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Recycling the Military-Entertainment Complex

Tim Lenoir
Kimberly J. Jenkins Chair for New Technologies in Society
Duke University

Introduction and Background

The face of war has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. One of the major changes I have been following is the way the military plans and trains for war. A key new element in military training in the 1990s was the introduction of very large scale computer-based simulation. Flight simulators and simulators of all sorts for training the use of specific pieces of expensive equipment—including space capsules—had been in use since the 1960s. What was new in these developments of the 1990s was the interconnection of large numbers of individual simulators into complex, multi-level networked simulations. One of the key movers in this new era of high-tech military training was STRICOM. Activated in August 1992, the Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM) was tasked with providing training and test simulation, simulators, and instrumentation products used to develop and sustain warfighting skills for America's Army. Their motto was "All But War Is Simulation."-1- It did not take long for the proponents of distributed simulation to discover they shared mutual interests with the video game and digital entertainment industries. Part of that large story is relevant to my present concern with repurposing some of the technology that has come out of those efforts for peace and conflict resolution—what I think of as turning swords to ploughshares.

There is urgent need to engage in this effort, and a sliver of hope that it might make a difference. Not only has the way the US military trains for war changed; the nature of armed conflict has also radically changed. During the 1990s, after four decades of steady increase, the number of wars being fought around the world suddenly declined. Wars have also become progressively less deadly since the 1950s. By century's end, the world was experiencing what some were hailing as the longest period of uninterrupted peace between the traditional 'great powers' in hundreds of years. The vast majority of today's armed conflicts are so-called 'low-intensity' civil wars, almost all of which take place in the developing world. They are typically fought by relatively small, ill-trained, lightly armed forces that avoid major military engagements but frequently target civilians. While often conducted with great brutality, these low- intensity conflicts kill relatively few people compared with major conventional wars.-2- Changes in the scope and deadliness of armed conflicts have been paralleled by other global shifts in military recruitment and organization. These have been driven in part by economic imperatives and in part by political changes. Three changes that prompt considerable alarm are a reliance on child soldiers, the increasing use of paramilitary forces, and the privatization of warfare, the outsourcing of military security to private firms. If there is any good news in this changed picture it is that more conflicts are ending in negotiated settlements than ever before, and that negotiated settlements outnumber outright victories by more than 4 to 1 since 2000; but that note of optimism is dampened with the instability of negotiated settlements, nearly 40 percent of which fail after five years. If we are going to turn the corner and move toward a more peaceful future, tools are needed for training the future negotiators of international organizations and NGOs in the knowledge and skills needed to create effective conflict settlements, and we need to better understand the conditions that lead to lasting results. In what follows I want to discuss one proposal that I think of as recycling the military-entertainment complex.

Let me begin by briefly reminding you of the origins and history of the military-entertainment complex.

Fashioning the Military-Entertainment Complex

Contrary to initial expectations, the military-industrial complex did not fade away with the end of the cold war. It has simply reorganized itself. In fact, it is more efficiently organized than ever before. Indeed, a cynic might argue that whereas the military-industrial complex was more or less visible and identifiable during the cold war, today it is invisibly everywhere, permeating our daily lives. The military-industrial complex has become the military-entertainment complex.

The entertainment industry is both a major source of innovative ideas and technology, and the training ground for what might be called posthuman warfare. How has this change come about? In the 1990s, with the end of the cold war came an emphasis on a fiscally efficient military built on sound business practices, with military procurement interfacing seamlessly with industrial manufacturing processes. The Federal Acquisitions Streamlining Act of 1994 directed a move away from the DOD's historical reliance on contracting with dedicated segments of the U.S. technology and industrial base.

