The project, named MMOWGLI (the acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet), is a video game for policy wonks. It aims to replicate a traditional military strategy session on an exponentially larger scale, bringing together a diverse mix of government and outside experts that would be impossible even in the largest Pentagon conference room.
Through virtual simulation and social media tools made popular on Twitter and Facebook, players will work together to respond to a series of make-
believe geopolitical scenarios set off when private ships are hijacked off Somalia’s coast.
“We live in an echo chamber,” Lawrence Schuette, the naval research office’s innovation chief, said of the military. “The challenge is, you always want to have an audience that’s diverse in background, diverse in thinking. It’s those intersections where you see creativity occurring. The advantage of online crowd-sourcing is obvious: You have many more intersections and many more diverse backgrounds.”
Thanks in part to pre-launch publicity, more than 7,000 people have signed up for MMOWGLI, far beyond the 1,000 that developers had anticipated for the $450,000 pilot project. Programmers from the Naval Postgraduate School have postponed the launch to be sure the game has enough capacity. Institute for the Future, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif., is the game designer, responsible for the videos, graphics and user experience.
Schuette said his office is more interested in building technology that can be used for research across military platforms than it is in generating groundbreaking anti-piracy policy. But piracy experts welcomed the exercise as a much-needed thought experiment.
“It is such a complex issue that has to do with local dynamics on the ground, governance, financial flows,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is no single way to approach piracy in that area.”
Innovate and defend
MMOWGLI lacks the high-tech graphics of commercial video games. Video clips and storyboards will prompt players to envision scenarios. For example: “Three pirate ships are holding the world hostage. Chinese-U.S. relations are strained to the limit and both countries have naval ships in the area. Humanitarian aid for rig workers is blocked. The world is blaming the U.S. for plundering African resources.”
Players are then confronted with two boxes — innovate and defend — asking which new resources could “turn the tide” and what risks might result.
In the first round, players are limited to proposing Twitter-length solutions, and the crowd votes on favorite ideas, similar to “liking” something on Facebook, said Jason Tester, a game designer from the Institute for the Future. In ensuing rounds of the three-week game, teams will form around the most popular ideas and develop action plans.