As many soldiers who’ve deployed to front line warzones such as Iraq and Afghanistan have been trained using simulations of varying degrees, it would seem almost obvious that there is a lot to be learned from playing war before actually facing the realities of combat. After all, training is second only to the harsh, chaotic veracity that being in an actual area of fighting and there are few opportunities for repeat chances to learn from errors. Yet, in the wake of titles like Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3, both hit FPS titles that easily eclipse Virtual Battlespace 2, the last great simulation created for militaries around the globe; the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is seeking something on par to assist in training their future soldiers.
Initially reported by various sources, the MOD is feeling the slight pinch from soldiers entering the services after growing up playing popular, graphically gorgeous titles, on Xbox, PlayStation and PCs. Clearly, the distinction between the simulation-style of VSB2, created by Bohemian Interactive of Operation Flashpoint fame, and hit games BF3 and MW3 become clear within moments. Where Virtual Battlespace 2 may have accuracy, albeit at the expense of jaw-dropping visuals, EA and Activision’s titles, available to average consumers and circulating throughout the gaming community and popular culture, easily overshadow their militarized counterparts.
Suffice to say, there is a bit of catching up to do.
Nevertheless, virtual simulators offer the MOD the best chance at a cost-effective means to train soldiers, creating the atmosphere of being in combat – relegating the fun aspects of warfare, in the cases of FPS games, to the players holding the controller. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that Virtual Battlespace software is devised to train soldiers, while Battlefield and Call of Duty exists as entertainment. All the same though, specifically in the case of particular mission-case scenarios, soldiers are able to run through and rehearse an engagement multiple times before facing the real thing.
“It’s quite likely that the [American special forces] team that killed Osama bin Laden would have rehearsed the raid in some sort of virtual environment,” says someone familiar with the military-training business.
Still, where military simulations were once the bleeding edge, the apparent lag has become quite noticeable. Andrew Poulter, a technical team lead at the MOD’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, spoke to The Guardian on the topic, “Military-built simulators were state of the art.”
“But now, for £50 ($77), 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.”
“Certainly, there is a level of computer games experience in recruits. So the plots have to be realistic and the image generation has to be high quality.”
He goes on, “A lot of the older systems can be very clunky. If you put someone behind a block display, it is harder for them to be completely immersed… [but while commercial games] may look graphically beautiful, they have to be entertaining rather than realistic.”
“The weapons need to be credible. If they fire a rifle and the bullet travels three and a half miles, then that is not right. If they are steering a vehicle, then that has to be right too. Realism is more important than entertainment. Levels of immersion are very important,” he concluded.
While it can be argued with relative ease that games have evolved a bit more rapidly over the last two decades, with military simulations being a minor branch to benefit on the video game family tree. The fact of the matter is that the technology utilized to create video games and, by proxy, simulations is becoming easier to work with as the cost comes down thanks to jumps ahead in consumer industries. Yes, new simulations are always going to help keep troops alive and at the top of their game, pun intended, when true-to-life experience may not necessarily afford them the same learning opportunities. But the better trained they are before heading into a warzone only increases their chances of coming home safe.