Shall we play a game?: The rise of the military-entertainment complex

The Army wants you to play video games: For decades, the military has been financing, inventing and perfecting them

Published September 19, 2013 11:43AM (EDT)

Matthew Broderick in "War Games"
Matthew Broderick in "War Games"

Excerpted from "War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict"

The origins of the U.S. military’s involvement with video games lie in its century-old status as this country’s primary sponsor of new technologies. A quick checklist of the technologies that either stem from or were significantly refined in defense-funded contexts shows how pervasive the military’s influence has been: digital computers, nuclear power, high-speed integrated circuits, the first version of the Internet, semiconductors, radar, sonar, jet engines, portable phones, transistors, microwave ovens, GPS—the list goes on. As Ed Halter writes in his book "From Sun Tzu to Xbox," “The technologies that shape our culture have always been pushed forward by war.”

Take the creation of the key technological innovation of the past several decades: the digital computer. Specifically, the combination of military-sponsored technological advancements and military-related strategic and tactical needs during World War II led directly to the computer’s invention. While private industry may eventually have developed what we now think of as the digital computer, the huge amount of research funding provided by the military, coupled with a desperate need to win the war, pushed this development up by years, if not decades. The military remained the key influence on the advancement of digital computers well into the 1960s.

Early in the twentieth century, the rising prominence of artillery made the calculation of ballistics a tactical necessity. Up to and throughout World War I, ballistics data had primarily been tabulated by hand, even as the growing number and variety of modern weapons called for ever more complex calculations, which became the province of skilled mathematicians known as “computers.” By World War II, however, advances in air and weapons systems required quicker means of calculation. To meet this requirement, the military sponsored the creation of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), popularly regarded as the world’s first digital computer. Though ENIAC wasn’t completed until the fall of 1945, after the war had drawn to a close, the military connection remained strong: ENIAC’s first task was to provide calculations used to plan the detonation of the hydrogen bomb.

Military-sponsored technological innovation continued apace for the next two decades, as the Department of Defense and its sub-agencies underwrote the great majority of computer and electronics research and development. In the years after the war’s end, the DoD founded a number of grant-giving agencies that continue to underwrite new technology today. Among these agencies were the highly influential Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), now known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); the Army Office of Scientific Research, now the Army Research Laboratory; and the Office of Naval Research. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the military remained what historian Paul Edwards notes was “the proving ground for initial concepts and prototype machines.”

Paralleling the rise of these DoD-operated institutions was an increasingly large defense contracting sector, ranging from companies whose sole focus was military contracting to larger, more diverse corporations, such as IBM, Raytheon, and General Electric, whose success was built on a combination of military subsidies and commercial sales. Beginning in the 1960s, the private electronics sector also experienced unprecedented growth, compelling it to begin pouring money into its own research and development. Despite this sector’s self-financed efforts, however, military funding continued to be the primary force spurring the creation of new technologies.

There were several reasons for the military’s intense interest in and financing of computers, but none was as important as the huge information-processing needs of what had become an immense bureaucracy. With the advent of the Cold War, American supremacy was thought to hinge on the maintenance of a robust military, whose efficient functioning required number-crunching on a vast scale. Computers greatly accelerated this process, further sparking the growth and increasing complexity of military bureaucracy.

Beyond the military’s bureaucratic needs, the drive for computerization reflected a broader ideological shift. In the late 1940s and ’50s, computers were enlisted as tools for the newly popular practice of tackling society’s biggest problems with seemingly objective statistical and mathematical tools. In fact, computers were for many years developed specifically to meet this function. Even as the private computer industry continued to expand during the early 1960s, the military, and the defense industry as a whole, remained the prime buyer and sponsor of computer-related technology.

The other major beneficiary of computer-oriented military funding during this period was academia; the Pentagon and ARPA underwrote research in the field at such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and UCLA. Perhaps most notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with its groundbreaking artificial intelligence program, received the majority of its computer-related research money from the military. In their superb analysis of the video game industry, Digital Play, Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter draw on this exchange to note that the “military-industrial-academic complex provided the triangular base from which the information age would be launched.”

Spacewar! and Beyond

The roots of the military’s historical involvement with video games extend beyond its sponsorship of computers. For several decades — from the 1960s to the early 1990s — the armed forces took the lead in financing, sponsoring, and inventing the specific technology used in video games. Without the largesse of such military agencies as DARPA, the technological foundation on which the commercial game industry rests would not exist. Advanced computing systems, computer graphics, the Internet, multiplayer networked systems, the 3-D navigation of virtual environments—all these were funded by the Department of Defense.

