Air force gamification: From experimentation to widespread adoption
Merriam-Webster defines gamification as “the process of adding games or game-like elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation.” Gamification deeply engages students in the learning process, stimulating them to apply themselves through challenge, competition, and fun.
How does gamification apply in the military? To explore this, let me share some of my personal experiences with gamification in the Royal Canadian Air Force. As you will soon see, it’s a concept with some history that has been applied successfully, and has a amazing opportunity for growth.
Hooked from the start
As a bit of background, I started dabbling with advanced training technologies back in 2002 while in charge of aircraft technician training at 404 Squadron, Greenwood, Nova Scotia. Air Force training headquarters had provided seed money to experiment with 3D interactive e-learning.
After consulting with my lead instructors, we chose to build a courseware package for teaching about the main landing gear: its removal and installation. Research had told me that this type of interactive training should reduce the time it takes to teach the curriculum by about 30-40 percent. We were already looking for ways to reduce the course length for aviation technicians at the time, so it seemed like a good fit.
A Halifax-based company called Pixelyard built the courseware, and we put it into action to trial its effectiveness. The results were just as advertised: the classroom portion of the course was reduced by 38 percent. All students achieved the same test score level as historical data showed.
This alone would have been reason enough to recommend this training technology for wider application. But something unexpected happened next that really amazed us.
When the students went out on the hangar floor to do the practical, they successfully removed and installed the landing gear 100 percent correct the first time they tried it – and the instructors said they never asked for any assistance or guidance.
Moreover, they removed and installed the gear in less time than average maintenance records show for certified technicians. By practicing the removal and installation procedures through 3D, the students had transferred the procedural knowledge to the practical task, and reduced the time for practical training by 48 percent. I was hooked.
My interest in gamification for military training dates back to 2006, when, after my tour at the 404 Squadron school, I was posted to 2 Canadian Air Division, the training headquarters for the air force. My position was program director for advanced training technologies for aircraft technician training. My area of responsibility was all of the air force technician training schools across the country.
What I had learned from my previous post was that 3D interactive training could significantly reduce theory and practical training times. These results were based primarily on procedural courses that included removal and installation activities. But there was another level of learning that needed to be addressed, and that was for problem-solving and troubleshooting.
At that time, experience levels were dwindling as seasoned members retired and were being replaced by newly trained technicians. The pressure points in maintenance performance were largely due to a lack of in-depth systems knowledge, knowledge that typically comes from experience. So how could we deliver artificial experience? You guessed it – gamification!
Our first experiment was to address a performance gap on Hercules aircraft engine maintenance. Working with Standard Aero, we diagnosed maintenance performance and found that one of the biggest impacts to maintenance costs and aircraft on-ground time was attributable to inexperience at engine accessory troubleshooting.
Again, with Standard Aero, we designed and built a scenario-based game called “My Herc Don’t Work” that presented engine performance problems to the students and allowed them opportunities to make decisions on how to solve the problems. The student activities and time were tracked and scored. When they had completed the maintenance on the “virtual” engine, they were given feedback on how well they performed.
The game provided an opportunity for the students to practise real-life situations in a fun gaming atmosphere, all the while growing their experience base that could be applied to actual aircraft maintenance situations.
Another training gamification we developed was part of the leadership training for the air force. This time, working with Atlantis Systems Eduplus, we built a scenario-based course that challenged maintenance junior leaders to achieve tasks by selecting properly qualified technicians and logging activities in accordance with maintenance policy. The product was a huge success with not only the junior leaders, but also the senior leadership of the air force who reviewed and approved it.
The outline for a classroom version of the course was designed to take up to six weeks. Instead, with gamification junior technicians accomplished the same learning outcomes in six days, online and while staying at home. This significantly reduced training costs and returned students back to their operational commanders five weeks sooner than the classroom instruction version.
Pushing the envelope even further, we conceived an idea to replace a broken simulator that was used for aircraft marshalling training with training gamification using XBox Kinect technology. The game was designed by Atlantis Systems and developed and delivered by Modest Tree, both Halifax companies.
The new Aircraft Virtual Marshalling Trainer pits student against student with a high leader scoreboard, XBox interactions, and performance monitoring via the 3D camera. Now, not only were the students’ minds engaged, so were their bodies as they had to actually perform the marshaling signals to complete their tasks.
The outcome was amazing. Students could now learn at their own pace, and the same space footprint that was used to teach only one student at a time could now train eight students. Savings on aircraft fuel, simulator upkeep, and training times saw an ROI for the project in the very first year of operation.
So what does the present landscape for gamification look like in the military? The Canadian Armed Forces understands the power of advanced learning technologies and is taking a leadership role in their adoption. Its training program, Canadian Forces Individual Training and Education (CFITES), is being revamped to reflect changes in philosophy, methodology and application of advanced training technologies. A new guidance document called CF Campus provides a roadmap on how to embrace technology and modern applications in the curriculum.
Under the vision of the Canadian Defence Academy (CDA), Learning Support Centers have been formed for all branches of the military that schools can tap into for guidance, assistance, and resources. CDA has also set up a Defence Learning Network, complete with common toolsets to help schools build their own advance training technology content, so they can become more self-reliant.
One of the cornerstone tools CDA recently acquired is called Modest3D, made by Modest Tree. Modest3D is a rapid 3D content development application that allows instructors, instructional designers, and subject matter experts to build 3D interactive gamifications of learning content with the same ease they use to build PowerPoint presentations.
Gamification has proven to be an extremely powerful learning approach that can accomplish a deeper level of learning transfer. It is an excellent way to develop situational awareness, problem-solving skills, and task experience. Compared to alternative methods of delivery, gamification is also more cost-effective and can significantly reduce the time it takes to train.
The military headquarters’ leadership has put in place a structure that not only supports training technologies, but promotes its use. CDA is assembling a tool box of applications that instructors can use to easily create challenging and engaging gamifications. The challenge is now on individual Learning Support Centers and schoolhouses to proliferate gamifications in military training. The future for gamification in the military never looked brighter.
Major (Ret’d) David O’Brien is vice-president of business development for Modest Tree. Commissioned as an aerospace engineering officer, he served for 38 years and has over 80 training technology projects under his belt.