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Laser Beams and Avatars: Investigating Digitized Warfare Simulations in the Library of Congress Collections

The following is a guest post by Janina Schupp, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.

In a rural part of France, in close proximity to Paris, lies the town of Jeoffrécourt. A seemingly average municipality with riversides and playgrounds, the veil of suburbia is soon lifted as smoke and wounded bodies fill the streets and screams reverberate. In short order, the town reveals its real purpose: a highly-instrumented, artificially-constructed environment for military training.

Jeoffrécourt forms part of the French urban training center Centre d’entraînement aux actions en zone urbaine (CENZUB). It has similar twins around Europe, including the Gefechtsübungszentrum Heer (GefÜbZH) currently under formation in Germany. These simulated towns are increasingly instrumented with laser tactical engagement simulation systems mounted on weapons, special effects such as smoke, explosions appearing at the touch of a button and a central operating system with a virtual copy of the town replicating all actions through avatars and virtual landscapes.

My Ph.D. research at the University of Cambridge explores the history of these digitized live war gaming sites. I arrived at the Kluge Center in October 2015 as a British Research Council Fellow to investigate the Library’s collection of valuable and rare material on the development of U.S. military simulations. The Library’s resources are a very significant corpus on the topic: they include military and research institution reports, conference proceedings, military and academic publications on digital war gaming, distributed interactive simulations, serious games, system interoperability and training center case studies. Various elements can be found in the Library of Congress general collections, the newspaper and map holdings and the Library’s Web archiving program.

The computer game holdings of the Library of Congress are also invaluable assets to expand the study by allowing the examination of the computer game components of modern military training. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division provides essential visual documentations of contemporary training centers and the beginning of computer generated imagery. This wealth of resources presents a fundamental basis for a cross-continental analysis of contemporary warfare simulations in Europe and the U.S., and allows to study the effects of the Digital Revolution on traditional military conflict simulations.

The artificial military training town of Jeoffrécourt © Janina Schupp

The artificial military training town of Jeoffrécourt © Janina Schupp

The construction of these new digitized military training sites during the past few decades is a direct consequence of the multifaceted modern asymmetric and urban conflicts that Western nations are currently engaged in around the globe. Since the end of the Cold War, these novel threats to security, in combination with the technological advances of the Digital Revolution, have generated the need and conditions for such digital extensions of traditional military training. By progressively employing digital technologies, these instrumented battlefields have begun to hybridize real training exercises with virtual and constructive simulation technologies, mobile devices and techniques inherited from the fields of cinema, media and computer games.

The development of this type of military training raises various questions about the origin of these digital instrumentation technologies and the introduction of elements from entertainment sectors into national defense practices. My research investigates the origins of these military training reconfigurations of cinematic sets, enemy role-playing and technologies such as laser tactical engagement simulation systems, virtual avatars, special effects, live-feed cameras, wireless systems and the use of mobile technologies. As the United States has been at the forefront of military training innovations since the 1970s, it becomes vital to trace the origins of these technological developments in Europe back to their United States ancestor. The Kluge Center offers an extraordinary venue to conduct this research.

One Comment

  1. Tim Smith
    April 12, 2016 at 7:07 am

    Congratulations on your project; looks likely to provide valuable knowledge. Where do you intend to publish?
    A thought, if I might offer, as a Navy practitioner/trainer: In your researches, I’d recommend that you distinguish wargaming from training exercises and that you start with wargaming, focusing on its intellectual grounding and recognizing that the latter-day digital gloss might be obscuring the really valuable activity behind the high-priced glitz.
    Look at von Reisswitz’s Kriegsspiel and von Mueffling, the Prussian General Staff system, and the Naval War College. Look at civilian wargaming (Avalon Hill, Simulation Publications Inc., and their contemporary descendants). Look up Peter Perla and Philip Sabin (King’s College). Look at the role of wargaming in the education of senior officers and, in concert with its close ally operations research (‘operational analysis’ in Brit parlance), its role in support to high-level planning and decision-making.
    Only then turn to the more captivating but less substantive world of digital simulation with exciting graphics, which generally serves the training needs of more junior personnel.

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