Building a Warship for the Video Game Generation

The Navy's latest high-tech destroyer is basically a floating Xbox. (See bad jokes below.)

via U.S. Navy
via U.S. Navy

Have Xbox players taken over the U.S. Navy? Will America’s aircraft carriers be launching "Angry Birds" against China and Iran?

You could be forgiven for thinking so now that the U.S. Navy’s most sophisticated warship is designed to be operated by video gamers.

The operations center aboard the new Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer is the ship’s nerve center, into which sensor information flows, and from which the crew can control ship functions such as weapons and navigation. The Zumwalts are extremely automated, with a crew of just 130 sailors compared to more than 300 for the Navy’s older and smaller Arleigh Burke-class destroyers .

That degree of automation is made possible by the extensive use of big video screens as well as touchscreen workstations. And it turns out that defense contractor Raytheon, which built the Zumwalt’s computer network, first tested the controls and displays on game-playing sailors, according to a recent CNN piece.

At $3 billion a ship, that’s one heck of a game room.

It’s not that the Pentagon has been gripped by joystick fever. It is more that the Navy has realized that the young sailors who crew their ships have been raised with video games. Xbox is how young people, especially young males, have fun, engage in tests of skill, and meet new friends. For example, a Naval Postgraduate School survey last year of 200 enlisted Marines found that 73 percent owned a game console such as Xbox, and 40 percent used it daily.

So instead of fighting Playstation 4, the Navy embraced it.

For all the jokes about video games being mindless entertainment, there is a lot of sense to the Navy’s approach. In a world of high-speed weapons and normal-speed human brains, how data is presented is vital. In fact, it’s so vital that battle management has become data management. The Pentagon spends vast sums on command and communications equipment to enable commanders and their aircraft, ships, and ground troops to share targeting coordinates and surveillance imagery even when U.S. forces are thousands of miles apart. But the military is always struggling to ensure that this concoction of numbers, video, and photos is presented in a way that doesn’t drown the user in a tidal wave of information. 

Video games are no different. Whether Call of Duty or Minecraft, or even a paper wargame like Twilight Struggle, playing these games boils down to information management. Players must absorb and assess data in order to make the correct decision. This isn’t such an issue in Scrabble, where the only time pressure is your family yelling at you to put down a word. In the case of the first-person-shooter games like Call of Duty that are popular with 18 year-olds, time pressure is the essence of the game. Those who shoot first win. Those who don’t lose.

Is this so different than a sailor who has to assess whether the blip on his sensor display is a Chinese missile incoming at supersonic speed? Of course, the stakes are not the same. But in a sense, they are also life and death for computer game publishers. A $40 million video game can flop if players complain that the game controls don’t allow them to switch weapons easily, or that the graphics make it difficult to spot the monster hiding in the shadows.

Game publishers spend a lot of time and money designing the interface of their games so that players are able to quickly perceive and react to data. Why shouldn’t the military take advantage of this model?

It is also important to remember that video games are not the same as video game technology. The software on our computers and cell phones now use graphics that look they stepped out of a video game. Unless Zumwalt sailors can earn virtual healing potions and magic swords by using their consoles, they are only using the trappings of video games. In this case, form triumphs over function.

Yet practical as the Navy’s approach was, gamer-friendliness was not enough to save the poor Zumwalts. Resembling a cross between a Civil War monitor and a floating steak knife, their angular contours were designed to minimize their radar profiles, while their rocket-propelled projectiles could bombard targets 63 miles away. The Zumwalts were supposed to use all that high-tech to provide naval gunfire support for American troops, until the Navy realized that they lacked sufficient anti-aircraft, anti-missile, and anti-submarine capabilities to make them cost-effective.

Instead of buying 32 Zumwalts as planned, the Navy is only buying three. Game over, man.

Nonetheless, the notion of a Navy warship designed for video gamers was irresistible to Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University, and editor of the PAXsims conflict simulation blog. Brynen lampooned the juxtaposition with some thoughts on how such a vessel might operate, such as "No one worries about the ship’s lack of vulnerability to anti-ship missiles or its lack of a close-in weapons system because of an almost religious belief that they’ll simply ‘respawn’ in San Diego or Norfolk, Virginia if sunk." Or, "When bored, crews entertain themselves by ganking newbie navies that haven’t worked out the intricacies of naval combat yet."

My personal favorite involved the Zumwalt ending up on the discount rack: "Rival navies wait a few years and then buy Zumwalt class ships at one-tenth original cost on Steam."

With a nod to Brynen’s comments, I’ll add a few of my own on what a ship crewed by video gamers would look like:

  • The ship’s engines are fueled by a mixture of Mountain Dew and Red Bull.
  • When enemy missiles are incoming, chaff rockets automatically fire clouds of Doritos to spoof their homing radar.
  • Ship’s combat displays come with a PG-13 warning.
  • The crew hires Chinese video game "gold farmers" to run the ship while they relax on deck.
  • If a Zumwalt-class destroyer springs a leak, defense contractors will create a patch — if the Navy can wait five years for Zumwalt 2.0.
  • America’s allies also buy Zumwalts — but the Mac version. Joint operations become impossible.
  • The Navy raises money for the remaining ships on Kickstarter. Taxpayers who pledge $5,000 get a toy Zumwalt that shoots laser-guided paintballs (the paintballs must be purchased separately at $1 million apiece).

Jokes aide, and whatever the demerits of the Zumwalts, the military was correct in taking gamers into account. While most of the planned Zumwalts won’t be joining the Navy, the video game generation will be, and for many years to come. If borrowing from Xbox makes for efficient sailors, bring on the joysticks.

Do you have any thoughts on how a warship or other real-life weapon would work if manned by video gamers? Feel free to share.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1