by Capt Charles A. Poulton & CpI Frederick Zuberer

For the past 20 years, the Marine Corps has trained our Marines to a standard-evaluating our units before giving the approval that they are ready for war. We then send our Marines forward to do what Marines do best: win. With a decrease in operational tempo, we now have the chance to evaluate how we train. Most Marines will admit that training in garrison can be redundant. After repeating the same class for the eighth time, or buddy rushing on the softball field for the hundredth, Marines begin to shut down. So, how can leaders reenergize training to increase our Marines3 skill and will?

It you tour a random BEQ, you will more than likely come across at least one of the following in every room: a PlayStation, XBox, desktop, or laptop. Marines love their gaming systems. They love them so much that they are willing to spend hours upon hours playing online with friends or complete strangers. Games that Marines play are strategy-based, whether RTS {real-time strategy) games, like Company of Heroes, or FPS (first-person shooters), like Call of Duty. To successfully play RTS or FPS games, Marines must develop a plan before executing certain game stages. You might remember the infamous Leeroy Jenkins video, in which a group of World of Warcraft gamers discussed how to handle an enemy threat before Leeroy infamously blows off the plan and charges forward into battle, resulting in the teams death. What the video overlooks is that the group took the time to assess an enemy threat, analyzed their own task organization and capabilities, developed a scheme of maneuver, and issued tasking statements to group members in about three minutes. This scene sounds a lot like a TDG {tactical decision game), right? It is actually not as far off as you think.

Currently, our company is working to embrace our Marines’ love of gaming in order to improve their skill and will through the use of our decision rooms and virtual training software. Using software to have Marines compete against each other, and to compete together against a thinking enemy, is no longer something from a sci-fi movie- it’s an actual reality thanks to modern technological innovation. Our decision room currently runs three gaming systems for our platoons: VSBII (Virtual Battlespace 2), which is an FPS; CCM {Close Combat Marine IV), which is an RTS; and StarCraft, another RTS. VBSII and CCM IV are both USMC proprietary software, but StarCraft on the other hand, has no ties to the Marine Corps and falls into the category of COT {civilian, off-the-shelf technology). Both VBSII and CCM are solid games that we use to run our TDG‘s, but feedback from our Marines has prompted us to look towards COTs. Repeatedly, Marines have commented in debriefs, “Hey sir, this is fun but have you played_? It is faster and a lot more realistic.” Developing games is not the Marines Corps’ strong suit; however, the civilian gaming industry has made leaps and bounds in the area. The current generation of Marines, and even the past two generations, grew up playing fast-paced, quick-reaction, and highly-competitive games. In trying to increase our Marines’ attention and create interest in our decision room, our company commander tasked me with conducting a comparison study of COT versus USMC proprietary software in order to determine if COT can be used to train our Marines.

After conducting our own company research, my team found that it is feasible to use COT to supplement USMC proprietary software. Games today involve teamwork, strategic thinking, and decision making. Games, such as Battlefield 4, feature weapons systems, ranges, and assets found on the realworld battlefield, all while driving home basic small unit tactics in a virtual, chaotic, and ever-changing environment.

Imagine taking two teams of Marines, each using realistic weapons that act as their real-life counterparts, and giving the teams opposing missions. Teams enter an area in the game and are forced to engage one another, using simulated weapons and assets to achieve a pre-determined objective. Force-on-force is one of the best types of training, but it is also the hardest to simulate in the field. We now have the technology to conduct force-on-force training in our decision rooms, allowing platoon commanders, squad leaders, and team leaders to get repetitions in tactical decision making. The best part of most COT games is that they are built to drive action, which engages the Marines’ primal instinct to win, as our study results revealed.

