Best Defense

Commanders, want to learn ‘shaping operations’? Try playing a video game

By Jim Gourley Best Defense chief video games reviewer Tom Ricks recently asked me if I would review a war-based strategy game for the blog. The game, titled STAVKA-OKH, had a unique concept with the potential to give military officers cause for introspection. The player takes on the role of either Hitler’s or Stalin’s chief ...

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense chief video games reviewer

Tom Ricks recently asked me if I would review a war-based strategy game for the blog. The game, titled STAVKA-OKH, had a unique concept with the potential to give military officers cause for introspection. The player takes on the role of either Hitler’s or Stalin’s chief of staff and influences the overall strategy of either side for the duration of WWII. The concept was to inject a sense of self-interest in the player beyond simply winning the war for their “team” and creating an environment of internal political tension between their dictator and subordinate staff. The player could only choose from war plans developed by the staff, but was also made aware of the likelihood of the dictator either actually endorsing the plan or overruling the decision. Based on these factors, and the choice to “support the party” in its respective campaigns of genocide, the player accumulated “glory points” that would influence their army’s success and their own reputation. Between the two sets of conflicting values, one could either end the game as a victorious but unpopular tactician or escape the war crimes tribunal in defeat.

While the concept resonates strongly with the dynamics of military staffs throughout history, the game itself falls flat in its execution. It lacks the sophistication to make it either enjoyable or informative. The problem has nothing to do with graphics or artificial intelligence. It’s that STAVKA-OKH is that it tries to do too much. The program acts as the enemy, the staff, the dictator and the ultimate evaluator of the player’s performance. What makes modern games successful, and what researchers wondering what military-themed games can tell them about actual military leadership and action, is just how little they do. Today’s most popular games, both among players and scientists of various fields, simply provide a construct within which the players can interact with others and the environment. The concept of “free play” has advanced to the point that even the concept of “winning” is an open-ended proposition. Notably, many games orchestrate their framework to foment conflict between players, and a large portion are combat-themed. Within this genre, lessons abound.

Most recognizable is the ubiquitous “first-person-shooter,” or FPS. I have already lodged my formal complaints about such games and their effects on gamers of all backgrounds on this blog. Meanwhile, the Army and Marines have developed versions as training aids for combat troops (originally created as a recruiting tool, “America’s Army” game actually became a commercial success). However, there are unique examples that demonstrate positive lessons in both the official use and entertainment varieties. The salient feature of the games is that, as violent as they are, the player is removed from any actual physical threat. This has a profound influence on a player’s tactical decision making. What cover does a soldier/player take, what rate of fire do they select, and at what range do they engage with the enemy when their avatar never fatigues, never runs out of ammo, and simply “re-spawns” if killed?  

DoD training aids place more realistic constraints on a player to emphasize realistic decision making, but what cannot be replicated is the individual player’s fitness level and tactical proficiency. The aim of a mouse-click rarely factors muscle control, nor do computer avatars frequently collapse from dehydration. Understanding what the individual fighter will do when unrestricted by their physicality may yield insight on how to improve their conditioning.

Perhaps a darker side to these games is the sense of accountability developed by players. When relieved of adhering to rigid principles of conduct and given the singular priority of “winning,” players demonstrate an extraordinary level of creative improvisation — albeit in morally questionable ways. When observed in the context of military weapons accountability protocols, one would be shocked at just how quickly a game player will throw away their weapon in exchange for that of a dead enemy in order to continue fighting. Depending on the game’s parameters, the matter of “collateral damage” might not factor at all into a player’s decision making. If there’s no penalty for dispatching an “innocent bystander,” human shields are reduced to nuisances in the player’s calculus. There is also the matter of accountability within the unit. The practice of fragging a member of one’s own unit to prevent them from compromising a group’s mission is so well-known that the gaming community has its own terminology for it — “team killing.” Interestingly, one persona is equally feared and reviled by patrolling soldiers in both the real and digital combat zones. Gamers refer to snipers in their hide sites as “campers,” and make special efforts to kill those players especially quickly and brutally. Sometimes, the efforts go so far as to hack the game program in order to “kick” the player from the server entirely.

