I RECENTLY READ that the Ministry of Defense (M.O.D.), Britain’s equivalent to the Department of Defense, is having an issue with keeping its recruits’ attention. (Not a real surprising story there.) The M.O.D.’s inability to keep the attention of its potential canon fodder is not being blamed on Britain’s deployment to horrific war zones — after all this is in the job description and what these young men have been sold, and have been buying [my own self included, in a smaller sense] for centuries, as a rite of passage — but because M.O.D.’s war simulators were not fully engaging potential grunts into the peaked interest necessary to compel full commitment to the nation’s military defense. Those boys, mostly; they’d probably rather let DICE and Activision virtually teleport them to the pixelized counterparts of the countries that the West are currently entangled with.
Those who game or follow entertainment business news, will know that Activision and DICE are the names attached to two firms who currently control the first-person shooter/combat simulation market with their current Battlefield 3 (part of the Battlefield series) and Modern Warfare 3 (a part of the Modern Warfare behemoth) titles, respectively. The games, to a lesser degree, are a crash-course in urban warfare, general sniper tactics — the latter, particularly online — and the all-out mayhem soldiers should (somewhat) expect in fighting. But this cannot be stressed enough, that this only to a degree. (You’re in a cushy room, for God sakes.) There are none of the tragedies of war, there are no days and weeks spent in terrible weather conditions on patrol, nor the 50-70 pounds of gear, no dying friends, no complicated interactions with locals who may be resistance fighters: No left behind family left to pick up the pieces of a shattered promise to go through life together. The article is important, though, because it tells the novice and those outside of the subculture of combat simulations’ gamers, in general, what this type of gaming has become.
Troops are so used to playing high-quality commercial games set in combat zones that they tend to lose concentration unless the MoD simulations look equally realistic. This has become an important issue at the MoD, which is increasingly turning to digital simulations to help prepare soldiers for duty.
Thousands of troops sent to Afghanistan have been trained on Virtual Battlespace2, a spin-off from a commercial game that can, for instance, test their responses when they come under mortar attack from insurgents.
Though the military stresses that these games only supplement traditional methods, it reflects the way technology is transforming military training. With budgets being squeezed across the MoD, simulations are also a comparatively cheap way of giving troops a “virtual” taste of what they might come up against in a warzone.
The modern video game experience trumps what many of the advanced militaries of the world can produce in order to train their soldiers for battle, and commercial gaming has unexpectedly become an unofficial augment to government’s official means of recruiting, as war culture products have been, since there has ever been a thing called “culture.” The reason it’s such an uphill slog for governments’ recruiters versus the more realistic vision presented by the gaming industry, particularly those two big-name companies just mentioned, is the profit motive of gaming companies to produce the most realistic experience to date, with each iteration becoming better than the other, as the bar is raised year by year. And as pointed to in the article, the gaming industry as a whole is able to spend more money on perfecting their simulations than the government.
All of this has produced a dialogue between the M.O.D. and private gaming firms to specifically help produce better products for the government. In the United States this has already happened to some degree, when the U.S. Army actually released a game called America’s Army, to decent reviews and sales. So it is quite evident that the military branches of Western governments have a particularly high regard for the ability of games to recruit and to simulate, which is why I didn’t scoff when I read about a video game being used to seriously discuss potential outcomes with a hypothetical military operation in a current hot-spot.
Foreign Policy recently ran a feature article — “The Syrian Invasion” — discussing the outcomes of a game that simulates military intervention in Syria, a nation currently embroiled in a civil uprising that has Syria’s regime and president, Bashar al-Assad, tightening his vice-grip on his slipping power and the melting of his version of law and order. Combat Mission: Shock Force, simulates a fictional 2008 invasion of the country in response to state-sponsored terror. It’s not equivalent to what the Modern Warfare and Battlefield series have become in the culture, but the game is realistic. It primarily focuses on the larger strategic elements of such a war, however, more than the moves of individuals or squads in space, in order to squeeze off rounds and move through tight quarters to meet objectives.
Produced in 2007, the game, as the author of the article says, “shows the hallmarks of considerable research into the forces of the combatants and the capabilities of the weapons they use.” Generally, though, it’s about command and control and the decisions and factors involved in determining the success of such a combat enterprise. The game allows for several options in regards to how one might choose to invade Syria to face a melange of elite forces using the old Iraqi “Republican Guard” tag, fedayeen units and conscripts armed with souped Soviet-Era mechanized weaponry and Kornet missiles. One can go in with the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade, a U.S. Army Stryker light-armored vehicle element or a multi-national coalition led by Germany, comprised of Britain, Canada and the Netherlands.
The results of the simulations varied, but the outcomes and the way in which the battles unfolded was a range with a core theme of N.A.T.O. units attempting to move dug-in Syrian fighters. According to the article’s author, at times it appeared to play out like Iraq at the beginning of the insurgency in 2003 with Syrian forces made up of conscripts and fedayeen fighting with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns, and at other times, the fighting looked like Lebanon in 2006 with Syrian commandos ducking-in-and-out using Kornet anti-tank missiles and fighting in a guerrilla style. What was found — as pointed out, in a still somewhat limited simulation system that doesn’t take into account drone intelligence operations assisting Western generals, or the auxiliary forces that would find their way to fight in support of Syria such as Hezbollah – was that military intervention in the country could become a mixed bag, highly dependent on which Syrian military shows up.
If it is the Syrian military that cowardly fires at civilians to squelch dissent and hasn’t fought a real opposing force in 30 years, then there would be some somewhat non-damaging Western losses, from a public perception sense. But if the Alawite-dominated Syrian force that decides it must fight to the end engages, primarily motivated by the consequences of what a loss would mean to their people in a Shia dominated land following a regime change; politically damaging numbers could conceivably be racked up against any Western coalition of fighters. While intervention in Syria hasn’t been prominently discussed, it has been pondered by some, and after the limited handling of Libya, it seems unlikely that a full intervention would ever take place. But if this video game simulation that factors in many of the things generals would have to, tells us anything, it’s probably that doing anything like this could be a courageously stupid coin flip.
Read “The Syrian Invasion” at Foreign Policy [Here]