Asymmetric Warfare: The Game

Advances in ultrarealistic simulation let soldiers experience the war in Iraq -- before they go

But I follow orders and aim at her blond bob. I grimace and plug her twice with my M9. Her avatar crumples quietly to the ground and lies still. It is done. I have crossed over. A real-world emotion has been triggered in me by an action I've taken inside the computer. For me, this is no longer just a game.

When Kusumoto pops back into the conference room to check on me, I tell her how I feel. Normally, I enjoy shooting people in the head, but this time I feel bad about it.

"That's good," she says, smiling. "That's what we want."

Masked insurgents patrol a hostile area of the city.
Masked insurgents patrol a hostile area of the city.
Laura Kusumoto, the asymmetric warfare simulation's 
producer, alongside her virtual self.
Nikki Ishmael
Laura Kusumoto, the asymmetric warfare simulation's producer, alongside her virtual self.

It must be nice to be able to respawn.

Robert Gehorsam, the CEO of Forterra, knew he was on to something big back in 2002. That was the year Gehorsam, who had run Sony's online game portal, participated in an exploratory panel for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government group in charge of cutting-edge military research. Normally, DARPA works on projects out of science-fiction novels -- laser guns, killer robots, combat exoskeletons. But Gehorsam's panel was charged with looking into military applications for video games. Specifically, the group was asked to investigate massively multiplayer games, or MMPs. (A dozen different acronyms refer to this kind of game, but MMP is the simplest.)

MMPs have their roots in text-based games created by programmers in the early days of the Internet. The games were online fantasy worlds where hundreds of users led virtual lives. They killed monsters, cast spells, and traded enchanted swords. As they accrued wealth and status, players formed social groups, even held cyberweddings and had digital kids. By the late '90s, MMPs had evolved to include sophisticated graphics, attracting hundreds of thousands of users and linking people around the world in real time. The Army took note. It wanted a similar platform for training.

"I thought about starting a company to do it," Gehorsam says. "But the technology was already out there."

There Inc., a Silicon Valley start-up, was about to release an MMP (also named There) that discarded the old Dungeons & Dragons model. The game felt more like an enormous backyard party, albeit with jetpacks and paintball tournaments. Mostly, though, people in There stood around and socialized. The game's strength was its intensely realistic character interaction. The avatars had lifelike facial expressions. They moved naturally, blinked their eyes, even breathed. Users could talk to each other over headsets.

Gehorsam, who was raising money for his own company at the time, approached There Inc. about pitching the game to the military. He got the assignment and, within six months, had won a four-year, $3.5 million contract from the Army's Research Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) to modify There for military use.

There Inc. would later change its name to Forterra Systems and make the New York-based Gehorsam CEO. With new financing from an Israeli-based venture capital firm, Forterra shifted its thrust from entertainment to "serious games" that service the military, health care, and education industries. Last February, Forterra won another Army contract, this one to collaborate with Stanford University in developing a homeland security program to train first responders to a dirty bomb or chemical weapons attack by terrorists. The company recently hired David Bartlett, a former Marine lieutenant colonel with almost 30 years of simulation expertise, to drum up more business in Washington.

But Forterra's initial focus was the asymmetric warfare trainer. The company's designers and programmers retrofitted There's commercial engine -- with its avatars, its scenery, and its sophisticated physics -- for the Army. First, they built an ambassador's house in Kuwait and filled it with comely lasses trying to pry intel from the boozy embassy staff. The Army wanted a scenario more useful to the average soldier in Iraq.

Forterra responded with a vehicle checkpoint that included traffic cones, concrete barriers, and concertina wire. Everything could be customized: the number of approaching cars, the location of the barriers, whether a user played as a soldier or a civilian. Users could also play as insurgents, attacking the checkpoint with guns and IEDs, or trying to cajole their way past guards with street sophistry. This was more like it, in RDECOM's eyes. The checkpoint would teach both "situational awareness" and the all-important rules of engagement, or doctrine, that soldiers follow under different circumstances. What's the procedure for searching multiple vehicles? Can you frisk an Arab woman without violating local customs? How do you know when to pull the trigger?

The Army runs constant drills, live exercises, and classes to prepare its soldiers for war. But money is limited. So is time. The National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., is the Army's premier live-training facility. It's booked year-round. Firing a single shell there can cost $10,000. The center has 400 Arab-American actors on its payroll. Virtual training, the Army believes, will be a cheap, fast, and modular way to augment what it already does in limited doses.

"This does not replace live training," Kusumoto emphasizes. "It supplements it. The first time a bullet goes by your head -- you can't simulate that."

But affordable simulation is a big improvement over the flip chart. In the pedagogy of war, classroom smarts mean little next to knowledge gained in the field, even a virtual field. Every day at Forterra, the line between simulation and reality is further blurred. The design team has added helicopters, tanks, and Humvees to the training environment. There's even a purple lowrider Caddie, which the artists modeled for fun. (The Army won't use it for training; the civilian car of choice in Iraq is the Yugo.) Users can now alter everything from the size of their IEDs to the length of their noses. Forterra will continue to build new scenarios and tweak existing ones as the Army requires.

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