Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

#DEFAUS17 Idea Pitch – Gamefying Individual Readiness

August 24th, 2017 by Solomon Birch

Battlefield Training Centre Darwin 2005


Some kinds of inevitable change are hard to notice, in the same way that while walking through a forest the type of trees might slowly change until you’re actually walking in a completely different type of forest without realising the change ever occurred or what it might mean. Sometimes there’s value stopping to carefully look at the world we’re surrounded by. It’s a very strange time to be alive, and I’m pretty certain we haven’t yet really noticed just how weird it’s become in relation to video games.

Two pieces of information startled me. Firstly, the average Australian 20 year old male plays 140 minutes of video games per day Secondly, the video game industry is larger and more lucrative than the film,  music,  newspaper ,  magazine and radio industry. The only forms of conventional (ie. not peer to peer) media that are larger and more lucrative are cable and broadcast TV, and present trends suggest that video games will overtake these in some markets before the end of the decade.

Army is currently undergoing a big push to better integrate simulation in our business, and part of that involved my unit, so part of it involved me. However, our current push isn’t the first one. It’s not even close to the first one. In 2002, the then VCDF, LTGEN Mueller AO, stated that “During the period of my service, which is considerable, Defence has rolled out a plethora of simulation policies and strategies, none of which, in my view, have had a major impact other than to create a flurry of activity in Canberra.” To oversimplify, LTGEN Mueller goes on to infer that this repeated failure to integrate simulation into Army is due to cultural impediments (he makes a fairly good argument for it) and closes with the memorable line “Simulation is easy, the problem is people keep on getting in the way.”

That was the spark that sent me down this line of thought. Computer simulation and computer games are exactly the same thing on a fundamental and technical level, just designed with different purposes in mind – we all know this, we just don’t think about it that way normally in our work. Intuitively all young people know video games are kind of popular and common. So why then are video games so wildly popular and successful where military simulation’s success is so meagre?

The difference can’t be rooted in technology or funding; both of those are at least equally as available to the military for simulation as they are for video gamers. It’s also not rooted in a lack of will from the military; heaven only knows how much time and effort is spent on various simulation crusades over the decades. While we can determine what it isn’t with a fair degree of certainty, and most of the obvious causes can be addressed in this way, there isn’t a definitively known answer; if there was we could solve it. There isn’t even much public discussion or research about it for the same reasons that there isn’t much public discussion or research around recruit training techniques or other peculiarly military problems – no one really has any reason to care except for us.

In my opinion, LTGEN Mueller argued a deeper issue – culture. We comprehend simulation on a cultural level as a training tool, when in reality it’s a medium. This conceptual understanding means we only have a very narrow intuitive appreciation of the different strengths and weaknesses of the medium as they might apply to our work. Since we set the agenda for companies who provide virtual media to Army, their focus is narrowed. This has had the effect of creating military simulation in an environment dislocated from the main electronic entertainment industry. Newer design methods that have propelled video games to near ubiquity have, for this reason, not translated to military simulation applications. There is potential that our advice to simulation providers could be the video game equivalent of telling a movie director to make us a training film but only to use film techniques that existed before 1900.

I reached this conclusion only recently (unsurprisingly while playing a video game). It’s a weird game, but also an exceptionally popular one. PUBG is ultimately based on Bohemia Interactive’s ARMA and VBS; these are not enjoyable systems to use. This is due to an awkward control scheme with weird movement and all kinds of hyper-specific design decisions which increase fidelity at the expense of comprehensibility, accessibility and engagement which seems endemic to military simulators. They’re fundamentally not designed to be enjoyed or have any kind of mass appeal. This lineage is what makes PUBG so profoundly strange; PUBG is fun and lots of people play it, and that’s where it hit me. PUBG is fun because of the rules, context, competition and social aspects it places around the profoundly unfun mechanics and technological limitations of military simulators. The problem all along has actually been that our misunderstanding of the media has led to us doggedly hammering the square peg of virtual media at the round hole of our existing training systems.

