Unreal 2003 Assist Training U.S. TroopsThe popular computer game Unreal Tournament 2003 invited players to become the "ultimate techno-gladiator of the future," blasting foes with "a smorgasbord of ferocious, flesh-chewing weaponry."
Now, researchers are turning the game into a tool for U.S. troops in Iraq — not to make them fiercer in combat, but to sharpen language and cultural skills that could help them avoid a potentially deadly confrontation.
Epic Games, the North Carolina software company that created Unreal Tournament, also distributes modification tools that lets users change the game's world into anything from a futuristic space arena to a realm of blimp-borne buccaneers.
But no one had ever tried to make a nonviolent modification until a team from the Information Sciences Institute from the University of Southern California came along.
Hannes Hogni Vilhjalmsson, an Icelander working at the institute, has spent the past nine years studying nonverbal communication. His specialty is recreating body language in 3D computer programs.
Vilhjalmsson is helping create a program called the Tactical Language Training System, and one of its first products is known as Tactical Iraqi. Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration, the modified game aims to train U.S. troops how to communicate effectively with Iraqi citizens.
Instead of wielding a bio-sludge gun, Tactical Iraqi players use their verbal skills to negotiate a virtual Baghdad populated with numerous Arabic speakers. Missions range from entering a cafe and locating the owner to securing medical aid for an injured comrade.
Trainees wear microphone headsets, and the game analyzes their pronunciation and inflection. A poor accent and tone will make the locals irate and unwilling to help out. Thanks to Vilhjalmsson, these locals also express their feelings through body language, crossing their arms when upset or placing a hand over their heart as an earnest greeting.
Players must take into account their own body language, as well. Upon entering a building, for example, players must remove their hats or risk offending the patrons.
The researchers faced some unusual problems converting Unreal Tournament into a training tool.
"It was actually quite difficult to find information on how to eliminate all weapons," says Vilhjalmsson.
W. Lewis Johnson, director of the institute's Center for Advanced Research and Technology for Education, recalled that "in one of the earlier versions we got rid of the weapons, but one of the testers discovered that if he stomped on other characters, they would explode in blood and guts."
It took the development team almost eight months to remove all violence from the Unreal Tournament 2003 engine. But now that they've successfully expunged the killing, the team faces new challenges of a decidedly non-combative nature.
"We're developing and deploying advanced tech for speech recognition and artificial intelligence, and we need to make sure that works," said Johnson. "We also need to make sure that this game-oriented approach is an effective learning method."
In addition, "we are now aiming to put into place the technical support, the delivery mechanisms, the things we need to do to support larger numbers of customers," said Johnson. "Next month, we plan a more serious trial where platoon-sized units will be going though it, and we will be measuring how much they learn from doing that."
Currently, Tactical Iraqi is undergoing limited tests within the military. If all goes well, the system could be in full deployment by the end of the year.