To help conduct our research, the company commander gave us a squad of Marines to serve as our sample, COT and USMC proprietary software games to analyze, and full use of our decision room for two weeks. We started with the hypothesis that Marines can receive the same training value using COT as USMC proprietary software programs. The two programs we chose to test this hypothesis were CCM and StarCrafit. StarCrafit, released in 1998 by Blizzard Entertainment, was chosen because of its low-impact system requirements to run on our battalion computers. We created a grading rubric that used a 1 to 10 scale rating (10=high, 1 -low) across seven categories along with a simple yes or no for the eighth category. The Marines spent two weeks playing through different game scenarios, situations, teams, and missions. Afterward, the Marines graded both programs in each of the eight categories and compiled an average across the categories. During the two-week trial period, we recorded our own observations of the Marines playing both systems. Our data analysis indicates that it is feasible to use COT to train Marines, but the process requires advance set-up and preparation. (See Figure 1.)

As the data illustrates, StarCrafit out-performed CCM in all areas. The data showed that Marines more readily bought into the training and were more enthusiastic when testing the COT product. Conversely, all 12 testers agreed that CCM is slow and unresponsive, gaving CCM a cumulative average of 1 in both the responsiveness and pacing categories. This is not surprising considering that CCM takes into account real time and space when units maneuver. While Marines agreed that both programs taught them how to use tactics and forced decision making, the results showed that StarCrafit was in some ways better than CCM. Overall, we showed that COT programs are as effective as USMC proprietary software programs to train our Marines.

Golf Company’s decision room is composed of thirty 6300 Dell computers, a projector, a 70″ fiat screen, and 3 white boards. Our company uses VBSII, CCM, and StarCrafit to execute TDGs in our decision room. Because of the results of our COT versus USMC proprietary software combined study and the recommendations of our Marines, we are in the process of testing the most recent COT FPSs and RTSs games that simulate the most realistic force-on-force scenarios on the virtual battlefield. Over the past three months, through trial and error, the company established an operating training model that we believe best integrates our decision room’s assets and technology in order to become better tacticians and decision makers.

Golf Company’s decision room model is broken down into three phases: planning, executing, and debriefing. During the planning phase, two groups of Marines are separated into a Marine and enemy force and are then given a pre-built terrain model or white board that has a pre-drawn map simulating what the Marines will see on the computers during the execution phase. The two groups are then given a quick, five-paragraph order followed by five minutes to conduct their planning. Marine group units are expected to identify what they believe the enemy’s CG (center of gravity) and CV (critical vulnerability) are, develop an SOM (scheme of maneuver) andTCMs (tactical control measures), and to issue tasking statements to subordinates. Marines working on a white board are expected to incorporate proper operational graphics when drawing their SOM. Once the unit leaders have Issued their order and the planning is complete, the two groups move to the decision room where they execute their SOMs in real time.

In the past, there would be no execution phase. Marines would move straight to a debrief, circle around the terrain model or white board, and begin picking apart their plan. Today, the decision room provides us with the opportunity to bring to life unit leaders’ SOMs and simultaneously face a real opponent. We are all taught that no plan survives first contact, and using the decision room helps drive that point home. Though each team is trying to accomplish its own individual mission, the game quickly shifts to who can outcycle the opponent’s OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop. The outcome of most games played within the company was based on two factors: who took the time to properly plan, and who was able execute their OODA loop faster than their opponent. During the execution phase, the Marines are positioned at opposite ends of the decision room, away from their counterparts. Once the Marines are logged into the gaming system, a controller, who also acts as an observer, initiates the game and the two teams begin to carry out their assigned missions. Once one group accomplishes its mission or destroys its opponent’s forces, the Marines return to the terrain models and white boards to begin the debrief phase.

During the debrief, our company focuses on the initial plan, how each group communicated with team members, and major decisions that were made but not planned. We try to avoid arguing over who won or who killed whom, which can drag out a debrief and get ugly at times. Once the debrief is completed, a new unit leader is appointed and the groups switch sides and missions. Because Marines are fighting each other, and each Marine thinks differently than his peers, each scenario unfolds differently and can be replayed without losing training value.

Looking toward the future of integrating COT and USMC proprietary software into our decision room will continue to allow our unit to maximize white-space time in garrison, to mentally prep Marines from the youngest PFC to the highest ranking unit member for upcoming events, and to sharpen their ability to make decisions. Our end state is simple: increase our Marines’ skill and willpower, and we believe that the decision room does just that.