We need to start by understanding what the medium is good at and good for, then we consider the problems we ought to solve as a military and see where the two line up. Video games are complicated and impart knowledge and skills, whether or not they’re designed to be military training aids, and they also appear to have profound influence on user behaviour. People (including soldiers) seem to voluntarily game for fairly hefty periods of their own time if the game is well designed, and the emergent behaviour (and play) comes naturally to allow for easy interaction with others. The emerging social and competitive aspects of the video gaming community, including growing around “e-sports” and “lifestyle games” offer further hints as to how the medium can be organisationally exploited.

My pitch is that instead of hammering at the square peg, we ought to be looking for the square holes.

A model of the general idea of finding a hole that fits virtual media. Some Army elements have problems with:

  1. Less than optimal readiness, and;
  2. Atomisation of our small teams who seem to spend more of their time alone in their room (playing video games?) which they would once have used to kick a ball around or socialise to bond with their sections.

There is overwhelming evidential support for virtual media being good at shaping behaviours and incentivising specific patterns of behaviour in academia; if soldiers voluntarily choose to spend time playing video games and this choice also relates to the two problems above, then rather than fight the flood of virtual media engagement that has swamped general society (and us with it) we ought instead to seek a way to use the virtual media to mitigate the problems.

There are three parts to such a solution:

  1. An application programming interface (API) that permits us to harvest and encrypt readiness information from our electronic administration systems.
  2. A commercial off the shelf video game purchased with limited rights to distribute and limited development support to modify to our needs, which is fun enough that it displaces a significant proportion of the current virtual media consumption of our soldiers and which has non-zero training value. We then amend the game so that high readiness rewards players.
  3. Army organisationally supports the video game by investing in its use as a social and competitive game within the Army context.

Video games are very cheap to produce and modify relative to other military procurement. While the human aspects of readiness are extremely expensive to Army.

The target for a commercial video game would be “kind of realistic” games that have evolved over the past decade, that attempt to replicate those aspects of military simulators that are worthwhile, without importing the “last mile” of fidelity which terminally degrades engagement for most potential users. Examples commerical games that fit this description are Squad, PUBG, Argo and even less contextually realistic titles like Interstellar Marines. These undeniably have non-zero training value in that much relevant tactical acumen and decision making can be learned from them, but are not simulations in the traditional sense.

The targets for the API are individual readiness results, but there is no reason that aspects of trade performance, physical employment standards as an example, could not be targeted also to encourage individuals to better maintain more skills. Why should a soldier who has not completed Army First Aid recertification be able to use a medical kit to revive a fallen team-mate? Why should a soldier who has not attempted PES be able to fire and move as quickly as one who has in a game? Why should a soldier who has not passed LF6 in five years be able to apply fire as quickly and accurately in a game as someone who did last week?

The targets for organisational investment are to encourage individuals to play the game socially with their real life teammates. Anecdotally gaming appears to have displaced more conventional social and recreational activity with workmates and friends. The emerging phenomena of esports and social gaming offer some suggestions as to how an organisation might use virtual media to build cohesive teams who know each other well instead of breaking them down.

Ultimately, my DEF pitch isn’t so much about creating a system to enhance readiness rather, its stimulating thought about how we view and use virtual media. Our procurement model is strongly biased towards viewing virtual media as products that achieve very discrete things. This is one of the reasons we have completely separated simulation from video games; which in doing so, we rob ourselves of sufficient understanding of the medium to exploit its true potential. Video games and simulators have far more in common with books, literature and movies than they do tanks or helicopters. Therefore, as we steam relentlessly into the twenty-first century we need to adopt a broader view of this medium and seek to harness it so that we can better align its strengths to our intended uses for it.


About the author – Solomon Birch is a logistics officer who worked with Icefrog on the beta team for DotA over 2008-2009 and with S2 Games on HoN over 2011-2013 in SBT. He wishes to apologise in advance for some of the design aspects of Slark, Alchemist and Silhouette that some find distasteful. When he first drafted this article he was ranked 115 in Oceania (out of 4 million, kind of) in PUBG, but in the month since, PUBG has been purchased by an additional 4 million players to 8 million and his ranking has since declined to a point he’s not willing to publically disclose.

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