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War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflictby Corey Mead
One June day, I visited a brick-and-concrete warehouse on a dead-end street of squat buildings in Playa Vista, California. The outer part of the warehouse housed a suite of glass-fronted offices, while the main room was strewn with sandbags, corrugated metal, piles of fake rubble, and twisted rebar. Placed throughout this room were strategic groupings of “digital flats,” large rear-projection screens that employ digital graphics to depict particular settings and geographic locations. The warehouse, a former television studio, was owned by the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a joint venture between the military and the University of Southern California. Funded by the army to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, the ICTs declared mission is “to build a partnership among the entertainment industry, Army, and academia with the goal of creating synthetic experiences so compelling that participants react as if they are real.” As the ICTs executive director, Dr. Randall Hill, put it to me, “One way of seeing our mission, one way we view it, is that were trying to forge leaders and revolutionize learning—in general, not just in the military. Its really about how you use digital interactive media, forms of media, to aid the learning process.”
The main room of the warehouse in which I stood contained FlatWorld, one of the ICTs earliest projects, described as “a mixed reality environment where users interact with both the physical and virtual worlds seamlessly.” FlatWorld was conceived of and designed by video game designers, special effects artists, research scientists, and Pentagon personnel working together to create the army version of Star Treks fictional “holodeck,” a simulated-reality facility that mimics the environments of alien planets. The militarys goal in creating this type of fully immersive domain was to give soldiers the most accurate training environment possible outside of live field exercises.
As I walked through FlatWorld, Jarrell Pair, my guide, led me through a door into a tiny room fronted by a large digital screen. Onto the screen (the “flat”) was projected the computer-animated version of a deserted city street lined with squat gray residential buildings, a white mosque with two minarets, telephone wire, and palm trees. A Middle Eastern carpet covered the floor of the room, with pieces of concrete and wrecked furniture heaped in one corner. Broken ceiling panels hung overhead. After instructing me to put on a pair of polarized 3-D glasses, Pair began pressing buttons on a small controller pad. Suddenly, in the open wooden doorway to my right, there appeared a life-size, computer-generated army officer yelling at me that the enemy was approaching. Just then a computer-animated helicopter roared in overhead and began strafing the street, as insurgents and U.S. soldiers appeared along the road, each group firing at the other. One insurgent popped up in the open doorway where the American officer had been. He pointed his machine gun in my direction and started firing, and the wall to my left began sending out virtual clouds of plaster dust, which cleared to reveal pockmarks where the bullets had lodged. The ground in the room began to shake, and the volume of the helicopter overhead and the gunfire in the street increased to the point of near discomfort. A little boy ran into the street and shouted, “U.S.A.! Over here!” Pair pressed another button and a tank rounded the corner at the end of the street, then headed straight toward me. As it bore down, the combination of the noise, the rumbling ground, and the tank cannon pointing at my face stirred genuine anxiety in me. The anxiety built for several seconds until, at the moment when the tank appeared about to run me over, Pair pressed another series of buttons and the room returned to its original state—no tank, no insurgents, no U.S. soldiers, no helicopter, no noise, no rumbling ground, just a panel projecting the digital image of a now empty city street.
With its virtual, immersive nature, FlatWorld—currently in use as the Joint Fires and Effects Training System at Fort Sill, Oklahoma—is a large-scale example of the U.S. militarys changing approach to training and educating its soldiers. While live field exercises and training manuals are still crucial, they are increasingly being supplemented and supplanted by video games and digital simulations, which are used to teach everything from battlefield operations to cultural interaction to language skills to weapons handling. Though the specifics vary, today every armed forces service member engages in some form of virtual learning. Helping troops protect themselves or gain the advantage against the endlessly mutating insurgencies that mark todays wars requires a constant shifting of strategies and tactics and the kinds of rapid adjustments in scenarios that print-based manuals, which are updated every six months at the most, cant keep up with. Video games, in contrast, allow for near-instantaneous user modification, meaning that soldiers in the field can, on a daily basis, input the enemys latest fighting tactics, so that troops who are stateside can keep their training up-to-date. As one Marine officer said to me, events in military gaming are moving “at the speed of war.” The militarys use of video games also extends beyond the battlefield: games are used to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and they aid veterans who are reintegrating into civil society.
