War isn't a game, but it's beginning to look like one.
I'm in the driver's seat of a Humvee that's plodding along an Iraqi desert road.
On my right are two soldiers in tan fatigues — one in the passenger's seat, staring listlessly ahead at the road, and one in the gunner's position. They don't say much. We arrive at an Army checkpoint, where I pull up next to a similar Humvee. Then an explosion deafens my right ear and a shockwave rocks my skull.
Our worst fears have been realized. Upon our arrival, enemy combatants detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) in an attempt to blow up our vehicle and us. Before I know it, the clatter of enemy gunfire replaces the ringing in my ears. I can't seem to take my eyes off the young soldier next to me. He's grimacing in pain, and I can see shrapnel from the IED embedded in his arm and stomach.
Then I take my helmet off and leave Virtual Iraq. I'm not in the Middle East. I'm sitting in an office chair at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies in Marina Del Rey, Calif.
The ICT is a research lab for gaming technology that specializes in creating products for the United States military, including a city management trainer called UrbanSim and a negotiation trainer called BiLAT. Virtual Iraq was designed as a PC-based form of exposure therapy for Army veterans who served in Iraq and came back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
These games join older software tools such as "America's Army," the Army-developed first-person shooter designed to boost recruitment, as elements of the U.S. military's strategy to use video games to solve military problems. Surprisingly, many games made for Army training have a deeper reliance on and representation of interpersonal interaction than anything I've ever played before. Even civilian games that give conversation tremendous weight — like the "Fallout" role-playing game series or the Phoenix Wright law drama games — never made me feel that I had to worry about anyone else except as a means to a new gun or a Not Guilty verdict.
This isn't surprising to Randall Hill, the ICT's executive director. "[The Army is] doing a great job with weapons research," Hill says. "What they ask us is: 'How do we raise [our soldiers'] cultural awareness?'"
That motivation is the key to understanding the ICT, America's Army and all of the other military games in development: Instead of worrying about how to make a game fun, people like ICT's Hill and the U.S. Army's gaming experts ask "How can we design this game to solve a problem?"
As members of the design team focus on answering this question, they come up with games that feel more realistic, more mature, and (unexpectedly) more fun to play.
Many big technological breakthroughs start in the military — the Internet's beginnings as the Department of Defense's ARPANet computer network, or the origins of the microwave oven in Raytheon's radar research.
In developing games for its troops, however, the military initially worked backward, by modifying existing games. The result was games like "Marine Doom" and "Close Combat: Marines," versions of "Doom" and "Close Combat" that were modified to teach Marine trainees how to perform as a team.
Now the Army is catching up. The Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation (PEO-STRI) announced in 2008 that it would spend up to $50 million over five years to develop video games, including games meant to combat suicide and help over 3,000 soldiers deal with traumatic experiences involving IEDs and convoy ambushes.
Veterans in Virtual Iraq
USC's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) has built a reputation for designing games that make commercial edutainment software look like child's play — games that help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, let soldiers practice securing and rebuilding an Iraqi city, and even encourage them to develop their skills at negotiation.
The ICT undertakes all of this cutting-edge games research at an unassuming office building on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Marina Del Rey. The first stop on my tour there is to play Virtual Iraq, the PTSD treatment tool developed by Dr. Albert "Skip" Rizzo that allows a psychologist to expose Iraq War veterans to the sights, sounds, vibrations, and smells they associate with their traumatic memories, as a form of exposure therapy.
While I stepped through every extreme scenario — mortar fire, car bombs, ambush by insurgents — Rizzo says that it often takes veterans with PTSD several sessions before they can do anything besides sit in the Humvee.
Once the patient feels ready, the psychologist can increase the intensity of the experience, tailoring the environment to match the patient's memories. If things get too intense, one click sends the patient back into a "safe zone" — an empty section that has nothing but a fellow soldier. In person, the physical setup doesn't look like much — just an office chair sitting on a platform over a subwoofer, next to a nondescript PC with a rather low-resolution VR headset and a USB gamepad attached to a mock M4 carbine. This was intentional, says Brad Newman, a technical artist for Virtual Iraq: By keeping costs low, designers ensured that the setup could be easily re-created in other clinics.
The visuals may be outdated (the art comes from Full Spectrum Warrior, another ICT project), but Newman tells me that for soldiers with PTSD, merely feeling the rumble of the Humvee engine or seeing an Iraqi marketplace will trigger memories. As a gamer — and not a PTSD-afflicted veteran — I was struck by one thing in particular about Virtual Iraq: the lack of a "fire" button. I am carrying a mock rifle, but it's just there to make the situation feel more realistic to the soldiers — the weapon doesn't actually fire. "We're not designing a cathartic revenge fantasy." Rizzo says, "Some do, but we don't. We want to prepare these soldiers for civilian life."
Next up is UrbanSim, a training tool for battalion commanders, where I am charged with securing the fictional city of Al-Hamra within 15 days.
I have at my disposal an array of nonaggressive and "kinetic" (the Army-given euphemism for "violent") options; with them, I must make a series of decisons that will kill insurgents, fix the war-torn city, and try and win the support of the citizenry. Each of these aspects of life in Al-Hamra is measured by a Line of Effort — an on-screen bar graph that measures the city's security, infrastructure, and goodwill toward my troops.
