Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 20/03/2014

Elkus on video games and war

Pentagon_seen_from_CH-47_U.S.D.D._BOAdam Elkus (@Aelkus) has an excellent piece today at War on the Rocks on video games  and war. In it he argues that the problem is somewhat different than usually expressed:

It is often said that the rise of military robotics and cyber warfare is turning war into a “videogame.” But this thesis—which blames technology for a supposed loss of moral seriousness about war—gets the causation wrong. It isn’t bloodless technology that really makes war videogame-like. Rather, videogames are simple and deterministic in that they mirror the ways a cross-section of national security experts think about war. It seems that as hard as we try to be treat war as “tragic, inefficient, and uncertain,” we end up getting our military analysis from the same mental place that’s engaged by a shopping trip to GameSpot. We might as well use this to our advantage by diversifying our unconscious war(games) rather than playing the same titles over and over again.

He goes on to argue that value of video games (and, by extension, simulations), for exploring the possible consequences of alternative courses of action:

Videogames (and games more broadly), however, offer opportunities for creative exploration that other models don’t. We can immerse ourselves inalternative identities and possibilities and play through them, even if game rules are simple and deterministic. The fact that we can re-spawn when our characters die allows us to experiment and try different strategies, much in the way that Bill Murray always has a second chance in Groundhog Day.We can play against other people in dynamic multiplayer games that allow us to explore the parameters of a given map or play mode via free play. And strategy games, like Starcraft, that force you to play each game campaign set of missions as a different military faction, give the player a general command of abstract ideas about strategy and tactics that are independent of a particular context.

In this context, it is depressing that the same leaders who dragged us into a decade-plus of indecisive war and are poised to muddle through yet another “strategic” planning cycle could not and cannot treat war as a videogame. A skilled Team Deathmatch or role playing game player—unlike many defense analysts and military men—intuitively understands that combined arms is the only way to win. An imbalanced World of Warcraft party that has too many close combat specialists and not enough ranged weapons will lose to one that better balances capabilities. Playing as Zerg, Terran, and Protoss in Starcraft allows the gamer to truly grasp the choices available to anyone who plays as any one of the three factions. Sadly, in Afghanistan we did not listen to those who produced detailed analysis of our own allies, and further ignored those who produced detailed assessment of the enemy.

If we had challenged our internal cognitive models by gaming, perhaps we might have been able to think more deeply and creatively. Gaming mattersprecisely because war is “tragic, inefficient and uncertain.” The stakes are too high for us not to try to creatively probe our assumptions and experiment with new possibilities. If we already treat war as a videogame internally, at least we can add a diversity of game titles to our mental PlayStation 4s instead of playing the same game over and over again.

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