Johns Hopkins Gazette | May 26, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 26, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 36
APL Puts Video-Based Gaming, Simulations to Work for Sponsors

By Paulette Campbell
Applied Physics Laboratory

Five years ago, the National Security Analysis Department at APL began using video games as a way to train commanders and their staff in making critical battle-related decisions. Now other Lab areas are plugging into the idea, with staff in various departments and business areas exploring the power of gaming to meet sponsor needs.

"Professional gaming is not just a bunch of guys in a back room wearing cloaks and throwing dice," said Scott Simpkins, of NSAD's Collaborative Analysis and Gaming Section. "People across the Lab are using gaming as an analytical tool because it's cheaper, faster and allows participants to explore innovative approaches not available using standard monolithic simulations."

War games — modeling and simulations — have been around for more than a century. Evolving from pencil and paper to board games to computer programs, they've allowed analysts and military commanders to examine capabilities and concepts that are too dangerous, expensive, time-consuming or simply impossible to study in the real world.

Several independent research and development projects are exploring the extent to which computer-based gaming can be developed and used. Nathan Bos, a psychologist in the Milton Eisenhower Research Center, is studying the human cognitive process associated with gaming.

"The technologies pioneered by the gaming industry — three-dimensional worlds and algorithms for controlling characters — have opened up opportunities for running psychological experiments in different conditions and trying to get better at predicting behavior," Bos said. "Right now we are trying to model how the civilian population in a country would respond to a wartime event."

Bos has been collecting data about Nigeria, and with that information he is coding computer characters to exhibit certain personalities and play styles. Subject-matter experts will test the game in June. "We are at a point where we can make some loose predictions about how people in Nigeria might respond to different types of conflicts," he said.

Another IRAD effort is exploring the applicability of finite state machines — a technique that allows simple and accurate design of sequential logic and control functions — for gaming.

"Our future spacecraft will be armed with finite state machines that help them make smart decisions," explained the Space Department's George Cancro, who leads a project called ExecSpec that will increase a spacecraft's ability to act independently from ground operators.

"ExecSpec allows domain experts unfamiliar with software development to develop complex behaviors by drawing diagrams. This enables engineers or spacecraft operators to modify spacecraft behavior at any time in the mission by changing existing diagrams or adding more diagrams to the system," Cancro said.

"It occurred to me one day that if you could develop complex decision making for spacecraft, why can't you have that same system make decisions for a nonplayer character running around in a game?" he said.

Cancro approached NSAD's Stephen Phillips, who specializes in creating game environments, and together with Russell Turner and Ari Greenberg of MERC's Cognitive and Social Systems Section, they developed a prototype tool for using state machines to specify the behavior of nonplayer characters in an off-the-shelf gaming development system.

"We've shown that we can use finite state machines to characterize the behavior of nonplayer characters in a robust virtual environment," Phillips said. "For instance, I could have an anthropologist provide the behavior associated with a particular tribe, then place those attributes on a character in a game.

"With such a tool," he continued, "a soldier could spend six months in Afghanistan without ever leaving Fort Huachuca [in Arizona]. Once his boots are on the ground in Afghanistan, he's already been immersed in the culture, and he's ready to interact with the locals in an intelligent way."

Running parallel to these capability explorations are NSAD's established, hallmark seminar games. Under Michael Dean's leadership, the department hosts country seminars, gathering experts on a specific country from a variety of fields and disciplines. "The object is to figure out what that [information] means to us from a national security perspective, and what specific policies the U.S. should consider," Dean said.

In another effort, the Office of the Secretary of Defense asked the Lab to investigate global economic and financial scenarios that might have national security implications. In March, economic, financial and national security experts with country-specific expertise gathered at APL to play an economics game set in 2012.

"We employed some elements of modeling and simulation to develop a system for the exchange of information and for some basic decision support tools to help the game players," said NSAD's Ted Smyth, who ran the event. "But the game itself was judged by experts from a broad array of academic disciplines, government agencies and think tanks.

"Anything that moves us further down the line in terms of establishing a mechanism for looking at some of these issues — particularly given the state of the country — is a gain," Smyth said.

This story appeared previously in APL News.


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