Why the Army Doesn’t Train on XBoxes
By Michael Peck posted on www.Wired.com
Right now, every military command post and every training center is packed with PCs. In the future, many of those machines might be replaced with game consoles – if the armed forces can ever work out their disagreements with the console-makers.
Why consoles? For starters, it’s a tool that young recruits are very familiar with. The military – especially the Army and Marines – has turned to video games because live training is often complicated and expensive. Surveys show that young people now spend more time gaming on consoles than on PCs. It’s the older (well, at least over 30) crowd who prefer to play games on computers, and that crowd is likely to shrink over time. If the Pentagon is going to rely on games, then it makes sense to use a platform designed for games, as well as one that your audience is familiar with.
Another attraction is the hardware. Consoles seem to offer some advantages over computers when it comes to training games. The Nintendo Wii controller (Microsoft and Sony are developing similar hardware) allows a training game to incorporate body movement. A Wii-like console could be useful for individualized physical training for soldiers who need to shed a few pounds, or for practicing individual combat drills when there is no training range available. And then there is the relatively straightforward configuration of consoles, compared to the nightmare that military game developers face in getting games to work on the mishmash of video and sound cards in the government’s potpourri of computers.
Yet the real beauty of consoles, as far as the Army’s game gurus are concerned, isn’t really technical sophistication. In an interview for Training & Simulation Journal, Army officials charged with developing training games told me that what they really like about consoles is the price. An Xbox 360 can be purchased for less than $200, while a government computer can cost a thousand. The day is coming when every member of the U.S. armed forces will have their own computer (or console) for e-learning and training simulations. Finding a cheaper device can save a lot of bucks.
So will the Army go out and buy the Xbox? Not quite. Roger Smith, chief technology officer for PEO STRI, the Army command responsible for purchasing training equipment, claims that Microsoft refused to sell him the consoles. Smith told me that he discussed acquiring the Xbox with Microsoft representatives at a trade show back in 2006. According to Smith, the Microsoft executives said they would neither sell the Xbox 360 nor license XNA game development tools to the Army for three reasons:
- Microsoft was afraid that the military would buy up lots of Xbox 360s, but would buy only one game for each of them, so MS wouldn’t make much money off of the games.
- that a big military purchase would create a shortage of Xbox 360s.
- that if the Xbox became an Army training device, it would taint its reputation. Microsoft was concerned that “do we want the Xbox 360 to be seen as having the flavor of a weapon? Do we want Mom and Dad knowing that their kid is buying the same game console as the military trains the SEALs and Rangers on?” Smith told me during an interview for Training & Simulation Journal.
It’s hard to believe that Microsoft would risk a public relations disaster by refusing to sell products that would save the lives of American soldiers during time of war. So I contacted Microsoft, and received an email response, or rather a response relayed through their outside PR agency Edelman. Microsoft spokesman David Dennis said he had no knowledge of Smith’s conversations with Microsoft representatives, but that the Army…
“has multiple avenues to pursue building simulations. They can team up with a professional Xbox 360 publisher and development studio that have the expertise to assist them with development of a complex simulation. In fact, the Army has successfully done this in the past by working with publishers such as Ubisoft (’America’s Army’) and THQ (’Full Spectrum Warrior’). Or, if the Army prefers to build a simulation without engaging game development professionals, Microsoft has also enabled independent developers to create games for the Xbox 360 using the XNA Game Studio development tools, and deploy and play them on retail Xbox 360 consoles using an XNA Premium Creator’s Club membership.”
Microsoft’s answer didn’t address the question of whether the company would be willing to sell large quantities of Xbox 360s to the Army. Nor do I have any idea how classified military training simulations would work on the XNA Creator’s Club, which features titles such as “Rocket Fart.” Yet Microsoft at least seems receptive.
Problem solved, right? Wrong. Now Smith says the Army might not be interested in the Xbox after all. “Our initial enthusiasm when Xbox and XNA were new products has cooled. At this time we have no active or anticipated projects or R&D that are looking at using either of those products for military simulations. I would be happy to reopen these discussions if Microsoft is interested in selling these products to our community.”
One more step forward, one more step back in the long march to bring game consoles into the military.