A forthcoming issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulations is devoted to modeling and simulation in counter-insurgency and irregular warfare. Among the items slated to be published there (and preposted on JDSM’s website) is an interesting piece by David Earnest on “Growing a Virtual Insurgency: Using Massively Parallel Gaming to Simulate Insurgent Behavior.”
Models and simulations of counter-insurgency warfare and irregular (COIN) operations are only as effective as their underlying models of insurgent behavior. Existing simulations of insurgencies rely upon strong assumptions that may limit their validity, and thus their use in training for COIN operations. This paper suggests an alternative approach to modeling insurgencies: using a massively parallel game architecture. Massively parallel systems exhibit surprising capacities for learning, adapting and solving complex problems, while games may stimulate individual learning. By harnessing these adaptive capabilities, the proposed massive multiplayer online first-person shooter (MMOFPS) game holds promise for a more realistic and valid simulation of the behavior of insurgencies by incorporating actual human players. Furthermore, by constructing a persistent virtual world in which human players simulate insurgents, the MMOFPS game allows researchers anddecision-makers to observe and measure the behavior of ‘meta-insurgents’, allowing for model validation. Data collection and post-game interviews of players also allow for both quantitative and ethnographic experimentation. This paper proposes a gaming architecture and evaluates the technical risks.
The article nicely highlights an issue that has been often discussed here at PaxSims, namely the embedded assumptions of simulations. The bases for these assumptions and social models are not always clear, validation is difficult (if it is even attempted), and the increasing technological sophistication of simulation makes them simultaneously more alluring and their underlying (theoretical, ideological, and even normative) presumptions perhaps even less apparent to the user.
The solution that is suggested in the article is to use massively parallel gaming—or, in the language of gamers, a counter-insurgency Massively Multiplayer Online game. In such an environment, in which large numbers of players are communicating and cooperating in smaller or larger groups to achieve goals, one finds social innovation and learning, adaptive approaches (and responses), and generally a much more fluid and dynamic social and operational environment. Indeed, one might argue that the value of such an approach even goes beyond this, to issues of group leadership, dynamics of recruitment and group loyality, virtual social norms, even identity politics—something that anyone who has ever been a member of a Warcraft guild (or other game equivalent) will readily understand.
Moreover, while Earnest’s article is aimed at the military/COIN community, there is no reason why such an approach couldn’t work—in theory at least—in the aid and development community too, with a variety of live players and AI-driven autonomous agents (“non player characters”) interacting in ways that simulate the myriad web of complex social, economic, and political dynamics that intertwine local stakeholders. In practice, however, there may be more practical obstacles: the lack of appropriately large R&D and training budgets in aid agencies, NGO, and international organizations; the much smaller number of personnel that need to be trained; the much greater ease of training through more conventional human-moderated role-play techniques; and the desirability of maximizing the human dimension of direct communication, negotiation, and diplomacy through interactions that aren’t mediated through a computer interface.
Moreover, several other issues arise. The first is the tendency of many MMO environments to encourage meta-gaming rather than realistic behaviour among players (to use a game analogy, “stand outside that cave, and the creature you need to slay will respawn in 13 minutes…”). Cooperation among players often involves shared knowledge as to how to use a a variety of in-game techniques intended to make best use of the quirks and processes of the simulation programming.
A second issue is the danger that if a COIN (or peacebuilding or development or humanitarian assistance) MMO is entirely staffed by participants from the same organization, it may replicate organizational conventional wisdom about how the “other” (insurgent, warlords, local villagers, refugees) operates rather than reproducing realistic behaviour—thereby perhaps reinforcing and perpetuating the very stereotypes it ought to be challenging. Ironically, one of the examples that the article cites as highlighting the value of technologically-facilitated collective wisdoms (“massively parallel systems of distributed knowledge”) also highlights the potential problems:
Wikipedia invites readers to correct errors – a form of selection that allows the population of Wikipedia readers to filter out inaccuracies. Today it is nearly as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannia.
In many of the physical science and other entries, yes (and I’m a dedicated wiki-surfer and sometimes editor myself). However, in my own area of work— Middle East politics—Wikipedia is notoriously unreliable, with waves of edits often reflecting the ideological preferences of contributors and even a degree of organized propagandizing rather than any sort of analytically-grounded set of views. Earnest does partially recognize the dangers of massively distributed groupthink, noting that “An audacious game would distribute the client widely to civilians and military personnel alike. School teachers, accountants, teenagers, and service station attendants may not make the best insurgents, but they think like civilians and probably are free of the cultures and doctrinal training of the armed services.”
It is all very interesting stuff, and it will be fascinating to see how it develops in the coming years.
And yes, for those who were wondering, the title of the post is indeed an allusion to the Avenue Q song. For those who haven’t heard it or seen the Warcraft version, you’ll find it here—with the caveat that its not entirely SFW.