Video games and military simulators: a thwarted relationship

At the beginning of March 2022, the arms giant BAE Systems bought the professional military simulation studio Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) for 200 million dollars. A move that shows us that if video games have always been nourished by the military, the opposite is also increasingly true.

Above: an illustration of the VBS4 software from BISim.


The relationship between the military and video games is very particular (as Alex explains for example). It differs for example very largely from the relationship of the military to the cinema and turns out to be, in the end, a rather tortured story of two actors fascinated by each other, but often refusing to admit it. 


The video game, a powerful media for the communication of armies

In the early 2000s, as video games became a mass media, some armies became interested in them and hoped to reach the general public, mainly for recruitment purposes.

One thinks of the famous and controversial America’s Army, a free-to-play FPS (and even one of the first of its kind) financed by the Pentagon, and which becomes, in a post-September 11 world, a real communication tool for the US Army.

For their part, the Russians have more recently partnered with World of Tanks for marketing actions and today, in several countries, the military are even looking at e-sports or streaming to approach a generation totally anchored in the digital world.


Simulations or games ?

America’s Army is not an isolated example. In 2004, Full Spectrum Warrior was released, a tactical TPS published by THQ. If the game proposes to command an American infantry Fire Team in the middle of cities that strongly resemble Baghdad, it is not by chance: it is directly taken from a simulator intended to train platoon leaders in urban combat. The publisher simply decided to simplify its formula in order to reach the general public.

Full Spectrum Warrior en 2004 – THQ


Bohemia Interactive Studios (BIS) has the opposite strategy. After its military simulation Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis revolutionized the genre in 2001 with a particularly elaborate scenario and an extremely high level of realism (a critical and commercial success that was later extended with the Arma series), the studio, aware of the potential on the professional market, separated its activities and created a branch dedicated to professional simulation.

Today, BISim, with its Virtual Battlespace Systems, provides its services to over 60 countries, including France.


The industry in search of realism

If the success of BISim justifies today its purchase by an arms giant, it is because the latter understood that “something was missing” in their professional products.

Indeed, how to convince young soldiers to get involved in professional software, when the visual rendering and ergonomics of these simulators is light years away from what they are used to see on their daily TV4K or even their phone? In terms of visuals, rendering and sensations, no professional program rivals the immersion of a Call of Duty, and no aeronautical simulator comes close to DCS World or the latest Flight Simulator, developed in Bordeaux by the Asobo studio.

This need to catch up with realism is therefore crucial for professionals, as the global market for military training and simulation environments could exceed USD 11 billion per year. By the way, the reason BAE Systems and BISim started working together in 2019 was to respond to the US Marine Corps War Gaming and Analysis Center RFP.

The trend is therefore for simulator publishers, but also for augmented reality maintenance or “Command & Control” solutions, to seek extensive cooperation with the video game industry in order to gain in realism but also, for example, in ergonomics.


The Long Range Desert Group

Light, nomadic special units, with a huge theater of operations: the new opus of the Ghost Recon series? Alas, no, it would take a certain amount of scriptural audacity and the renunciation of microtransactions! Instead, we’re going to talk about a mythical unit in the world of Special Forces: the Long Range Desert Group, at the heart of the desert war between 1940 and 1943.


« Panzer rollen in Afrika Vor »

In February 1941, the Italian troops based in Libya were cornered by the British 8th Army, which had launched a vast counter-offensive from Egypt. They therefore called on the Germans for help, who urgently deployed an expeditionary force known as the Afrika Korps and commanded by the legendary General Rommel, who quickly restored the situation…

In Alexandria, the British headquarters was panicked, and it was during this troubled period that small units tried to come up with innovative solutions to the “desert war”. Among them, that of Major Ralph BAGNOLD, a desert specialist who spent most of his career in Egypt and is steeped in the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia.


A unit of privateers

Rommel often compared desert warfare to naval operations, where the watering holes were ports and the dunes were largely impassable reefs. Reconnaissance and surprise were therefore essential.

For BAGNOLD, the idea was to create a largely autonomous unit, equipped with light means and capable of conducting intelligence operations far behind enemy lines. To do so, he gathered around him a team of English, but especially Australian and New Zealanders, who quickly developed an esprit de corps close to the privateers of yesteryear by serving the Crown, but applying their own rules.


King of the desert

To survive in the desert, the men of the LRDG are inspired by those who have lived there for millennia: they build close relationships with Bedouin tribes, adopt their clothing and especially their ancestral techniques.

They also innovate on several points, notably by abandoning military vehicles for the iconic Chevrolet 30CWT, a civilian utility vehicle that they modify to make a vehicle perfectly adapted to survival in the desert for several days, even several weeks. With it, they invented, and then constantly perfected, the technique of dune crossing, which ensured that they could pass where others got stuck. And finally, they invented the solar compass, which allowed them to “navigate” on the sea of sand.

