Sure. So, I'm Graham W. Jenkins. I'm 28 and living in Washington, D.C.
I currently do a bunch of different things that fall under the rubric of "management consulting," primarily for federal clients. I help agencies manage risks to their overall operations, and also do some analysis related to cyber economics, which is an approach to cyber defense oriented around the concept that current cyberattacks might be part of a much larger campaign than is commonly assumed, and waged by a single actor. Before that, I was a strategic analyst for a defense contractor focusing on analyzing and wargaming the future of nuclear weapons -- primarily in the areas of doctrine, arsenals, force structure, and posture -- and I began my career as a research assistant across a large range of defense topics, including logistics and supply chains, arms control, red teaming and scenario development, military history, and precision weapons.
Games have sort of been a recurring part of my life in both my career interests and my side interests. Sometimes I wonder which is driving the other, but I'll go through a phase where I play some particular game which then drives me towards a book which then leads me to figure out that both of these things are intersecting with a project that I'm working on at the same time. So, I was reading a '70s-era future forecast of World War III, [John] Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985, which then prompted me to get back into the Wargame series. And this was all simultaneously while I was working on an actual wargame. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I was going to say, I was waiting for when you were going to bring that up, yeah.
So how does one get involved with wargames and what does that actually mean?
Well, this was part of a long-term study for a DoD office, related to nuclear weapons -- kind of looking out into the future at a few countries -- what are they gonna develop, how are they gonna base them, what will be their doctrine for using them? That sort of thing. And the wargame -- in broad terms, is to see how we might want to counter them.
Wargames have a reputation as being BOGSAT, which is an acronym that means "bunch of guys sitting around a table." [Laughs.]
And so, trying to get away from that, I was trying to introduce an actual game-like mechanism. So, in this case, we're looking at a future scenario and sort of asking people, "Well, if they've got these weapons and capabilities, what do you want to counter the threat with?"
But to do that, we were taking into account the fact that our ability to produce things like nuclear warheads has atrophied since the end of the Cold War.
So, we were trying to look at some of the factors involved with that, like the need for facilities and more scientists and things like that, and coupling those requirements with those of actual warhead designs and turning that into a sort of single "currency" figure. But the whole idea, too, is to get away from dollar costs because dollars drive a lot of this, but in a non-budget constrained environment, what is harder to build and costs most of your overall resources? That kind of thing. Some of this was actually inspired by games I’ve played, both video and board. The unit purchase system from Close Combat definitely influenced my thinking quite a lot.
Can you tell me and for readers who are not familiar: Why does the DoD use wargames?
Sure. Well, you can use them in a lot of different ways. Some of them are you've gotten an idea in mind and you want to test it. So, we have operational plans, or OPLANs, for many theaters throughout the world. And so you've got one that exists for a certain country and, first of all, maybe it hasn't been dusted off and taken off the shelf in a while. So you want to see how well it holds up in modern conditions and you want to check the assumptions that are being made in that plan.
Other times you might have ideas for replacing the plan being like, "So, it is outdated. We need to come up with some new concepts of operation." So you'll take those, sketch a new outline of a plan based on that and then try to -- well, the other thing is red teaming it. So you play it out as if that were the new plan and see what happens.
What does that actually look like?
Well, it really depends on what you’re trying to game out and the level of formality you want to introduce. Typically you’ve got some broad discussion areas in mind. So let’s say you’re trying to red-team an OPLAN for the invasion of, I don’t know, the fictional nation of Webbersley. Your goal might be to see if the plan we’ve got would hold up against possible enemy responses. You’ll have already conducted research into what the Webbers have available in terms of military equipment, logistical capabilities, special forces, manpower, et cetera, as well as what US -- or "blue" -- forces are operating. You’d want to assemble a roster of various experts who have studied Webbersley for a while, and lived and worked there, who are scholars of the region, that kind of thing. Then for your blue team it helps to have military and operational types.
In a situation like this, you’d likely have a preset turn one, based on whatever the OPLAN prescribes. All the game participants would be given a briefing on this, along with relevant background material, and "orders" and guidelines for conducting operations. Then the red team would make their first move, responding to what’s happened. Usually, an OPLAN assumes an adversary will respond a certain way, but the beauty of red-teaming is that participants will often come up with some totally out-of-the-box way of acting that really challenges existing assumptions. A few examples of this would be the Millennium Challenge 2002 exercise in which the red team, an Iran allegory, successfully sank huge portions of the blue fleet by swarming them with cruise missiles and small boats, and an amalgamation that Paul Bracken describes in The Second Nuclear Age: a nuclearized Iran using tactics like decoy conventional missiles and open nuclear-armed missile deployments in parks in downtown Tehran and Mashhad to deter preemptive Israeli strikes during a crisis. Wargaming Russian nuclear responses during the Cold War was also a means of trying to gauge rungs on the “escalation ladder,” and to suss out when tensions might actually go nuclear.
Part of the beauty of a wargame, too, is there’s no typical outcome -- the point is to see what participants can come up with. So as long as the rules aren’t overly rigid, you get kind of an emergent behavior out of it.
How did you go from liking games to getting involved with this?
I've done a couple things like this throughout my career. My first job out of grad school was at the Institute for Defense Analyses. I did some of that more basic red-teaming, and after changing jobs, had the opportunity to work on games for my new customer.
What did you get your master's in?
Theory and history of international relations. I went to school in the UK and they like to do mouthfuls for their degrees.
[Laughs.] But it sounds relevant, though. Did you get that with a mind towards going down the career path you've gone down?
Well, I just had always been more of a history guy. And modern stuff, I don't know, seemed so caught up in additional factors like politics. Whereas, history, you could just sort of see what happened. Even though, of course, politics plays a role in that, too.
