Gaming is an underappreciated learning tool.
I have a lifelong love of video games and have been playing them since the early days of the Atari 2600, Intellivision and ColecoVision consoles. So I know a little bit about the benefits of playing. But as cool as games are these days, and trust me when I say that they are amazing, they rarely get deployed to help out in schools, much less within the military. But like most things, the pandemic has changed that situation.
For schools, having a vast majority of children learning remotely makes it difficult for teachers to hold their students’ attention. Meanwhile, in the Army, the problem is more one of finding a way to allow soldiers to train and maintain their readiness while keeping socially distant from one another as much as possible. In both cases, video games have proved to be a good solution.
I have already written about how the National Institute of Mental Health-funded programs using video game technology to help schools improve the attention spans of students struggling with remote learning. But one company, G2A.com, thought that video games themselves could be employed to enhance the remote learning experience.
Getting Schooled by Video Games
The idea is that using the right video game with the right lesson can be a huge benefit for students. Not only that, but it will make them want to do their homework. For example, Egyptian history could be taught through Assassin's Creed Origins, which recently added a special educational-based story mode. Physics could be learned using the comical but highly accurate Kerbal Space Program. And a master class on ethics and making difficult choices can easily be taught using the critically acclaimed This War of Mine series. The key is having an industry expert demonstrate all of that for teachers, who may not be into or know much about video games themselves.
G2A.com did just that, creating a free course for educators through the Udemy online learning portal. Co-created by Dr. Szymon Makuch, a renowned academic at the University of Lower Silesia, the course goes into great detail about how to best employ specific games with different lesson plans. It not only names the games but gives suggested exercises and assignments to work into the course.
“The true power of gaming has yet to be realized in society, and we believe that education is the perfect platform to show its worth,” Makuch said. “We look forward to seeing how teachers adopt the G2A Academy teachings to effectively bring gaming into their classes.”
So far, the results have been positive. In a recent survey of 500 teachers using video games in their classrooms during the pandemic, 89% said that using gaming in class has been beneficial for their students’ engagement with their subjects. Most teachers, 69%, also said their students are more likely to do their homework when gaming is involved. And 68% predicted that gaming would become an important resource in education moving forward.
“Video games, and the transferrable skills they offer, are a vital tool in bringing online learning to life, and we want to do everything we can to help unlock those benefits for teachers and young people,” said Bartosz Skwarczek, CEO and co-founder of G2A.com. “The G2A Academy equips teachers with the techniques, resources and confidence to incorporate gaming into lessons and help safeguard the education of the COVID-19 generation.”
For the Army, Readiness Is Not a Game
The Army has been forced to make changes during the pandemic, just like everyone else. Keeping soldiers as socially distant from one another is important because we need to keep our troops healthy. But not being able to get together as often for training was a concern.
Enter video game developer Bohemia Interactive, or more accurately, their spinoff company Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim). They have been working with the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.K. Ministry of Defence for many years. Other customers include the Australian Defence Force, the Swedish Armed Forces, the French Ministry of Defense and many others.
Most gamers have likely heard of Bohemia Interactive. The company made a name for itself years ago by creating some of the most realistic wargames in the industry. Its ARMA series of hyper-realistic combat simulation titles have been wildly popular for decades. They even have more fantasy-based war games like Day Z, which incorporates zombie enemies. And its newest game, Vigor, is one of the most popular free-to-play shooter titles in the world right now.
BISim formed out of Bohemia Interactive Australia, and in 2013 the company began operating separately from Bohemia Interactive after BISim was acquired by The Riverside Company.
“BISim’s heritage with video games has certainly been an important inspiration in our efforts to create realistic simulations for military training, but our co-founders’ service in the military and experience in military training and simulation has also been a major factor in working toward greater realism in simulations to ensure effective training,” said Arthur Smith Alexion, CEO at Bohemia Interactive Simulations. “Founders Pete Morrison and Mark Dzulko started BISim when they both realized the benefits gaming technology could have for training militaries.”
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. military was conducting simulations mostly through its battle simulation centers to maintain readiness. When the pandemic forced closures and base restrictions, BISim began to offer free licenses for government customers around the world so they could continue to build up training scenarios while working remotely.
The current BISim simulation being used by the U.S. military is called VBS4. It’s the first of its kind in that it simulates the entire Earth and allows commanders to set missions anywhere and in any environment, such as jungles, desserts, open fields or densely packed cities. VBS4 also includes many of the vehicles, weapons, ships, aircraft and tools used by the different branches of the service.
“VBS4 includes a military-specific rendering engine offering millimeter accuracy and global scale, a procedurally enhanced terrain ingestion pipeline, and an entirely new workflow including two new in-game modes called VBS Plan and VBS Geo,” Alexion said. “Both VBS Plan and VBS Geo dramatically increase the speed of scenario and terrain creation and modification. The aim is to unlock the power of VBS4 for every tech-savvy soldier, sailor and airman.”
One of the big advantages of VBS4 is that it works without the need for virtual reality headsets or other special equipment. Soldiers only need a standard gaming laptop or desktop to participate. However, VBS4 also supports VR, so if headsets or other similar equipment is available, it can enhance the experience and also the realism of the simulation.
I asked Alexion to describe a typical combat scenario similar to one the U.S. military would employ.
“A typical simulation scenario might involve training soldiers on convoy operations and how to react to an enemy ambush,” Alexion said. “A simulation administrator or instructor would identify a location in VBS4 anywhere in the world for the mission to take place, perhaps even where they expect to deploy, and then add player units for the trainees to control and vehicles for them to drive in the scenario. They would also add in AI-controlled enemy units that can be triggered to respond or attack when players cross into certain areas.”
Everything about the simulation is controllable by the commander making the scenario, which lets them focus on the primary lessons that need to be learned.
“Once the trainees have conducted the virtual exercise, they can review a recording of it in the After Action Review mode with their unit leader and instructor,” Alexion added. “They can replay the virtual scenario from any perspective to discuss lessons learned. Depending on the goals of the training scenario, trainees might be working on their communication skills, their tactics, techniques and procedures, or rehearsing for a real mission.”
Alexion said that the feedback from those using the training has been very positive.
“By using VBS4, soldiers, sailors and airmen benefit by being able to train with other units without the need to be co-located,” he said. “From reservists, we heard that VBS allowed them to conduct combined arms training on a regular basis by bringing other arms into training virtually that, even in live training, they might not have regular access to, like training with artillery or close air support. VBS also allows them to test new ideas and innovations virtually in a safe environment.”
Given those advantages, it’s a safe bet that video game-like virtual training will remain a key component in military training long after the war on COVID-19 has been won.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys
NEXT STORY: Practical Steps to Managing Supply Chain Risk