film has to offer in that regard. On the other hand, gaming has no Marlon Brando waiting at the end of the river, muttering about the horrors of war, showing in one glance what no military training could ever prepare you for.


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