The U.S. Army has long used video games to train troops in conventional warfare. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are anything but conventional. US troops fighting insurgencies need a unique skill set, one they're learning from a simulator that resembles the popular game SimCity. Kim LeMasters, creative director of the Institute for Creative Technologies, describes how UrbanSim works.
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BOB GARFIELD: While the American news organizations still in Iraq struggle to cover the war, the American military continues its struggle to fight it. The U.S. Army has long used video games like tank simulators and first person shooters to train troops in conventional on-the-ground warfare, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are anything but conventional. U.S. troops are fighting insurgencies, and in order to learn the different set of skills that calls for, officers have been using a simulator that resembles the computer game SimCity. Just like its commercial counterpart, UrbanSim has users build roads, buildings and utility grids, but unlike SimCity there are suicide bombs to avoid, Jihadist insurgents to fend off and local citizens to protect and win over. Kim LeMasters is the creative director of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, which developed UrbanSim. He says some members of the military refer to the project as a game, but -
KIM LeMASTERS: I use the word “game” lightly, because there’s no shoot-‘em-ups, there’s nothing going on in this other than really a design that helps people understand what second and third order effects are all about.
BOB GARFIELD: Define please second and third order effects.
KIM LeMASTERS: Second and third order effects are the consequences, either seen or unforeseen, of an action that you take. So, for example, I decide to put in a hydroelectric dam at Village X. What I didn't foresee was that Village Y was very, very upset and jealous that I built one for Village X, and Village Y therefore became a safe harbor for insurgents. Here, I think I'm doing something very, very good and it can have a very negative effect. That’s really what it’s all about - what are those seen and unforeseen consequences of any action that you take.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me what it looks like. What’s the interface?
KIM LeMASTERS: You’re looking at basically a bird’s-eye view down onto an environment, called an area of operation. You have an enormous amount of user feedback that’s coming back. The military uses something they call “lines of effort” to describe how they are making progress and stability. And lines of effort can be about governance. It can, in fact, be about infrastructure. It can be about how the population feels about you. So that as somebody is playing the game, they're literally watching in real time how these lines of effort are being completed.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess ultimately this is about pacifying towns and cities, not merely by shooting the enemy but also by stabilizing the environment. In the modern Army in Iraq, how much of the counterinsurgency involves bullets and explosives, how much involves education and police?
KIM LeMASTERS: The central tenet of counterinsurgency strategy is that the population is the center of gravity. So your entire job while you are in the host nation is, in fact, to get that population to be on your side, to understand that you are providing security, that you’re providing infrastructure, that what you’re doing is good. If you get them on your side, that’s the win.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder how resistant the modern soldier is to the whole idea of counterinsurgency techniques that do involve working with the populations, as opposed to just killing the bad guy. Is the modern Army officer accepting of these simulations and the strategy that the simulations are training for?
KIM LeMASTERS: Very much so. It becomes quite apparent that the hammer does not always work, that, you know, you've got to drink tea, as well. Their job first is force protection. I mean, am I taking care of my soldiers? And the only way to do that is if I'm prosecuting stability as much as I am prosecuting offense or defense.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any risk in preparing officers the way UrbanSim does, that they will become sort of, oh, I don't know, overconfident in believing that they've got all of the variables well understood, leaving them more vulnerable to a situation they reach on the ground that they fail to understand because it wasn't in the game?
KIM LeMASTERS: The game goes to an extreme to make sure that the players understand that they are not learning, you know, here’s the way it must be done every single time. Rather, they are being challenged to understand completely that when they take an action, have they done, to the best of their ability, an anticipatory take on what’s going to happen? So, do I understand I'm going to have second and third order effects? I might even have fourth order effects on what’s going on. I don't always know what they're going to be, but how well can I begin to plan for what might be. And then finally, be prepared for that one order of effect that occurs that you've never thought of? So we bend over backwards to make sure that we're not trying to train them and, congratulations, you've played UrbanSim five times, go off to Afghanistan and be successful. Unh-unh [NEGATIVE], not what we're doing.
BOB GARFIELD: Obviously, this is grossly oversimplistic, but it sounds to me that above all what you take from your experience with UrbanSim is something like understanding that the reality on the ground is something like a spreadsheet, and every field you fill in affects every other field.
KIM LeMASTERS: You've got it, that’s exactly right.
BOB GARFIELD: So, tell me again why we're losing these wars.
KIM LeMASTERS: Well, see, the way we'd win is if we can get all of these countries that, that we're involved with, if we can get them to play UrbanSim, then we're set. No, I -
[BOB LAUGHS] I, I think the ground truth is always different than what you want it to be, and that’s just the case of it. And the other thing, too, is remember that the bad guys are very crafty, and they are bound and determined to try to create second and third order effects that you didn't think of. And that’s what they want to do. They want disruption. They want to control the space on you. So it’s a very tough environment that these soldiers find themselves in.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Kim, thank you very much.
KIM LeMASTERS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be on the show.
BOB GARFIELD: Kim LeMasters is creative director of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California.