Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass
Virtual Bullet, Virtual Gun

Russ Pitts | 13 Mar 2007 08:00
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As you maneuver your tank across the field of battle, one eye on the threat indicators, one eye on the horizon, you feel an icy sliver of fear deep in your gut. You know this isn't real war, you know your enemy is virtual, but the tension feels the same. The threat, real. Although the enemy is simulated, he's not dumb, and it will take every ounce of your skill to search him out and destroy him before he does the same to you.

Your objective: Maneuver your tank from Point A to Point B and destroy him. Your reward: survival. It may sound like just another mission in just another game, but this is no game. You are a member of the California National Guard, and this is JTEP.

As your tank eases over the next hill, you see him; hull down a quarter mile away, waiting for you. The next few seconds feel like they're happening in slow motion. You see the flash a half-second before you hear the shot. You don't see the projectile, but a second later you feel it. Alarms go off, the lights dim and the sound of the explosion almost ruins your new speakers. You're dead. The game is over. And as you climb out of your tank, your nose stinging from the acrid smell of diesel fuel, motor oil and propellant, you can't wait to do it again.

JTEP (Joint Training Experimentation Program) was created for the California National Guard by SRI International, and since 2003 has been used in a variety of live exercises using existing military vehicles retrofitted with computer simulation equipment, GPS transceivers, speakers and flashing lights. The goal, according to JTEP Program Manager John Shockley, is to "enhance the overall guard training experience and training value. [These] are real vehicles, they're doing real maneuvering, they're doing real radio communications, all that. We just simulate the bullet."

Shall We Play a Game?
The idea of learning to fight war by playing soldier is not a new one. The first wargames (that we know of) were conducted in the 19th century, to better understand tactics and strategy, and similar wargames are being played by soldiers the world over. The idea of learning war by playing a computer game is also not a very new idea, although the depth and breadth of simulations have increased exponentially in recent years, following the production of even faster, better computers.

The concept of all-out war waged via computer terminals entered the public consciousness in the mid-'80s via Orson Scott Card's stunning science fiction novel, Ender's Game, in which a group of young boys are trained in war, using a type of virtual reality simulator. Needless to say, when Card wrote his novel, the idea of training boys to fight war may not have seemed far-fetched, but the technology did. Computers at that time were barely capable of drawing pictures, and military simulators often filled entire rooms and provided little more stimulation than was to be had from a tilt-a-whirl.

Much closer to home (and in the same genre) was the popular film The Last Starfighter, in which a young man living in a trailer park learns to pilot a spaceship by playing a videogame. As it turns out, the game is actually a simulator, and by playing it he earns the golden ticket to ride the real thing for free and save the galaxy. "Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League," the machine intones, as a spaceship lands behind him, and he is whisked away to the far reaches of space to become a warrior. Perhaps, as the inverse of Ender's Game, the idea of becoming a fighter pilot in space seemed a touch far-fetched, but using a videogame as a flight simulator? Well, we were already there. Or at least the military was. Albeit in tilt-a-whirl style.

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