Military Sims? US Army’s new video game tackles sexual abuse

The US Army has released a video game training commanders to tackle sexual assault and harassment in their units. The game is said to give leaders “golden rules” of conduct in each scenario, as sex-related crimes remain a hot issue in the military.  

The game, called Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention and Response (SHARP), will be available for company, battalion and brigade commanders as an interactive “counseling tool” to eliminate these issues in their ranks. The release comes as a part of the Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month campaign, according to the US Army’s statement.

SHARP’s gameplay is based on interaction between real officers and virtual soldiers who fall victim to sexual assaults and harassment. Players are expected to respond to animated scenarios using right and wrong ways to handle such situations, according to the Army manuals, with a time limit of up to 90 minutes.

The game kicks off by showing players two different animated vignettes. First shows a sexual assault happening in the barracks, prompting players to respond. The second involves sexual harassment in the motor pool.

"There is a noncommissioned officer in the motor pool, who is using foul language or making inappropriate statements," said Tim Wansbury of the Army Research Laboratory that helped develop the game. "It's clearly behavior we wouldn't expect in the workplace."

Both scenarios are illustrated with animated segments showing correct and wrong responses as well as a combination of the two. Then, players move into the next stage of the game that features virtual avatars officers are meant to interact with.

READ MORE: High rates of sexual abuse among US military children stems from culture of dehumanization

“You’d have an incident, the commander and first sergeant would respond to the incident in a way that was not in accordance with policy or law, and then you’d have a breakdown with the court case,” said Major Greg Pavlichko, chief of the Army’s Games for Training program at the Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

He said the Army's SHARP office realized "a lot of issues that were happening with sexual assault and response was that command teams, especially at the company level, didn't understand what the 'golden rules' were, or what they were supposed to do with a sexual assault or harassment report.”

Training officers with an interactive video game would be much more efficient, as compared to classic PowerPoint presentations, the Army said. “For a lot of younger people, gaming is kind of innate and organic to them, so they understand it right away.

"Games are fun. Training is not supposed to be fun. But then after enough senior leaders see the capability, they see its potential, they understand it's potential. They see soldiers using it and start to see the results of the capability – now with gaming, everybody wants it," Pavlichko added.

The game will include two scenarios – one where a soldier is the victim of sexual assault, and one where a soldier is sexually harassed by another soldier. In the latter case, the commander doing the training gets to interact with both the victim and the alleged perpetrator of the sexual harassment.

Aimed at being an efficient tool for strengthening military discipline and morale, SHARP does not include sex-related crimes committed by servicemen against civilians, including children.

In January, AP reported that there were at least 1,584 substantiated cases of military dependents, or children of US service members, being sexually assaulted between 2010 and 2014, with the victims being "overwhelmingly" female.

Enlisted military were found to have abused children in 840 cases; most of those service members were male. Family members of dependent children were responsible in 332 cases.

In 2015, Human Rights Watch said that there were as many as 18,900 recorded cases of sexual assault against US servicemen, with only five percent of those cases leading to any conviction. The victims were “spat on, deprived of food, assailed with obscenities... threatened with ‘friendly fire’ during deployment… demoted, disciplined [or] discharged for misconduct,” the paper said.