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The latest video game for training U.S. soldiers emphasizes social skills over combat – and even has a built-in editing function.

In Iraq and other conflict zones with unfamiliar cultures, U.S. soldiers can find it hard to identify threats and targets amid the hubbub of everyday life. Yet their interactions with locals yield far more information than intelligence officers could collect on their own – hence the emerging military doctrine that “every soldier is a sensor.”

Soldiers inspect a car in ES3’s virtual Irag. (Courtesy of the U.S. Army Simulator Training and Technology Center)

Now the U.S. Army Research and Development Command’s Simulation and Training Technology Center in Orlando, FL, has translated that doctrine into a video game. The purpose: to help soldiers learn to recognize signs of danger or opportunity in the field. Teaching through video games is nothing new for the army. Full Spectrum Warrior, a “first-person shooter” for PCs and video game consoles, was originally developed as an army training aid. But the Every Soldier a Sensor Simulation (ES3) is heavier on social skills than on combat. “In our environment of asymmetric warfare, you’re trying to win the hearts and minds of people,” says Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Compton, director of military operations at the Orlando center. “The last thing you want to do is to pull your trigger.”

Like many commercial games, ES3 unfolds from a first-person point of view, with the player assigned a mission – searching for a hidden bomb, for example. But an ES3 player must simultaneously maintain a rapport with the locals. Players are evaluated on how well they gather and report information.

ES3 runs on almost any computer and can be customized by soldiers themselves. It comes with a built-in editing program that allows soldiers to upload digital photos of real-life details – say, an undocumented style of Iraqi dress – to the army’s online ES3 network. If administrators approve these additions, they are incorporated into future play.

In the coming months, ES3 will be modified to include a sort of built-in language trainer, which will familiarize soldiers with common Iraqi phrases and symbols. “These aren’t games,” says Compton. “They’re a new type of digital training.”

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