Asymmetric Warfare: The Game

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

Those are the true-to-life details that game developers crave and that the military provides Forterra and other defense gaming firms. Game companies that contract with the military also benefit from mitigated financial risk. In Forterra's case, the $3.5 million it receives from RDECOM to modify There is relatively low compared to the $40 million it has already spent developing the platform. "But it's revenue," Gehorsam says. "It pays for important product development. It gives us credibility. Who could better validate what we're doing than the United States Army?"

Government money is also stable. "They need you the way they need the telephone," Gehorsam says. "It's always there. You're not worried you're going to flop. It's like an annuity. You know there's going to be a steady return, and that's an important part of the business."

Although the government will likely earmark more money for simulations in the future, the military currently doesn't have enough cash to be market-competitive. To forge successful relationships with private companies, which can rake in $50 million or more from one hit title, the military allows developers to commercialize the work they do for Uncle Sam.

U.S. soldiers await mission commands from their 
avatar leader.
U.S. soldiers await mission commands from their avatar leader.
An angry crowd gathers outside the remains of a 
Baghdad police station.
An angry crowd gathers outside the remains of a Baghdad police station.

Games such as Full Spectrum Warrior, with different versions for the military and the consumer, can generate big bucks in the commercial market. In Forterra's case, the content it builds can be licensed to outside developers for use in other games. "We could turn around and commercialize it all," Kusumoto says. She uses the example of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in the virtual trainer. "We could license that for another game," she says. Or she could import the vehicle into There, although a Bradley would hardly be appropriate in a game designed for social interaction. If Forterra wanted to, it could also design its own commercial game based on the work it has done for the Army. Profit, however, is not the only motive for developers that partner with the military. They feel they are responding to a patriotic calling.

"We really think we can do some good," says Kusumoto, whose father served in the Korean War as a Navy pilot. "We really believe we're going to help save lives. I'd guess most designers wouldn't want to be doing this. They'd prefer the glamour, the money, the name in lights. But this gives me a bigger sense of purpose."

Five soldiers from the 101st Airborne hunker down in front of flat-screen Dells in Fort Campbell, Ky., strap on their headsets, and log in. They are all noncommissioned officers with combat experience in Iraq. In the chain of command, orders trickle down to them, and they make the orders happen. Their jobs demand quick and clear communication skills and the ability to lead troops and make decisions under intense pressure. They are exactly the warriors Forterra wants to test out the AW-VTT.

The soldiers have all been briefed on how to use the system. It's very simple, really. You move with the arrow keys, swivel your head and aim weapons with the mouse. This morning's mission: take out a terrorist camp in the jungles of the Philippines.

Most training simulations use artificial intelligence to control the enemy. Not this one. The bad guys will be played by Forterra employees. In the future, they might be controlled by other soldiers. Grosse and Macedonia have discussed hiring some of the actors from Fort Irwin to play insurgents in the Baghdad scenario. They may even put some Iraqis in the Middle East on the payroll.

Artificial intelligence has limitations, especially in a simulation that aims to train soldiers for asymmetric warfare. Still, the Army plans to integrate Forterra's technology with one of the most advanced AI systems in existence, OneSAF, the military's Semi-Automated Forces. OneSAF can simulate most aspects of ground warfare. In Forterra's world, it would control background avatars with noncritical roles -- people in large crowds, shopkeepers, pedestrians.

The Army also hopes to integrate the Forterra world with other training programs. All simulation work for the military must now conform to a programming standard that will allow different applications to "talk" to one another. At some point, a pilot in a flight simulator may be able to soar through Forterra's world, look down, and see soldiers running a training exercise. The soldiers could look up and see the plane.

In Fort Campbell, the computer screens flicker to life and the NCOs split up into Alpha and Bravo teams. They get comfortable with the compass in the upper left corner of their screens and the fact that their avatars are wearing light desert camo in a dark jungle setting. For a moment, it's hard not to doubt my own reality.

I'm using a Dell laptop in Forterra's California office to watch a video recording of the soldiers looking at their lifelike avatars on computers in Kentucky. It is, to say the least, a virtual exercise in infinite regression. I half expect JamesBreslin to appear alongside the NCOs in the Philippines. Luckily for the soldiers, that doesn't happen, and they spring into action. Even 2,000 miles away, the tension is palpable. Kusumoto had told me about this. "They become something else when they get in this environment," she'd said. "Their training shows, and a lot of the humanity comes through."

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