It was only in grad school when I started having discussions with people and being in these classes and more exposed to the world of current strategic studies that I decided, "Oh, it turns out this is pretty interesting." Oddly enough, it was a few bloggers -- John Robb, Shlok Vaidya, Crispin Burke -- that really sucked me in and got me to thinking that perhaps there were some really fascinating angles to this stuff after all.
This is a very important question to ask: What's with the military using the word "cyber" for so many things?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that's a really good question. I think it's because, well, for starters, it sounds less archaic than prefacing this with "e-" or adding "digital" to that. It's sort of the hip take on that.
But, you know, it's hard because everything sort of has some sort of cyber component. And so I think in part it's to differentiate the aspect of a program or a mission or a platform or something to take the part of it that really is based on computers or in a cloud or what have you and to focus on that as a thing.
So, "cyber defense" can mean defending physical things but from cyber threats, for instance. Weirdly, while the converse is also a thing -- digital and electronic things threatened by physical actions like an electromagnetic pulse, or somebody bombing a data center -- it’s typically not called cyber.
It does sound like an outdated term, though, but I know that some of the hardware or software used by the military is also pretty old. Like, I remember reading about a nuclear site that still runs on floppy disks.
How do you adapt your work or thinking to address the fact that you're using some tech that's older than you?
Well, the nice thing is that a lot of the older stuff is very mono-purpose. So, like, a launch control center at an ICBM base is a launch control center . It has one job. You can upgrade accuracy and things like that, but they don't require a fundamental rethink in how you're using that system, or even how you’re interacting with it. It’s same interface as it was 50 years ago. But when you're talking more like an end-user terminal for somebody in the Pentagon, then you're using it for wholly different purposes now than you were 10 or 20 years ago.
Where a lot of them are more hardware or installation-based stuff -- more of the underlying infrastructure -- I think it's less of an issue on a day-to-day basis. Where you do run into an issue is in replacing it when they break because most of that equipment hasn't been manufactured in 30 years and the contractor who built it has long since gone bust.
It's easy to sound like these are jokey questions, but I remember another article, too, about how the military's thinking is stuck a little bit in what the '90s of what the future was. Can you talk a little bit about that and how videogames have impacted our notion of what the future and the military could be?
Yeah, I mean -- [Laughs.] I guess the best way I think about this stuff is people talk about aliens in sci-fi and the way they're so often seen in games and in video and TV is a lot of very humanoid-looking aliens. So, yes, they're from somewhere else but they've got two arms, two legs, what you could call a head. Something like that.
Whereas, in the vast universe of possibilities, it's much more likely that they're outside any conception we have. A floating cloud of sentience, or something like that.
And so, in the same way of thinking, a lot of the future-type scenarios in something like a Black Ops II has superficial differences. Things like drones. A lot heavier use of the V-22 Osprey [military carrier]. That kind of thing. But they're somewhat extensions of what we're looking at now with new toys.
You had said in your email that you had just replayed Jedi Knight 2 and you completed Spec Ops: The Line -- which I heard has a bit of a twist and it's okay if you ruin it for me.
But you were saying that Spec Ops is definitely saying more than other recent games. What affect do you think there is if you have these very realistic-looking war-type games but they're not really making much of a statement? Does that matter?
Well, I think it depends what you're looking to get out of it. Or, well, that's not true because I think even if you're not expecting the story of Spec Ops, you can appreciate it.
But whereas, it's the difference between literature and genre fiction, to draw a kind of an artificial distinction.
I mean, sometimes you read things just 'cause you want a kind of outlandish plot, like a [Tom] Clancy novel. Like, "Oh man, he's got Russia teaming up with NATO to fight the Chinese on the Siberian border?"
[Laughs.] That does sound like Clancy.
Yeah, that's The Bear and the Dragon, which is one of my favorite Clancys. [Laughs.]
Well, there's good reason, then.
And so, that, you're probably not looking for a larger message. Sometimes in Clancy stuff he throws in a little political commentary that's way too on the nose that seems out of place. But on the other hand, if you're reading literature a bit more sophisticated that has a couple extra layers to it -- generally those books, I think you would seek out. You'd know what you were getting yourself into.
And other times you can be pleasantly surprised. Especially if it's something in addition to the plot that you might be playing it for; if your "trashy" novel turns out to be deeper than expected.
What do you think we don't see that many nuanced stories in these war videogames? Do you ever wish there was something more impactful being done with that form?
Kind of. I think what we're really missing is a good integration of the two. I think Spec Ops does it well. And it's both got larger commentary on war but there's also some elements that satirize first-person shooters as a genre.
But what I wish there would be is -- so, there's that. That's one example. You've got your Call of Dutys -- or is it Calls of Duty? -- which are pretty straightforward.
And then you've got something like This War of Mine, which is focusing on one other specific aspect of warfare -- civilian displacement and misery - in a much more serious way.
But it's hard to find a game that sort of marries those two without making it all about the one or the other. And Spec Ops, I think, has been one of the first successful examples of being able to marry those two ideas, or at least to pollinate one with the other.
What do you make of our perpetual fascination of our own destruction in fiction, be it in a videogame or otherwise?
To me, our continual obsession with nuclear Armageddon and similar scenarios is understandable but never ceases to fascinate. I actually wrote about this a few years ago for a publication called Fortnight, but basically, every generation has its own apocalypse. From atomic holocaust to zombie outbreak to actual biological pandemic, the way we envision the end of things bears its own relation to our everyday concerns.
