By Rob Riddell
The Marines are looking for a few good games.
When it comes to knowing how the United States military spends our tax dollars, some of us are happy to adopt the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. I, for one, have enough futility in my life without being informed that the army has just developed, for instance, a US$4,500 titanium combat-ready toothbrush.
Well, here's another kind of scenario that, on the surface, promises to be just as stupid and expensive as the notorious $10,000 toilet seats of yore. It seems that the Marine Corps is using a modified version of id Software's Doom II, the addictive and hyperviolentPC-based videogame, for training purposes.
You read that right.
The cynic in me immediately imagines a squad of sweating, red-eyed marines slashing, shooting, zapping, and blowing up nightmarish demons on their PC monitors as their sergeant stands over them barking orders:
"Demon at 3 o'clock! Go with the nail gun! Kill, kill, kill!"
Gadzooks, is this the future of warfare?
It's a chilly, misty day in mid-December. Lieutenant Scott Barnett has put me in the passenger seat of his black Camaro Z28, and we're driving around the Quantico, Virginia, Marine Corps base at or below the posted speed limit of 25 mph. The slow creep makes the vast base seem even larger.
We glide past a cluster of nondescript brick buildings. "That's OCS, Officer Candidate School," says Barnett, project officer of the Marine Corps Modeling and Simulation Management Office ("McMismo," in the standard acronymic mil-speak). Just beyond it, very large helicopters hover like monstrous dragonflies over an airstrip. "We make officers there," Barnett says. "Takes 10 weeks."
Barnett, 30, is a fairly heavy guy with piercing blue eyes set in friendly, vaguely Germanic features. He wears his hair long - which for a marine means that it doesn't quite stick straight up on top.
We slow to a stop across from what looks like a fenced-in obstacle course. Barnett explains that it is, in fact, a fenced-in obstacle course.
"We bring young lieutenants here and run them through all kinds of battlefield scenarios," he says. "This place and Combat Town, which is where fire teams train, are seriously overbooked pieces of property. That's part of the problem."
He drives me through a long stretch of forest to another part of the problem: a weapons range. Several hundred yards away, in the middle of a long green field, about 100 marines are shooting the hell out of stationary targets with both rifles and machine guns. "Unlike in the army, the navy, and the air force," Barnett says with what is surely habitual pride, "every marine is a rifleman. The problem is that with budget cuts, we don't have the money to pay for the ammo and field time we need to keep ourselves in practice. So for a few years now, the corps has had to scramble to find cheaper, more efficient ways to train marines and keep them in fighting trim." We listen for a while to the staccato chatter of M-16s, and then Barnett drives me back to his office to show me what he firmly believes is part of the solution.
In today's military, computer simulation is increasingly taking the place of conventional training exercises. No longer must war games simply involve elaborate flight trainers or tank simulators in which highly trained officers learn how to handle multimillion-dollar death machines. This is especially true of the Marine Corps, which doesn't conduct warfare from "platforms" such as aircraft carriers, M-1 Abrams tanks, or B-52 bombers. The marines' role is to be extremely mobile, the worldwide 911 quick-response team, good-to-go anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Their primary fighting platform is a soldier with a rifle. That's a source of both pride and frustration. Because the marines don't have the big toys, they don't get the big bucks, either. Make do with less is what they're told by the Department of Defense. The Marine Corps was allotted just 4.1 percent - or $10.3 billion - of the DOD budget in fiscal 1997.
Two years ago, the ever-increasing pressure to produce more bang for the buck led to a mandate from the annual General Officers Symposium. As Lieutenant Colonel Rick Eisiminger, team leader of the Modeling and Simulation Office, tells me rather formally, "We were tasked with looking at commercial off-the-shelf computer games that might teach an appreciation for the art and science of war." Civilian translation: Barnett and his partner, Sergeant Dan Snyder, were ordered to dig into dozens of military-inspired videogames to see if any could be used for training. Which, when you think about it, is kind of like cops watching NYPD Blue to pick up procedural pointers. Which, when you continue to think about it, a lot of cops probably do.
