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Video simulators

A panacea or Pandora’s Box?

By Ken Murray

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With modern video-based simulation systems, the possibilities are nearly endless, and when used within their limitations, these systems are excellent. But like so many training technologies, they are a dual-edged sword. If used properly and appropriately, they can be a powerful tool in the trainer’s tool belt, but if used improperly or inappropriately, they can program officer behaviors inconsistent with winning confrontations in the street.

A Training Revolution

F.A.T.S. in many ways revolutionized law enforcement training. This technology allowed agencies to participate in a form of realistic, somewhat interactive judgmental simulation training without the necessity, danger and expense of going to the firearms range. For many agencies, it was a dream come true, because they believed they could satisfy all the requirements of judgmental firearms training with a single technology without firing a shot.

Teamed with Caliber Press’ Deadly Force Encounters video series, officers stood in a square room, faced-off against a two-dimensional foe and decided (based on the circumstances) if they should shoot the suspect or not. Upon conclusion of the scenario, the machine ruled whether it was a good shoot or a bad one. It even printed a permanent record of the event for an officer’s training file. Unfortunately for many officers in the early F.A.T.S. machines, right-minded thinking and judgment was often overruled by the machine’s programming, and a printed record created by the machine that indicated an officer used poor judgment could be subpoenaed after future real-world shootings.

Since the inception of F.A.T.S., many systems have entered the marketplace. Today, the four most popular video-based simulation systems are available from F.A.T.S., IES, AIS and CAPS. These and several other smaller systems are all based on the same concept: They project an image onto a screen and allow students to interact with that image in some way.

These days you can incorporate baton strikes, OC, taser, firearms, etc. Some systems feature an instructor-controlled branching capability—if you shoot a suspect in a certain spot, for instance, the video branches to a different ending. Some allow the instructor to simulate the voice of the suspect so the student must use proper verbalization prior to any branching. Some systems are set up as dueling systems where the camera projects the live image of another person situated in another room so that instead of interacting with a recorded image, officers interact with the image of a live role player.

Some systems offer a live-fire capability if your structure allows you to fire your duty weapon with live ammunition at the screen. Some systems feature a shoot-back capability where the operator fires non-lethal projectiles at students if they remain exposed to suspect gunfire. This is accomplished by observing the students through a camera located above the screen. The camera not only records all student actions for a subsequent debrief, but also permits sighting of the shoot-back system with a joystick that moves the barrel of the shoot-back device and an infrared-laser sighting dot that appears on the operator’s screen. The dot indicates the projectile’s point of impact of the projectile if it’s fired; the sighting system is extremely accurate.

Many video-based training systems permit basic marksmanship training. You can develop courses of fire, and the system stores fire-course scores and remedial tools, such as muzzle positioning before, during and after a shot has been fired, and records a “pencil” trace of the muzzle through the use of an in-bore laser. One of IES’ systems even lets students use the projector for interactive classroom training in which they can respond to questions or scenarios through the use of Bluetooth interactive handheld devices.

Operator Error

The technology has improved to the extent that any training deficiencies are now, for the most part, operator based. And video simulators, like every other form of simulation training, rely heavily on the training psychology and methodology of the operator/instructor. Sadly, some trainers seem to believe there is some sort of value in an officer failing a simulation. From the early days of F.A.T.S., where it actually flashed “Bad Shoot” on the screen if your timing was off or there wasn’t an overt threat, to the scenarios  today where some instructor/operators inappropriately take any opportunity to pick off the smallest piece of exposed flesh with a shoot-back cannon, video simulators are only as good as the operator.

I recall one of the very early F.A.T.S. scenarios. A student entered a closed convenience store upon finding an open door. The camera took the student up and down the store aisles until, eventually, the student confronted a man with a long gun. At this point, most of the students challenged the man, who then swept the muzzle of the gun past the student. More often than not, the student fired upon the man. If the student did not fire, the man lowered the weapon and announced he was the store owner. If the student fired, the machine deemed it a bad shoot. Aside from the mechanical indictment, I can recall many F.A.T.S. operators who took great pleasure in putting students through several such scenarios, gloating later over coffee how many students “failed” such simulations. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Just as it takes a special sort of person to effectively role-play during force-on-force simulation training, it takes a special sort of person to instruct with/operate a video simulator. It begins with a deep desire to see students emerge from a training session as winners. I’m a big believer in interrupting a training session to question students on their course of action or their physical positioning. This technique, called “immediate remediation,” can prove extremely useful in conditioning effective behaviors while engaged in a situation. Rather than waiting for a scenario to conclude and critiquing a student’s mistakes, immediate remediation permits corrections to occur “in state” so that ineffective behaviors don’t have a chance to become ingrained into behavior.

