Feature

WikiCOIN

Uncle Sam wants you -- to design its new "stability ops" video game.

Mustafa Quraishi-Pool/Getty Images
Mustafa Quraishi-Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. Army wants you — to help to design a game that can help defeat baddies like the Taliban.

You don’t need to be a gamer or a counterinsurgency guru. Just someone who can apply a little creative thinking to help the Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) design a computer simulation for its class in "stability operations" — the kinder, gentler name for the now-unfashionable concept of COIN. The target audience isn’t teenage Call of Duty players, but Army majors who finish their stability ops training with a brigade staff exercise where they roleplay the staff decisions they would be making during deployment in Afghanistan or some other un-stabilized hotspot. Thus the need for a computer simulation that can help instructors run the exercise, by handling the bookkeeping and adjudicating the results of student decisions — such as beefing up patrols in Kandahar or rebuilding infrastructure in Kirkuk.

Normally, CGSC would have sent these requirements to the Army’s acquisitions bureaucracy, which would then solicit and purchase a simulation from a contractor. Instead, CGSC opted to think outside the institutional box. They are turning to the public in a process known as crowdsourcing, soliciting input from people like you and me. Think of it as Wikigamebuilding. It’s a new concept that has been successfully used by organizations such as the Naval Postgraduate School and its MMOWGLI (Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet), where players were asked to watch an online presentation and then offer short suggestions for combating piracy.

"We’re a small team, and that can lead to groupthink," says James Sterrett, deputy simulations chief at CGSC’s Digital Leader Development Center at Fort Leavenworth. "We’re hoping for crosschecks on our thinking. What did we miss?  Is our concept completely mad?  Is it clear?  Are there simulations out there that already do what we need?"

To get the word out, CGSC opted to post its draft requirements on PaxSims, a prominent blog on the military, international affairs, and games, run by McGill University political scientist and avid gamer Rex Brynen. You’ve got until Sept. 17 to post your comments on this PaxSims blog post.

CGSC is open to suggestions, but here’s a few things you need to know. You can’t suggest a simulation that requires a supercomputer or a gaggle of contractors to run it. This has to be inexpensive, doesn’t require more than an hour to install, and can be run by someone who doesn’t know much about computers. In fact, it should probably be easier to learn than a strategy game like Civilization 5 or Simcity.

Nor do you have to come up with ideas for a predictive simulation that will concoct a strategy to defeat the Taliban, nor one of those hyper-mathematical models that computes one smart bomb can kill 1.3974 insurgents. The sim just needs to be good enough to produce roughly plausible cause-and-effect. For example, the game should depict the interconnectedness of infrastructure: "A water pumping station’s effectiveness might be dependent on the effectiveness of an electrical substation, whose effectiveness is in turn dependent on the state of repair of a power plant; thus, the water plant and the substation could be in perfect condition, yet delivering no benefit because the power plant was not functional," says the requirements document. In other words, the game should demonstrate that the rebuilding the water plant, but forgetting to fix the electricity, is a no-no.

CGSC provides a few ideas of what the sim would look like. Featured scenarios "include situations based on Afghanistan, Iraq, relatively well-developed regions (such as the Pushkino Rayon in the GAAT [Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey] scenario used at CGSC), and completely undeveloped regions (such as the Horn of Africa in the Cerasia scenario used with British exchange officers at CGSC." The map would be divided into areas, which would be populated by the usual COIN-ish stew of U.S. troops, insurgents, NGOs, criminal gangs, and so on, plus the civilian population. "Populations have scenario-author defined needs desires, such as the need for water, or the desire to have no US troops in their area; meeting or failing to deliver these outcomes impacts their attitude to various sides," reads the requirements document. Each group would have various attributes, including relationships with other groups, as well as funds that they can spend on activities such as reconstruction.

There has already been a lively discussion on the CGSC board, with commenters debating the merits of a computer vs. board game, or just what sort of real-life actors should be included in the simulation. CGSC does want your input, but they don’t necessarily want you to rethink the way stability operations are done. It’s not about reinventing doctrine. For example, those who believe in aggressive counterinsurgency strategy — where the best way to defeat an insurgency is to kill the insurgents — will note that simulation will only tackle combat in a general way. There is much more emphasis on building infrastructure and especially personal relationships, in which the human players arrange meetings with computer-controlled leaders, with the computer adjudicating the success of various actions: such as influencing support for the U.S. side, or determining just which side a player really supports. "One of the overarching goals is to teach students to think in terms of orchestrating many actions over longer periods of time than they are used to considering as company-grade officers," says Sterrett. "In this case, the intent is for students to figure out whom they need to meet with, and for what purpose, and how that fits into all the other actions they are conducting in order to achieve their mission."

Some might also question the time scale. During a two- to four-day staff exercise, the simulation will span 12-18 months of game time (each turn of the game is one to four weeks), which sounds fairly close to the latest nine-month deployments of Army brigades to Afghanistan. But it also means that students won’t be exposed to the long-term ebb and flow of stability ops. (Will the tribal chief stay friendly two years from now? Will that reconstruction effort pay off in the long run?) During a spirited discussion on the PAXsims blog, one commenter noted that "the timeline for the training is to compress 12-18 months into 2-4 days of real time. However, as noted above, there’s significant research that to truly stabilize a country can take 20-40 years."

Sterrett says there is a necessary compromise between classroom teaching and running a simulation. "We could run a SASO [stability and support operations] exercise for the entire 10-month duration of the course, covering decades of simulated time. But what would we have to stop teaching in order to enable that focus?"

Another commenter, simulations expert Paul Vebber, asked how it was possible to realistically simulate COIN when no one has yet to understand the complex social, political, and economic processes behind it. Put another way, how can you make a good game about COIN when no one’s figured out how to do in well in the real world? "The question here is how to make a simulation of something you don’t understand?" asks Vebber. "How do you do the comparison ‘in theory’ between courses of action, when you have only a few touchpoints on the elephant you can’t see? Given the complexity of the situation, is it even ‘theoretically possible’ to know the effects of two different courses of action one year or five years down the road?"

Sterrett says a classroom simulation doesn’t need to predict the future. It just needs to come up plausible enough results to help the students understand what their instructor is teaching. "Will such a simulation predict reality?" asks Sterrett. "No. But it can create results that challenge students to think critically about knock-on effects of their actions in a SASO [security and stability operations] environment, and therefore about how to organize the efforts of their brigade in order to achieve their missions."

If you have a good idea for designing a simulation to teach stability operations, let the Army know. Post it on the PAXsims blog by September 17. The Taliban won’t thank you, but your country might.

 Twitter: @mipeck1

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