Five years ago, the National Security Analysis
Department at APL
began using video games as a
way to train commanders and their staff in making critical
battle-related decisions. Now other Lab
areas are plugging into the idea, with staff in various
departments and business areas exploring the
power of gaming to meet sponsor needs.
"Professional gaming is not just a bunch of guys in a
back room wearing cloaks and throwing
dice," said Scott Simpkins, of NSAD's Collaborative
Analysis and Gaming Section. "People across the
Lab are using gaming as an analytical tool because it's
cheaper, faster and allows participants to
explore innovative approaches not available using standard
War games — modeling and simulations —
have been around for more than a century. Evolving from
pencil and paper to board games to computer programs,
they've allowed analysts and military
commanders to examine capabilities and concepts that are
too dangerous, expensive, time-consuming
or simply impossible to study in the real world.
Several independent research and development projects
are exploring the extent to which
computer-based gaming can be developed and used. Nathan
Bos, a psychologist in the Milton
Eisenhower Research Center, is studying the human cognitive
process associated with gaming.
"The technologies pioneered by the gaming industry
— three-dimensional worlds and algorithms
for controlling characters — have opened up
opportunities for running psychological experiments in
different conditions and trying to get better at predicting
behavior," Bos said. "Right now we are
trying to model how the civilian population in a country
would respond to a wartime event."
Bos has been collecting data about Nigeria, and with
that information he is coding computer
characters to exhibit certain personalities and play
styles. Subject-matter experts will test the game
in June. "We are at a point where we can make some loose
predictions about how people in Nigeria
might respond to different types of conflicts," he said.
Another IRAD effort is exploring the applicability of
finite state machines — a technique that
allows simple and accurate design of sequential logic and
control functions — for gaming.
"Our future spacecraft will be armed with finite state
machines that help them make smart
decisions," explained the Space Department's George Cancro,
who leads a project called ExecSpec
that will increase a spacecraft's ability to act
independently from ground operators.
"ExecSpec allows domain experts unfamiliar with
software development to develop complex
behaviors by drawing diagrams. This enables engineers or
spacecraft operators to modify spacecraft
behavior at any time in the mission by changing existing
diagrams or adding more diagrams to the
system," Cancro said.
"It occurred to me one day that if you could develop
complex decision making for spacecraft,
why can't you have that same system make decisions for a
nonplayer character running around in a
game?" he said.
Cancro approached NSAD's Stephen Phillips, who
specializes in creating game environments, and
together with Russell Turner and Ari Greenberg of MERC's
Cognitive and Social Systems Section, they
developed a prototype tool for using state machines to
specify the behavior of nonplayer characters in
an off-the-shelf gaming development system.
"We've shown that we can use finite state machines to
characterize the behavior of nonplayer
characters in a robust virtual environment," Phillips said.
"For instance, I could have an anthropologist
provide the behavior associated with a particular tribe,
then place those attributes on a character in a
"With such a tool," he continued, "a soldier could
spend six months in Afghanistan without ever
leaving Fort Huachuca [in Arizona]. Once his boots are on
the ground in Afghanistan, he's already been
immersed in the culture, and he's ready to interact with
the locals in an intelligent way."
Running parallel to these capability explorations are
NSAD's established, hallmark seminar
games. Under Michael Dean's leadership, the department
hosts country seminars, gathering experts on
a specific country from a variety of fields and
disciplines. "The object is to figure out what that
[information] means to us from a national security
perspective, and what specific policies the U.S.
should consider," Dean said.
In another effort, the Office of the Secretary of
Defense asked the Lab to investigate global
economic and financial scenarios that might have national
security implications. In March, economic,
financial and national security experts with
country-specific expertise gathered at APL to play an
economics game set in 2012.
"We employed some elements of modeling and simulation
to develop a system for the exchange
of information and for some basic decision support tools to
help the game players," said NSAD's Ted
Smyth, who ran the event. "But the game itself was judged
by experts from a broad array of academic
disciplines, government agencies and think tanks.
"Anything that moves us further down the line in terms
of establishing a mechanism for looking
at some of these issues — particularly given the
state of the country — is a gain," Smyth said.
This story appeared previously in APL News.