(video via GameTech)
James Sterrett kindly has provided an after action review for PAXsims on the recent Army Games for Training and Defense GameTech conferences in Orlando. With many thanks to James, we present it below.
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An Idiosyncratic Report on the Army Games for Training and GameTech Conferences
Disclaimer: This article reflects the personal views of the author, not the official views of the US Army or its components.
My apologies to anybody wanting a complete report on everything that took place. These are not huge conventions like E3 or GDC, but they were plenty large enough to ensure I didn’t see more than a slice of the convention.
For the past few years, GameTech and the Army Games for Training Conference (AGFT) have been under the same management. For various reasons, not all known to me but partly a new DoD ban on serving food at conferences, they are now administratively separate. This year they were held in the same location on the same week, with AGFT on Monday and Tuesday and GameTech on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. There’s apparently some discussion of holding them separately in the future, a move which would serve neither conference in my opinion.
Both conferences ran panels by leading lights of industry and/or the DoD in the morning, and papers in the afternoon. I generally did not attend the panels, talking to people instead – for me, this proved to be a very good conference for meeting people. My boss, LTC Chuck Allen, dutifully attended the panels and assured me I had missed nothing.
AGFT runs a mix of tutorials and papers, and has often proven to be the VBS2 Conference in the past. VBS2 still had a very strong showing, but other official simulations got a look in as well. The National Simulation Center provided several demonstrations of the Army Low Overhead Training Toolkit (ALOTT). Unfortunately, the person sent to run the demo sessions needed more backup; the hands-on potion of the demonstration was a good idea but, absent material on how to operate the simulations, it fell a bit flat. PEO-STRI’s Tim Wansbury also taught sessions on editing UrbanSim. UrbanSim does very well at delivering a single-player stability operations exercise, and is easily learned – however, getting far enough under its hood to really alter things such as the population model or the player’s echelon requires recoding parts of the simulation. (We’ve used UrbanSim’s generic-Iraq and generic-Afghanistan scenarios at some of the Command & General Staff College’s courses for years, but there’s mounting pressure for another scenario, which is proving difficult to deliver.)
TCM (TRADOC Capabilities Management) Gaming ran an avatar design competition to get people to try their new VBS2 avatar design tools. The tools proved relatively easy to use, and getting photos of my face mapped onto the avatar ran quickly. Unfortunately, designing an avatar that looks good is harder than using the tools. I felt quietly proud of my attempt at winter camo, using a white background with a sprinkling of brown leaves… until somebody standing next to me at the hallway monitor displaying them labelled it the Dalmatian outfit – and quite correctly so! I confessed to perpetrating it.
GameTech serves a wider audience, so the range of topics suddenly broadened a great deal. I missed a number of talks I wanted to go to. Gametech served breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and arranged for speakers during both meals. The speakers proved a mixed blessing.
AGFT’s keynote speaker for Tuesday was Curtis Murphy, repeating his IITSEC talk on the Science of Learning. It’s a great presentation with an excellent combination of wit and insight. Readers of this blog may be familiar with the content – it’s a basic primer on why games work in educaion, and the primary point is that learning and games work for the same reasons – but it’s packaged so well that my non-gamer boss saw the light.
Michael Jones, Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, delivered a scintillating speech during breakfast on Thursday, arguing for the value and necessity of embedding understanding (as opposed to simply facts), into programs. Apparently, the zoom out – fly over – zoom in feature of Google Earth was put in at his insistence in order to teach a bit of basic geography, because during the fly over part he hoped people would notice where various things were.
Ross Smith of Microsoft spoke about the value of using games to get projects done at work – a great talk despite a dodgy Skype connection. Apparently, in addition to Ribbon Hero, Microsoft has deployed some forms of testing into game frameworks, having people do very small tests to provide checks and feedback on software. This was credited with performing hundreds of thousands of tests and ensuring a successful Windows 7 launch.
Captain Ed Stoltenberg (Maneuver Captain’s Career Course Instructor) – We support Ed, so this is perhaps biased, but his talk woke up a sleepy audience on Tuesday afternoon. Ed has been a major force for integrating simulations into the MCCC classroom, working hard to include them and gather data to prove that they are working to improve student’s understanding.
