Unmanned not Autonomous

Two weeks ago, I storified a short piece about Adam Elkus’ decision to stop referring to unmanned aerial vehicles/remotely piloted vehicles as “drones.” In it, Adam acknowledges that while it is better to use common language instead of jargon, “drones” is such an inaccurate term and so weirdly distorted from the reality of these machines.

[View the story “Drones, UAVs, and Terms d’art” on Storify]

This was highlighted especially well by a tweet from Teju Cole which read, simply, “Drones are guns too.” If this is where the common language takes us, it has become so over broad as to be useless. Certainly, there are some drones that deliver payloads, in much the same way that guns deliver bullets, but saying that “these are both weapons” is not a terribly useful point. At the very least, it misses the defining point of drones, which is not that they are weapons (and plenty aren’t, as they perform surveillance tasks), but that they are unmanned.

This does not mean, not yet, that because the machines are unmanned that they are undirected. The “p” in “RPV” is for “piloted,” and when drones aren’t assumed to be the apocalypse, this slips into the discourse, but often with an aside about piloting drones being like the a video game, as though that is enough to rule it out as an actual, deliberate, human activity.

Take, for example, this cartoon by Matt Bors from early June:

Hyperbolic Drone Fears

Hyperbolic Drone Fears

The drones being portrayed here are clearly a caricature of what people think drones can do, but look how autonomous they are. The drone is free from what makes humans expensive, like union membership and pensions, and as an independent actor it has no accountability. Drones freely roam the skies, acting with impunity and reporting back only to their cold mechanical programming. Drone as portrayed may as well be a Terminator or Cylon, for all the control humans have over it.

Drones may some day get to that point. But right now the robots we refer to as drones are piloted. There’s a pension for that pilot, and while there is some ambiguity over accountability when the pilot is a civilian, when they’re a uniformed soldier they fall under the Geneva conventions. And despite critics deriding those pilots as desensitized, video-game killers, those assumptions are increasingly being proven wrong, drone centers are adapting to the same psychological challenges that are encountered in the field.

Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers to help pilots deal with the bad days — images of a child killed in error or a close-up of a Marine shot in a raid gone wrong.

Autonomous killing machines don’t need chaplains, but people tasked with watching and occasionally firing into compounds certainly do. By treating the machine as new and independent, we downplay the very real experiences of the pilots.* The robot discourse, much like the video game discourse, distracts from the unchanged nature of war. It obscures the humans actually executing policy. Most tellingly, it makes US warfighting seem detached from the reality in which it takes place.  Sarah Wanenchuk, at Cyborglogy, highlights this quite well:

I think that Scarry and Bourke actually have it pretty much correct: the subtle dehumanizing effects of increasingly augmented warfare are not in the practice of the war-fighting itself but in the collection of official discourses that we construct around that warfare. We like to think of more highly technical warfare as cleaner, more controlled, less messy, less human – at least on our end. This kind of discourse is classically digital dualist; it assumes that the relationship between physical and digital – or between human and technological – is zero-sum in nature, and that less of one is necessarily more of the other. It rejects the notion that humanity and technology have been, are, and will be enmeshed, that the relationship between the two is complex and constantly evolving.

If we assume our weapons act of their own will, we’re free from thinking about the goal which that violence is supposed to serve. This is a debate we’ve been meaning to have for a long time, but so long as we’re distracted by the newness of the tech and we let science fiction stand in place of genuine understanding, we’ll continue to see wars fought without aims by weapons without controllers.

*Incidentally, this is something that has been done with air power for a long time:

Aerial bombardment of urban centers is credited with being a milestone in the history of direct civilian targeting. The guilt and psychological fallout that pilots in bombers feel has been correlated to the height at which they were flying at the point that they let their payload drop.

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Long War and Infinite Respawns: Games, American Culture, and a Narrative that just won’t Die.