This shift in policy radically transformed the fields of computer simulation and training. Throughout the 30-year history of these fields, developments in computer graphics, networking, and artificial intelligence had always been driven by demands of military and aerospace contractors because of the importance of simulation technology to military training. Currently, in fact, the simulation budget alone constitutes 10 percent of annual U.S. military spending. In this context, the shift in procurement policy had immediate consequences for the relations between military contractors in the simulation business and the entertainment industry. From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, the game industry (including video console games, p.c. games, and arcade games) was growing at a brisk pace. A number of high-end military contractors decided to spin off some of their products into the game market. Evans and Sutherland, for instance, a major producer of stand-alone flight and tank simulators, repurposed some of its simulators as arcade games. The largest military contractor, Martin Marietta, spun off Real 3D, a company founded on several of Martin Marietta's major patents in graphic chip design. Real 3D contracted with Sega to produce its next-generation arcade game platforms. Silicon Graphics made a major move in contracting with Nintendo to produce the graphics boards for the Playstation and the extremely successful SuperMario game series. So successful was this venture that Silicon Graphics management admitted that while their heart was still in the business of scientific and medical simulation, company revenues were mainly flowing from the game console market.

The new policies resulted in a flow not only of technology from the military to the entertainment industry but of highly talented people as well. Steven Woodcock, a chief designer of AI components for the military simulation network, SIMNET, moved to Real 3D, where he designed several popular games, including Thundering Death, which used AI to generate the first-ever learning opponent in a video game. Two other SIMNET warriors, Warren Katz and John Morrison, founded Mäk Software, specializing in constructing large-scale simulation training environments as well as commercial games. An illustration of the new era of open collaboration between military and commercial sectors, Mäk produced a war game called Spearhead under contract to the Marines, which was simultaneously released as a commercial game differing only in certain classified details.

This flow of technology has been bidirectional. Upholding its new policy to use off-the-shelf technology, the military has adapted game software to its own purposes. The reason is obvious: The game industry has advanced rapidly in the past decade, taking advantage of hardware developments to produce spectacular, realistic graphic displays and games with increasingly sophisticated AI components. Game software now outstrips the best the military has to offer. Consider the military's adoption of Falcon 4.0 as the training program for its F-16 fighter pilots. Falcon 4.0 mimicked the look and feel of real military aircraft and allowed users to play against computer- generated forces or, in a networked fashion, against other pilots, thus facilitating team-training opportunities. This video game's extreme realism led to work with Spectrum HoloByte, Inc. to modify the Falcon 4.0 flight simulator game for military training.

Just as the military has leveraged the commercial sector for advanced technology, the game industry has pursued the open source community for some of its hottest developments. This pattern began with id Software's release of the code for its pathbreaking first-person shooter game, Doom, so that shareware gamers could modify the game by adding new rooms and levels (called "mods"). Id followed this innovative step by making available the scripting language for its hit game Quake, which radically changed the level of interactivity in games. A large shareware community of gamers has evolved, contributing tools from level editors to scripting languages for creating new environments and even changing the look and feel of the game. Other developers have followed suit, allowing players to alter their computer opponents in direct fashion through scripts and code plug-ins. This entire development has spilled over into the production of networked games, such as Counter Strike, that host upwards of 165,000 players. These developments have had enormous implications for the industry, but as I will discuss below, have also opened the door to some interesting security issues as well.

The U.S. military joined the fun of modifying games as well. In 1996 a group of Marine simulation experts from the Marine Corps Modeling and Simulation Management Office acquired the shareware version of Doom and adapted it as a military fire team simulation with software tools developed by shareware Doom gamers on the Internet. Real-world images were scanned into the game files so that 3-D scans of GI-Joe action characters replaced the stock game monsters. The game was also modified from its original version to include fighting holes, bunkers, tactical wire, "the fog of war," and friendly fire. Marine Doom trainees used Marine-issue assault rifles to shoot it out with enemy combat troops in a variety of terrain and building configurations. The simulation was later reconfigured for a specific mission in the Balkans immediately prior to engagement.

