War Games

The real Land Warrior System on the left, and Ghost Recon on the right

I am by no means the first to report this, but there are some eerie similarities between Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon game from 2001 and the current conflict in South Ossetia. Ghost Recon is set in April 2008 when an ultra-nationalist Russian president seeking to rebuild the Soviet Union invades Georgia. US Green Berets are deployed to South Ossetia to battle armed rebels and Russian troops. In reality, the conflict broke out in August, not April, and Russia was defending itself after Georgia staged a sneak attack in South Ossetia against Russian peace keepers and civilians, but the way the US media has portrayed Russia as the aggressor, you’d think Tom Clancy was dead on.

Commentators pointing out the similarity between Ghost Recon and reality have noted that the key difference is that no US troops were involved in the fighting, but in fact that’s a detail Clancy got right. We don’t know of any Green Berets in the conflict, but Russian media has reported US instructors guiding Georgian forces. Civilians in South Ossetia claimed to see soldiers in black uniforms with American flags on their sleeves. Even if the accounts of black uniformed soldiers were innacurate, there were definitely NATO training excercises and US military instructors in Georgia this past July. I wonder if any of those soldiers ever played Ghost Recon. I wonder how the experience playing the game affected their experience guiding real soldiers in such a similar conflict.

At the Games Learning and Society conference this past July many people claimed that we’re witnessing the gestation of ludic century. This will be an era of games everywhere, from the classroom to the living room to the factory floor. Perhaps this is so. We are already seeing the rise of ludic warfare.

America’s Army not only recruits for the military, it also trains. Players become familiar with the real capabilities of modern military weapons and with modern tactics. Obviously, this does not mean gamers seamlessly transition onto the battlefield, but they are learning about real elements of warfare–as opposed to the constant jumping and laser blasts in a Halo multiplayer match. They are also learning these tactics and weapons from a first person perspective, which research has shown dramatically improves understanding and retnetion.

Ghost Recon’s sequel, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (GRAW) was practically a digital brochure for the Army’s current Land Warrior System, an attempt to leverage satalite communications and digital technology to help US infantry in combat. The soldiers in GRAW even wear name brand, real world military gear, from their Oakley SI Assault boots to their Crye Precision Combat Shirt. Popular Mechanics ran and article comparing the gear in GRAW to the real Land Warrior System currently in development and found (unsurprisingly) the GRAW system far superior.

The game is set in 2014, however, so it’s not impossible that in another 7 years much of the technology in GRAW could be available to real soldiers. An 11 year-old kid today could be learning about weapons he’ll be using within a decade.

The transition from simulation to reality is even more seamless when players move from controlling a virtual Predator Drone in a game to controlling a real one flying over Iraq. Weapons makers are increasingly learning from game makers, and developing controls similar to game controllers. There are actually military-grade X-box controllers that soldiers use to control bomb detection robots and robotic machine gun turrets. Last week Slate ran an article about how the stress of dropping Hellfire missiles on Iraqis from the safety of an Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) thumb stick in Arizona compares to the stress of doing it from a jet cockpit. The answer is: it doesn’t. Flying a UAV is, by design, far less stressful than participating in actual combat and so soldiers are able to fly more numerous and longer missions than combat soldiers.

But even sitting in a cockpit is far less stressful than patrolling a Baghdad neighborhood. The internet is littered with cockpit camera videos, like this one, showing helicopter gunners looking through night vision cameras at oblivious, armed, dehumanized Iraqis and then calmly anhilating them with a hail of 30mm cannon fire. The more we train our soldiers with simulations and then isolate them from the stress of battle, the easier it is for them to kill. This is intentional; the military wants proficient, unemotional killing machines. Game based training and game-controller fired weapons create a perfect synergy to accomplish this.

None of this is a criticism against simulations, games, or game-based learning. These are simply tools and techniques applicable to a variety of situations. The army teaches snipers to relax using breath control and I don’t think that means ti chi produces stone cold killers. If we are really entering a ludic century though, we need to consider the full ramifications of ubiquitous gaming.

The military will use games to recruit, train and even fight wars. Advertising games will become as common (and as annoying) as telemarketers and billboards. We will even see crime and terrorism games where players purposely or indvertedly participate in or are victimized by illegal activity. Think phishing scams and cyberwar meet casual browser games. This may very well be the ludic century and we’ll see educational gaming revolutionize our dreary, banking-method school system, but the expansion of the magic circle may have some very unpleasant implications as well.