Archive for the ‘Military games’ Category

Screenshot, This War of Mine, 11 Bit Studios

Screenshot, This War of Mine. 11 Bit Studios.

Picture this: you’re trapped in a war zone, forced to take shelter in an abandoned, derelict building. You’re with a couple of strangers, all separated from their families; your homes and possessions are gone, destroyed in the conflict. You have no weapons, no way to defend yourselves, no comforts but what you can fashion from wreckage, and nothing to eat but what you can scavenge from your war-torn city. You’re hungry, tired, and scared, and your only options are to die tonight, or survive the night and try not to die tomorrow.

This is the reality that This War of Mine depicts: war is not heroic and it is not glamorous. War is harsh and brutal. It is a grim struggle for survival, and it spares no one.

War, in short, is hell.

Developed by Warsaw, Poland-based 11 Bit Studios—known for its tower-defense-on-its head Anomaly series—This War of Mine portrays armed conflict from a perspective that game aficionados rarely consider, and developers never present: the civilians all too often caught in the crosshairs. The game is about survival, about hunkering down and waiting out, about risking your life—and the lives of others—just to scrape by for another day. You don’t take up arms and fight, you stay quiet and invisible, and pray for the return of the sheltering dark, when you can venture out once again.

This War of MineThe game is slated for release later this year, so I haven’t had a chance to play it yet. However, reviewers at Polygon were treated to a preview by the developer, and even watching the gameplay is harrowing. This War of Mine is dark—literally and figuratively—and intense: everything about it, from the environment to the gameplay, is designed to engender unease. The game sets you on edge from moment one and holds you there for as long as you can stand to play.

Perhaps more significantly, This War of Mine is morally and ethically challenging: You’re forced to make life-or-death decisions every step of the way, some of which involve stealing food or medicine from others in need, or withholding help to conserve resources for your own group. While this may turn the odds of staying alive in your favor, it does so at the expense of someone else who, like you, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The message is clear: during war, all bets are off. The laws of nature reign supreme, and the only rule is survival.

Though this game may never put an end to war, for those with the courage to play, it sheds a welcome light on the human cost that others so often leave in the shadows.

For 11 Bit’s official game website (including a trailer), click here.

Polygon has some gameplay footage on their website here.

And you can read more about the game and the developers behind it here.




When you’re talking about pain, nothing comes close to the excruciating intensity of burning alive. Survivors of severe burns report trying anything—anything—to stop the pain, sometimes resigning themselves to death and hoping they won’t be on fire much longer before the end.

And that’s just during the event. Those who are lucky enough to live through the experience have another nightmare to look forward to: recovery. Burn wounds are especially susceptible to infection, and have to be cleaned daily. For the victim, this amounts to reliving the torture of being burned over and over again. The pain is nearly as severe, and the drugs to alleviate it are woefully inadequate. Morphine and other opioids are effective when patients are resting, but during treatment, they just don’t cut it: invented to relieve pain in 1804, morphine hasn’t changed since. For all intents and purposes, pain management’s been stuck in the 19th century.

Until recently, that is. Beginning in late 2006, caregivers received a new tool for fighting pain, one that doesn’t require a prescription and has no risk of dependency. It’s a videogame called SnowWorld, and it’s the first immersive virtual world designed specifically for reducing pain.

The environment of SnowWorld is as far from hot as you can get: icy, snow-covered, and populated with penguins, snowmen, and woolly mammoths. Patients undergoing treatment for severe burns don a VR headset or look through a pair of goggles, and find themselves transported into this world where they can run around and toss snowballs at the inhabitants for as long as the PT session lasts. And, believe it or not, it gets results. Says University of Washington researcher Hunter Hoffman, who worked with combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,

What was encouraging was the ones that needed it the most showed the most pain reduction, so the patients that were in the most pain showed the most pain reduction from SnowWorld.”