Such developments encouraged several top officials in the military simulation command to seek more formal collaborative relations with the video-game and entertainment industries. In August 1999 the Army gave a $45 million, five-year grant to the University of Southern California to create a research center, the Institute for Creative Technologies, to support collaboration between the entertainment and defense industries; to apply entertainment-software technology to military simulation, training and operations; and to leverage entertainment software for militarily relevant academic research. The ICT's mission was to enlist film studios and video-game designers in the effort, with the promise that any technological advances can also be applied to make more compelling video games and theme park rides. Although Hollywood and the Pentagon may differ markedly in culture, they now overlap in technology: War games are big entertainment.-3-

America's Army: Operations was another military funded games project launched about the same time as the ICT. This project, the brain-child of West Point economist and director of the Office of Economic Manpower and Assessment (OEMA), Casey Wardynski, was also led by Michael Zyda at the Modeling, Simulation, and Virtual Environments Institute (MOVES) of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Zyda tapped directly into the open source movement in building the game which was distributed free on the Internet. This project initially had a quite different purpose from the projects launched at the ICT. America's Army was released on Independence Day 2002, the traditional summer blockbuster date in the entertainment industry and was intended as a recruiting device. Produced with brilliant graphics and the Unreal game engine, the most advanced commercial game engine available, at a cost of around $8 million, the game is a first-person multiplayer combat simulation that requires players to complete several preliminary stages of combat training in an environment mirroring one of the military's own main training grounds—a cyber-boot camp. Wardynski's cost-benefit analysis of the various options the Army had for recruiting young soldiers hit on the audience for online videogames as exactly the demographic the Army was trying to reach. In addition, the backend of the game platform could be constructed in a way to gather data useful for evaluating the aptitude of the player for different types of task in the military, enabling recruiters to better sell potential recruits on different types of jobs in the Army. On the first day of its release, the military added additional servers to handle the traffic, a reported whopping 400,000 downloads of the game. The site continued to average 1.2 million hits per second through August 2002. Gamespot, a leading review, not only gives the game a 9.8 rating out of a possible 10, but also regards the business model behind the new game as itself deserving an award.-4-

A frequent trope that appears in the vision statements of the various architects of the military-entertainment complex is the goal of fusing the virtual and the real, the idea of having simulation and training take place under such realistic seeming conditions that the simulation cannot only be taken as a substitute for the real but might actually be an interface of a command and control system to the real event itself. A frequent reference used by cyberwarriors is Ender's Game. In this Orson Scott Card tale "Ender" Wiggin, a young student in a futuristic battle school that uses videogames as training modules, is tricked into thinking that the final exam for his training course is just a game where he must lead an invasion on more than a thousand alien ships trying to colonize planet Earth. It turns out that the exam is not a simulation at all but the interface to the actual final conflict with the invaders in which Ender annihilates the alien race. In August 2003 the MOVES Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey hosted an open house of new modules in the pipeline for America's Army and a preview of new massively multiplayer online version of the game. In his talk at the event Jack Thorpe, the original architect of the military simulation network, SIMNET, mused on the possibilities of realizing the fantasy of the Battleplex in Ender's Game with versions of America's Army in the near future. It would be relatively easy to do near-to-real-time rendering of local environments in Iraq, for example, captured by satellite and update versions of the game where US Special Forces could coordinate their assault with friendly local Iraqi forces. The scenario Jack Thorpe described was predicated on creating a mod culture in which friendly local forces would collaborate in support of American military objectives.

This idea of creating games that are modeled from actual events and ongoing engagements was already in the works before September 11, 2001. In October 2001 Rival Interactive released a game titled Real War commissioned by the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and published by Simon & Schuster. Real War was based on an official military simulation called Joint Forces Employment. The only difference between the two versions was that the military version contained more learning objectives and the player had only a finite number of military resources—tanks, planes, and battleships. Visually, the game-play is nearly identical. Real War is particularly notable for its premise—a U.S. war against terrorism—created entirely before September 11.

Kuma|War took the idea of playing the news to a new level. Created by developer Kuma Reality Games and released in 2004 Kuma|War is a free first and third-person shooter episodic game that re-creates real-world conflicts—many of its missions are just weeks or even days old—in video game format using information culled from news accounts, military experts, Department of Defense records and original research. A new episode is released each month, consisting of a playable mission, extensive background information, including satellite photos, original articles and a multimedia library and often including interviews with military experts, soldiers and other actual participants in the events described. Missions like Spring Break Fallujah (2004) and Battle in Sadr City (2005) allow the player to engage in "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Assault on Iran (2005) even anticipates America's potential further engagement by carefully changing the depiction of enemies to Iranians. With materials such as these Kuma|War has become the subject of much controversy, taking criticism for supporting the war, its speed of release, its close relationship with the military, and its coverage of a number of divisive issues including the potential for military action in Iran. Can such video games play a serious journalistic role or do they misconstrue the real nature of war for voyeuristic thrills? Despite Jeff Plunkett & Jigar Mehta's view explored in their excellent 2007 documentary, PLAYING THE NEWS, that games like Kuma|War are a new way to engage young people in current events, my own view is that they verge on an unethical marketing gimmick that merely seeks to exploit war. Do such games represent the future of journalism or the dangerous blurring of news and entertainment? Can we look forward to an Abu Ghraib video game?

