The military has quietly become an industry leader in video-game design, creating games to train and even recruit the soldiers of the PlayStation generation. Will virtual boot camp make combat more real or more surreal?
August 22, 2004
The Making of an X Box Warrior
By CLIVE THOMPSON
It was only a virtual Baghdad, baking under a virtual sun. As in real life, though, troops were dodging gunfire. I was at the Institute for Creative Technologies in Marina Del Rey, Calif., playing a new X box video game called Full Spectrum Warrior. Leading eight men in an Army squad on a patrol of the war-torn city, I got a taste, however approximate, of why Iraq is such a hard place to be a soldier these days. My job, as squad leader, was to order my soldiers where to go and what to do. First, I sent half of my men into an alleyway, where they immediately came under fire from insurgents hiding nearby. Scrambling for safety, I ordered us to duck into a building, pausing to marvel at the detail of the architecture. I then led us back out onto the street, directing my team to crouch behind a car while we tried to locate the snipers. This was a bad idea. Despite what you see in action movies and other video games, cars do not provide good cover from bullets. The snipers cut loose, and my troops crumpled to the ground. It was surprisingly distressing. In barely three minutes, I had led every single one of my soldiers to his death.
I play video games regularly and, modesty aside, usually do quite well. Though this was my first attempt at Full Spectrum Warrior, the reason that I played poorly was not that I was inexperienced but that the game was not designed solely for entertainment. Full Spectrum Warrior was created by the Institute for Creative Technologies, with help from the Army, to teach soldiers realistic strategies for surviving what the armed forces call ''military operations in urban terrain.'' As a result, the game is unforgivingly precise. The soldiers you command are programmed to respond the way a real soldier would. There are no magic weapons to bail you out. All you have going for you is the real world. ''This is what you'll really see when you're out there,'' said Maj. Brent Cummings, a soldier then stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., who worked as a consultant on the game and walked me through it.
For the past three years, the military has been entertaining the surprising idea that video games, even those that you play on a commerical system like Microsoft's Xbox, can be an effective way to train soldiers. In fact, the Army is now one of the industry's most innovative creators, hiring high-end programmers and designers from Silicon Valley and Hollywood to devise and refine its games. Some of these games are action-packed, like Full Spectrum Warrior. Others, like one that the military's Special Operations Command is currently designing to help recruits practice their Arabic, are less so. All the games, however, speak to the military's urgent need to train recruits for the new challenges of peacekeeping efforts in places like Iraq.
Teaching someone to be an accurate shot is not particularly hard to do. Military trainers have learned that if you put someone through a week of intensive work with a point-and-shoot simulator (not unlike today's commerically available shoot-'em-up video games), he will be reasonably good with a rifle. Teaching judgment, however, is much harder than teaching hand-eye coordination. Today's military is in the market for games that train soliders, in effect, how not to shoot -- how to avoid conflict whenever possible, to recognize danger and find a route around it. As a squad leader in Full Spectrum Warrior, you do not even carry a gun that fires, which makes it the first military-action video game in which the player never discharges a weapon.
Some skeptics worry that if the military's games are not realistic enough, they will encourage bad habits and incorrect strategy -- tactics that work on the screen but get soldiers killed on the battlefield. It is certainly true that many video games for sale in stores would be disastrous for training and would trivialize a task that is literally a matter of life and death. James Korris, the creative director of the Institute for Creative Technologies, said that he once analyzed the behavior of the computerized enemy forces in the commercial game Command & Conquer Generals. At first glance, the enemy appeared to be marching in intelligent formations, but on closer examination, he said, they were revealed to be ''sort of running laps.''
But for now the skeptics will have to hold their breath. The Army is already preparing plans to ship out copies of Full Spectrum Warrior to soldiers, and its creators envision the game being played by troops in Iraq, where Xboxes are popular among Americans looking to unwind. Many of the military's young soldiers, members of the PlayStation generation, spend much of their downtime each week playing games. As the military sees it, they might as well be playing games that hone their skills. ''When a soldier is off-duty,'' Cummings said, ''he's going to go back to his barracks, and he's going to play Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. What if I give him a simulation instead?''
