The helicopter lands in a safe zone, where my guide, Laura Kusumoto, steers me and the other members of my group -- two U.S. soldiers and three Iraqi civilians -- to an area in front of the Army meeting hall. We are visiting a military contractor's Baghdad facilities, and we bunch together in a tight circle. Kusumoto, a slim woman in desert fatigues, her blond hair styled in a neat bob, talks about "integrated technology" and culturally appropriate hand gestures.
By the time I notice the large bag about 20 feet behind her on the steps of a building, it's too late. The concussive blast from the bomb buckles the air and sends us sprawling. Bodies soar past me, punched backward by a 30,000-newton invisible fist. They are already dead, flying corpses.
It seems silly that we would die now, away from the red zone. Earlier today, Kusumoto and I had been in the middle of a coordinated insurgent assault on a checkpoint and a police station. A car bomb had smashed the station to burning rubble. We'd survived. You didn't get lucky like that twice in one day.
But I did. As the smoke clears, I realize I'm alive, uninjured, standing somehow. No sound. Nothing moving. Just the swirling black smoke. I look around. A dead dog is splayed out on the ground next to me.
"Is anyone there?" I ask. No answer.
"Is everyone OK?" Nothing.
The street is empty. For a moment, I am alone in Baghdad, and there are no rules. I spot a Bradley Fighting Vehicle down the block and wonder if I should climb in, maybe loose a few rounds from the chain gun into the red zone.
Then a voice comes over my headset. "The system has been designed to be as natural as possible," the voice says. "There is a radius on the IEDs, and they are timeable." It's Kusumoto. She must have survived, too.
No, Kusumoto informs me. She didn't escape the kill radius of the improvised explosive device and was vaporized along with the rest of the group. But she has a miraculous talent. She can resurrect herself. Respawning, they call it. She can respawn whenever and wherever she wants. A minute later, she respawns in the conference room of Forterra, a San Mateo game company where I am seated in front of a Dell laptop, demoing the latest version of Kusumoto's game, an Army simulator called the Asymmetric Warfare -- Virtual Training Technology (AW-VTT).
I hadn't met the flesh-and-bone Kusumoto, but I recognize her instantly, even though she's wearing a suit instead of camouflage. I've seen her face and her blond bob on the computer screen. The corporeal Kusumoto bears an eerie resemblance to her electronic avatar. And that, of course, is the idea.
Kusumoto and Forterra are at the vanguard of the Army's new efforts to blur the line between simulation and reality. Their goal is to train troops for the unconventional, unpredictable guerrilla warfare the military didn't, or couldn't, envision in Iraq. They also want soldiers to learn the cultural skills needed to operate in a hostile and foreign land, where basic diplomacy has, at times, been lacking. To accomplish all this, Forterra has created a networked 3-D environment -- a life-size world, actually -- where users exist in real time as avatars. Green recruits will one day be able to log in and learn from combat-tested veterans on a virtual battlefield.
"You can be a National Guardsman in Kentucky riding right seat with a soldier who is literally in Fallujah," says Mike Macedonia, the Army's chief technology officer on simulation research. "The day is near when you can take a tour of the neighborhood that soldier patrols."
Forterra's environment will be able to host any number of good guys, bad guys, and civilians, any amount of equipment in any scenario the Army dreams up. It is, essentially, an enormous, server-based sand table. It is the next generation of war-gaming.
"We can build the world inside this thing," Macedonia says.
In a quiet suite of cubicles, Forterra's 30 employees toil under dim lights, building the world byte by byte. Most of them came from the video game industry, but the Army hates to apply the label "game" to their work. It sees Forterra's application as a simulated training environment, one that stresses teamwork, strategy, and communication, not blowing the bad guys away, as do many first-person shooter games.
There is something different about the Forterra world. In the simulation, Kusumoto instructs me to pick up a pistol. She wants to show me how to shoot someone. She explains how to point the gun and fire. Then she tells me to shoot her. I hesitate. I've spent a frightening chunk of my life in video games, gunning down humans, aliens, and animals. (Duck Hunt, baby!) Never have I felt guilty about it. Until now. Kusumoto is the game's producer. She's been my guide, my tutor. I feel like she's on my team. For chrissakes, the woman respawned for me!
But I follow orders and aim at her blond bob. I grimace and plug her twice with my M9. Her avatar crumples quietly to the ground and lies still. It is done. I have crossed over. A real-world emotion has been triggered in me by an action I've taken inside the computer. For me, this is no longer just a game.
When Kusumoto pops back into the conference room to check on me, I tell her how I feel. Normally, I enjoy shooting people in the head, but this time I feel bad about it.