Situational Awareness is a term you hear quite often in World of Tanks. While it applies to all games we’re going to focus on what it means to the armchair tank commander. In World of Tanks you are given a great deal more information than is historically accurate but you are required to process it alone while assuming the simplified jobs of the Tank Commander, Driver, and Gunner. The game takes care of presenting the information simulating the perceptions of the Commander and Radio Operator. While the loaders job is critical to a tank crew it is mostly mechanical and not of concern here. Anyone wondering just how complex some of these jobs are should check out the Chieftans walkthroughs of various historical tanks such as the M26 Pershing. Or perhaps M37 Howitzer Motor Carriage is more your style? Assembling the shell from parts while under fire sure looks like a fun job.
You can also see how simplified and intuitive our composite controls are. Point and click, need to worry about priming handles, gear shifts, firing mode selectors or any of that real world nonsense. Even considering this simplified interface, and taking for granted the mini-map and instant, perfectly accurate communication from teammates for spotting coordinates, there’s still a lot to process.
WHATEVER ISN’T HELPING YOU IS HINDERING YOU
There are many things that can hinder situational awareness but only a few things that help it. Maintaining good situational awareness means being at the peak of your cognitive abilities at that moment. Keeping your playing space free of distractions, being well rested, and being in a mental state conducive to concentration all help. If you’re thinking about dinner, worrying about work, tired, or could be interrupted at any moment your cognitive abilities are going to suffer and this will show through in your gameplay.
Due to the time between pushing the Battle! button and actually beginning the match many people will be reading web pages or possibly playing other games during map loads which will force them to process what should be pre-match data while trying to drive out of the pack and get into position. Unless you’re in a Self Propelled Gun where you’ll probably be doing the same basic things every match, knowing the teams general composition is vital. If you see someone drive straight ahead into a friendly when the match begins they could be a bot, but more likely they’re just not paying attention.
WHAT IS SITUATIONAL AWARENESS?
We'll turn to Wikipedia for a definition of situational awareness.
The most common theoretical framework of SA is provided by Dr. Mica Endsley (1995b). Endsley's model illustrates three stages or steps of SA formation: perception, comprehension, and projection.
- Perception (Level 1 SA): The first step in achieving SA is to perceive the status, attributes, and dynamics of relevant elements in the environment. Thus, Level 1 SA, the most basic level of SA, involves the processes of monitoring, cue detection, and simple recognition, which lead to an awareness of multiple situational elements (objects, events, people, systems, environmental factors) and their current states (locations, conditions, modes, actions).
- Comprehension (Level 2 SA): The next step in SA formation involves a synthesis of disjointed Level 1 SA elements through the processes of pattern recognition, interpretation, and evaluation. Level 2 SA requires integrating this information to understand how it will impact upon the individual's goals and objectives. This includes developing a comprehensive picture of the world, or of that portion of the world of concern to the individual.
- Projection (Level 3 SA): The third and highest level of SA involves the ability to project the future actions of the elements in the environment. Level 3 SA is achieved through knowledge of the status and dynamics of the elements and comprehension of the situation (Levels 1 and 2 SA), and then extrapolating this information forward in time to determine how it will affect future states of the operational environment.
That’s a lot of words, and how it applies to Internet Tanks requires some explanation. We’ll be further focusing on Level 1: Perception in this article. Comprehension and Projection each deserve their own article and will come later.
WoT presents you with a lot of information to process at any one time. Everything you do takes a certain amount of focus and in a given span of time you only have so much to go around. This is why distractions are a killer in any game. If current cognitive research is correct, it means that much like a single core microprocessor, when you’re thinking about more than one thing at a time what you’re actually doing is thinking about one thing for a moment, then the next, then the next. Driving a tank may not require full concentration as you may not need to adjust your heading as fast as your mind is capable of sending adjustment information to your fingers. Drive a tank and aim and fire the gun with the other hand and you’re at a minimally acceptable level for a WoT player. Time switching between tasks in the mind is lost time and depending on how accurate your motor skills are you may require adjustments after taking an action to get it where you want it to be. When you see someone in an ELC AMX blow the tracks off an opponent only to careen into a boulder a split second later you’ve just witnessed someone devote so much attention to aiming and firing there wasn’t enough left to drive with.
While some of us have better motor skills than others and require less post action adjustment for aiming and driving we all have a physical limit for just how much can go on in the mind at any one time. The limit is difficult to quantify as everyone processes information slightly differently but driving optimally while aiming and firing and glancing at the minimap to check what’s ahead at “the same time” is asking a lot of anyone.
