The military wants to step up its training game

When recruits already know elaborate games like Far Cry 3, a five-year-old simulation like the Army’s Virtual Battlespace 2 doesn’t cut it.

The government and the military have been using game technology for a number of years, taking advantage of the fact that a good game engages users and enables them to learn more effectively than if they were, say, sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture.

This is probably especially true in the military, where the students tend to be a bit younger, have been raised on video games and need to learn concepts like teamwork and fire control — which are best discovered by actually doing them — only without the inherent dangers of getting it wrong.

National Defense Magazine reported that game efforts in government are getting ramped up, with the Army planning to award a $44.5 million contract to whichever company can produce the best video game-like simulation. 

The military already has a pretty good training game, albeit one that shows why the military is looking for something new. Created in 2007, it’s called Virtual Battlespace 2.  It was developed by Bohemia Interactive, which also created the successful mainstream battlefield game Operation Flashpoint, which shares many of the same features as the military version. And to an outside observer, Virtual Battlespace 2 looks pretty good, with lots of interaction and large, realistic environments. Someone who doesn’t play a lot of video games might see the demonstration video and think that it’s pretty high tech.

The problem is that many soldiers and sailors play a lot of video games. They see a game like Battlespace 2 and might cringe at how primitive it seems. Take a look at a modern, open-world title like Far Cry 3,  ogle the lush scenery, the crazy man-eating tigers, the crystal blue vacation-guide water (which you can swim in) and then hear the crack of your Dragunov SVD sniper rifle as you engage a car-load of hard charging insurgents…er, pirates. I guess the bad guys in FC3 are pirates.

Sorry, I got a little carried away there. But I hope you see my point. Soldiers who have played games like Far Cry 3 for hours on end are going to look at something like Battlespace 2 and be a bit disappointed that they have to play it for hours on end. It may not be as bad as sitting in a lecture hall, but the educational value of such an experience is going to be a little hobbled by the boredom factor. And these are the kinds of soldiers who could benefit most from a good game simulation.

To be sure, games like Far Cry 3, or Medal of Honor or Call of Duty aren’t realistic. The emphasis is on fun, not proper maintenance of your weapon or respecting the chain of command. If you tried some the of the things you did in Far Cry 3 in real life, assaulting an armed camp with a pistol while flying past on a zip line, hunting rabid dogs with an RPG, tossing grenades into a fuel depot to see how big a boom you can create, you would die. And that’s not very good from a training perspective.

But that doesn’t mean that the simulations can’t improve. The end goal is to better prepare soldiers to do their jobs when things get real. Perhaps when they are pinned down or ambushed in real life, they won’t panic because it happened in the game. Instead, they will follow procedure and get out alive. And for that training to be effective, it has to be engaging, so it’s great that the military is starting to catch up with the times.

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