Army looks to video game companies to make training more realistic

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When the Defense Department pivoted to focus on near-peer competitors like China and Russia, it started courting nontraditional companies for contracts like Amazon, SpaceX and Uber.

Those companies epitomized the mindset DoD wanted to go after: Innovate, fail fast and buy quick. Now, the Pentagon is reaching even deeper into the bag of nontraditional companies and asking the video game world to join in helping DoD change its course.

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Matrix Games, famous for developing games like Close Combat and Field of Glory, will be helping the Army better develop its tabletop wargames of the future in a new project called the Athena program.

The service announced two agreements with Matrix Games to build wargames with commercial off-the-shelf software and integrate voice controlled advising assistant systems like Amazon Alexa into the training.

“One of the focuses of the Athena project is to get a more realistic and more functional wargaming platform that can actually be utilized on almost any computing hardware that is ubiquitous across the military,” said Tim Greeff, CEO of the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL), which manages the Training and Readiness Accelerator (TReX).

Matrix Games will work with the Atlantic Council and Big Parser, a data connection service, to develop wargames that can be used on laptops and desktops.

The games will give the military technology that is more transferable and allow troops to wargame anywhere it is needed, Greeff said. Previously, wargames were done in-person or on machines like flight simulators that were not portable.

“It could conceivably do urban warfare, it could do a number of exercises,” Greeff said. “When you’re building a software suite, the most important thing is the user interface and how the user interfaces with that actual program. Instead of going and building a full suite that has a hundred different functionalities, you want to start with a defined problem set, a certain set of functionalities and then that’s where prototyping coming into play and TReX in particular. Let’s get this done in an incremental fashion, test the software and make sure it’s working… and build off the platform.”

TReX is a public-private partnership that calls on industry, academia and laboratories to provide quick innovation, development and delivery to the military.

Part of what let’s TReX operate so quickly and use an agile form of software development for Athena is the use of other transaction authorities (OTA).

The agreement with Matrix Games is an OTA, which allows DoD to circumvent traditional acquisition regulations to work with nontraditional companies on prototypes.

That gives the Army and Matrix the ability to build trials of what they want, scrap them if they fail and continue pushing on to their end goal.

Courting video game companies and getting them to come work for the traditionally-stuffy DoD isn’t an easy job.

Video game companies have plenty of revenue without venturing into the government sphere. The research firm Newzoo forecasted $137.9 billion will be spent on video games in 2018.

“It’s on NSTXL sometimes to go out and recruit some of these gaming companies in to make sure they are seeing opportunities and that they know there is opportunity to engage with the military to showcase their technologies,” Greeff said.

Greeff said NSTXL representatives went to gaming conferences and literally walked booth to booth to get the message out.

However, Greeff thinks the hard work will pay off.

“The reason you really want to go to the private sector gaming industry for these technologies is the military focus on training is often about the utility of ‘Are we getting the exercise right? What is the outcome? Are the lessons being learned?’ it’s a training software,” Greeff said. “In the gaming industry it’s all about the environment. Does it feel realistic? Is the user experience something that puts them in an immersive environment that allows an individual gamer to make them feel like they are part of the exercise?”

Greeff said increasing the creative, immersive environment that feels real, while also focusing on the military’s training requirements, is a win-win for the service member in training.