Slow moving tanks are somewhat easier to drive using this framework because their slower speed means you can devote more time processing other information like what’s visible on the minimap, who can you get an angle to fire at from here, and which bit of cover up ahead looks better to get into. When I drive a T-150 my movements are deliberate and calculated, my demeanor is calm, I have time to consider enemy movements, and the match is closer to a game of chess for me.
Conversely, driving a small fast tank is more of an adrenaline rush as the body works much harder to keep the brain at perfect homeostasis. When I drive an ELC AMX I can afford a glance at the minimap only when driving straight and no enemy tanks are visible. When that’s not the case I’m hiding in a bush waiting for a well aimed shot before a full throttle reverse, or sliding around the map in a full speed flanking maneuver dodging every pebble to avoid vaulting the tank off a cliff. At the end of these matches my heart rate is always elevated.
Focus and multi-tasking work against each other. The more focused you are on a single thing the less time you allow yourself to think of other things. This is how people get lost in books, or television, or waiting for their target to come out from behind a boulder while two other enemies get in behind them. This is also how tennis champions beat their opponents, though, so it works both ways. Start lobbing more balls at those tennis players and they may have issues!
In WoT you’re relying on exclusively visual and audio information. Your task is simplified in that you needn’t process tactile feedback, yet complicated in that tactile feedback is pretty handy in maintaining Situational Awareness in everyday life. WoT is also an artificially created environment so your feedback is limited to what it projects for you. In real life you might get clues that an ambush is waiting by the lack of wildlife. Tanks tend to scare off birds. In WoT you frequently see birds flying carefree across your artillery reticle, blissfully ignorant of the literal warzone below.
Most of the audio information is there to reinforce the video information. The game will ding at you when new enemy contacts are available on the minimap. Ricochet sounds reinforce the fact that fifteen people are trying to kill you, but failing for the moment. Sergeant Stan helpfully tells you that a package has arrived through the mail slot and killed your driver, Kenny.
Most of these things can be perceived visually and probably processed faster than the audio can explain them. On the other hand, checking out the new ping on the minimap visually can distract you from the fight you may be in. Audio cues serve to alert you to their presence but come back to them later, perhaps after you've taken out your current target. That’s how I choose to perceive the game. I’m filtering out the flashes on the status HUD because for me, looking away from the action even for that split second might compromise my perception of the fight. I fear I might miss something more important if I look away, so I rely on the slower audio response for that information because I can integrate visual data and audio data more efficiently than 2 separate sets of visual data.
WHAT GOOD IS ALL THIS?
We have to start somewhere and explaining perception is the first step. Understanding the perception aspect can give you insight into the processes other people use to gather information as well. It’s one thing to tear an opposing force apart with superior brawling from the front because you outnumber them, have better firepower and better armor; but it’s entirely another to pin down a superior force by guiding their perception if your forces. Everyone perceives things differently and has their own decision making processes, but everyone also has a level of information that will overload their senses and leave them vulnerable.
Watching your Pershing around a corner takes a little bit of focus, but watching your Pershing moving back and forth, looking as though you may give them a shot at your track any second takes more. They have to be ready when you slip up so they are compelled to focus more intently. Now that you’ve stolen most of their focus it’s far easier for your buddy in the AMX 13 90 to swing around behind them and unload into their engine block. Simplified but classic information overload.
We’ve all seen a single T-50-2 stop an entire team literally in its tracks trying to shoot it. It may die in a hail of gunfire but that player has stolen the focus of most if not all of the opposing force for those few seconds. It’s like sacrificing one military unit for a free turn in a turn based strategy game. Obviously this is more useful if your artillery is actually ready to fire when it happens, but deciding on that best time for a scouting run is a matter of Projection level Situational Awareness.
HOMEWORK SECTION! (GROAN!)
In the next installment, "Situational Awareness in Tanks: Comprehension" we’ll take a closer look at making sense of all the data presented to you, and what you can tell by the data that is missing. In the meantime you may want to go to your WoT menu, and check “Enable battle recording” in your Game tab if you haven’t already. While time spent watching replays is time that could be spent playing, watching the recordings will give you a chance to take your time perceiving what went on. You can then compare what you would do with all the time you need to analyze the data versus what you did in the heat of battle. Athletic coaches don’t review the game footage for their health, they do it to identify areas for improvement and so should we.
Did not see that coming