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5 ways gaming has changed the military

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Games have had a profound influence on everything from how we watch football on television to how we lose weight. As it turns out, they're also changing the nature of the U.S. military.

While it's still essential for soldiers to be in peak shape and prepared for traditional ground combat, today's modern warfare has a strong digital component — and gaming's influences extend far beyond the battlefield. The Army, for example, spends between $10 million to $20 million a year on licenses, modifications and development of video games.

Here are five ways games have embedded themselves into modern military life.

1. Refreshed recruitment

The iconic "I Want You" Uncle Sam recruitment poster was used widely during the first two World Wars, but alas, the times have changed. Nowadays, one of the U.S. Army's most dependable means of turning the heads of potential recruits is a video game.

America's Army, launched in 2002, used a top of the line graphics engine to showcase the life of a modern soldier — and it was offered freely to anyone who wanted a copy.

The game has since expanded onto the Xbox 360 and video game arcades and spawned a host of imitators. It has a registered user base that tops 11 million people who have played over 260 million total hours and counting since its launch.

A Philadelphia recruitment center took things a step further a couple years ago, hosting a collection of war-themed video games and helicopter simulators that were meant to encourage urban youths to consider a career in the armed forces.

2. Revised basic training

The military has actually been using games as a training tool since the Vietnam era in one form or another, but in recent years, that has increased dramatically. In 2010, the Army announced plans to adjust basic training to accommodate recruits whose skills might lie more on the technology side than the physical side.

Noncommercial versions of America's Army - versions that incorporate real weapons -- are part of the drill, but military contractor Raytheon has teamed with Motion Reality (the company behind the 3D effects for "Avatar") to create a virtual reality simulator allowing soldiers to wear full gear and toss physical objects to better simulate actual combat.

3. Unmanned vehicle control

While some bomber planes still need pilots, game tech is making that a less common occurrence. Several bombing runs in the war in Afghanistan were actually conducted by pilots who did all the flying from an air-conditioned room in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

It's not quite the "Top Gun" experience the movies like to showcase, but drones like the Predator or more lethal Reaper get the job done just as effectively without putting U.S. soldiers lives' at risk. In the first six months of 2008, pilots at that base launched 64 missiles and dropped seven 500-pound bombs in Afghanistan — all from a virtual cockpit.

The military is using game tech to defuse bombs, too. Specifically, the Wii remote, which in 2008 was adapted to control military-grade bomb-defusing robots.

4. Safer Humvee gun mounts

Soldiers who pop their heads out of a Humvee to man the weapon's system are often targets for snipers. But the Lightweight Stabilized M240 Weapon System eliminates that risk.

It's a rooftop gun mount for the vehicles that swivels in whichever direction the enemy is hiding — but it's controlled from inside the cockpit using dual joysticks and a large touchscreen display. And, if soldiers prefer, they can use a modified, military spec version of the Xbox 360 controller to operate the weapon.

"There are a lot of important lessons to learn from the gaming community," Mark Bigham, director of business development for Raytheon Tactical Intelligence Systems, told Popular Mechanics. "In the past, the military far outspent the gaming industry on human-interface technology, but that's changed. It's never going to go back the other way. The gaming industry is such a huge market. The investment in R&D that they're going to spend on human factors is going to dwarf even what the Department of Defense will spend."

5. Weapons testing

Even the military has to go through the drudgery of verifying software, but the Defense Department has hopped on the gamification bandwagon to get it done.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking to create a game that will crowdsource software checks for weapons systems. It's still in the concept phase, but could result in more reliable systems.

"Currently, formal program verification is not widely practiced due to high costs and the fact that fundamental program verification problems resist automation," says the division. "This is particularly an issue for the Department of Defense because formal verification … currently requires highly specialized talent and cannot be scaled to the size of software found in modern weapon systems."

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