Modern military simulations have existed since the Second World War, when projected films of planes were used to train gunners to identify aircraft and mocked-up cockpits were physically rocked side to side to replicate the feeling of a dogfight. The military began to create highly sophisticated simulators in the 80's, taking the electronic instrument panels of helicopters, ships and tanks and wiring them to computers that could display virtual targets. With these installations, still regarded as the most accurate training technology available for learning complex battle maneuvers, hundreds of soldiers could fight together as if on one battlefield, practicing moves that they had previously been able to discuss only theoretically.
In the early 90's, however, the military lost some of its dominance in the field of computer simulations as the video-game industry began to take off. Groundbreaking games like Quake and Counterstrike -- so-called first-person shooters, because the players view the action from a first-person perspective -- were pioneers of a style of graphics that depicted combat from an individual's perspective. Computer-game designers in the 80's looked enviously at the state-of-the-art graphics available to the military. Now military experts could walk into a Wal-Mart and buy games off the shelf that had crisper visuals and smarter artificial intelligence than some of their own tools. Michael Zyda, director of the Navy Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute, remembers the moment when that shift occurred. ''We'd show our stuff to generals,'' he said, ''and they'd say, 'Well, my son is playing something that looks better than that, and it only cost $50.'''
The military's simulators, of course, were still elite tools. But they were prohibitively expensive (a single military flight simulator can cost up to $30 million), and they were products of the cold-war era, designed for combat in which large armies face one another head-on. In the eyes of someone like Neale Cosby, director of the simulation center of the Institute for Defense Analyses, a private group that advises the Pentagon, the old technology was outdated. ''We do not have good simulations for combatants who walk to work,'' he said. ''Tanks, Bradley vehicles, that's all cold-war stuff.'' For the needs of today's lighter, more flexible Army and its urban campaigns, in which soldiers walk door to door, video games that made you stroll through dungeons looking to slay shrieking monsters suddenly seemed relevant.
Before long, military experts began to approach private-sector game designers, looking for opportunities to collaborate. Video games have even been used as a form of outreach, the military's public face to American youth. More than 10 million people have downloaded a first-person shooter game called America's Army that the Army gives away as a recruiting tool. It now ranks as one of the most popular games ever. (In a recent poll by I to I Research, 30 percent of a group of young people with a favorable view of the military said they had developed that view from playing America's Army.)
Not only did the military seek out game designers, but after Sept. 11 there were instances of game designers reaching out to the military to offer their services. ''It was the reversal of the cultural flow,'' Zyda said. He remembers fielding phone calls from people saying, ''Well, I've been doing entertainment for years, but now I want to do something for the country.'' One of the designers who got involved was Robert Gehorsam, the C.E.O. of the games company Forterra Systems, who as a Sony executive oversaw the development of the wildly popular online video game EverQuest.
Gehorsam lives three blocks away from ground zero, and even before Forterra released a commercial game called There last year, he wondered whether the military might find it useful. The game There is what is known as a ''massively multiplayer online world'': for a yearly membership of $50, you can log onto the game any time from any computer connected to the Internet. You select a character, or ''avatar,'' and then wander around a vast 3-D world, engaging with other players who have logged on from their computers in any number of ways. Some people choose to race dune buggies; others take potshots at one another with goofy weapons or just hang out and talk. (There is even a book club of There players who meet and talk online in the game's universe.)
Unlike other online games of this genre, many of which are modeled on fantasy worlds like that of ''The Lord of the Rings,'' There is scrupulously realistic. All the avatars look human and even appear to breath and blink in convincing ways. Gehorsam suspected that with certain modifications, There might allow soldiers around the world to train with one another. Battle-hardened officers in Baghdad, he speculated, could participate in urban-warfare scenarios, in real time, with fresh-faced recruits in the Midwest. Friendly Iraqis could log on and take part in a virtual mob scene, complete with abuse hurled in Arabic.
