Today in Tedium: One of my favorite recent SNL sketches features an absurd concept brought to life with the help of an insane invention of the writer’s room. The scenario: A group of FBI agent trainees are brought into a simulation room and given instructions to shoot the baddies but hold fire for the members of the public they’re focused on keeping safe. Then Kevin Roberts (played by a game Larry David) appears. Dressed in a loud orange suit, he seems designed to confuse the line between good and bad with his absurd style and his catchphrases. (“Can a bitch get a donut?”) The eventual punchline, of course, is that Kevin Roberts, now deceased, designed the simulation. This got me thinking about police simulations in general—where they came from, how they inspired technology’s evolution, and their impact on fighting crime. Kevin Roberts, unfortunately, wasn’t involved. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s GIF comes from the American Laser Games arcade title Crime Patrol. More on them in a second.
The year that Los Angeles Police Department first announced its attempt to launch a firearms training simulator at its police academy facility in the city’s Elysian Park. Per The Los Angeles Times, the facility was funded with a $250,000 federal grant, with the goal to “develop the individual officer’s judgment, confidence, speed, and accuracy under the stress of a potential shooting situation.” The facility, which appears to be the first of its kind in the world, was controversial, but not just for the reasons you might expect: it was subject to a lawsuit by Grace E. Simons, a prominent conservationist who fought a multi-year battle against the expansion of the police academy, and took on anyone else who tried to encroach on the park.
The challenge of creating a good police simulator—and convincing the public of its value
As anyone who has seen The Room can tell you, actors can convey a whole lot of on-screen emotion but still not feel anything like flesh-and-blood human beings. (Sorry, Tommy.)
Even films with great actors that have stories rooted in reality can struggle to make you feel like you’re taking part in something real, rather than just watching a movie. It’s hard enough to get people to feel like a movie is a realistic experience on its own. Now imagine when the stakes are literally life and death.
That’s the situation that any police simulation runs up against—as the goal, assuredly with a smaller budget than your favorite blockbuster, is to create a situation that dials up the tension and feels, for better or for worse, real. The solution, of course, is to make things feel immersive.
And during the early years of the police simulator, immersion was a complicated thing to get right, requiring dozens of slide projectors, a film camera, and a separate computer to control the results on screen. Much information about how these systems work is out there thanks in part to the attention the city of Miami drew when purchasing a system of its own in 1983. The National Criminal Justice Reference Service even has a full report from Dade County’s analysis of the system and its decision-making process around the tool. An early description of how one such system, the Simulated Media Environment Program, worked:
The student and his actions are filmed by a lowlight infrared camera. The trainer stands behind the student and provides him with information he may request. An operator sits in an operating booth about 10 feet to the left of the student, in which is placed the microcomputer, an 8 channel tape which runs the computer, a cassette recorder and a 3/4-inch video recorder portraying the student being filmed by the infrared camera. The tape recorder with computer assisted track switching provides the ability to offer different auditory responses with the visual presentation. Behind the screen, utilizing rear projection, are 24 Kodak Ektagraphic slide projectors and a 16 mm camera. These are controlled through the control command console.
The system was not cheap, costing the county nearly $600,000 to purchase. And even then, the system was limited in the kind of experience it could offer. It wasn’t like it could offer AI, of course. In fact, the earliest training systems used a method called “Shoot/No Shoot,” which limited the number of tactics that could be used to the options made possible in a game of Duck Hunt. Of course, one main difference was that, as opposed to light guns, police officers used guns loaded with blanks.
The approach was reportedly impressive for its time, but not without controversy. An August 1983 report discussing the first public presentation of Miami’s simulator noted that many black activists took issue with the costs of the device, and suggested it didn’t get at the real root of the problem many had with the police.
“All the simulation in the world isn’t going to change police officers’ attitudes if the officers believe black people are animals,” one community activist, Georgia Ayers, said in response to the simulator.
The simulator came at a time when tensions were rising; there had been a number of police shootings in the city in recent months, some of which had led to indictments of officers—although the officers were later acquitted.
Even early on, when simulations were literally the bare minimum that could be offered due to the technology at the time, they were seen as important programs. In 1980, when Los Angeles County came under scrutiny for failing to properly train officers in tactics that “discourage the premature drawing and shooting of firearms,” LAPD’s simulation program, the Development and Evaluation of Firearms Training, received praise.
“This training device not only creates a true-life simulation but also permits detailed critiques after performance, thereby enhancing its value in training officers,” the report stated, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The system was advanced for its time, but it wasn’t always foolproof. In his memoir, famed MMA referee “Big” John McCarthy, a former LAPD police officer, noted that when he used the DEFT system, it didn’t really respond back—which proved a problem when he was in the police academy.
