TCS Daily

Serious Games, Serious Questions

By James Pinkerton - October 25, 2004 12:00 AM

If you talk the talk, does that mean you will walk the walk? That is, if you spend enough time thinking about doing something, does that mean you will eventually do it? As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his 1962 novel, Mother Night, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

By preparing for war, do we make war less likely, by deterring enemies, or more likely, by making war seem fun? These thoughts followed me as I attended the Serious Games Summit at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, in the shadow of the Federal Triangle in Washington DC. It's appropriate that the Summit was held here in Powertown, because the goal of the conclave was to push Serious Gaming into Uncle Sam's consciousness -- and wallet. Some 500 attendees thronged through exhibits set up outfits with subversive names, such as Anark and Alien Brain. But while some of these exhibitors seemed anarchically counter-culturish, the Establishment was well represented, too, by the likes of David Rejeski, Director of the Foresight and Governance Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, part of the Smithsonian Institution -- one can't get much more establishmentarian than that.

As TechCentralStationeers all know, computer-based games have surpassed Hollywood movies in revenues; games now total some $40 billion annually worldwide. Indeed, some games, such Microsoft's Halo 2, are so well-produced that they might as well be movies. And if the precedent set by such games-turned-movies as "Mortal Kombat" and "Resident Evil" keeps up, they soon will be.

To be sure, there will always be a market for fare in which the audience is passive. "Tell me a story," will always be heard. But after a kid has seen, say, "Lord of the Rings" a dozen times, won't that same kid want to be an active participant in the story?

Such ambitious "deconstruction" of entertainment is already common in lower-tech forms. "Fan fiction", in which enthusiasts cook up their own stories based on an original story, is a thriving web-based subculture. Moreover, it's now routine for gamesters to do "mods" on their games, in which they put, for example, their own likeness into the action. Similarly it's only a matter of time before fans start turning themselves into, say, Frodo's long-lost brother. And so, inevitably, TV shows and movies will become increasingly interactive and participatory; the only question is whether Hollywood will find a way to make money by "open sourcing" its product, or whether such story- and character-expanding will come via hacking.

But game-visionary Ben Sawyer, all of 33, is after bigger game. The Portland, Maine-based Sawyer was the prime mover for the Summit; he has put in his share of time, finger-flicking away at demons and zombies, but he sees Serious Games as the Next Big Thing, destined to "cross over" from its present-day geek-ghetto to Washington's Gucci Gulch, where lobbyists and Beltway Bandits happily wrestle around in the federal mosh-moneypit.

In Sawyer's view, gaming is about "knowledge transfer" -- which is to say, it's at the core of what a "smart" government should be doing. Continuing on that theme, he explains, "The goal is to break out of the niche of entertainment, so that gaming is a widely accepted cognitive tool." That is, to use games for teaching, training, and forecasting. And yet at the same time, a little game-style razzle-dazzle doesn't hurt: "During World War Two, nobody wanted to watch training films until they brought in Frank Capra and Walt Disney to make them entertaining."

And yet learning is enhanced by game-based interactivity, which encourages "buy-in" from the player. Citing the wisdom of game-legend Sid Meier, Sawyer observes, "A game is a series of interesting decisions."

Some might protest that computer-games did not invent the business of role-playing and scenario-spinning. Long before the chip and the CRT, people were playing chess, rehearsing and improvising dramas, conducting mock trials, writing "what if" counter-factual history books, and even conducting wargames.

Yet the Muse of Technology has been good to gaming, and continues to bestow her e-blessings. A speaker at the Summit, Eric Klopfer, Director of the MIT Teacher Education Program, highlighted the latest in Augmented Reality (AR) -- that is, what one sees in the real world with the help of a cyber-helmet, or goggles, or perhaps just a PDA. The goal, he said, is to make it possible for "learning to occur anytime anywhere . . . to integrate it completely into life." Moving from the general to the specific, Klopfer cited such serious missions as better empowering people to identify a disease-vector during a public health emergency, or perhaps to spot a loose nuke rolling around somewhere.

