Games in the Military

by | Dec 10, 2008 | Articles

In the 13 years we have been providing benchmarks for learning and development teams, one thing has remained the same – the disparity between the aspirations of the L&D team and the impact learning is having on the organisation.

In some areas that gap is closing and in others, it stays stubbornly wide. So how can learning leaders start to close that aspiration gap?

Military gaming

Most young men get a huge dose of military expertise through computer games. A typical male teenager will have played up to several hundred hours of military games, flown aircraft, often using the real instrumentation, become familiar with real weapons, and in the case of many millions, played the role of sniper, infantryman, commander, even trained to become a soldier through America’s Army. Yet, the military have problems with recruitment. All credit to the military for reflecting upon their current training methods and searching for ways in which it can be changed, even transformed.

Timely report

At this point the use of serious games in the military is gathering pace, and as gaming technology has become cheaper, faster and more sophisticated, it was felt that an objective look at the application on games in learning in the military was timely.

It’s not often that you get a well-researched report on an innovative approach to learning in a specific sector but Caspian Learning were commissioned by the military to do just this on games in military learning ( A Report on Serious Games in Defence Education). It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in the use of new technology in learning.

The researchers went into military establishments to capture and assess evidence for games in learning and interviewed a range of academic and training professionals, as well as learners. They also sat in a range of training lessons and exercises to observe existing practice. This was followed by a programme of desk research to uncover a range of interesting case studies. Finally, they used this data to compile a useful taxonomy for games in learning along with concrete recommendations for future applications.

What’s in a name?

Serious games is a controversial term in itself but it was important to clear the decks and understand the difference between play, games, computer games, serious games, virtual worlds and immersive learning simulations. It is also important to understand the general role of play and games in society. In answering the question, ‘What underlies our fascination with game playing?’ the literature dealing with this cultural analysis was summarized.

Evidence and Case studies


Building on the established and evidence-based domains of simulation, modeling and wargaming, the report opens with a review of key literature supporting the use of games in education and training. A range of case studies was then presented, both military and non-military to show the full extent of useful applications. These include the officer training using Battlefield II, a Military Police application and America’s Army.

Taxonomy of immersive learning simulations

A useful taxonomy of terms and definitions was established to enable those involved in training and education to understand the different types of games technology in existence, their merits and appropriate use cases.Although the paper addresses a single vertical market, the taxonomy is of general interest. Here’s a list of the categories in the taxonomy:

  • Egocentric performance sims
    Single player game, where the player takes on the role of a single character in a 3D space. Caspian’s own sims fit this category.
  • Branching story sims
    Single player games, in 2D or 3D, in which the ‘story’ advances on the basis of the user’s selections from the options available.
  • Real-time strategy sims
    Simulation in which the user takes an over-arching strategic role, rather than one of a particular character. The user has control over a range of resources and must respond to an evolving scenario in real-time.
  • Exocentric sims
    The player has an angled overhead view of a 3D world and has control of characters and objects within the world, typically with a point and click interface. The action unfolds in real-time.
  • Construction and management simulation games
    The player must build, manage or expand an entity or project, such as a town, country or enterprise, with limited resources. Classic example is SimCity.
  • Episodic sims
    Like real-time strategy sims, but turn-based. Typically the user has as much time as they wish to make their decisions. Once submitted, the user’s input is then processed according to a model and the scenario modified accordingly. An example would be a classic business game.
  • Virtual worlds
    Real-time, multi-player 3D environments in which the user takes on a specific role, represented on screen by an avatar. Obvious example is Second Life, but also includes proprietary systems such as Forterra.
  • Device-based sims
    Here the user has highly-realistic control over a device such as an aeroplane or a vehicle.

Learning landscape

The report then focuses on an analysis of the applicability of this type of technology to the military landscape and provides some conclusions on the barriers and opportunities for exploitation across all services.
The report also highlights some of the cultural, system and process barriers to adoption evident within the military, which may limit speed of take-up of these technologies and approaches. The report identifies issues that include military stigmas associated with key words such as “games” and “failure” and a consistent learner focus on hierarchical promotion and thus avoidance of anything that could affect the pace of promotion.
Benefits
First, it has found many compelling reasons and a growing evidence bank that justify a “learning through games strategy” within this landscape, including:

• learner demographics
• learner motivation
• competition
• enriched subject matter
• opportunities for safe failure
• opportunities for enhanced skills practice
• retention and recruitment
• familiarity with simulations.

Both within the military and beyond, the evidence bank is becoming powerfully persuasive, with Return on Investment (ROI) measures in specific case studies showing: reduced training costs, reduced training time, increased learner engagement, better learning outcomes.

Barriers

An existing and expanding body of case studies, researched arguments and well thought through intuitions are pointing towards embracing this approach. However, the report also reveals a number of barriers that may exist in the military context and that should be considered when looking at many forms of online learning, but which are specifically appropriate to the use of immersive learning simulations. These barriers are both cultural and structural. Some of these issues are specific to the military and include:

• Command and control, hierarchical culture
• Terminology issues (games vs immersive learning simulations)
• Fear of failure, within hierarchy and among peers
• Strong culture of didactic, instructor-led learning
• Linear training and promotion pipeline with no side-feeds
• Generation gap in awareness and skills
• Policies that focus on management of teaching, not learners
• Privatisation leads to commissioning of old instructor model
• Subject Matter Experts (SME) block change as they don’t want to give up power

Therefore whilst the synergy between technology and landscape is strong, the likely benefits far-reaching and the desire inherent, the need for collation of evidence and strong leadership to overcome some ingrained cultural barriers is just as evident.

The report describes the significant benefits to be gained by utilizing games within education and training, not the least of which is improved learner motivation. Some of the principal demographics and traits of the learners surveyed by the report, such as age, technology use patterns, engagement with sport, competitiveness of learners and desire for practical hands on learning, offer a powerful argument for the use of games based learning technologies.

Recommendations

Ultimately, the report us designed to lead to more informed and robust decision making on where and how to utilise a ’learning through games’ strategy to deliver enhanced learning benefits. The report concludes by suggesting some ideal use cases and ways forward and provides some decision making support for those considering a “learning through games” approach within the military.

For more information on games in learning try these online blogs and resources from the authors of the report.

Chris Brannigan
http://thinkingworlds.wordpress.com/

Graeme Duncan
http://www.caspianlearning.co.uk/

Donald Clark
http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/

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