Virtual military training dates back to the late 1920s, when Edwin Link, the son of an organ and automatic piano maker, developed the first flight simulator, which was made of wood and powered by organ bellows. Video games, however, derive from preparations for nuclear war and space exploration; arguably the first digital game, a faux-military simulation, was in fact called Spacewar! The game was invented in 1962 by twenty-three-year-old Steve Russell and his cohorts in the fictitious Hingham Institute Study Group on Space Warfare, a collection of like-minded, Pentagon-funded engineering graduate students at MIT. Russell and his friends were as fascinated by science fiction as they were by their basement lab’s latest acquisition: a Programmed Data Processor-1, or PDP-1, one of the first microcomputers, which Russell describes as “the size of about three refrigerators,” with “an old-fashioned computer console” and “a whole bunch of switches and lights.”

The PDP-1’s manufacturer had shipped the computer to MIT in the hope that the electrical engineering department could put it toward some new and intriguing use, though building the world’s first video game could hardly have been what the manufacturer had in mind. For a time the PDP-1 just sat idle in the corner of the engineering lab. Russell was “itching to get his fingers” on the new machine, however, so he and his friends began discussing what they could do with this new mini computer. According to Russell, “Space was very hot at the time — it was just when satellites were getting up and we were talking about putting a man on the moon. So we said, gee, space is fun, and most people don’t appreciate how to maneuver things in space. So I wrote a demo program that had two spaceships that were controlled by the switches on the computer.”

Russell’s main influence in programming Spacewar! was Edward “Doc” Smith’s science-fiction “space opera” Lensman, which appeared serially in magazines before being reworked into highly successful books. Russell and his MIT coworkers were big fans of Lensman. “The details were very good and it had an excellent pace,” Russell says. “[Smith’s] heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar! He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.” “Glowing” is certainly an accurate description, as is evident in this sample from one of the Lensman books:

Beams, rods, and lances of energy flamed and flared; planes and pencils cut, slashed, and stabbed; defensive screens glowed redly or flashed suddenly into intensely brilliant, coruscating incandescence. Crimson opacity struggled sullenly against violet curtains of annihilation. Material projectiles and torpedoes were launched under full-beam control; only to be exploded in mid-space, to be blasted into nothingness or to disappear innocuously against impenetrable polycyclic screens.

Russell felt that by “picking a world which people weren’t familiar with” — that is, space — “we could alter a number of parameters of the world in the interests of making a good game and of making it possible to get it onto a computer.” In the game, two players used switches and knobs to maneuver spaceships through the gravity field of a star while firing missiles at each other. The fuel and the missiles were limited, as they would be in real life; adding to the pressure, players also had to avoid colliding with the star as they fired their weapons. Players could launch their ships into hyperspace at the last minute to avoid incoming missiles, but the ships would reenter the game at random locations, with each reentry increasing the chances that the craft would explode. Graphics-wise, Spacewar! was quite primitive: the spaceships were little more than green blips on the murky blue-black background of the oscilloscope screen. Irritated by the inaccuracy of the game’s initial star field, one of Russell’s coworkers eventually rewrote the script based on real star charts.

Spacewar!’s originality derived from the interface of the PDP-1, which came equipped with a keyboard and a circular monitor. As Kline, Dyer-Witheford, and de Peuter write, the game’s “radical innovation” was that it featured “interface controls for navigation and made the screen a graphic input to the player.” These twin features of navigation and display are, the authors note, “the foundation of digital interactive entertainment — the crucial ‘core design’ subsequent hardware and software designers would work up and sophisticate through generations of games.” Russell himself had wondered whether there might be a way to commercialize the game in order to make a profit from it. After a week’s contemplation, however, he decided that no one would be willing to pay money for it. Instead, he and his friends just gave the source code to anyone who asked for it.

Spacewar! was an immediate hit among the growing network of computer programmers occupying university research institutes nationwide. Within a year, the game had grown so popular that Stanford University’s Computer Studies Department had to initiate a “no Spacewar! during business hours” policy. By the mid-1960s, a copy of the game was on virtually every research computer in the country, whether in academia, industry, or the military.

