The U.S. Army wants you -- to help to design a game that can help defeat baddies like the Taliban.
You don't need to be a gamer or a counterinsurgency guru. Just someone who can apply a little creative thinking to help the Army's Command and General Staff College (CGSC) design a computer simulation for its class in "stability operations" -- the kinder, gentler name for the now-unfashionable concept of COIN. The target audience isn't teenage Call of Duty players, but Army majors who finish their stability ops training with a brigade staff exercise where they roleplay the staff decisions they would be making during deployment in Afghanistan or some other un-stabilized hotspot. Thus the need for a computer simulation that can help instructors run the exercise, by handling the bookkeeping and adjudicating the results of student decisions -- such as beefing up patrols in Kandahar or rebuilding infrastructure in Kirkuk.
Normally, CGSC would have sent these requirements to the Army's acquisitions bureaucracy, which would then solicit and purchase a simulation from a contractor. Instead, CGSC opted to think outside the institutional box. They are turning to the public in a process known as crowdsourcing, soliciting input from people like you and me. Think of it as Wikigamebuilding. It's a new concept that has been successfully used by organizations such as the Naval Postgraduate School and its MMOWGLI (Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet), where players were asked to watch an online presentation and then offer short suggestions for combating piracy.
"We're a small team, and that can lead to groupthink," says James Sterrett, deputy simulations chief at CGSC's Digital Leader Development Center at Fort Leavenworth. "We're hoping for crosschecks on our thinking. What did we miss? Is our concept completely mad? Is it clear? Are there simulations out there that already do what we need?"
To get the word out, CGSC opted to post its draft requirements on PaxSims, a prominent blog on the military, international affairs, and games, run by McGill University political scientist and avid gamer Rex Brynen. You've got until Sept. 17 to post your comments on this PaxSims blog post.
CGSC is open to suggestions, but here's a few things you need to know. You can't suggest a simulation that requires a supercomputer or a gaggle of contractors to run it. This has to be inexpensive, doesn't require more than an hour to install, and can be run by someone who doesn't know much about computers. In fact, it should probably be easier to learn than a strategy game like Civilization 5 or Simcity.
Nor do you have to come up with ideas for a predictive simulation that will concoct a strategy to defeat the Taliban, nor one of those hyper-mathematical models that computes one smart bomb can kill 1.3974 insurgents. The sim just needs to be good enough to produce roughly plausible cause-and-effect. For example, the game should depict the interconnectedness of infrastructure: "A water pumping station's effectiveness might be dependent on the effectiveness of an electrical substation, whose effectiveness is in turn dependent on the state of repair of a power plant; thus, the water plant and the substation could be in perfect condition, yet delivering no benefit because the power plant was not functional," says the requirements document. In other words, the game should demonstrate that the rebuilding the water plant, but forgetting to fix the electricity, is a no-no.
CGSC provides a few ideas of what the sim would look like. Featured scenarios "include situations based on Afghanistan, Iraq, relatively well-developed regions (such as the Pushkino Rayon in the GAAT [Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey] scenario used at CGSC), and completely undeveloped regions (such as the Horn of Africa in the Cerasia scenario used with British exchange officers at CGSC." The map would be divided into areas, which would be populated by the usual COIN-ish stew of U.S. troops, insurgents, NGOs, criminal gangs, and so on, plus the civilian population. "Populations have scenario-author defined needs desires, such as the need for water, or the desire to have no US troops in their area; meeting or failing to deliver these outcomes impacts their attitude to various sides," reads the requirements document. Each group would have various attributes, including relationships with other groups, as well as funds that they can spend on activities such as reconstruction.