In 2002, Gehorsam showed There to some people in the field of military simulations, and they agreed that he was onto something. In early 2003, he landed a $3.5 million, four-year contract from the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command to build a simulator geared to model warfare against insurgents in urban settings. Forterra's game designers immediately set to work creating a new, parallel version of their online world -- a separate, cordoned-off virtual earth for the Army's exclusive use. In this souped-up version, the world in which your avatar lives and moves is based on a remarkably accurate, roughly one-to-one counterpart to the real earth, derived from satellite data. ''If your avatar was standing in New York, and you wanted to go to San Francisco,'' Gehorsam explained, ''you'd have to walk the exact same distance as in real life -- step by step.'' Forterra's designers also started erecting a Middle Eastern city reminiscent of Baghdad and before long had produced one square mile of tightly nested buildings, which Army soldiers all over the world could roam simultaneously.
After Gehorsam demonstrated a prototype this spring on the high-tech cable channel TechTV, he received a call from Jim Kondrat, a captain in the Illinois National Guard. Kondrat wanted his troops to try it out.
In June, I traveled to Moline, Ill., to watch Kondrat and a team of soldiers give There its first military test drive. Though the system was still, at that point, a prototype, Gehorsam wanted feedback from real soldiers who might be deployed in the near future. In light of the military's recent stop-loss orders, all the soldiers in the room had been alerted to the possibility of deployment to Iraq. (And, indeed, one captain was scheduled to depart a few weeks later.)
Gehorsam's There team set up the game in the convention room of a Holiday Inn, while Kondrat lounged at the back of the room in his Army fatigues. A tall, round-faced man, Kondrat radiated a sort of wry calm, which seemed fitting since, as he explained, he is a Buddhist. When I remarked that it was appropriate that a Buddhist would experiment with a virtual-reality world, he chuckled and said he was willing to try anything to help prepare his soliders for potential combat. He explained that equipment for on-the-ground training is hard to come by. ''We don't even have ammunition to do training,'' he said. ''They need it all in Iraq.''
Kondrat's unit, a battalion, particularly needed to practice convoy maneuvers -- piloting a large number of vehicles down a road while keeping them safe. Kondrat said that he would like to take the battalion more often to one of the Army's desert outposts in California, where installations are set up like Iraqi villages, but that those resources, too, are now in high demand.
Instead, Kondrat's soldiers hoped to use There to create a virtual village that a battalion might drive through. ''We can go out, try it, screw it up, reset, do it 20 times again -- before we go out there burning diesel in the real world,'' explained Capt. William Ehrhardt, a burly man who combs what is left of his short-cropped hair straight down over his forehead.
One of Gehorsam's team members sat in front of a computer to demonstrate how to create a virtual city. At the keyboard, he pecked at a few keys and called up a blank expanse of land. He selected an avatar and walked him out onto an empty plain. With a few mouse clicks, he picked the shape and size of a building, and with one more click, it zoomed into place. A few more clicks generated rugged hills and scrub grass to cover them. In a final flourish, he reached up and turned off the sun. Presto: one Iraqi building at dusk.
The soldiers were visibly impressed. ''Cool,'' one said, exhaling. ''It's like 'The Matrix.'''
Each soldier then logged onto one of the dozen computers in the room and started experimenting with the game. Mostly in their late 20's and early 30's, many were longtime video-game players, and they quickly mastered the basics of moving about, drawing their rifles and driving a vehicle. At first, they mostly horsed around, intoxicated by a world that was void of real repercussions. Two soldiers piled into a car and began hunting for another vehicle to slam into. ''Let's play chicken!'' one said. Another soldier practiced aiming his machine gun: when he pointed it at his comrade's head, his friend just laughed.
As they became more expert at the keyboard controls, though, the soldiers became more serious and hunkered down. When they were given a military exercise to run, they became engrossed. At one point, the soliders set up a roadblock and practiced preventing unauthorized drivers from going past. Cars trundled up full of virtual Iraqis (operated by real-life soliders, some of whom had logged onto the game from California). Each player was equipped with a headset microphone, so when he spoke, you could hear their voices in the game.
''I need to get through to my wife!'' one of the Iraqis shouted. ''I need to get through to the marketplace!''
''Back up, sir,'' the squad leader said. ''This way is closed. You'll have to find another route.''
The Iraqi was furious. ''You Americans! You come in here, and you just make stuff up!''
