While working on the unfortunately cut-short Interventions podcast, I was asked by Adam Elkus about how games model covert action. Gamer though I am, this question caught me off-guard. Games model covert action on almost every level and almost every way, but no one game captures the whole of the experience. Oni, for example, details a military police operation turned burn notice, and does so from the classic perspective of the rogue agent. More recently, Call of Duty: Black Ops let the player take the role of an agent in a series of Cold War missions in shady locales, letting the game play like the greatest hits from 30 years of skull-drudgery. The Deus Ex, Splinter Cell, and Assassin’s Creed series all follow this pattern to a large extent: operate in the shadows, blend in hostile environments, and engage the world as a single protagonist somewhere along the spectrum between James Bond and Jason Bourne. While enjoyable, there is not a lot these games tell us about the strategic role of covert operations. Missions are decided by others and the objectives are delivered in accordance with overall narrative of the game. There is, as it were, very little agency when playing as a secret agent.
When covert action shows up in strategy games, on the other hand, controlling agents is all about picking objectives and using the people available to best execute that. For example, in the Total War series, agents are either spies or assassins, whose presence only becomes known to opponents if they have failed their mission, or if they have been observed by enemy spies. If they fail a mission against a high-enough value target, they are likely to be executed, but all the calculations behind that are beyond player control. Agents are useful for much the same way we imagine them now: information on enemy developments & deployments to better plan ones own military moves, targeted killings on individuals otherwise beyond the reach or purview of conventional forces. That said, there are limitations on how useful this is as a form of modeling. Agents here operate within strictly coded boundaries, and so they cannot, say, spread false information amongst the enemy leadership (so no Dudley Bradstreet’s here), or engage in any other behavior that breaks the established rules.
To really get at the heart of games simulating covert action, you have to look at the kind of things that happen in and around Massively Multiplayer Online games. EVE Online, specifically, is unique in that there is only one gamespace, and so all players exist in it, which leads to group dynamics on the scales of thousands and hundreds of thousands. It’s also a game about giant spaceships covered in lasers, and using those to carve out empires. While not exactly states, the player-created organizations are large and exert some serious control. They’re also grouped as “corporations” for the smaller ones, and “alliances” for the linkages between them. There’s real money at stake in the game: a player once ran an in-game bank and then left with everything, netting him about $170,000 in real money. In this world, then, it’s not surprising that less-than-honest means of striking at enemies have seen a renaissance. A self-stated spymaster in EVE relates this tale:
Lotka Volterra had unveiled one of the first Titans against us to catastrophic consequences, and at the time these profoundly silly ships were nearly impossible to kill through legitimate in-game means; they were essentially invulnerable, with the only Titans destroyed through catching the ship while the pilot was disconnected from the game. It was determined that ‘The Enslaver’ and his Avatar-class Titan had to go. I was approached by one of the leaders of Red Alliance to help make this happen, but almost immediately we were down the rabbit hole. Much to my surprise, the RA director didn’t want in-game information from me; he wanted us to use the forensic resources of our intelligence agency to trace down The Enslaver’s home address. At a coordinated time, armed with this information, a RA member would apparently cut the power to The Enslaver’s house in the real world, and in EVE a RA capital fleet would assault the abruptly pilotless Titan. Yikes.
Looking past the jargon of the piece (and that online names are frequently ridiculous), this is as close to perfect as a game replicating covert action can get. In this case, it’s not even a game modeling behavior: players formed the alliances, some of them made it their business to be private intelligence services, other alliances contracted out to them, hoping human intelligence would give them the edge in a virtual battlespace. At this point, it isn’t simulation; it’s foreshadowing.
An aside: the trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has been released. It’s a fascinating short film about future war, cyber, hackers, terrorism, the changing battlespace, and drones. It features Oliver North and P.W. Singer, and is interesting in both war-as-culture-as entertainment and future-anxiety ways. It is not, however, terribly concerned with covert operations. A bit, sure, and we can expect the game to have terrorism as both precipitating event and plot twist, but drones, lasers, cyber, and the other future weapons mentioned? That’s new conventional, but it’s still conventional.