While the LRDG was initially specialized in reconnaissance, it quickly moved to armed action, in the form of daring raids, under the impetus of another unit: David STIRLING’s Special Air Service. The two units were to cooperate extensively to become the nightmare of the Axis forces by multiplying the sabotage of airfields or fuel depots.


Good customers for video games

The desert war has been relatively well treated in video games: several wargames are dedicated to it, as well as RTS, like Desert Rats Vs Afrika Korps (2004) or several missions of the legendary Commandos series.

However, most of these games ignore the fact that the North African campaign was also largely marked by the birth and intensive use, especially by the Allies, of the first special units. In this respect, only one game has left a lasting impression on the imagination of players (but unfortunately more for its bugs than for its gameplay): Hidden and Dangerous, which was largely inspired by the missions of the Special Operations Executive.

We can therefore dream of an Open World that would finally pay tribute to the LRDGs by integrating the crafting of vehicles, the mastery of survival techniques and the hazards of desert warfare, while benefiting from a historically realistic scenario, as could be a game based on the history of the Stay-Behind…


Personal Defense Weapons

Neither assault rifles nor submachine guns, “PDWs” are regularly misunderstood as to their true nature. And this is especially the case for the Pop-Culture, which uses them excessively because of their compact and futuristic look. So let’s try today to break some clichés about these very particular weapons…

Illustration above: an H&K MP7 equipped with a Navy Seals operator.


Origins of the concept

Since the appearance of firearms, certain categories of soldiers, such as sailors or horsemen, wanted to have weapons with sufficient stopping power and range, while being compact enough to adapt to confined spaces. At the end of the 19th century, the first “rifles” appeared with this in mind, lighter and shorter versions of the regulation weapons in the infantry.

During the First World War, trench warfare also showed that semi-automatic pistols, as well as the first Submachines Guns were largely insufficient in close combat, because their calibers were not powerful enough.

During the inter-war period, several countries worked on compact but powerful personal defense weapons (or PDW) for their gunners, tankers, motorcyclists or radios. The first successful model is considered to be American: the rustic and reliable American M1 Carbine, released in 1938, will be withdrawn from service after the Vietnam war…

 M1 Carabine M1 in “Save Private Ryan”.


Towards a renaissance of the concept: the APDW project

At the end of the 1990s, aware of the shortcomings of its 9mm parabellum, NATO launched a call for tender called APDW (for Advanced Personal Defense Weapon). It concerns a new caliber, which must be able to pierce ballistic protections and helmets at a distance of 200 m, but also the weapons capable of firing it, which must have a compact design close to the SMG.

Only two manufacturers will take up the challenge:

  • The Belgian FN Herstal who presented in 1991 the 5.7 x 28 mm ammunition, whose penetration force is particularly astonishing considering its size, and which is intended to be fired by two emblematic weapons: the P90, with its futuristic shapes and unique engineering (since it is loaded from above with a plastic magazine where the ammunition is stored vertically) and the no less famous “Five Seven”, the pistol of the Secret Service, but above all of Sam Fischer !
 The P90 of the Belgian arms manufacturer FN Hertal.
  • The German Heckler & Koch which reveals in 2001 the 4,6 x 30 mm caliber, intended to be fired by the very compact MP7, which makes a massive use of polymers and technologies widely tested in the previous models of the brand.
 The H&K MP7.

In both cases, they are complex ammunition to manufacture (they are in fact miniature replicas of assault rifle calibers). They are therefore rare and expensive !


A specific concept ignored by video games

Curiously enough, modern PDWs have “missed the mark” and have never been used extensively by Western armies. On the other hand, they are widely used by special forces, intervention units and close protection actors.

 In pop culture, the FN P90 is the iconic weapon of Stargate SG-1 !

For the others, SMGs and pistol calibers have become the standard, despite their shortcomings. Several versions of extremely compact assault rifles have also been added in recent years, and all of them use and abuse the name “PDW” as a marketing argument.

This is also the case in video games. If the P90 is a Must-have of most modern Shooters and FPS, it is most often put in the SMG category, which it is not. One could for example imagine that its use could be made more authentic by simple balancing, including :

  • Superior penetration capability on enemies equipped with ballistic protection ;
  • Recharging time made longer by the specificity of the charger and a particular gesture ; 
  • A limited number of ammunition and difficult to find (you can’t find 5.7 on the battlefields).


In any case, it is regrettable that pop-culture in general, and video games in particular, don’t bother to learn more about the specificity of certain categories of weapons such as PDWs or shotguns, despite their stated objectives of realism and authenticity. This would result in games that are just as much fun, but that also integrate the notions of specialized weapons to fulfill specific missions.