Editor’s note: Chas looks at a language training sim used by the U. S. military that employs a game-inspired interface, and interviews the developer’s president. I’m fascinated by the cottage industry that’s sprung up around game-like training sims. -Demian

A communication software developer is using video games to teach military personnel Middle Eastern languages and customs so they can better communicate with local citizens.

The Tactical Language & Culture Training System series, developed by Alelo, uses a video game interface to immerse soldiers in virtual worlds. Trainees can speak for their avatars via voice recognition, and complete missions by carrying out conversations with competent language and cultural sensitivity.

The program’s inspiration came from a captain’s recount of the difficulties he and his soldiers faced when communicating with locals in Afghanistan in 2002.


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“The captain told how he and his comrades reluctantly rode on tiny ponies into a town, totally relying on their Northern Alliance escorts, who only spoke Pashto and some broken Russian and Arabic while the U.S. soldiers only spoke English and some broken Russian and Arabic. When the town’s people came out on the streets, the soldiers did not know if they were friendly or hostile from their gestures, demeanor, and words,” according to Alelo’s website.

Lewis Johnson, president and chief scientist at Alelo, said it was clear from the beginning of the project that a virtual world would best accomplish their goals, and that Tactical Language & Culture Training System takes advantage of the video game medium in several ways.

“One is the ability to place learners in a situation that is like the real-world situation, where they have to make decisions and do things that are like they would have to do in real life,” Johnson said. “And another key aspect is immediate, what we call ‘organic feedback.’”

Organic feedback, Johnson said, is when someone receives feedback in a learning situation via visual and auditory cues, rather than an explicit message.

“Learners get feedback from the reactions of the non-player characters to what they say and do,” Johnson said. “This is much more effective than having a teacher tell them that they did something wrong.”

Johnson said the program’s ability to immerse players in a setting that offers organic feedback provides the proper context needed for learning a new language.

“This is very important, because language use is highly contextualized, to an extent that people sometimes don’t realize,” Johnson said. “Learning communication skills in a contextualized fashion helps learners understand what they need to learn and why. If we do it right, then when learners encounter a situation in real life it will feel familiar to them, and they’ll have the confidence to handle it well.”

“The best case study of effectiveness that I can point to is the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, which was the first Marine Battalion to return from a year tour of duty in the Iraq war without a single combat casualty,” Johnson said. “They had assigned two members of every squad to train for 40 hours with Tactical Iraqi. This ensured that every unit in the field had at least some communication skills.”

Johnson said Alelo will expand its products to cover more languages and cultures, improve the realism of the interface, and even add multiplayer functionality.

“We are developing next-generation multiplayer games with a higher degree of realism and engagement, and that integrate more closely with other types of training,” Johnson said. “And we are working on the problem of language sustainability as well as language learning — helping learners to retain their language skills over time, even after periods of disuse.”

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