Innovation & Design

Games Given Fighting Chance


Mike Zyda is not on first glance the kind of character you would cast to play super-technologist to the world's superpower. He's in his mid-forties, with a potbelly hanging over the top of his pants, and a little gray mustache that twitches above his mouth.

A native of Southern California, Zyda has the speech intonation of a real-life Jeff Spicoli of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, smattering his breathy conversation with "cool" and "fave" and "awesome." At first you think he's trying to be funny. Then you realize he's not. After spending time with him, you also begin to realize that he actually is just the kind of guy the world's superpower would call upon in a science-fiction novel.

When he first started teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School seventeen years ago, Zyda threw away the faculty handbook that was presented to him in a binder and replaced it with a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince. Zyda prides himself on his ability to read people, to break down patterns of human behavior with scientific precision. Some are fascinated by people; Zyda is fascinated by what controls people. When he takes notes at meetings, he records not the subject being discussed so much as the body language of other attendees. Sweaty palms, he'll jot down. Skittish eyes.

(Occasionally, Zyda will remind you that he was born in the eye of a storm at 12:01 a.m. on September 11, 1954, as if his very birth were proof that he belongs at the center of whatever storm is currently stirring.)

Like the best pedigreed of the science-fiction wise men, Zyda has degrees in neurocybernetics, bioengineering, and Spanish literature. He's done consulting work for everyone from Paramount Pictures to the White House to the Ministry of Industrial Development in the Sabah Province of Malaysia. He's a member of the National Research Council's Committee on Scientific and Technical Challenges in Creating Virtual Reality Environments and its Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board's Committee on Advanced Engineering Environments. But it was his study "Linking Entertainment and Defense," which he presented to the council in 1997, that put him where he is today.

Training tool

Zyda happened to arrive at the Naval Postgraduate School just as the military's first serious effort to build an advanced simulation-training device, or a networked virtual environment, was wrapping up. Commissioned by the DARPA, SIMNET, as it was called, was based on the work of virtual-reality pioneer Jack Thorpe. A simulation training tool for Army tank drivers, it was a cyberspace war game that could be played by soldiers in different physical locations by logging onto that new thing, the Internet. Think The Sims Online, but at war.

When DARPA and the U.S. Army Topographic Engineer Center sponsored Zyda to build the Naval Postgraduate School Net, which plugged into SIMNET, adding features like virtual helicopters that could be "flown" by real superior officers observing the virtual battle of their soldiers, Zyda found himself getting calls from "about a hundred different Department of Defense organizations."

"From the mid-seventies through the mid-nineties, the Department of Defense was the big driver for new technology," Zyda says. "So if you wanted to say, 'Here is the coolest new virtual world,' it would have been made by the DOD. In the mid-nineties, though, graphics cards got good for PCs. And as expenditures in entertainment R & D went up, that industry started to exceed the DOD."

The trouble was SIMNET had cost $140 million, and had taken ten years and hundreds of people to build. Then the military got wind of Doom, which was created by a team of eight people working on it for six months, at a total cost of about $25,000. And it had achieved far more than the SIMNET team had dared to dream -- not only was it networked, but it was also visually stunning, fast-paced, and engaging.

When the Nintendo 64 came out in 1996 with its incredible graphic advances all housed in a machine the size of a tissue box, people like Zyda began to get excited. Zyda imagined military tools that weren't created by a "bunch of engineers," but rather by artists. "Linking Entertainment and Defense" was based on Zyda's musing of what would happen if a little entertainment pixie dust could be sprinkled over the clanking simulations the Army was producing. His former pupil, Macedonia, adopted the same tack.

"The reason we're turning to the entertainment industry is that here at STRICOM, we have old men designing our simulators," Macedonia explains. "I'm not exaggerating. They're in their forties and fifties, and the last videogame they played was Pong, or maybe Pac-Man over drinks. And what happens is they bleed the life out of these simulations. They're engineers. They design by committee. And one thing we've learned from our psychologists here is that emotion is critical to learning, and that one of the key aspects of eliciting emotion is being able to provide a story. It goes all the way back to Homer. Look at The Iliad and the oral tradition -- that was the way history was taught. The only way to remember all these facts was you put them into a story. A story is a way for folks to be able to understand, to absorb, and to retain. And frankly, I don't have a lot of storytellers here."

