The Serious World of Games
“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”
Joseph Chilton Pearce
Abstract. Games are as old as mankind itself, but the power of this
means of play has exploded with the advent of the computer
revolution. The separation between games and reality has
narrowed; the capability to control the human perception of
reality puts new approaches to cognition within reach. Games
have begun a small penetration into the knowledge enterprise
that is the Intelligence Community, but it is clear that, standing
upon a robust commercial framework, there is an opportunity to
create a powerful set of novel ways to support analysis. The trick is
in the selection.
What are games? In the largest sense they are representations of reality with special sets of
rules--small slices of the real world that can be manipulated, controlled, reimagined, and
replayed. Games are often thought of chiefly as a means of recreation, but they have a long
history of more serious purposes. What student of military history has not read of the sand
tables of the General Staff, or visualized Napoleon himself crawling about on a great map
planning the next campaign?
With the advent of personal computers and increasingly powerful computational
capabilities, the sand tables and board games of the past have taken on new life. The immersive
nature of the computer gaming experience has been immediately recognized and exploited for
entertainment. This exploitation has quickly become a worldwide thirty billion dollar per year
industry. Game designers, anxious to expand their reach into education, policy formulation,
intelligence and military training; and equally anxious to avoid the stigma of having too much
fun, were quick to create the concept of the "serious game."
When the US Army Recruiting Command was faced with the need to identify and attract
potential volunteers they were among the first to turn to a "serious" computer game. America's
Army, a free public game played across the internet, has
become so popular that it has been licensed for recreational
use by Sony and Microsoft and has been issued for the Sony
PlayStation and the Microsoft X-box 360. Players of the online
game--virtual soldiers-- far outnumber their real counterparts.
The scenarios for America's Army have mushroomed in
number; the roles that players can assume have expanded into the expected fields of Special
Forces, Rangers, and special operations, but also into such somewhat surprising skills such as
America's Army not only provides fun for players--a necessity for even a serious game--but it
carefully inculcates Army values of valor, honor, and teamwork. The America’s Army experience
is so realistic that, through the interface of real-world control panels from modern weapon
systems into the game, real life Army units have been able to employ the computer game
America's Army as a partial task trainer for sophisticated and expensive weapons--weapons
that a soldier might fire in real life only a few times in his entire career.
While it has proven possible to use computer interfaces other than the ubiquitous mouse,
many commentators point out that the reverse trend is underway as well. As more and more
systems adopt the familiar computer metaphor the separation between games and real life
becomes ever narrower. We are rapidly approaching the situation that was portrayed in one of
the earliest movie investigations of the man-machine interface--War Games. Matthew
Broderick playing a young gamer, is interfaced with WOPR, the computer programmed to
launch a nuclear response to a perceived Soviet ICBM attack. He says, "Is it a game, or is it
real?" The computer answers, "What's the difference?"
Games for "twitch," or games for reasoning?
More than two decades ago even the President of the United States took notice of the growing
impact of computer games:
I recently learned something quite interesting about video
games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye,
and brain coordination in playing these games. The Air Force
believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly
President Ronald Reagan
It continues to be a widely generalized belief that the gaming industry is dominated by games
that are known as “first-person shooters.” The poster child for this genre is a game called
Doom, and it is not uncommon for games with a significant amount of intellectual content to be
denigrated by the judgment, “like Doom.” These games are characterized by a viewpoint over
the front sight of a weapon and a great premium on lightning reflexes, but not all shooters are
mindless exercises in automatic weapons fire.
These features continue to exist in many games, simply
because they are “fun” and they appeal to the adolescent
male, but there are actually many more facets to the serious
world of games. Take as an example a game from
BreakAway Ltd called A Force more Powerful. No automatic weapons are involved. The players
are posed with the problem of organizing, maintaining, and expanding social resistance to a
dictatorial government. They spot and assess potential allies, organize cells, meet clandestinely,
devise propaganda vehicles, and carry out a non-violent resistance campaign. It takes little
imagination to see the power of such games and the potential to use them for many other
related purposes. The game was succinctly described in Wired Magazine:
The game doesn't require an itchy trigger finger or keen hand-to-
eye coordination; rather, it relies entirely on strategy as well as
historical recreations. Players can set up their own scenarios,
based on their own situation on the ground, and experiment with
different nonviolent strategies. The game's artificial intelligence
calculates the results.
