Using a virtual game to prevent real attacks on U.S. embassies

The virtual game includes representations of people who work at the embassies. The three-part project should be completed in 18 to 24 months.

A team of George Mason University undergraduates is working on a U.S. State Department project aimed at preventing U.S. Embassy terrorists’ attacks in high-threat areas.

The Computer Game Design Program, part of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, received a $100,000 grant to develop a training game for the State Department’s High Threat Operations branch, said Scott Martin, the founding director of the Virginia Serious Game Institute at George Mason.

“It’s a serious training game to prevent the next Benghazi [Libya] attack and to save lives,” Martin said.

The training game they are developing will be used to help train Diplomatic Security Special Agents and U.S. Marines to better protect U.S. embassies in 37 locations with the highest threat level, he said.

The team began working on phase one of the project in December. Martin walked through the agency’s physical training space in West Virginia before the Mason students, supervised by computer game design professor Eric Piccione, developed a virtual game for two 24-member groups of special agents training to be diplomatic security officers.

Trainees will run co-op missions and team vs. team play with weapons used in the field, Piccione said, adding that instructors will be able to customize the conditions of each mission to better prepare them for unique situations.

The virtual game includes representations of people who work at the embassies, such as foreign service officers, diplomats, and visitors, so developers make sure elements and situations are authentic and based on real-world experiences, Martin said.

“This project is a great opportunity for diplomatic security trainees to play out missions and scenarios for a particular embassy before they even set foot in that embassy in the real world,” Piccione said. “They’ll not only become familiar with the layout but also learn how to adapt their tactics to that setting under a variety of conditions.”

The team is about 75 percent done with phase one of the three-phase project. Phase two will include virtual models of the 37 high-threat U.S. embassies. Because of this, the project will then become top secret, and students will have to gain top-secret clearance, Martin said.

They’ll have a game title they can show on their resumes, which will help them professionally, said Piccione.

Senior computer game design major Lisa Chhour said she loves the idea of computer game and design being used outside entertainment for a purpose that will actually protect people. Piccione, her independent study professor, selected her for the project.

She’s working on the 3-D environment aspect of the game and has traveled with the team to West Virginia a few times to learn more about the training facility.

“It has expanded my skillset; it’s given me new career avenues to explore,” she said.

The project should be completed in 18-24 months, and will contain features that allow users’ mistakes to be assessed from a first-person point-of-view and from a bird’s-eye view, along with after-action reporting, analysis and assessment, Martin said.