June 20, 2003
What the Pentagon Can Learn from EverQuest

Slate is running a terrific article exploring ways the Pentagon could use massively-multiplayer games to help policymakers explore options when attempting to stabilize a country in crisis (e.g. Iraq) or find new strategies to deal with potential future crises (e.g. North Korea). It sounds frivolous, but once you read it you begin to see the possibilities…

Jack Thorpe, a retired Air Force colonel who has long advised the military on simulations, speculates that the United States could use massively multiplayer online games to handle future geopolitical problems. (It’s too late to help Iraq.) The U.S. government could hire gaming companies to develop virtual-world games based on geopolitical hot spots. (A game would cost $5-$15 million to develop, a pittance in Pentagonia.) A North Korea game, for example, would allow players to play the roles of North Koreans, South Koreans, Japanese, and Americans. The North Korean characters would be weak and poor, but they would excel at collective action, be fiercely loyal, and have powerful arms to deter attacks. The programmers would need to make the worlds so sophisticated and cool that people would actually want to play them.

The game-maker would open play to anyone, and policy-makers could watch the world unfold. They would create certain conditionsâ??North Korea faces a droughtâ??and see what happens. They could change the rules and learn how that modified the result: What if you assume North Koreans were more willing to experiment with capitalism? The game would be played repeatedly, modified repeatedly till policy-makers got a sense of what policies seemed most promising. The collective play of thousands of entertainment-seekers might produce more creative policies than a few desk jockeys could dream up.

Indeed. The Pentagon has already started using electronic games — they distribute the top-notch shooter America’s Army for free, as a recruiting tool. And a grand-strategic game like the one described above could be a lot of fun. Heck, I’d play it — it would be fun to try and come up with ways the North Koreans could stymie the much more powerful U.S. forces.

The Pentagon’s already playing these kinds of games internally, but because they’re internal, there’s powerful institutional pressure for the people playing the OPFOR (opposition forces, a generic term for the non-U.S. side) not to be too innovative, if doing so would lead to an embarrassing U.S. defeat. Retired Marine General Paul Van Riper discovered this to his chagrin in the recent Millennium Challenge exercise, when he, playing as a hypothetical Persian Gulf opponent, defeated the American forces soundly, only to have referees judge his victory as inadmissable because he used guerrilla tactics that they weren’t expecting:

Van Riper had at his disposal a computer-generated flotilla of small boats and planes, many of them civilian, which he kept buzzing around the virtual Persian Gulf in circles as the game was about to get under way. As the US fleet entered the Gulf, Van Riper gave a signal - not in a radio transmission that might have been intercepted, but in a coded message broadcast from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer. The seemingly harmless pleasure craft and propeller planes suddenly turned deadly, ramming into Blue boats and airfields along the Gulf in scores of al-Qaida-style suicide attacks…

It was at this point that the generals and admirals monitoring the war game called time out.

“A phrase I heard over and over was: ‘That would never have happened,’” Van Riper recalls. “And I said: nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Centre… but nobody seemed interested.”

In the end, it was ruled that the Blue forces had had the $250m equivalent of their fingers crossed and were not really dead, while the ships were similarly raised from watery graves.

The Pentagon could get away with that because the exercise was hidden from public view. Imagine the uproar if 250,000 players around the country, playing on the North Korean side, managed to beat the U.S., only to be told that they lost anyway because their strategies weren’t in the approved playbook! I wouldn’t want to be the Pentagon PR guy who had to explain that.

If done right, though, everyone would win — the players get a challenging game, and the soldiers get a laboratory to try out new strategies. Given the slick production values of America’s Army, there’s no question that they can develop a game that people would play. Given the Millennium Challenge debacle, though, it would seem that the big question is whether they’d pay attention to the lessons the game could teach them.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at June 20, 2003
About Your Host

Ant's Eye View is edited by Jason Lefkowitz, a consultant and Web developer in Alexandria, Virginia. Got a question, comment, or concern? Let me hear it!

Obligatory Disclaimer

If you think anything I write here represents the opinions of anybody but myself, you need more help than I can give you. The opinions are all mine, folks. Nobody else's. ESPECIALLY not my employer's.

If that's too hard to understand... well, I'm sorry. There's only so much I can do. I'm not a therapist, and I'm not a miracle worker. (Unless you consider staying employed in this economy a miracle.) I wish I could help you work through your delusional belief that I'm speaking for anyone else but myself. Honestly, I do. But in the end, that's a monkey you'll have to get off your back on your own. Sorry.