There is good reason to think that if anything, these types of reality game fan the flames of conflict rather than furthering the cause of peace. The US military is using newly minted best practices of game design and business models to compete in the arena for young, highly trained cyberwarriors. But in a post-9/11 world where distributed collaboration in a military context has come to signify "terrorist cells," the potential mods based on the Unreal engine conjure up an all-too-frightening potential reality. No doubt, somewhere, either in the game industry itself or among the worldwide community of mod builders, a group is currently developing a cyberterrorist game based on attacking the computer infrastructure of a country, disabling its power grid, infiltrating its financial networks, and hacking into mainstream news media such as the New York Times to confuse the public about what's going on.-5- But as I have argued these games are focused as much on cyber-ideological struggle as on military training. As we have seen, in addition to training collaborative action, Wardynski's major goal in developing America's Army was to inculcate values consistent with the US Army's mission. The idea of building game mods that counter what is perceived as the values of Western imperialism has not escaped organizations such as the Hezbollah, and they have created their own game mods from Counter Strike that serve their interests in the same way but counter to the efforts of the US military.

An example is the company Afkar Media founded in Saudi Arabia by Radwan Kasmiya. The first game produced by the company was Tahta al-Ramad (Under the Ash) from 2002, an action game starting with the conflict between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Kasmiya explains that the game is directed to the youth and teenagers above 13 years old and involves subjects, facts and ideas related to the crimes and violence that the Israelis launch, in addition to sensitive topics connected with assassinating and torturing children which, alas, represent truths based on trustworthy documents....The main purpose of the game was to fill the leisure time of young people who were previously occupied with foreign games, which distort the facts and history and plant the notion that 'Sovereignty is for power and violence according to the American style'.

The first mission of the game starts with the main hero, Ahmad, in a demonstration. The Palestinians throw stones at the Israeli soldiers who answer with rifle shots. The task of the player is to get out of the demonstration alive and to get to the al-Aqsa Mosque (Dome of the Rock). At the Mosque Ahmad is attacked by an armed soldier, whom he knocks out and keeps his weapon. The hero in the next levels of the game is a wanted criminal on the run, joins the resistance movement and continues to fight against the Israelis. Like its US counterparts the game brings real events into the game world, it shows demolitions of Palestinian houses, humiliation at checkpoints or the conditions of Israeli jails, but the game avoids the theme of suicide attacks. According to Radwan Kasmiya, Under the Ash is a "call for justice and realization of the truth, the prevention against the wrong and aggression." Supporting materials introduce the story with these words: "The Palestinian nation is dispossessed; their homes are being torn down, the land is taken, trees fallen, property confiscated, cities besieged... they are put into jail, tortured, killed. The world ignores them, no one hears their cries, and no one cares about their rights." The game is meant as a support of Palestinian rights as understood by Arab people.

The direct sequel of Tahta al-Ramad is a recently released game called Tahta al Hisar (Under Siege) based on the attack during Ramadan 1994 by a radical Jewish fundamentalist Baruch Goldstein, who shot 29 praying Muslims in the Mosque of Abraham in Hebron, and wounded about 100 other people, before he was disarmed and killed. Both games have ideological tones in the narrative structure of the game. Crucial is the construction and genesis of the main hero Ahmad, who is cast as a fearful person, reconciled to the life of a second-rate citizen who refuses violence. Not only in Tahta al-Ramad, but also Tahta al-Hisar at the beginning of the game he is exposed to an attack and he is forced to defend himself, which legitimizes further violence. In the second case a religiously motivated terrorist attack against an innocent praying victim defines the game.-6-

Recycling the Military-Entertainment Complex

It is probably too optimistic to think we can break this cycle. But as gamemaker/theorists like Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca have shown we may be able to construct our own mod movement to foster political critique and dialog potentially capable of initiating change.-7- In that spirit I want to conclude with a discussion of a project I am currently engaged with that takes game environments designed to train US Special Forces and repurpose them for training workers in the field of peace and conflict resolution.

