National Simulation Center champions serious videogames to train and educate

Games for Training (GFT) tools and products are key training enablers identified in the newly published U.S. Army Training Concept.

By Mary Gregerson, PhD, Marco Conners, and Shane Gibbons

Gaming is not always fun and, well, games—sometimes serious gaming has important outcomes with learning (education), skill building (training), or health as goals. Gaming is a $40 billion industry. The vital hub for Department of Defense gaming research and development for education and training is the TRADOC Capability Manager, Gaming (TCM Gaming) at the US Army’s National Simulation Center (NSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

TCM Gaming is the centralized planner, manager, and integrator for all Gaming capabilities development for the US Army.

Cutting edge applications grounded in scientific design and evaluation characterize the NSC past, present, and future serious gaming initiatives. Games for Training (GFT) tools and products are key training enablers identified in the newly published U.S. Army Training Concept. GFT is universally accepted, cost efficient, and a highly effective training capability.

Serious games repurpose the entertainment impetus of fun games for other targeted outcomes. In amusement games, entertainment is an end in and of itself. Serious games capitalize on the motivational drive reflexively emanating from enjoyment of the game playing activity, which becomes incidental to another primary aim. In serious games enjoyment recedes into background while learning/training/health enhancement takes the foreground.

In choosing a game design, serious game developers must consider many design aspects, including single versus multiplayer gameplay. Single player games are likely to facilitate individual learning such as knowledge (facts, understandings, and procedures), cognitive skills (reasoning, memorization, and planning), and attitudes (disposition toward others, ideas, or institutions). Multiplayer games are more likely to orient the player toward social learning which includes communication, collaboration, and negotiation skills (Harteveld & Beckebrede, 2011). Although a game designer is likely to see learning gains with either format, the learning process is best facilitated by the appropriate format.

The broad field of serious gaming includes the NSC training/ education aims and other serious gaming efforts. For instance, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Games for Health intersects video games and health for improving health and health care (see their YouTube channel, Flickr , and Pioneering Ideas blog (also Pioneer (675)). Historically, psychologist Pam Kato and the nonprofit company Hope Labs established in 2006 the gold standard for scientifically based design and evaluation of their serious game Re-mission. This psychoeducational tool promotes medication adherence in children being treated for cancer, by nanobot Roxie (representing medicine) using her weapons to aggressively shoot and kill cancer cells. Aggression was a good tool to overcome a health adversary. As of 2008, more than 126,000 copies of English, Spanish, or French versions of Re-mission had been distributed in 81 countries worldwide.

Complementing the Re-mission repurposing of aggression toward health aims, contouring aggression for pro-social ends of protection and immersive training also characterizes the Army’s serious gaming, which has two arms—training and education. The NSC training arm has presented games for First Person Shooter/Thinker while the education arm focuses on providing serious games that instruct in negotiation skills, language training, biometrics and forensics, and moral-ethical training. NSC efforts include partnering with the local elementary and secondary school programs who recently received a grant for integrating serious games into the classroom curriculum.

Squire (2005) suggested gaming has the potential to aid students for whom traditional education practices are simply not working, possibly because the traditional classroom does not appeal to the learning styles of students. Prensky’s (2001) concept of the “digital native,” those born into a world saturated with digital technologies, fittingly describes most students in both the K-12 and university classrooms. They think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors—for them learning is a nonlinear and active process (Prensky, 2001). Serious games have the potential to appeal to digital natives learning process in ways the traditional classroom cannot.

TCM Gaming, through a MilGaming Portal and a Community of Practice Forum, provides downloads, updates, patches, a repository of scenarios, models, and other content focused on customer support and extending best practices. This innovative approach saves the Army millions of dollars in fielding, software distribution, etc., while providing a professional forum where users can exchange ideas, content, and solutions to training and education challenges. The games that fall under the purview of the NSC as part of the Army’s Games for Training (GFT) program of record are in Figure 1.

TCM Gaming has adopted a “leasing” approach to acquisition of the specific gaming tools and enablers to keep gaming affordable. Gaming innovation occurs on a cycle of 6 months or less. TCM Gaming coordinates with their material developer PEO STRI, contracts for vendors to deliver a commercial off-the-shelf product (COTS), and improves it to fit Army training or education requirements. The government takes the same approach for its off-the-shelf products (GOTS); however the cost for the GOTS approach is usually greatly reduced as the government has already procured or developed the solution or tool that TCM Gaming seeks.

Regardless of the approach used, TCM Gaming re-initiates a fair and open competition about every three years in order to take advantage of industry innovation and changing requirements. Products are funded in three ways: (a) GFT program dollars, (b) other government agencies and require no additional funding, and (c) other government proponents and are usually focused on providing niche or focused games to a smaller training audience.

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Some popular games for training and education films in the current GFT portfolio include the following:

MORAL COMBAT : A 3D first person ethics training game using a series of challenging ethical scenarios to stimulate and evolve the moral working self.

ELECT BiLAT : A 3D software simulation that provides an immersive and compelling training environment to practice skills in conducting meetings and negotiations in a specific cultural context

TACTICAL LANGUAGE: This suite of Tactical Language and Culture Training System programs based on Rosetta Stone software are self-paced interactive “serious games” that enable rapid and sustained learning of foreign languages and cultures.

Video Creation Tool: A CNN-like reporting and media function delivers proponent POI, staff rides, lessons learned, and doctrine in an exercise.

VBS2 v 1.5: A 3D first-person platform providing realistic, geospecific, semi-immersive environments.

VBS2 FIRES: An advanced call-for-fire “Plug-In” for VBS2 that simulates artillery, naval gunfire support, mortars, and MLRS to a high level of detail.

URBANSIM: A PC-based virtual training for practicing the art of battle command in complex counterinsurgency and stability operations to maintain stability, fight insurgency, reconstruct the civil infrastructure, and prepare for transition.

Future developments include games that train or educate soldiers and leaders in:

a. Suicide Prevention and Resiliency

b. Counseling Techniques

c. Human Dimension Modeling

The Suicide Prevention and Resiliency and Counseling Techniques are currently under development for use by soldiers within the next year. Human Dimension Modeling (HDM) is initially focused on an avatar that represents the actual individual Soldier’s capabilities such as marksmanship, fitness scores, height, weight, and BMI. This capability forces leaders to make decisions based upon the actual preparedness level of their soldiers, teams, squads, and platoons, thus forcing a more realistic military decision making process. HDM is currently undergoing field-testing in anticipation of a release in the middle of 2013.


Squire, K. D. (2005b). Changing the game: What happens when video games enter the classroom? Innovate, 1(6). Retrieved on October 19, 2012 from http://www. = article&id = 82.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5),1-6

Harteveld, C., & Bekebrede, G. (2011). Learning in single- versus multiplayer games: The more the merrier? Simulation & Gaming: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 41(3), 316-340.