“Later models of the simulator would compensate for gunshot wounds and a target would fall when you hit him, but this guy just kept going, so I kept shooting and reloading, firing a total of eighteen rounds into his head,” he wrote. “I got reamed by my instructors for that.”
“This building is a reminder of all those lives that were lost and all those lives that we will save in the future. This will continue to be a place of education. The students are just different—now they are first responders.”
— John McDonald, the executive director of security and emergency management for Jefferson County Public School District in Colorado, discussing how he convinced his district to let him convert a decommissioned public school into an educational facility that specializes in police training simulations. The facility is literally a building that is used to teach police officers and other law enforcement officials how to stop school shootings—an issue important to the district, as it’s home to Columbine High School, the site of a high-profile school shooting nearly two decades ago. It’s one of a number of training facilities of its kind nationwide, although few are set in local schools.
How one of the most prominent video game publishers of the ’90s got its start building police simulators
Whether you love or hate the trend toward full-motion video games in the early ’90s, it’s definitely easy to embrace the idea that these games were popular. (As I noted in a recent Tedium issue, one of the first examples of a light-gun style video game that relied on live-action footage was actually made by Nintendo, a company that very much avoided the full-motion video trend at its height in the early ’90s. Unlike later games, it didn’t rely on optical media, however.)
There were plenty of companies that tried to get in on this market, but one of the most prominent was a firm named American Laser Games, which took a model originated in the early ’80s—the LaserDisc-based arcade game, still best exemplified by Dragon’s Lair—combined it with the light gun game, and gave it a hint of Hollywood production values. Which is funny, of course, because it wasn’t a Hollywood production at all. It was New Mexico, through and through.
The company was the brainchild of a man named Robert Grebe, who originally launched his company in an attempt to add a degree of realism to the police simulation space. (Interestingly, his wife Patricia started a business around the same time that couldn’t be more markedly different—it specialized in furniture for preschoolers—but was also seeing success.)
His innovation, initially called the Institute for Combat Arms and Tactics (ICAT) was based around a revelation not dissimilar to the one that karaoke machine manufacturers were figuring out around the same time: The random-access nature of optical video discs allowed for interactivity where there previously wasn’t any.
This simple idea greatly improved on the realism of police simulators. Rather than “Shoot/No Shoot,” the simulators could tell more elaborate stories and respond to actions taken by officers.
In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal in 1989, Grebe emphasized that the system’s goal was to improve training of police officers, a problem that had become a seeming epidemic throughout the ’80s.
“Police nationwide recognize the need for this type of training,” Grebe told the outlet. “There have been a number of court suits that showed that the police department was negligent in training people.”
(His marriage to Patricia also helped in another way—the system’s primary developer was his wife’s brother, Randal Lindsay.)
There was a big investment involved in the production of the system—professional actors, along with hundreds of hours of film, were required to create short realistic simulations to follow. ICAT worked with a tactical adviser on coming up with scenarios, some of which were specifically designed for SWAT teams. The simulations—each with dozens of endings, and reliant on trainees shooting off blanks—offered a lot of red meat for police departments to work with; a number were happy to pay the $30,000 fee to purchase the systems.
Richard Bryce, an assistant sheriff of Ventura County, California’s police force, noted that the end result was very convincing.
“It’s very realistic,” he said in a 1991 Los Angeles Times article. “I’ve died a few times. I got stabbed once.”
Of course, Grebe’s idea also had applications outside of the police academy, and those applications eventually led the company to the arcade—and after CD-ROM-based platforms appeared in force, the home. Their first title as a game developer? Mad Dog McCree, the first live-action Laserdisc game to hit the arcade. It was a western with a light gun, and it was an effective showcase for why ICAT was able to convert so seamlessly into American Laser Games. As Great Big Story noted earlier this year, the game was a particularly great showcase for arcades, which were feeling the heat from home consoles—but couldn’t quite so seamlessly recreate a full motion video game at the time.
Platforms like the Sega CD, 3DO, and the Philips CD-i would eventually be able to somewhat recreate the experience, though not to the level of fidelity that a LaserDisc could due to the smaller amount of storage space. It was a win for arcades competing with Mario and Sonic. (Side note: A good pal of mine recently wrote a guest post on the site about how he was once sold on the CD-i by a professional baseball player. It’s a must-read.)
American Laser Games, which would later produce games for all of those platforms and gain the status of being a high-profile supporter of the 3DO, became a major player in the full motion video space for years after Mad Dog McCree became its calling card, producing games that played on the western theme, on film noir, and (fittingly) on the work of a police officer. Crime Patrol was effectively a consumer version of the product that the company was selling to police departments.
