“Train as you fight!” — The Need for Real Faces in Immersive Training

“Train as you fight!” — The Need for Real Faces in Immersive Training


The inherently dangerous mission of preparing law enforcement and military personnel for crisis situations, particularly when they are equipped with live rounds, lends well to the usage of simulations in training. Not only does this form of educational technology enable them to train safely and with fewer resources, but it also creates a malleable environment wherein instructors can manipulate outcomes to maximize trainee potential in their reactions to extreme situations. When first responders train with simulation, therefore, the goal must be complete representational fidelity, or else it will fail to adequately prepare them for the realities of an escalated or combative situation.

The technological objective in simulation is to make the experience so realistic that it triggers the body’s necessary physiological response— the sympathetic nervous system. This fundamental action engages the brain’s intrinsic ‘fight or flight’ component, one of humanity’s most basic survival mechanisms. The sympathetic nervous system has been proven as a relevant component of the law enforcement professional’s daily job1. When acute stress in a crisis situation impacts physical response, multiple studies have shown that the shooting abilities2, cognitive performance3, and self-defense capabilities4 of military and law enforcement personnel are negatively affected. Unless humans evolve into robots, the reality of this inherent physical reaction cannot be reduced or removed from our crisis response; therefore, it must be incorporated into training with the same level of intensity it will be experienced in the field.

In order to truly engage a trainee in realistic training, some agencies include additional stimuli like return-fire with airsoft pellets or scent generators for complete sensory immersion. This level of realism is a critical component of “train as you fight”, a mantra embraced by military and law enforcement leaders for decades. It is also a significant reason why emerging technology like video game virtual reality will never meet the serious mission training needs of an agency or unit that treats training as they should— as a matter of life or death.


While suitable for skill-building and entertainment purposes, computer-generated imagery (CGI) is functionally incapable of overriding the physiological barrier humans have in creating an emotional connection to something unreal. Recent fMRI data has proven that the brain reacts differently to a real face than it does to a CGI face5. The brain is so sophisticated that even when the virtual face looks exactly like a real face, people will expect the image to behave like a real person and will detect behavioral nuances that deviate from human norms.6 Thus, to fully engage the trainee and prepare them for the reality of escalated circumstances, simulator training must incorporate real faces on live humans, exhibiting true emotion and natural behaviors.

“Simulation with this level of realism better prepares the trainee for both an incident and the moral and social recovery afterward,” says Noël Lipana, DSW. “Traditional trauma treatments do not typically address the nuanced exchanges of emotion and natural behaviors between actors in shootings. Just as trainees become more practiced in fighting, high-fidelity simulation provides the elements necessary to create interventions that address mental and moral aspects together.” Dr. Lipana, an expert trainer on the moral dimension associated with high-risk professions, completed the work-study for his Doctorate of Social Work at the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families.

Modern simulators, like the ones used daily by military and first responders around the world, are ideal for the level of intense crisis management training required because the technology uses high definition video scenarios of actual people, behaving naturally, in a life-sized interactive projection. When evaluating educational technology for crisis management training, images in VR goggles of avatars behaving badly simply cannot fool the human brain into thinking there is a real threat. True-to-life interaction is essential when trying to prepare first responders, and there is no other way to prepare for the intensity of real-world missions other than to “train as you fight!”

Stay tuned for part 2 of the “train as you fight” series…


By Joy VerPlanck, D.E.T. with Noël Lipana, DSW

Dr. Joy VerPlanck earned her Doctorate in Educational Technology at Central Michigan University and serves as the Military Programs Manager at MILO Range Training Systems. She previously served in the US Army as a Military Police officer.

Dr. Noël Lipana earned his Doctor of Social Work at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California and operates Quiet Terrain, LLC. He has served in various Air Force and Army units throughout his twenty-year career, including time in Afghanistan as a counter-IED specialist.



1Anderson, G. S., Litzenberger, R., & Plecas, D. (2002). Physical evidence of police officer stress. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 25(2), 399-420.

2Nieuwenhuys, A. & Oudejans, R. (2010). Effects of anxiety on handgun shooting behavior of police officers: a pilot study. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping; An International Journal, 23(2), 225-233.

3Lieberman, H., Farina, E., Caldwell, J., Williams, K., Thompson, L., Niro, P., & McClung, J. (2016). Cognitive function, stress hormones, heart rate and nutritional status during simulated captivity in military survival training. Physiology & Behavior, 165, 86-97.

4Renden, P., Landman, A. Geerts, S., Jansen, S. Faber, G., Savelsbergh, G. (2013). Effects of anxiety on the execution of police arrest and self-defense skills. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping; An International Journal, 27(1), 100-112.

5Kätsyri, J., de Gelder, B., & de Borst, A. W. (2020). Amygdala responds to direct gaze in real but not in computer-generated faces. NeuroImage, 204, 116216.

6Gratch, J., & Marsella, S. (2003). Fight the way you train: The role and limits of emotions in training for combat. The Brown Journal of world affairs, 10(1), 7.