Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that the Institute for the Future is programming the software for the Navy’s MMOWGLI online war game. The Naval Postgraduate School is programming the game; Institute for the Future is the game designer, responsible for the videos, graphics and user experience. The report below has been updated.

To combat Somali pirates, the U.S. Navy has relied on warships, snipers and SEAL teams. Now, it is turning to the heavy artillery: Internet gamers.

This month, the Office of Naval Research will roll out the military’s first online war game open to the public, crowd-sourcing the challenges of maritime security to thousands of “players” sitting in front of their computers.

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.

It is all part of the Navy’s attempt to exploit the benefits of online “gamification,” the increasingly popular strategy of employing game-play mechanics in nongame situations to influence behaviors and direct people to a desired outcome.

Last year, the World Bank hosted a virtual game called EVOKE, centered around an online graphic novel whose characters prompted gamers to respond to imagined worldwide catastrophes, such as famine in Japan.

Aimed initially at college students in South Africa, the game went viral: 19,324 people from more than 150 countries registered to play, submitting 23,500 blog entries, 4,700 photos and 1,500 videos, said Robert Hawkins, a senior education specialist at the World Bank who helped develop the game.

“If you look at user-generated innovation, it’s already happening in the private sector,” Hawkins said. The theory is that “those closest to the ground and action have the best ideas as to what will work best.”

Practical vs. trendy

But moderating the debate against online bullies and sifting through thousands of comments can be nearly impossible. During the EVOKE project, players coalesced around proposals that were unsustainable, such as floating greenhouses that would produce food 25 times too expensive to afford, said Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal who blogs on strategic gaming.

“There was not enough quality control,” Brynen said of EVOKE. “Trendy development ideas that appeal to the 15- to 30-year-old age demographic catch on because they’re trendy, not because there is proof they would work.”

Hawkins dismissed the criticism, noting that the World Bank was using “nascent technology” to envision the world 10 years in the future.

“By no means were we proposing that the solutions outlined in a fictional story in 2020 are things the World Bank advocates,” he said. “What we wanted to do was inspire people and get them thinking about the possible.”

Schuette, of the naval research office, said his team is aware of the potential pitfalls of throwing out policy development to a nameless, faceless crowd. A dozen members of the Naval Postgraduate School, which is hosting the MMOWGLI Web site, will monitor the game around the clock, Schuette said.

Developers hope that MMOWGLI can help break down military hierarchies by allowing players to remain anonymous.

“That’s old hat online, but it’s radically new to the military.”