The first video game I connected with on a gut level was Call of Duty. I was playing at a friends house, and he had me start on the first mission in the Soviet campaign. I took control, and for one tense minute could only turn my head and listen as the commissar told us how we were to be Stalingrad’s salvation. Then the Luftwaffe strafed our boats, and I had to reload the mission. I sat through the same speech a second time, knowing I could just as easily and arbitrarily die again. Several of my AI compatriots couldn’t handle the pressure, and jumped overboard only to have their backs filled with lead from the commissar’s PPsh-41. I looked the other way, and then rushed out of the landing craft, where I received only a five-round clip for the entirety of the mission. Unarmed, I sprinted between cover to draw fire so that a sniper could silence several MG-42s.  It was an immersion into one of the hardest moments in any war, the darkest night before the long, grinding conflict would lead to victory.

The first Call of Duty game came out in 2003, and like much popular content of its era, it was set in WWII. In Cinema, the WWII revival started with Saving Private Ryan in 1998 and the juxtaposition of war’s absurdity with WWII’s noble purpose, continued that trend through 2001’s Band of Brothers and by now has found itself with meta-commentary and alternate history in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and the science fictional backdrop for 2011’s Captain America. As popular as WWII was in film, it was an all-conquering genre in gaming, where even Halo’s now-cliched space marine stood out against an environment composed entirely of GIs.

Yet at their core, Halo and Call of Duty (released only two years apart) fit into the same overarching theme: unequivocally good guys fighting evil in a faraway land, and sometimes getting messy doing it. Gamers spend so much time re-fighting WWII because it has the clearest-cut villains in recent history: strong, bent on conquest, with skulls on their uniforms and horrors systematically perpetrated within their borders. As such, fighting Nazis has gone from comforting to cliche to self-parody; the later Call of Duty games feature “Nazi Zombie” modes, combining the most ubiquitous of gaming enemies over the last decade into a survival shoot-’em-up.  It’s natural, then, that games would look elsewhere for inspiration, and modern wars have given at least the context, if not the substance, for many recent games.

Game makers have certainly tried to tackle our modern wars realistically, but they’ve run into problems, almost all of them political. Six Days in Fallujah, a shooter based on the direct experience of Third Battalion, First Marines in the Battle of Fallujah has been held back by publishers fearful of controversy.  Medal of Honor, a WWII first person shooter series started in 1999 and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, was relaunched in 2010 with a game set in contemporary Afghanistan. Almost immediately, a controversy erupted over the multiplayer mode, where one side would play as the American forces and one side would play as the Taliban. After a summer of public outcry, Medal of Honor backed down & replaced every instance of “Taliban” with “Opposing Force” in multiplayer, abstracting a portrayal of war to “cops and robbers” level absurdity.

Call of Duty also moved from WWII into modernity, and in Modern Warfare 2 the series featured a notoriously upsetting level. While Call of Duty from it’s inception had featured special forces missions, the Modern Warfare series highlights the blurred lines between intelligence operations, counter-terrorism, and the wars on the ground that have dominated this century of American conflict so far. The Airport Mission has the player in the role of an undercover CIA agent accompany a group of Russian ultra-nationalists as they massacre the innocents and, later, police in an airport. While the level was skippable and the player didn’t have to fire on civilians, the existence of the level alone was controversial enough to lead for calls to ban the game.

The entry point for Michael Vlahos’s culture piece on video games and war is Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 3’s “Face Off” trailer. He notes the strange setting, a post-apocalyptic duel, and from there extrapolates that our games are emblematic of a culture of defeat.  As with all media, changes away from once-popular subject matter is more in keeping with a general exhaustion with the theme. The heroic narrative that fueled the shooters of the late 1990s/early 2000s has been replaced by grim combat and covert missions now, but the genre it displaced was a 90s cyberpunk dsytopia, which itself replaced the foundational the explosion-happy juvenile gorefests embodied by DOOM and Duke Nukem, games that their origins in the pioneering shooter & WWII send-up Castle Wolfenstein. That said, the heroic narrative in shooters is hardly gone.

Fallout, a popular late-90s role-playing game, was re-imagined in 2008 as a shooter. It’s setting implies defeat – the protagonist emerges from a vault into a post-apocalyptic beltway, and there are traces of our destroyed world all around (in particular, WMATA tunnels feature prominently). But the apocalypse is the setting, not the narrative. The player is free to make a range of choices, not it isn’t an inherently heroic story, but the possibility for heroism exists, and many plot set pieces demand it. This is an inherited mess, and throughout the Fallout series the player has the option to work towards fixing it. In making sequels, this is the plot path assumed.

