Since When Does Brookings Make Video Games?

Military futurist Peter Singer -- and consultant for the forthcoming Call of Duty -- reveals what kind of dark assumptions are baked into the next blockbuster game.

Call of Duty via YouTube
Call of Duty via YouTube

The Internet has been abuzz over details — and several intriguing YouTube videos — of the upcoming "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," scheduled to hit shelves in November. A sequel to the 2010 blockbuster "Call of Duty: Black Ops," the latest iteration of the video game continues the saga of American and Russian operatives immersed in a complex 1960s Cold War plot. But much of the sequel takes place in 2025, when the United States is confronting China and when America’s high-tech arsenal of robotic vehicles is hacked, hijacked, and turned against its makers. Although the dark plot sounds like science fiction, it is actually based on solid real-world analysis provided by defense futurist Peter Singer, author of the bestselling Wired for War. Foreign Policy spoke with Singer about his work on the game:

Foreign Policy: There have been a lot of delicious rumors about Call of Duty: Black Ops II. What can you tell us about the game?

Peter Singer: [Laughs.] I’m just going to say the things that are already out there in the media. Essentially what they have revealed is that it builds upon the last game [Call of Duty: Black Ops]. The setting is broken into two parts. Some events take place in the Cold War of the 1980s, and most of it in the 2020s in a proto-Cold War that has emerged between the U.S. and China over a series of regional tensions and resource shortages. Essentially what we have done is take certain trends that are just now emerging, certain technologies that are at their Model T Ford stage, and move them forward into likely potential futures. The same for the political side as well, playing what happens if they move forward. We identified key trends shaping the current and future battlefield. Some you will see played out in robotics. A generation ago, this was all science fiction. Today, the U.S. military has 7,000 unmanned vehicles in the air, some of them armed, and 12,000 on the ground. We have 50 countries out there beginning to use military robotics. We might see evolution in other directions of robotics, such as bigger is not always better. An example in the game is the armed tactical quadcopter. As part of the marketing for the game, we put out a viral video of one of these made real. I know a Pentagon office has started looking at it and asking, "Why can’t we have this?"

FP: So do these new military technologies help the advanced powers, or are they levelers that enable weaker powers to confront them?

PS: I think that remains to be seen. But I think we are starting to see an open-source effect in warfare. We’ve seen the open-source revolution in software, where it’s not just the big boys that have access to the most advanced technologies. Think of technologies like the atomic bomb or an aircraft carrier. It’s not just that a massive defense-industrial effort is required to build them, but also to use them effectively. Even if you could give Hezbollah an aircraft carrier and said, "Here’s the keys!" they couldn’t use it effectively. But we are starting to see advanced technology that isn’t like that. I think robotics is moving into a space where there is a flattening effect. For example, the Raven is the most widely used U.S. military unmanned aerial system today. The editor of Wired magazine built his own version of the Raven for a thousand dollars. "Charlene" — our working armed quadcopter from that viral video — is something the U.S. military doesn’t even have. In World War II, Hitler’s Luftwaffe couldn’t fly across the Atlantic to strike the United States. A couple of years ago, a 77-year-old blind man built his own drone that flew itself across the Atlantic. My award for innovator of the year last year wasn’t a big contractor, but a group of thieves in Taiwan who used tiny robotic helicopters equipped with pinhole cameras to carry out a jewelry heist. People ask, "What if terrorists could get drones?" I say, "Oh, you mean like Hezbollah did in 2007 against Israel? Or you mean the guy who was arrested for planning to fly a drone into the Pentagon?" He made a mistake by asking an FBI informant for C-4 explosives. But we live in a world where it’s easier to get a drone than C-4 explosives.

FP: How well is the United States prepared if these new weapons are used against it?

PS: One of the lessons of history is that there is no such thing as a permanent first-mover advantage. The British invent the tank, inspired by science fiction. They come out of World War I with 12,000 tanks (which is the same number of unmanned ground vehicles that the U.S. military has now), but by the time World War II comes, the Germans had figured out how to use the tank better. There is a more diverse battlespace now in terms of the range of actors out there. It’s not just facing off against the Soviets or the Viet Cong. It’s a mix of adversaries, from states to nonstate actors that include terrorist groups, to criminal groups, insurgent groups, and private military companies. There are now domains such as cyberspace that didn’t exist a generation ago. It is a more complex setting. In a video-game setting, those challenges are a good and a bad thing. It’s a more complex world to build, but also a more complex world to create neater characters.

FP: As I watched the YouTube trailers of the game with all these exotic weapons, it struck me that even though terrorists hijacked them, the weapons themselves seemed to work perfectly. But the history of warfare is replete with weapons that didn’t work as planned. Don’t video games portray a technologically idealized vision of warfare?