In a PC-littered third-floor office in yet another nondescript, World War II-era brick building, Snyder has rounded up two corporals to give a demo of what everyone in the Modeling and Simulation Office is convinced will soon be a standard training tool: a modified version of Doom II, called Marine Doom. As the marines sit at three Pentium PCs and boot up the software, Snyder explains that ordinarily they would have a fourth, since the standard marine fighting unit - the "fire team" - consists of four men: two riflemen, one machine gunner, and the fire team leader.
Snyder, 33, is an interesting corrective to the stereotype of a marine sergeant. Yes, he is fairly burly, clad in camouflage, and gets his thinning hair mowed rather than cut. He moves with alacrity and precision, and he says sir a lot. But he's also a classically trained tenor (just a few minutes earlier we were discussing Schubert), a self-trained computer whiz, and terminally cheerful.
"Corporals, here's our mission," he says briskly, as Corporals Brett Nugent and Mikel Sealey lean over to look at the map on Snyder's monitor. He points out their position, the enemies' position, and salient features of the intervening topography and outlines their planned approach. "Are we ready?"
Immediately, it's apparent that this is a departure from the blood-soaked hallways of the real Doom. First of all, the boys are outside, and they're armed with conventional Marine firepower: M-16s for Snyder and Nugent, an M-249 machine gun for Sealey. (Snyder tells me later that they took digital pictures and sampled the sound of the real thing for this application.) The enemy, when he rears his ugly head, is not a coal-eyed, grunting demon, but three vaguely Naziesque soldiers. Right now, they're advancing with alarming speed and a lot of shouting.
"Sealey, concentrate that fire!" barks Snyder, as Sealey looses an unholy hail of gunfire, causing me to jump back slightly. The monitor speakers are turned up all the way. The hapless attackers are reduced to bloody scraps. Maybe this is Doom after all.
"Clear? We clear? We up?" yells Snyder.
"We're clear," answers Sealey.
"Alright. Consolidate down here near the eastern end of the bunker. We're gonna move out in a loose echelon left, toward the bunker. You're point, Nugent. Sealey, you're right after him. Move!"
It's immediately apparent what really makes the marines the respected and feared fighting force they are. All their training aims to purify and channel this, their mightiest weapon - raging aggression. Simulation or not, these are still individual rampaging marines.
The three tear ass across a brown-and-green landscape under a postapocalyptic sky toward two small hillocks topped by gray blockhouses. No doubt they're infested with bad guys. From Sealey's viewpoint, behind the muzzle of his trusty M-249, the sergeant appears as a red-clad, almost ninjalike creature, and Nugent, now getting into position behind a tree, looks like a buff marine. And they move fast.
They take up positions, storm the bunkers, and take out the enemy while sustaining minimal casualties. (Nugent buys it in an ambush just before Snyder rushes inside and finishes off the last of the enemy at close quarters.) I watch, listen, and marvel at two things: their level of absorption and their seamless teamwork.
Doom shows how anxious the corps is to use nontraditional ideas for
keeping its soldiers sharp. And it's not above picking up tips from the
business and entertainment worlds. For example, Lieutenant General Paul
Van Riper, the Quantico base commander, recently took his top officers
to a stock trading floor to study how people behave in chaotic situations.
"The military needs to borrow from the commercial sector," says Carl Builder,
author of The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and
Analysis. "The commercial sector is moving much faster, for instance,
in this area of simulation technology. This is the kind of thinking that
the military needs."
But why Doom?
"We played and reviewed just about everything," Barnett nearly shouts at me across the table. It's 2100 hours, and we're out of uniform, sitting in front of domestic beers at Roman's Pub in the one-horse town of Quantico. Barnett has to raise his voice over the combined noise of "Suzie Q" on the jukebox and the conversation of some guys playing pool nearby. "Just look at our homepage." (Detailed reviews of dozens of games can be found in McMismo's Personal Computer Based Wargames Catalog, at mcmsmo.usmc.mil/). "But Doom was the only game out there that fit the bill."
