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The game has changed

Arma 3 soldiers running out of a helicopter

Don’t turn off that console just yet – your gaming and tech skills could change your life

The six-truck convoy creeps cautiously through the desert terrain. As the drivers double check the route the soldiers on top-cover watch carefully for anything untoward. To the right, nothing but sand for miles. To the left, a small market, but not a person in sight. No movement. Nothing. It’s eerily quiet.

“Contact rear!” yells one of the top-cover soldiers. A pickup truck – appearing as if from nowhere – approaches fast from behind. The soldier takes aim with his mounted machine gun. But the truck is too close. There’s a groaning as metal hits metal, then an almighty crack pierces the air as the IED in the truck detonates.

The screen goes black…

‘You are knocked out’. Game paused.

“Right, what happened there?” asks Major Gary Logie as 12 soldiers look up from their screens.

British Army soldiers in Virtual Battlespace System (VBS) training

We’re in the middle of an Army training exercise, you see – and a virtual one at that. We’re sat in a room full of PCs, where drivers have a steering wheel and pedals, and their top-cover is sat behind them, operating a General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) with the good ol’ keyboard and mouse combo. That’s right, even the Army gets some WASD action from time-to-time.

Today, we aren’t worried about K/D ratios or no-scopes, though – this is all about learning. Training in a virtual environment like this is a great way to keep soldiers’ skills sharp and a great learning opportunity for these Initial Trade Training recruits who have recently completed basic training.

“This is a great exercise to think about how we move tactically and communicate,” says Gary. “These guys are junior and don’t necessarily have any leadership experience yet. This will help with that. It’s all about communication and teamwork and being able to communicate in a really collaborative way. It also shows how confusing it can be if everyone is shouting at each other.”

The Army can move in enormous convoys that are more than a mile long – imagine trying to reverse that because someone misunderstood the directions.

The Virtual Battlespace System (VBS) that the Army uses – based on the game Armed Assault – is so versatile, that the team can actually customise their own scenarios to teach very specific skills in a fun and safe way. The team can recreate situations that they’ve faced in real life, and then talk through how best to handle them. If the soldiers make mistakes, they can pause the game and learn from it. “You can do so much with it,” explains Gary enthusiastically. “On the course I deliver, we have shrouds around the computers, so they can’t see each other, they all have headphones
on, there’s respirators and stuff.” A bit more serious than your average game of CoD, then.     

British Army Virtual Battlespace System (VBS) training

But it’s not just in training situations like these that video game tekkers are useful. The Army, much like many employers, are finally seeing the skills that gaming can offer, and are increasingly looking for gamers and tech-heads to join their ranks. That’s right, that Fortnite showreel might actually be worth something.

“A lot of people deride the younger generation because they’re all gamers,” says Gary. “The skills that gives them are absolutely invaluable in the military I think, and are completely transferable.”

He’s not joking. The British Army are even using game controllers to operate some of their latest tech. “We’re designing systems that specifically tap into those skills. For some of the unmanned aerial systems, the control interface is specifically designed to be just like an Xbox or PlayStation controller, because that’s what the guys are used to using. The Panther vehicle, for example, has a remote weapons station. It’s got a GPMG on top that you control with an Xbox controller.”

British Army soldiers in Virtual Battlespace System (VBS) training

Of course, when we talk about the skills that gamers can offer, we aren’t just talking about the ability to button mash – it’s far more varied than that. Gary talks enthusiastically about the ability of tech-savvy new recruits to get-to-grips with the latest systems, and then there’s the teamwork and communication skills: “They’re used to being able to work with someone without seeing them. They have mates all over the world and they’re talking to them over a headset, but still able to have that level of teamwork and relationship without needing to see them face-to-face.” That’s something that’s incredibly useful in situations such as today’s vehicle exercise.

Craftsman Declan McGeechan took part in today’s training exercise and is no stranger to a bit of online gaming.

“That’s how I keep in contact with my friends at home, playing the Xbox online. Today’s exercise was a little bit like Call of Duty – I’m a big CoD fan. It was pretty fun, and in terms of realism, it’s what you’d expect if you were to go into somewhere like that.”