Another Summiteer, Steffen Walz, a game-designer researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, emphasized the more fun aspects of AR. He showed his audience pictures of "virtual Pac-man," in which players wearing goggles would "see" virtual Pac-man dots and "eat" them as they ran around, just as in the 80s videogame game. Indeed, Walz declared that his mission was "reclaiming public space" for gamers; his presentation was a useful cyber-antidote to those Luddish types who insist that cyber-culture is an unhealthily isolating indoor "cocoon" culture.

Others at the Summit had an even more ambitious goals, further exploding the old notion of a computer-based game as something played indoors in front of a screen. Ian Bogost, of Persuasive Games in Atlanta, is overtly political. He has been behind games aimed at helping Democrats, such as such as "Activism: The Public Policy Game", sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington DC, and also "Take Back Illinois", a game for the Republicans in the Illinois state legislature.

Going even further, Cheryl Benard, director of the Initiative for Middle Eastern Youth at the Rand Corporation, told the Summiteers about her idea, which is to turn international relations into a game -- a game of one-to-one communication, between Americans and Arabs.

Other Serious Games envisioned by Sawyer & Co. revolve around such mega-topics as the federal budget and global warming. And if enough people can "swarm" the problem, bringing useful perspectives to the game, then perhaps a constructive "market" for problem-solving might emerge. Brainpower + Experimentation = Problem Solving.

Yet for all this out-of-the-box thinking on display at the Summit, one kind of game still dominated: wargames. It's been said that "He who dies with the most toys, wins." If that's true, then the Pentagon, especially the Army, is winning big in the game biz, because the brass has far and away the most toys.

On prominent display at the Summit were some elements of America's Army,
surely the neatest recruiting tool this side of a free ride in an F-16. The brainchild of Col. Casey Wardynski, Director of the Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis,
America's Army is a freely downloadable wargame that enables anyone to role-play his or her way through hundreds of Army jobs, from infantryman to logistician. Which is to say, it is not a mindless first-person shooter, in which the player pulls the trigger to kill an infinite number of demons, zombies, or al-Qaedans. Instead, America's Army emphasizes team work and bringing everyone home alive. It's a sophisticated recruiting tool that enables prospective recruits to gain some sense of Army values, as well as a taste of what it would be like to be in the Army.

But even if it's not "Starship Troopers," America's Army is still fun. Indeed, I was reminded of my experience earlier this year at the Army's National Training Center, at Fort Irwin, Calif. As I wrote at the time, one needn't be immersed in a game for long before disbelief is suspended. Which is to say, gaming works. If you've seen it, one way or another, on a fake battlefield, you're more likely to do know what to do on the real battlefield.

Which might be the problem. It could be the case that any wargame that ultimately reduces itself to pulling a trigger will, in turn, ultimately reduce people to their primordial twitch-reflex reptile-brain essences -- Pow! Pow! Pow! Kill! Kill! Kill!

And the best efforts of Bogost, Benard, and other non-martial gamers notwithstanding, it may be the case that no game, or simulation, that doesn't invoke those carnivorous instincts will ever be as satisfying. If so, then the pseudo-Darwinian process of game-playing will ultimately favor those games that include violence, for the simple reason that players, especially males, will want to play them more. If this is so, then the mere act of gaming will ultimately bias government decision-making toward war as the preferred solution. That is, playing out a wargame becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To paraphrase "Field of Dreams," if you build it, war will come.

One might ask: is it more fun to game out warmaking, or nation-building? In a game, not only is it more enjoyable to play the "action" parts of a scenario, but it also takes infinitely more time to play out the "non-action" parts, at least in full.

It's said that Rome wasn't built in a day, but the battle of Zama, in 202 BC, in which the Romans decisively defeated the Carthaginians, lasted just a few hours. So which is someone more likely to play out, the building of the Roman Empire, which lasted many centuries, or the cool key battles? And so even if America's Army seeks to fully explicate Army life, it will always default to compressing events. Otherwise, to take a somewhat absurd example, a potential recruit might have aged beyond Army age requirements while playing out his or her future billet as, say, a quartermaster or truck driver. It's far too tempting to squeeze down on the boring stuff in order to allow more time for squeezing the trigger.