PS: The entertainment world has always drawn from the military world its story, setting, and characters. In turn, the military over the last 100 years has gotten ideas of things to build, especially from science fiction, from the submarine to the land ironclad to what H.G. Wells called an "atomic bomb." What is different is that over the last 10 years the military is drawing from the technology of the video-game industry. Sometimes technology can be idealized. The recruiting videos don’t show all the incredible complexity of insurgency, nor some aspects of how boring it is. Not every day is going to be the Abbottabad raid on bin Laden. Some days it’s just taking the Metro to the Pentagon and sitting in a cubicle in the Joint Staff. Another problem is that nothing can replace muddy boots on the ground.

FP: Many of the next generation of soldiers will play this game, which means eventually the next generation of commanders will have played it. Do you believe video games like this affect how real armies fight?

PS: That’s a really good question. It might shape expectations, the technologies that people think they should have, and then they become real. What are we seeing among Millennials, or Generation Y, is that because they grew up being able to control so much, they take that expectation with them into schools, the workplace, and the military. When I was a kid, my parents could tell me that "if you’re not good, we’re not going to let you watch your favorite show." My son is 2 years old, and he already knows how to use an iPad to pull down videos of firetrucks from YouTube whenever he wants to see them. We’re seeing this move into education — professors and teachers talk about this — and into the military. I talked to a Navy SEAL training officer who said, "With my generation, if we were told to run for the wall, we ran for the wall. With this generation, if you tell them to run for the wall, they ask why." But then he added, "If you tell them why, they’ll figure out a better way to do it."

We’re seeing far greater capability at multitasking, but we’re also seeing partial attention-deficit disorder. I was at the Combined Air Operations Center where we coordinate our air missions in the Middle East, and I was standing behind a young airman with 36 different chat rooms open, each one a different air mission over Iraq that he was coordinating. But then I read our last QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review], and we’re seeing the impact of this. Read our strategic documents; we identify priorities, but we don’t set them. We try to do too much at once.

FP: How about the impact of these games on the public’s perception of warfare?

PS: Again, they are an entertainment platform. But you’ll notice that in the TV commercial I was in, everything that we were exploring a year ago as we were building out the game — well, news kept popping that confirmed the trends that we were identifying as important. Those who play the game will learn about trends and issues that are real and that are familiar to those in the defense base, but are not known widely: the criticality of rare-earth elements, the moving of more systems into the AI and robotic space. But when people point to video games, I point to something bigger in the perception of war: the end of the draft. Millions of kids are playing this game, but each year the U.S. Army has to persuade a little over 70,000 to join. During World War II, the U.S. public bought $185 billion in war bonds. During the last 10 years, we bought $0 in war bonds and gave the top 4 percent a tax break. If you want to talk about connections between the public and war, there are bigger things going on than video games.

FP: Is there a difference in the way a defense futurist and a game designer view 21st-century warfare?

PS: I’ve consulted with a lot of entertainment projects, and what stands out about Activision [the publisher] and Treyarch [the design team] is the amazing level of research. They really love to dig into the details. One of the things I thought was awesome in the game, and what I helped develop, was the setting of Socotra, an island off Yemen. It’s a key geostrategic locale now, and it’s been discussed in the media as a base for launching drone strikes against Yemen and Somalia. It’s the kind of detailing that those of us who work in the realm of geopolitics think is awesome. But at the end of the day, when you’re advising on these games, the goal is to be grounded in reality but also remember that this is all about entertainment.

FP: So Call of Duty: Black Ops II may not be prognostication. But is it plausible?

PS: The political and technological trends that it highlights are not only plausible — they are the key drivers that are moving us forward. That said, you still have a game with fictional characters that is designed to entertain. Anyone using this as a crystal ball will probably find it’s not the case. As I said, there are an infinity of futures, but the shaping forces matter, and the game shows those shaping forces. Jules Verne predicted everything from submarines to skyscrapers to the proto-Internet. But there are other things where he was completely off. And there are his characters. We have submarines, but we don’t have Captain Nemo.

FP: The concept of Black Ops II seems ironic. Our own high-tech weapons are turned against us. Is this a cautionary tale?

PS: One of the changes in the real world is what I call "battle-zone persuasion." The goal is not to blow up the enemy tank, but jam it, co-opt it, persuade it to do something that its owner doesn’t want it to do. This is new in war. You couldn’t persuade a spear to do something different after its owner threw it. You couldn’t call up Tom Cruise in his F-14 and say, "Maverick, recode all MiGs as F-14s, and all F-14s as MiGs." A couple years ago, though, the Israelis turned off all the Syrian air defenses before they struck its nuclear facility, and then came Stuxnet. We are moving toward an era of battles of persuasion, as well as the traditional kinetic side. That’s one of the things the game does. The cautionary side is to know more about this and start to build some defenses against it.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1