Soon, several other cars had pulled up, and nobody was retreating. The atmosphere turned palpably tense. ''You've got 10 seconds,'' the leader warned, training his gun on the cars.
Then chaos broke out. An Iraqi hopped in his car and made a break for it, driving straight through the blockade. The soldiers opened fire, but the driver got through safely and escaped down the street.
''Another one coming!'' shouted one of the soldiers, as a second Iraqi ran up with a machine gun and stormed past the sandbags. This time, the guardsmen wheeled in unison and fired. The terrorist flopped to the ground.
''Well,'' said one soldier, ''that'll make the evening news.''
ot everyone in the military is convinced that receiving training in a game is possible or even useful. Army culture is deeply physical: training is about sweating hard and keeping your boots in the mud. Video games, in that context, can seem like a frivolous or even dangerous detour from real-world experience.
One of the biggest concerns that skeptics voice is the danger of so-called negative training. If a game is programmed with unrealistic physics and behavior, it can teach soldiers incorrect techniques -- potentially deadly when they eventually enter combat. In a game like Full Spectrum Warrior, where the enemy is made up of computerized opponents with artificial intelligence, the obvious concern is that the preparation will not give a human-enough sense of how devious, or inept, a real enemy can be.
The soldiers in Illinois generally found There impressive, but they offered several criticisms of its realism. One soldier pointed out that you should not be able to jump inside a vehicle and drive it unless you are licensed for it. ''I don't even know how to drive a Bradley,'' he said, ''but I just got in one and drove it downtown.''
A lieutenant wondered whether the game was too exciting for its own good. Boredom is a key part of training, he said, since part of the challenge of gun battles is that they often come out of nowhere after hours of tedium. All agreed that There could better simulate exhaustion: a virtual soldier who stands around in Iraqi heat ought to become fatigued, they argued, unless he is drinking lots of virtual water.
Even the enthusiasts agreed that the games can be oversold. Cummings, the consultant on Full Spectrum Warrior, worried aloud about the possible perception that a simulation would be taken as something more than just that -- a rough approximation. ''I think people will see it, and they'll say, 'Oh, jeez, I can't believe you're training your army this way,''' he said. He even shies away from using the word ''game'' to describe the simulations. ''Global war on terrorism is not a game,'' he said. When he was posted in Afghanistan, he recalled, it was so hot that his sweat erased notes he was making on a map. In a video game, he said, ''you can't replicate that.''
On the other hand, what if the games are accurate, but they fall into the wrong hands? The Army made Full Spectrum Warrior in two versions: one for the military and a slightly modified form for the public. The commercial version instantly became a best seller. Today, you can walk into a game store, buy it and get a taste of what it is like to manage troops under Arab fire. (The decision to release the game to the public was driven by an interesting business consideration. Microsoft, which created the Xbox, reserves the right to approve any game that another company creates to run on it, and it charges a fee for each copy of the game that sells. Microsoft will typically only green-light a game with a sufficiently large market -- in the case of Full Spectrum Warrior, one that included not just soldiers but the general public.)
If a game like Full Spectrum Warrior is an accurate representation of Army training, you might wonder about the wisdom of selling it to the public. Real-life terrorists might well use it to learn about the urban-warfare tactics of American soldiers. Granted, the version of Full Spectrum Warrior available to the public is not as precise about military doctrine (ambulances carry ammo, for example), and it has bigger, Hollywood-style explosions. But it turns out that the military-grade version of the game also resides on the disk of the public version. Anyone who can figure out the ''unlock'' code can buy the public game, unlock it and play the military one.
James Korris of the Institute for Creative Technologies said that Full Spectrum Warrior includes only classic battle drills, with which Al Qaeda, and most foreign countries, are already familiar. ''If there were classified content,'' he said, ''there's no way it would end up on a commercial product with a static access code.'' Still, even nonclassified information can be useful. To prepare for the 9/11 attacks, terrorists used commercially available flight simulators, not secret Pentagon ones.
Some military experts argue that while it is possible for the games to provide useful training for terrorists, the benefit of some of these games to the Army far outweighs any potential security hazard its theft might pose. ''This is going to give us a bigger edge than it gives to somebody else,'' said William Davis, who heads the lab that created the virtual weapons for the recruitment game America's Army.
