Asymmetric Warfare: The Game

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

"This relationship has been going on for a long time," he says. "People were just waiting for the right moment."

The right moment came sometime in the mid- to late '90s, when rapid innovation in game software, coupled with cheaper and more powerful hardware, changed all the rules of computing.

"We went from a $1 million SGI monster to a $200 ATI graphics chip in four years," Macedonia says. "The blink of an eye in terms of military technology."

As part of its training simulation for first responders, 
Forterra has created a virtual environment modeled on 
the Stanford Hospital.
As part of its training simulation for first responders, Forterra has created a virtual environment modeled on the Stanford Hospital.

Suddenly, the commercial world had the ability to meet the needs of the armed forces. After a 1996 conference sponsored by the National Research Council, the entertainment industry and the military began discussing convergence. The Army established the Institute for Creative Technologies, a think tank at the University of Southern California, to collaborate with Hollywood studios and game companies, many of which had already joined forces. Today, ICT works mostly on large, commissioned projects such as Full Spectrum Warrior, a squad-based training game created with Pandemic Studios; the game later became a hit on the Xbox and PC platforms. In recent years, however, the Army's demand for simulations has caused it to reach out directly to independent game companies such as Forterra to modify commercial applications. Twice a year, the Department of Defense posts a list of projects for which it solicits applications from contractors.

This approach may not work for the military over the long term, given security risks and training requirements, but it's going gangbusters right now and shows no signs of slowing. At one point during a Q&A session at the "Serious Games Summit," a frustrated health insurance executive grabs the microphone and asks the 200-person audience, his voice awash with incredulity: "Does everyone here have a contract with the military?"

Everyone except him.


Names matter. I must choose mine carefully. At first, I consider I.F. Stone or H.L. Mencken. I am a fan of initializing the first two names. Very British Raj. But my audience of There avatars will probably not recognize the monikers of two dead journalists.

So I give myself a thick black "v espresso" hairstyle and pale "vanilla" skin and type in the name "JamesBreslin." It's obvious enough, but with some ironic formality thrown in to break the ice. Perfect. I spawn into a tropical setting, wearing an orange Hawaiian shirt, tan shorts, and sandals. All I'm missing is a stogie and 100 pounds.

I imagine There users will find my JamesBreslin handle funny when I approach them as a virtual reporter and buttonhole them for information online. How wrong I am. No one finds it funny. No one gets the joke. I could have picked JamesBreslinLegendaryNewspaperColumnist and it wouldn't have made a difference. Poor Jimmy. Win a Pulitzer and the public drives you from memory. People just don't read anymore. They play video games. Then again, the first three people I approach in There are stumped cold by phrases like "training scenario" and "foreign policy." All Ryu66, Laura19, and Killa69 want to talk about is how many virtual houses they own, or the latest virtual outfit they bought with virtual Therebucks.

It makes me wonder if There and other MMPs are simply windows onto the worst aspects of the human condition -- willful stupidity, reckless consumerism, unbridled onanism. Is there a more solipsistic act than creating a virtual you? Cloning, perhaps.

But I change my mind after meeting Toblerone, an avatar with spiky black hair, glasses, and a tank top. Toblerone, who refuses to reveal his real name, is a smart, garrulous former airborne infantryman. He doesn't comment on JamesBreslin, but he knows about Forterra and the Army using There to train. He thinks it's a good idea.

"It's the most natural gesture and emotive 3-D virtual environment in existence," he says. "And I don't work for There, nor do I have to spend any money here to have cognitive dissonance kicking in."

Toblerone started off as a "power user" in virtual 3-D worlds in the '90s. He just got back from a four-day simulation conference in Huntsville, Ala. In his opinion, other game platforms do a better job of simulating combat, but Forterra's is ideal for training behavior. "This is good for social interaction and visual cues to culture, religion, body language, and the like," he says. "If voice can be used, that makes it even more powerful. I think it will have a positive training effect."

His one concern is about security and what would happen if networked training technology fell into the wrong hands.

"What's good for us, is good for them," he warns.

Not to worry, says Jim Grosse. "The Army bought its own servers so Joe Smith down the block can't log into our environment." That's not to say he couldn't hack in, but it would be tough.

Like other contractors, Forterra works closely with the military to share information to increase the accuracy of each scenario in its simulation. Army insiders -- often soldiers just back from Iraq -- provide game developers with content they'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere. One suggestion was to add dog carcasses in which insurgents could hide IEDs. Another was to distinguish between the sounds of celebratory and hostile gunfire. Grosse gives a third example: "When you're on a patrol and you see the kids out, nothing's going to happen. When you don't see the kids, the hair on the back of your neck stands up."

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