Gaming is our Best Defense
Many of our readers have likely enjoyed Orson Scott’s novel Ender’s Game. Ender Wiggin, the protagonist of the novel, is selected from earth for special training at the elite Battle & Command schools by the Hegemony, the government formed by Earth after the first invasion by the alien force called the “buggers”. Others may have read Ernest Cline’s novel Armada, where the Earth Defense Alliance used a popular game Phaëton to secretly prepare the civilian population for Earth invasion. Zack Lightman, the protagonist of Armada and one of the top 10 global players, with his fellow players helps defeat the invading force. While both Ender and Zach were using video games as training and preparation from alien foes, there are people today who leverage gaming technology to prepare for conflicts here on Earth. While the settings are often not as dramatic as either of these novels, gaming is currently being leveraged by every major branch of the armed forces in the United States.
Games have long held a connection with military operations specifically in the areas of recruitment and training. Whether through the use of board games, sand tables or computer games, games are invaluable to the way our defense is planned and calculated. As Roger Smith, US Army Program Executive Officer for Simulation, said “The current tension between entertainment and military applications of games is just the return of similar concerns that surrounded the gaming tools and technologies of previous generations…computer games are tools that allow all of these audiences to accomplish similar goals (Defense Technical Information Center)”
The concept of employing games for defense originated in the Prussian army with the creation of Kriegsspiel, translating to "war play." This tabletop game was developed by Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reisswitz in 1811. It was leveraged by the Prussian army for training and tactical analysis of terrain, realistic movement, and decision making. The ability to play out simulations had a significant impact on the future of military education across the world. In the late 19th century, the United States Naval War College employed wargames to strategize U.S. defenses against a potential British invasion of New York Harbor. In the early days of World War II, the Germans utilized wargames to plan their anti-invasion strategies in Poland, while the Japanese employed this tool for planning the infamous attacks on Pearl Harbor (Kriegsspiel Society).
The Benefits of Wargaming for Participants:
Engaging in any strategic game contributes to the enhancement of critical thinking skills. Specifically, participating in wargaming can positively impact problem-solving approaches, including:
- Sequential Thought: Often described as a step-by-step process, linear thinking involves responding to your opponent's moves with calculated responses. Predictive thinking is crucial, requiring players to anticipate future consequences, sometimes several moves ahead (AU Army).
- Coordinated Movements: Given that games unfold over time, players must navigate various elements working together at different junctures. Effectively managing each element at the right moment necessitates prioritization, meticulous planning, a sharp memory, and sustained concentration (AU Army).
- Contingency Planning: The nature of the game introduces an element of chance and uncertainty, shaping gameplay. Adapting to unforeseen developments can significantly influence the outcome, emphasizing the 'art' of war and demanding sound judgment and creative thinking (AU Army).
- Psychological Insight: Wargaming provides a window into the mindset of the opponent, cultivating an adversarial edge for strategic thinking and maneuvering. This skill becomes pivotal in real warfare, where plans evolve, and the adversary plays a role in decision-making (AU Army).
Modern Day Applications
Tabletop wargames were the precursor to the modern simulations, but even today can serve dual purposes for both enjoyment and alternative objectives, the first game that popularized this for enjoyment was H.G. Well’s Little Wars which was published in 1913. Other prominent examples are Axis & Allies, Squad Leader, and Memoir '44. These board games, often featuring detailed maps, miniature figures, and scenario-specific rules, provide a tangible and visual representation of military operations.
Below are a few of the current use cases (not a comprehensive list) and some prominent implementations of gaming solutions attempting to augment military operations:
The America's Army series, developed by the U.S. Army as a recruitment and training tool launched in 2002, the game was built on Epic’s Unreal-2 Game Engine and provides a realistic simulation of military scenarios and emphasizes teamwork, strategy, and communication skills. The game was considered a success, getting 20m unique players over the course of its life. The America’s Army franchise was active from 2002-2022 (Department of Defense).
Full Spectrum Warrior, a squad-based tactical shooter, was developed by Pandemic Studios, published by THQ in 2004, and initially made available on Xbox, followed by a release for Microsoft Windows. Initially developed as a U.S. Army training tool, the game aimed to enhance soldiers' tactical proficiency, decision-making capabilities, and grasp of urban combat. As a squad leader overseeing two fireteams, players engaged in realistic military strategies, underscoring the significance of taking cover, laying down suppressing fire, and coordinating movements in city settings. Its design focuses on replicating actual military situations in a virtual training environment.
Virtual Battlespace (VBS) is utilized by various armed forces worldwide. VBS offers a comprehensive virtual environment for training in tactics, vehicle operations, and mission planning. Additionally, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has explored the use of video games for military training through initiatives like the Experimental Serious Game Research (ESGR) program. These games not only enhance combat skills but also contribute to improved decision-making, adaptability, and situational awareness among military personnel.
Potential Future Use Cases
- Smarter Non Player Characters (NPCs): NPCs armed with Artificial Intelligence (AI) are a current focus in gaming to try and create new game experiences and create more lifelike foes or teammates. This will be leveraged in both the training and operational simulation segments of the current use cases of gaming.
- Crowd-Sourced Solving of Problem Sets: Wargames are often done in a closed environment, opening the problem set to an entire game community could allow for more informative and new ways to address a foreseeable simulation.
- Unlimited Scale: traditional simulations have been limited in scope often around a small number of variables, this is changing now given the capabilities of leading game engines and cutting edge infrastructure deployments.
Takeaway: Gaming has evolved from a pastime to a vital tool in military strategy and training, as depicted in novels like Ender's Game and Armada. Historically, games like Kriegsspiel in the 19th century were used for tactical training. Today, the U.S. military employs games for recruitment (e.g., America's Army) and training (e.g., Full Spectrum Warrior). These games enhance critical thinking, decision-making, and strategic planning. Advanced simulations like Virtual Battlespace further demonstrate gaming's role in operational strategy. This trend towards integrating gaming in defense indicates a future where AI-driven simulations and crowd-sourced problem-solving could revolutionize military training and strategy.