Reel War

The Army and Hollywood join hands to wage virtual, bloodless battles

They all spoke of their grand vision for the ICT, which had received a five-year, $45 million grant from the Army to develop technology the likes of which had been seen only in the movies. No longer would the military merely use simulators to teach soldiers how to fire weapons and fly helicopters; now, they would be able to rehearse actual missions. Now, they could step onto, say, Afghan soil without ever leaving Southern California. They could "interact" with the locals; they could "respond" to a crisis as it unfolded; they could "feel" the situation before taking action. And if they screwed up, well, there's always a reset button nearby.

In essence, what the ICT has created is the world's largest video game--the so-called Experience Learning System, with a screen that fills almost an entire room and allows its "students" to immerse themselves in hostile terrain where the surroundings and people look as "real" as the current technology will allow. The result is a sort of real-world precursor to the Holodeck found on the Starship Enterprise--appropriate, since the ICT's executive director is Richard Lindheim, a former Paramount exec who was in charge of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its successors. But the ICT's spokesman loathes the word "game," though he often uses it himself; he points out that the ICT uses only existing gaming platforms and technology, but not the games themselves.

"We call it the Experience Learning System because we're really looking at active learning as opposed to passive learning," says the spokesman. "Motion pictures are, for the most part, passive. You watch them and may get emotionally involved, but it is a passive experience. Video games are an active experience, but the problem with video games [is] they're not real, and most of the involvement in them is what they call 'twitch games': What do you shoot and how do you maneuver around it? What hasn't been linked with the games is: Can you really make them into a learning tool? The commonality to all of that is emotion.

To serve and direct: Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, left, is among the filmmakers who met with ICT officials.
Melissa Moseley
To serve and direct: Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, left, is among the filmmakers who met with ICT officials.

"If you can use the entertainment industry's knowledge of how to create those emotional connections with storytelling and characters and tie it together with cognitive learning, now you've got something very powerful, and if you put that in the framework of virtual worlds and simulations, we believe that's the goal."

This great experiment has not been conducted without its share of controversy; that existed well before Variety's story appeared. Earlier this year, Mark Pesce--the founding chairman of the Interactive Media Program at USC's School of Cinema and Television, as well as the creator of Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a 3D computer programming language--told journalist Paul Keegan that the ICT ignored whatever boundaries exist between "readiness training and combat training." He expressed disgust with what he called the ultimate "killer app" being developed under his university's auspices. The ICT's work also takes up a large chunk of writer James Der Derian's new book Virtuous War, which charts the creation of a potentially dangerous "military-industrial-media-entertainment network." The ICT, he insists, "warrants public scrutiny."

The institute's spokesman insists that no actual "combat training" is going on at the ICT. Rather, they're merely developing prototypes that will be handed over to the military, which will develop the scenarios. And while that may sound like a case of splitting hairs, the spokesman insists the technology being created at the ICT is not merely for use in war preparation; he envisions a day when it's used in medical facilities and classrooms.

"As we well know, any tool could be a weapon," says the spokesman. "Who would have ever thought of a box cutter as a weapon?"

Hollywood and the military have never made the best of couples; theirs is a marriage more often of convenience than of affection. But the post-Vietnam cynicism that informed so much of cinema has worn off--partly because of September 11, partly because of Saving Private Ryan and our culture's newfound love for the Greatest Generation. In such an environment, the ICT thrives: Its spokesman says that after the Variety story appeared, filmmakers began calling to volunteer their services. Some people give blood; others donate to the Red Cross. And others meet with the Pentagon to brainstorm about terrorism.

"There's no other place in this country or in the world where you have these kinds of people with such varied skills who are actually getting together and constructively collaborating, and I am proudest of that," says the ICT's spokesman. "It's a great group of people, and they're doing wonderful work. Hopefully, it will be of value. I don't minimize this: When you work in entertainment, you make mud pies and they pay you a lot of money to do this, but here is something that actually has value, that actually can save lives and have importance."

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