New Serious Games Teach Counseling Best Practices to U.S. Army Leaders

ELITE is a new series of interactive and self-paced instructional video game simulation exercises for training U.S. Army leaders for improving their counseling knowledge and skills

Mary Gregerson, PhD
Heartlandia Psychology, Parkville, MO


Marco Conners, MA
US Army National Simulation Center, Ft. Leavenworth, KS,

A young Army lieutenant walks into a prickly work situation rife with the risk of physical and verbal assault between Army personnel.  An enlisted specialist is swinging wildly at his sergeant who mocked Hispanics when faced with handling a drunken soldier.  Yet this leader, many years younger than the more veteran soldier and sergeant, takes action without a second thought, defusing a situation before any executable offenses occur.  You see, in training she had often quite effectively handled such situations in a new U.S. Army serious video game called Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment (ELITE) Lite.

One critical skill all junior U.S. Army leaders must develop early in their careers is counseling.  As the Army Field Manual 6-22 (Army Leadership) aptly states, “Counseling is one of the most important leadership development responsibilities for Army leaders.  Counseling is central to leader development.” Traditional counseling training has typically included a mixture of classroom lectures and discussion, role-playing exercises, and practice filling out counseling forms.

ELITE Lite takes a much different approach to traditional methods of instruction.  Today’s soldiers have grown up in a digital age. These military students tend to learn more and faster when placed into an interactive serious game environment.  In ELITE Lite, students train in an interactive, self-paced instructional virtual experience and then apply their counseling knowledge and skills in a series of simulation exercises. ELITE’s consistency standardizes the counseling process and methodology.

Army leadership doctrine identifies three types of counseling:  Event, Performance, and Professional Growth.  Doctrine states that strong leaders counsel subordinates for a variety of reasons ranging from providing feedback for exceptional duty performance to providing guidance and assistance to subordinates with personal or performance problems.  Young, inexperienced leaders may find it particularly challenging to counsel performance or personal difficulties. These difficulties can also span a wide range of topics like financial or legal issues, family or health issues, or strained interpersonal relationships with peers, superiors and significant others.

Given the importance of counseling to leader development, civilian and military technical experts collaborated to devise ELITE to train junior leaders on how to counsel subordinates effectively.  One of the civilian organizations heavily involved is the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a DOD-approved, Army-sponsored, University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) with its government research portfolio managed by the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL).

ICT spun off ELITE from an earlier ICT research effort funded by the Office for Naval Research’s Immersive Naval Officer Training System.  In October 2011, a team from ICT installed the first Army version of the mixed-reality prototype at Fort Benning, Georgia. Interviews with soldiers and leaders developed typical scenarios using the soldiers’ vernacular.  Next, Army and ICT collaboration developed a system adaptable to a laptop while retaining the initial robust prototype.  The resulting game based simulation was renamed ELITE Lite.  This self-paced, laptop-based version of the original mixed-reality version of ELITE is primarily a stand-alone simulation that can also be networked or hosted on a server permitting distribution to multiple classrooms.

ELITE Lite is a platform tailoring training for many different professionals, not just counseling.  For instance, doctors can learn to effectively explain medication action, or chaplains can practice to provide spiritual guidance.  More immediately, ICT and Army collaboration are developing a version to train company commanders and their subordinates on handling, preventing, and mitigating Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention (SHARP).  This software is scheduled for release in September 2015.

In developing ELITE Lite, the ICT began by creating relevant scenarios focused on common high-visibility situations that Army leaders encounter. ELITE Lite training divides into three parts:

  • An up-front, self-paced training module provides basic instruction on the Army Field Manual [6-22, Appendix B (Counseling)] doctrinal principles of performance counseling.
  • Five performance interactive counseling practice scenarios have counseling sessions with state-of-the-art virtual characters. These practice scenarios present students with a variety of contemporary and relevant leadership challenges:  On-the-job personnel conflicts, financial and family problems, and a DUI situation.  Two recently developed scenarios were completed in partnership with the Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program Office and use SHARP-related storylines as a backdrop for the new counseling scenarios.
  • Training includes an embedded assessment of student performance to provide students feedback through a self-guided, After-Action-Review, and a printout of their performance.

The Army Games for Training program has begun to distribute the ELITE Lite software Army-wide via the Army MilGaming website. A long term vision for ELITE creates the ability for ELITE methodology and platform to train Soldiers in many areas, other than counseling, where additional interpersonal leadership skills are required.  Five ELITE Lite training modules are now a part of U.S. Military Academy cadet leadership classes.  The U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) will include ELITE Lite in next year’s curriculum at all colleges and universities that host an ROTC department.  Additionally, these gaming scenarios may soon be part of the curriculum for junior non-commissioned officers in fourteen Warrior Leader Courses across the United States.

Simulations save the Army extraordinary costs.  Initially ICT proposed having life-like avatars interact with students in a classroom setting.  The barrier that avatar classrooms would need to be built at least on 14 posts, camps, and stations where the Warrior Leader Course was taught, made ICT turn to computer-based avatar training.

Initial positive evaluations show the potential for tools like ELITE to enhance leader development training.  This simulation aims to promulgate standardized inputs in a familiar electronic learning modality simpatico with the new “wired” young men and women who lead soldiers in today’s Army.  Through ELITE these young leaders have guided experience simulating the challenges they will face leading the U.S. Army in a complex environment both at home and abroad.


Sheftick, G.  (2014). Avatar-based simulations to boost counseling skills. For ARNEWS stories, visit

Wansbury, T.G., Hill Jr., R. W., &i Belman, O. (2014/Oct-Dec), ELITE Training, New game-based simulation expands to teach new leaders ‘soft skills’, Army AL&T Magazine.

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