In June, when I met with Brent Cummings at the Institute for Creative Technologies, he was slightly abashed about being dressed down in jeans and a golf shirt. When he first came to the West Coast from his spit-and-polish military base in Georgia, it was a bit of a culture shock. ''I wasn't a hard-core gamer,'' he said. ''I'm thinking: O.K., these Hollywood flakes, what am I going to get out of it? They all probably smoke dope.''
But he said he was quickly impressed by the commitment of the programmers at the Institute for Creative Technologies to make an accurate game. Cummings's job was to ensure that Full Spectrum Warrior conformed to military doctrine. He brought military manuals so that he could show the programmers the myriad details of how soldiers are really trained to act, down to the way they go into a room when they are entering and clearing a building. Particularly crucial, he said, was developing the ''nudge'' -- the player's ability to physically grab a fellow soldier and point him in the desired direction. ''A squad leader is very physical,'' he said. ''He goes up, and he grabs people literally on the shoulder and says: 'Hey, knucklehead. Over here.' He drags people around.''
The game was booted up for me, and on a huge screen in an auditorium, an institute staff member guided the squad around the city. He was much better at the game than I was: when he encountered insurgents taking potshots from behind a barrier, he sent a team of his men to neatly flank them.
But can you learn strategy from the game? Cummings said he believes so. Out in Illinois, Jim Kondrat, the captain in the Illinois National Guard, said that he had seen firsthand the results of training with Full Spectrum Warrior. He bought a copy of the game when it was publicly released and watched his young recruits gather around an Xbox to play it. ''When you have wounds and action going on around you,'' he said, ''it starts to stress the leader. We had one guy with both his teams pinned down by fire, and I was saying: 'What are you going to do? What are you going to do?' And he was freaking out.'' Then one soldier hit upon a plan to fire a smoke grenade. It worked: the enemy was confused, and the soldiers successfully flanked them.
In fact, the virtual world offers some unequalled ways of visualizing a battlefield. Consider how the game faciliates ''after-action review,'' a key part of training. After soldiers practice a technique, they talk about it to analyze what went wrong. Typically, soldiers will argue about precisely what happened on the field. With video games, however, they can literally replay the scene to find out.
Cummings showed me a game called Full Spectrum Command, currently in use at Fort Benning, Ga., in which you control a company of up to 150 people. For my benefit, he had a staff member run a mission infiltrating a building where terrorists were holed up. The soldiers advanced, blowing a hole in the gate, and terrorists began firing back. All of a sudden, Cummings froze the scene, as in a ''bullet time'' moment in ''The Matrix.'' Red lines onscreen showed the flight paths of enemy bullets. The camera zoomed along one of the lines, showing us what the bullets ''saw'' as they raced toward the soldiers. With another keystroke, Cummings made the walls on the buildings vanish so we could see where the enemy had been crouching.
He pointed to a red line that showed where one of the soldiers was hit. ''See that?'' he said. ''That was our vulnerability.''
Cummings conceded that the games have limits. ''You can't play Full Spectrum Warrior and become a squad leader,'' he said. ''It doesn't work that way. But you can experience a few things. You can make a few mistakes. You can learn from those mistakes.''
For all the critiques of the video games, the fact is that real-life physical exercises are not perfect themselves. When I spoke with Neale Cosby of the Institute for Defense Analyses, he described some of the Vietnam-era training exercises as being no better than playing cowboys and Indians. ''You walked through the forest,'' he said. ''You shot at each other, and you yelled: 'Bang! Bang!''' In the 80's, the military devised a system of laser tag called the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, which, it turned out, could not fire through bushes.
It is the grim paradox of all training for war: unless you are actually risking your life in battle, it is not real. As Stephen Goldberg, a psychologist who works for the Army, told me, any type of play-acting -- whether in the field or on the computer -- is liable to teach you something wrong. ''Whatever you're doing other than fighting the enemy has compromises that make it artificial,'' he said. ''Our motto is 'All but War Is a Simulation.'''
Clive Thompson writes frequently about science and technology. His last article for the magazine was on electronic voting machines.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company