So, at Macedonia's request, Zyda, who in the meantime had grown sour on the internal politics of the Naval Postgraduate School and was eager for a road out, spent the first six months of 1999 transforming his report into a proposal for an institute dedicated to developing training simulations and combat warfare systems for the Army, but staffed by the best people the entertainment industry could provide.

The result was the Institute for Creative Technology, or ICT, a joint venture between the University of Southern California and the U.S. Army, opened at the end of a palm-tree-lined street in Marina Del Ray, California, with $45 million in military funding. The offices were designed by the same man who designed the original starship Enterprise for Star Trek. Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius was brought in as a consultant along with Big Top Pee-Wee director Randall Kleiser, special effects guru Paul Debevec, and former president of the Motion Picture Association Jack Valenti. Relationships formed quickly with videogame companies such as Pandemic, Quicksilver, and Sony ImagingWork.

Zyda, naturally, expected to get the top post at whatever school the military would decide to fund. But when the University of Southern California got the bid, Elizabeth Daly, the dean responsible for hiring the director, began to evade his queries. When Macedonia became hard to reach on the phone, Zyda grew wary.

War scenario

After a couple of weak handshakes from USC honchos, Zyda invited a fellow Naval Postgraduate School professor named John Hiles out to lunch with him. Hiles, a soft-spoken, rotund man who used to work for Will Wright, agreed to meet him at their favorite Chinese restaurant, the Great Wall. It was their equivalent of war-gaming a scenario. Zyda explained the situation to Hiles, and together they drew bubble diagrams of all the players in Zyda's drama, with arrows to represent relationships and possible outcomes.

Both Hiles and Zyda are at the forefront of a new movement, growing out of advances in the field of cognitive psychology, that is attempting to accurately model human behavior into a computer system. Although Will Wright likes to say, "Once you're alive, you become very hard to model," Hiles likes to insist, "Once you've been educated, you become very easy to model."

Hiles believes that after about the age of five, most people are molded by their education and their societies into fairly predictable entities. Like Zyda, he is perfecting his theories with funding from the military. His most recent project, Iago, is a computer model built on information about Ramsey Yousef, the Islamic jihadist involved in the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. The model simulates how Yousef, or someone like Yousef, might react to current events in the news.

As the waitress brought them their tea and the check, Hiles pointed to a bubble around USC's Elizabeth Daly. There's your problem, Hiles said. Based on the model they built, Hiles concluded that Daly wanted to hire someone from within her ring of personal entertainment contacts for the top spot at the new institute. Sure enough, a former Paramount executive, Dick Lindheim, was named the ICT's director.

While Zyda was left up in Monterey stewing, the Institute for Creative Technology began work on its first project, Full Spectrum Warrior, a commercial-grade videogame designed by Pandemic, published by THQ, and built to run on the Microsoft Xbox. The idea for Full Spectrum Warrior was to ship it first to the Army as a training tool, and then to sell a version to the public through the commercial markets. (While the Army itself is not allowed to profit off such a project, the companies involved are.) The game's main selling point is that it's the most realistic Army game of all time. So while kids across the world are revving up their Xboxes to play at war, soldiers around the world will be revving up theirs -- placed in areas where soldiers gather, like mess halls and rec rooms -- to train for war.

Macedonia is thrilled with the idea. One of the things that had so impressed the Air Force about Gilman Louie's Flight Simulator was that soldiers loved to play it. Like in Ender's Game, the idea is to make a game out of training. It was like suddenly finding homework that your students couldn't get enough of.

One plays Full Spectrum Warrior as a squad leader, and the objective is getting one's men in and out of dangerous situations safely. Full Spectrum Warrior teaches such things as stacked formation, securing of exits, what part of a room to search first when you take over a building, and why it's important to ensure no one is on a higher floor waiting to run down and ambush you.

Speed, methodology, and behaving as a collective are the key lessons. Indeed, while the debate over videogames and violence has raged since the days of Missile Command, the military, at least, has concluded that there is no direct correlation between playing videogames and an increased urge to kill. But that doesn't mean they're not effective military training tools.

Bodies with guns

For the kinds of hands-off killing preached by the modern military, homicidal rage is hardly a requirement. In fact, as laid out explicitly in the Department of Defense's 2003 study "Training for Future Conflicts," the modern American military increasingly wants soldiers who are more than just bodies with guns.

It's all part of Donald Rumsfeld's vision of a world of war where American soldiers do their killing long-distance. "The transformation of the military will increase the cognitive demands on even the most junior levels of the military," the report says. Its primary finding: "In short, everybody must think."