While writing this piece, I discovered a much more concise response to Vlahos, using Mass Effect as it’s primary example.  Mass Effect is, like Fallout 3, a hybrid shooter/RPG, which allows for more story telling than most one-track shooters. Part of that means high stakes, a longer narrative arc, and more potential for heroism or villainy. But a lot of it means really tedious chores.  As D. Gomez put it:

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

What the long wars have brought to gaming is not a culture of defeat, but a culture of boring professionalism needed to tackle extensive but low-intensity conflicts. Sure, the world is saved in Mass Effect, but that’s after a lot more time spent talking to local notables and going through inventory. And it comes after the third game in a series, which were released over a span of five years.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, it’s worth noting, is the eighth game in a series that began the same year as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Our games during the long war have evolved from high-stakes girt and heroism, in the guise of WWII or transcendent space marines, through shadow wars and special operations, to a workmanlike state now. The stakes are still high, but the journey is slow, the details important, and with the exception of a few crucial set-piece engagements, the combat, while still intense, is more incidental than decisive. Name a medium that describes our wars better.


While I was working on this, Adam Elkus released his own response piece to Vlahos. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it here.

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Egypt and the Konami Coup

This weekend, a year and a half after Mubarak’s ouster was touted as the principal moment in the Arab Spring, a funny thing happened.  The SCAF, who were initially hoped to be good stewards for the transition to democracy, decided that after a year of ruling they wanted to keep all the machinery of the system in their own hands. As Tom Gara put it:

Saying SCAF are realpolitik geniuses is like saying a guy is a video game master because he has the code that gives you unlimited lives. It’s not hard for your moves to seem effective when they are implemented by every state institution up to and including the supreme court.

The cheat code metaphor tells us a lot here: the SCAF appear to operate in a very constructed environment, and they do so with advantages not afforded to the opposition. Such controls, ideally, turns the situation from one of high uncertainty and difficulty into a challenge they can tackle with ease.  In video games, this was first accomplished by the Konami Code:

Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A

The Konami Code

The code was popularized by Contra, a side scrolling shooter/platformer where the main challenge was completing the game with only three lives.  After the code was entered, the player had 30 lives, substantially reducing the difficulty.  Upon first appearance, it seems that the SCAF as seized power in a similarly cheaty way, by pulling secret levers and making it easier for their guy to win the election.

Only I’m not entirely sure that is what happened. As I write this, the presidential election results are days away from being clear enough to call. Both the SCAF supported Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood supported Morsi have claimed victory. If the SCAF was straightforwardly manipulating the game in favor of their candidate, they probably would not have suspended parliament or declared martial law. This is a different game, one altogether more strange and arbitrary than anything a computer can hope to winMarc Lynch goes beyond my small video game domain to show us what the Egyptian election really is: Calvinball

For those who don’t remember Bill Watterson’s game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules — or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely.   The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals (“When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine’s hidden.”), the identities of the players (“I’m actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!”) and the nature of the competition (“I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!”).  The only permanent rule is that the game is never played the same way twice. Is there any better analogy for Egypt’s current state of play?

There is only so much a person can do in a game with set rules, and usually when those rules are bent it is clear that the person bending them has been cheating.  But when the very nature of the game requires changing the rules, the opposing player can only suffer from expecting the rules to be fair, and instead has no choice but to adapt just as quickly and innovate in ways the game master doesn’t expect. As coherent as Egyptian politics are right now,  “up up down down left right left right B A” might work as well as anything.*


*Metaphor extended into meaninglessness.

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From the Cradle of Civilization to the Grave of Empires

“My goal for the next few years is to try and end the war and thus use the engineers to clear swamps and fallout so that farming may resume. I want to rebuild the world. But I’m not sure how. If any of you old Civ II players have any advice, I’m listening.”

