Doug Bonderud

May 22nd 2017

Virtual Reality Gaming: Mastering the Military Mindset?


The military is no stranger to virtual reality (VR) technology. As noted by Wareable, the U.S. Army uses a combination of custom-made controllers and VR headsets to effectively mimic field-of-battle scenarios and have new soldiers perform various tasks under pressure, while the BBC reports that researchers in the United Kingdom are developing bomb-disposal training which is 90 percent cheaper and much safer than current training systems. But with VR systems coming down in price as they ramp up in quality, action-based virtual reality gaming is quickly becoming the norm — are kids just having fun, or can advanced game tech help potential recruits master the military mindset?

Live Action or Living Room

According to GeekWire, the HoloLens technology from Microsoft, which can display real-time battle data or help conduct training scenarios, has now “joined the military” to help Marines conduct training scenarios and researchers study the potential effects of IEDs. But as noted by Engadget, game-based VR such as the “Jackal Assault” space combat simulator — part of the incredibly popular “Call of Duty” franchise — is now available to all PS4 owners who also have a PlayStation VR headset. The verdict? It’s immersive, fun and adrenaline-filled, marking common ground between commercially available game tech and some cutting-edge devices used by the military.

VR is also making its way into the world of quick decision-making with the advent of realistic driving games. As noted by Michael Addabbo, Systems Engineer in Modeling and Simulation for Northrop Grumman: “Sometimes I’ll go home and race in virtual online racing using a VR. The cars and race tracks are so accurate, professionals use them to practice, and I’ve found myself racing online with professional racing drivers practicing using VR.”

The ability to mimic real-world scenarios such as combat situations or high-speed racing puts VR on the path to significantly influence military technology — not only are gamers interested in what military operations look like from the inside, virtual reality games establish the foundation for effective skill-building.

All Fun and Games?

Of course it’s easy to dismiss shoot-em-up games, even in virtual reality, as a poor imitation of actual military encounters. It makes sense; the violence depicted can be over-the-top or entirely too real without context, giving rise to worries that gamers who play combat-based simulators could develop issues such as increased aggression or decreased empathy.

Recent research, however, paints a different picture. As noted by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), new studies show that action games may boost cognitive abilities thanks to “improvement in perceptual templates, which help subjects understand their surroundings.” In addition, researchers found that these benefits lasted for months after the initial experiment concluded, suggesting a net positive effect for gameplay. Psychology Today, meanwhile, reports that combat games which focus on working within teams suggests “a strong potential value of cooperative play in developing social behavior and curbing antisocial thoughts and behavior.” In other words, being part of a tight-knit unit improves emotional resilience.

And VR itself has come a long way from low-res imitations of the real world; now, accurate modeling and object physics help users apply skills learned in virtual simulations to the real world. Consider aviation — according to Addabbo, “with today’s level of realism in VR, we’re able to completely replicate the modern cockpit virtually. Every switch and knob works just like the real aircraft. Currently we’re prototyping concepts in VR before we commit to fabricating real parts. We can explore things in VR and let real pilots try them out before we fabricate real parts saving time and money.”

Super Soldiers

Consider: What’s the ideal personality profile for military personnel? Individuals with strong communication skills, solid team-building experience, exceptional chaos and stress management and the ability to react quickly if situations change or hostile threats emerge. Current games provide the foundation for improved cognitive ability, communication and team work, while virtual reality gaming may help take the experience to the next level by introducing a kind of controlled chaos — gamers are immersed through visual, auditory and even tactile stimuli and must then respond to chaotic situations such as a pitched battle, nighttime air assault or virtual bomb defusal.

Real-world results back up the potential benefits; as noted by Azad Kupelian, Lead Systems and Software Engineer for Northrop Grumman: “We’re not just seeing cognitive gains through VR, but we’re modeling the efficiencies of how people interact with machines and each other. Through the use of VR for factory design, we’re able to more accurately predict how teams will work together on a floor before we even break ground, and also foresee how a part’s design affects our ability to manufacture it much earlier in the development process, when changes cost less.”

Combined with the right outreach programs from military agencies, it may be possible to leverage VR gaming as an effective way to reach better-than-average recruits who can more easily transition into tech-savvy military roles.

VR is now a reality for combat organizations worldwide. But augmented gaming may offer a new way to leverage this technology and seek out potential members with an above-average military mindset.