Gaming and the future of military training: insights from Slitherine
Game developers have long drawn inspiration from the military, but now armed forces and defence contractors are increasingly looking to gaming technology for their training software. Harry Lye caught up with Iain and JD McNeil of Slitherine Games at DSEI to learn more about the growing convergence between commercial gaming and military training.
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Hot off the heels of a partnership with the UK’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory (Dstl), and buoyed by its ongoing partnership with the Department of Defence (DoD), Slitherine Games has found the interest in commercial gaming products at DSEI at fever pitch.
“Up until now, almost everything we're doing, it's been in the operational research [and] future force kind of areas. One of the things that come out of today [at DSEI] is that there's a massive interest in training,” says Iain McNeil, the founder of Slitherine.
The company’s prior dealings had revolved largely around simulating operations using its commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) platforms Command Professional Edition (PE), Flashpoint Campaigns Pro and Combat Mission. However, as the duo told us, DSEI presented them with as many ideas as they brought to the companies they saw.
The big defence companies all have training platforms but the worlds those trainers operate in are limited, as Iain explains.
“The software we have got is a really useful thing to lie underneath their training solutions,” he says. “So they will have training software that does stuff. From a simulation point of view there's not a lot of that does it on the scale that we can do it.”
Another big selling point of the software is its extensive military database featuring almost every weapon from every country dating between 1946 and the near future.
Defence takes note of gaming advances
Command PE is perhaps Slitherine’s most popular military solution, able to simulate anything from anti-air networks to communications networks.
This communications modelling is one of the uses companies discovered in the software that Slitherine had never imaged, with one defence contractor solely using Command to model its communications to look for anomalies. This is, as Iain puts it, one of “all sorts of weird and wonderful ways” in which companies are using the tools – applications that he had never imagined.
Collaboration between the gaming and defence sectors has become more common in recent years, with both industry and military forces using technology developed for gaming as part of their training regime. JD McNeil explains that Command PE, for instance, has become part of the curriculum in the German Luftwaffe training as a means of teaching air officers in a more hands-on manner as opposed to the traditional slides on a whiteboard approach.
“Through the last year or two, the interest has exploded,” Iain adds, highlighting how quickly gaming technology is gaining ground in the defence sector.
Accessibility and training
One of the issues with existing military simulation platforms is that they are often hard to use and, due to being of a highly classified nature, very few people know how to operate them. This means a fair amount of training is required before operators and instructors can use it efficiently.
Gaming platforms, meanwhile, are usually highly accessible due to their commercial nature. The McNeils explain that when Dstl first acquired Slitherine’s software, it found that some members of staff already knew how to use it from playing the commercial game version in their spare time.
This isn’t to say anyone can be an expert within half an hour. Slitherine has been running Command PE training events in the US as most of its military clients are based there, but is now set to run a training event in cooperation with BAE Systems as European contractors begin to take more note of the platform’s potential.
This face-to-face training, JD says, is vital to the success of the platform going forward and future defence sector relationships. “The software is capable of doing things that [users] don't even realise it is capable of doing,” he explains. “And when we get hold of them, we sit face to face and suddenly, the penny drops.” In person training also allows the team to show users how the expansive platform can be tailored to their needs.
Setting a trend for the future
Slitherine is already licensing the software in a commercial capacity to the Royal Navy, US Air Force, US Marine Corps, US Air Force, among other military customers. On the industry side it is working with BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, but the list may well expand in the wake of successful networking at DSEI. The company’s work the US Army and Dstl is of a more specialised nature, involving bespoke assets for both organisations giving them a higher level of control over the software.
Coming from the private sector is something the pair says has been critical to the success of their defence work, in particular when it comes to funding. “That’s the really important thing: if we had to fund this from the start as a professional service, we’d never have done it,” Iain explains. For private sector companies, especially newcomers vying for defence contracts, the amount of funding or revenue needed to sustain them through a long contract and acquisitions process can be prohibitive.
Part of Slitherine’s success comes exactly from this, as the company can build its defence client base off the back of the commercial success of its gaming products.
When it comes to the growing relationship between defence and gaming, Slitherine is setting a clear trend line for the future. The defence has clearly realised the potential of gaming technology; now it is only a matter of time until we see its wider adoption for military applications.