A considerable body of scholarship has shown that computer games provide an environment for active, critical learning. Through games one learns to appreciate the inter-relationship of complex behaviors, signs (images, words, actions, symbols, etc.) systems, and the formation of social groups.-8- Games are not only used for entertainment purposes. Games and social simulations are increasingly being used for training and teaching in management science, economics, psychology, sociology, intercultural communication, political science, military strategy, interpersonal skill development, and education. Games open up possibilities for simultaneous learning on multiple levels; players may learn from contextual information embedded in the dynamics of the game, the organic process or story generated by the game, and through the risks, benefits, costs, outcomes, and rewards of alternative strategies that result from decision making.-9-

As we have seen, the military has long been committed to the notion that complex problem solving approaches and novel strategies are often best learned experientially through exercises, role-plays, or live action simulation. Since live action military exercises can be costly, advances in simulation game training technology have offered ways to augment current training. Since 2003 Sandia National Labs has led a team comprised of the U.S. Army Office of Economic Manpower Analysis (OEMA), Virtual Heroes Inc., and U.S. Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School (USA JFKSWCS) in the design, development, and deployment of a multiplayer simulation training system that fosters cultural awareness, adaptability, flexible problem solving, and leadership development. The system is called Adaptive Thinking and Leadership Training for US Special Forces (ATL). We have received an award from the MacArthur Foundation to repurpose the learning and simulation platform developed by Virtual Heroes to support this effort for work in peace and conflict resolution.

Educators in intercultural communication and conflict-resolution have also long recognized the value of simulation, role-playing exercises and game-based training for teaching skills in these fields. "Learning by doing" in this context bridges the gap between conflict- resolution theory and its practical application in a world of crises requiring complex strategy, advocacy, problem-solving, and adaptive thinking. Organizations responsible for training experts in peacemaking, including the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution, currently design text-based role-playing scenarios for face-to-face exercises or live-action simulation. Our project adapts the ATL environment to a learning environment designed to impart skills for providing timely, effective international humanitarian assistance in natural disaster relief. The project involves a highly interdisciplinary collaboration between Virtual Heroes (a Durham, NC-based developer of game-based training and learning environments), the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Peace and Conflict Resolution, the Duke Computer Science Department, and the Program for Information Science + Information in Society at Duke. Throughout project development, we will rely on experts within each area and also offer substantial learning opportunities by involving undergraduate and graduate students at each phase of design and production.

The collaboration with Virtual Heroes (VH) provides a unique opportunity to address the needs of the conflict-resolution community for an adaptive training system to develop communication capacities including interpersonal rapport and negotiation skills. VH brings to our collaboration a license for Epic Games' state-of-the-art game engine, Unreal Tournament, which supports up to 32 players simultaneously. VH has supplemented the game engine with a variety of tools, scripts, and other assets supporting real-time in-game assessment and feedback from instructors, subject-matter experts, or peer learners. This VH platform provides an ideal infrastructure to achieve conflict-resolution's central goals: comparison of perspectives and construction of alternative narratives of a given situation. The VH platform's instructor and stakeholder-authoring interface allows each participant to co-create narratives and outcomes around the roles and scenarios written by designers to support gameplay, and to discover their characters' identities through interaction with others and their environment. The VH platform's unique after-action review features enable players to contribute actively to the narrative's development in subsequent iterations of the game by manipulating objects or changing the environment. This level of sophistication in simulations is not currently available outside the military community.

