29 December 2011

UK MoD Wanting to Play Better Games

The dominant discussion here is going to be how "the video game generation" is growing up and is bored by the simulators the miltiary is putting in front of them.
There's a deeper story here that's not being told correctly, though. All those mid- and late-career guys that are now in the programs, training development, and acquisitions business are the guys approaching their late-30s and early-40s, and who were playing video games as tweens in the early 80s. They grew up with video games, even if video games weren't present when today's officers were born. Those mid-career guys are the ones who understand that (video)game-based training is a value-add and are now in a position to actually execute on those ideas.
Are they catering to a younger crowd? No doubt. But is that why they're doing it? Not necessarily. The senior officers developing long-term training plans are integrating more games because that's what they grew up on, not just because that's what they're target audience grew up on.
It's just that the cost of civilian technological development has dropped so low that the commercial developers are running laps around the laborious pace of government-sponsored development, and so the 'cool' games aren't military-grade flight sims anymore, but rather commercially-available FPS games. And today's acquisitions guys understand that as long as the physics under the hood work, you can rewrite the scenarios all you want to focus on legitimate military training objectives instead of just racking up points for your gamertag.

The British military has had to radically improve some of its simulated training war games to keep the attention of recruits who have grown up in the Playstation and Xbox generation, a Ministry of Defence scientist has admitted.

Troops are so used to playing high-quality commercial games set in combat zones that they tend to lose concentration unless the MoD simulations look equally realistic. This has become an important issue at the MoD, which is increasingly turning to digital simulations to help prepare soldiers for duty.

Thousands of troops sent to Afghanistan have been trained on Virtual Battlespace2, a spin-off from a commercial game that can, for instance, test their responses when they come under mortar attack from insurgents.

Though the military stresses that these games only supplement traditional methods, it reflects the way technology is transforming military training. With budgets being squeezed across the MoD, simulations are also a comparatively cheap way of giving troops a "virtual'' taste of what they might come up against in a warzone.

Another idea involves issuing RAF trainee pilots with tablet computers such as iPads, to save the cost – and weight – of printing bulky flight manuals that need to be regularly updated and cost £1,000 a student.

The scientists and engineers at MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Portsdown, Hampshire, are at the heart of the developments.

Andrew Poulter, the technical team leader, said the military was trying to keep up with the advances that have helped turned computer gaming into a hugely lucrative global industry. Bestsellers such as Battlefield 3, Killzone 3 and the Call of Duty series have taken this genre of video games, known as "first-person shooters'', to a new level.

"Back in the 1980s and 1990s, defence was far out in front in terms of quality of simulation," said Poulter. "Military-built simulators were state of the art. But now, for £50, you can buy a commercial game that will be far more realistic than the sorts of tools we were using. The truth is, the total spending on games development across the industry will be greater than spending on defence."

Poulter is in charge of Project Kite (knowledge information test environment), which has been tasked with putting the MoD back in the forefront of simulation training, in part by buying-in technology from the big gaming companies.

The key to successful virtual training is for the simulation to be realistic enough for people to be properly "immersed'' in what they are doing.

By: Brant

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