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The Pentagon Goes to the Video Arcade.

When the Department of Defense went looking for its next generation of war technology, it took a trip to the video arcade. Thanks to massive improvements in graphics technology over the last few years, the video game software industry has produced shooting, flying, and fighting games that look so real they can be used for actual combat training.

In 1997, the Marines adapted a version of a game called Doom as a training device. (The game recently achieved notoriety as the favorite pastime of the students in Littleton, Colorado, who went on a shooting spree at their high school.) Doom and its spinoffs can be played as coin-op arcade games, but they are usually played over the Internet by people who may be thousands of miles apart. These long-distance players have to work as a team. The Marines say players learn teamwork and decision-making skills. It cost the Marines a mere $49.95 to buy and modify the Doom II CD-ROM, making a few changes so that instead of chasing demons, players shoot Nazi-like soldiers using M-16s. Otherwise, Marine Doom looks and sounds pretty much like the original game, and the Marines even released a free downloadable copy on the Internet.

One of the military personnel who modified the game became a consultant to Good Times Interactive Software, which developed a Doom-like game called NAM, in which you play (you guessed it) a rampaging Marine in Vietnam.

I recently visited Quantum3D, a San Jose company that specializes in three-dimensional visual computing systems used for everything from flight simulators to arcade games. To demonstrate just how lifelike fighting games can be, the staff started me off with Quake, a newer war game brought to you by id Software, the makers of Doom. Its finer points can be summed up as follows: 1. Kill. 2. Run. Quake is often cited as an example of everything that is good about 3D interactive games. With the right graphics accelerators, the game can be spectacular. Everything on the screen looks and moves like the real world. Always, at the bottom of the screen, you see the tip of your weapon, as though you were holding it in your hand. The rules of play are simple: You run through a labyrinthine castle, dispatching enemies with something that appears to be a bloody shovel.

"Uh, that's your battle-ax," one of Quantum3D's technical staff gently corrects me. He shows me how to change weapons for something with more firepower. Using the rollerball, I can rampage in any direction. I can even turn in circles while the animated world swivels nauseatingly around me. When I get close to a wall, the detail stays sharp instead of pixilating into blurry squares.

Company spokesman Peter Giordano points out that it is very unusual to be able to move through a virtual world this freely. Most animators cut corners by limiting how much you can see (if you can't run backwards, the animators don't have to design what's behind you). In Quake you can go anywhere, see anything, and kill in crisp, three-dimensional virtual reality. And it has to be fast, otherwise it's not fun.

The same logic applies in military simulations. To be effective, a flight simulator must react exactly as it would in the real world, giving the illusion of instant response. It must allow the user to suspend disbelief, to get caught up in the emotion of flying. "There is very clearly a psychoemotional component to training," says Giordano. "If it looks more real, if it carries more of an emotional charge, if it gets the blood pressure and heart rate up, it's more effective training."

To get this effect, video game players use graphics accelerator cards--plug-in devices that speed up and smooth out the animation. Graphics accelerators aren't expensive. You can buy one at your local computer store for $140 to $250. One of their leading manufacturers is called 3Dfx, the parent company of Quantum3D.

The Armed Forces have been using war games and simulators for almost two decades. No one wants to let a rookie fly anything as dangerous, or as expensive, as an F-17 until the pilot has logged some serious time on a simulator. "In the synthetic environment, when you get it wrong, you hit the restart button," says Mike Wright, an electronics engineer for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM), an agency of the Department of Defense. "No one died, and you can practice a situation over again until the soldiers get it right."

Simulators are also the military's shining hope for fast, antiseptic future conflicts--the theory being that if troops can drill on realistic machines, during actual combat it will be a smooth ride from "go" to "game over."

What's more, the generation currently entering the Armed Forces grew up using computers and video games. By 1992, there was a Nintendo in seven out of ten households that included children between the ages of eight and twelve. The trend shows no sign of slowing. The Interactive Digital Software Association estimated last year that interactive games are the fastest growing form of entertainment in America, with sales surpassing those of books, CDs, and box office revenues. By making war more like the game Defender, the military can tap into a population that grew up shooting moving blips of light on a video screen.