Russell and his MIT associates were enthusiastic members of the emerging subset of computer virtuosos known as “hackers”—those who experimented with the programming capabilities of computers for the sheer fun of it. Young, male, and white, both nerdy and counterculture-cool, these hackers were subsidized by the burgeoning military-industrial complex, with their research going to fight the Cold War. The shock of the Soviets’ 1957 Sputnik launch had led to vastly increased funding for science and technology, most of it channeled through the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. Nuclear mobilization, ballistics, missilery, space defense — these were the concerns of the Pentagon and of policymakers alike. Hackers such as Russell and his friends occupied a precarious position in this new environment. They took their money and much of their guidance from the military, and yet their ethos was one of freedom and playful exploration, and they were harshly disillusioned by Vietnam and, later on, by Watergate.

It would be unfair to say that the hackers’ playful spirit was at odds with their military mandate, however. In fact, experimentation and whimsy were encouraged in places like the MIT computer engineering lab as a way of expanding the heretofore limited applications of computers. Until the early 1960s, computers were envisioned solely as sophisticated calculators and machines for modeling. Russell and other young hackers introduced the radical notion that computers could be tools not only for calculations but also for entertainment. Spacewar! wasn’t exciting because of its technology; it was exciting because it introduced a whole new way of thinking about computers — namely, that they could be sources of pleasure. Within a few years, this emphasis on enjoyment became the heart of the growing video game industry. So even though, as Ed Halter writes, video games “were not created directly for military purposes,” they nonetheless “arose out of an intellectual environment whose existence was entirely predicated on defense research.”

The military’s specific interest in computer-based war gaming can be traced to the late 1970s, when the Army War College introduced the board game Mech War into its staff officer training curriculum. Much more common during this period, however, was the development of high-end computer simulations, not games, for military training. In the 1980s, collaborators from the military, the entertainment industry, and academia began building “distributed interactive simulations” (DIS) — simulations that use distributed software or hardware to create virtual theaters of war, in which participants could interact in real time. These simulations employed the latest advances in computer graphics and virtual-reality technology, which added to the immersive qualities of their synthetic environments. As DIS technology continued to evolve into the next decade, an increasing focus on content and on compelling narratives brought these simulations closer in basic form to commercial video games.

The military’s interest in the kinds of video games popular today dates to 1980, when Atari released its groundbreaking Battlezone. Not only did Battlezone evoke a three-dimensional world, as opposed to the two-dimensional worlds of such previous arcade hits as Asteroids and Tempest, but players viewed the action from a first-person perspective, as if they themselves were tank gunners peering through their periscopes at the battlefield outside — in this case, a spare moonscape with mountains and an erupting volcano in the distance. This first-person element made Battlezone a direct ancestor of today’s enormously popular first-person shooters.

Soon after Battlezone took off, the army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) requested Atari’s help in building a modified version of the game that could be used as a training device for the then-new Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. General Donn Starry, the head of TRADOC at the time, had recognized early on that soldiers would be more responsive to electronic training methods than to print-and lecture-based ones. “[Today’s soldiers have] learned to learn in a different world,” Starry told a TRADOC commanders’ conference in 1981, “a world of television, electronic toys and games, computers, and a host of other electronic devices. They belong to a TV and technology generation . . . [so] how is it that our soldiers are still sitting in classrooms, still listening to lectures, still depending on books and other paper reading materials, when possibly new and better methods have been available for many years?” Yet while Army Battlezone (also known as Bradley Trainer) was eventually produced, the game was never used to train any actual soldiers.

The military’s digital efforts took a major step forward with DARPA’s construction of SIMNET, a real-time distributed networking project for combat simulation. Until the 1980s, simulators had been built as stand-alone systems that focused on such specific tasks as piloting a tank and landing a jet on an aircraft carrier. Each of these systems cost tens of millions of dollars — often twice the amount of the real systems for which the soldiers were training. To rectify this expensive and unwieldy practice, in 1982 DARPA drafted the help of air force captain Jack A. Thorpe, who years earlier had floated the idea that simulators did not need to physically replicate the full vehicles they were representing but could simply be used to enhance the training for these vehicles. Take aircraft: there was no need to use simulators to teach an air force pilot everything he needed to know about flying; simulators could train him only in things that he couldn’t learn from flying during peacetime. Why not, Thorpe asked, determine first which training functions were needed and then base the simulator hardware on that?

Thorpe’s experience with simulators began in 1976, when he worked as a research scientist in flight training at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona. Tasked with improving the state of flight simulators, which at the time were three-story mechanical contraptions in which pilots were shaken around like leaves, he looked for a way to change these single-pilot machines into ones that could teach group skills. “Group interactions are the most complicated combat operations,” he says. “They also tend to be the ones in which the costs of screwing up are the highest. Yet because it is so difficult and expensive to organize groups, pilots get very little training in collective skills. They have to learn these skills on the job, during combat, which makes casualties disproportionately high during the first few missions.”