One component of UrbanSim is PsychSim, an ICT project that controls the behavior of all non-Army characters — from local insurgent forces to Iraqi police units to the mayor of Al-Hamra. While the insurgents' actions are simple (they focus either on destroying buildings or on recruiting more insurgents), the mayor's interests fall somewhere between the insurgents' and mine.
The first thing I learn from UrbanSim is that my mission is complicated. I take a unit away from fighting insurgents to build a school, figuring that I'll build goodwill among Al-Hamra's citizens. Oops. The insurgents respond by recruiting near the school, making the area unsafe. Down goes my civil security bar.
This episode is a jarring reminder that at heart UrbanSim is a military training tool, designed to prepare commandeers on the ground for counterinsurgency work. It's not meant to be played like a classic nation-building sim (Civilization, for example), where you can win without going to war. I certainly won't be securing Al-Hamra through simple diplomacy.
"There are many viable strategies, but aggressively pursuing civil security is the most consistently rewarding," says UrbanSim's project lead, Ryan McAlinden. And that strategy makes sense in the context of a war zone: UrbanSim is part of the classroom training at the Army's School for Command Preparation at Fort Leavenworth, and the Army's goal isn't to train a generation of battalion commanders who don't use guns. Yet UrbanSim forces me to consider the civilians as more than just obstacles to a peaceful city, and I find myself playing far less aggressively than I have ever played any normal strategy game. The characters here feel more human.
This talk isn't cheap
The last game I get to play is called BiLAT (as in bilateral), which teaches negotiation skills.
I begin the day in my military office with a problem: The Army has set up a marketplace for Iraqi civilians to use, but they're not using it. On my desk is a set of briefing documents, TV reports, local newspaper clips and a prep sheet that I am supposed to fill out with the information I need. The prep sheet is important because it keeps track of the Iraqi characters' objectives as well as my own.
In BiLAT, I must solve the problem so that all interested parties win, not just the U.S. Army. If I complete my mission by crossing the business mogul who is behind the marketplace boycott, I won't get his cooperation later on. To get him to help out, I have to do my homework: If I fill out the prep sheet well, I'll have better negotiation options. If I fail to prepare adequately, I'll be sent packing.
Because I sped through my prep sheet, I failed with Farid, an Iraqi police officer: Though I won points with him for removing my protective gear and weapons and chatting with him about his family, I ended up talking business before he was ready. Had I prepared well, I could have connected with him on the subject of soccer and won him over.
BiLAT isn't perfect (it assumes that the player is male, for starters). But it's not hard to imagine a BiLAT-based scenario in the commercial market that plays like a business negotiation trainer — or even a dating sim.
Deploying ‘America's Army’
The most widely known military-made game is — unlike BiLAT, UrbanSim, or Virtual Iraq — completely free for the public to play. It's none other than "America's Army", a "recruitment tool" (read: first-person shooter video game) that was developed with U.S. taxpayer dollars and has been going steady since July 4, 2002.
"We started the ‘America's Army’ project in 1999," says Colonel Casey Wardynski, who heads the project, "because we [the Army] were basically irrelevant to young adults. So we decided to try making a game, because, well, we were in a crisis, and people were more open to trying something new."
Earlier recruitment efforts, Wardynski explains, were unrealistic and ineffective. "Eighty percent of the people in our commercials weren't even holding weapons," Wardynski says. "People were more likely to get their information about the Army from watching the movie "Full Metal Jacket" than from our commercials."
Straight from the source
"America's Army" is realistic in a different way than "Call of Duty" or "Battlefield 1943" is. "We wanted to provide a realistic picture of soldiering," he says, "There's no invincibility or unlimited lives." Many games out there advertise realism as a selling point, but only "America's Army" keeps it realistic when it's not fun.
One example of America's Army's realism is the in-game medic training. Where most commercially produced games make healing wounded comrades as easy as selecting the Medikit and clicking, America's Army strives to make it as true-to-life as possible — so much so, in fact, that it has been credited with helping save lives outside the game. This level of detail and accuracy cost the development team 25 percent of its budget for the year.
Impatient players can cheat through the in-game medical training, but if they can't do it on a battlefield, they're useless to the team — just as in the real Army. "What separates the U.S. Army from a gang of armed thugs is our value system," Wardynski says. "'America's Army' was designed to reflect that."
At its core, "America's Army" is designed to show a potential recruits what Army life is like before they join. The idea is to give the Army a pool of recruits who are more likely to succeed — and it works.
Though the game doesn't track personal information, Wardynski says, "America's Army" players rank as the second-likeliest group of people to enlist, surpassed only by children of military families.
"America's Army" isn't as visually appealing or easy to play as other first-person shooters, and those shortcomings would be serious flaws in a commercial game. But since generating sales wasn't the point of America's Army, the developers could include features like medic training — and these additions ultimately enhance the game experience.
The development isn't stopping there, either. New versions of "America's Army" will add communications specialists that can jam the enemy's in-game voice chat — a level of realism that would be unacceptable in a commercial game. Meanwhile, the ICT is well positioned to bring its Army games back into the entertainment industry. Like the microwave and the Internet, today's Army games might end up becoming a killer app.