One of the more intriguing details about the Fallout series is its particular manifestation of nuclear devastation. In some ways, the damage wrought by a massive nuclear exchange is a bit more realistic than media often portrays it. Herman Kahn and the other "wizards of Armageddon" get excoriated for the idea that nuclear war was survivable, but given the qualities of modern construction techniques and current urban land use patterns, far less of the built world today -- and even during the late Cold War -- would have been the utterly blasted wasteland that springs to mind. The twisted wreckage of buildings still standing, as opposed to a flat, glassy plain, is not at all outside the realm of the possible.
I got to visit the Nevada Test Site a few years ago as part of a pretty wild National Nuclear Security Administration-sponsored course on nuclear nonproliferation, starting at Los Alamos National Laboratory and ending three days later at Nellis Air Force Base. One day we toured the test site, seeing the various Areas and Flats where some of the most famous weapons effects testing took place, touring the U1a underground facility where subcritical weapons testing is still performed, and heading up the gantry of Icecap, the final planned nuclear test that was canceled in 1992 when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed. Returning to Vegas, we observed a flock of drones overhead as we passed Creech Air Force Base; then that night a few of us hit the Bellagio.
But Frenchman Flat at the test site still holds the hulk of a twisted trestle railroad bridge, the former tracks having been bent outward in an almost-45 degree arc away from a nuclear detonation. Other structures, particularly bunkers modeled on contemporary bank vaults, are still standing. Put simply, stuff survives. And that’s really one of the neat things about Fallout, is how you get to explore that wasteland and it’s not just "eat a bug, catch radiation sickness, and die" -- the game you do get to play, for all its 1950’s atomic era nostalgia, actually captures some truths.
On a related note I am, of course, looking forward with great anticipation to Fallout 4 -- not only is it set in Boston, but Concord -- my hometown -- is one of the many locations you can visit! I think it’s really neat that Scollay Square will be a location as well, this once-vibrant neighborhood having been utterly demolished as part of a misguided urban renewal plan and replaced with the barren Government Center -- a midcentury wasteland in its own right.
How is videogame thinking shaping the way we prepare soldiers for combat?
A lot of it is driven -- well, it's sort of a virtuous cycle between the futurist industry, including videogames, and sort of military doctrine where some ideas that might come out of the military establishment can then get adopted by a gameplay-maker and then that gets played by people who are influential or they read about it, and then it turn those ideas get reinforced in the planning cycle.
And Adam Elkus has actually written a lot of good stuff about this. Sort of this idea of policy driving games, which in turn reinforces policy until it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And to be clear, I don't want it to sound like the fact that you can link videogames and the military together implies that such a connection is necessarily evil or bad. It is, obviously, understandably uncomfortable to discuss sometimes. But do you get the sense that people think there's something sinister happening if you can link the two together in some way?
I think people will always think that when there's a direct connection. There was something of that attitude with a game like America's Army, which was literally a recruiting tool.
Yeah, you knew I was going to ask you about that.
Yeah, but it's funny because you don't quite see the same attitude towards a Call of Duty, even though they serve something of the same purpose in terms of reinforcing a particular world view or even the primacy of military operations. There have been so many games about armed conflict and you're a trigger-puller on the ground, but how many games actually deal with diplomacy? I mean, in part, because it'd be kind of boring. [Laughs.]
Depends who's making it.
I think that sort of reflects our military-first strategy as a nation, where we don't seek out a lot of other solutions rather than to rattle our sabers.
You mentioned that you've planned and arbitrated classified wargames and I know that obviously you can't go into too much detail, but can you elaborate on your work on that beyond what you mentioned earlier?
Sure, so it's kinda like the one I was describing before.
With the nuclear weapons?
Yeah. So that's kinda the biggest example. Others have fallen more along the lines of red-teaming, where you try things out and you've got people in the room that know the potential adversary fairly well, it'd be the equivalent of Cold War Kremlinologists. They can point out that while you may have this idea to send your particular unit on an offensive in this direction, the adversary doesn’t actually care about that area so they will not outrightly defend it. Instead they might be luring you in and will then attack you from over here sort of on a tactical level.
How many people are involved in those types of wargames and the execution and development of them? And what is the actual end result? Is it a computer simulation or is it actually people sitting around a table like you mentioned?
Yeah, the way I've done it is it's usually ended up as a written report outlining the findings that a number of people pointed out that this was probably a bad idea, there seemed to be a general consensus that we would need X, Y, and Z types of weapons platforms to satisfy our need in this concept. That kind of thing. Sort of a set of findings.
In terms of scale, you could do this with anywhere from two or three people to -- I've been in a room of several hundred banking and insurance types while -- I want to say Booz Allen Hamilton - ran a game featuring a cyber attack against the financial industry.
It's not just the military that uses games. Like, has this been on your radar? I think it was about 10 years ago when the CDC was using World of Warcraft as a model for studying the spread of disease?
That rings a bell. It's not that surprising. That's really cool, though.
Are there other applications for videogames the average lay person doesn't realize beyond just going to the store and buying them?
I think in terms of the real-world applications, a lot of what games can do is restore a sense of contingency and chance to whatever you're looking at. Things don't always go as planned and it's hard to get sort of an omniscient perspective on what the other guy might do in response to something you're doing. So even something like multiplayer games where you've got a human on the other side - a human on your side, even - they're unpredictable.
And it’s the exposure to that, not even in the specifics, but just the idea that everyone's got agency here and it's really hard to dictate your opponent's actions.
I have a couple of questions about massively multiplayer online games. How much attention does the DoD pay to MMOs? Sorry for the alphabet soup.
Oh no, no, no. I'm used to it. [Laughs.]
I figured. [Laughs.]
