Mickey Flies the Stealth

April 14, 1998


Boy, this is frustrating! I keep telling them they must surrender and they keep saying, "Wait your turn, Game Boy!"

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense. A Report of the National Research Council. National Academy Press, Washington, 1997, 196 pages, $29.00. Ordering information: (800) 624-6242.

This book is a report based on a two-day workshop held in October 1996 in Irvine, California, to discuss problems common to the entertainment industry and the defense industry vis--vis modeling and simulation. More than 50 people, some from the film, video-game, location-based entertainment and theme park industries, some from the Defense Department and defense contractors, some from universities, met face to face and tried to decide what interests they had in common and how "two communities that have tended to operate independently, developing their own end systems and supporting technologies," might help one another. The principal goals of modeling and simulation discussed here are training, analysis, and the acquisition of systems with new capabilities.

While the current products of the entertainment sphere are known to the generality of humankind, the discussion also includes a projection of the next generation of video games:

"The intent of on-line gaming is to create massively networked games in which hundreds, if not thousands, of players can play in the same virtual world simultaneously. . . . In the multiplayer mode, the player will enter a persistent universe that will run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Players will be able to join a game whenever they want and in whatever role they want (tankcommander, fighter pilot, etc.). They will be immersed in an environment of teammates and adversaries controlled by other players and the computer with the distinctions between the two becoming increasingly hard to detect."

What, more precisely, are the areas of overlap between entertainment and defense? According to the press release that accompanied the book, the principal ones are:

  1. Virtual reality technologies; the creation of immersive simulated environments against which defensive-offensive action takes place.

  2. Technologies and standards for networked simulator systems; rapid communication between many (thousands) of simultaneous players.
  3. Computer-generated characters. The challenge here "is to develop characters that model human behavior in activities such as flying a fighter aircraft, driving a tank, or commanding a battalion such that participants cannot tell the difference between a human-controlled force and a computer-controlled force. . . . The current limited responses of the antagonists require that additional intelligence be built into them. Smarter computer opponents could learn how different players operate and then adapt their responses accordingly."

In my role as a writer, faced with the necessity of describing people and events verbally, I was intrigued to read that part of the development of characters is through "electronic story telling." The objective here is to create the right set of stimulants-visual, aural, olfactory, vibrotactile-so as to elicit an efficient set of psychobiological responses in a real battle arena. Hollywood and TV craftspeople have successfully algorithmized numerous emotions, such as fear (reported by W.D. Hillis of the Walt Disney Co., page 41). Cybersex is so well advanced that the filtering V-chip is an object of freedom-of-speech controversy. Much more recently, in mid-December, newspapers reported that Japanese cyberartists, via computer graphics, were producing nausea and convulsions in their viewers (mainly children) debilitating enough to send them to the hospital. All this gut stuff is very easily transferable to simulated military engagements.

Lacking the experience necessary to discuss the technical details of the overlap and possible collaboration that were taken up at this conference, I would like to change the direction of this review.

Entertainment and war! One might think: What an odd combination; what strange bedfellows the computer has made. But a moment's thought reveals the truth: It did not take the computer to link entertainment and war.

"Ever since words existed for fighting and playing, men have been wont to call war a game." So wrote Johann Huizinga in his classic 1938 work, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture1. The two activities have been close to each other ever since primitive man poked a spear into the belly of his enemy and found that the outcomes included pride, loot, women, and a tremendous high.

In the days when knighthood flourished, when troubadours sang of love and glory, contestants, in full battle array, engaged in elaborate jousting matches. Far from mock, the matches were, in part, entertainment for the ladies who sat in the stands wearing the colors of their favorites.

At the end of World War II, the Air Force put on a victory celebration at its base in Langley Field, Virginia. As I recall it, the main talk was given by the commanding officer of the base, who spoke of military activity completely in the metaphor of football: We gained 30 yards, we ran it for a touchdown, and so forth. Here also is war made acceptable emotionally by being regarded as entertainment.

In the opposite direction, think of chess and go, both very old, very mathematical games. Both are also war games. In chess, when your opponent's king is taken out (modern terminology), the game is won. (The word "checkmate" is derived from the Near Eastern schach-mat: The king is dead.)

When contemporary entertainments such as football games are pursued with the players dressed in full suits of heavy protective armor, when high school coaches are out for blood and their young charges cry when they do not make the first team, when video games are based 99% on the kinematic responses of the players to aggressive situations, the relationship between entertainment and war becomes vividly clear.