John Roberts from the Naval War College (NWC) on using iPads instead of printed books. LTC Allen and I spoke on Wednesday about the use of simulations in the classroom at CGSC. We were paired up with John Roberts. Apparently, NWC issues around 6,000 pages of reading through iPads, complete with a special NWC-only section of the iTunes store, and the student response has been overwhelmingly favorable, with 90%+ approval of the project on measures ranging from ease of use and superiority over paper products. To get there, NWC had to overcome a number of administrative and Information Assurance hurdles – John Roberts didn’t really speak to these, but I’m aware of them because they appear to be insurmountable at CGSC. Some CGSC studies suggest it would be tens of thousands of dollars cheaper to issue each student an iPad loaded with all the course reading, than it is to print, distribute, collect – and often destroy – a year’s worth of reading. John Roberts’ paper suggests it is worthwhile to continue to struggle to make the change.
General Edward Rice, USAF, assisted Wednesday’s breakfast with endless repetition of “budgets will shrink, do more with less”, without any vision of how to get there. The “Blackberry/Android/iOS prayer” swept through the room. To cap it all, he proudly did not use PowerPoint – but then spent time verbally describing charts and graphs to us.
Mike Zyga: He’s been involved in many wonderful projects, and he made sure we knew it, because that proved to be the only content of his talk. Information on how or why some of these turned out so well would have been useful; instead, it was an “I love me” talk. Maybe he’s a wonderful individual in person; as it was, this was the talk I had to sit through in order to hear Ross Smith.
Captain Ed Stoltenberg realized that the vendor exhibit hall had empty space, and did a quick deal with GameTech to take some of it and run a Maneuver Captain’s Career Course booth. Since we support him, I supported the booth for most of Thursday, showing off VBS2, Steel Beasts, Crucible of Command, and Decisive Action Brigade Level. We’re hoping paid off for Ed, because the Armor School Commandant, BG James, came by and spoke to him for 5-10 minutes or so.
It proved to be a good conference for meeting people. I’d never before spoken to Dr. Ezra Sidran, an AI researcher whose projects can reliably identify features such as open flanks and then build a plan from them. These haven’t been put into a fully fledged ismulation, but as Ezra is the person behind the Universal Military Simulator some of you may remeber from decades past, he very likely could accomplish that. We renewed our connections to Rob Carpenter, Deputy Director of Simulation Development for the Australian Army, with whom we’ve had some very useful collaboration over the years. By sheer chance, we met Chris Taff, who has recently become the person in charge of simulation support for, among other things, the Canadian Army Command and Staff College — effectively our opposite number in Canada.
Dismounted Soldier is a project to enable individual soldiers to exist in a virtual environment, and move around, without a hamster ball, but without the ability to move through the real building. I tried it out. You wear a helmet, vest, and leg pouch, all with motion sensors, and have an M-4 with motion sensors. The helmet carries goggles that go over your eyes (and worked well with my glasses!) After zeroing the system, you can turn your head to change the view, turn your body to change your facing, and use a thumb-joystick on the back of the M-4’s forward pistol grip to move forward, backward, and sidestep left and right. During my 5-10 minutes with it, this was all remarkably unintuitive. Looking around worked fine until I got out of synch – which happened frequently – and then had to re-zero again. Get the re-zeroing wrong and you have to look off level to see level in the virtual world – time to re-zero again. However, the thing that I found hardest to get ued to was that you cannot put your eye to the sights of the M-4, because the goggles get in the way. I’m told that people get used to all this after about 30 minutes with the system, but I have to wonder if the net result is that you spend a lot of money on a system that teaches bad muscle memory.
Finally a funny story: Captain Ed Stoltenberg and I decided to hook up Steel Beasts for some co-op multiplayer on Thursday evening. The only place we could find that had tables and outlets was an unused section of restaruant in the (very large) hotel lobby. We set up a third computer and networked it in so that LTC Allen could give it a try as well. After he had left, that computer was left running, off to one side, while Ed and I got our asses kicked by various scenarios. Apparently, this setup looked like the internet access point you sometimes find in a hotel lobby. At around 930pm, a family walked over. The kids and Dad looked at our screens, while Mom sat down at Ed’s laptop. Apparently oblivious to the screenshot of a tank interior or the various other icons, she homed in on Internet Explorer, opened it, and was disappointed not to make a connection. We finally began to understand what was going on, and Ed explained, very politely, that it was a personal laptop and had no internet connection. She was quite embarrased, despite our “no harm done” assurances, and the family moved away. Just before they moved out of earshot we heard her say, “That’s OK, we’ll come back here tomorrow morning.” We’ve wondered if she complained to the staff, the next morning, that the internet cafe had disappeared!
James Sterrett is the Deputy Chief of the Simulations Division of the US Army Command & General Staff College’s Digital Leader Development Center, where he has worked since 2004 teaching CGSC’s courses on using games and simulations in training and education. His academic background includes a Ph.D in Soviet military history and several published articles on the educational use of simulations.