Reel War

The Army and Hollywood join hands to wage virtual, bloodless battles.

In essence, what ICT has created is the world's largest video game -- the so-called Experience Learning System, with a screen that fills almost an entire room and allows its "students" to immerse themselves in hostile terrain where the surroundings and people look as "real" as the current technology will allow. The result is a sort of real-world precursor to the holodeck found on the starship Enterprise-- appropriate, since ICT's executive director is Richard Lindheim, a former Paramount exec who was in charge of Star Trek: The Next Generationand its successors. But ICT's spokesman loathes the word "game," though he often uses it himself; he points out that ICT uses only existing gaming platforms and technology, but not the games themselves. That is, they're not retrofitting Medal of Honoror Quakefor the military's use -- though it has often been hinted that the military has used such games as training tools.

"We call it the Experience Learning System because we're really looking at active learning as opposed to passive learning," says the spokesman. "Motion pictures are, for the most part, passive. You watch them and may get emotionally involved, but it is passive. Video games are active, but the problem with video games is they're not real: What do you shoot and how do you maneuver around it? What hasn't been linked with the games is, can you really make them into a learning tool?

"If you can use the entertainment industry's knowledge of how to create those emotional connections with storytelling and characters and tie it together with cognitive learning, now you've got something very powerful, and if you put that in the framework of virtual worlds and simulations. You will end up with something where you're active and you're emotionally involved and you're going to learn."

Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, left, is among the 
filmmakers who met with ICT officials.
Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, left, is among the filmmakers who met with ICT officials.

This great experiment has not been conducted without its share of controversy; that existed well before Variety's story. Earlier this year, Mark Pesce -- the founding chair of the Interactive Media Program at USC's School of Cinema and Television, as well as the creator of Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a 3-D computer programming language -- told one journalist that ICT ignored whatever boundaries exist between "readiness training and combat training." He expressed disgust with what he called the ultimate "killer app" being developed under his university's auspices. ICT's work also takes up a large chunk of writer James Der Derian's new book Virtuous War, which charts the creation of a potentially dangerous "military-industrial-media-entertainment network." The ICT, Derian insists, "warrants public scrutiny."

The institute's spokesman insists that no actual "combat training" is going on at ICT. Rather, they're merely developing prototypes that will be handed over to the military, which will develop the scenarios. And while that may sound like a case of splitting hairs, the spokesman insists the technology being created at ICT is not merely for use in war preparation; he envisions a day when it's used in medical facilities and classrooms.

"As we well know, any tool could be a weapon," says the spokesman. "Who would have ever thought of a box cutter as a weapon?"

Hollywood and the military have never made the best of couples; theirs is a marriage more often of convenience than of affection. But the post-Vietnam cynicism that informed so much of cinema has worn off -- partially because of September 11, partially because of Saving Private Ryanand our culture's newfound love for the Greatest Generation. In such an environment, ICT thrives. Its spokesman says that after the Varietystory appeared, filmmakers began calling to volunteer their services. Some people give blood; others donate to the Red Cross. And others meet with the Pentagon to brainstorm about terrorism.

"There's no other place in this country or in the world where you have these kind of people with such varied skills who are actually getting together and constructively collaborating," says the spokesman, "and I am proudest of that.

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