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A multi-million $ video game

Milan Vesely reports on a new video game - which has cost over $7m to develop - and is aimed at giving US service personnel a rudimentary knowledge of the Arabic language and certain Arab customs.

IT seeMS REAL, THE DUSTY STREET in the village of Talle, Lebanon, shimmering in the oppressive 120-degree heat. Over to one side a startled goat suddenly shies clear of the approaching Humvee, the squat, sand-coloured vehicle's V-8 engine growling, its deep-throated exhaust fuming. Clouds of dust billow up behind its massive, shrapnel-resistant "Terrain-Trac" tyres. And as if that isn't disorientating enough the street and its weather-beaten facades appear through the eyes of a makebelieve 'Sergeant John Smith' of the US Special Forces, the scene shifting back and forth as he scans the thick-walled houses for the home of the local head man; a contact he has to talk to in basic Arabic if the rest of his unit is to enter the village to begin the reconstruction of the village school.

Welcome to the hi-tech world of the modern US soldier. As a video character, 'Sergeant Smith' is a true-blue American with a guttural Texan drawl. His knowledge of Arabic and local customs is basic, learned through playing a new US military video game called the Tactical Language Project developed by the University of Southern California's (USC) Centre for Research in Technology for Education.

The Tactical language Project cost $7.2m to develop to its present realism. A cooperation project with the Special Operations Command of the US military, it used Special Forces soldiers from Fort Bragg in California to bring reallife practicality to the video game. This latest hi-tech tool is designed to teach US Army personnel linguistic skills via their now everpresent laptops.

"Fd like to send something like this to every soldier stationed in every foreign country," project manager Dr. Ralph Chatham of USC said, explaining that the on-going project is financed by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

'Sergeant Smith" is a make-believe army officet that the game's principal player adopts as his own character. Opposing characters and situations are virtual reconstructions however. Talle village is modelled on an actual village in Lebanon and the situation facing Sergeant Smith is one that faces US military personnel daily, most recently in Iraq.

All Arab characters' actions are driven by artificial-intelligence software that enables them to behave autonomously; their reactions to the sergeant are those that can realistically be expected. To win the game, Sergeant Smith has to conduct all his conversations in the local Arabic dialect while comporting himself according to local customs.

The basic objective of the Tactical Language Project is to teach US military personnel how to navigate more easily and safely through the Arab world. The basic assumption is that in certain situations you need to deal with things in a particular way, for example establishing a rapport with local people in order to find out where the local head man lives. The question in reality is: "How do you cope effectively with those kinds of situations?" A linguist and artificial intelligence expert, Dr. Johnson is a member of the project team. Tasked with ensuring language authenticity, he notes that "for English speakers, Arabic is a relatively difficult language to learn. It contains sounds that are hard to distinguish to the western ear. Moreover, Arabic dialects differ considerably from country to country, region to region."

The US military has found it is on the Iraqi street that the use of Arabic makes its soldiers most effective. But there is a snag. The Arabic language is full of nuances; a veritable minefield of pronunciation pitfalls. To coach the American soldiers through this difficulty the researchers of the project have had to design a whole new system of speech recognition software tailored specifically for language learners. "We've had a vision of learner language speech recognition for a long time but until recently we didn't have the computer power to make this possible," Sherri Bellinger, director of the famed US military's West Point Centre for Technology Enhanced Language Learning said.

To teach street Arabic the military video game has Sergeant Smith starting and finishing his conversation with his right hand over his heart. He also bows slightly; a common gesture of respect in the Arab world. Teaching this may seem like overkill except when taken in the context that most American military recruits have never been exposed to cultures outside of their home states. To make the opposing characters as realistic as possible, each game is programmed with what researchers call a belief system. "One of the most critical is the trust level," Mei Si, a doctoral student in charge of coding this element said. "If Sergeant Smith behaves appropriately he will gain the character's trust and that will help him; if not he is likely to cause suspicion, if not outright resentment."

"You don't have to be obnoxious," another researcher added. "If you are impolite and don't seem to care about what you are saying, that is enough to generate hostility in many cultures."

Another important thing the video game teaches is for Sergeant Smith to say a simple "Thank you". Video game players - the modern US soldier is almost certain to be one - are also not used to saying 'thank you' in the context of a game; and neither is the US soldier trained in high-intensity urban combat. However, politeness, as they say, costs nothing and can help defuse a potentially difficult situation.

The Tactical language Project has Sergeant Smith entering a local tea house to obtain directions to the head man's house. If his behaviour is offensive or unsettling, one of the café's patrons is sure to react negatively; even to demand to know if he is a CIA spy. The object of the game is to ensure that this situation does not arise; to keep tensions at a low point. As has been seen in Iraq, the US military's sometimes insensitive behaviour has often caused a delicate situation to spin out of control, even into a deadly firefight.

"We're spending a lot of time on developing this," Dr. Chatham noted. It cost over $7.2m but the hope is that such intelligence video games will eventually be used for teaching "other kinds of memory-intensive skills", and not just for teaching street-wise language.

The US military has belatedly found it does not have enough Arabic speaking personnel available at a time when its main operations are in the Middle East and the Arabian peninsular. This is hampering US soldiers in the battle for the 'hearts and minds' of Afghans and Iraqis, as well as the surrounding nationalities. While recognising that it will take more than just a video game to sensitise military personnel to local customs, the University of Southern California's School of Engineering believes that mastery of basic Arabic will go a long way towards this.