The idea behind SnowWorld predates the game by a decade. It’s called immersive VR distraction, and it was co-developed in 1996 by Hoffman and Dr. David Patterson, head of the Division of Psychology of the University of Washington’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine. Dr. Patterson also works with patients at the university’s Harborview Burn Center, studying psychological techniques for reducing severe burn pain. According to Patterson, the concept is simple:

It takes a certain amount of attention to process pain. If you are able to put that attention elsewhere, there is less attention to process pain, and consequently, people will feel less pain.”

This is born out not only in interviews with patients, who universally report drastic pain reduction, but in MRI scans that clearly show less activity in the brain’s pain centers when physical rehab is combined with immersion into SnowWorld.

GQ Magazine just reported the case of First Lieutenant Sam Brown, horribly burned after his Humvee rolled over an IED in Iraq. His full story is here, but some of the descriptions are a bit gruesome, so those of a more delicate constitution might want to read the NPR story here.

Sergeant Oscar Libretto experienced a similar event in 2009, and you can find his story here.

These are only two of the hundreds of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who’ve returned after surviving one of the most horrific experiences a human being can endure. But survival is only the beginning of their struggle. Wound care and rehab is taxing and painful, both physically and mentally—on the servicemen and women, the caregivers, and their families. For all of them, the immersive distraction of videogames like SnowWorld is a nothing less than a godsend, improving recovery, providing relief from unimaginable suffering, and offering a glimpse—however fleeting—of a future beyond pain.

To learn more about the Harborview Burn Center, click here.

You can read about immersive VR for pain control here.

And you can watch a video of SnowWorld in action here.

As any William Gibson fan will tell you, it was only a matter of time.

Just yesterday, the Department of Defense announced that it’s developing virtual reality contact lenses to enhance the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) abilities of soldiers on the battlefield. The lenses, which fit over the eye exactly like standard contact lenses, contain miniature, full-color displays, on which digital images can be directly projected. Unlike a laptop, PDA or other handheld device, which places a screen between the user and his or her environment, wearers could watch these images and still have an unobstructed view of their surroundings, allowing them to react to events on the ground while receiving potentially critical intel through the lenses. According to DARPA, who’s working with Innovega iOptiks to create the lenses, they would

operate hands-free, provide similar or better magnification on-demand, while providing FOV [field-of-view] equal to that of the unaided eye.”

They would also cost less than existing equipment used for ISR activities, and would provide soldiers with a freedom of movement not possible with binoculars, night-vision goggles, and other traditional ISR gear. There’s an image of the lenses here.

Of course, this is hardly the U.S. military’s first foray into the realm of VR technology. In 2008, the U.S. Air Force built a simulated base in Second Life; in 2010, the Army posted details for a complex virtual world similar to Second Life’s massively multiplayer environment, and began courting a systems integrator to build it (InformationWeek reported the article here).

2011, though, saw a flurry of activity, with both the Army and the Navy exploring the potential of virtual worlds to train their personnel for a variety of battle exercises, from firing torpedoes to preparing for encounters with IEDs and other explosive devices—right down to the nature and damage of an explosion, including haptic (tactile) feedback systems that would simulate being hit with debris.

But what does this all mean, really? What are the larger implications?

Last year, I spoke with Rob Lindeman, a game design and technology professor in Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Department of Computer Science, and I asked him how far VR technology could go. Would it ever be possible to create a fully-immersive virtual world? Here’s what he had to say:

I think the answer is yes, and I think it’s going to be more Matrix-like than anything else. What I’ve found is that technology seems to be moving closer to the brain and bypassing more and more systems. So for instance there are these displays that draw images on the retina, so instead of showing you a display, it actually draws directly on your retina. So it bypasses the optics and it’s perfect resolution. There’s no pixelation, there’s actually no display, it’s literally drawing on it, so you have perfect resolution. And that’s one step closer to the brain. At some point, we’ll just be tapping into the optic nerve, tapping into the auditory nerve and just stimulating… sending nerve impulses to the brain. And then at some point we’ll start just tapping right into the area of the brain that we know and can tap into. And I think that’ll happen. I don’t know when it will happen. I don’t know what the motivation will be for it to happen, but I think it will happen.”