The militarys desire to harness game technologies stems in part from the realization that its traditional approach to learning, and to the role of soldiers, often no longer applies. Standardization and functionality, the longstanding military paradigms for instruction, dont always fit the problems of Americas new hybrid wars. The reality is that soldiers are themselves now a form of information technology, responsible for a far broader range of roles, decisions, and systems-based interactions than in any previous conflict. This is the extension of a process that began during World War II, when the military emphasis on selection, classification, and “human factors” training came to the fore. At the time, military psychologists argued that the “human-machine system,” not just the machine itself, was the fundamental military unit, a claim supported by many military leaders. In the intervening years, this view has only become more prominent. Today soldiers skills are measured largely in relation to the technological systems the soldiers will be using.
To a sizable extent, the military is turning to gaming for scenarios that involve new and unexpected roles for soldiers as well as the mental and physical side effects of multiple deployments. Take the rise of nontraditional soldier roles: soldiers today use games to learn skills such as cultural negotiation, because in our post-9/11 wars they must deal with disputes between tribal elders or with the complexities of building a police force. In past wars, when issues related to civil affairs arose, the government farmed them out to other agencies, but those duties are now increasingly under the Pentagons control. This, then, is part of why the military now relies so heavily on gaming: it helps to plug the holes, to address the issues that previous military instruction wasnt set up to address.
The hype over video games extends far beyond the military, of course. These games suffuse our popular culture and the lives of our young people, generating more yearly profits than the movie and music industries combined. And though video games have long been criticized as being harmful to kids, even mainstream educators and administrators across the country are beginning to follow the militarys lead and treat games as potentially revolutionary educational tools. Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard, caused a stir by declaring, “Games are the future of learning.” President Obama, meanwhile, has identified the creation of good educational software as one of the “grand challenges for American innovation.” (To meet this challenge, the Obama administration created the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education, which has as a major goal the creation of educational software “as compelling as the best video game.”) For many years, a rapidly expanding “serious games” movement has been pushing the use of video games as teaching tools in schools and workplaces.
As we will see, if games are the future of learning, it is a future that the military already inhabits. At the same time, the militarys use of video games is just the latest entry in its long history of learning innovation. Though the fact is rarely recognized, over the past century the military has helped shape the contours of American education. Mass standardized tests? Computer-based learning? Adult education? A functional approach to education? All of these have been launched or refined by the military. We dont have to look far to see that the paradigms of military training—standardization, efficiency, functionality—are everywhere apparent in our schools and workplaces alike. If the historical pattern continues to apply, we can expect to see the militarys use of video games having a deep influence on our public institutions, not only in terms of methods of instruction but in regard to the skills that people will be expected to master. And yet, while the growth of virtual and game-based learning represents a potential sea change in American education, the militarys role in this potential transformation has gone almost entirely unnoticed by both the public and the media.
What is unique about the militarys employment of video games is that it is deploying them on a broad, institution-wide scale. While any number of other institutions—businesses, schools, health-care organizations, government agencies—are using games for learning, the military is the first organization that has substantially moved into video games, using them at every organizational level for a broad array of purposes. Moreover, although commercial interests have had by far the largest influence on video games as a cultural phenomenon, the military is the first institution to use video games in direct support of state purposes, and the most serious of purposes at that: the use of force to protect the states interests.
An overarching theme in this book is the militarys long history of technical and instructional innovation. We see that today in its use of video games, but the scenario has shifted so that the military is now following the entertainment industry, not leading it. At the same time, the military—that conservative, hidebound institution—is showing more flexibility and openness about learning than our public schools are. The Pentagon may be following the entertainment industry, but it is leading the education industry. This, too, has gone entirely unremarked upon in the media and public spheres.
