Today’s Games and Tomorrow’s Wars.

In debating the future of war, a lot of talk centers around new weapons systems and the capabilities they allow.  Most drone boosterism, and most criticism as well, centers on the idea of drones as particularly revolutionary.  Frequently this leads to talk of autonomous AI as the final stage of the change, with the Terminator regularly invoked, and it includes a quiet assumption that the human role in war will be greatly diminished.  This leaves out the fact that war is a human endeavor, with means and ends that will be decided by the people directing those systems, and it tends to skip over the fact that even on the tactical level, there will be human control.

What is most interesting to me about new combat systems is less the specific machines, but more the way they are used by the humans at the center of them.  Danger Room recently profiled Idan Yahya, who was a gamer as a teenager and now is part of the Iron Dome missile-hunting system.  Describing his combat role, Wired says:

Computer geek, keyboard combatant, soldier, call him what you will, Idan and others like him man the controls of the latest rock star in advanced military technology. “There are a lot of flashing blips, signs, symbols, colors and pictures on the screen. You look at your tactical map; see where the threat is coming from. You have to make sure you’re locked onto the right target. There’s a lot of information and there is very little time. It definitely reminds me of Warcraft and other online strategy games,” Idan says.

First, a clarification: the Warcraft that Idan played was not the swashbuckling adventure World of Warcraft* which people commonly associate with the name, but was instead Warcraft III, a Real Time Strategy game.**  In Warcraft III, the player commands an army of AIs, mostly designed for combat, and maneuvers them while protecting his base and attempting to destroy his opponents base.  Games can involve upwards of 90 combatants per player, span large battlefields, feature fog of war, and frequently contain hostile, unaffiliated fighters that provide an additional difficulty.  It’s a radically different thought process than most games, with their focus on guiding a single character, allow.  The intensity of playing RTS can be likened to operating at the speed of the pilots fighting Midway while making the decisions of the Admirals directing it.  Except, of course, that in a game there are no lives on the line.

Or at least, that was the case.  What the profile of Idan Yahya demonstrates, and what other writing about UAV pilots hint at, is that we are now approaching an era where that kind of fast-paced thinking directing multiple AIs is part of war.

Writing months ago, John Robb saw this coming.  Describing the future of combat involving swarm AI, he said:

…The combination of massive swarms with individual elements being highly intelligent puts combat on an entirely new level.  It requires a warrior that can provide tactical guidance and situational awareness in real time at a level that is beyond current training paradigms.

Based on the above requirements, the best training for drones (in the air and on land) isn’t real world training, it’s tactical games (not first person shooters).  Think in terms of the classic military scifi book, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. Of the games currently on the market, the best example of the type of expertise required is Blizzard’s StarCraft, a scifi tactical management game that has amazing multiplayer tactical balance/dynamism.

Without intending it, the development of strategy games over the past twenty years have anticipated combat situations that modern systems like Iron Dome are only beginning to realize.


*Actually a MMORPGer, which is a clumsy acronym even among gamers.
** An RTS, the best-known of which is probably Starcraft.


About kdatherton

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5 Responses to Today’s Games and Tomorrow’s Wars.

  1. Derek says:

    Starcraft II came out in 2010. That game allows for 200 AIs per combatant (up to 8). It blows WC III out of the water and is currently the most popular televised sport in South Korea.

    • kdatherton says:

      Absolutely right. It was Warcraft III that Idan Yaha played in high school, which is why I went with it for the example. As for Starcraft II, John Robb’s excellent post discusses the skill and training of South Korean professional Starcraft (and Starcraft II) players.

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  4. An excellent piece. My one objection is to the phrase “without intending it”: that relies on a lot of assumptions that I’m not sure the true history of video games, if we knew it, would confirm. The military has been deeply involved in the development and promotion of video games at all levels throughout their entire history; pre-video table-based war games were directly modeled on military simulations, and so on. Patrick Crogan’s Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture (U Minnesota Press, 2011) gets into about as much of the history as can be developed from non-classified materials.

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