By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 29, 2016) -- In April, a new Army training videogame will put company, battalion and brigade commanders in the hot seat to deal with sexual assault and harassment in their ranks.
The ELITE-SHARP Command Team Trainer is an interactive video game that will make its debut, April 1, just in time for Sexual Assault Prevention Month. The game will post on the Army's MILGAMING website at milgaming.army.mil, alongside the already successful "ELITE Lite counseling tool" on which it was based.
The ELITE, or "Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment" platform has been used for about 18 months now by the Army as a counseling tool. ELITE Lite Counseling is used to train junior officers and non-commissioned officers, on how to conduct more effective counseling. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, has used the ELITE Lite Counseling application extensively integrating it into the PL 300, Military Leadership course.
With the ELITE Lite counseling trainer, the Army "wanted to get a more standardized practical exercise experience," said Maj. Greg Pavlichko, chief of the Army's Games for Training program at the Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
"So if you and I are in class together and we are discussing counseling or SHARP, and we are then asked to (role play) -- I'm the person with bad behavior and you are the leader that is asked to counsel me, well maybe I don't care, maybe I'm a terrible actor, maybe I'm just not into it," he said. "So your experience is very dependent on the student population and basically how into it they are."
The ELITE-SHARP CTT takes advantage of the successes of the ELITE Lite counseling tool in that it provides a standardized avatar for students to interact with and gives everyone the same experience every time. Additionally, Pavlichko said, like with the counseling tool, the ELITE-SHARP CTT diverges from the "old paradigm" of training, which involves a prepackaged slide deck, videos and classroom discussion, and instead provides younger officers with something they are more familiar with -- gaming.
"So, we're getting away from non-professional role players and just getting beaten to death with slide shows, and making it more engaging," Pavlichko said. "Plus, for a lot of younger people, gaming is kind of innate and organic to them, so they understand it right away. The predominance of Soldiers coming into the Army at this point have a pretty robust gaming experience behind them."
In September 2014, the Army's Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention Management Office in Washington requested that the ELITE counseling tool be further developed into a SHARP-specific tool to better prepare command teams for dealing with sexual assaults and harassment in the ranks. The ELITE-SHARP CTT program was developed to meet that need.
Unlike traditional slide show-based training, the ELITE-SHARP CTT game provides command teams with animated scenarios regarding sexual assault and harassment that illustrate both the right way and the wrong way to handle such situations, and then moves into an interactive portion where commanders meet face-to-face with virtual Soldiers who have been victims of a sexual assault or sexual harassment.
"We hear feedback that using slide shows for training is very ineffective," said Monique Ferrell, director of the Army SHARP Program. "This is an avatar-based platform. When a new commander takes command of a unit, by regulation there is a requirement for them to meet with their SHARP professional, their SARC, within the first 30 days. What this tool does, the ELITE-SHARP CTT, is it facilitates that discussion between the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and the commander."
Within the ELITE-SHARP CTT game, commanders learn of a sexual assault or harassment issue, and then have to figure out the best way to handle the situation. That usually starts with contacting their command's own SARC.
The ELITE-SHARP CTT is meant to help commanders understand the right way to deal with sexual assaults in their commands, so they know how best to help victims, and also know how not to make the mistakes that could later on screw up prosecution of offenders, said Pavlichko.
Pavlichko said early on that the Army's SHARP office had realized "a lot of issues that were happening with sexual assault and response was that command teams, especially at the company level, didn't understand what the 'golden rules' were, or what they were supposed to do with a sexual assault or harassment report, from a policy standpoint.
"So you'd have an incident, the commander and first sergeant would respond to the incident in a way that was not in accordance with policy or law, and then you'd have a breakdown with the court case and things would get thrown out because they didn't do the right things," Pavlichko said. "Or they would kind of do what they thought was right, but not necessarily what the law or Army policy said you need to do."
With the ELITE-SHARP CTT, those commanders will learn how to deal with sexual assaults and response the right way, the first time.
Tim Wansbury, with the Army Research Laboratory, helped develop the game for the Army. He said the ELITE-SHARP CTT kicks off by showing game players two different vignettes that play out in animation. First, a sexual assault happens in the barracks at an installation, and the command team has to respond. The second, he said, involves sexual harassment in the motor pool.
"There is a noncommissioned officer in the motor pool who is using foul language or making inappropriate statements," he said. "It's clearly behavior we wouldn't expect in the workplace."
Both of those scenarios are illustrated with three animated segments each: one to show how a command team could handle it correctly, one to show how a command team might really screw it up, and one that contrasts the two in order to illustrate the difference.
After commanders watch the animated vignettes that contrast the right and wrong way to handle both a sexual assault and a sexual harassment situation, they move into the interactive portion of the ELITE-SHARP CTT game, which features virtual avatars that commanders are meant to interact with.
