Looking at M&S Education Through the Prism of the Video Game Industry

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Posted: February 9, 2016 | By: John Lawson III

Let’s discuss what DOD Modeling & Simulation (M&S) can learn about education from the commercial gaming world. There are occasions when we in DOD look at the commercial gaming industry as if we’re kids with our faces pressed against a candy store’s window.

In many instances, fundamental differences between DOD and the private sector prevent us from emulating their successes. For example, we sweat through the brow trying to devise persistent Live/Virtual/Constructive environments. Meanwhile, for many years, recreational gamers have had access to the PlayStation Network, the Xbox Live environment, and any number of other persistent online capabilities for PC games, tablet games, phone games, and so forth.

There are reasons why our technology sometimes seems quaint when compared to the entertainment industry’s technology. Addressing these reasons probably isn’t realistic, even for four-stars or undersecretaries. We in DOD must follow detailed acquisition rules. We must follow security procedures that can have life-or-death ramifications. We must coordinate across organizations, across commands, across services, and even across government. There are, in short, plenty of cases where our slow bureaucratic speed prevents fast technological progress. For all of us worker bees, these are constraints we simply have to live with.

But sometimes we can look at the commercial gaming world, see a good idea, and copy it. Education is one such example.

When the topic of M&S education arises in DOD, an obsession with checklists, processes, and credentials frequently emerges. In fact, we often don’t sound like we’re discussing education at all. We sound like we’re discussing training.

In the commercial gaming world, discussions of education are far less rigid. In other words, their discussions about education sound more intellectual and less like Soviet-style central planning.

According to Gamasutra.com, a gaming industry website, new hires at gaming companies typically have broader majors, such as art, finance, or computer science. They tend not to have tailored majors, i.e., majors with the word “game” in the description.

DOD, on the other hand, has inclinations that go in the opposite direction. We aren’t just infatuated with tailored majors and tailored curricula. We are sometimes tempted to devise courses of study in which M&S students have almost no latitude. We imagine that our M&S folks can be precisely codified, like a rifleman who shot marksman, sharpshooter, or expert. Of course, proficiency with a rifle in 2015 isn’t far removed from proficiency with a rifle in 1965 or even 1915. On the other hand, M&S is a vast, rich, constantly changing realm. Even if you could pigeonhole your M&S people in 2015 (and I say you can’t), your entire notion of how to pigeonhole them would have to change in a matter of months.

M&S is a dynamic area. Education should fuel it, not constrain it. The game development world is NOT madly in love with academic game development credentials. Similarly, we in DOD should NOT be madly in love with academic M&S credentials.

Over in the entertainment realm, even some of those who run game development programs at four-year institutions acknowledge that a curriculum can become dated six months after a school signs off on it. They also note that hiring top teaching talent is a challenge, because top talent usually lacks the academic credentials to land a professorship.

The Internet is full of blogs discussing whether a video gaming degree is worth the time and money, and while there is no consensus, the criticisms have a lot of intellectual traction, and the very existence of so much criticism is a warning against enshrining highly specific academic credentials. Particularly unsettling is the charge that academia moves more slowly than industry and therefore struggles to keep up with technology and related trends.

If the fast-moving commercial gaming world is hesitant to get hung up on ultra-specialized credentials, we in DOD should have even greater reservations.

Whether you’re talking about measures that extend across DOD, pertain to a particular service, or confine themselves to some portion of a service (e.g., the training community), you have to recognize a basic, bureaucratic danger. It’s pretty easy to imagine ourselves getting married to credentials that would be out of date by the time students left the schoolhouse for the Real World.

We all have a pretty good idea what our bureaucratic behavior looks like…

  • Year 1: A study compiles information on credentials
  • Year 2: Committees and working groups wrangle over credentials
  • Year 3: A schoolhouse prepares to implement the courses
  • Year 4: The first batch of students goes through the program
  • Year 5: Graduates take what they learned into the workforce

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