L.A. Video Game Company Teaches Soldiers How to Survive a Foreign Culture
A soldier interacts with a virtual character in one of Alelo's video games.
PHOTO BY JAMES REILLY
"People in America are always moving," the man from Trinidad says to the camera. "People back home are more laid-back. ... We have the most holidays in the world!"
He's sitting in a Del Rey office, in a nook that's shrouded in black and green fabric, waxing nostalgic about all the days his countrymen take off from work: Republic Day. Diwali. Indian Arrival Day. Carnival.
"We got a gold medal in the Olympics, and they made the day that guy came back a holiday!" he says with a broad smile.
But this isn't a wistful immigrant, cursing the fast-paced American lifestyle. He's a subject-matter expert hired temporarily by Alelo, a modest L.A. company that works primarily with the U.S. military and is quietly using interactive video games to fundamentally transform the way we learn about foreign language and cultures.
Alelo's 40 or so employees include linguists, anthropologists, game designers, videographers, researchers and 3-D animators. The company also takes advantage of its location in one of the most diverse cities on the planet, as its lessons include video clips from Angelenos who speak Swahili or Iraqi Arabic or who came from regions of strategic importance, including Southeast Asia, Taiwan and the Caribbean, explaining everything from business etiquette to slang.
When the United States invaded Iraq with more than 140,000 troops in March 2003, fewer than 50 service members spoke Arabic.
"The language and culture of the region — that was an afterthought," says James Reilly, Alelo's senior training and technical support specialist. "But the shift has been 180 degrees. They realized that if you go in there and you offend everybody, you don't get your job done."
These days, before deploying to Afghanistan, soldiers can don headsets and practice their Pashto while conversing with 3-D virtual natives, who respond instantly and become increasingly hostile to foreigners at higher difficulty levels.
Behind the universal avatar of the square-jawed John Pearson, voiced by Alelo senior media engineer Joel Harris, more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers have engaged in real-time conversations with artificially intelligent characters using the company's "social simulation" technology.
Lessons cover relevant, practical scenarios such as purchasing supplies or enforcing a curfew. Once a soldier has practiced a few key phrases, the game will drop him into a realistic rural or urban landscape, where a burly civilian might gruffly ask what he wants. Village elders might be more or less amenable based on whether the previous player performed the proper hand gestures or provided necessary medicine.
Unlike the popular Rosetta Stone language learning tool, which encourages rote memorization without cultural context and cannot emulate the natural flow of conversation, Alelo software uses surprisingly accurate speech-recognition technology to provide immediate feedback on pronunciation and politeness.
Before, when it came to educating soldiers in languages of strategic importance, the military relied heavily on the brick-and-mortar Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey; now, members of any branch of the military can practice their Arabic not only on a desktop computer but also on the go, using Alelo software on a mobile phone or laptop through the Department of Defense's Joint Knowledge Online network of military training games. Some even train with Alelo games at base warehouses, where the native character is projected onto a wall, standing at full height, and microphones in the room record the player's every word. Plus, coursework in Monterey now is "blended," meaning human teachers assign students to train with Alelo programs in addition to attending in-person classes.
Some government-sponsored technology is laughable; some is revolutionary. Examples of the former, from the untested Obamacare website to the hanging paper chads of the 2000 election, litter the nation's bureaucracy. When it comes to the latter, the groundbreaking, research-intensive stuff that serves far more practical needs than so-called killer apps, most of it starts out in the name of national security, trickling down over time and reimagined to meet capitalist needs. Work done by the folks at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) brought us the Internet and drones; their current projects include a flying car and fighting robot ponies.
In 2003, having already seen the violent tensions created by troops in Afghanistan who had received little training in understanding local customs or even the most basic phrases in Pashto and Dari, DARPA got in touch with Lewis Johnson, who was then a computer science professor at USC and the head of its Viterbi School of Engineering's Information Sciences Institute.
Anticipating the strategy that defined the tenure of generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal after the 2007 surge, which emphasized cooperating and communicating with locals to win hearts and minds, DARPA commissioned Johnson to develop software that would offer soldiers a crash course in local language and culture.
Research began in 2003, but within a few years Johnson realized this project was too big for the university to handle, so in 2005 he founded Alelo — the word means "tongue" or "tip of a paddle" in Hawaii, where Johnson grows his own coffee.
The initial software he developed, a game called Tactical Iraqi, was first distributed on a mass scale in 2006.
Johnson later left USC to run Alelo full-time. The company has expanded its focus beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to teach languages such as sub-Saharan French and Indonesian, each of which has a course that's the equivalent of three college semesters.
In addition, Alelo's eight Virtual Cultural Awareness Trainers (VCATs), which cover regions such as the Horn of Africa and Central America, take about four hours and include only basic phrases in the native language, focusing instead on politics, religion and customs, including advice about how to avoid insulting your Afghani hosts (always accept tea when it's offered and never show the soles of your shoes).
Although the quality of graphics in Alelo's games is not as high as that of a commercial game like Grand Theft Auto V, Johnson notes, "You're focusing on how to communicate, not on how realistic the wrinkles are in their face."
Alelo art director Chris Kasten does say he pays close attention to what he calls "native fidgets," making sure the behavior of the characters he designs is consistent with the extensive research the firm does about a region. In Muslim countries, men tend to stroke their fist-length beards, he says; in Southeast Asia, when a game player says something offensive, the natives will smile stiffly, with their shoulders back and eyebrows raised, to signify discomfort.
Alelo also has developed games to train the Australian military to understand the language and culture of East Timor, where peacekeepers have been stationed since 1999, and to teach English and American culture to more than 1 million subscribers in Iran, Indonesia, China, Russia and Vietnam through Voice of America, the U.S. government's overseas news broadcast.
Will these programs make their way into high school foreign-language classes?
Probably not anytime soon. Although Virginia's Department of Education sponsored a program in 2010 in conjunction with Alelo, funding soon ran dry and only a few modules covering part of the first year of a Chinese language class have been created.
Instead, Alelo is focusing on those who can afford to sponsor a game from scratch, including corporate training programs for the pharmaceutical, sales and hospitality industries.
It took 30 years for the Internet to go from government project to mainstream tool; at that rate, video games won't replace teachers until 2033. That means screen-phobic parents have plenty of time to organize their opposition.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name Chris Kasten. We regret the error.
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