Asymmetric Warfare: The Game

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

"As we move forward, we're going to focus on searching and assaulting buildings," says Jim Grosse, principal investigator for RDECOM.

So far, the environment includes a square kilometer of a geotypical Baghdad. Geotypical means it looks like the city, but doesn't replicate it. To get the correct facade or texture on a building, Karen Laur, Forterra's art director, reads books on Arab cities, scours the Internet, and roams the streets with her camera.

"I've done a lot of legwork in San Francisco, imagining if buildings would look right in Baghdad," she says. In the simulation, Laur navigates to a stoic stone building. "This one is on Third and Folsom," she says.

Evan Driscoll, VP of engineering, works on his avatar's 
Nikki Ishmael
Evan Driscoll, VP of engineering, works on his avatar's wardrobe.
Karen Laur, Forterra's art director, surrounded by her 
arsenal of equipment.
Nikki Ishmael
Karen Laur, Forterra's art director, surrounded by her arsenal of equipment.

Laur may soon have better models to work from. The ability to pipe geospecific data into Forterra's virtual environment is not far off. A geospecific scene would be a facsimile of the real thing, obtained from satellites and imaging equipment. Imagine a virtual Mosul, modeled down to the back alley and the individual tree, swarming with platoons rehearsing an attack from computers in barracks around the world. The real world.

As geospecific technology becomes more affordable, the Army will transform more and more of the real world into the virtual. Eventually, U.S. forces will, to paraphrase Bartlett, be able to rehearse for missions anytime and anywhere from anyplace.

Exactly what the Army ordered.

"It's going to revolutionize the way soldiers train," says Grosse. "If I was going to Iraq I'd be all over it."

At the 2005 Game Developers Conference, in the "Serious Games Summit," a packed conference room watches as the Army's Macedonia, dressed neatly in a blazer and slacks, runs through a PowerPoint presentation and talks about the gamer generation coming of age in the military.

"The Marines are kicking back in Fallujah playing their Xboxes," he says, putting up a slide of a control interface for a missile system. Ten young soldiers helped design the interface, which looks exactly like a PlayStation controller. "It's a continuum of virtuality," Macedonia says.

He's got academic backup for his position.

Jim Gee, a games expert and professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, says games, especially MMPs, can be invaluable learning devices for the Army: "The 18-year-olds the Army is dealing with are very often the 18-year-olds the schools failed with. You can hardly give them classroom education. Why cognition works well in a game is that instead of reading a textbook, you live in a textbook."

In his presentation, Macedonia makes a similar point, circling repeatedly back to gaming's cognitive benefits. "We're trying to teach people to think," he says. Macedonia knows a little about cognition. He went to West Point and holds a Ph.D. in computer science. Although a civilian, Macedonia is also intimately connected to the U.S. military's current struggles. His brother works as an Army doctor at Abu Ghraib prison, and Macedonia was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, "about 100 feet from where that plane came in."

In the batting order of military-game thinkers, Macedonia is the cleanup hitter. He usually addresses an enthralled audience of overwhelmingly male business and computer types. These are men who rhapsodize about the Holodeck in Star Trek and quote Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card's classic book about simulation. They are nerds, yes, but they are dreamers, and, in the back of the conference room, they have inked over a wall-size sheet of white paper with their thoughts on how game technology can address government problems. There's an idea for a simulation to help balance environmental and commercial needs for the National Marine Fisheries Department. One note suggests an action game to train employees at the U.S. Mint to hunt counterfeiters. There are game concepts for the FDA, the Patent Office, and Interpol.

In terms of synergy with the commercial market, however, these agencies of less martial pursuits are, at present, mosquitoes compared to the U.S. military and, in particular, the Army. Last year, the Department of Defense spent billions on modeling and simulation. Macedonia's Army simulation unit alone spent $1.5 billion. The Army's overall budget was around $3 billion, according to Macedonia. Gee believes that amount will increase by another $40 million to $60 million in the near future, partly out of necessity brought on by the situation in Iraq.

"Most of the soldiers in Iraq have died under asymmetric conditions which [the Army] didn't simulate," Gee says. "They also weren't very good at simulating the culture or at teaching language. Now they're trying to do all three through games."

At the "Serious Games Summit," a military and Homeland Security presence is noticeable. Men in uniform chat up contractors in the hallways, while shifty-eyed spooks lurk in the back row, ordering photographers to turn off their cameras. Although games for the health care and education industries fall under the rubric of "serious," developers in those areas have made few strides to match the gains in the military realm. Many contractors have so much work from the Army and the Marines, they have to turn new clients away.

It should come as no surprise that the military is ahead of the curve. Armies have war-gamed for as long as armies have existed, and the Air Force first used a rudimentary flight simulator in 1929. Macedonia marks 1976 as the first time the Army tested a commercial video game, MechWarrior, for training value.

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