"You start with just a couple of students under your control, so you
plan parties and meetings, working within society to build up the
strength of your group," said BreakAway CEO Douglas Whatley,
outlining one possible game scenario.
"You have to worry about your organization," he continued. "Do
you set up a hierarchal organization, or a cell-based one? Who is
the best figurehead for the media? What kind of training do
people need? And if you march on the capital without proper
controls, things may turn violent, which will harm your cause.
These are the things people can learn."
"You can have a 'what if' approach," Marovic said. "Play the same
game several times, but try different things every time. You can't
do that with books. This interaction makes a player spend more
time with a game than with a movie. Weeks, instead of hours."
Another game called Global Conflict:Palestine, produced by a Danish company, takes a similar
approach. It has been described as a "first person talker." The player is cast in the role of a
young Western journalist in Jerusalem. He observes, talks to Israeli sources, and Palestinian,
and formulates his stories. He is free to strive for balance or lean to either side, but all his
actions have consequences. In a morally ambiguous situation the player must set a course that
does not harm. The graphics are evocative of Jerusalem and the game play is immersive. As
with A Force More Powerful, the player is free to play again and again pursuing a different
course each time to learn about the putative links between actions and events.
It seems likely that such immersive game experiences can have a serious purpose for analysts.
The idea of gaining at least a convincing representation of operational knowledge has spawned
a number of serious games used to prepare soldiers and diplomats for immersion in an alien
culture. One of the most prolific providers is Tacticallanguage.com. Their products, Tactical
Iraqi , Tactical Pashto, and Tactical French, are available to all members of the US Government.
They provide up to 100 hours of language training in the Iraqi dialect of Arabic, the Pashto
language common to Afghanistan, and the French dialect of the Sahel in Africa. Each course
also teaches cultural sensitivity and basic behavioral norms. The “trick” is the provision of
language training in an immersive environment that is deeply compelling. The student sees
himself as a computer-generated avatar whose actions he or she controls. The avatar meets
other avatars representing members of the local populace. If the language student violates
cultural norms, or speaks the language unintelligibly his computer-driven interlocutors are
quick to react negatively. If on the other hand, the lesson goes well, the player sees his “trust
meter” rise in response to the approval of his actions.
All of these games, it can be argued, may strengthen basic reasoning skills by bringing at least a
synthetic sort of operational experience. They are, however, driven by internal scripts; and
even though they may be played many times with many outcomes, they are still a finite
knowledge space. Another class of “games” may result in an altogether different use of
Create your own world?
There is another class of man-machine interface that is often described as “games” This class is
saddled with the unpronounceable acronym MMORPG—Massive Multiplayer On-line Role
For the sake of convenience, these are often called simply “virtual
worlds.” In the commercial space this class is personified by World of
Warcraft, Second Life, Everquest, Eve Online, and several more. All of
these games vary in certain degrees, settings, characters, goals, and infrastructure.
WoW (as it is called by devotees) is a world of fantasy. Players belong either to the Alliance or
the Horde and life is a constant onslaught of quests, and single player combat. It is difficult to
imagine the utility of such a game in real life, but it is often reported that in certain
occupations, attainment of rank 14 in WoW is a large plus in an employment interview. The
point may be explained by the fact that in the combat contests of WoW the ranking player
might lead a raid team of 5, 10, or 25 individuals. The amount of leadership and organization
that it takes to field these teams and hold them together long enough to achieve high rank is
suspiciously like work, and some employers have begun to recognize high rank as a possible
indicator of potential in the real world as well.