Yeah. That's a good question. I know there was a lot of interest more related to some of the economic aspects of it. Particularly, I think it was EVE Online that has that amazing created economy within the game. And looking at that as a thing unto itself but also as possibly a dark economy and its own ecosystem and perhaps that could be used for ulterior motives by somebody who's willing to manipulate it in the right way.
I had heard that before Iraq War 1, the DoD hired JC Herz as a consultant. Does that name sound familiar?
No. Not placing that, sorry. [Laughs.]
She's a former New York Times columnist who's a technologist with a background in biological systems and computer-game design. It's been speculated the whole thing from Iraq with us pulling the statue down and expecting to be greeted like heroes -- that whole thing is straight from the end scene of an MMO raid.
I know you mentioned a little bit about the economic attention the DoD pays, but do they mine data from behavior in MMOs?
To my knowledge no, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's some degree of that, I mean, along the same lines of inquiry as emerging systems, natural orders of things. I think there's probably a general level of interest. And I know that there’s ongoing research into subcultures, closed societies meeting in a virtual game space, that sort of thing.
For something like that, you would have to get the data from the company, right?
Yeah, to get the macro-level data, as opposed to just having an account and observing.
Have you heard of anything like that ever happening?
I'm trying to think. No, what keeps occurring to me is a Charlie Stross novel. I think it's called Rule 34 where essentially there's an MMO raid on a bank that basically it turns out has somehow been replicated in the real world whereby hijacking this digital vault they actually stole real-world millions of dollars. That's not real life, as far as I know. [Laughs.]
Can you talk at all about any of the metrics from America's Army, or would you not know?
I can't intelligently speak to that.
That's okay. I had to ask.
We had been emailing about that school shooting that happened recently and I don't know, what's your personal feeling or is there a feeling from where you've worked on a connection between the media we consume and violence?
Yeah, I mean, at the risk of driving this into the realm of the political, most of these games are available in Europe and in the UK and they don't have the same problems with gun homicide.
And put bluntly? It's because they don't have the guns.
So, to me, it's about the bigger issue as the ability to re-enact things. The vast majority of shootings and violent gun crime is not inspired by a videogame. But even that which is, is enabled by the ability to get the gun to re-enact it.
Why is it when these things are reporting they never say that it's possible that some of the victims may have also played videogames? I just don't know why this stigma seems to still stagger.
No, I think the days of Jack Thompson are over. We hope.
Like, really, in terms of mimicking games? What do you see? Maybe some LARPing. [Laughs.] Truly if this was the big motivator of real-world behavior, you would probably be seeing skyrocketing enlistment rates in the military, which isn't happening.
It's really the one area in which people really point to this causation, and I think it's because people are grasping for an easy answer. Because the alternative is -- well, for some, the alternative is unthinkable. But I don't know. People just seem, to me, to be dancing around the issue: There's too many guns and that's probably the reason people are using them.
I mean, if you apply Occam's razor, what's the more likely explanation? That here in this country and only in this country do we take the idea that -- do we take something that we've seen in a videogame and try to mimic it even if it involves harming others or is the answer just that there are far more available guns here instead of other countries?
I mean, was Columbine the first time that you remember that being asserted?
I feel like the connection was never so explicit before: "Videogames are ruining our children and putting the wrong idea in their head." And, like, and this is my hazy recollection of it, but there was formerly more of an attitude of "it's making them aggressive and violent as individuals," but it's not inspiring them to directly mimic what they're seeing.
I have read before about how some game companies pride themselves on having a military source that they talk to on a steady basis to give their output authenticity. We talked this a little before, but do you think there is a harm in presenting scenarios that, in reality would just get you killed instantly? Because it's been written about, too, that if you engaged in warfare the way a lot of videogames do, you'll just die pretty much right away.
Yeah. Well, again, you get that cycle going.
I think it was Black Ops 2 that had Oliver North as a consultant.
But also Peter Singer, who's been very good on a lot of issues.
And then the director of Black Ops 2, Dave Anthony, got brought into the Atlantic Council as sort of a resident futurist. And meanwhile P. W. Singer and another guy, August Cole, just published a novel of a near-future wartime scenario [Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War].
So, there's this cross-pollination that seems pretty interesting, but I feel it's probably not widespread enough to be a net benefit. But I think this kind of perspective can widen the aperture, like, "You're not thinking about this. You haven't considered that."
But when it becomes relatively insular, it just becomes a single vision reinforced and that has a lot of negative potential.
How much attention to you pay to the game industry? I know you play, but do you follow blogs or websites? Are you watching when E3 is happening?
Not to the E3 extent. [Laughs.]
I feel like I'm always a couple years behind.
Part of that is just due to hardware purposes. But I also like -- it's not so much about the novelty so much as the sense of completion. Not that I'm 100 percent completist, but I'd rather finish the whole storyline of a Grand Theft Auto.
Oh yeah, here's a confession. I still have never finished GTAIV and really I think it's because of that that I haven't tried GTAV, but I've heard phenomenal things.
Slow and steady.
Exactly. And then, of course, the real problem is when you get really into the games with no clear-cut ending like Cities: Skylines, which I could literally play forever.
How do you stay up on stuff, even if you are a few years behind? Or do you not even bother?
A lot of Gamasutra, some of the review sites -- I don't really have a go-to source with that the way that I do for news and stuff. Maybe Polygon or Rock, Paper, Shotgun. People have written about the decline of the front page of the website. And I used to like to go to actual front pages of sites, you know, like newyorktimes.com, but for a lot of the gaming stuff, I get it more through Twitter feeds and that kind of aggregation.
What's your perception? What do you notice about the game industry and the way that it talks about itself?
