There’s no shortage of guns and spaceships in the world of videogames, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the US Army and NASA is increasingly leaning on the games industry to provide training simulations for its recruits.
Orlando-based developer GameSim is one such contractor, a studio set up by former EA exec Andrew Tosh which provides training tools for the U.S. Army’s Synthetic Environment Core which, as the name suggests, provides virtual training situations for the US Department of Defense. GameSim also produces work for the US Army’s Research Laboratory, which helps to automate the creation of some environments, making sure that the terrain is accurate before the scenarios are incorporated into soldier training. For NASA, GameSim developed a Virtual Team Training Engine that’s used by its Behavioral Health & Performance group to assess team skills, and help with leadership training.
“These simulations are becoming more and more important for a number of reasons, but I think the biggest driving force is the cost,” says GameSim chief scientist Stephen Eckman. “Putting an astronaut on the International Space Station with a bunch of role players would be an excellent way to train leadership skills, but the price tag just isn’t justifiable. So how can you put an astronaut in a similar situation at a fraction of the cost? Build a training simulation using off-the-shelf gaming technology.”
Shrinking budgets at NASA and the Department of Defense mean that videogame-like simulation is nudging out real-world situations during the training of future soldiers and astronauts. Simulations designed to help recruits learn how to handle situations likely to occur in the field is GameSim’s primary role, the studio acting like a game designer to build missions around real-life scenarios. “A lot of that is based on experience, and in those cases you can build very detailed simulations,” says Eckman. “The biggest barrier to virtual mission rehearsal is not having a simulator that is rapidly adaptable to mission needs. We’ve been working on tools to generate virtual environments and author scenarios as quickly as possible – as we narrow this scenario generation time, more and more mission rehearsal possibilities will open up.”
GameSim essentially acts as a work-for-hire studio for both NASA and the US Army, then. But with in-sim ‘mission design’ and environments drawn from real life, GameSim’s work is weighted more toward providing engineering, art and animation work. Its activities aren’t limited to the military and aerospace; founder Andrew Tosh and several other staffers previously worked at EA, and those links have led to GameSim having helped the development of some Madden and NCAA Football games, as well as Mass Effect 3. Away from games, one recent project saw the studio team up with aerospace and defence contractor Lockheed Martin to provide a ‘Tactical Training Rehearsal Environment’ to help recruits learn how to fly new F-22 and F-35 aircraft. After each training mission, the data captured is assessed to help instructors to review performance – a style of user analytics that’ll be familiar to mobile games developers.
Videogames’ role in military operations is growing in a wider sense, too. Famously, the US Government funded and produced its America’s Army game and released it for free, explicitly as a recruitment tool, in 2002. It continues to update the game today. In 2009, the US Army Experience Center opened at the Franklin Mills shopping mall in northeast Philadelphia, offering potential recruits a round of Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare among other military-themed games, as if these games were a taste of real combat.
Whatever your thoughts on the morality of the coming together of the military and videogames, there are some inherently transferable skills between the two. Expert players’ ability to make quick decisions and concentrate for long periods while retaining accuracy and quick reflexes is seen as a good grounding for service, though of course the reality is rather tougher.
“There have been studies that show playing videogames can benefit individuals in all kinds of professions from surgeons to fighter pilots,” adds Eckman. “But usually the important thing is knowledge. Keeping trainees engaged and wanting more while delivering that knowledge is the key to creating good game-based simulations. And if they improve their coordination and quick reactions while they’re at it, that’s just icing on the cake.”