As someone helps me take off my helmet, I’m suddenly not in Afghanistan anymore. Motion-tracking sensors are strapped to my arms and legs. My backpack holds a computer processing unit. Virtual reality goggles dangle from my helmet. The gun in my hands is an exact replica of an M16—except for the tiny joystick on the back of the trigger to control my motion.

I’m in a convention center in Orlando, Fla., at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, the largest military simulation conference in the world. And I’ve just experienced the Army’s most lifelike training simulation yet: the Dismounted Soldier Training System which, after two years and US $57 million in development, will arrive at bases this year.

 

10RWEndersGame f2 Tor Books
Photo: Tor Books

Yes, it’s the stuff of science fiction, most notably Ender’s Game, the best-selling 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card that has whiz-kid cadets fighting an alien space fleet through a video game (the book was based on a short story by Card of the same name, published in 1977 as Analog Science Fiction and Fact). Among military geeks, the book—which is being officially released as a $100 million film starring Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley on 1 November —has been a blueprint for the future for years. As Michael Macedonia, the former director of the Army’s simulation technology center, told The New York Times in 2003, “Ender’s Game has had a lot of influence on our thinking. The intent is to build a simulation that allows people to play in that world for months or years, participate in different types of roles, and see consequences of their decisions.”

Ten years later, Macedonia’s vision is bearing fruit, driven in part by a strong appetite for the savings that simulations promise in a time of tight budgets. The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) is a U.S. government–funded research and development organization in Playa Vista, Calif., that makes some of the most convincing military simulations around. According to ICT, one of its training tools, the Joint Fires and Effects Training System, saved the military $3 million per year on what the fuel would have cost for the comparable training with real vehicles. And according to a recent report in National Defense magazine, the Air Force “estimates it could save about $1.7 billion over five years by reducing flying hours by 5 percent and shifting more of its pilot and crew training to simulators.”

The technology has also been buoyed by consumer trends. Although simulations have been used in the military for decades, advances in mobile devices and computer graphics cards are helping sims replace live training for a wider range of roles than ever before, both on and off the battlefield.

Officers refine counseling and interrogation skills on artificially intelligent virtual humans. Commanders execute complex battle drills as if they were a giant round of World of Warcraft. Soldiers dispose of improvised explosive devices in driving simulators. Immersive, portable, and tailor-made for the Xbox generation, these simulations are being used to do everything from treating post-traumatic stress disorder to familiarizing a soldier with an enemy base, as in the case of the Afghanistan scenario I experienced.

“We don’t give them a manual, we don’t send them home for three weeks to study,” says James Blake, head of the U.S. Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation. “We just put them in the environment, put the device on them, and exercise.”

Once Upon a Time

The use of video games for military training began in 1980. Battlezone, a popular arcade hit that pitted players against three-dimensional (albeit wireframe) tanks, was modified for the Army to school Bradley Fighting Vehicle gunners. But when he was writing the Ender’s Game short story and novel, Card didn’t find much in his neighborhood arcade to inspire a vision for the virtual warriors of the future. “None of the games I had seen were remotely useful in preparing soldiers for either combat or leadership,” he says.

So he imagined the Battle School, and the simulated training environment that dominates the latter part of Ender’s Game (earlier in the narrative, training is conducted mostly in a series of rooms in which the cadets physically engage in zero-gravity combat). The book’s young hero, Ender Wiggin, proves himself an expert war gamer, masterfully maneuvering first his own digital fleet and then a fleet of fleets commanded by other students against an enemy race of alien “buggers.” The training program is ruthless and unrelenting, driving Ender to invent tactic after tactic. The Battle School became a paradigm of just how convincing simulations can be.

Today, the U.S. Army is leading