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Let’s Play War

Could war games replace the real thing?

In the spring of 1964, as fighting escalated in Vietnam, several dozen Americans gathered to play a game. They were some of the most…By Jonathon Keats

In the spring of 1964, as fighting escalated in Vietnam, several dozen Americans gathered to play a game. They were some of the most powerful men in Washington: the director of Central Intelligence, the Army chief of staff, the national security advisor, and the head of the Strategic Air Command. Senior officials from the State Department and the Navy were also on hand.

Players were divided into two teams, red and blue, representing the Cold War superpowers. The teams operated out of separate rooms in the Pentagon, role-playing confrontation in Southeast Asia, simulated in a neutral command center. Receiving each team’s orders, the command center’s experts modeled the blue and red moves, and issued mock intelligence reports in response. Reports reflected the evolving conflict, but the intelligence was intentionally distorted to replicate the fog of war. After days of playing out different scenarios, the war gamers reached the conclusion that civilians in the United States and the rest of the world would vocally protest an American bombing offensive.

The need to anticipate the dynamics of conflict increased as the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August of 1964, effectively declaring war on North Vietnam. So another war game was played.1 The objective was to play out the situation in Southeast Asia six months in the future. After ruling out an American nuclear attack, the teams role-played their way to a quagmire, in which the North Vietnamese countered every U.S. move in spite of lives lost and ruined infrastructure. The games forecast political crisis in the U.S., with no plausible path to American military victory. For the second time in a year, war games proved prescient, and also futile, as the government insisted on letting tragedy play out for real.

gaming peace: Buckminister Fuller, at the head of the table, leads a seminar on his World Game in New York City in 1969. His Dymaxion map on the wall behind him envisions all the continents on Earth as a single island in a sea, underscoring the world population’s interdependence.Courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller foresaw the consequences of American intervention in Vietnam without the help of a military simulation. A professional visionary, Fuller was a self-made engineer-architect-inventor whose interests spanned from mathematics to philosophy. Born in Massachusetts in 1895, Fuller devoted his life to making “the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

As the Vietnam conflict spiraled out of control, Fuller had a solution. His idea was simple: Instead of playing secret war games deep inside the Pentagon, the United States should host a world peace game out in the open. The concept was an elaboration on his proposal to build a geoscope inside the U.S. Pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair. An animated Dymaxion world map would show all the resources on the planet, as well as all human and natural activity, from troop deployment to ocean currents.2 On this map, the world’s leaders and citizens of all nations would be invited to publicly wage peace. He cast the world game as a political system, a completely democratic alternative to voting in which people collectively played out potential solutions to shared problems.

“The objective of the game would be to explore for ways to make it possible for anybody and everybody in the human family to enjoy the total earth without any human interfering with any other human and without any human gaining advantage at the expense of another,” Fuller wrote. “To win the World Game everybody must be made physically successful. Everybody must win.”

Buckminister Fuller had a solution to the Vietnam War: Host a world peace game out in the open.

Fuller’s world game was a means of achieving “desovereignization,” the importance of which he illustrated with a vivid military metaphor. “We have today, in fact, 150 supreme admirals and only one ship—Spaceship Earth,” he wrote. “We have the 150 admirals in their 150 staterooms each trying to run their respective stateroom as if it were a separate ship.” Those supreme admirals embodied geopolitics for Fuller. His world game was presented as an alternative to their warring.

World games, Fuller insisted, were a remedy for war because they were the antithesis of war games, and an antidote to “zero-sum” game theory, a system in which conflicts were modeled mathematically to rationally determine the optimal strategy for winning. Fuller got his idea all the way to Capitol Hill. “Game theory,” he informed the Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations in 1969, “is employed by all the powerful nations today in their computerized reconnoitering in scientific anticipation of hypothetical World Wars III, IV, and V.” The theory of war gaming, he said, “which holds that ultimately one side or the other must die, either by war or starvation, is invalid.” The U.S. government rejected Fuller’s plan. The Pentagon-funded RAND Corporation called his writings and Senate testimony “a potpourri of pitchmanship for an ill-conceived computer-based game” that would “retard real progress in the field.”

