CGI Joe

How the military and private tech contractors are training a new generation of soldiers

By all accounts, the U.S. Armed Forces devote far more time, money, and research to soldier training than any other military in the world, creating a nexus of academic, corporate, and military interests collaboratively devoted to pushing new-media technologies forward. Thus the conference's Orlando location: University of Central Florida professor Christopher Stapleton, on hand at I/ITSEC with his school's Media Convergence Laboratory, argues that "central Florida is the world capital of experiential entertainment." The area boasts not only long-standing military training centers and significant investment from the Department of Defense, but also the aerospace and theme park industries.

Michael Macedonia, the affable young chief scientist and technology officer of PEO STRI, the army's Orlando-based office for simulation and training, stresses that the large-scale shoot-'em-ups on display at I/ITSEC are definitely not just big-boy's toys. "First of all," he says, "the object is not to entertain you, but to train you." He continues, "The reality is, if you really look at some of these things, they would actually be quite boring to your average game player," noting that many simulations are created to train for mundane skills, like machine maintenance. Such high-tech training, Macedonia explains, is part of the new military's post-Vietnam paradigm. Before 1970, he says, the U.S. Army "trained through blood. Technology for training was considered expensive. People were cheap."

Macedonia brings up the case of Full Spectrum Warrior, a much publicized video game developed by the army with the help of a commercial gaming company. A popular, gamer-friendly version was released for Xbox in the summer of 2004 to critical acclaim and healthy sales. A related but different form is currently used as a tactical trainer within the military. "If you play the army version—which is the only one that the army endorses, by the way—it's actually very realistic, but it's really hard. People complain that they get killed in five minutes, and can't figure it out. Well, that's because we're trying to get as realistic as possible. It's about training, and so it's about making it hard."

Make way for Tomorrowland: The training camps of the future
Photograph by Jennifer Cortner
Make way for Tomorrowland: The training camps of the future

Not that fun does not have its place. Specialist Samuel England, a fresh-faced 19-year-old stationed at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, came to I/ITSEC to showcase the Engagement Skills Trainer 2000. England appears in the trainer's video as an actor. "Making it was actually pretty fun, just like, I guess, any sort of Hollywood-style thing," he says, grinning. At I/ITSEC, he and two other soldiers shot at the EST2000 video screen with mock rifles, trying to take down images of actors playing Iraqi insurgents. England explains that "the Iraqis are actually paid people from Titan," a major military contracting firm. "They actually get Iraqi civilians, ex-Iraqi police, and Iraqi military, and they move over to the States. They act in the films, and they work at NTC." (Although Titan would not return calls to confirm their role in casting actors for the EST 2000, representatives at the NTC said that if such a video were produced at NTC, then their on-site Iraqi employees would likely be involved.)

At the display for America's Army—the globally popular online game developed as an army recruitment tool—local teenagers scrambled to play with the America's Army Vehicle Convoy Trainer, which looks like an armed, wheel-less Humvee placed in front of an oversize video game screen depicting yet another virtual Iraq filled with digital insurgents. Though available for free on the army's recruitment site since July 4, 2002, America's Army is now being retooled into a training device as well, not only for the military but potentially for other agencies like the Secret Service. "Fun is central," says Colonel Casey Wardynski, originator and director of the America's Army project. "A 'fun' training system means keeping soldiers engaged voluntarily. This situation makes for better training, and can even extend the training day into the barracks, where soldiers could continue to train in their off time."

Already, americasarmy.com touts that America's Army's Government Applications and Future Applications development teams will feed tidbits of new innovations back into the free game, to whet the appetites of its devoted online following. Preliminary materials tout the project as a good "return on investment" for a game that initially cost $7.5 million to develop. "The country is at war and to the extent that America's Army can play a larger role, it should," says Wardynski. "We know there is no silver bullet for homeland security. In this case America's Army can serve two purposes for one taxpayer investment—communicate with young adults about soldiering and provide Americans with skills to address immediate consequences in a first-responder situation."

The fusion of playtime with wartime seems perfectly natural to the folks at I/ITSEC. Many of the participating companies play both sides of the fence, to some extent: VirTra Systems makes both immersive-training devices and theme park attractions, though the former have overtaken the latter in the past four years. "Education, entertainment, training—they're all the same thing," argues Stapleton, who himself comes from a background developing technology for Broadway and theme parks. "They're all in the same business of making memories for a lifetime. When you get down to that, it's not really about the technology—even though it gives us more capabilities—it's about the impact it has on us."

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