I'm no strategist. I might beat a paper bag at chess if somebody Tasered the bag first. But fighting the Taliban? America would end up speaking Pashto.
Yet I write frequently about the U.S. military and video games. And when I had a chance to play an Army game on counterinsurgency -- COIN, to the cognoscenti -- I couldn't resist. What happens when the world's dumbest armchair strategist tries his hand at quelling an insurgency?
UrbanSim is a U.S. Army game that teaches COIN to battalion commanders. Where most Pentagon computer simulations look like spreadsheets and are just as fun to play, UrbanSim, which came out in 2009, resembles the kind of strategy game that many of us enjoy at home. That's probably because it was developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies, an innovative University of Southern California center funded by the Army and with deep ties to Hollywood and the video-game industry. But though it looks like a militarized version of SimCity, UrbanSim is actually a sophisticated simulation that incorporates factors such as economic conditions and social networking ties, and analyzes how these factors sway the population to back the government or the insurgents.
This is new ground for the U.S. military, which has traditionally been most comfortable with computer simulations rooted in the empirical. How much armor can a cannon shell punch through? How many MiG-29s could an F-15 shoot down? Such Cold War-era models weren't always accurate, but at least they could pretend to be based on science. COIN, on the other hand, is all about mushy intangibles -- psychology, sociology, political science. And if the social scientists can't agree among themselves how to quantify these things, how can a computer game do it?
The military's own simulation experts laugh at the notion that commanders will ever be able to click a mouse and have a computer tell them the perfect strategy for destroying the Taliban. Yet a computer game might at least give them a sense of how officers' decisions have consequences. Repairing the local sewer system is like casting a stone in a pond; the ripples shift the population's mood, which in turn changes support for the insurgents, which affects the number of attacks from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- and could eventually alter the course of the war.