Now bring in mathematics. The two-way relationship between mathematics and defense is well known and hardly needs elaboration here. So let me move on and talk about mathematics as entertainment. This notion is familiar to teachers who use the idea of "math as fun" as an inducement to learning. Math as fun is also asserted by researchers who argue for public funds without surveillance. "Give us play dough," they say to funding agencies, "with no strings attached to our play, for one can never tell what goodies (in the public's sense) might emerge." Amongst themselves, privately, for the idea would be political poison, they say simply "let us play."

For the cognoscenti, the cat is really out of the bag. George Steiner, a literary critic of great reputation, a historian of ideas, and a math buff, talks about mathematics as play in his introduction to my edition of Huizinga:

"Of all human activities, mathematics-particularly pure mathematics-comes closest to Huizinga's own standards of elevated play. . . . What is more playful in the deep sense, than, say, the Banach-Tarski Theorem, whereby we may divide a sphere as large as the sun in such a way that the whole may be fitted in our pocket?"

Entertainment as mathematics? Think of the total mathematization of sports in the past half century, of the stats that now determine strategies and salaries.

The triangle is now closed, and we move around it in both directions: mathematics-entertainment-war-mathematics. Yes, products of the marriage of entertainment and defense can be employed for military training on the ground, in the air, or on the sea, or for the study of strategic alternatives. Or, on an entirely different level, the marriage can provide history buffs with the ability to sit in their programmers' chairs as Monday Morning Quarterbacks and refight Gettysburg, or the Peloponnesian War, or the capture of Passchendaele, made realistic via the Fourier transform and even more so with virtual victims in their last agonies strewn about by random number generators and NURBS-animation. The game becomes a military Theater of Grand Guignol with audience participation.

The lines between real war and virtual war become more and more blurred. In the current movie Wag the Dog2, which some viewers find screamingly funny and others depressingly prophetic, the words "War is show business-that's why we're here" are spoken by a spin-master who has contrived a fake war to rescue a president from a sex scandal. The scenario certainly serves to blur even more within today's idiom the distinction between the real and the virtual.

But the convergence of the real and the virtual brings to my mind a more cheerful and wildly visionary thought: Is it possible that in this convergence we may find the moral equivalent of war sought by philosophers? Is it possible that future Agincourts or the recent siege of Sarajevo might be played out without real casualties on the fields of networked Simulator Systems? The mediaeval world very occasionally settled its disputes by the single combat of designated champions. Could a similar notion be projected into the new millennium via computer simulation? Is it possible that The Battle of the Robots, material or virtual, the battle of my Deep Blue vs. your Deep Purple, would be accepted by raging nations as determinative?

In 1910, when the Spanish-American War was just behind him, the American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote an often-cited essay that explored the possibility of a moral equivalent of war.3 He came to a somewhat pessimistic conclusion: Any moral equivalent of war would have to come to terms with the innate pugnacity of humans, with their love of glory, with their fascination with horror, with their feeling that war is the strong life, with the patriotism that accompanies it, with the romance that results from it, and with the determination to exterminate foreigners for the greater glory of God. On the other hand, James wrote, not entirely with disapproval, "The apologists for war pose the alternative: a world of clerks and teachers of co-education and zoophily, of 'consumer leagues' and 'associated charities,' industrialism unlimited and feminism unabashed; no scorn, no hardness, no valor. Fie upon such."

And to this list, James might have added: no ability to provide for the common defense. James concluded that "martial values must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command must still remain the rock on which states are built," and the only concrete moral equivalent that he offered was to institute a youth corps: Draft young men to do a lot of hard and often unpleasant physical work, and to work not abroad (as with our present day Peace Corps), but at home.

James was an eminently humanistic thinker. Stated baldly in this way, however, his views might strike the modern reader as smacking of fascism and sexism. If I grant the validity of the psychological necessities James sets out (which would probably be denied by feminists), my optimism falls to the ground. I don't see that virtual warfare comes close to fulfilling his conditions.

What I believe is that if, as predicted by some Siliconites, the principal future product of the United States should become entertainment, the equivalence of entertainment and defense might prove as explosive a mixture in the social sense as the introduction of the gunpowder that spelled the end of the castle fortresses. But if the simulated and networked military engagements result in the virtual destruction of all the players, some small measure of sense might thereby seep into the collective brain of humanity.

1. Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens, Harper & Row, New York, 1970
2. Wag the Dog, The New Yorker, January 5, 1998, page 7
3. William James, "The Moral Equivalent of War" in Writings 1902-1910, Library of America, New York, 1937, pages 1281-1293.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


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