In other words, the Army now needs people who can make instantaneous decisions, work with amoeba-like coordination with their squads, and handle advanced, computer-controlled warfare systems. As CliffyB has been known to point out, that's a pretty good description of your average hardcore gamer.

Holodeck

The ICT's other big project is also borrowed from fiction. Under Macedonia's guidance, they're building a real-life holodeck, à la Star Trek. The idea for the project, originally called the Sensory Environments Evaluation Project, is to elicit the kinds of emotions soldiers are likely to feel when going into battle. This is the domain of Jacqueline Morie, a small woman in a loose dress and with messy hair, who looks as if she'd be more at home in a Berkeley art studio than working for the Army. Indeed, before joining the ICT, Morie was an artist, specializing in large-scale installments designed to evoke emotion.

Today, Morie spends her time at the ICT in an amphitheater, surrounded by a 150-degree curved screen as high as the ceiling. Three projectors in the back of the room blend their images onto the enormous screen, which is viewed by participants wearing head-mounted displays to make it all appear three-dimensional. Participants are given joysticks with which to facilitate their character's movement. They can go forward, backward, sideways, just like in any modern videogame. Morie's aim is not to make something that is photorealistic, but rather to create a sense of what she calls "presence," an environment that feels real on a deep emotional level.

On the holodeck, it's dead of night in war-torn Bosnia. Put on your headset, and you're dropped into a remote village along the Vrbas River to spy on an abandoned mill complex suspected of housing enemies. The graphics are as sophisticated as 2003's Quake III, which is to say, they're as sophisticated as it gets. After your mission, which also includes collecting certain items missing from the American containment area, you are expected to report to your superior officer on your findings. Dogs bark, water trickles, and people you can't see murmur in the distance. Trees bend slightly in the wind; a bridge creaks and then sways as a truck rolls over it. The tires make grinding noises on the pebbles that line the road. Beneath your feet on the holodeck, a custom-built subwoofer system rumbles at a frequency your ear cannot detect, but which increases your visceral reaction to the experience. More obvious sounds project from speakers all around the room. The bark of a dog up ahead and to the left sounds as if it is, indeed, coming from up ahead and to the left. Occasional pieces of debris fall and make clunking noises.

Morie, being convinced that smell is the most underrated of all the senses, has designed a necklace participants wear that lets off certain smells at specific times through the mission. The whole point of the exercise is to create as real and immersive an experience as possible -- the same keywords videogame makers use all the time. Indeed, standing on the holodeck feels like being inside a videogame.

Train soldiers

What the military hopes to achieve through the holodeck is to train soldiers for the emotional experience of their first battle. It's common knowledge in the Army that the highest casualty rates in war are among novice soldiers; living through your first battle seriously ups your chances of living through the next.

It's scary being in the holodeck, partly because it feels so much like being in a war situation, and partly because it feels as if the traditional walls that separate reality from unreality, fact from fiction, are melting. Perhaps it's a little too reminiscent of the game room in Ender's Game.

Mike Zyda might have been left up at the Naval Postgraduate School raging at his betrayal at the hands of his former student had it not been for one fatal flaw in the dream of Transformation. Donald Rumsfeld assured the American public that actual human bodies would hardly be needed for the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq. But it turns out that even in the Future Objective Force, soldiers are needed. It's all very well to develop the most sophisticated training tools the world has ever known, but if you don't have anybody to train, there's a problem. While war-themed games fly off the shelves of stores and many a retired military man makes an income advising these videogame companies, wanting to play at war isn't the same as actually wanting to sign up for it.

The United States hasn't had a draft in more than thirty years, and no politician with any interest in staying in power is keen to reintroduce one. The mores of our time tell people to be individuals above all else and never to allow themselves to be cogs in someone else's machine. But armies are all about turning boys and girls into soldiers, which are, essentially, fighting cogs. In a world of relativism, living for the moment, and personal success as the ultimate achievement, it's hard to convince people that they ought to risk their lives in a moderate-paying job that might end in a layoff or might end in death.

Recruitment has been such a problem that the military has tripled its recruitment budget, from less than $200 million in 1993 to almost $600 million in 2003. And in its desperation for Future Objective Force Warriors rather than just guys with guns, it has adopted incentives like $20,000 sign-up bonuses for recruits who can do information technology work. If the war in Iraq has taught us anything, it's that the U.S. military is woefully understaffed in the warrior department.


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