Asymmetric Warfare: The Game

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

The game play isn't nearly as smooth as a commercial first-person shooter, but the point of the exercise is to test teamwork, not how easily a user can mow down the enemy.

The soldiers move fast but methodically, taking cover behind towering trees and crawling over the dark red dirt when necessary. From a position on a ridge, they spot a rope bridge in the distance. The bridge spans a mist-filled gorge the soldiers need to cross to get to the terrorist camp. This is their only entry point. Here it becomes apparent that the NCOs take this drill very seriously. It also becomes apparent that they are very well-trained in crossing bridges. Alpha Team secures the near side, positioning a soldier at the two pylons that anchor the bridge. The soldiers lie down and aim their guns up the path on the far side. If an enemy, lost in thought, wanders out to gaze over the gorge, he won't live long.

"Alpha Team in. Ready for Bravo Team cross." The soldiers bark information at each other just like they would in the field.

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.

"Bravo Team cross. Set up security on far side."

The two members of Bravo Team dash across the bridge. They crouch down in the bushes. One of them sees the flash of gunfire from another ridge. He's been spotted. He and his partner return fire.

"Bad guy wearing a dark-colored top. Nothing on his head. He's still moving up there on that ridgeline. We got him pretty well isolated."

The three Alpha Team soldiers charge across the bridge to bring supporting fire. Down goes the bad guy on the ridgeline. Alpha Team guns down another one on the path.

The two Bravo Team soldiers have run into some trouble with the game controls. One of them accidentally drops his M16. The other gets trapped in a bush. "Goddamn it!" roars the bush-bound soldier as a terrorist closes in on him.

In the confusion, the leadership abilities of the NCOs noticeably diverges. The Bravo team member who dropped his gun is frustrated. He turns frequently to his teammate for help. The other Bravo member assumes command. He identifies the problem with his controls, frees himself from the foliage, and steps in front of his teammate. He aims his gun and fires. Another kill.

"Bad guy down! There's a bad guy down behind the tree about 100 meters to my front on the left side of the road."

"We got the hill covered," says Alpha Team. "You can get up and walk."

The two teams move quickly up the hill and through the underbrush, Alpha high and Bravo low, converging on their target in a pincerlike formation.

"Village in sight," Alpha Team murmurs.

Bravo Team slithers up to a group of thatch-roofed huts around a cooking fire. The village is quiet. The Bravo leader takes a position behind a rock and trains his rifle on the entrance to the nearest hut.

"I'm set. I'm holding at this door."

The only movement in the village is the flicker of the fire. The soldiers tense up as they wait for something to happen. The seconds tick by.

Suddenly, Alpha Team swings into action. "I got eyes on enemy in the right corner of the compound!"

A terrorist ducks past the open door of a hut. Alpha Team unleashes a burst of fire.

"I can't tell if that fucker's got a weapon or not."

Alpha Team keeps firing, reloading in a rhythm. Each member covers a different area of the compound. They bounce information back and forth over the headsets.

"One running to the right."

"That means there's three more in."

"I'll be damned if I can't shoot him."

Alpha Team can't seem to kill one of the bad guys. The soldiers target him and fire, but he won't go down. Bravo Team is having the same problem. A terrorist staggers into the open, shooting as he moves. The Bravo leader blasts him in the head and chest several times. The bad guy won't die.

"Looks like they might be wearing body armor or something," the Bravo leader shouts. He fires a dozen more rounds to no avail.

"I mean, come on! What the fuck is this?!"

What it is is a glitch in the program. Kusumoto interrupts the mission. The Forterra team discovers that when the soldiers reach the village, their weapons become nonlethal.

"It was very frustrating for them," Kusumoto says.

It's a glitch the Forterra team will soon iron out. In a simulated world, however, even a glitch can be instructional. In the moment the soldiers begin shouting, the assertion the Army has made from the start proves true: This is not a game. In the soldiers' minds, this is serious. A malfunctioning weapon means the difference between winning and losing, living and dying. A programming snafu has revealed the reality of the virtual. The continuum, Macedonia calls it. Cognitive dissonance, says Toblerone. They both mean the same thing. In the world of virtual training, the line between immersion and reality is omnipresent and evanescent, possible to hold in your head but often impossible to discern.

And that, of course, is the point.

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