Serious games level up logistics learning for the U.S. Marine Corps
At the Marine Corps University (MCU), students who are training to be officers are required to take a collection of courses to gain a holistic understanding of how a unit functions. One of those courses is field logistics, which deals with the complexities of supply — such as how much water, food, fuel, and ammunition a unit should carry or leave when moving from point A to point B. A good logistics plan keeps the unit healthy and supports the operational plan, while a bad plan can compromise operational goals or hurt the unit. Yet logistics has proved difficult to teach to officers in training, who have only one course to learn about the nuances of decision-making and the constraints that logistics analysts may be under.
Lincoln Laboratory’s Marine Corps Field Logistics Instructional Environment (MCFLIE) offers a way to immerse students in logistics training. MCFLIE is a type of "serious game" that tasks students with allocating resources to a marine expeditionary unit throughout a multi-stage operation. While playing, students are given quick and extensive feedback on how their decisions are impacting their units, allowing them to experiment with different solutions and gain an intuitive understanding of the principles of logistics and their trade-offs.
"The U.S. Marine Corps believes very much in an integrated force and cross training," says Robert Seater, who was the Laboratory’s technical lead on the MCFLIE team. "Officers need to understand the deep and subtle properties of survivability, simplicity, and responsiveness. MCFLIE offers a way to create an environment that can be used quickly, while capturing the doctrinal and fundamental principles of logistics in a real environment."
The idea for MCFLIE came from Marine Corps Captains Madison Carroll, Brendan Carroll, and William Cunningham while they were students at the MCU. They submitted a proposal for the game for the 2019 USMC Commandant’s Innovation Challenge and won. The Office of Naval Research Global TechSolutions sponsored the submittal and provided the funding for Lincoln Laboratory to bring the idea to fruition.
MCFLIE was designed, built, tested, and transitioned to the Marine Corps over the course of one year. The game is now in the process of being approved for use in MCU classrooms.
To play MCFLIE, students must route supplies from a supply ship to a number of Marine Corps operational units that are moving to different locations on land. They are given information such as the number of people that make up each unit’s crew, the equipment the unit is carrying, their average consumption of resources per day, and their mission priority and status. Students build a supply plan that that they can adjust as the game progresses. At any point, they can access a scorecard screen to see how their choices are impacting each unit’s ability to function.
MCFLIE’s real-time feedback via the scorecard is the key to its educational success. Traditionally, MCU officers in training learned logistics by reading historical examples of how logistics made or broke different wartime efforts and then writing up an analysis or alternative plan that would receive a pass or fail mark.
"It’s easy to draw lines going to all the right spots on a map, but it’s hard to figure out if you actually have the right ratio of water and fuel going to a specific unit given their activity level," says Seater. "It might be easy to see these kinds of details by looking at numbers in a report, but when you actually play a game to experience them, it becomes much more memorable."
MCFLIE was designed to take less than an hour to learn and two hours to play. It is also customizable so that instructors can give students different priorities and different plans of maneuver to support, which helps them apply their theoretical knowledge in various situations.
To build MCFLIE, the Laboratory team referred to MCU logistics course material, conducted interviews with MCU students and logistics experts, and incorporated the principles of logistics from Marine Corps doctrine. They also used real-world data, such as fuel burn rates, to make the scenarios in the game as accurate as possible.
The game is structured as a node network, where a node represents a location where units can move to and pick up or leave supplies.
"The node network is an abstraction of how things move in the real world. The arcs, or edges, between the nodes encode all of the factors for traveling between nodes," says Jo Kurucar, who was the analytics lead on the team. These factors include, for example, travel time, distance, and the terrain and quality of a road or path. "We use this kind of abstraction to compute flows between nodes, so we can compute how resources move throughout the system as assets move on the network. This is modeling how real-world resources are disseminated during an operation," Kurucar adds.
The information that flows through the nodes during gameplay is used to build and update the scorecard as the game progresses.
Jess Alekseyev, who was the programmatic lead for the team, says usability was a key factor that the team focused on when building MCFLIE. Alekseyev worked on developing training materials that broke the game down into digestible chunks so new users could get used to the gameplay quickly. Madeline Chmielinski Malan worked on the game’s visual design and information presentation so that it was easier to read, access, and understand and Manny Mallea pulled the game design, analytics, and user experience pieces together into a functional interface as the lead developer.
"The game was really well received, and we consistently get requests for demos," says Alekseyev.
Now, the team is conducting follow-on analysis work with the Marine Corps for operational planning and with the Military Sealift Command Admiral for equipment requirement. In 2022, the team won a best paper award at the International Conference on Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics for their paper titled "Fun as a Strategic Advantage: Applying Lessons in Engagement from Commercial Games to Military Logistics Training."
Inquiries: contact Anne McGovern