To rectify the situation, Thorpe conceived of a network — anything from dozens to hundreds of individual simulators all interacting with each other. He thought it was wasteful for simulator training devices to focus on individual service members; the network he envisioned would allow for a collective training experience centered on entire crews and units.

By the time of Thorpe’s DARPA appointment in the early 1980s, the environment seemed ripe for him finally to put his networking concept into practice. ARPANET—the forerunner of the Internet— had exploded onto the military scene and was generating a great deal of positive interest in the science of networking. Aware that building the kind of system he envisioned would be economically infeasible, Thorpe looked to affordable, non-DoD technology such as computer and video games to make his vision a reality. He hired military contractor Bolt, Beranek and Newman to develop the networking and system software necessary to bring SIMNET—that is, simulator networking—to life. The originality of Thorpe’s vision later prompted Wired magazine to declare, “William Gibson didn’t invent cyberspace, Air Force Captain Jack Thorpe did.”

By January 1990, the first SIMNET units were finally ready to go. The army stepped in first, buying several hundred units for its Close Combat Tactical Trainer system. SIMNET’s training value became apparent one year later, during the first Gulf War. In the war’s most significant engagement, known as the Battle of 73 Easting, the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment destroyed dozens of Iraqi fighting vehicles in just under two hours, while killing or wounding more than six hundred Iraqi soldiers. Because the 2nd Armored Cavalry had prepared for the war by training extensively on SIMNET, the military decided to use the Battle of 73 Easting as a model for future networked training. The goal was to provide a much more rounded experience of battle than simulation had previously allowed for, one that emphasized the stresses and fears, the emotional experience of war, as much as it did the tactical ones. To this end, the SIMNET team assembled reams of data on 73 Easting: extensive interviews with 150 participants, radio and tape recordings from the battle, overhead photographs of the skirmishing, action logs, even a step-by-step re-creation on the actual battlefield by soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry. The results of this effort pointed the way toward the future of military training: interactive, immersive, complex, and variable scenarios in which the total experience of war could be brought forth in its digital replication. Because simulation was given much of the credit for the military’s Gulf War success, the postwar period saw DARPA’s SIMNET-related research and development efforts expand significantly.

The next major step in the military’s video game history came with the 1993 release of the blockbuster first-person shooter fantasy Doom. According to Timothy Lenoir and Henry Lowood, historians of science, Doom is solely responsible for changing practically every facet of PC-based gaming, including “graphics and networking technology, . . . styles of play, notions of authorship, and public scrutiny of game content.” (One of the game’s innovations was a new mode of play called “death match,” which, like Doom’s other innovations, is now a standard feature of many first-person shooter games.) Doom was an immediate sensation among gamers, with sales soon climbing into the millions.

Around the same time that Doom was released, the Marine Corps Modeling and Simulation Office (MCMSO) received a mandate from the annual General Officers Symposium to begin looking for commercial video games that might prove useful for training. Because the Marine Corps budget is a great deal smaller than that of the other services, the corps has a long history of seeking cost-effective training solutions. General Charles Krulak, its commandant at the time, believed that PC-based war games held great potential for teaching Marines critical decision-making skills.

Lieutenants Scott Barnett and Dan Snyder of MCMSO immediately began combing through dozens of military-related video games to see if any might be useful for training. They developed the online Personal Computer Based Wargames Catalog, on which they posted detailed reviews of the numerous games they investigated. Barnett and Snyder were looking for a fast-action first-person shooter — one that, crucially, allowed user modification. Of the many games they examined, only Doom (or rather its sequel, Doom II) fit the bill. As part of its marketing strategy, Doom’s developer, id Software, had released parts of the game as shareware and encouraged players to enact their own modifications.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1995, Snyder transformed the game from an outer-space gothic fantasy into a military fire-team simulation. The Martian terrain and alien demons of the original Doom were replaced by a dun-colored landscape of pockmarked concrete bunkers and enemies who had been drawn from scans of GI Joe action figures. The cost of production? A mere $49.95—the price of one copy of Doom II.

