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Out of Control
Chapter 13: GOD GAMES

Jordan Weisman and buddy Ross Babcock were naval cadets at the Merchant Marine Academy, and deep into dungeons-and-dragons fantasy games. Once on a naval tour they got a peek at a supertanker bridge simulator, a wall of monitors that could fake the color details of a passage through 50 different harbors around the world. They were dying to play. Sorry, this is not a toy, the brass told them. Yes it is, they knew. So they decided to build their own. A simulated world that would let others into their secret of fantasy worlds. They'd use plywood, Radio Shack electronic parts, some homegrown software. And, they would charge admission.

Weisman and Babcock launched BattleTech in 1990. Funded by their lucrative success in the role-playing game business, and based on one of their game's premises, the $2.5 million center runs seven days a week in a mall on the North Pier in downtown Chicago. (With new investment from Tim Disney, Walt's grandson, other centers are opening up around the country.) "Just follow the noise," the attendant on the phone says when I asked for directions. Rowdy teenagers linger at the Star Trek-styled storefront where T-shirts stamped "No Guts, No Galaxy" hang for sale.

BattleTech bears an uncanny resemblance to SIMNET: a set of twelve cramped boxes bolted to a concrete floor linked in an electronic network. Each box is detailed with futuristic nonsense of the outside ("Beware of Blast") and inside stuffed with glorious "switchology" -- knobs, meters, flashing lights -- a sliding seat, two computer screens, a microphone by which to communicate with teammates, and a few working controls. You steer with foot pedals (as on a tank), you accelerate with a throttle, and you fire with a joystick. At the whistle, the game flickers to life. You are immersed in a red-sand desert world chasing other legged tanks ( la Return of the Jedi) and being chased in return. The rules are war simple: it's kill or be killed. Driving through the red desert world is cool. The other "mechs," as they are called, dashing about madly in this simulated world are steered by 11 other customers crouched in adjacent boxes. Half are supposed to be on your side, but in the booming mayhem its hard to tell who's who. I see on my readout that my teammates (whom I've not really met) are Doughboy, Ratman, and Genghis. Apparently I'm just "Kevin" on their monitors since I neglected to supply a "handle" before setting off. We are all novices dying early. I am a journalist doing research. Who are they?

Predominantly unmarried males in their twenties, according to a Michigan State University study on fanatical users of the game. The report surveys veterans who have played at least 200 games (at $6 a pop!). Some masters live and work at BattleTech Center calling it "home." I talked to several who've played over a thousand games. Masters of BattleTech claim that it took them about 5 games merely to get used to driving the mech and firing basic weapons, and about 50 games to master cooperating with others. Team-playing is the whole point. Masters see BattleTech primarily as a social contract. To a man (and every master but one is male) they believe that wherever new networked virtual worlds would emerge, special communities of people would come to live in them. When asked what compels them to return to the BattleTech simulated world, the masters mention "the other people," "being able to find competent foes," "fame and glory," "compatible teammates."

The survey queried 47 maniacal players and asked them what BattleTech should change; only two replied that the management should work on "improving reality." Rather the majority wanted lower costs, less crashable software, more of the same ("more mechs, more terrain, more missiles"). Most of all, they wanted more players inside the simulation.

This is the call of the Net. Keep adding players. The more they are connected, the more valuable my connection becomes. It is revealing that these obsessive game players realize they get more "reality" by increasing the fullness of the network than they get by increasing the visual resolution of the environment. Reality is first coevolutionary dynamics, only secondly is it six million pixels.

More is different. Keep adding grains of sand to the first grain and you'll get a dune, which is altogether different than a single grain. Keep adding players to the Net and you get...what?...something very different...a distributed being, a virtual world, a hive mind, a networked community.

While the behemoth size of the military quells innovation, its gigantic scale allows the military to attempt the grand -- which nimble commercial entrepreneurs cannot. DARPA, the highly regarded creative research and development branch of the defense department, has drawn up an ambitious next step beyond SIMNET. DARPA would like a 21st century style of simulation. When Col. Jack Thorpe from DARPA gives military briefings promoting this new kind of simulation, he throws up a couple of slides on the overhead projector. One says, Simulation: a Strategic U.S. Technology. Another proclaims,

Simulate Before You Build!

Simulate Before You Buy!

Simulate Before You Fight!

Thorpe is trying to sell the top brass and the military industrialists the key idea that they can get better weapons per buck applying simulation at every point in the process. By designing technology via simulations, testing them via simulated action before committing money for them, and then training users and officers via simulations before actually unwrapping the hardware, they gain a strategic advantage.

"Simulate Before you Build" is already happening to a degree. Northrop built the B-2 stealth bomber without paper. It was simulated in a computer instead. Some industrial experts call the B-2 "the most complex system ever to be simulated." The entire project was designed as a computer simulacra so intricate and precise that Northrop didn't bother fabricating a mechanical mock-up before actually building the billion-dollar plane. Normally a system consisting of 30,000 parts entails redesigning 50 percent of the parts during the course of actual construction. Northrop's "simulate-first" approach reduced that number of refitted parts to 3 percent.

Boeing explored the idea of a hypothetical tilting-rotor aircraft, called the VS-X, by constructing it in virtual reality first. Once built as a simulacra, Boeing sent more than 100 of its engineers and staff inside the simulated aircraft to evaluate it. As one small example of the advantage of simulated building, Boeing's engineers discovered that a critical pressure gauge in the maintenance hatch was obscured from view no matter how hard the crew tried to look at it. So the hatch was redesigned before building, saving millions.

The elaborate platform for this pervasive simulation is code-named ADST, an awkward acronym that stands for Advanced Distributed Simulation Technology. The key word is "Distributed." Col. Thorpe's distributed simulation technology is nothing less than visionary: a seamless distributed military/industrial complex. A seamless distributed army. A seamless distributed war hyperreality. Imagine a thin film of optical fibers spanning the globe opening a portal to real-time, broadband, multiuser, 3-D simulation. Any soldier who wants to plug into a hyperreal battle, or any defense manufacturer who wants to test a possible product in a virtual reality, need only jack into the great international superhighway-in-the-sky known as Internet. Ten thousand decentralized simulators linked into a single virtual world. Thousands of different kinds of simulators -- virtual jeeps, simulated ships, Marines with head-mounts, and shadow forces generated by artificial intelligences -- are all summed together into one seamless consensual simulacra.