Sandia LabNews

Sandia-developed game helps Special Forces learn adaptive thinking, problem solving

Sandia-developed game helps Special Forces learn adaptive thinking, problem solving

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Video games aren’t just for kids anymore.

A multiplayer, nonviolent simulation game developed by a team led by Sandia researcher Elaine Raybourn (15241) is being used by members of the US Army Special Forces to hone their skills in adaptive thinking, negotiation and conflict resolution, and leadership in cross-cultural settings.

"This simulation game is the only one of its kind focused on interpersonal and strategic communication in cross-cultural settings," Elaine says. "It’s a serious application of technologies that the entertainment industry has spearheaded. The graphics look as compelling as any other video game, but everything else about the simulation suggests that it was carefully designed for discovery learning."

The game — which Elaine refers to as an Adaptive Thinking and Leadership (ATL) simulation game — is designed to allow players to discover their strengths and weaknesses in mental agility, cultural awareness, interpersonal adaptability, and communication. By role-playing in a dynamically changing environment, users sharpen their ability to anticipate the consequences of different courses of action to problems that may not have a "right" answer.

Currently people can play the game by themselves on a personal computer or with as many as 14 players on networked computers. Instructors can easily modify scenarios, monitor the play, and jump in and change the direction of the game at any time.

Participants serve as either role-players or spectators. Their tasks vary according to the role. Spectators’ tasks involve providing feedback on how well the role-players are doing during the game. Later, when the training game is over, the instructor can lead debriefing sessions via an "after action review" that incorporates the real-time evaluations as well as player statistics and replays of actual events.

The Special Forces turned to Sandia for help after Elaine appeared on a National Public Radio program where she discussed decision-making in stressful environments. One Special Forces officer, who worked in training and doctrine, heard her and came to Sandia to learn more about Elaine’s research, and in particular the focus she placed on culture in decision-making.

After presenting a proposal to Special Forces, Elaine was tapped to lead a team to create a simulation game with both single-player and multiplayer scenarios. The game was to be designed to help people improve their skills in critical thinking, problem solving, situational awareness, understanding of novel situations, cross-cultural sense making, and communication.

Elaine, working with a team from Sandia and the Army Game Project directed by the Office of Economic Manpower Analysis at US Military Academy at West Point, developed the game for the Army Special Forces in nine months. Sandia provided the theoretical approach, innovative human performance measurements, and culturally relevant content design.

"Developing a simulation game is truly a collaborative effort requiring many talents," Elaine says. "We’re not a game company; that’s why we partnered with the Army Game Project, and in particular with its Government Applications Team. We’re a national laboratory with expertise in training, simulation experience design, and intercultural communication. By pooling Sandia’s expertise and those of our partners, we were able to design a game with scenarios that feel very real."

The ALT game is built on the "America’s Army'" video game platform, which is based on the game engine Unreal Tournament 2004 produced by Epic Games (see "Game built on ‘America’s Army'" below).

In developing the game, Elaine and team member Michael Senglaub (15301) spent the first few months evaluating the Special Forces training program. It became apparent that an innovative approach to teaching adaptive thinking would enhance their existing training program.

"The requirement for adaptive thinking — being able to make good decisions on the fly — is very important to Special Forces," she says. "In fact, Special Forces has been on the forefront in adaptive thinking among US military organizations."

Two aspects of the simulation game make it different from any other video game of which Elaine is aware. It focuses on teaching interpersonal adaptability, negotiation, and communication skills. The game also uses a novel aproach for which a patent has been filed to provide instructional or peer evaluation in real time. Players get feedback immediately about cultural errors they may have committed, for example.

Now that the game is developed and being used, the next steps are to evaluate how well it is working in the classroom, add enhancements, and expand it into different training areas, such as humanitarian assistance.

Elaine says Special Forces began training with the simulation game earlier this year, and so far results have been positive.

"This game is not about violence," Elaine says. "It’s about learning to respect and work with other cultures by honoring other people’s ways of being and doing. The Special Forces are keen to improve communication skills so that if there is a problem they can talk their way through it. We believe this interpersonal adaptability ultimately saves lives."

Game testers and project support

Justin Basilico, Phil Chamberlin, David Charles, Brian Clark, Kyle Cochrane, Melanie Corn, Sidney Holman, Jonathan McClain, Alan Nanco, Marta Parnall, Tiara Poland, Paul Sanchez, William Stubblefield, Stephen Verzi, Steve Roehrig, Michael
Senglaub, Russell Skocypec, Ronald Trellue, Roger Vesey, John Wagner

Game built on ‘America’s Army’

The Adaptive Thinking and Leadership simulation game developed by Elaine Raybourn and her team is built on the Army Game platform, which is based on America’s Army, a video game designed to give young people a virtual taste of military life.

The Special Forces game has less action and more adaptive thinking. But the ideas behind the games are similar.

The Army launched America’s Army, a series of PC games depicting realistic modern combat situations, three years ago to overwhelming interest. It now has more than five million registered players.

Besides being a source of information for prospective recruits, the game gives non-soldiering types a realistic view of Army life. All scenarios in the game are designed to actively reflect real-life tactics.

According to an official of the America’s Army project last year at the E3 gaming trade show, prospective soldiers who contact Army recruiters after playing the game have a better follow-through rate than any other form of advertising or promotion.