Second Life, unlike World of Warcraft is not presented as a fantasy
world. It has, in fact, no bias at all. The world portrayed in Second
Life is a world created by its inhabitants. Through the agency of a
relatively simple scripting language, the so-called “residents” of
Second Life are enabled to create everything they see and
experience in SL. From trees and flowers to buildings, rooms,
automobiles, helicopters, and spacecraft, anything seen in Second Life has been created by the
There is no script in Second Life. There are no goals; no quests. The metaphor is a second life as
the residents wish to experience it. There are basic social rules, and an economy, but the social
fabric of Second Life is a work in progress. Some social scientists have begun to carry out
controlled experiments within the space of Second Life because they theorize that the same
mechanisms that animate the real world may function much the same in Second Life.
A mental coffee break
In addition to the script-driven games, and the virtual worlds, there is a plethora of simple
recreational games that may have direct utility to the productivity of the modern knowledge
worker. No less an authority on the subject than John Cleese has opined, “If you want creative
workers, give them enough time to play.”
So called “casual games” are usually written in a form called Macromedia Flash, and run in any
internet browser. Some have been designed to run on mobile phones and they generally take
the form of small coordination contests or logic puzzles. They are usually designed to function
as a break from more tedious labor.
Five years from now?
If the boundaries between real life and the serious world of games continue to dissolve it is not
hard to imagine that the computer’s question from War Games will seem very applicable.
Almost every act from the real world has its mirror image in the world of games and virtually
everything in games can be done in the real world with small exceptions. The residents of
Second Life have the power of teleportation, as an example, so there are still separations; but
with the use of visual scripting languages we can begin to think about game creation on the
desktop that could be as accessible in five years as picking up a pencil are today.
Analyst Notebook is ubiquitous in our world, but almost all practitioners recognize that stuffing
four- dimensional reality down into two-dimensional Analyst Notebook charts is nearly
impossible. Once an Analyst Notebook chart begins to approach the complexity of reality it
often becomes incomprehensible, even to its creator.
Imagine a desktop application that would allow an analyst to quickly populate a three-
dimensional world—a world that obeyed the laws of physics, time, space, and distance—a
world where an analyst could set rules of expected behavior and highlight any behavior that fell
outside expected values.
Imagine populating that world by abstracting properties from an identities database that
contained sufficient biometric detail that avatars created by automated routines resembled the
identities contained in the database and acted as described in activity reports. Interaction
between the artificial world and the avatars representing real identity data might allow forensic
investigation. Which individuals were together on the same street on the same day? Could
individual A have walked from his known location to a meeting with individual B in the period
between observations? If we know the relative location of two individuals we can quickly
determine whether they were within visual sight of each other at any point and decide whether
they might have signaled each other.
Think about using the output of surveillance cameras fed into a virtual city. Take the last seen
angle from camera A and walk an avatar through a metrically correct city until the avatar
appears again on camera B. With a network of streets that exactly match their real world
counterparts determine all the feasible paths from A to B that match the elapsed time. Try to
decide whether there was sufficient time, using the most direct path, to carry out a clandestine
meeting out of sight of surveillance.
Using a virtual world means being able to try out every possible version of the truth and it
means that facts, theories, and stories can be tested against objective reality. Analysts often
visualize such situations, but all recollections are conditional, and even the best theory is
vulnerable to the wish to believe.
The power of games is real. The challenge for the current generation of leaders is to identify
those paths that can lead to the desktop analysis tools of the future. While fun is often avoided
for the fear of seeming frivolous, it has proven to be necessary in the process of creation.
Carl Jung observed, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by
the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
The process of intelligence analysis sometimes involves extreme drudgery, but it is fueled by
the thrill of discovery. A game CEO observed succinctly, “No one wants to play a game where
they are a C.P.A. trying to figure out a deduction." The challenge is to recognize the utility of
media where serious work can be accomplished while still recognizing the true nature of the
human mind—the desire to manipulate, control, and ultimately discover.