New Boot Camp Tool: Xbox-Style 3D Video Games

Does Uncle Sam need a few good gamers?

Sailors-to-be are jumping on a vessel to take control of floods, fires and massive casualties -- all while sitting in a computer lab or on a laptop in their bunks. The recruits say it's akin to playing a few rounds on their Xbox or Playstation; their instructors say they're learning.

Whatever you call it, just don't try to pry it from their hands.

“A lot of my shipmates loved it. We didn’t want to stop playing,” recruit Shaunna Edwards told Edwards said the game reminds her of the popular game Fallout 3, where the mission is to protect Washington, D.C., from a nuclear blow in a bleak and distant future.

But this isn't a game and the point isn’t to entertain the recruits. It's a 3D virtual training system, released by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in Arlington, Va. The names of the games that make it up are simple, based on the training simulations they offer: flood control, fire control, mass causality. The system was built to help train recruits, getting them ready for on-board training -- damage control, to be precise.

“It catches things like reminding you to close water-tight integrity doors behind you, making sure the ship stays afloat,” recent boot camp graduate Travis Osborne told Fail at your mission in the game and lives can be lost and damage done to the ship -- just what would happen at sea.

Dr. Ray Perez, a program officer at ONR, reports the recruits are performing at high levels quicker and stronger, thanks to the training system.

“Playing this game 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the student, prior to practicing on a full-scale ship, they not only completed the tasks 50 percent faster, and they performed them 50 percent better,” he said.

Realistic training is essential, Perez told, because 80 percent of all new recruits have never been on a vessel.

“It gives them direction of what the vessel looks like," he said, and answers the recruits' most common questions: “What’s starboard? What’s port?” It also forces recruits to navigate the ship aggressively -- as in a real emergency, there’s no dilly-dallying in the game.

“The game is in real time. It helps you manage your time,” added Edwards.

And no, it wasn’t 3D Realms or Activision that put together the system. A team from such disparate locations as UCLA, the University of Central Florida, Raytheon and BB&N Technologies developed the software.

Osborne said he got much more out of the virtual training than he would have from reading about it in his Naval classes.

“I felt much [more] prepared for the simulation training -- it was very real,” he said, explaining that every scenario was different. “It catches things that you forget to do so that the ship can stay afloat.”

Beyond gaming, ONR uses similar virtual technology for other types of training. Since 2008, they’ve been using digital tutors to increase recruits’ reading comprehension, for example.

Many recruits come from underachieving high schools; many couldn’t read up to the required eighth grade level.

“We found this was an issue,” Perez said, explaining that manuals recruits must become familiar with are written at the eighth grade level. With 40 hours of virtual instruction, a recruit can move up two grade levels in reading comprehension, he said.

The Navy hopes their successful program is implemented in public schools. Perez described it as individualized instruction, so recruits can proceed at their pace and take exams when they are ready.

“After entering answers, they are provided with feedback,” Perez said. This way, they are successful and move onto the next lesson when they have mastered the prior one.

Next up for the program: digital math tutors. With a greater background in math, recruits can move up in the ranks, possibly towards careers as nuclear engineers or electronics techs. And Super Mario Bros. never had that promise.