The point of the modified game, known as Marine Doom, was to teach Marines not how to fire their weapons but how to work together in teams and make split-second decisions in the midst of combat. “A real firefight is not a good time to explore new ideas,” Snyder explains. The game had another, equally significant, rationale. “Kids who join the Marines today grew up with TV, videogames, and computers,” Barnett reasons. “So we thought, how can we educate them, how can we engage them and make them want to learn?” Barnett and Snyder’s calculations were correct: their creation became a huge hit among Marines, though, like Army Battlezone, it was never actually used for training. According to Barnett, Marines would plead to be allowed into his base’s gaming lab even after it closed at night.

Marine Doom was created at a time when the Pentagon had begun embracing simulation for a broad range of activities. As scholar Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi relates, these activities included “part-task training; mission rehearsal; operational planning; strategic and tactical analyses; weapons systems modeling during research and development, testing and evaluation, and acquisitions; and long-range future studies.” Much of this emphasis on simulation was the result of post– Cold War military downsizing. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the military’s budget had been reduced to a level commensurate with what Congress assumed was a greatly reduced geopolitical threat. The relative affordability of simulation technologies matched well with the military’s newly tightened budget.

The Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 also forced the military to change its procurement policies. No longer could it underwrite defense contractors’ R&D and acquisitions on an unlimited basis; instead, the Pentagon had to rely on what are known as “commercial off-the-shelf” (COTS) technologies—technologies that already exist and that have been developed by commercial industry. Take SIMNET: put together by military contractors, it required $140 million, ten years, and several hundred employees to build, even though it did use some commercial technologies. By contrast, Marine Doom, which relied exclusively on commercial technologies, was built by eight people in six months for $25,000. Military contractors now had to take on the stripped-down and flexible management practices of corporations—in effect, to become commercial businesses themselves. This had a deep and immediate impact on the defense sector, resulting in the merger or closure of a number of prominent companies.

In order to maintain their livelihoods, defense contractors had to find other customers to whom they could peddle their high-tech gadgets. Yet even in this time of seeming crisis, the contractors ended up coming out ahead, as it quickly became apparent that another industry was hungry for their wares: the entertainment industry. The relationship born of this outcome was symbiotic: defense contractors would spin their technologies off into the commercial game industry, and the commercial game industry would spin its technologies right back. In an update of Eisenhower’s classic formulation, cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling termed this win-win relationship the “military-entertainment complex”—the relentless exchange of technologies, personnel, and money that defines the bond between the military and the video game industry.

The military’s reduced budgets in the 1990s also led to a greater dependence on reservist troops, which only increased the use of distributed interactive simulation systems for training. These systems enabled reservists to participate in large-scale training exercises and maneuvers no matter where they were based. As a further cost-cutting method, the immediate post–Cold War period saw the military’s emphasis shift to all-encompassing joint operations, as opposed to individual service missions. Two new declarations of military doctrine— Joint Vision 2010 (1996) and Joint Vision 2020 (2000)—codified this focus. In the effort to develop new simulation platforms that would meet the requirement for a jointly linked system, the four services of the armed forces were directed to overcome their traditional rivalries. The ultimate result of this attempt at cooperation was the Joint Simulation System (JSIMS), a single, integrated virtual battlefield — in technical terms, a mission rehearsal and command simulation environment — in which participants from all four services could operate regardless of location.

There was one more reason for the military’s turn to simulation: modern high-tech warfare was increasingly fought through electronic and digital interfaces resembling video games. Early on, this rapid growth in the electronic mediation of warfare caused confusion even among military professionals. An oft-repeated anecdote involves the war game Operation Internal Look, undertaken by the U.S. military in July 1990, during the run-up to the first Gulf War. General Norman Schwarzkopf relates the tale in his memoirs: “As [Internal Look] got under way, the movements of Iraq’s real-world ground and air forces eerily paralleled the imaginary scenario of the game . . . As the war game began, the message center also passed along routine intelligence bulletins about the real Middle East. Those concerning Iraq were so similar to the game dispatches that the message center ended up having to stamp the fictional reports with a prominent disclaimer: ‘Exercise Only.’”

Linking Entertainment and Defense

In the 1990s, no less an entertainment icon than Mickey Mouse presided over the tightening of the military–video game industry bond. At a mid-1990s meeting of the Army Science Board, that service’s senior scientific advisory body, four-star general Paul Kern met Bran Ferren, an entertainment industry futurist with a friendly, expansive manner and a wild red beard. Ferren was the influential head of creative technology at Walt Disney Imagineering, the design and development arm of the Walt Disney Company based in Glendale, California. (Since its founding in 1952, Walt Disney Imagineering has developed dozens of innovations in the areas of special effects, interactive entertainment, fiber optics, robotics, and film techniques.)