Even non-war games, which might emphasize diplomacy and peacekeeping, will always suffer from the same flaw of reality-distorting time-compressing. One would never know it from historical costume dramas, but most of the time, the great leaders of history -- from Washington to Lincoln to Churchill -- spent most of their time sitting at a desk, in an office or in the field, writing or giving orders, reading or listening to reports. Making that interesting for years on end would be a challenge to even the cleverest game-simulator. And so even diplomacy games will put the emphasis on Decisive Moments that may often lead to conflict.

To bring the matter to the present day, the wargames that were conducted in advance of Operation Iraqi Freedom were great, insofar as they helped American warriors bring the "war" phase to a successful end after just three weeks in March-April 2003. But 8000 casualties later, in October 2004 we know now just how inadequate was US preparedness for that conflict, across the whole cycle of war and warlike "peace."

For all the time spent wargaming on tank attacks and bomb-drops, it's clear that much of the preparation missed the point -- because the "formal" Iraqi army was going to cut and run at the first sign of American might. What was much more needed, was what we didn't have: games to deal with looting, sniping, reconstructing, and burden-sharing. If such gaming was conducted at all, it wasn't conducted well. The New York Times recently noted that DOD planners ignored recommendations that Coalition forces might need as many as 480,000 troops in post-Saddam Iraq; instead, the Pentagon expected to reduce the American force in Iraq to just 30,000 by September 2003. Yet today, more than 18 months after that now-notorious "Mission: Accomplished" banner flew over the carrier Abraham Lincoln, the US has 140,000 troops in Iraq -- a number clearly insufficient to achieve the stated objectives of bringing safety and democracy to that country.

So, with that in mind, who wants to play a truly useful Iraq-related wargame? Why not the game of rebuilding a power plant, using contractors who are afraid for their lives, plus local labor that doesn't speak English and includes guerrillas? Then, to add to the game's difficulty, the player must seek to finish the power-plant job in a way that convinces the locals not to strip it or bomb it a day later. Do you know anybody who wants to play that game for a couple of years? And to make it all the more real, the game must be played not in an office building somewhere, but instead in 120-degree summers and away-from-home-a-long-time winters. That would be great training, but who would take it?

The larger lesson of Iraq gaming is the eternal lesson of computers: garbage in, garbage out. Just as American intelligence about Iraq's alleged weapons of destruction wasn't so smart, so our intel on post-war "jubilation" was deeply flawed, too. When historians finally get access to the full details of Pentagon wargaming, they will no doubt snicker over session-notes showing that American planners were wondering what sort of flowers Iraqis would put in US rifle barrels.

And as for future wargames, it might be fun to practice bombing the janjaweed out of existence in Sudan, and in any future real-world scenario that mission would take just a few days. But what would take years would be the nation-building thereafter. No doubt someone at the Serious Game Summit would be happy to design a game in which GI's must learn a half-dozen local dialects as they seek to keep the locals from killing each other over cows and wells, but it might not be so easy to persuade Army personnel into playing a game that's based more on dung than on gung ho.

The point here isn't to mock the serious business of wargaming. Rather it's to make the argument that wargamers must prepare for all the ways that future battles might be fought -- dirty as well as clean, asymmetric as well as symmetric. The chances that, say, Syria or Iran will fight the US in neatly targetable tank formations are just about zero. So while it might be satisfying for American armor-officers to prepare to replay the battle of Kursk one more time, the greater likelihood in an actual war is that Americans would roll into Damascus or Tehran without much of a fight -- only later to discover that Syrians and Iran chose to fight back in some unpleasantly innovative manner, perhaps using the American homeland as their battlespace.