What seemed far-fetched and confined to the realms of science fiction less than 30 years ago is all but upon us. In another 30 years, we may be able to live much of our lives in a completely virtual world that’s indistinguishable from reality. Whether this turns out to be a boon or a curse will debated long after its inauguration. We can turn away in fear or face the future and embrace the possibilities. However, the history of technological progress has taught us that there’s no turning back: Once we have the means to create something, it’s a virtual certainty that we will. How we use it is up to us.

To read more about virtual reality contact lenses, click here.

This article talks about some of the next generation training tools being investigated by the DOD.

Here’s another article regarding the DOD and virtual worlds.

A similar article regarding the U.S. Navy’s virtual reality exploration is here.

The DOD has a special report with several articles about military virtual worlds here.

The railgun. Staple of sci-fi film and literature and the Holy Grail of videogame weaponry. Legendary for its destructive power, it uses electromagnetism to launch a solid projectile from a pair of metal rails with enough force to penetrate virtually any barrier and reduce an organic target into a mass of beautifully-rendered, digital goo. Also known as a mass driver or fuel rod gun (for its use of depleted Uranium slugs as ammo), a version of the railgun first appeared in the 1897 novel A Trip To Venus, in the guise of an electric device used to launch vehicles into space. Over the years, many variations have appeared across the sci-fi landscape, but it wasn’t until id Software’s first installment of the Quake series in the mid-‘90s that the railgun gained notoriety as a weapon of mass destruction (sorry for the pun, but it couldn’t be helped).

Where fiction begins, reality often follows: Scientists and inventors have toyed with designs for electromagnetic weapons and delivery mechanisms since 1918, and have even created small-scale, working models. However, the vast amount of energy required to power a full-size railgun confined them to the realms of imagination and speculation.

Until recently, that is. On January 31, 2008, the US Navy changed the game, firing a shell out of a prototype railgun at 2,520 m/s (for comparison, the M16 assault rifle’s muzzle velocity is a mere 930 m/s). Expected performance of the finished weapon (available to the Navy between 2020 and 2025) is nearly double that—an astonishing 5,800 m/s—and it’ll be able to hit a five-meter object at a distance of more than 370 km.

Why is this important? Railgun-fired projectiles pack more punch than traditional explosive-filled shells, and in a smaller size, which means you can carry more ammunition. Also, they’re not explosive, which eliminates the hazards of transporting a lot of volatile and dangerous ordnance around—good news for our servicemen and women.

However, and more to the point, it’s a convergence of videogame fiction and military reality. And it’s hardly the first. One of the most publicized examples is a game the US Army released in 2002 called America’s Army—the first videogame ever developed with military recruitment as its specific goal.

Built on the Unreal game engine (a very popular first-person shooter, or FPS), America’s Army immerses players in the world of the US Army—giving them a visceral and extremely accurate experience of life as a soldier. The portrayal of weapons and combat is highly realistic: you go limp after taking one or two hits, the next one finishes you. You’re also bound by the Army’s Rules of Engagement: shooting civilians or taking out one of your teammates lands you in a virtual Leavenworth.

America’s Army quickly became one of the most popular FPS games of the time, receiving high marks for its gameplay and mechanics. And it grew to be far more than its developers intended. Started as a PR campaign to build Army brand awareness among America’s youth, it became a valuable training tool both within and outside the armed forces. Soldiers about to deploy could play through customized scenarios to help prepare for their deployments, new recruits and seasoned veterans alike could run combat simulations, and ordinary civilians could learn how to save lives.