Yet for all the good reasons that Fuller and RAND had to be wary of each other, their differences were never as zero-sum as they professed. In the years since the Cold War, the relationship between games of war and peace has grown more nuanced and intertwined in today’s computer game industry. As the maverick inventor envisioned, multi-user war games, networked across the globe, could allow the world to play for peace.


If one computer-game designer can be said to have first captured the Fuller spirit, it is Will Wright. SimCity and Wright’s later creations—so-called “God games,” including SimEarth and Spore, are ludic platforms for utopian experimentation.

Wright was inspired by board war games. The first such game was likely Tactics, created in 1953 by a former soldier named Charles Roberts. Tactics was played on the map of a fictitious landscape. It included tables to calculate casualties and counters to represent battalions. The self-published game sold well enough for Roberts to found a company, Avalon Hill, which launched the recreational war-gaming industry.3

Wright started playing Avalon Hill war games as a teenager in the 1970s. A decade later, as personal computers started to become commonplace, he decided to program a game of his own. Raid on Bungling Bay didn’t appear as cerebral as the Avalon board games he’d played. On the surface, it was a first-person shooter embedded in a flight simulator. But Wright had incorporated a sort of military-industrial realism, where the targets chosen by a player impacted enemy capabilities. The way to win was not to develop better reflexes, but to intuit the dynamics of weapons manufacturing and supply chains.

war for the whole family: Tactics, created by a soldier named Charles Roberts in 1953, is likely the first mass-market war game. It contained tables for casualties and counters to represent battalions. Roberts started a company, Avalon Hill, that launched the commercial war-game industry.Tactics via The Strong Museum of Play

Wright’s next game dispensed with reflexes entirely. In SimCity, the player was mayor of a make-believe municipality, responsible for managing the urban dynamics of sustenance and growth. Crucially, there was no preordained goal. The player set personal standards of what the city should become and strove to make the sim conform to that vision. As in any real city, it wasn’t easy. (Attract companies by lowering taxes and the decline in social services may raise crime rates, driving away business.) SimCity’s urban scaffolding could support endless variations. It was not a specific game but a logical framework for gaming. Wright has described it as a “possibility space,” in which a player becomes the game’s designer, and the design of a game is a design for society.

Around the same time that Wright was transitioning from Avalon Hill to Bungling Bay, two students at the University of Essex in 1978, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, programmed a multiplayer adventure game for the campus computer network. The text-based role-playing game was the first of its kind, a sort of Dungeons & Dragons quest open to anybody who logged onto the mainframe. Trubshaw and Bartle called their creation Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD, a name that became the moniker for a whole genre of network-based adventure games, especially once the Internet networked everyone.

As advances in computing passed from the military to the commercial sector, the MUDs that followed Multi-User Dungeon evolved from text-based interaction to graphic exploration. These online environments invited discovery and conquest. Players could collaborate or compete. They could build together or kill each other. Eventually these modes of online engagement drifted apart. The collaborative impulse led to virtual worlds, including Second Life, populated by player-controlled avatars that keep house, socialize, and dabble in virtual sex. The competitive drive resulted in massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft, in which avatars go to battle and collect loot.

The relationship between games of war and has become intertwined in today’s computer game industry.

The number of people who participate in virtual worlds and MMOs is staggering. At its peak, Second Life hosted 800,000 inhabitants—nearly the number of people living in San Francisco—and World of Warcraft reached a peak population of 12 million. Another massively popular genre—one more pertinent to promoting peace—is the God game genre. (Wright’s titles alone have sold 180 million copies.)4

But God games have never fit the massive multiplayer format, since the premise of a God game is omnipotence, which logically cannot be shared. Electronic Arts, the publisher of SimCity, tried to split the difference with an online multiplayer re-release in 2013. (Cities remained autonomous, but could trade and collaborate on “great works.”) The awkward combination of antithetical genres quite naturally provoked a backlash. SimCity cannot become what it was never meant to be. What’s needed instead are games designed from the start to allow a massive multiplicity of players to interact in open-ended possibility spaces.

