STUTTGART, Germany — From medical operations in Uganda to counterterrorism operations in Djibouti, U.S. Africa Command is knee deep in territory where the cultural terrain can be as complex as the missions.

To help U.S. troops navigate a region where tribes, customs and languages are too numerous to count, the U.S. Joint Forces Command is looking to online gaming to improve cultural understanding.

“Virtual Cultural Awareness Trainer—Horn of Africa” — released in September — could soon be required training for personnel deploying to the Horn of Africa.

Prior to the program’s release, “there were very few options to give personnel the requisite knowledge before they were already in theater,” said Navy Lt. Dennis Barefoot, who was among a group of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa personnel involved in early testing of the program.

Cultural awareness was not addressed in most pre-deployment training, Barefoot said. “[The game] goes a long way to help correct that deficiency.”

The new virtual trainer developed by Alelo Inc., is the latest effort by the military to use technology to deepen troops’ knowledge on such issues. These virtual game-based programs also represent the future direction of Joint Knowledge Online, according to U.S. Joint Forces Command.

“We want to make it to where the learner is so engaged in what is happening that they don’t even know they are learning, where they are having so much fun and they are retaining,” said Joe Camacho, program director for JFCOM’s Joint Knowledge Development and Distribution Capability in a news release earlier this year.

“It’s really very interactive and it’s all Web-based, 24/7 global,” Camacho said.

Alelo Inc., which has developed language programs for troops deployed in Iraq an Afghanistan, also is at work on a cultural trainer for military personnel deploying to Afghanistan, according to Michelle Flowers, Alelo’s lead content developer and applied anthropologist.

The Africa program is focused on 13 countries around the Horn of Africa, a volatile region that includes war-ravaged Somalia. The virtual trainer immerses players in a 3-D world to simulate a real-world environment. The four-hour program gives general cultural background and country-specific information. For example, by moving a cursor around a map of Somalia, the user learns about the tribes scattered across the territory and aspects of their respective culture.

Programs also are customized for the nature of a soldier’s mission. Depending on the country, the troops will learn about local norms, interact with the population and encounter dilemmas that test their ability to navigate confusing cultural environments, Flowers said. In the process, “They’ll learn how to give criticisms in a culturally sensitive way,” she said. “We’re confident it will have an impact.”

At U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, commanders have recognized the need to fill in the cultural gaps among its leaders. A social science research center is now under development by AFRICOM, where experts from the academic world are being hired to help map the human terrain on the African continent. Africa experts and scholars also routinely visit Stuttgart as part of an ongoing lecture series.

The virtual game serves as an introduction to the Horn, according to Barefoot.

“It does a very good job of preparing people for a culture and experiences that may produce culture bias and certainly culture shock. This trainer may not produce experts on east African cultures, but it does provide personnel with a good mindset and way to constructively deal with both of those,” Barefoot said.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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