It’s the “massively multiplayer” genre of games that provide the best laboratory to study the dynamics STAVKA-OKH initially proposed. The two games that have bared the most academic fruit to date are the mega-popular World of Warcraft and the lesser-known but perhaps more sophisticated EVE Online. These games have no real end-state. Instead, they simply provide a highly interactive environment in which players can live a virtual life, selecting from a myriad of professions and pursuits. Each are based on a conflict format, though. In World of Warcraft, players are encouraged to join guilds, which act very much like tribes, in order to seek protection and complete goals only achievable by large groups. These roving bands go on set-piece raids, rescue missions, and even go to war against each other based on group decision-making. Results vary, and the impacts of individual idiosyncrasies immediately become evident. World of Warcraft has already shown 27 million people what STAVKA-OKH is trying to demonstrate — and with real people, no less.

There have been other profound events within the game that interested social scientists. Researchers at MIT and Tufts University asked game developer Blizzard Entertainment for all information related to a glitch that produced an epidemic of “corrupted blood” in the game world. Given that more people play WoW than there are citizens of the state of Israel, it provided reams of information on how epidemics could impact economies and societies.

More closely related to military problems, though, is the case of how Blizzard dealt with a heightening problem of violence in the game. While the game encourages rival bands to bash each other to pieces in pitched battle, its success still relies on players from all walks of life enjoying experiences outside of combat. However, as more players signed up, the trend of countryside muggings increased exponentially, reaching a particularly unsavory height with the slaughter of participants in an in-game funeral procession for a fellow player who had recently died in real life. That the deceased was a young girl caused particular rage in the community, and there was an outcry for the offending players to be banned. This put Blizzard in a bind to find a way to encourage players to behave in a more ethical way without making them feel as though they were being restricted in their choices.

Their solution was to implement an “honor system” of scoring, whereby players would gain or lose points based on the evenness of the duel. The idea was to discourage more powerful players from preying on the weak. A player’s honor score allows them to qualify for certain weapons and equipment to improve their performance. The implied consequence being that more ethical players become stronger, and ostensibly more capable of dispatching malefactors. While it would be impossible for the U.S. military to impose such a system for rewarding individuals based on their decisions in Iraq or Afghanistan, the principle of gamesmanship to influence behavior is worth further study to strategic planners in a low-intensity conflict environment.

But with respect to real-world parallels, WoW‘s architecture pales in comparison to EVE Online, a space-based game in which interstellar armadas battle for conquest across the universe. The twist to the game is that these fleets serve no emperor nor press for geographic control. Everyone works for an interstellar conglomerate and the name of the game is economics. Negotiating a favorable deal on the sale of a mineral-rich moon or the acquisition of a new merchant vessel is just as important a skill as your aim with photon torpedoes. It’s become no trifling matter. The game’s universe has a government — the Council of Stellar Management — and each year since 2008 they’ve beamed down to Reykjavik to discuss everything from exchange rates to crash issues with Windows Vista.

The game’s economy, and how it foments armed conflict, shouldn’t be taken for granted as a subject of study. The developers themselves recently admitted they were in over their heads and actually hired a professor of economics to help them understand what was going on in their own game. In one of his first interviews since taking the job, Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson explained the EVE universe as filled with resources and fraught with conflict, with multiple large powers vying to collect them. It’s possibly an analogy for Africa with the economics of an arms race thrown in.

The key point for researchers and military simulations specialists, though, is that all of the aforementioned complexity came not as a result of ingenious programming or oversight, but evolved in a truly organic way. Given that such primacy has been placed on the “shaping operations” of counter-insurgency in modern conflicts, we should reconsider how we approach the digital simulation frontier. A game has extraordinary potential beyond a simple canned environment for people to run around and shoot each other. It’s a world for whom the creator can be as involved, and as frustrated in their efforts to maintain dominion over their fate, as any other player.

Viewing a military commander as an environment developer, the perception gap between the battle space and outer space suddenly closes, and one can appreciate the instructive value of watching how gamers react to each other and the restrictions imposed upon them by a higher authority. Games truly are no different than any other society. Certain members will always find a way to defy what at first seem to be ironclad edicts. It’s also important to keep in mind that players of EVE and WoW come from almost every race, nationality, and age demographic. This best represents the salient point for military and foreign policy researchers — it’s not just kids’ stuff anymore.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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