War games

Soldier training tool can be played on the Web or in the field

Chris Jones is a man on a mission: to sell the Defense Department and other agencies on his game for training personnel on common, mission-critical tasks.

Jones is a former Army National Guard sergeant who conceived of the Occupational Skills Competition and Review (OSCAR) game while looking for creative ways to train his troops during Desert Storm. He was a gunner and ammunition team chief for a self- propelled Paladin howitzer unit.

"As a sergeant, I was always trying to come up with unique ways for training soldiers. So many times, if you don't come up with creative ways, people get bored and just hate the training," Jones said. "So I started trying to make games out of things. I made flash cards out of [meal ready-to-eat] boxes."

OSCAR can be played two ways: on the World Wide Web and as a board game. Units get both when they buy the game, which costs $190. A deployment version packed in a waterproof, high- impact case is available for $570. The board game is better for "drilling information into your head," while the Web game is better for testing, Jones said.

OSCAR is designed to keep troops up to snuff on common tasks, such as first aid and navigation. It was first aimed specifically at field artillery soldiers, but MediaWorks LLC, the company Jones co-founded, now has a version for tasks common across the Army. In addition, Jones said the game can be adapted to any military occupational specialty and to other government agencies — any organization with a set of common, need-to-know tasks not practiced routinely.

Only authorized active-duty soldiers, Army Reserve and National Guard members, and Army civilian employees have access to the Web version (www.oscar training.com), which requires registration and a password. The game offers interactive, animated scenarios using Macromedia Inc.'s Shockwave player, so streaming servers and high bandwidth are not necessary. If questions are answered correctly, the story line continues, but a wrong answer can have dire consequences. An incorrectly answered navigation question, for example, can lead the players into a minefield. The game tracks wrong answers so that noncommissioned officers in charge of training can see where they need to focus their efforts. A soldier's results can be e-mailed to those officers.

After leaving the Army, Jones studied graphic design and held a variety of Web-related jobs before starting MediaWorks. He founded the company in 1997 with David Frank, company president. Media.Works grossed more than $1 million last year—not enough to make the pair rich, but more than enough to pay the bills, they said. Although OSCAR was intended to be the company centerpiece, brand-identity marketing and interactive design services have been the bread and butter while the company learns to market OSCAR.

Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops, who train only one weekend a month and two weeks each year, are the primary users of OSCAR so far, with units in eight states and in Bosnia playing the game, according to Frank and Jones.

But the company is struggling to find an effective marketing strategy to sell the game on a large scale. "We found out quickly we don't know how to sell to the military," Jones said. One user of the game, Staff Sgt. Christian Wilkinson, maintenance sergeant with the 54th Medical Company at Fort Lewis, Wash., voiced a similar frustration.

"It's excellent as far as training value, but I wish there were more of them out there," Wilkinson said. "I've been pushing to get more in the unit, but it goes around in a big circle of everyone saying it's great but no one wanting to actually make a decision and buy it."

Wilkinson owns the board game, but said his unit does not yet have widespread access to the Internet for the Web game.

To tackle their marketing problem, Jones and Frank hired Aurora Marketing and Business Development LLC, which within a week got them in to see Brig. Gen. Franklin Brown, head of training at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Monroe, Va.

Despite their troubles marketing to the military, Jones said he won't give up. "I don't want to see it disappear. It's too good for that."

MORE INFO

MediaWorks LLC

Location: Falls Church, Va.

Founded: 1997

Services: Multimedia design and communications, including presentations,

video productions, Web site design, kiosks, exhibits and interactive brochures.

Products: Best-PX, a custom presentation tool, and OSCAR, a training

game for soldiers.

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