For years, defense contractors turned out high-quality simulators the size of station wagons. Lockheed Martin estimates that its tank simulator cabins are accurate to within one tenth of an inch. But they also cost several hundred thousand dollars a piece. Because of their bulk, the simulators have to remain in one location permanently, and the military can't afford many of them. And it can take four or five years to build one simulator. It isn't unusual for a simulator designed to military specifications to be outmoded by the time it is finally plugged in.

So in 1980, the Army started dabbling in video games. It ordered a modified version of Battlezone, Atari's tank-driving game, to use as a practice tool. As any joystick jockey can attest, Battlezone didn't look or move at all like the real thing. It gave an aerial view of two boxy tanks slowly firing squarish pellets at one another. Amusing, yes, but not an adrenaline-pumping experience.

Since then, video game technology --from the computer chip level to the software--has improved tremendously. Games with extremely high graphic quality can run on desktop computers. Battle scenarios involving multiple players take place in real time, and the screen shows realistic images of the interiors of military vehicles.

"In order [for gamemakers] to sell their games, a big competitive difference is to say our game has a lot of functions, or our cockpit looks like the real thing," says Garth Smith, co-founder of the 3D software company MetaVR. "You end up having games that start to look like real simulators, if you will."

In 1997, MetaVR was given the task of replacing the simulators at the Army's Aviation Test Bed in Fort Rucker, Alabama, where pilots learn how to fly helicopters. The MetaVR team replaced the older simulators--each the size of several refrigerators--with personal computers. The magazine Military Training Technology hailed the installation as a sign that conventional training facilities were "smack in the middle of a PC-based invasion." With its usual acronym-for-everything approach, the Defense Department even developed a term for these products: COTS (commercial off-the-shelf).

Off-the-shelf video games can be modified for military use for under $200. This has allowed companies like San Jose's Quantum3D to get into the military contract business. Quantum3D spokesman Giordano estimates that the company now has a roughly fifty-fifty split between its video game and its military business. Customers range from coin-op kings like Midway and Atari to defense contractors Raytheon and Boeing.

"We have close to the same level of image fidelity and performance of a highend, $100,000 to $200,000 machine, and now this thing sells for $5,000 or $10,000," says Ross Smith, Quantum3D's general manager of the professional products division.

"In other words," adds Giordano, "if your Ferrari at $100,000 goes 180 miles an hour, your Chevy V-8 for $10,000 goes 165 miles an hour."

Smith grins at the analogy. "I'd like to think of it as a Honda," he says. "A little higher quality."

Wrapped up in the move toward personal computer-based simulation is the idea that war in the future will be different from the wars of the past, involving fewer people and more machines, and keeping American troops safe by allowing them to do their fighting from behind a computer monitor. Experts predict that military engagements will be focused on delivering humanitarian aid, running peacekeeping or rescue missions, and dealing with terrorist groups.

People living in the San Francisco Bay Area got a sneak peek at this high-tech war of the future on March 16 when the Navy and the Marines launched a four-day mock invasion of Oakland. Six thousand troops participated in Operation Urban Warrior. In the Defense Department's imaginary scenario, U.S. troops had been called in to defend a country called "Orange," which had been invaded by a country called "Green." The purpose of Urban Warrior was to test the Armed Forces' newest technologies--everything from tracking devices to water purifiers.

As students stormed Mayor Jerry Brown's office in protest, the Oranges and Greens shot blanks at one another and dispensed humanitarian aid to a cast of civilians hired to play the wounded. Meanwhile, six huge Navy ships lay at anchor just off the coast. The flagship U.S.S. Coronado was equipped with some of the most sophisticated simulation technology available.

Stepping on board with a media pass, I found plenty of other people in civilian dress. CEOs from Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Lucent were also invited to watch the simulated war unfold. The previous day, the businessmen and high-ranking military personnel had engaged in what they sportingly called a "war game," but it was really more of a brainstorming session on how the military could buy more of their products.