General Kern’s first thought upon meeting Ferren, with his tan explorer’s jacket and his untamed facial hair, was, “What’s this crazy liberal doing here in the middle of our organization?” As soon as he heard Ferren speak, however, Kern found him to be an inspiring, intellectually challenging figure who crystallized many of the nascent doubts Kern had been harboring about the static state of military simulation. Listening to Ferren describe the cutting-edge virtual-reality development efforts he was leading at Walt Disney Imagineering, Kern came to the abrupt realization that the entertainment industry had leaped far ahead of the military in regard to high technology—and, equally important, in the cost of that technology.

Ferren pointed out to the assembled army officials that when he and his entertainment industry associates looked at the military’s modeling and simulation offerings, the offerings were, frankly, “unaffordable and pretty crappy.” The software was “lousy” and the hardware was “clunky and inflexible.” Ferren posed a series of questions to prod the army officials’ thinking. “How much texture memory can we have in the graphics process unit?” he asked as an example. He received a number of blank stares. “Texture memory?” someone responded. “What’s that?”

Kern’s education was in mechanical engineering, and over the previous two decades he had gained a great deal of experience with computing and simulation, including the SIMNET program. He found Ferren such a font of valuable information and advice that he began meeting with him regularly, sometimes at Disney Imagineering headquarters, other times in his own office in the Pentagon. Their conversations were technical and wide-ranging, but Ferren took pains to drive home to Kern a simple message: “You gotta be where the action is.” If the military wanted to be part of the emerging technology base in Hollywood, which was linked to Silicon Valley, then it had to establish a presence there.

Kern was so impressed by his meetings with Ferren that he charged his subordinates with making the military more Disney-like. The military had been at the forefront of technological development for decades, he told them. Why couldn’t it now develop its capabilities to match those of the entertainment industry?

As it turns out, he wasn’t the only one asking that question. In 1996, professor Michael Zyda of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, had chaired a National Research Council study titled “Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense.” As tightly connected as the military and the game industry had always been, Zyda’s report argued that the two entities nonetheless had a great deal more to offer each other. When General Kern sent his subordinates scrambling to find someone who could better meld the entertainment industry’s technological know-how with the military’s training needs, Zyda’s name was at the top of the list.

An intriguing combination of laid-back Southern California surfer and overcaffeinated Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Zyda frequently uses words like “awesome” and “totally,” yet those words are delivered with rapid-fire intensity and a buzzing physical energy. Compact and sturdy, with a gray mustache and thinning gray hair, Zyda is one of the people most responsible for the partnership between the military and the entertainment industry. While that link is hardly new—think of the numerous propaganda films produced by Hollywood during World War II — the mid-1990s witnessed the start of an unprecedented level of collaboration between the two groups. More than any other single person, Mike Zyda played a seminal role in this process.

Zyda’s interest in computers dates back to his undergraduate years at the University of California at San Diego, where, as a freshman math major in 1973, he got a job working in the lab of a physical chemistry professor named Kent Wilson. The job interview was brief, with Wilson asking Zyda only whether he was willing to learn three things: computer graphics, programming, and how to write grant proposals.

Wilson’s lab offered the kind of freewheeling intellectual and creative environment that marked the high-tech world at the time. Zyda worked alongside seventeen other undergraduates, experimenting with computers, lasers, and chemicals. Among his coworkers were Bud Tribble and Bill Atkinson, both now legendary in the annals of computing. Atkinson, the eleventh employee of Apple Computers, is the creator of MacPaint, QuickDraw, and HyperCard, while Tribble managed the original Macintosh software development team and helped design the Mac OS and user interface.

The “life-changing” experience of working for Wilson led Zyda to pursue a master’s degree in computer information sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where his adviser was Victor Lesser, a major figure in the field of simulation. After receiving his doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis, Zyda entered a job market that was remarkably ripe for new PhDs in computer science.

At the time of Zyda’s graduation, many universities around the country were just beginning to create computer science programs, but the lack of graduates with relevant experience meant that there was a dearth of qualified faculty. Without even sending out applications, Zyda was recruited by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California.

