29 September 2011

COIN Thru Videogames

Defense journalist Michael Peck has an excellent tour through UrbanSim over at Foreign Policy magazine's site.

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.

He also drives home a serious point about the way the US Army views game-based training.

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.

Go read his play-thru's on the game, too. It's a nice tour of the game.

By: Brant


ltmurnau said...

Here’s the takeaway line for me, near the conclusion of the article: “Many hidden assumptions lie underneath UrbanSim’s hood, and a simulation can only be as accurate as those assumptions.”

Michael seemed confused by the game - he did several differnt things and none of them seemed to be the magic bullet. He recovers at the end by explaining that UrbanSim is not meant to be an accurate simulation at all, but an exploration of the consequences of decisions made.

That's fine, and I can understand why the game’s designer would not want to impose some kind of “DS solution” (not sure what you would call this in the American military) on the structure of the game, but there must have been some decisions made… or is the outcome of every decision in the game purposely randomized to an extent that it doesn’t really matter what you do?

I wanna look under the hood!

Colonel Noob said...

Perhaps I didn't make it sufficiently clear in the FP piece, but I wasn't sure how or if my decisions affected the outcome of the game. I doubt the process is random, but it is opaque. So it's hard to judge whether the cause-and-effect sequences that the student sees are giving an accurate flavor of what happens in real life. The game may be more concept than simulation, but the student is bound take away some lessons that he thinks the game is teaching.

ltmurnau said...

Michael, I think you made it abundantly clear in your piece.

I've said this before of course, it's the opacity of these computer games that bothers me the most about them; sure they are great for graphics and animation and taking care of lots of little variables and things real humans find it a chore to track all the time, but the designer will almost never explain his assumptions and methods. This is easier to suss out in a paper game of course, but as you've made clear elsewhere, these things are quite passe from the military's point of view.

Anonymous said...

Downloaded the game, kicked the tires and failed miserably! Never let aircrew do human touch things, we are good at blowing stuff up from 18000 feet and dropping troops and food!