For most of my two days at the Serious Game Summit, I worried that the Pentagon was so enraptured by its hypothetical war-fighting scenarios -- the kinds of wars it could win easily -- that it was neglecting the more plausible messy wars -- the kind that we lost in Vietnam and might yet lose in Iraq.

Indeed, I further worried that the selection of scenarios to play out was biasing the US toward certain conflicts. That is, do simulations have a way of skewing reality? By merely asking a certain question -- for example, a war with China -- does that create, in effect, a game-based constituency in support of war with China? After all, is it really likely that US wargamers are mapping out possible defeats for the US? Inside a general staff somewhere, how often does it happen that game-masters keep their job if the home team keeps losing the game? So might the nature of wargaming serve as a kind of seduction, luring Americans to the type of fighting that can be depicted -- and depicted favorably -- on simulating videoscreens?

That was my big fear until I heard the wrap-up keynote speaker for the Summit, Johnny Wilson, co-author of High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games and editor for many years of Computer Gaming World. Which is to say, Wilson is right out of the belly of the game-beast; if situation determines consciousness, then Wilson is sure to think like an opt-for-war gamebot.

Or so I thought. Wilson began by recalling his earliest experiences with gaming, more than three decades ago. Playing nuclear war games, he recalled, taught him that there were "no moral absolutes." By which he meant, if you're victorious and dead, that's no different from being defeated and dead -- the fact that you were "only" killed twice over, while the foe was killed six times over, means little. Either way, you're gone.

As I listened, I didn't hear him say "moral clarity" once. Instead, I heard familiar phrases from the realist school of international relations: "ripple effects," "tradeoffs," and "interdependence." All this, he said, he had learned from playing games.

I even heard the complicated and ironic phrasings of someone who had learned from history; Wilson recalled being forced to "evaluate negative consequences in spite of success" -- that reminded me of President George W. Bush's recent description of the Iraq war: "a catastrophic success."

Yet for the most part, the incumbent Commander-in-Chief expresses himself in a much different idiom; he speaks, without much in the way of data, either from a game or from on-the-ground experience, about the "march of freedom" It's all very inspiring, but it's hard to make these neoconservative/millennialist slogans work in reality. And the purpose of games is just that: to make it work in reality.

So, in the Q-and-A period after his talk, I asked him to comment on the value of Pentagon wargaming in regard to the Iraq war. Wilson answered by saying that while he supported the mission of the troops, it was apparent that Iraq-gamers in the Pentagon had not factored in all the possible variables, including the key variable of "entropy." I took his use of the word "entropy" to be a synonym for the "friction" that war-theorist Clausewitz wrote about nearly two centuries ago. That is, things fall apart and erode away, absent successful countermeasures.

This is one game-player who sees larger realities than just what's on the screen, I thought to myself. Which is not to say that Wilson has all the answers. But at least he had some useful questions -- questions that were not asked or else dismissed in the sweep of Wolfowitzian overconfidence. If a gamer such as Wilson had been in the Sit Room, the happy-talking briefers, so fluent in PowerPoint-ese, might not have been able to wrap a victory ribbon around their war scenarios in their usual 50 minutes of allotted time.

Technology has changed just about everything in our physical world. Yet human nature has changed little, if at all. As Emerson said, no matter how far you go, the old you goes with you. Gaming, like any tool, is effective in the right hands. But gaming, like any tool, can be ineffective, even harmful, in the wrong hands. Gaming will be helpful only if the basic rules of human nature, and the basic lessons of the human experience, are strictly enforced. And human beings, as Wilson said, live in a world of ripple effects, tradeoffs, unintended consequences, and ironies. One such irony, for example, is that the US seems on its way toward turning Iraq into an Islamic republic, which Bush says is OK by him. Such a scenario was an obvious enough possibility, even likelihood, but did any DOD-er game for that?

What will always be needed, especially at the top of the command hierarchy, are a few menschenkenners -- knowers of men. Those have been in short supply of late, especially in regard to the Iraq war. And if they are in short supply, then all the games being conducted at lower levels will be for naught.


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