Crucially, these virtual worlds would not be neutral backdrops in the vein of Second Life. Like SimCity and war games, they’d be logically rigorous and internally consistent. There’d be causality and consequences, and there’d be tension, drawn out by constraints such as limited resources and time pressure. Also like SimCity and war games, these virtual worlds would be simplified, model worlds with deliberate and explicit compromises tailored to the topics being gamed. There could be many permutations, so that none inadvertently becomes authoritative. The only real guideline for setting variables would be to adjust them to breed what Wright has described as “life at the edge of chaos.”

Within these worlds, scenarios could be played out by the massive multiplicity of globally networked gamers. Players wouldn’t need to be designated red or blue, but could simply be themselves, self-organizing into larger factions as happens in many MMOs. Scenarios could be crises and opportunities. Imagine a global financial meltdown that destroys the value of all government-issued currencies, provoking the United Nations to issue a “globo” as an emergency unit of exchange. Would the globo be adopted, or would private currencies quash it? And what would be the consequences as the economy got rebuilt? A single universal currency might be a stabilizing force, binding the economic interests of people and nations, or it could be destabilizing on account of its scale and complexity. It could promote peace or provoke war. Games allowing players to collaborate and compete their way out of crisis would serve as crowd-sourced simulations, each different, none decisive, all informative.

As the number of players increased through the evolution of world gaming, the outcomes of these games would inform an increasingly large proportion of the planet. At a certain stage, if the numbers became great enough, gameplay would verge on reality—and even merge into reality—because players would collectively accumulate sufficient anticipatory experience to play their part in the real world more wisely. Whole aspects of game-generated infrastructure—such as in-game non-governmental organizations and businesses—could be readily exported since the essential relationships would have already been built. Games would also serve as richly informative polls, revealing public opinion to politicians.

Or they could play a more direct goal in governance. One of Fuller’s ideas—that gaming could serve as an alternative to voting—could potentially be realized with a plurality of people gaming national and global eventualities. For any given issue, different proposals could be gamed in parallel. As some games collapsed, gamers would be able to join more viable games until the most gameable proposal was played through by all. That game would be a surrogate ballot, the majority position within the game serving as a legislatively or diplomatically binding decision. Provided that citizens consented from the start, it would be fully compatible with democratic principles—and could break the gridlock undermining modern democracies.

When Fuller presented the world game as a method of reckoning how to achieve world peace, he wasn’t ambitious enough. The act of gaming must make peace in its own right. Operating at the scale of reality, the game that everybody wins must build our future world.


Jonathon Keats is an experimental philosopher, artist and writer. This essay is excerpted fromYou Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, published by Oxford University Press.


Footnotes

1. Participants in the Sigma I and II war games are a who’s who of the Vietnam era, including Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Earl Wheeler. Military historian Martin van Creveld observes that “except perhaps for a few medieval tournaments, probably in the whole of history no higher-ranking group of men had ever played a war game of any kind.”

2. Dymaxion—a composite of dynamic, maximum, and tension—was a sort of brand name Fuller applied to most everything he came up with.

3. There were predecessors, notably Little Wars, a rule book for a game with toy soldiers, written by H.G. Wells in 1913. Wells proposed opposing generals play his game instead of warring, leaving everyone else to live in peace.

4. Such numbers have inspired Jane McGonigal, a social game designer, to argue that gamers are “our most readily engagable citizens.” However, contrary to Fuller, she says, “there’s a better chance of world peace coming out of games involving world-changing science than diplomacy and geopolitical gain.”


A longer version of this article was originally published in our “2050” issue in September, 2016.

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