This focus on harnessing the innovative power of the private sector is not unique to the DoD. To ease the burden of refocusing our nation’s space program, NASA is to have greater cooperation with private rocket developers. I hear our nuclear stockpile is need of modernization, perhaps we can get some private firms on that too, while we’re at it.
And yet little has been made of some basic elements of military effectiveness working their way back into consumer culture. Specifically, the current generation of war-themed video games has required players to—at least subconsciously—take into consideration the elements key to military effectiveness in order to succeed. Players, primarily males aged 12-30, are passively learning what is necessary for a successful military engagement by nights spent on games like Modern Warfare 2 or MAG.
Scenarios in war games are moving further and further away from simple “run n’ gun” deathmatch action in favor of more objective-based game types where players must work together to hold points, plant explosives, or establish a headquarters. Clans—teams that practice and play competitively against other clans together online—tend to work out specific roles for each player in order to operate more efficiently in securing objective. War games ever since Counter-Strike have required a team to balance themselves with different weapons and capabilities to improve their chances of victory. Snipers and machine gunners lay down suppressive fire so that light infantry may advance. Players with riot shields may take the place of armor, punching through enemy lines and providing cover for an advance of infantry. A well-balanced team thus replicates the technical skills and weapons handling necessary for success in the real field.
But things have become even more complex. With the advent of headsets (by no means a recent occurrence), information sharing has made the dominance of teams even greater. With the ability to identify and communicate the state of targets or the placement of enemy weapons and personnel, the cohesive team will make short work of casual gamers paired with strangers. Unit cohesion is key, as those that move systematically together on a target are the most likely to take it. In most games, players in close proximity will make recorded announcements that they are throwing a flashbang, reloading, or have taken down an enemy. Elements of the heads up display (HUD) such as radar showing target, enemy, and friendly locations, a running scoreboard, and the amount of ammunition available are a vital source of (albeit unrealistic) information for players. Anyone who has suffered an enemy EMP in Modern Warfare 2 can attest to what an impact the loss of this information can have on players.
Games have been seeking greater integration of different weapons systems, with the ability to call in airstrikes, use UAV missiles, or even call in a game-ending tactical nuke. The more arcade-style Battlefield series allows players to hop from airplane to landing craft to tank to anti-aircraft gun. The integration of these weapons systems has proven unrealistic and rather clumsy, often as a reward for success in the field. Similarly, the ranks players earn through taking checkpoints or killing opponents have had little relevance in the actual heat of battle.
But that appears to be changing. The new Playstation 3 game MAG allows battles of up to 256 players on massive online maps. There are objectives to be held, but other strong points such as pillboxes must be held or destroyed in order to make victory possible. To manage this mass of digital humanity, the game’s designers have made tactical leadership central to the game. Before each match, players interested in an officer’s position may enter their name in the running. Units of eight are each assigned an officer who decides what targets the unit should go after, and based on unit performance may earn the right to call in air strikes or other support. Though it may seem that players would quickly ignore their officer’s commands those that stay close to their leader get benefits such as faster reloading and greater accuracy, providing an incentive for greater tactical play.
As the games support ever larger fields of players, it seems that this sort of tactical leadership will have to be expanded, perhaps to the level of actual generalship where a few players get to decide the overall strategy the lower officers must pursue. Whether this will prove enticing to casual gamers such as myself remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is interesting that both game developers and players are quickly realizing that basic rules of military effectiveness—unit cohesion, information management, tactical leadership, and perhaps even one day generalship—are just as vital to victory in the virtual world as they are on our modern battlefields. Perhaps greater cooperation between industry and the military will prove better for all involved (it is worth noting that the Navy SEALS have provided technical advice to both the Modern Warfare and SOCOM series). Let’s just hope no one in the field decides a tactical nuke after a twenty-five kill streak is actually a good idea.