One of the ironies here is that gaming technologies were initially created for military needs and were developed in military-sponsored projects and labs. For decades the military took the lead in financing, sponsoring, and inventing the technology used in video games, while game companies were the happy beneficiaries. The entire game industry rests on a technological foundation established by large amounts of military-funded research and infrastructure, including advanced computing systems, computer graphics, and the Internet.
Not until the late 1990s did the technological balance between the military and the game industry shift for good, as the militarys budget was reduced and as cheaper, smaller, more powerful computers became commercially available. Today the video game industry far surpasses the military in technological expertise, with the result that the military now procures its game technology from commercial game companies. By partnering with these companies, it is granted access to proprietary technology, while game makers receive the militarys money and occasionally its official stamp of approval. This exchange has led scholars to dub the partnership between the military and the video game industry the “military-entertainment complex.”
While the army is the largest military user of video games, the other services rely on gaming technology—and, more broadly, on modeling and simulation—as well. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, more than three hundred virtual worlds are in development for military purposes, and that figure is likely to grow. The 2012 Department of Defense budget allocated at least $224 million specifically for modeling and simulation; the research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that DoD spending on modeling and simulation will reach $24.1 billion by 2015.
Two questions that remain unanswerable are the number of games and simulations that service members will encounter in their training and what percentage of their training will be virtual. The simple fact is that nobody knows, because no larger set of requirements is guiding virtual training. Its up to each company commander to determine how much simulation he or she wants to use, but thats not something the military keeps track of. Thus, the only concrete answer that my interviewees (backed up by secondary sources) have given me is that every service member encounters game-based learning at some point in his or her training.
There are major consequences of the militarys video game use both within and beyond the services. For the military itself, the combined outcome is potentially paradigm-shifting. As defense expert Peter Singer points out, “game-based training can be tailored to specific scenarios as well as to an individuals own rate of learning, sped up or slowed down based on how quickly he or she is learning.” This is not to mention the untold millions of dollars in savings that virtual training enables, a factor that will only grow in importance as defense budgets shrink.
Taken as a whole, the trend lines for gaming in the military point to enormous growth. While the army has been ahead of the other services in exploiting the benefits of game-based learning, for example, this will not be the case in a few more years. At the same time, the Pentagon, as I mentioned, has yet to develop an overall policy or set of metrics for its use of video games, even as its reliance on games continues to grow. There remain a number of critical questions that the Pentagon must answer, including how game-based learning can be placed in its proper perspective and what an effective balance between virtual training and “muddy boots” training might be.
These concerns become even more pressing in regard to such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder. The use of video games to treat PTSD, for example, points to larger issues involving the soaring rate of mental health problems, as well as suicide, in the military. This is an issue that the entire country, not just the Pentagon, should be debating, and yet it remains distressingly absent from our public discourse.
Nor do the concerns end there. As defense expert John Arquilla points out, issues surrounding virtual reality become particularly blurred in the area of cyberwarfare, which to date has been almost exclusively a virtual phenomenon. Military thinkers warn that in the future cyberwarfare will increasingly intrude on the real world, as developments like the Stuxnet and Flame computer worms deployed by the United States and Israel against Irans nuclear program illustrate, in Arquillas words, “how zeros and ones can have real effects on physical phenomena.”
For the past several years I have been investigating the historical foundations of the military-entertainment complex as well as how it operates today. During this time I have traveled the country interviewing the leaders who are pioneering the militarys use of video games as learning tools. I have visited the sites where the militarys games are being developed and put into practice. I have spoken with dozens of military, civilian, and academic experts. This book is an account of what Ive learned during my travels and my research. Readers looking for the technical details of military video games will not find them here; nor will readers looking for a detailed analysis of commercial first-person shooters like the Call of Duty series find what they are seeking. But anyone concerned with the present and future of war and education will find in the following pages a map of the immense—and consequential—changes swirling around both.
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