To combat Somali pirates, the U.S. Navy has relied on warships, snipers and SEAL teams. Now, it is turning to the heavy artillery: Internet gamers.
This month, the Office of Naval Research will roll out the military’s first-ever online war game open to the public, crowd-sourcing the challenges of maritime security to thousands of “players” sitting in front of their computers.
The project — named MMOWGLI (the acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet) — is a video game for policy wonks. It aims to replicate a traditional military strategy session on an exponentially larger scale, bringing together a diverse mix of government and outside experts that would be impossible even in the largest Pentagon conference room.
Through virtual simulation and social media tools made popular on Twitter and Facebook, players will work together to respond to a series of make-believe geopolitical scenarios set off when private ships are hijacked off Somalia’s coast.
“We live in an echo chamber,” Lawrence Schuette, the naval research office’s innovation chief, said of the military. “The challenge is you always want to have an audience that’s diverse in background, diverse in thinking. It’s those intersections where you see creativity occurring. The advantage of online crowd-sourcing is obvious: You have many more intersections and many more diverse backgrounds.”
Thanks in part to pre-launch publicity, more than 7,000 people have signed up for MMOWGLI, far beyond the 1,000 that developers had anticipated for the $450,000 pilot project. Programmers from the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif., that is making the software, have postponed the launch date to be sure the game has enough capacity.
There are, of course, the inevitable comparisons with the World Bank’s EVOKE online development education project. PAXsims gets a mention in the Washington Post article too, specifically in connection with the challenge of “crowd-sourcing” ideas in a way that encourages useful innovation rather than trendy (but potentially unrealistic) internet populism:
But as anyone who has spent time in an online chat room knows, moderating the debate against online bullies and sifting through thousands of comments to find quality ideas can be nearly impossible. During the EVOKE project, players coalesced around proposals that were unsustainable, such as floating greenhouses that would produce food 25 times too expensive to afford, said Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal who blogs on strategic gaming.
“There was not enough quality control,” Brynen said of EVOKE. “Trendy development ideas that appeal to the 15- to 30-year-old age demographic catch on because they’re trendy, not because there is proof they would work.”
The quotes make me sound somewhat more negative than I am about the potential of crowd-sourcing, and certainly very more negative than I am about the remarkable innovative potential of the 15-30 demographic. Rather, my major point would be that a “build it and they will come” approach to purposive social media is a potentially self-defeating: one needs to think not only how one will hook in participants, but also how to best utilize their energy and ideas towards a clear goal. A key part of this, in turn, is thinking very strategically about the explicit and implicit reward structures and filters that might encourage high quality contributions in a way that empowers creativity but keeps it reasonably grounded in reality. In this regard, technology and flashy interfaces can be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In the case of EVOKE, while the approach has considerable potential, I did not feel that it had been executed as well as it might have been. (The World Bank Institute’s own evaluation, which you’ll find here and here, was understandably more positive. Also, have a look too at the game designers’ own reflections here.) Hopefully Season 2 of EVOKE will build on the successes of the project while addressing the weaknesses.
Since MMOWGLI has been developed to spur the development of innovative policy ideas, and since its first playtest addresses a form of hybrid warfare and emerging security threat (maritime piracy), there is another point of comparison that ought to be made, one that has yet to be raised in the media and tech commentary: Small Wars Journal. SWJ is an online community which integrates traditional online publication with a blog, discussion fora, and limited social networking tools. It does so, moreover, in a way that flattens hierarchies and encourages everyone to participate: corporals and colonels are listened to equally, and their contributions judged on the merits.
SWJ, however, does NOT have a particular trendy interface. It has no “gamification” to it at all—no built-in systems for gaining thumbs-ups, for winning avatars, or for earning status points. Despite this, the website has been widely recognized as having had substantial effect on thinking about insurgency, stabilization operations, and similar issues, within the US and around the world. SWJ even made it (together with Lady Gaga) onto Rolling Stone’s 2009 Hot List, despite having the rear end of a donkey as the focal-point of its logo.
I’m not aware that anyone who studies online communities and crowd-sourcing of policy ideas has yet looked systematically at what makes SWJ works (attention graduate students: thesis topic!). As a fairly frequent participant there, I think it has an awful lot to do with the quality of the moderation. Trolls are soon banned. Most of the participants are respectful, and the bounds of productive and unproductive dialogue are fairly well understood. Plus, of course, the “Small Wars Council” discussion forum at SWJ has Ken White. Really, what more do you need? Certainly there are weaknesses with SWJ. As they’ve expanded their publication (and received ever more contributions) they’ve had to work hard to maintain quality. Some discussions can get a bit repetitive (suppressive fire, anyone?). The participant community is not as diverse as it could be (more NGO folks, diplomats, and journalists would be useful, as would more contributors from outside NATO countries). Overall, however, it is hard to see SWJ as anything other than a success.
I think MMOWGLI is a really interesting experiment. They’ve clearly done some thinking, and I hope it works out well. In assessing its contribution, EVOKE—for all its technological parallels—is probably the wrong comparison, given its very different (educational) goals. Rather, the question that needs to be asked is how does MMOWGLI fare in generating ideas compared to a more conventional face-to-face workshop, such as the recent NATO experiment on countering hybrid threats? How does it fare compared to the more traditional online model of SWJ, or the various elements of the policy blogosphere more broadly? How do we measure this, especially given that “cost per clever idea” seems a very difficult metric to generate? And how can the project be used to further advance our understanding of leveraging the internet for purposes of policy discussion, debate, and innovation?
We’ll be following the MMOWGLI experiment with interest.