More colorfully, they also produced a game based on the hottest property of 1992: the watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher, whose game, of course, involved destroying random objects—though with a light gun, rather than a giant mallet. As The AV Club helpfully pointed out last month, the video from that game takes on something of a vaguely Lynchian quality outside of the context of its original reason for creation.
American Laser Games, not to be mistaken for the downmarket unlicensed NES developer American Video Entertainment, hasn’t been a going concern for more than 20 years, and faded from view in a weirdly unusual way: After the arcade market went south in the mid-90s, the company was purchased by Her Interactive, a company best known for producing video games based on the Nancy Drew book series—more than 30 since the late ’90s. Her Interactive actually started out as an offshoot of Grebe’s company.
The company’s games, particularly Mad Dog McCree, occasionally get re-released on other platforms such as the Wii or PS3, and when games inspired by the Western genre crop up, such as, I don’t know, the soon-to-be-released Red Dead Redemption II, McCree is frequently held up as a successful example of the Western genre in gaming, which highlights just how few Western games there actually are.
Perhaps it’s bizarre that a company that started out by making police simulators ended up as an icon of ’90s full motion video games, but in many ways it makes sense—structurally, the two approaches have a lot in common.
But what makes it weirder is this: Perhaps the most prominent company currently making simulations for police departments and military troops in the modern day, the publicly traded VirTra, actually started out as a company focused on making games and more general-interest approaches to virtual reality, but then became more intently focused on law enforcement after the attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s literally the opposite path that American Laser Games took.
VirTra, just like ICAT in the late ’80s, remains focused on bumping up the realism factor.
“It is never going to take the place of a real-life event, but the closer we can get to it the better,” the company’s Scott DiIullo said in a 2016 interview with The Arizona Republic. “A more confident officer is going to de-escalate a situation better than an untrained or unconfident officer.”
Mad Dog McCree, police simulation pioneer? Sure, we can say that.
The year that the Czech software developer Bohemia Interactive Studio started producing Virtual Battlespace, a military training simulation that is used by a variety of governments worldwide, including the U.S. military, which has invested massively in this simulation and others in an attempt to train soldiers. (The simulation, fittingly, started as a PC game by a studio that nearly went bankrupt before the Marines decided it wanted to use it as part of its training regimen.) In fact, a 2016 Motherboard piece noted that a Government Accountability Office report actually hinted that the problem might be that they have too many simulations to work with.
In many ways, the problems that originally drove the proliferation of police training simulators are very much still there—and examples of this have, of course, been prominent in the news over the past decade. Just like in the ’80s, police officers still misread situations, and those misreads—especially those involving people of color—can lead directly to tragedy.
The difference, of course, is that those tragic situations are no longer localized. With the help of social media and coordinated messaging to help build exposure to prominent cases of potential police misconduct, names like Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner hang heavy on both police departments and our political climate. (It should be noted that, whatever your opinion of him, a certain football player hasn’t been able to get a job in his desired field of employment in more than a year because of his attempt to draw attention to this issue.)
And despite the fact that training simulators—which are specifically designed to teach officers when or when not to shoot—have become more advanced and realistic than ever, the very problems that they’re trying to solve are more front and center than ever.
Case in point: A grand jury in Nashville recently went on a field trip to a police simulator in an effort to get jurors to improve their understanding of the decision-making process that police officers are taught to use in real-world scenarios. The occasion? Prosecutors were considering whether to charge an officer in a case that involved the death of a civilian. (The officer was ultimately charged.)
Even as the training tool was said to lead to “a newfound understanding” of what police officers go through, The Tennessean noted that there were serious concerns about having grand jurors go through the process at all.
“It could potentially have the effect of creating sympathy or hostility toward a party, which is an improper consideration,” former federal judge Kevin Sharp told the newspaper. “Given the secrecy of grand juries, there would be no way of knowing that.”
The police simulator of 2018 looks nothing like the one Kevin Roberts designed, according to SNL. It often relies on immersive virtual reality technology that doesn’t make herky-jerky movements like those simulated by a sketch comedy show, but instead attempts to create simulations that feel as close to the real thing as possible. Real actors are often involved, along with, in some cases, 3D technology that shares a lineage with the same video games people play at home.
A VirTra police training simulator, which does not use a VR helmet.
Oculus-style VR helmets have largely been abandoned by some of the biggest vendors, such as VirTra, out of concerns that the helmet itself takes away from the realism factor for officers. And those that build these systems, such as Brian Dorow of Wisconsin’s Waukesha County Technical College, have literally studied the techniques used by Hollywood to create realistic scenarios by going on the sets of actual films.
These systems are often one of the most important tools we use to train police officers in an effort to perfect their decision making in the real world. They exist because being a police officer is hard and it’s notoriously difficult to train people to do the right thing when there are real stakes at play.
Clearly, they help, but can they actually solve the problem?