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Fighting with words: bridging language and culture gaps through games.

Computer scientist W. Lewis Johnson slipped on his headset and logged on to his latest creation. In a virtual Iraqi city, his military-camouflaged character began to negotiate the alleyways, streets and marketplaces. But unlike a typical first-person shooter video game, his avatar carried no M-16 rifles or hand grenades. He came armed only with his knowledge of Arabic language and customs.

In this PC-based game, Tactical Iraqi Language Trainer, advancing levels requires street smarts and cultural savvy, rather than the usual hand-eye coordination skills. Players run through a number of non-combat scenarios and must communicate with civilian characters to reach mission objectives, such as locating a local leader.

During a demonstration at the Serious Games Summit in Arlington, Va., Johnson approached two men sitting outside a cafe. Before uttering Arabic greetings into the microphone, he used the keyboard to take off his character's sunglasses and selected the palm-over-heart gesture. Trust meters located in the upper right hand corner of the screen reflected how well--or how poorly--he was doing.

Johnson then purposely neglected to introduce himself properly and offended the civilians, who grew angry and tossed curses at him in Arabic. Eventually, using the correct phrases and cultural knowledge, Johnson was able to mitigate the situation and succeed in locating the whereabouts of the local leader.

"This is an example of how within this game world, we can create various kinds of situations that learners have to deal with and prepare them for what they might possibly face when they show up in a foreign country," said Johnson, CEO of Tactical Language Training, LLC, which developed the game.

Game technologies now are being harnessed to teach troops how to communicate in the languages and cultures to which they will deploy. The need to develop such games is acute. Among the findings of the Iraq Study Group, Americans' lack of language and cultural understanding was pointed out as being "detrimental to the U.S. mission" in Iraq.

The ISG report recommended that the "highest possible priority" be given to professional language proficiency and culture training for officers and personnel about to be assigned to Iraq. But for the U.S. military, that task has been easier said than done.

"I can't stress enough the difficulty of trying to train 18 to 21-year-old Marines on Iraqi culture and language," said 1st Lt. Nathan Dmochowski, project officer for constructive training systems at the Marine Corps training command.

He served two tours in Iraq, the first in 2004 and the second from July 2005 to February 2006. For the first tour, his unit received training in formal Arabic before deploying to Iraq, where the Marines discovered such language lessons didn't prepare them well for operations.

"With language and culture, I think, to train Marines in a classroom setting is the wrong way to go," Dmochowski told an audience during a training and simulation conference in December.

Being in the Iraqi environment and interacting with the local population proved to be far more instructive.

"I noticed a big improvement in the Marines in cultural awareness at that point because they had no other options," he said.

Replicating that native-speaking environment before troops set foot in a foreign country has been an expensive challenge for the Defense Department, which has invested millions of dollars in recreating Iraqi villages and hiring Arabic-speaking role players to fill them at some of its largest training centers.

To reach out to forces earlier in their pre-deployment cycles, the Pentagon is turning to the same technologies it has come to rely upon for training its troops in kinetic warfare: video games.

Tactical Iraqi Language Trainer teaches Arabic and culture through three methods: an interactive skill builder course, an arcade game and a mission game. The skill builder helps players learn new words and hone their language abilities. In the arcade game, players issue basic commands and directions in Arabic to maneuver a Pac-Man-like character around a board. They then advance to the mission game, which tests their comprehensive language and cultural knowledge by immersing them in scenarios ranging from searching a house to civil affairs operations.

"The mission game is a concrete concept for understanding why you're learning the language that you're learning, and it helps with recall," said Johnson.

The company released its first version of Tactical Iraqi in August and distributed 2,000 copies to the military. Several military units, including those at Fort Riley, where Army military advisers are being trained, have incorporated the game into their training curriculum. "That's becoming a model. A lot of other units are paying attention and looking at that," said Johnson. The Marine Corps has adopted the trainer into its language and culture training program, he added. It is part of the Corps' deployable virtual training environment, a suite of 33 laptops equipped with numerous trainers and simulations, said Dmochowski. The Marines are working on sending the laptops to each of its major bases in Iraq, he said. One suite also will be deployed to a ship so that Marines can train en route to theater, he added.

"This has come a long way. I wish it was there three years ago when I was trying to do this stuff," said Dmochowski.

Johnson said his company is developing an expanded version of the Iraqi language trainer, which will focus on additional missions, such as cordon and search, and manning security checkpoints. It also is adding content for missions involving patrolling, crowd control and training Iraqi security forces.

Beyond Tactical Iraqi, the company has developed a tactical French trainer for use in sub-Saharan Africa, which will prepare U.S. special operators to train military forces there. That particular game is set in Chad, and game play is similar to Tactical Iraqi, with its heavy emphasis on learning to deal diplomatically with locals and establishing rapport with them. A prototype will be ready this month, said Johnson. In addition, the company is putting out a new version of its Pashto trainer for Afghanistan, which the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force will begin training on this month. The Marine Corps mountain warfare center in Bridgeport, Calif., will start trial evaluations of the software. Based upon feedback from the center, the company will further improve the speech recognizer and software.

Foreign militaries have expressed interest in attaining these language trainers, said Johnson. As a result, the company is in the process of obtaining Department of Commerce approval for distribution to North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations as well as those in Asia.

NATO countries are especially interested in the Pashto trainer, he said.

The Tactical Iraqi Language Trainer was developed at the University of Southern California with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "DARPA had a general sense that experiential learning and game technology might be potentially valuable here," said Johnson.

The idea for using game technology to train languages was spawned when a DARPA training program manager heard an anecdote about a Special Forces colonel riding into an Afghanistan town on horses in early 2002.

"He could not speak to his handlers. He couldn't tell what they were thinking, from their gestures, whether they were excited or angry, hopeful or violent. So the guy held his finger close to the trigger," said Ralph Chatham, program manager at DARPA. "I asked myself whether it would be possible to make sure no one had to ride completely blind into a foreign culture again."

The answer to his question came from a research group at the USC, in the form of the Tactical Iraqi Language Trainer, which was built upon Epic Games' commercial development software, Unreal Engine, with actionable speech recognition technology. After developing the prototype, the USC group showed it to the Marines, who were eager to get their hands on it. Tactical Language Training, LLC, was founded shortly after to turn the prototype into a product.

With the Iraqi Arabic and French versions completed, Johnson said there have been various proposals of additional languages that the military would like his company to produce starting this year. But nothing's been finalized on that just yet, he said.

Meanwhile, the company also is exploring other avenues for nonmilitary use of their language trainer. In addition to French, English as a second language is something they're very keen on, said Johnson.

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Title Annotation:new computer wargame 'Tactical Iraqi Language Trainer' introduced
Comment:Fighting with words: bridging language and culture gaps through games.(new computer wargame 'Tactical Iraqi Language Trainer' introduced)
Author:Jean, Grace
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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