Digital hurt locker: 'Serious' video games are the first stop for soldiers learning how to find bombs


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The Independent Tech

Playing with the Xbox controller and focusing on the flatscreen that dominates Bob Stone's office, onlookers would be forgiven for thinking we are messing about in a teenager's bedroom.

Action Men scale the shelves, a robot poster hangs on the wall and on the desk Daleks sit side-by-side with a model of David Tennant. Stone indicates a miniature machine gun in a British Army Action Man's hands. "I fired one of those. It kicks down."

But we are not, technically, just "playing". Stone is the chair of interactive multimedia systems and director of the four-person human interface technologies (HIT) team at the University of Birmingham, and he makes serious games. That is, games with a serious purpose, entertainment is secondary. There are several groups making serious games, but Stone's is the only one with a Ministry of Defence (MoD) contract. He is currently working on virtual bomb-disposal scenarios to prepare security personnel for the Olympic Games next year. The team's research handbook recommends that scenarios related to the event "should be considered with some urgency", so the MoD has commissioned backdrops for the game including a rural area with a forest, an aircraft and, notably, a stadium.

In the game, counter-terrorism trainees look for the tell-tale signs of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), question witnesses and police officers, create cordons (the size of which depends on the power of the possible blast) and then use a bomb-disposal robot to disarm the device. The bomb is in a different place each time you play: in the boot of a car, a skip or even a Scooby-Doo backpack, plus numerous other hiding places that Stone insists can't be mentioned here.

Despite the toys, Stone takes the work very seriously. Not only has he shot a machine gun in the name of his research, he has spent a week onboard a Royal Navy submarine, docked at Devonport Royal Dockyard, taking accurate measurements and photographing equipment to replicate in the virtual world. The resulting game is widely used to train Royal Navy personnel and prevent safety mishaps. "I wasn't allowed to stay in the normal sleeping quarters because I'm not an officer, so I slept under a torpedo," he says.

One of the team's greatest achievements is a game set in an Afghan village, which was put together in only four weeks. It demonstrates lessons about a real village in Afghanistan, so they could be passed on, quickly, to the next set of troops. Crucially, soldiers could get to know the area before they had even set foot on foreign soil.

The game lets you manipulate the time of day, as the sun slides up from sunset to noon the shadows shorten and a dead goat is revealed under a bridge. This level of detail might seem excessive, but it's vital to training the armed forces. Insurgents have been known to conceal explosives in carcasses, which can be undetectable at dusk. Walking through the village, Stone points out other seemingly innocuous signals: a mound of cigarette butts, a can of cola, a circle of pebbles. They are all potential signs of danger.

Although the graphics can display as much attention to detail as other games-for-entertainment – such as the Medal of Honour and Call of Duty series – the designers only faithfully recreate what's necessary for training. So the village's spice market is beautifully rendered, but in other games the ladders may be crudely skipped over. "If you want to train someone on how to safely use a ladder, you use a real ladder," says Stone. More important elements are accurate to the nearest millimetre.

Stone's fascination with games began with the television shows and sci-fi novels of his childhood. After graduating, he joined British Aerospace and was the first European to experience NASA's virtual reality system. "With the helmet and glove, I was standing on an escalator that didn't exist but my stomach and head felt I was moving. It changed my life. I thought 'this is an area I must get into'."

Shortly after the experience, he moved into the "human factors" field, which involves design with people's capabilities in mind, to improve safety. One of Stone's earliest inventions was a glove that allowed the wearer to feel what someone else's hand was doing. The applications for teaching things, like playing chords on the guitar, were manifold, but it didn't take off. Twenty years on, he has just been awarded a commendation from the MoD recognising excellence within the defence science and technology community. The virtual reality glove and helmet may have been abandoned in favour of a laptop, but the graphics now are almost photo-realistic, something that was unattainable in the "bad old days".

It was unthinkable to use games for training 15 years ago, when the Army and Navy used booklets called "tabs", where all the information was written down. There was no hands-on experience until they were actually sent into action. "It was tried and proven," says Stone, besides, because of the social stigma of game-playing, "they couldn't be seen with a game". Now they've become more widespread, games are more acceptable as a training aid. A recent study, published in National Geographic news, shows that games enhance basic human skills, like reaction times and the ability to process visual information. Stone takes that fact and applies it to specific scenarios.

The team's work does not just involve combat situations, Stone is also developing games for rehabilitation. His team has made a "virtual Wembury", a coastal area of Plymouth the National Trust describes as "a spectacular stretch of coastline boasting dramatic cliffs, grazed open farmland and secluded coves and estuaries". It's a pleasant place, if the virtual version is anything to go by. Patients recover more quickly if they have a nice view to gaze at from their window, so Stone hopes recovery will be improved even further if they can explore the space without leaving their bed. Even if it does no better than looking out the window, it's likely to be an improvement on staring at a brick wall, or your fellow patients.

The next game, as with all of the team's software, will be cheap and accessible. There's no glitzy lab, no institute, it's all very low-key. "We can do it all on a laptop and take it to the people who use it," says Stone, "our approach is unique; human centred. We are on the road 90 per cent of the time, working with the real people." He is worried that this isn't the way the rest of the serious games industry is going, with money being spent on "centres of excellence" rather than research and development. "Recent history shows that very little of any substance actually gets developed within these technology mausoleums," he says.

I get a hint of the next game, which seems entirely relevant to the real world, when, in the course of playing, Stone opens a chest of drawers and sets some bottles on the table. They have labels like "freshly mown lawn", "cordite" and "spice market". The device is an early prototype for a sort of smell-o-vision; odours waft into the game at barely perceptible levels and players need to respond to them.

"Try the raw sewage," Stone insists, assuring me it has a rather pleasant odour. Gingerly, I put the bottle to my nose, and nearly vomit. Stone tells me it has matured with age. "That's really good!" he says excitedly as though tasting a vintage wine. I cough. It compounds the lesson I've learnt today; not all games are for fun.