I think you're seeing the idea of the long tail really being put into action. On this small scale, the quirkier games that explore either a narrow aspect of something or there to tell a story, almost like an interactive movie, and tell that story only. Something like Gone Home's a great example of that, where it sort of encompassing control from the same perspective. It follows those conventions. But what it does with it is very different in that it has this narrative and it's going to show you that narrative and you're interacting with it, but in some ways it's kind of on rails.
But I think it's really cool, too, that there's a space for that because it's so small scale.
Whereas with the larger blockbuster titles, I think they tend towards repetition, but even then I don't think of that is as bad as the film industry.
As far as sequels or?
Yeah, sequels and original ideas and that sort of thing. I mean, maybe it's different because you can take a genre like a first-person shooter and go in a bunch of settings, directions, and different kinds of characters and things. But I feel like there's a little more novelty in what's happening there.
I don't know. It still seems like we're pretty obsessed with World War II. Maybe a little less now, but it's been fairly persistent. Don't you think so?
I do. Well, that seems to have died off in the last five or six years.
[Laughs.] It's finally over!
But then again I'm replaying Call of Duty 2 again, so. Which is funny, actually. I wrote a paper on this in college on the historical realism of the Soviet levels across a few games at the time: So it was the original Call of Duty, it was Red Orchestra, I think one or two other, maybe Battlefield 1942. But just looking at how close to reality that was.
What games are really good at, oddly, is giving you the cinematic moment. There's the opening in the original Call of Duty where you're crossing the river in Stalingrad and there's the ruins of the city up on the hill again being lit up by artillery and the Germans are firing on you and you've got Stukas dive-bombing your boat and it's just this tableau that -- I don't know if it captures what it was like to be there but it's just this great impression of the idea of Stalingrad. That whole Baudrillardian Simulacra and Simulation, the desert of the real, etc.
And then sort of in the details? Probably not so realistic. I think in that level, for instance, there are a couple weapons used that weren't around in that era in the war.
Some of interactions between Germans and Soviets, like, the announcements -- I think there's a part where you're crawling around in the sewers and there's a German voice of a loudspeaker encouraging you to surrender. [Laughs.] I'm trying to remember how accurate that is and it's a little accurate but exaggerated for the purposes of the game.
So in the sense that it's interactive, you get a lot of the broad strokes of it right. But if you're searching for an actual lesson in equipment or tactics or something like that, you're probably not gonna find it there.
Has there ever been anything that's really, really bothered you or you thought was so glaring that you thought they should have gotten it right in any game?
That they should have gotten it right? Some of it is just stuff that was shoehorned in for the sake of convenience. I think in United Offensive you start off in the British campaign as -- well, someone on a bomber. You kind of serve in a number of roles. You're the tail gunner, then you're the dorsal gunner, and then you have to hop on the ball turret and you're all over the place.
But then when your plane gets shot down, you join the resistance, and after that you join the SAS and you're the same character the whole time.
And it's like -- it's a little bit contrived. It's not a big deal. But it's like -- okay. That's a bit silly. [Laughs.]
So, am I incorrect in saying you're fairly experienced in logistics?
I like to think so. I don't know if people would agree. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] From what you know of the game industry, what seems to be lacking in terms of portraying planning and logistics in games?
This is a problem, I think, with games in general. Not just computer games. But board games and stuff, and part of it is because it's a really complicated layer to add and if you put it into something like a board game, just the sheer number of pieces and counters you'd need to keep track of it would make it unwieldy.
But, I mean, as Napoleon said, "An army marches on its stomach."
I think it's hard to divorce those considerations entirely. But it also really does depend on what level you're looking at it. If it's sort of a first-person shooter, there's not really a good way to work that in. Especially because it's not the individual infantryman's responsibility. Maybe you could incorporate a mechanic like Fallout’s "hardcore mode" where you have to eat and sleep, but given that thanks to Call of Duty, shooters have been trending away from even traditional health meters, that’s probably unlikely. When you get into something more grand strategic like Hearts of Iron, there have been attempts at it sort of abstracted out. More, like, you need contiguous land tiles for your units or else they'll be cut off and not resupplied, which at least is a nod to the idea.
But I think it would be really cool to see a logistics-focused game where your job is to supply some ongoing operation in a contested battlespace. I think something like that would actually be pretty interesting and allow you to capture some of the tiny, though important nuances.
Also, too, I’m curious about your insights into logistics as it pertains the industry itself. I mean, a lot of people talk about issues with games being buggy when they come out, project management is very, very difficult to do, these are projects with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars using the latest tech or it's trying to approach design challenges they haven't figured out before all against the backdrop of an industry that grew really, really, really quickly and they didn't have time to establish, necessarily, best practices when every couple years you're designing for a new set of hardware. And so, a lot of it pretty slippery.
Well, it is Monday, but if you were Monday quarterback it, hearing about problems like that, logistically, what do you think could be looked at or addressed?
I do have a lot of issues with that, especially those who are pre-ordering and using them sort of as alpha testers on an unfinished build. I don't know what the solution is. I don't know how much of it is demand-driven. I mean, are the people -- the same people that are pre-ordering, how upset are they gonna be if something that's delayed is buggy? That's a tough call to make for any developer to make. Especially when it's not up to the developer and it's the publisher trying to get it out the door. Conflicting tension there.
A lot of it -- well, it's sort of a separate issue, but I feel it goes hand in hand with the idea of extraordinarily small amounts of DLC that you have to pay for. That's one of the most bothersome things, I think, about modern games and why I, perhaps, haven't gotten into as many as I might otherwise. I'm mystified at the kind of heavily discounted, complete package Steam versions of things -- that’s the only version I’ll buy, because I don’t want to miss anything and I can’t be bothered to actually pay attention to the release schedule and so forth, but I quite often have literally no idea what’s included.