Lycerius, writing at Reddit

Games have a monopoly on the apocalypse.  Sure, it shows up in other media; how could it not, when nuclear reckoning was the fear that sustained us throughout the Cold War, sent us both flying under desks at school and trapped us in a thousand little Alamos in southeast Asia? But those haunting bleak Cold War campfire tales stop with the flash, the last gasp, the automated house whirring along in tribute to its vaporized occupants. Dr. Strangelove only speculates at the apocalypse it brings on, joking about fertility ratios and a century spent in caves. It’s treatment of the end times stops with people thinking about entering a vault. Fallout begins with the Vaults opening.

There have been other explorations of the wasteland, of what it means to live when we have done everything to wipe life out.  But there are limitations to the world that can be built for an afternoon, and to the stories it can tell.  The Fallout series, which spans four core games and has a few spin-offs, is entirely about exploring that world. Apart from the constant opening refrain of “War Never Changes,” the game is not a commentary on life now but is instead an imagining of how humans reorient themselves post collapse.  Players are born into a world (literally, in Fallout 3) aware of the past, but with artifacts and ruins as their main touchstone.  In this world, players will encounter bandits and raiders and small towns struggling to hold on, as well as violent new nations trying to impose order through chaingun fire and powersuited warriors.  It’s a world of beginnings, where relics from a more resource-rich era hold value while scavenged tools from the present day are the domain solely of the poor and desperate.

Fallout takes place in the margins, starting in deserts that were deserts before the war began and escaped the worst of the nuclear onslaught.  It is a setting where governments collapsed instantly, making a new beginning possible.  Lycerius relates a darkly different tale.

Playing the same game in Civilization II for ten years, Lycerius has guided his people from the humblest of beginning as a small tribe to the pinnacle of civilization and back again, fighting through multiple nuclear wars while the polar caps melt and fallout renders land uninhabitable.  It’s a nightmare scenario, three great powers locked in constant war while their people starve and all resources are devoted to holding the front lines. Lycerius has plotted out the twin nightmares of the Cold War, both Orwellian and Apocalyptic.  The only reason given for this grim pursuit is a morbid curiosity in seeing the simulation through to it’s end.

It’s that narrative, that fascinating pull through terrible consequences as viewed in a harmless media, as fleshed out through rigorous calculations and well-designed opponents, that makes games an ideal tool for seeing and plotting a way to, through, and out of the end times.

Update: If you want to try your hand at solving this forever war, Lycerius has uploaded the save game for anyone to download.

Update II: Crowdsourcing victory. Once the save game was released into the wild, it took a day for someone to end the forever war.

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Syria is Libya on Nightmare Mode

Writing against an American military intervention in Syria, Walter Pincus says this:

Syria is not a video game. Americans need to understand that. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, fighting to stay in power, are using increasingly brutal force against their own people. It is becoming a civil war, with both political and religious elements complicating the picture. Syrians are killing each other, military and civilian, children as well as the aged. It is uncomfortable to watch. But like it or not, here in the United States, President Obama cannot push a button,* end the slaughter and bring peace. (emphasis mine)

First, an acknowledgement: I am not going to be making an argument here about Syria. Others have done so at length, and anything I said here would be a retread of better posts. Instead, I am interested in the choice of “video game” for the metaphor here.

What I think Pincus means to say, and which I’m sure most readers interpreted him to mean, was that US military intervention in Syria would be a complicated and uncertain affair, and a lot harder than just wishing it instantly fixed.  I agree with the thrust of his argument here: Syrian intervention has costs far beyond just the expenditure of weapons. Where I disagree with Pincus is in the complexity with which video games handle the difficulty of prolonged conflict. In fact, I would go so far as to say that certain video games offer a good metaphor for why we would want to avoid such an intervention.

As I wrote in my guestpost at Rethinking Security:

Simulating unrest means that conquest becomes just as much about taking and holding territory from enemy armies as it does about pacifying the population recently conquered. If precautions against unrest are not taken, the unrest will start spawning rebel forces, or even in some cases cause the complete expulsion of garrisoned forces and return of the province to its prior owner. Unrest slows advances, thins armies as they detach units to garrison cities, and in some cases requires sending agents into the targeted regions years in advance so that they can create a core population favorable to [their new rulers]

Later, in the same piece,

…the net effect is that wars of choice are thought of in terms of lasting effect, and because the player remains in power long after the decision has been made, the consequences have to be dealt with along that scale as well.