Zyda’s focus when he arrived at the school, in February 1984, was real-time graphics. The army’s SIMNET program had started the year before, and there was growing momentum in the military for visual simulators, which at the time cost between $10 million and $30 million each. In 1988 the army tasked Zyda with building a visual simulation system for the fiber-optic-guided missile. The FOG-M was an early version of a drone; it had a TV camera in the front and a thirty-kilometer fiber-optic cable spilling out the back. A soldier watching a video screen would guide the missile with a joystick and crash it into the intended target. Rather than relying on technology built by defense contractors, Zyda and his students built their simulation system to run on a $60,000 Silicon Graphics machine. They finished in six short weeks. When they presented their system to the army personnel at nearby Fort Hunter-Liggett, the response was immediate. “We’re cutting you a check for $100,000,” they told Zyda. “We want to take this system out into the field starting today.”

Zyda and his students next built a simulator for the vehicle on which the FOG-M was mounted, after which they needed to network the two systems together. Luckily, Zyda had learned networking while on a three-week consulting trip in 1987 to Tokyo, where he had built a piece of code that would allow any number of workstations to be connected. He and his students now used that software to build a networked virtual environment that they called the “NPS Moving Platform Simulator.” Soon after, Zyda received a phone call from a man named George Lukes at the U.S. Army Topographic Engineering Center.

“I just read a paper you wrote on your Moving Platform Simulator system,” Lukes told Zyda. “It looks like SIMNET. Can I come to Monterey and talk with you?”

Zyda had never heard of SIMNET, because DARPA hadn’t written any papers or given any talks on it. “What’s SIMNET?” he asked, confused.

After sending Zyda a paper describing SIMNET, Lukes went out to NPS for a demonstration of Moving Platform. After the demonstration, Lukes took Zyda aside and told him how impressive it was. He then offered a proposal.

“Listen,” Lukes said, “the army is just about to take ownership of SIMNET from the defense contractors, but no one in the military knows how to read and write the networking packets. There’s also no one who knows how to read the terrain databases that the contractors have created. Will you do it?”

This was just the kind of challenge that Zyda and the students in his graphics class enjoyed. Using money provided by Lukes, they taught themselves how to read SIMNET’s packets and databases. The source code they created led them to build the Naval Postgraduate School Net, or NPSNET, a collection of Silicon Graphics workstations attached to a local-area Ethernet. NPSNET was in essence a SIMNET-connected simulator that enabled officers both to observe and to participate in the virtual training of their soldiers.

Zyda and his students’ efforts quickly attracted the attention of numerous Department of Defense offices, all of which were interested in the training possibilities of virtual technology. In 1995, Zyda was asked to take part in a National Research Council (NRC) study called “Virtual Reality: Scientific and Technological Challenges,” which advised the government on the kinds of virtual-reality research it should invest in. Though he was a relatively lowly member of the team, Zyda ended up writing about one-third of the final report.

Because of these efforts, the next year Zyda received another call from the National Research Council. The NRC had just received funding from Anita Jones, the Pentagon’s director of defense research and engineering—who was responsible for overseeing the department’s science and technology program, research laboratories, and DARPA — to put together a conference and a report on areas of potential collaboration between the defense and entertainment industries. Would Zyda be willing to chair the committee?

Anita Jones’s interest in the subject stemmed from her previous tenure as chair of the University of Virginia Computer Science Department. There she had hired Randy Pausch, the computer science professor whose book The Last Lecture, published shortly before his death in 1998, became a national sensation. While teaching at UVA, Pausch had taken a sabbatical to go to Disney Imagineering in Orlando, where he worked on DisneyQuest, an indoor interactive theme park filled with virtual-reality attractions. Pleased with the results, Pausch invited Jones — who by then had moved to the Pentagon — to pay a visit to Orlando. As she toured DisneyQuest, Jones had a sudden realization: she was paying various Pentagon outfits heaps of money to build large-scale visual simulations, and yet what Disney had was far better and cheaper. This realization led her to fund Zyda’s National Research Council conference and study.

The conference took place in Irvine, California, over two days in October 1996. Two very different groups were involved. One consisted of military representatives from all four services, DARPA, the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The other group consisted of entertainment industry personnel from such companies as Paramount, Disney, Pixar, and Industrial Light and Magic. Zyda, like Jones, wanted to capitalize on technological advances occurring not just in the military but in the worlds of entertainment and digital technology as well. While the specifics of these advances might have varied between fields, Zyda felt there was a key point at which they overlapped: simulation.

The conference featured testimony from the military side about its oft-failed attempts to do physically based modeling for virtual environments. The problem, the military people said, was that they would get wrapped up in the physics and the virtual environments would be difficult to upgrade. The entertainment group offered some simple advice. Look, they said, all you have to do is give people the illusion of an explosion happening; you don’t have to do the actual physics. This was a wake-up call for the military folks, who, from the entertainment group’s perspective, were trying to solve a bunch of problems that they didn’t need to solve. Why not use games built by people who actually know how to build games, the entertainment people suggested, as opposed to using games built by defense contractors?

