Sunday, May 20, 2012

Crowdsourced Wargaming

The Naval Postgraduate School is out with its latest MMOWGLI, in coordination with the Office of Naval Research's Department of Innovation.   If you have an interest in experimenting with alternative energy solutions for national security, now is your chance.

MMOWGLI is the cool sounding name for a typical bureaucratic acronym:  Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet.  An Online Wargame that Leverages the Internet?  I never would have imagined the possiblity!

Pirates of Somalia
Before I get too snarky, I actually think this is a really cool concept.  I've been intrigued by the NPS efforts in wargaming since they came out with their first one looking for solutions to ongoing piracy issues.

The current effort is described below:
The new game is Energy MMOWGLI which brings together players to consider how to reduce the heavy reliance by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps on a finite, expensive and unreliable supply of fossil fuels. This dependency degrades our strategic position and the tactical performance of our forces. The global supply of oil is finite, it is increasingly difficult to find, and [its] cost continues to rise. We need to improve our energy security, increase our energy independence, and help lead the nation towards a clean energy economy. Among other themes, we plan to examine the Navy Energy Security Strategy and consider Energy Efficient Acquisition, Sail the "Great Green Fleet," Reduce Non-Tactical Petroleum Use, Increase Alternative Energy Ashore, and Increase Alternative Energy Use DON-Wide.
This green initiative has been the pet-project of current Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.  In recent years, biofuels have been used to fly Super Hornets, and shortly, to power the Great Green Fleet.  I'll leave that debate for another post.

In harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, especially for military problems, we're exposing our strategists to the widest possible audience.   A game that sends messages back and forth seems a bit clunky for the HTML 2.0 world we live in, but it's a good start.

A similar project, called Fold-it, was unveiled a few years back to help protein researchers.  The complexity involved was such that computers could not accurately do what was needed, so someone had the idea of making a game out of it.  They opened it up to a worldwide human audience, and had a massive response.  The best players often have no knowledge of DNA proteins, yet are helping solve difficult problems.  They compete not for money, but rather to help science and get the best scores.

The expansion of crowdsourced military wargaming could yield similar unanticipated, but highly valuable, results.  Millions already play first person shooter and strategic video games.  These games could be utilized by military strategists to put crazy tactics out for trial in the Cloud.

Imagine a game with a set amount of money, and a myriad of options for building a fleet -- big supercarriers, all the way down to cigarette boats.  Have $10 billion?  1 carrier or 1,000 small missile boats.  Who wins?  Now, change the scenario and try again.

The key is getting civilian gamers immersed and interested to come up with the most interesting solutions.  Have them play both sides of the equation.  Are Chinese hordes repelled by lots of small craft or a few strategically placed assets?  Do the North Koreans ever win?  What if Iran did something completely unpredictable?

We debate these things all the time in our military communities.  But we can also take the thousands of iterations developed by thinking, unorthodox civilians, and compile the data.  Strategists can cull lessons from both brilliant and laughable strategies -- all at minimal real world cost.   L3 or the like and their supporting Congressional delegation will probably throw a fit when they lose a multi-billion contract for scripted wargames, but such is life in a dynamic, ever changing world. 

In fact, Malcolm Gladwell, in How Underdogs Can Win, described something exactly like this concept, only from a 1980's iteration.  A computer programmer with no experience in military strategy defeated the best military minds.  Quite simply, he thought completely outside the box in terms of his fleet composition and tactical deployment.  It was a shocking strategy -- agile, cheap boats swarming an opponent and leaving damaged compatriots to flounder -- but it worked.

Captain America for the 21st Century
To be sure, strategies that abandon fellow soldiers to their fate are not what we want to be pushing as a military.  But it is good to look at the lessons from unconventional solutions.  Things can always be culled.   Instead of merely changing the rules, as Gladwell's organizers did, why didn't the Gamemasters consider these swarming tactics and their effectiveness?  It certainly would have helped twenty years later when General Van Ripper used the same tactic during the Millennium Challenge 2002 -- and virtually sunk an entire US Fleet.  Until the rules were changed...and the good General resigned in protest. 

All this is to say efforts like MMOWGLI are valuable in harnessing the power of crowdsourced solutions for military and strategic ends.  People don't even have to know what they are supporting to be sucked into a game.  And the lessons learned from failed, as well as unconventionally successful, strategies will be a boon to those thinking about and composing Doctrine.

NPS and ONR both have at least started to think along these lines.  So much more could be done at little cost, with existing technology and a volunteer workforce of videogamers ready to jump in.  It may upend our conventions about how wars will be fought, but I can almost guarantee that whatever foe we fight next will do so anyway.

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