Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Videogames and future conflict


The writer/director of the very popular first person shooter video game series Call of Duty, Dave Anthony, was recently named Nonresident Fellow at Atlantic Council:

Anthony is best known for his pioneering work on the blockbuster Call of Duty video game franchise. In 2010, he wrote and directed Call of Duty: Black Ops, which remains the best-selling video game of all time, grossing almost $2 billion in sales as of 2014. In 2014, Anthony formed Prisoner Six Productions, a Los Angeles-based production company developing both TV and movie projects.

At the Scowcroft Center, he will draw on his experience as a writer to contribute to the “Art of Future Warfare” project, which mines narrative fiction and interactive media for real-world insights into the future of conflict.

“We at the Scowcroft Center are pleased to welcome a creative, entrepreneurial talent like Dave Anthony to the team,” said Barry Pavel, Atlantic Council vice president and Scowcroft Center director. “His forward thinking on emerging threats will better position the Scowcroft Center to provide cutting-edge analysis on how the United States must adapt for the future.”

At Foreign Policy, Justine Drenna highlights the reasons for the appointment:

The Atlantic Council hopes Anthony can draw on his experience waging fictional war to bring a new, creative approach to predicting global threats. Having made “enough to retire at age 40 and never have to work again” or “the equivalent to an A-list Hollywood Director” — in other words, millions per year — Anthony now can afford to pursue what he calls a “passion project.” His unpaid, part-time work at the Council will aim to convince policymakers to do a better job preparing against the dangers that new technologies and forms of attack pose to national security.

…and some of the problems:

…one could question the wisdom of giving a prominent public platform to a director of a game some have seen as promoting an us-vs.-them mentality and celebrating violence by white American males against non-white foreigners, leftists, and other Others of the world. That Call of Duty is incredibly popular within the U.S. military may be a sign of both the game’s realism and the concerns that Anthony’s hiring raises about blurring distinctions between actual and imagined war.

You’ll find an even fuller and very thoughtful discussion of the appointment by Adam Elkus at War is Boring. There he points to the rather different requirements of successful videogame design and the forecasting of possible future security threats:

Anthony’s comments and his job description in the Atlantic Council press release suggest that he and the institution view his role as mining fiction to better inform reality. But the misleading qualities of immersive fictional worlds are well known by their creators. Like a computer wargame that merely reifies the assumptions of top generals, fictional worlds (especially science fiction) are often reflections of the underlying biases of their creators.

Black Ops 2’s future war elements are a case in point. A declining West and a rising East? Check. Cyber catastrophe? Check. Power diffusing to non-state actors with an Occupy/Anonymous-like dynamic? Got that too. Drones gone wild? You get the idea. Good or bad, in 2014 these visions of future war are not challenging or innovative. They are the collective imagination of today’s national security community, distilled into an addictive video game. This makes sense given that national security experts extensively informed the design of the game!

Why do national security thinkers somehow believe a game that they themselves influenced will provide bold new insights about the future of war? This is not a recipe to actually challenge assumptions. Instead, it depressingly reproduces them with fancier graphics and a nice first person shooter engine.

He adds:

The great thing about fiction of any sort is that suspension of disbelief is the goal. We sit in a movie theater and for a few hours turn off our analytical minds. Where this can be a problem for defense futurism is that prediction is not just a matter of the possible. It is also a matter of the probable. This is another area in which mining fiction to better inform reality can be problematic for policy decision-making.

…real-world allocations of resources and policy decisions – especially concerning security – cannot ignore questions of probability. Creative threat scenarios aren’t the same thing as likely defense scenarios. Security experts derisively refer to “movie plot” threat scenarios that do not incorporate real-world probability, costs and practicality. So much of tech-driven analysis of drones, military robotics futures and cybersecurity are essentially Hollywood plots that policymakers somehow take seriously. We’ve had a lot of “creative” threat analysis in the last few years and little substance. As Dan Trombly gripes, the last thing a defense tech conversation already laden with Hollywood scenarios (see: the recurring use of Terminator to talk about military robotics) needs is another dive into fantasy.

Elkus concludes by suggesting that the value of such an appointment might not lie in its contribution conflict forecasting or technological futurology, but rather in the immersive ways that games can engage players while challenging their core assumptions.

Real value for videogames or any kind of fiction-informed defense analysis comes not necessarily from “out of the box” thinking or having expertise in a dramatically different field. Drawing from games to inform national security is of little use unless the effort really makes the most of both game knowledge and the real world of conflict, security and strategy. But it doesn’t seem that defense futurism efforts that draw on games really do both.

However, I’d be a hypocrite and intellectually dishonest to say that Anthony has nothing to contribute. Griping about unrealistic or flawed defense futurism is also not as valuable as proposing constructive (and fun) alternatives. And given how beloved both the regular Call of Duty and Black Ops spinoffs are, I’d rather not be the Vladimir Makarov or the General Shepherd of defense commentary in throwing shade on the idea that the same talent might help win real-world wars.

There’s a lot that Anthony could teach DC’s stuffed shirts about how to populate a dramatic and compelling vision of the future. What I liked most about Anthony’s compelling (and historically appropriate) vision of Cold War black ops were characters like Viktor Reznov (“Dragovich. Steiner. Kravchenko. All must die”). Whatever vision of past or future war you have, you need your Reznovs to flesh it out. Otherwise it is just abstraction.

Anthony, like his fellow video game auteur Hideo Kojima, could also use the game form to ask deep questions about defense-relevant topics. Kojima, like Brecht, forced gamers to confront inconvenient ideas about their own cultural assumptions and identities. Kojima forces the gamer to confront the brutality of war head-on. His vision of the future is also founded in many fascinating ideas, including artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, meme theory and other well-known scientific fields. Kojima is honest (he insists on it through repeated breaking of the Fourth Wall) about the games being an artificial experience and a stylized and sometimes comically surreal vision of the future. They are useful and inspiring to me as a defense analyst not because I think that any of it predicts the future of warfare. I play them because Solid Snake, Raiden, the Patriot AIs, etc make me re-examine not just my ideas about warfare, but also my underlying beliefs about the nature of human life and society.

And this is precisely why someone like Anthony could have the potential to revolutionize the world of defense and security think-tankery. Games have the power, if taken seriously, to move us and force us to re-examine our beliefs. Judging by the sorry record of defense analysts in the last decade of war, such an innovation cannot come soon enough.

I think he’s absolutely right here. Games can push us out of comfort zones, encourage the adoption of new perspectives, and lead us to exercise a different set of cognitive and emotional “muscles” in different ways. Elkus’ piece is a great piece of analysis, of value far beyond the issue of the Anthony appointment—go read it.

* * *

UPDATE: Kelsey Atherton watched and live-tweeted Dave Anthony’s presentation on “the future of unknown conflict” at the Atlantic Council today and found it lacking. You can see the presentation below, and follow comments by Atherton and others here (via Storify).

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