War Games: How Simulations are Building a Stronger Military

Ask any seasoned gamer, and they’ll likely tell you that certain games can get pretty intense, especially when you’re engrossed in the action. Video games allow you to actively engage with elements of a virtual world— learning the terrain, developing combat strategies, and working as part of a team to advance a mission—all from the comfort (and safety) your living room. But what if there was more on the line than just the satisfaction of leveling up?

Over the last few years, the military has sought to leverage the power of video games and simulations for training purposes. Andrew Rossetter, a 2007 Game Development grad and Senior Software Engineer with Bohemia Interactive Simulations, has worked on the company’s flagship product, Virtual Battlestations Systems (VBS), which shares a common lineage with a first person shooter.

“[In 2001], Bohemia Interactive Simulations broke off from Bohemia Interactive Studios, which is a gaming company. But VBS is based on a couple of realistic games that the studio put out—Operation Flashpoint and ARMA. When our company broke off, we essentially took ARMA down to source code and used it to create the product we provide to military organizations all over the western world.”

While they may share elements with consumer-based games, simulation games aim for a higher level of fidelity, or the degree to which a simulation mimics reality. If the information presented in the simulation is outdated or incorrect, or if the developers overlook crucial details related to training procedure, it could result in something called “negative training,” or a failure to properly master the skills needed to perform a real-world task. To ensure fidelity, simulation companies employ strident iteration strategies not unlike those found in entertainment gaming.

“Military experience is a plus on the resume,” says Andrew, who served in the Army from 1999-2002, and was deployed in operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004-2006. “However, it’s not strictly required. We have subject matter experts whose sole job is to make sure we’re doing the right thing as far as the application itself.”

The benefits of virtual simulation training are manifold. Perhaps most notably, it allows soldiers to master certain skills in a controlled environment before they’re exposed to potentially dangerous equipment or training situations that present a higher risk for accidents. It’s also incredibly cost effective.

“If you put somebody in an F-35 [Lightning II combat aircraft], it’s going to cost you around $30,000 per hour just to run it. Now add budget sequestration on top of that, and you’re left with very little money to actually conduct hands-on training,” says Rob Catto, Program Director for Full Sail’s Simulation and Visualization bachelor's program.

Alternately, the operating cost of a fight simulator falls between 5% and 20% of what it costs to send somebody up in an actual aircraft. That’s a considerable savings, and one has the potential to add up to billions over time.

Low overhead also means soldiers have more opportunities for practice, either as a primary or secondary form of training. Imagine a facility with just a single vehicle dedicated to maintenance training. In this scenario, a few people might actually get to work on the vehicle, while the rest of their peers observe and take notes.

“I was one of those soldiers that had to look over somebody’s shoulder while they were working on an engine. I can tell you from personal experience that you’re tuned out about 80% of the time in that scenario,” says Andrew.

Now imagine a computer lab that provides each soldier with their own simulated vehicle at a fraction of the cost. User engagement instantly goes up, as does retention. And it’s easily accessible, so users can pop in for training whenever they have down time. For soldiers who may need a little more practice mastering a particular skill, virtual training centers offer a flexible option for enrichment. Most software gives soldiers the option of replaying a scenario, so they’re able to identify and learn from mistakes.

For a new generation of potential soldiers, game-type simulations are an easy sell. Many young people have been exposed to video games all their lives. Since 2002, the U.S. Army has offered an online gaming platform under the branded name America’s Army. The game is interactive and free to play, and allows users to explore aspects of a military career, such as medical training and team combat missions, in order to determine if the Army is right for them.

If the success of America’s Army is any indication (the game is currently on its fourth series release), the military will continue to embrace simulation training in all its forms. And though it’s unlikely that simulations will advance to the point that they fully replace hands-on training, technology continues to evolve.

I’m excited about the advancements we’ve been making in virtual and augmented reality. It’s really exciting to think that in the next year or two we might see training simulators where soldiers are walking on an omni-directional treadmill while wearing an Oculus Rift, and they can actually participate in the simulation to that degree,” says Andrew.

“What I’m seeing now is more of a willingness to adapt the things we’ve seen in games to the military simulation industry. As recently as five years ago, the military was still way behind as far as the quality of their simulations versus what you might see in a AAA video game. Now, the military is catching up,” says Andrew.

To learn more about the simulation and visualization industry, check out this panel from Full Sail's Sixth Annual Hall of Fame Week.

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