In his book Mind, Muscle and Music, F.R. Wilson states, “Because the cerebellum is ‘nonjudgmental,’ it will store whatever movement patterns have been repeated—including errors. So initial performance and mental rehearsals should be slow, to ensure perfect and error-free sequencing and representation, followed by an increase in speed at such a gradual rate that accuracy of performance and images are not disrupted.”
Without the proper education and training in a skill, any practice performed that’s inconsistent with optimum performance merely programs incorrect, unnecessary motor memory that will prove increasingly difficult to overcome once the student subsequently attempts to learn proper techniques. This is a common error many trainers make—they observe incorrect performance, let it happen and then orate on the mistakes they observed.

All of this is well-intentioned, but as we all know, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Intervention and immediate remediation is a complex art to master. I can’t explain the concept in sufficient detail in this article; I merely want to raise the issue as one that must be addressed by trainers using any form of simulation training including video simulators.

The early mistakes in using such technologies for training still occur, and now that so many of the video-based simulators permit the authoring of scenarios, if we don’t remember the mistakes made in the past, we’re destined to recreate situations that caused many to lose faith in video systems.

The Video-Game Mentality

How many of you have observed or participated in a scenario where you stand facing the screen and wait for the magic moment? You know what I’m talking about. It looks like the beginning scene in “Gunsmoke,” where you’re waiting for someone to say, “Draw, pardner.” Such artificiality, if permitted by the instructor, conditions a fixed response to a potentially deadly situation.

On the other side of that coin, it feels weird moving around in a square room interacting with a two-dimensional subject; unfortunately, that’s one of the limitations of this type of simulation training. Any simulation training requires a balance between safety and realism.

That doesn’t mean that, given those limitations, instructor staff should accept ineffective student responses. Students might feel goofy shouting commands at paper targets at the range, but so what? We should still make them do it. We’re testing student actions, and we must demand performances that will translate into successful behaviors in the real world.

An intervention-style teaching model helps to recalibrate students’ responses. If they respond in a wooden manner, stop the scenario and get out there and model successful behavior if you must. Then get students to copy what you’ve modeled, and restart the scenario. Over time, students will acclimate to the simulation environment and respond much more realistically.

In many ways, students will need to learn how to function in the simulation environment and adapt to its limitations. As long as the simulator has been reasonably designed (as many of the currently available interactive judgmental simulators are), this depth of adaptation is inconsequential. But if students must alter their actions to the extent they are inconsistent with winning during an actual encounter simply to make the simulation successful, I suggest you reevaluate using that particular simulator.

Simulators that require students to substantially change behaviors to succeed in the simulator don’t ingrain successful fighting skills; instead, they’re mere video games. I was given the opportunity to try out a driving simulator a few years ago. I’ve been driving a car for 30 years, yet when I sat in the driver’s seat of this simulator I smashed into all sorts of things. I could’ve learned how to drive this simulator if I spent enough time in it, but in my estimation, I would’ve been learning how to drive the simulator, not learning how to drive my car better, and I harbor grave concerns about any system that makes you change your motor memory programs in order to adapt to the simulator.

That’s why David Luxton and I spent so much time perfecting the FX® marking cartridges and conversion devices when we started SIMUNITION®—so students could use their own weapons in their own duty gear. When it came down to fighting with a firearm in defense of their lives or the lives of others, we didn’t want officers to have conditioned any contrary motor memory programs in areas such as drawing, firing or reloading.


Today’s video simulation systems permit the use of weapon patterns identical to duty weapons, which is great. The problem with most video-based systems doesn’t reside in the hardware but rather in the lardware—the guy whose butt is glued to the chair, operating the machine. If he takes great pleasure in running scenarios that induce failure in students, or salivates over firing plastic balls at small exposed parts of the student’s body, then perhaps it’s time to find somebody else for the job. Of course he’ll try to justify such actions using the tired old excuse, “They need to learn what their limitations are.” That statement is not in and of itself inaccurate, but trainers such as this don’t usually follow a building-block plan for conditioning effective action. They instead simply use a red-pencil mentality for pointing out errors.

I don’t care if you’ve got the most advanced simulator with the newest operating software: If the operator’s psychological programming is not up to snuff, the machine is a dangerous device destined to program behaviors in students that are ultimately inconsistent with winning fights.

Until next time, train hard and train safe.

Ken Murray is the original cofounder of SIMUNITION®. He teaches instructor schools on how to set up and conduct safe and effective simulation training, and is considered the leading expert on reality based training. His new book, Training at the Speed of Life—The Definitive Textbook for Police and Military Reality Based Training, is being praised as the “bible for reality based training.” Murray frequently writes for PoliceOne.com and is the director of training for the Armiger Police Training Institute. Contact him through the institute’s Web site (www.armiger.net)

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