A Marine Corps press release praised the "technological edge" that software companies have, and stated: "The broad purpose of the war game is to address the feasibility of large-scale Marine Corps investment in commercial off-the-shelf v technologies." As we toured the ship's command center, it became clear that the Navy and Marines have already bought plenty. "Everything you see here is commercial, off-the-shelf," says my guide, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Carl Bott, sweeping an arm at a room packed with row upon row of desktop computers.

I was disappointed to find out that I'd missed the day's biggest simulation, in which an officer shot down simulated incoming Scud missiles. But the officers in charge reassured me that monitoring the Oakland front was just as exciting. "We've been in several of these simulated situations before, and they're solid," Colonel Robert Schmidle said with a firm nod. "It's kind of like some of the flight simulators we have now. They're so realistic that you actually start sweating."

The Urban Warrior simulators allowed technical staff to control an operation happening several miles away. On the forward wall, huge screens displayed a real-time image of the Oakland battle. Each computer tracked the movement of individual soldiers, who wear acoustic sensor tags so that they can be located even inside buildings. Blue and red icons denoted either friendly or enemy vehicles. I got to use a computer mouse to click on the icons. A picture popped up showing us what kind of vehicle it was. When we clicked on a stick-figure soldier, the computer told us whether he was dead or alive.

Realizing that they may lose an incredibly lucrative customer to the video game industry, some of the bigger defense contractors are trying to make the pendulum swing the other way. They are attempting to sell military technology to video game makers. In 1995, defense giant Lockheed Martin spun off a subsidiary game technology company called Real 3D that sells graphic boards to leading game companies, including Sega.

The contractors sound a little defensive when asked if it's a good idea that they are selling war technology to the same people who brought you Sonic the Hedgehog. "There is nothing secret, nothing defense-sensitive about the technology," says Lockheed spokesman Carlton Caldwell.

In fact, by developing video game technology through Real 3D, Lockheed Martin has gotten so much better at making fast, cheap chips that they have been able to sell some of this technology back to the Department of Defense, a process they call "defense conversion-reinsertion."

It turns out that the games designed by the defense contractors aren't all that popular. Reality is simply too mundane for garners. While enthusiasts may appreciate a simulator that has the buttons and switches of a real tank, the players usually don't want it to move or reload as slowly as the real thing. "Lockheed did probably the worst tank game ever done," says Quantum3D's Smith. "It was very realistic but boring. Sega had it on their arcade machines for about a week, and that was that."

But Lockheed and other defense contractors have been able to get a piece of the next evolutionary stage in military training, which is putting networked simulators inside real tanks and planes so that troops can train on their downtime. This "train as you fight" technology has been wholeheartedly embraced by all branches of the military, who complain that too much time is wasted waiting for things to happen on the battlefield.

Captain Pete Huntley, who works at Marine headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, explains "embedded simulations" like this: "A tank crew can go ahead and get into a tank and they're using the normal switches and toggles, but when they look through the sites, they see a virtual world. In the next tank over, you've got another crew, and they're doing their thing, and they can see each other." When it comes time to change over to a real fighting situation, he explains, someone can press a button, and suddenly the tank crew will be firing live ammunition. "An embedded simulation would almost be considered the ultimate in train-as-you-fight," says STRICOM's Wright. "The goal is to make the simulation be almost indistinguishable from the actual wartime needs so the soldiers have no way of knowing if they're in a real conflict or a simulated exercise."

As stunning as this is, it's still an imperfect science. The military hopes to be able to conduct its war-game training over the Internet, linking people at remote bases around the world. But there's still the problem of security--programmers have yet to figure out a surefire way to transmit hacker-proof information over the Net. And Huntley is quick to point out that even the newest simulators aren't the real thing. As long as the soldiers are using a joystick, keypad, or virtual reality helmet, they aren't experiencing outdoor combat. "The official catch phrase around here," says Huntley,"is you have to train in simulation, but it has to qualify live."

Interactive three-dimensional software keeps developing, and it's becoming part of mainstream military training. Quantum3D's Giordano puts it this way: "If this is television, it's like 1949 or 1950. The television was there. It worked. It was very expensive." He pauses. "And in a matter of two or three years, it was going to be in 25 percent of homes in America."

Kara Platoni is a writer based in Oakland, California.
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Title Annotation:video games used as military training
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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