These practice exercises include two scenarios as well: one where a Soldier is the victim of sexual assault, and one where a Soldier is sexually harassed by another Soldier. In the latter case, the commander doing the training gets to interact with both the victim and the alleged perpetrator of the sexual harassment.
Wansbury was heavily involved in development of the ELITE-SHARP CTT, though the primary game developers were at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. He concedes that neither himself, nor the engineers, programmers, or computer scientists involved in game development are SHARP professionals. He said game development for the ELITE-SHARP CTT involved more than just programming -- it involved more than half a year of research for development of the game's content.
"We relied on Army SHARP professionals, both at the Army SHARP program management office in Washington, and at the Army SHARP Academy," Wansbury said. "Game development took about 12 months. About six to seven months was spent identifying and developing the specific training content that was included in the application."
Pavlichko said research also included interviews with commanders who had SHARP incidents occur within their commands in the past.
Most recently, on March 21, the game received final approval to be used as an official Army training tool, and the expected release for the game is April 1.
While Soldiers can go to the Army's military gaming website to download the game and play it on their own computer, Pavlichko said that's not really where the game will get the most use. He said his team is working to get the game implemented as part of the curriculum at school houses across the Army.
"Most Soldiers will see it has been installed on some kind of Army computer and see it in the context of some type of course of instruction," Pavlichko said.
Soldiers who have in the past been part of command teams, but who have been out of the command environment due to another assignment, might also use the ELITE-SHARP CTT as a "refresher," Pavlichko said, before returning to a follow-on command assignment. It would be those Soldiers who download the game on their own computers in order to get that refresher course.
Completing the ELITE-SHARP CTT training takes about 90-minutes, Pavlichko said.
The ELITE environment didn't start out as a trainer for SHARP. It was actually developed as part of an effort to provide a "performance counseling" tool to officers in the U.S. Navy. The Army liked what they saw of the program, and developed it for their own use as a counseling tool, calling it ELITE, short for "Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment."
But Wansbury said that system had a large overhead -- it required lots of gear, lots of computers and lots of computing power. It wasn't portable, and it was expensive.
At the request of the Army, the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California was able to "shrink-wrap the goodness of ELITE into a laptop," Wansbury said. And the end product was dubbed "ELITE Lite."
The ELITE Lite counseling tool is actually on the Army's MILGAMING website now, and has been for some time. It was the success of the ELITE Lite counseling tool that spurred the Army's SHARP office to request it be further developed as a SHARP training tool, and that's how the ELITE-SHARP CTT was developed.
Now, the same team that developed ELITE-SHARP CTT is developing another game, called the ELITE-SHARP Prevention & Outreach Simulation Trainer, or ELITE-SHARP POST, that will be used to train SHARP professionals on how to better interact with commanders to build a successful prevention program and effective outreach mission.
While the aim of ELITE-SHARP CTT is to teach commanders to deal with sexual assaults and sexual harassment after they happen, ELITE-SHARP POST will help SHARP professionals hone their skills at preventing those things from happening in the first place.
The ELITE-SHARP POST application will "give our SARCs and VAs the tools they need to help develop their prevention programs, both at the installation level, as well as with interacting with their local communities," Ferrell said.
Wansbury said ELITE-SHARP POST development will mirror development of the ELITE-SHARP CTT game, will use the same platform, and will provide "upfront instruction, visual examples using animated vignettes on what good practices are and not so good practices, and then we will have a series of practice exercise where the students will be able to apply their new knowledge and develop some skills and most importantly the confidence that they will need to perform these tasks when they perform their jobs."
It's expected that ELITE-SHARP POST will become available in about a year, and will also be available on the Army's MILGAMING website, right alongside the ELITE-SHARP CTT game and the ELITE Lite Counseling tool.
Pavlichko said the future of the ELITE platform, which now serves two purposes, counseling training and SHARP training, might in the future become more interactive through the introduction of artificial intelligence.
"Instead of selecting a response from three or four responses, it's more of a robust AI you can have a natural conversation with, so if I'm counseling somebody, instead of picking a response I can speak into the microphone and have a more natural conversation with the digital avatar," he said.
Such technology has already been demonstrated in the past, but he said to get it into the ELITE software platform, the Army must develop a requirement for it and also secure the resources needed to develop it.
"It takes time to build momentum for new technologies," he said. "It takes senior leaders seeing these things and then starting to understand the potential."
In the past, he said, gaming was "almost a four-letter word" within the Army's training community.
"Games are fun. Training is not supposed to be fun," he said, paraphrasing sentiments he found to be coming from the field. "But then after enough senior leaders see the capability, they see its potential, they understand it's potential. They see Soldiers using it and start to see the results of the capability -- now with gaming, everybody wants it."