Best Defense

Getting serious about video games

By Peter Bacon Best Defense department of video reality Video games have somewhat of a bad reputation today: individuals have attacked games for their supposed contribution to obscenity and their debilitation of male virtue. Despite these fears, scientists have identified some benefits from gaming, ranging from improved self-worth to augmented surgical skills. In the foreign ...

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By Peter Bacon
Best Defense department of video reality

Video games have somewhat of a bad reputation today: individuals have attacked games for their supposed contribution to obscenity and their debilitation of male virtue. Despite these fears, scientists have identified some benefits from gaming, ranging from improved self-worth to augmented surgical skills. In the foreign policy arena, video games can and should serve as a powerful tool for educating civilian and military personnel about war and foreign affairs.

Video games can serve to help bolster America’s glaring deficiency in one crucial discipline: history. Video games focused on war and IR provide refreshing bursts of information about often-overlooked leaders and wars. These games can offer descriptive backgrounds of leaders or events (e.g. Age of Empires’ description of Genghis Khan or the Crusades). These methods can sometimes provide a deeper and more-engaging understanding of history than just a textbook or lecture.

A subgenre of games, so-called “serious” games, goes further by explicitly trying to educate gamers about historical or political issues. For example, Niall Ferguson in 2007 played the World War II serious game Making History and played out some of his WWII counterfactual scenarios, such as war breaking out over German seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938. His experience led him to conclude that his counterfactual historical scenarios “weren’t as robust as [he] thought.” As a result, Ferguson ended up advising this series. This episode, forcing critical re-examinations of events, anecdotally illustrates the range of useful educational experiences gleaned from games like Making History or other, current games such as Global Conflicts: Palestine or the future-themed Fate of the World: Tipping Point that can help civilians better understand history and policymaking, thereby making better choices when voting or arguing politics.

All of the above is great for civilians, but what about actual warfighters and policymakers? Games cannot finely simulate actual combat or crises, yet can provide training related to the planning and responses needed for tactical and strategic decisions. Indeed, military officers have engaged in a modern form of Kriegsspiel by using tactical warfare games for their training: for example, the Close Combat series proved so popular that in 2004 the developer released Close Combat: Marines explicitly for military training. Other games, such as the tank-simulator Steel Beasts or the situational training tools of WILL interactive, have been used by the military for realistic simulations of warfighting and decision-making.

Civilian practitioners, however, have not embraced gaming as readily as the military: while think tankers or civilian politicians outside the Pentagon may play games in an unofficial capacity, official efforts like the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative have petered out. In stark contrast, DOD policy practitioners embrace video games even in non-kinetic planning: Michael Peck’s article on a DOD budgeting game shows how policymakers can prepare for things as prosaic as the budget with games. Hopefully civilian policymakers in the future will use games, both serious, educational games and fun strategy games, to prepare for the decision-making necessary during times of crisis.

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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