Yeah, you read that right. A videogame teaching people how to save lives. America’s Army isn’t just about combat. Those inclined to the Hippocratic arts can take on the role of combat medic, and learn skills critical to perform as a first responder. You can’t just jump into it, though—you first have to pass a virtual course based on actual, real-world medical training, covering topics like prioritizing casualties, controlling bleeding, recognizing and treating shock, and administering aid to non-breathing victims. Paxton Galvanek, an avid America’s Army player, put that training to use when he found himself first on the scene of a multi-victim car accident (read the full text here):

In the case of this accident, I evaluated the situation and placed priority on the driver of the car who had missing fingers. I then recalled that in section two of the medic training, I learned about controlled bleeding. I noticed that the wounded man had severe bleeding that he could not control. I used a towel as a dressing and asked the man to hold the towel on his wound and to raise his hand above his head to lessen the blood flow which allowed me to evaluate his other injuries which included a cut on his head.”

Okay, that’s all well and good, and I’m all for the Army teaching people how to heal others. But what about the darker reality?

It’s no secret that the US military has employed various first-person shooters as combat training tools, both to teach personnel how to work together (the Marines modified id Software’s Doom II to do just that) and to acclimate them to the job of killing. Does it work? No one knows for sure, and you’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. However, much as the media likes to blame youth violence on violent videogames, no research has ever been able to prove a link between them. In fact, during the same period that videogame popularity began to rise, incidents of juvenile violence have actually dropped. So it seems that violent videogames are not, in and of themselves, a cause for concern.

For me, the more problematic question centers around unmanned military drones. Without a doubt, they provide clear advantages over boots on the ground: it’s safer to conduct reconnaissance in hostile areas or clean up undetonated enemy ordnance with a remote-controlled robot, and they also allow you to run risky missions without putting lives on the line. But what about drone bombing attacks or search-and-destroy missions? Pilots control both air and ground vehicles with joysticks and other videogame-style controllers, and view the world through a screen and from a perspective that’s highly reminiscent of an FPS or combat flight simulator. Yes, this keeps our servicemen and women out of harm’s way—and it’s hard not to view that as a good thing, especially for those of us who have friends and family in the military—but does war-by-remote insulate us from the brutality of conflict?

Students of war have noted that the further away one is, the easier it is to kill someone. Hand-to-hand combat or knife fighting is intensely visceral: your opponent is right there, sweating, breathing. Taking his or her life is a matter of individual survival, and becomes a personal affair, with nothing separating the two of you. Put a firearm in your hands and target someone across a square, and you’re now a step removed from your victim. You’re still doing the killing, but it’s more distanced. Climb into a bomber and drop explosives on a target thousands of feet below, and now you don’t even see the victims. You’ve removed yourself another step. You still have to be there, though. There’s still some connection.

Now imagine sitting sit down at a computer, joystick or D-pad in hand. You’re controlling a drone vehicle that may be on another continent entirely. The images on the screen in front of you have no connection to your reality, to the world around you. Where you are is safe, removed from combat. And they’re just images. How hard is it to pull the trigger now?

Again, there are undeniable benefits, and I would never argue against protecting our troops. But as we increase the distance at which they can operate, as we remove them farther and farther from the destruction they create and the horrible reality of war, we should stop and ask ourselves this: are we sanitizing the business of killing, and making it easier to carry out?

For more on remote drones, check out this CNN article here

… and’s take here.

And for more about America’s Army, check out the official website here.

Picture this: you’re behind the wheel of a military Humvee on the road to Fallujah, your unit’s team leader in the seat next to you and half a squad of Marines in the back. Tensions are high: Iraq is still a hotbed of violence, you’re traveling a dangerous road, and everyone knows the risks. Still, nothing’s happened yet. You’re just beginning to relax when a roadside bomb—one of the infamous IEDs—rips through the truck with a deafening roar. Your team leader dies instantly, but you barely have time to notice because the Humvee’s now on its back. Screams sound from behind you. Looking back, you can see your team through the billowing smoke—and it’s not pretty. A Hollywood makeup artist with an unlimited budget and a taste for the macabre would have a hard time duplicating the scene. Some of the men are dead, the rest horribly wounded. There’s something burning in the back, noise and smoke are overwhelming. You need to do something, but what?

