Virtual culture training for soldiers

Thanks to a link from ACM TechNews, I’ve been reading that folks at the University of Texas have been doing some research into the use of virtual worlds for training soldiers (click for the article). The focus of the training is dealing with cultural situations. I’m not a particularly well-travelled person myself, but I can imagine that even the slightest differences in cultural interpretation of verbal and non-verbal cues can become major issues in a conflict scenario.

I must admit that I’m not entirely convinced about the long-term value of this kind of virtual training. As a games player and programmer I know that there are often challenges of realism in virtual settings. The uncanny valley means that the closer you get to a technically realistic virtual character, the stranger and less believable it becomes. That is, the less you are forced to suspend your disbelief, the less forgiving you become of the flaws which remain.

Would the training system suffer from this? I believe there is a risk that it will either become so unrealistic that it’s deceptive and unhelpful, or it will become so hyper-realistic that it’s impractically weird and/or specific for work in the field.

One could make the very reasonable argument that some training is better than nothing, and that going virtual will cut costs and time, meaning more soldiers can get trained. But when it comes to defusing dangerous situations, saving lives, and averting armed conflict, care needs to be taken that the training supplied does not have an overall negative impact.

Having said all that, I think it should be quite interesting to see what comes out of this research. It sounds somewhat similar to Forterra’s Olive platform, but in an academic setting rather than commercial. That means we’ll hopefully see more output to the research community.

I wonder what scope there is for integration into training systems like the one originally behind the Full Spectrum Warrior games? That was aimed more at tactical training, but surely tactics and culture go hand-in-hand. The gamer in me imagines future mainstream video games where cultural awareness is critical to the success of an exciting (and otherwise action-packed) mission. It seems entirely realistic, given the mix of action and personal interactions in games like the Mass Effect trilogy.

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