On the Hill, Pro-Active on The Interactive

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and Caitlin Hone, 9, test a Northrop Grumman map data simulator, which uses touch-table technology, at M& S exhibition.
Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and Caitlin Hone, 9, test a Northrop Grumman map data simulator, which uses touch-table technology, at M& S exhibition. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006

It was a morning of big toys for big boys on Capitol Hill yesterday, with the quick shots of a fake M15 rifle -- ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-tat! -- filling a reception room. It's not every day that you hear a pol such as Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), a 63-year-old Vietnam War veteran, sound impossibly giddy as he says, "This room is full of fun and games!"

Note to Simmons's staff: Someone please get your boss a PlayStation.

The Congressional Modeling & Simulation Caucus -- a bipartisan group of some 20 representatives -- held its inaugural Modeling & Simulation exhibition on the Hill yesterday. And, for the record, no one got hurt. But the event did transform a staid room in the Cannon House Office Building into an interactive heaven -- like a mini-Dave & Buster's meets a mini-E3, the annual conclave of everything video game. With the number of 40-inch plasma televisions in the place, you'd think Best Buy or Circuit City was having a blowout sale.

To this Donkey Kong/Asteroid/Pac-Man generation of politicians, modeling and simulation -- M&S for short -- is a more serious, K Street-friendly way of saying video games. Interactive fun and games, yes, but also some serious Capitol Hill cheerleading.

"Every industry in this country -- the medical industry, the mining industry, the urban planning industry, you name it -- can benefit from M&S," says Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). "The U.S. military has hugely benefited from it."

Forbes, who founded the caucus last year, is also its chair. Suffolk, which is in his district, has been dubbed "Sim City" because it's a hotbed of modeling and simulation. Earlier this year, Forbes hosted the first M&S Leadership Summit there and wrote President Bush all about it.

Asked how much support M&S is getting from fellow representatives, Forbes paused, bit his lip and put about an inch of space between his his thumb and index finger. Support? Not much. Yet. Some members of the House sent their summer interns to the exhibition, many of whom threw around one-word assessments -- "awesome," "wow," "cool" -- as they tested the technology.

A 20-year-old intern for Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) named Jesse Oppenheim managed the phrase "That's really cool" as he wiped off syrupy red dye from his right hand after draining blood from a simulated chest.

"We're still in the infancy stage," Forbes added.

There was a simulation for learning how to operate a wheeled loader, one of those gigantic trucks with a scoop on the front. A simulation for saying a respectful hello, with the right accent, in Arabic. A simulation on how to evacuate a whole town when an earthquake or a tornado or a hurricane hits.

"Now if New Orleans had something like this -- well, maybe things could have been different," said Faith Aguillard, taking full advantage of the dog and pony show to pitch her company's product, called ACATS, for Advanced Conflict and Tactical Simulation.

The main draw of the exhibit, hands-down, was VICE -- as in the Virtual Interactive Combat Environment. It's a shoot-em-up reminiscent of the Xbox military game Full Spectrum Warrior, and players yesterday fired their fake M15 rifles onto the giant screen with the help of the VICE's lead programmer, who wore a long-sleeve, buttoned-up black shirt with the words "Where gaming meets training" on the back.

"Shoot him! Shoot him! He's the enemy!" said Rosemary North, jumping up and down, cheering on her friend Emily Brant. Both are interns for Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.).

That was the game that had gotten Simmons excited earlier in the day. Standing no more than three feet away, Simmons, who served in the U.S. Army for "37 years, 7 months and 24 days -- not that I'm counting" -- recalled training with live ammunition, real soldiers and real weapons.

"I prefer games much better," he said.

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