I sort of worry about that. [Laughs.]
You're a savvy consumer.
I didn't even notice there was so much 'til I went to buy it.
Yeah, you wait like eight months and it costs half as much as it would have and you get twice as you would have in the first place.
Right. You just wait until the next summer sale.
Maybe you'd be a little more qualified to answer this. Some people have said that and the overall ecosystem of people doing that could contribute towards another market crash for games. Do you think that's overblown?
You mean, the sort of idea that micropayments could collapse the games market in general?
Just the general attitude of, "You know what? I'm gonna wait eight months and not even buy this until it's massively reduced."
Oh. Right. Yeah. I think there's that A-list tier of really blockbuster titles where that might be especially true. But I think there might be some developers and publishers pointing to another way forward. I think the success of Cities: Skylines, that you can sell a game for a pretty reasonable price and people will buy it immediately for that price -- like I was saying, I'm the guy who waits, but I bought that one a week after it came out. I bought its expansion, After Dark, the day it came out, paying full price for those because it was a reasonable price and because everything was included.
And so, I mean, I don't know how different I am from everyone else, but I just think if more developers can adopt some model like that -- and, you know, in terms of the cut content -- kind of expansion, which has been an issue, I think people would be more accepting of that if the base game was something like $30 instead of $60.
So it's sort of realigning these expectations. And a lot of this, too, requires developers and publishers to commit to a longer term support of the product. Including things like modding, which can easily prolong the life of something. The thing that, "There will be a steady flow of releases, they will not be outrageously expensive, there will be lots of content in them, we plan to support this game indefinitely." I don't know if that word has even been thrown around, but I think something like that would show a lot of faith in gamers on their part.
At a more macro level, I think that waiting and buying the "complete collection" or “Game of the Year” edition might be a good thing overall, at least from the perspective of artistry and vision. Some things are hard to imagine without their expansions -- Fallout 3 without the five packs that dramatically expand its world, SimCity 4 without the Rush Hour expansion that created the game people still play today. There’s a point at which the game is essentially incomplete without its add-ons. On the other hand, there’s also the fiddly bits -- like Empire: Total War with its “elite Eastern units” and “elite Western units” and random hussars and USS Constitution extra -- and without a bundle at a single price, there’s no way I’d buy all of those individually.
Now of course the newest one of these is still nearly seven years old, but the fact that people still buy and play games of that vintage should be telling. If that’s how long it takes to be able to afford and buy the whole collection in one fell swoop, so be it. But I think this points to a way forward.
No real easy segue for this but: What are the basic elements of military logistics planning?
Whoo! There's a question.
I said basic. [Laughs.]
So, if you're looking at your 19th century force or something -- basically, it changes when you're getting into armored mechanized units and you start having to think about space support and things like that. You need food for the soldiers and ammunition for their weapons. Those are the basic two and they take up the bulk of any logistics operation.
Nowadays you have to worry about fuel, which is huge. It weighs a lot. It takes up space. Depending on your transport method, if you're talking about convoys of tankers versus some kind of temporary pipeline, you can easily lose portions of it, have them diverted. A pipeline itself is a fixed target that offers a very high return on investment for an attacker.
When you start working in things like GPS and other space-based assets, you have to worry about those and worry about the communication signal. And then you have to start worrying about things like batteries for a soldier's handheld devices. Worry about forward-operating bases running generators and the fuel that runs them, it becomes pretty complex pretty quickly.
But there are -- I have to remember. I have my version of JP 4-03: Joint Bulk Petroleum and Water Doctrine somewhere around here. [Laughs.]
I might have to borrow your copy.
Yeah, there's something like 10 classes of supply.
There's basically: rations; expendables, which is things like tents and that sort of thing; class III is petroleum and oil lubricants; class V is ammunition; and then you've got various classes for construction; personal demand items like soap; major-end items like a tank; medical supplies; repair parts; and sort of an "other" that applies to redevelopment operations.
So, in the modern era, class I, class III, class V, and to some extent, class VIII, so that's rations, fuel, ammo, and maybe medical stuff. Those are really your priority.
I was going to ask a bit about prioritization. Is there an established prioritization schedule for military campaign planning?
Yeah. There's thresholds. So that really depends on how long since the last one. I think in general, ammunition is usually the highest priority.
But then if it's been something like X days since a water or food resupply, then that takes precedence. But it's not the priority until it is, if that makes sense.
Of course. That's the way humans tend to be.
But, no, the abstract focus is ammo over water and food.
That's a statement on something, I suppose.
I don't want to get into too much moral or ethical things about the military, but do you ever feel implicated in the military's ultimate mission in sort of a karmic chain?
Yeah. I've worried about that before.
When I first started out in this industry I was doing a lot of different kinds of projects. I was looking at the way we use and deliver fuel in Afghanistan. Whether we could get fuel and ammunition into a theater in time to support our existing plan. And a lot more operational and even tactical stuff like that.
I think in recent years I've moved to more of a strategic level, thinking in terms of broad country-level policies and raison d'etat, national competition and objectives, and stuff like that.
And I guess you can say that helps me disassociate a bit in that it's not about the details; rather, the broader issues. I think it depends, too, if you're thinking strategically when you're still supporting certain ill-advised operations or campaigns, then that certainly bears some responsibility for that. Blame is somewhat equally placed regardless of whether you’re determining which Marine Force Recon battalion is taking the lead across the Kuwaiti border or deciding if Iraq is worth invading in the first place. And that case, the strategic "visionaries" deserve all the scorn heaped on them.
But if you're trying to avoid the moral dilemmas associated with the collateral damage of conducting modern combat operations, and instead just thinking in terms of what is the best thing for the country, then, yeah.
