The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

March 2000

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 24 February 00 Copyright ©2000 alt.screenwriters

Mere hours after the NATO peacekeeping forces depart, a new conflict wells up in Bosnia. Almost half a world away, war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. Soon after, Iraq invades Iran. On each front, the U.S. is forced to get involved. The flare-ups, seemingly unrelated, are in fact the carefully planned triggers of a worldwide crisis — and the bellwethers of a third world war…Sound like the plot for a Hollywood movie?

Well, not exactly. Actually, we’re talking about a war game: conceived by an alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, and scripted by Hollywood talent.

While this war game was under development in Washington, a different crisis simulation scenario (the parties involved insist it isn’t a “war game”, but call it what you will) — code-named “Final Flurry” — was being developed on the West Coast under the joint auspices of the Department of Defense and Paramount Digital Entertainment. Once again, a WGA screenwriter was onboard for design and scripting of the interactive simulation.

Rick Blackwood — who previously co-wrote the TV movie Dead Before Dawn and produced several award-winning PBS documentaries — served as the project designer, writer and creative director for the D.C.-based Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Symposium (ISR). According to Blackwood, the genesis for the ISR was the shootdown of an American pilot over Bosnia in the early ’90s. As the recovery operation progressed, Admiral Bill Owens (Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) realized that while the U.S. had the greatest Intelligence system in the history of the world, “nobody really understood how it all worked together!”

Owens handed the problem off to then JCS Deputy Director of Intelligence, Admiral Tom Wilson, who envisioned using Hollywood multimedia skills to create a war game teaching tool for current and future decision makers — and began assembling a team to execute it. Eventually, Blackwood came on board for scripting duties.

“The finished 6-hour scenario looked much like a TV script,” Blackwood says, “except I wrote for multiple (i.e., simultaneous) screens, and interactive segments.” Budgeting, scheduling, shooting and editing was handled much like any Hollywood production — except the participants had to have Top Secret security clearances.

The ISR consisted of interlocking multimedia modules that branched at critical decision points. For example, Blackwood says, “At one point in the game, a player might decide — given extremely limited resources — to commit most of his satellite and other intelligence assets to looking for Scud missiles in Iran. This choice has serious consequences: the student/player then has only limited assets to monitor movements of air traffic from Russia to a Nuclear Weapons Development Facility in North Korea.”

The interactivity accelerated the audience immersion. Blackwood proudly notes that “when they play the game, students often actually yell at the screen during interactive; they call back and forth to one another for help; they are really engaged.”

While Blackwood had not written for interactive media before, he says he “took to this. It was fun.” And on the alleged dividing line between traditional and interactive narrative, he argues: “Traditional linear structure isn’t so linear. It is exactly the fact that other things could happen that makes us sit on the edge of our seats to watch wonderful films like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Sixth Sense.”

Simultaneous screens doling out narrative and information, however, were a significant challenge. Blackwood admits: “We didn’t know whether anybody could watch multiple screens for six hours without being driven crazy. [But] as it turned out, the multiple screens made the experience of the Symposium really exciting: as the player watched a satellite in low earth orbit approach and prepare to interrogate a target, he/she would see on a second screen, amidst a flood of refugees, heavy trucks that could easily be mistaken by targeteers for armored vehicles.”

Blackwood often used the second screen to “underscore in human dramatic terms the technical ‘geek-speak’ the player has struggled with from other ‘school-house’ efforts to teach him complex intelligence systems…translating the almost clinical sense of ‘video game strike’ we read about in techno- war novels into the uncertain process, often shrouded in fog, which the decision maker faces when he tries to use force to solve problems.”

In the long run, Blackwood says, “Multiple screens simulate the real nature of war. A lot happens at the same time.” And this helped achieve the ultimate aim of the Symposium: “to assault, and change, the way players think.” On a more nuts-and-bolts level, “generals and admirals understand much more clearly how satellites work, how communications systems work, and, perhaps even more importantly, how processes break down and how the best efforts can fail.”

Having sailed through its shakedown cruise, the Symposium Blackwood scripted is now being presented regularly to War College students, ascending command officers, 4-star military staffs, and even members of Congress. Blackwood is already working on a second war game Symposium, and the ISR project team recently earned the high honor of the CIA’s Distinguished Unit Award.

Meanwhile, 3000 miles away, an entirely different collaboration had commenced between the Entertainment community and the military. That story, next month in this space…

Written by tborst

February 24, 2000 at 5:50 pm

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