While I was describing a game that specifically deals in conquest, the difficulty it shows even in adding contiguous territory, by force, against a hostile nation is illustrative of the broader challenges of forcible regime change even under explicitly imperial ambitions. If, instead, one were to undertake a similar campaign to drive out a hostile regime and its militant loyalists, but were to do so with extended lines of supply and multiple non-cohesive nominally allied guerrilla groups as the main source of local support, it would become an incredibly difficult task.  Add to that a hostile enemy funneling fighters, weapons, and expertise towards the embattled regime in an attempt to bleed the US dry, and you have what gamers refer to as Nightmare Mode: the hardest setting a player could attempt.

In fact, the change in difficulty level help explain why the US was willing to intervene in Libya and not Syria. As Fareed Zakaria noted:

For a number of reasons, military intervention is unlikely to work in Syria. Start with the geography: unlike Libya, Syria is not a vast country with huge tracts of land where rebels can retreat, hide and be resupplied. Syria is roughly one-tenth the size of Libya but has three times as many people. Partly for this reason, the Syrian rebellion has not been able to take control of any significant part of the country.

In addition, Libya had no external allies, a military chronically undermined by a Colonel fearful of another coup, and was a conflict that European allies were ready to fight. Setting aside for a moment concerns of national interest and grand strategy,** Libya posed less of a challenge in terms of simple operational considerations. As wars of choice go, Libya was very close to easy mode. If we are going to be evaluating policies based on their similarity to video games,*** we should at least understand the medium.


*”Push a button and end the slaughter” is still not something that happens anywhere, virtual or tangible. If Pincus meant “like the intervention to save Benghazi did,” then it’s worth noting that while Benghazi was saved, slaughter resulting from the Libyan Revolution continues, and has spilled over into the now-destabilized Mali.

**Just set them aside for a moment! They’re important and better arbiters of action than feasibility, and ideally should guide policy more than media pressure, whim, or “oh, that’d be easy to do? Well, let’s do that, then!,” but policy is hardly ever formed from ideological purity.

***Which we shouldn’t do, that’s crazy talk. I like games and see value in them as simulations, but there’s a very finite amount of light that games can shed on international conflicts.

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Under Ambiguous Skies: Drones and American Uncertainty

Like most worthwhile questions of our strange, robotic, data-rich future, it’s how blurry barriers are ultimately delineated that will be most telling. Drunken Predators’ original assertion is that there are two separate debates over drone fears, and that when conflated they obscure the very different arenas in which drones operate: abroad, as military & intelligence agency assets, and domestic, where they fall under the purview of law enforcement and fall into the tradition of aerial surveillance we’re more used to from police helicopters.

Empty Wheel instead contends that it is the exact blurriness of the overlap where we’ll see both realms encroach into each other.  It won’t be through unsubtle drone enforcement on the jersey turnpike, but instead, if Empty Wheel predicts correctly, it will be a spillover from cross-border drug war applications.

As if sorting out the divide between domestic and foreign use of drones wasn’t enough, there’s the confusing nature between use of drone strikes by US military forces and by authorized covert actors. Rob Caruso highlights this well:

There’s a lot that can be read into that graph (not the least of which is a polemic on Pentagonese), but it’s in theory the functional line that separates US warfighting from cover action in the name of US national interest.

Or it would be the functional line, if that was the only drone debate Title 10/Title 50 divisions implies. Instead, as Andru E. Wall discusses, even just looking at how we use drones abroad there are four debates going on:

The Title 10-Title 50 debate is essentially a debate about the proper roles and missions of U.S. military forces and intelligence agencies. “Title 10” is used colloquially to refer to DoD and military operations, while “Title 50” refers to intelligence agencies, intelligence activities, and covert action. Concerns about appropriate roles and missions for the military and intelligence agencies, or the “Title 10-Title 50 issues” as commonly articulated, can be categorized into four broad categories: authorities, oversight, transparency, and “rice bowls.” The first two concerns,authorities and oversight, are grounded in statutes and legislative history and are the focus of this article. The second two concerns, transparency and “rice bowls,” can be quickly identified and dismissed as policy arguments rather than legitimate legal concerns.

