War isn't a game, but it's beginning to look like one.
I'm in the driver's seat of a Humvee that's plodding along an Iraqi desert road.
On my right are two soldiers in tan fatigues -- one in the passenger's seat, staring listlessly ahead at the road, and one in the gunner's position. They don't say much. We arrive at an Army checkpoint, where I pull up next to a similar Humvee. Then an explosion deafens my right ear and a shockwave rocks my skull.
Our worst fears have been realized. Upon our arrival, enemy combatants detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) in an attempt to blow up our vehicle and us. Before I know it, the clatter of enemy gunfire replaces the ringing in my ears. I can't seem to take my eyes off the young soldier next to me. He's grimacing in pain, and I can see shrapnel from the IED embedded in his arm and stomach.
Then I take my helmet off and leave Virtual Iraq. I'm not in the Middle East. I'm sitting in an office chair at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies in Marina Del Rey, California.
The ICT is a research lab for gaming technology that specializes in creating products for the United States military, including a city management trainer called UrbanSim and a negotiation trainer called BiLAT. Virtual Iraq was designed as a PC-based form of exposure therapy for Army veterans who served in Iraq and came back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
These games join older software tools such as America's Army, the Army-developed first-person shooter designed to boost recruitment, as elements of the U.S. military's strategy to use video games to solve military problems. Surprisingly, many games made for Army training have a deeper reliance on and representation of interpersonal interaction than anything I've ever played before. Even civilian games that give conversation tremendous weight -- like the Fallout role-playing game series never made me feel that I had to worry about anyone else except as a means to a new game item.
This isn't surprising to Randall Hill, the ICT's executive director. "[The Army is] doing a great job with weapons research," Hill says. "What they ask us is: 'How do we raise [our soldiers'] cultural awareness?'"
That motivation is the key to understanding the ICT, America's Army, and all of the other military games in development: Instead of worrying about how to make a game fun, people like ICT's Hill and the U.S. Army's gaming experts ask "How can we design this game to solve a problem?"
As members of the design team focus on answering this question, they come up with games that feel more realistic, more mature, and (unexpectedly) more fun to play.
Many big technological breakthroughs start in the military -- the Internet's beginnings as the Department of Defense's ARPANet computer network, or the origins of the microwave oven in Raytheon's radar research.
In developing games for its troops, however, the military initially worked backward, by modifying existing games. The result was games like Marine Doom and Close Combat: Marines, versions of Doom and Close Combat that were modified to teach Marine trainees how to perform as a team.
Now the Army is catching up. The Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation (PEO-STRI) announced in 2008 that it would spend up to $50 million over five years to develop video games, including games meant to combat suicide and help over 3000 soldiers deal with traumatic experiences involving IEDs and convoy ambushes.