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Friday, November 17, 2006

A War Game and a Meta-Cognitive Approach for Learning How to Learn in a Network-Centric World: F2C2

Podcast / mp3 file

Future Force Company Commander, developed by for SAIC and the U.S. Army, is a gorgeously designed game. It is clear, well-organized, and has fantastic graphics and it has a high authenticity quotient. It gives you a sense that you're doing something in the way that it's really done. You're learning how to learn in the new network-centric environment. You're teaching yourself meta-cognitive survival skills. You're evolving into a "digital native" - made not born. It is an incredible thing to find a way to stay on the always-moving cutting edge of technology and perception.

Let's step back a moment. I can definitely see why Future Force Company Commander could be considered a good recruiting tool for the Army, as well as a way to get the message across that "Future Combat Systems (FCS) will transform the U.S. Army's Current Force to a more lethal, agile Future force to achieve battlespace dominance."

Star Wars, anyone?

Okay, it's not 1983, it's almost 2007, and we really are using a lot of technology in the battlefield. But, here's a question: Will people use the technology in the way it's intended? If you play the game, you have to use the technology in the way the game allows you to use it.

What happens when technology is used in ways it is not intended to be used? You certainly won't find out in a typical sim game.

But, in many ways, Future Force Company Commander goes far beyond that.

Basically, Future Force Company Commander is a simulation game, combined with elements of first-person shooter, as well as an interactive educational game. What the game simulates is the concept of a "wireless network-centric operating system."

"Future Combat Systems (FCS) will transform the U.S. Army's Current Force to a more lethal, agile Future Force to achieve battlespace dominance. The F2C2 video game demonstrates the FCS wireless network-centric operating system that seamlessly links advanced communications and networking systems with soldiers, platforms, weapons, and sensors."

The network-centric approach suggests that each node in the net is of equal strategic importance and that one can input data that matters and have a positive outcome. All nodes, all players are equally important.

Mainly, though, only "players" on the ground die. The game conveniently glosses over that. It's much better to be "God" in the command post.

As an educational tool, I think it has enormous merit, particularly in the strategic planning and analysis phase. It does the following:

1. increases literacy by encouraging players to read the encyclopedia
2. develops land-navigation skills (map-reading, calculating distances, etc) are developed
3. initiates learners in the basic use of computers to do "command" functions (move equipment, fire weapons)
4. enhances one's ability to read and interpret multiple sources of information and intelligence
5. provides an after-action review which allows individuals to develop meta-cognitive skills and develop "lessons learned" abilities.

Seeing is believing. The satellites are always correctly calibrated in F2C2's sim battlespace.

The game helps explain the "every soldier a sensor" concept and it allows individuals to become "smart" in terms of sensing, encoding, and interpreting data in order to make decisions. Like all sim games, one gets to see the outcomes of one's actions right away.

"You'll experience an exciting range of real-time missions while equipped with the full spectrum of FCS capabilities. F2C2 shows the sophisticated sensors linked among the 18 different FCS systems, and how the FCS network quickly disperses tactical intelligence enabling soldiers to pre-empt enemy attacks and mount offensive assaults."

Sim Situation: Sabalan and Dalilar. The missions emanate from this. I am reminded of Jorge Luis Borges' poem, "Ajedrez" (A Game of Chess)

Dios mueve al jugador, y éste, la pieza.
¿Qué Dios detrás de Dios la trama empieza
de polvo y tiempo y sueño y agonías?

God moves the player, and this, the piece,
But, what God behind God initiates the action:
of dust and time and dreams and death throes?
-- Jorge Luis Borges, from "Ajedrez"

As a motivational tool, Future Force Company Commander is very effective:
1. engages the emotions -- is very entertaining
2. allows role-playing & one can develop sense of self-efficacy
3. gives a sense of mastery of the technology and mastery (even though the mastery is an illusion) over one's environment

Glaring ethical problems remain, though --

1. This game could exacerbate social divides because it privileges certain learners who have had education that includes maps, outdoors, expensive computers, familiarity with certain types of equipment -- excludes people who may have difficulty because English is not their native language and who have not grown up with expensive computer systems and games.

2. Players learn an approach that may or may not be the model that is the most effective for their situation; while it might be good for sequencing and staging equipment, troops, supplies, and it might be good for learning how to pace equipment, etc., it's still a very "inside the box" experience -- the players are constrained by the game itself. They are not able to use technology in "off-label" sorts of ways -- the sort of ways that our enemies tend to use technology.

3. Does not include enough skill-building that most users will need. The game represents an opportunity to really help players gain the real-life skills they need (reading, spelling, algebra, geometry, etc.)

4. Exacerbates social isolation -- military units consist of people who interact; the game consists of a human who interacts with avatars. The game needs more collaboration -- emulate team-building, negotiating, problem-solving, conflict resolution -- there is not enough interaction with "real" people.

5. Obviously, the biggest problem is FANTASY. Future Force Company Commander suggests that fighting in a war will be as stimulating, romantic, and attractive as playing a game. There is no sickness, no pain, no jealousy, no negative emotions, no sadness or homesickness, or raw, gut-wrenching fear.

Equipment you carry on your back, or, shoulder-mounted weapon. The weapon always works. No dust here, no shortages of water or food, no flu, no sand fleas, no parasites. Furthermore, the gun and ammunition do not weigh anything. It is like fighting in heaven.

Sensors do not accurately reflect human factors. Automated planning tools, real-time situational awareness, ISR and fire support planning tools are nice, but they are inadequate.

Where the game needs the most help is in emulating "situational awareness" that incorporates human factors (sickness, duplicity, false signals - false flag operations, etc.). This game makes people suckers for false flag operations, and, further, it suggests that false flag operations are by and large the only ways (besides sabotage and flooding the network with viruses) to overcome the new multi-sensor network-centric warfare. The implications are grave.

I think that Future Force Company Commander could be an outstanding educational supplement. Obviously, it would still carry the ethical baggage of romanticizing war. It also encourages people to be duped by appearances. Ground truthing is always necessary in any kind of remote sensing-based analysis.

But, F2C2 does have a great deal of merit for supplemental use in a number of disciplines and academic areas. Further, as a metacognitive tool, I think that the type of learning the F2C2 represents absolutely cannot be surpassed. The ability to take multiple data points, sift through simultaneous feeds of information, assess and position data spatially as well as temporally is, in a word, remarkable. Future Force Company Commander teaches people how to learn. Players are learning about learning in the network-centric world.

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