Ranging from matters of policy to bureaucratic infighting, the debates obscure the nature of how American drones are used abroad, who is using them, and where that falls under both national and international law.

Perhaps, instead, we can discern the proper place for drones from a campaign in which they are prominently featured but conventional boots on the ground are not.  In Yemen, the US has found itself supporting the national government with drones as they actively fight against an al Qaeda that holds territory. Joshua Foust writes:

Obama followed through on his promise. He had already dramatically increased the pace of operations in Yemen, using the famed JSOC units to coordinate a series of deadly strikes against AQAP (part of a global, Obama-overseen expansion in drone strikes). Those operations continued throughout the next year. The war in Yemen had come into full force.

But what has that war actually accomplished? In this week’s public discussion of the latest underwear bomb, U.S. officials have estimated that AQAP has more than a thousand fighters in Yemen. Can we reasonably call our counterterrorism efforts there a success if the terrorist organization there has tripled at the same time?

If drones are a tool to kill enemy combatants, the net effect of their use shouldn’t be to attract more enemies under the black banners. Since the objective of the drone campaign certainly wasn’t to strengthen al Qaeda, this is a failure of strategy.

The failure of drones to resolve Yemen shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of the technology; drones themselves have proven to be just one of many payload delivery systems useful against non-state threats. If there’s a problem with our approach, it’s not that drones can’t hit targets.  It’s not even that US human intelligence is lacking (though that is a major problem, leading to both imprecision and an incredibly loose definition of “militant“.) The problem is that by focusing on the specific technology of drones, we are ignoring the debate over the goals and strategy that drones are supposed to serve.

In the same piece on Yemen, Foust addresses this:

The challenge in Yemen is, ultimately, a political one: an illegitimate government struggling with multiple resistance and rebellion movements, in addition to a terrorist movement slowly making inroads into one of them. That’s probably not a challenge that can be ultimately solved by sending in JSOC and firing a bunch of drones into the desert; it is a challenge that requires a comprehensive political, economic, and social framework for addressing the many facets of the problem. Of course, the U.S. also has diplomats in Yemen, and many policy and economic analysts back in Washington are working tirelessly on the country’s problems. But the point is that terrorist-killing drones are not the answer.

War, after all, is politics by other means. Without a clear political objective, we cannot  use force to resolve conflict, and may well end up pursuing a target-centric strategy that succeeds in killing members of al Qaeda but fails to stanch the inflow of new recruits.   While it’s important to have a clear understanding of who is operating drones and with what authority, that is secondary to having a clear political objective and a means by which the conflict can end.

Most American drone debates ignore this, using the technology instead as a stand-in or strawman for the policy objected to or the goal advanced. So long as the debate focuses on a specific category of surveillance and delivery system, it will skirt around the heart of the issue: how are we going to actually win these wars, and are drones going to help us do it? And if we’re not talking about conflicts with political solutions, if this is the grey area of law enforcement and military assistance abroad, should we be pursuing it the way we fight our wars?*

If we want to figure out end points for our drone wars, we need to be debating policies and objectives, not tech. And if we want to remove drones from the many grey areas under which they currently operate, we can do that without awkward charts and vague inferences. It will just take serious thought and action by our national legislature. If we can, we’ll avoid waiting for a cross-border DEA-sanctioned drone strike that will let precedent decide instead.  Ball’s in your court, Congress.


*Over on my quick-takes foreign policy tumblr, I’ve been engaged in a conversation about how the Global War on Terror resembles the War on Drugs in it’s interdiction & law enforcement goals, and how this strategy leads to using military assets abroad without a clear point at which the conflict is resolved. It is not a terribly reassuring picture of future success.

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How Games Model Covert Action

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.

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