What the marines were looking for was something first-person, fast-moving, and networkable. Most important, they had to be able to modify it. This ruled out everything but Doom. In a shrewd marketing move, id released chunks of its games as shareware and encouraged players to modify them to their heart's content. Barnett and Snyder didn't need too much encouragement.
In the spring and summer of 1995, after downloading the necessary editors from the Internet, Snyder toiled away for about three months, mostly on his own time, to create the first version of Marine Doom. Total production: $49.95, or the price of a Doom II CD-ROM. Hard to beat that outlay.
But still: Doom?
Barnett looks like he's explained this one before. "Marine Doom, as you saw, is not just a twitch game. The way you get through a Marine Doom scenario and survive is through teamwork and listening to your fire team leader and doing what you're supposed to...."
"It's about repetitive decision making," Snyder swiftly interjects. Snyder's habitual deference - even off-duty, he calls his friends sir - doesn't always extend to allowing Barnett to finish his sentences. "We're trying to get these things ingrained by doing them over and over, with variations. A real firefight is not a good time to explore new ideas."
"You also saw how everyone was absorbed," Barnett adds. "That's another part of it. Kids who join the marines today grew up with TV, videogames, and computers. So we thought, how can we educate them, how can we engage them and make them want to learn? This is perfect."
Along with their project, Snyder and Barnett have become a hot property. Not only has their work won the approval and support of Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak, but it has also attracted the attention of the Secret Service, FBI, US Army, and various law-enforcement agencies interested in fielding a similar tactical trainer for their people. Snyder and Barnett are deluged daily with emails and phone calls.
Early indications are that Marine Doom is an effective training tool, although it can never, I'm told repeatedly, replace field training.
It will be especially useful, Eisiminger says, during long deployments on ships, where battle training can atrophy. The marines are also talking about digitizing the floor plans of various American embassies around the world and building Marine Doom scenarios around them. Should an embassy takeover arise, their soldiers can become familiar with the building before running through it with guns ablaze.
But the program has its shortcomings. Chief among them is its two-dimensionality. The action is limited to a plane, making multistoried urban warfare hard to simulate. Its networking capability is also limited to four.
Enter Quake, the latest bloody offering from id. Not only is Quake three-dimensional, but it allows up to 16 networked players. This means that an entire marine squad - three four-soldier fire teams anda leader - could train together. (The remaining three slots could be filled with either hostile or supporting forces.) Snyder and Barnett are already on it. They plan to call their version Battlesight Zero.
Here's where things get a little circular. Snyder and Barnett are both leaving the Marine Corps this spring. Although they will still be in the reserves, and both insist that their priority is developing and implementing this system for the corps, guess what they're going to do with their new freedom? You got it: form their own software company. Their first product will be Battlesight Zero. In a consumer market swamped with military-inspired war and battle games, what could be more appealing than a tactical trainer that is actually used by the marines? It will even sport the official emblem of the Marine Corps. If you are in the PC games industry, dollar signs are probably floating in front of your eyes, and for good reason.
There are, of course, licensing issues. For example, id allows its games to be modified and distributed only if profit is not a motive. But Barnett has been talking to major players in the videogame industry, among them Good Times Interactive, the Redwood City, California-based distributor, and assures me that these issues can be worked out.
Then the circle will be complete. The military borrows a consumer game that is at least in part inspired by the military in the first place (in Doom and Quake you are a Space Marine on Mars), adapts the game to its needs, and watches its finished product get sold to consumers - as an authentic military training game.
Snyder and Barnett are excited about starting their own business, they're
ambivalent about leaving the marines. As they see it, they have the best
jobs in the corps. Barnett tells me a story: about two years ago, as he
was finishing computer school, he was among several marines who were busted
for having a copy of Doom on their hard drives. (To this day, there
is an official order that prohibits any games on government PCs.) "They
read us the riot act. It was awful." He pauses dramatically. "So my first
assignment was the Modeling and Simulation Office, and now," he laughs
out loud at the blazing irony of it all. "Now, I'm institutionalizing
Doom in the Marine Corps!"
