Play Stuff Blog

From Training, to Toy, to Treatment: The Many Lives of Full Spectrum Warrior  

How do people use games, toys, and other playthings? It’s a question play scholars and historians must grapple with. A blanket, for instance, serves as a warm companion on a cold night, but it may also act as, among other things, a superhero’s cape or a princess’s gown. One needs only to scan ICHEG’s online collections to get a sense of the variety of ways in which video games might be used to entertain and educate. However, as media theorist Ian Bogost suggests, there are many more applications for video games, from creating art and instilling empathy to electioneering and branding, all of which illustrate the relevance, utility, and contentiousness of the medium.

For the United States military, an institution with a long history of employing war simulations for training exercises, video games and simulations have played an essential role in preparing soldiers and pilots for combat. Few of these video games have proved as useful to the armed forces as THQ’s 2004 real-time tactics and combat simulation Full Spectrum Warrior. As one psychologist who adapted the title to treat post-traumatic stress disorder put it, the game evolved from “training to toy to treatment.” As Full Spectrum Warrior developed during a period of protracted war, it proved not only an important military research experiment and successful commercial game, but also a lightning rod for controversy.

In 1999, the U.S. military established and funded the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California with the goal of revolutionizing the way the military prepares its soldiers for future combat missions. Collaborating with visual effects and character animators at Sony Imageworks and game developers at THQ and Pandemic Studios, ICT produced a tactical trainer packaged in a video game medium familiar to many young soldiers who grew up controlling such digital heroes as Mario, Sonic, and Crash Bandicoot. In Full Spectrum Warrior, players assumed the role of an infantry squad leader in control of two four-soldier fire teams as they traverse the cities of the fictional Central Asian or Middle Eastern country of Kazar. The army hoped ordinary soldiers would gain a deeper understanding of squad-based asymmetric warfare in “Third World” cities through game play. Although some army studies suggested Full Spectrum Warrior succeeded as a supplement to traditional forms of training, several military leaders questioned whether it accurately and realistically simulated urban combat. Despite this concern, the army used the experience as the foundation for future video game-based trainers and research.

The commercial version of Full Spectrum Warrior garnered even more acclaim and controversy. Updated and released in June 2004 for the Microsoft Xbox, the commercial version included a new setting in the fictional Muslim country of Zekistan, an added dramatic musical score, in-game tutorial assistance, and a “cheat code” to unlock the army version. While marketing focused on players’ responsibility to protect soldiers, as well as players’ access to an army training aid, reviewers highlighted its originality and what IGN called a “rich, Oh-My-God experience.” The game ultimately generated $50 million in sales, earned “Best Original Game” and “Best Simulation Game” from the Game Critics Awards at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and prompted the sequel Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers (2006), cementing it as a commercial and critical success. At the same time, some critics wondered if the army got “out-gamed” by commercial developers, calling the government subsidized game “full spectrum welfare.” Others claimed it operated as a covert recruiting or marketing tool.

Whatever mobilized gamers to purchase and play Full Spectrum Warrior, researchers gave it yet another life beginning that same year when Dr. Albert Rizzo and a group of university, military, and private practice psychologists used its virtual environment to help treat psychologically wounded war veterans. The Virtual Iraq digital combat simulator operated on the theory that exposure to virtual re-creations of traumatic experiences allowed patients to confront their fears and anxieties in a safe digital world where they could hopefully overcome them. With Full Spectrum Warrior’s virtual environment as its foundation, Virtual Iraq added new technologies that reproduced the experiences of combat from gunfire and explosions to smoke and the smell of body odor, immersing the patient in the heat of virtual combat. Studies suggested that virtual exposure therapy helped some soldiers, but psychologists also noted the potential dangers of using the video game as an “automated treatment” or as part of self-administered therapy.

Full Spectrum Warrior may not have entirely “revolutionized” training or treatment, but it proved that a console-based video game system was a viable training and treatment aid. It also marked the first time a video game used to prepare soldiers for combat helped them confront the psychological effects of battle when they returned home. Full Spectrum Warrior illustrates the many lives of video games, or rather, the many ways in which people and institutions use them. And, as institutions such as the army redefine what video games can be, gamers and critics (and gamer-critics) continue to debate how and why they use them.