He’s not alone. Most of the lads in the room are into gaming in some form – whether that’s CoD, Fortnite, FIFA, whatever. And that’s because – like Mario on mushrooms – gaming is big right now… like, massive. In 2017, UK games sales generated £3.35bn, that’s nearly three times more than the music market – in fact it’s not far off being bigger than all music and video sales combined! Remember how hyped people were for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? It sold fewer units than FIFA 16.

British Army soldiers in Virtual Battlespace System (VBS) training

What’s really exciting is that the UK is a big part of this huge industry, and we’ve got some impressive success stories.

Remember Grand Theft Auto V? It’s pretty hard to forget, and a lot of people are still declining calls from Lester as we speak. It was made by Rockstar, who work out of Scotland. It’s also the most financially successful and fastest-selling media product of all time. It grossed $1bn (£770,000) in just three days!

TL;DR? The gaming industry has cash for days. And that’s good for us. Especially when you consider how technology as a whole has improved in recent years. Ten years ago, who would have believed that people would be exploring Fallout’s post-apocalyptic wastelands in virtual reality? Or dropping £1,000-worth of iPhone down the toilet? The mobile game is strong right now. In fact, the UK mobile games market is worth more than £1bn on its own. And the effects of these changes are felt throughout the entire economy. Skills in tech and gaming have never been so relevant.

“In my day everybody wanted to write a book or make a film, and today that medium has changed, and apps and games are the new media,” says Jill Hodges, founder and CEO of Fire Tech – the UK’s leading provider of tech education for young people.

Jill founded Fire Tech because she was unimpressed by the level of tech teaching on offer in schools. Fair: eight-year-olds are building their own apps these days, they don’t need lessons on how to underline in Word.

British Army soldiers in Virtual Battlespace System (VBS) training

Instead, Fire Tech are teaching people about the more creative and interesting side of technology. Coding, video games and mobile app design, for example. Then there’s electronics, robotics, digital photography, even becoming a YouTube creator – because the world needs to see you opening mega packs and scoring worldies.

“These skills are important because every job that you can imagine is going to have a technical component, the economy is more and more tech driven, that’s a one-way street, it’s not going to change,” explains Jill.

And she’s right. The world is changing quickly and tech skills are going to be important no matter your line of work. “Some people think of tech as being a programmer or a data scientist, and those jobs are definitely important,” she adds. “But if you’re in marketing, you’re going to have CRM systems and databases. If you’re a doctor there’s now robotic surgery. The legal profession has been completely revolutionised by tech. So it’s not just techies who need to understand about technology – tech is an important tool that’ll make you a more valuable economic player.”

Red Dead Redemption 2 gameplay

Much like Gary, Jill believes that computer games have their benefits, too. “I think there are some interesting skills that come with playing computer games, and I think that’s really underrated. Fortnite is super-huge right now. It’s really impressive, there’s a lot going on there – you’re building things, there’s strategy, there’s teamwork. These skills that come with multi-player games are under appreciated. There’s a lot of transferable skills there, and there’s research to back that up.”

All things considered, it’s a good time to be a gamer or tech-enthusiast. It’s crazy to think that until relatively recently, gamers were viewed as basement-dwelling nerds. (Who even has a basement? The WiFi signal would be dead.) Yet, just a few years on, Nike has signed its first eSports player. The Chinese League of Legends star Jian Zihao – better known as Uzi – will be working with NBA superstar LeBron James on a new campaign. How wild is that? A gamer alongside King James!

British Army soldiers in Virtual Battlespace System (VBS) training

Even clubs such as Manchester City and West Ham have signed eSports stars to represent them at FIFA tournaments. For most, being paid to play FIFA is a pipe dream, but it’s good to see that gaming is finally being taken seriously in all walks of life. The game has changed. Literally.

As the training exercise wraps up, we begin chatting to Craftsman Danny Stokes about FIFA 19. “Definitely five at the back,” he says as we talk about our preferred formations. “Keeping it real, scoring all the goals, conceding none.

“It’s decent. Three strong centre backs – Vertonghen, Otamendi, Kompany, whoever. Then I’ve got my boy Trippier on the right. He’s chilling at right wing back, sorting it out with Lucas, going up the flanks whipping balls in,” he says.

It’s amazing how easily gaming can connect people; a ready-made conversation topic with which millions can relate to one another. FIFA is practically its own universal language.

So what is Danny’s top tip for FIFA 19? “Sweat it. Pass it across goal and tap it in.” Not everything has changed, then.

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