Let me illustrate a couple of brief examples of this platform in operation:


Mad Student

We will construct a simulation environment for disaster relief modeled from the history of Hurricane Mitch (1998) for which extensive data exist. The risks posed by natural hazards in Central America are exacerbated by social and environmental trends: rapid urbanization, poorly engineered construction, lack of adequate infrastructure, poverty, and damaging environmental practices such as deforestation. We will model the post-disaster situation in which government and non-government organizations, military and civilian police needed to communicate at levels for which their training was inadequate. The simulation will model the roles of many actors in relief organizations such as the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN High Commission for Refugees, the World Food Program, UNICEF, and military and international civilian police. Within the simulation, participants will address macro issues such as logistical coordination and political rehabilitation as well as micro field-based issues such as delivery of food, water, shelter, medicine, education, and support services.

Conflict-resolution theory holds that, whether natural calamity or civil conflict, root causes and modes of address are similar. Long-term then, the technology and communication framework we produce will constitute a scaffold easily adapted to various insecure environments. We also intend for a public adaptation of this project to be used online, in educational exhibits and by groups interested in experiencing and managing complex emergencies.


-1- STRICOM is a leader in acquisition reform promoting "concept to production" techniques intended to save the Army time and money. In its early inception the Battlefield Distributed Simulation-Developmental system served as the showcase for the Army's distributed interactive simulation capability linking government, university, and industry sites in an accredited, real-time, warfighter-in-the-loop simulation of the joint and combined battle field. The program addressed interoperability of systems including simulations for command and control, simulators for weapon systems, actual operational system, and Computer Generated Forces (CGF). The BDS-D was also intended to provide a mechanism to continue research and development of networked distributed simulations and simulators for use in supporting contingency planning; in developing and testing doctrine and organization; in training and leadership development; in development of materiel concepts and requirements; and in designing field tests. WARSIM 2000—the Army's next generation battle simulation—was a major simulation effort that utilized state of the art software design and architecture, aimed at providing functionality scaleable to the training audience, reduce training overhead, and be capable of interfacing with virtual and live simulations.

-2- I have relied on the excellent data sources of the University of British Columbia's Human Security Center and on data from the Uppsala Conflict Database Project. In many of the world's conflict zones, 10 or more people succumb to war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition for every combat death. In extreme cases the ratio can be even higher. The International Rescue Committee, for example, estimates that for every violent death in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are currently some 50 "indirect" or "excess" deaths.

-3- As part of the drive to leverage the entertainment market, the ICT has developed commercial games, including Full Spectrum Warrior, Combat System 12 and C-Force, which were released at the end of 2002. Designed for Microsoft's Xbox, the games were intended to have the same holding power and repeat value as mainstream entertainment software and were available commercially as well as for military training. The grant to the ICT has been recently renewed and extended.

-4- Military-supported games, it turns out, are considerably less violent than their competitors. America's Army: Operations, for instance, renders only a puff of blood when a player is hit.

-5- Indeed, the Unreal game engine used for America's Army has spawned a very large mod community of its own, visible, for instance, on the website. Almost immediately after 9/11 a multinational group consisting of Australian, US and other military and non-military persons began recruiting for a mod based on the Unreal engine called Terrorism: Fight for Freedom. The architects of this multi-player Web-based game described their project in an update from August 11, 2002, as "a modern-day, small-scale warfare Total Conversion for Unreal Tournament 2003, based upon wars that are currently occurring in the world." In this era of open source modding and online cultures the US military no longer has a monopoly on constructing mods that serve their goals.

-6- In fact the circumstances of the Hebron massacre are still a hot issue, Israeli sources saying that there were weapons in the mosque and according to the secret service the same day an attack against Jews had been planned; on the other hand survivors claim that Goldstein was helped by two Israeli soldiers.

-7- See Bogost and Frasca's one-shop stop for political activism:
Also see Ian Bogost, Gerard LaFond, and Alejandro Quatro:

-8- See John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, "You Play World of Warcraft? You're Hired," Wired, Issue 14.04, April 2006.
James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, New York: Palgrave, 2003.
Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, eds., First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, Cambridge, Mass; MIT Press, 2004.
Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, eds., Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Cambridge, Mass; MIT Press, 2007.

-9- Elaine M. Raybourn and A. Waern, "Social Learning through Gaming," in Extended Abstracts of CHI Proceedings 2004, ACM Press, 2004, 1733.