Gamification Of Military Training And Its Impact On Force Preparedness

By Andy Fawkes

We like to play games.  Playing games is a natural and enjoyable activity for all ages, abilities and cultures.  Why we play games is complex but this natural instinct can be harnessed in non-game contexts by so-called gamification.  It can be applied as a technique in many fields including in business to increase customer engagement and in education to make learning more interactive and enjoyable.  Does gamification also have a role in defence and might the blending of our physical and digital worlds open our eyes to new learning opportunities in sport that can enhance both learning and force preparedness?

Why do we Play Games?

One might wonder in evolutionary terms why humans, and other animals, devote so much time to recreation and play when it could interfere with finding food or expose us to predators. As a vital part of the human experience it must have benefits for us.  Although there is no definitive reason why we play games, we likely use play as a way of improving our physical and mental abilities, helping us to learn about our world and our likes and dislikes, and enhancing our communication across different languages, cultures, and species.

What is Gamification?

Gamification aims to tap into our innate love of games.  As a term it came into popular usage in the 2000s and now is mainstream across many sectors and, depending on how it is designed and implemented, can have positive effects on learning, performance, or behaviour change.  Gamification uses game elements to create engaging and rewarding experiences and has two main ingredients: game mechanics and game dynamics. Game mechanics provide a goal and sense of achievement through points, levels, leaderboards, and badges and the like. Game dynamics are the emotional and motivational aspects of a game, such as competition, curiosity and collaboration.

Gamification in Action

Gamification is not a theoretical construct, it is used in learning and beyond and in surprising and diverse places.

  • Duolingo is one of the most popular language learning apps in the world and uses points, levels, badges, and streaks to encourage users to practise daily and progress through different topics. In 2022 it reportedly had over 500 million registered users.
  • Google Maps encourages users to submit reviews and photos through rewarding them as they climb the “Local Guide” ladder.
  • LinkedIn uses subtle gamification techniques encouraging profile completion through a “progress strength” bar and a badge and our social curiosity is sparked by “Who’s viewed your profile”.

But what about the military?  Some might argue the military has been using games for centuries with early chess being principally military pieces and board-based wargames arising in Prussia from the 1820s.  The military have also exploited video games and their technologies since the 1990s.  Now, traditional military classrooms are perhaps less suited for a target population of 18–24-year-olds raised in the digital age so new learning techniques are being sought.

  • The Cyber Confident Team of the UK MoD created online games to teach cyber skills to thousands of MOD staff. One game, “SITREP”, tested how well they could spot phishing emails. The team praised the games for engaging and challenging the staff.
  • In the US, gamification has been introduced to learning within Defense Acquisition.  Success in the first-person shooter game depended on players’ ability to correctly answer questions about federal acquisition rules and regulations.
  • Back in the UK, QinetiQ recently partnered with Gamification Nation on the xCITE project to demonstrate to the Royal Navy how gamification could better attract, train and retain millennial sailors. 

Digital Sports Anyone?

As gamification grows in importance across many sectors it is also valuable to consider how we might take advantage of the role of sports in learning.  It is fully accepted that physical team sports such as rugby and football are good for team building and cohesion but what about digital-based sports?  

Esports (or electronic sports) is an activity where students form teams and participate, train, and compete in organised video gaming competitions with online and in-person spectators.  They can foster skills such as teamwork, communication, problem-solving, digital literacy, and strategic thinking and build a sense of community and belonging, benefits that are all highly valued in the military.  Reflecting this, all three services now have active esports teams.  Esports are also being introduced in school curriculums, are now an intrinsic part of Formula 1 racing, and may well be part of the 2028 Olympics.  

It’s not all about sitting in gaming chairs either.  In Virtual Taekwondo, a Korean martial art, players’ bodies are transformed through real-time body tracking into gaming controllers as they are able to engage in one-on-one combat with their real-life opponent’s avatar from anywhere in the world.  This kind of innovation together with esports could be a catalyst for thinking about how learning in defence could be delivered very differently and even impact our thinking on future military operations themselves.

Preparing the Force

As gamification and digital sports grow in scope and importance we can imagine a world where, between more formalised learning, militaries provide more “fun” learning opportunities across their digital infrastructure.  From entertaining gamified learning content delivered on mobile devices through to major inter-service esporting events.  Some sports whilst still physical may also be played at distance in future between players across the defence estate.  Such experiences may help counter skill fade and also build cohesion and understanding across defence so that it is better prepared for multi-domain missions.  It is surely better to have met others before in a collective experience, even over distance, than meet for the first time in operations.

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