The Zyda committee’s final report, “Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense,” claimed that by “sharing research results, coordinating research agendas, and working collaboratively when necessary, the entertainment industry and the DoD may be able to more efficiently and effectively build a technological base for modeling and simulation that will improve the nation’s security and economic performance.” In addition, the report declared it essential that academia be involved in this collaboration, arguing that the entertainment industry and the Department of Defense needed to band together to sponsor the development or further enhancement of academic programs dedicated to the fields of modeling, simulation, and virtual reality — all in the name of national security.

Not everyone was enamored of “Linking Entertainment and Defense.” Anita Jones had delivered the funding for the study through the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office (DMSO). At the time, the DMSO was pushing something called the High Level Architecture, a new infrastructure for networking virtual environments and simulations across the entire Department of Defense. Testimony at the NRC conference pointed out several limitations of the High Level Architecture, but the DMSO insisted that Zyda’s report praise it as the future for networking games. When Zyda refused, the DMSO was furious. After the study came out, Zyda asked Captain Jim Hollenback, the DMSO’s director, what he thought of it. Hollenback did not mince words: “We hated your fucking report,” he told Zyda. “We threw all the copies in the trash.”

The End (and Beginning) of a Dream

Zyda had to wait two more years before the military was ready to accept his report’s recommendations. In January 1999, he received a phone call from Mike Andrews, the chief scientist of the army, and Michael Macedonia, one of his former PhD students at the Naval Postgraduate School. Macedonia was now the chief technology officer at STRICOM, the Pentagon’s simulation and training office. When General Kern had laid down his order to make the military more like Disney, Andrews and Macedonia were on the receiving end. They told Zyda they wanted him to write the operating and research plan for a new institute they planned to build at the University of Southern California, UCLA, or UC Berkeley. This facility, to be named the Institute for Creative Technologies, would give the army direct access to the game and virtual environment technology being developed by the entertainment industry and academia and would be funded by a Pentagon seed grant of $100 million. Andrews and Macedonia felt that “Linking Entertainment and Defense” provided the perfect road map.

The call couldn’t have come at a better time for Zyda. After spending most of his career at the Naval Postgraduate School, he was looking for a way out. Working from “Linking Entertainment and Defense,” Zyda wrote the research agenda and operating plan for the Institute for Creative Technologies in thirty days. He flew to USC to meet with the dean of cinema, the dean of engineering, and the director of the Information Sciences Institute. Then, in March 1999, Zyda went to the Pentagon to meet with Andrews and Macedonia in person. Both of them were enthusiastic about his document. “This is great!” they told him. “Why don’t you go back and spend some more time socializing at USC? We want to build the institute there.”

Zyda spent the next three months working on setting up the ICT. That June, however, Andrews and Macedonia abruptly stopped returning his e-mails and phone calls. He soon learned that the position of ICT director, which he had been promised, had instead gone to former Paramount television executive Richard Lindheim, a veteran of Star Trek and a close friend of USC dean Elizabeth Daly. Zyda had spent most of 1997 doing technology consulting for Lindheim, advising him on building the StoryDrive Engine for Star Trek: Voyager.

Denied the job he wanted, Zyda decided to create a research institute like ICT at the Naval Postgraduate School. Again using “Linking Entertainment and Defense” as a template, he set up the MOVES (Modeling, Virtual Environments, and Simulation) Institute, staffed by a combination of researchers and graduate students dedicated to modeling and simulation, with a core emphasis on computer gaming. This put Zyda in the unique position of building his own research institute to compete against the other research institute he had founded.

Both the ICT and MOVES ended up playing crucial roles in advancing the military’s use of video games for training and education as well as for recruiting and mental health treatment. In later chapters we will see how the ICT and MOVES — along with the army’s simulation and gaming office — are two key sites from which the twenty-first-century military-entertainment complex has expanded. Today the ICT in particular remains influential, and is helping to keep alive the military’s tradition of technological innovation.

Yet the soil from which the military-entertainment complex has grown consists of more than just technology and video games. Equally relevant to this growth is the military’s extensive, yet little noted, legacy of educational innovation. As we are about to see, this legacy— like that of technology — possesses surprisingly deep roots.

Excerpted from "War Play," © 2013 by Corey Mead. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

By Corey Mead

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