This might be a stretch, but I do wonder about what I’ve been unearthing in this project and game companies’ general reluctance to make much of a comment or acknowledge the toxicity that exists within the audience they created. Do you think there’s much the game industry could learn from the way the DoD or the government does damage control when initiatives it undertakes backfire?
In general, I think that the sorts of criticism that the Defense Department receives versus that of the government as a whole lend themselves to different responses. But you can certainly see some parallels in the reaction to the first two women to successfully qualify as Army Rangers - the usual trolls came out of the woodwork and accused them of cheating, or the Army of lowering its standards, or the military of running a "social experiment." But at least one Army public affairs officer took to the Fort Benning Facebook page to combat the critiques one by one. That there is a great example of just shutting it down. It’s not a debate. They passed; they’re Rangers; we move on.
The games industry could use some sort of direct quick reaction like that, but that works really in cases of factual denial. The broader "argument" proffered by Gamergate is similar to that of the Tea Party, really, at least in style if not also to some degree in substance. Much like the rallying cry “get your government hands off my Medicare,” there’s an element of biting the hand that feeds you. But I suppose to the industry’s credit, half of it hasn’t taken these complaints at face value and tried to incorporate Gamergaters’ “demands” into future games. On the other hand, it hasn’t really actively distanced itself.
The harder challenge, to be sure is combating a broader worldview, whether that be "the government is trying to force us into serfdom" or “social justice warriors want to force my games to not be fun anymore.”
Pragmatism aside, do you think there’s anything the game industry could or should do in interest of healing?
Well, healing implies at least some degree of culpability on all "sides," and I’m not so sure that’s the case with Gamergate. I think there’s a side that says “let’s think a little more, and incorporate a few new ideas and concepts here and there,” and a reactionary side that says only “no, nothing can ever change except for increasing screen resolutions and triple SLI configurations.”
I think there’s an opportunity here for the games industry to really start to differentiate itself and evolve from solely a consumer-driven entertainment product into something a little closer to an artform. "Art" as we generally conceive of it doesn’t bow in the face of criticism; it embraces controversy if it isn’t downright inspired by it. And it’s free to forge its own path, though mostly within the constraints of market capitalism.
"Healing" isn’t really the solution here. I think it’s more like “full steam ahead.” Like, obviously publishers aren’t going to stop wanting mainstream games from large developers that will be bought and played in huge numbers. But those sorts of titles should be able to cross-subsidize smaller, more innovative, and ground-breaking sorts of games, and there should be room and demand enough to make them. Not everything’s going to be a Braid or a Stanley Parable, and the profits from a Call of Duty should ensure that a dud doesn’t jeopardize a publisher’s quarterly profits.
The flip side to this, of course, is that you might get a developer creating some horribly racist/sexist/etc. game and refusing to change anything in the name of "art." But you know, even the art world is to some degree market-driven, and I don’t know if a studio would survive for long creating a first-person adaption of Birth of a Nation or something like that. Or who would publish it.
How difficult was it to arrive at best practices for military prioritization scheduling, in contrast to all the stuff I was saying about the game industry and still struggling with best practices with all their moving parts?
[Laughs.] Well, I definitely have a more granular knowledge of the former - I’ve looked at an Excel sheet or two in my time. I’ve studied military operations from a few vantage points: academic, nonprofit, as a contractor. But my gaming knowledge is a little more one-sided: as a player and consumer, and sometime thinker. There’s perhaps some nuance I’m missing but I think I can see the broad trends at work, and the sometimes self-defeating business strategies employed.
They sort of have small armies themselves, teams all over the world working in concert to make games, but they still to run into the same problems. What do you think they could learn from the way you guys have come up with best practices?
[Laughs.] Well, I think part of that determines what the most important capability is. What the purpose behind the whole rest of the commotion is. At its core, a military force, front-line troops exist in order to seize and hold land, to kill enemy forces, and for the Clausewitzians among us, to impose their will upon the enemy. And so, the priority is the stuff that enables them to do that.
By the same token, I mean, what is the developer's priority?
And a lot of it points to that tension between devs and publishers. Is it to ship a product that then turns a profit, or is it to provide an immersive, interesting, fun experience with as few flaws as possible? There's a fundamental tension there, and I think you see it -- honestly, that speaks to the larger issues of capitalist society. I mean, with a publicly held company, is their primary duty to their customers or their shareholders or what? I think that's just reflected in that games are made to make money. They have to provide entertainment. Which one takes precedent?
But I think you've seen a lot of the really successful ones have prioritized the game, have prioritized the experience, and that in turn has helped them to turn a profit. So I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but it's hard to get the emphasis put on the right part.
How do you think the current social or political environments how various types of wargames are received? Like, are you familiar with Balance of Power?
Uh, yeah. It rings a bell. Remind me?
That was about the Cold War. It was created by Chris Crawford.
Oh, yeah! This was the '80s one?
Yeah. In 1985.
I mean, how well do you think a game like that would be received in 2015? That was 30 years ago.
Yeah. Well, I think probably the closest thing that comes to mind is DEFCON, which leaves out the entire prestige-building part and goes straight to the nuclear holocaust.
I actually wonder if that does parallel our broader shift towards military-first thinking.
Even our diplomatic efforts, like, what's going on with the Iran deal. At either end of it, whether you're for it or opposed, it involves military action. If you're against it, you just want to bomb them now. And if you're for it, you're offering the stick that, "Well, if they do violate the provision, then we'll bomb them."
So, I don't know. Our thinking is so tied to those capabilities because that really is the one area in which we're still truly internationally dominant, is our hard-power capability. So, I don't know. We just have trouble conceiving of other ways in which we might exercise influence and soft power and that kind of thing.