IT MOVES, KILL IT
Marine Doom is, as Barnett describes it, a proof-of-concept prototype. Various commanders around the country are using it, and the Quantico office is training marines on an experimental basis, but Marine Doom, like the commandant's reading list and staff tours of historic battlefields, is part of "professional military education." In other words, it's extracurricular. But if Barnett and his team are successful - and they're lobbying hard - Battlesight Zero will become as essential to a marine's education as marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat training.
The idea of a tactical battle simulator for the average soldier is not new. The marines already use a virtual shooting range, complete with laser-emitting M-16s and 9-mm pistols, which I tried out in Quantico. (M-16s, I am sorry to report, are heavy and have bad aim.) The corps has also been developing since 1993 a sophisticated, life-size machine known as the Team Tactical Engagement Simulator. The video I saw showed a soldier poking around a screen-projected digital cityscape, his lanky animated partner at his side.
So are PC-based combat simulators the wave of the future? "Absolutely. My company is betting on the future by spending R&D dollars now," says Dutch Guckenberger, research associate at the University of Central Florida and senior scientist at ECC International, one of the largest suppliers of simulators and training devices to the US military. "The marines might have been first with this, but right now I have seven proposals on my desk to do the same thing, for the US armed services and two foreign militaries."
For Guckenberger, live interaction is what it's all about. "The online gaming craze you're seeing on the Internet now? The same thing is coming to the military. Marine Doom is a perfect illustration of what should happen."
The men in the McMismo office aren't the only ones at Quantico using computer models. In another corner of the base, the Commandant's Warfighting Lab is working on a computer mock-up using nonlethal weapon systems. The model takes several platoons of marines and pits them against enemy soldiers, militia, and rock-hurling civilians. Once perfected, it will be used as a training tool at each of the corps' five combat simulation centers and at the Marine Corps Air/Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California.
Marines have a well-deserved reputation for fierceness and courage. You don't generally want to encounter them in combat, or, for that matter, in a topless drinking establishment. But here on base, I've never seen so many earnest, humble, hard-working young men in my life. Sitting amongst them on my last day in Quantico, waiting for Barnett to return from a conference, I'm surprised by tentative feelings of - can it be? - fondness for these buzz-cut, green-clad guys. Maybe the fact that they all address me as sir has something to do with it? Anyway, they seem so well-behaved and sweet.
Then Quake breaks out, and I'm rudely disabused of that notion.
It happens in the middle of the morning, without warning, without a discernible cause. Before I know it, everyone in the office - including me - is sitting in front of a networked PC, mouse in hand, racing through dim underground passages and picking up weapons and ammo. It is strangely quiet for the first few seconds, but fast and furious firefights are not long in coming.
"Agh!" screams Gunnery Sergeant Mark Englen, sitting behind me in a corner cubicle. "Who was that?" A malign chuckle from Corporal Nugent's direction answers that question.
"You will die, Corporal!" He's yelling at the top of his lungs. "Where the hell are you?"
There is no office, there is no time, there is only fear, death, and a nightmare labyrinth of corridors and chambers. And the phone, which Sealey, without ceasing play, periodically answers with an eerily calm staccato, "Good morning Modeling and Simulation Office Corporal Sealey speaking how may I help you Sir?"
"Cthulu must kill again," intones Snyder (whose screen name is Cthulu), wielding his newly acquired rocket-launcher with unseemly skill. Englen is again moved to issue high-volume imprecations.
By virtue of lurking in ambush, I manage to keep my butt intact for a while. But then soon attract unwanted attention from Snyder, who is apparently offended by my attempt to dispatch him with a mere shotgun. He quickly chases me into one of those nasty subterranean canals, puts on a very bad French accent, and jumps in after me.
"Welcome to Jacques Cthulu's undersea world!" are the last words I hear before I get a rocket in the head.
Having felt their fury - OK, simulated fury - I can comfortably say that I don't wish to be on the receiving end of whatever the marines dish up when they get together. Anyone planning to take over an American embassy in the near future might want to ruminate for a spell on the serious implications here. The marines may be playing games, but they're sure not doing it for fun.
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