Try taking off the VR headset.

Fortunately for you, this was only a simulation. But for many US servicemen and women, variations on the above scene are all too real. And for those who survive, healing from the physical wounds may be the easy part.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has always been a serious problem, and it’s getting worse: Iraq and Afghanistan are unique in the history of US military conflict (length of deployments, faster than usual redeployment, etc.), and seem to be contributing to growing mental health problems. According to Steven Huberman, PhD, dean of Touro College’s School of Social Work, in New York City,

Since the deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan started… we’re seeing a significant difference from other military involvements, in the number and types of injuries, the types of deployments, the nature of the military force, and the impact on families and kids.”

PTSD is often hard to identify, always difficult to treat, and has far-reaching impacts on sufferers and their families. In order to recover, victims have to confront the memories and emotions surrounding the traumatic event and eventually work through them. Ignoring them only creates more severe problems. The trick is confronting the memories safely.

Enter Virtual Iraq. Virtual Iraq is an immersive, 3-D virtual world that allows a PTSD patient to re-live a traumatic situation in a safe environment. Based on the videogame Full Spectrum Warrior, Virtual Iraq places the patient into a therapist-controlled combat scenario. During the scenario, the therapist exposes the veteran to the sights and sounds of battle at a level that he or she is emotionally capable of handling. As the patient progresses, the therapist can turn up the heat, enhancing the realism of the scene by delivering additional sounds and images—jets flying over, insurgents coming out of palm groves, IEDs, explosions—into the environment. The videogame provides a safe environment for the patient to confront their emotions and ultimately gain control over the PTSD.

Says Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California—and Virtual Iraq’s developer,

VR puts a person back into the sights, sounds, smells, feelings of the scene… You know what the patient’s seeing, and you can help prompt them through the experience in a very safe and supportive fashion. As you go through the therapy, the patient may be invited to turn on the motor. Eventually, as they tell their story, you find out that it wasn’t just a vehicle in front, it was a vehicle with five other friends… The guy that died was going to be discharged in two months. You start to see a rich depth of story.”

This type of treatment—called virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET)—isn’t limited to combat vets, though. There are virtual environments for treating much more common fears, including flying, heights, storms and public speaking. Virtually Better—the company behind Virtual Iraq—also has other environments designed around specific traumatic events: Vietnam, Hurricane Katrina and the attacks on 9/11/2001.

Here’s Skip Rizzo again, this time in his roles as Associate Director – Institute for Creative Technologies, and Research Professor – Psychiatry and Gerontology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles:

Results from uncontrolled trials and case reports are difficult to generalize from and we are cautious not to make excessive claims based on these early results. However, using accepted diagnostic measures, 80% of the treatment completers in our initial VRET sample showed both statistically and clinically meaningful reductions in PTSD, anxiety and depression symptoms, and anecdotal evidence from patient reports suggested that they saw improvements in their everyday life situations. These improvements were also maintained at three-month post-treatment follow-up.”

Perhaps the best testament to the effectiveness of Virtual Iraq, though, comes from this 22-year-old Marine injured during combat operations in Iraq:

By the end of therapy I felt more like one person. Toward the end, it was pretty easy to talk about what had happened over there. We went over all the hot spots in succession. I could talk about it without breaking down. I wasn’t holding anything back. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted.”

This young man—and there are many others—gained his life back in large part through the healing power of a videogame.

Maybe videogames do have something positive to offer after all.

A quick Google search for Virtual Iraq will give you more information than you ever wanted, but here’s a selection of the best links:

Here’s an article from the New York Times Health section.

The New Yorker magazine published an article on Virtual Iraq here.

Check out this article about Virtual Iraq from Veterans Today.

NPR has a similar story here.

The US Army’s official web page has a story on VRET and PTSD here.

Here’s Fast Company’s take.

A discussion of Videogames and PTSD is here.

And you can find Virtually Better’s website here.