What military campaigns do you think would make great videogames?
Ooh, that's a good question.
I feel like Vietnam hasn't actually gotten the treatment it deserves. I think there's some interesting directions you could go with that. Like, something like a Spec Ops is sort of the obvious choice but I think there's a good way to do it. I was impressed with the way the first Black Ops handled it. I thought that was good without falling into sort of an Apocalypse Now trap.
I would like to see some attempt at doing the Special Forces operations from the first Gulf War. You know, SAS, Bravo Two-Zero-inspired games. I think that has a lot of potential and works well within the small-team shooter format.
What sort of potential do you think it has?
I just think that would be an interesting setting. Middle Eastern shooter, that's been done. But kind of thinking of it in terms of a unified campaign with one thing leading to another rather than, "Now you're plopped down in wherever and then you're gonna move somewhere else." I think just going with that for a while and exploring the larger implications of that. A more intimate campaign, if you will.
I feel like lately there have been a few more attempts at doing World War I.
I was going to say there's not a lot of World War I or a lot of Civil War.
Yeah, the Civil War is a curious decision.
[Laughs.] Well, I mean.
I'm a little surprised, given this country's fascination with it that there isn't more of that.
But World War I, I feel like I've seen more. Maybe they just come up a little more often. But, I don't know. I feel like I've seen half a dozen games in the last year or two. At different levels. Some of them are traditional shooters or RTSes. Battle of Empires, Verdun. Oh and right, Valiant Hearts. That was it.
Cute animation style.
It's like a storybook.
Yeah, yeah. Again, it's one of those "interactive, here's the story, but you're moving through it." Almost on rails. It's an interesting way to tell a World War 1 story, and it really focuses on a couple individuals and that ridiculously cute dog. It's almost like a cartoon game version of War Horse. [Laughs.]
What's your feeling about war games that are anti-war? Like, the Metal Gear games.
Well, to be honest, it was my brother was really into that when we were both growing up. I never quite got into it. And at this point I just feel like it's too late for me. I've heard great things. But part of me just can’t jump into a series with that level of mythology that's got this many volumes, if that makes sense.
Like, Call of Duty, you can skip one and you'll basically understand what the plot is or the meta plot, as it were.
Metal Gear, it's got a whole vocabulary and I wouldn't be able to -- the first one, obviously. [Laughs.]
Wait a minute. So you have made wargames for the military and you're saying that even you have trouble following Metal Gear?
Is that correct?
Yeah, that is correct. [Laughs.]
Well, but wait: What do you make of anti-war messages in war videogames?
Even though the medium would allow it, I think there’s a striking lack of nuance in most of the messages that are out there. It’s hard to find something like, you know, a video game that echoes arguments from Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars or Thomas Aquinas that delineates between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. The mentality one typically encounters is really along the lines of "war is bad and never right; look how awful this is."
I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with those sorts of messages. But they’re difficult to execute skillfully. To me, the most successful examples are those that also seek to skewer the medium of the game itself. So again, Spec Ops, but also little one-offs like ICBM or even DEFCON that challenge the idea of an apocalypse you can control.
It’s hard to picture a game with any sort of anti-war message that doesn’t come off as melodramatic and overwrought, but that might be limitations of the medium, or even more specifically of first-person shooters.
How can non-violent military strategies be incorporated into game design?
Well, I think it goes back to what I was saying about diplomacy, which is hard to represent and which can be boring. But there's certainly ways.
I mean, I'm trying to think of a non-violent equivalent of something like the infamous airport level in Modern Warfare 2 where it's not the usual frontlines and two opposing forces, but where there's something else going on and maybe not even a shot is fired.
But you have to look at what those could really be depicted in. Before the outbreak of armed conflict in the modern era it tends to be people in suits in a room, probably one in Vienna, talking. And then there could be something like non-combat, in-theater operations, they're rebuilding, developing, performing real nation-building types of tasks. So, I mean, maybe if we ever see a game that’s fairly explicitly based on the endless Afghanistan war, we'll see some kind of mission all about building a school or protecting a pipeline or something like that.
But even that is in some way still related to the idea of two forces shooting at each other.
So, getting away from that entirely is hard to do. I think ICBM works as basically an extended joke because it so realistically models the boredom that comes with pulling missile watches deep in a silo. But that’s free to download; I don’t know what actually "fun," commercially viable version of that is.
I'll plug Cities: Skylines again. That's the rebuilding we'd like to see. You could look at that as an anti-war game of the "rebuild infrastructure at home before we invade abroad" school.
How can escort levels be made better? Or, maybe you enjoy playing them, but everyone complains about them.
Oh, no. I'm with everyone. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] How could they be made better?
I find them fun and still challenging when the NPC you're escorting is invulnerable. [Laughs.] Because you still have to worry about yourself, but you don't have to worry about the AI running into a door and refusing to turn and just getting shot from behind and then, whoop! You’re starting the level over. So, I don't know, just making the escort AI a little tougher, I think. Because, you know, it helps to treat them as, while not humans, with some kind of agency. They're not total idiots. They also would like to live.
[Laughs.] This is true.
Maybe that's the problem. They need more of an AI sense of self-preservation.
Have you ever read Dave Grossman's book On Killing?
No, I know of it but I have not read it.
I think it's required reading at the FBI, but what is the consensus today on his research as it relates to guns and videogames?
Oh, that's a good question. I don't know if I can give you good answer, though, having not read it. He hasn't come up in my experience, but that could just be because I'm a little farther away from downrange.
I had heard -- it might have been Jesse Schell, who is an academic in games who has been one of the people helping to start codify game design. There was a talk he gave about a test done in the military where, even just for practice shots, they would be shooting up in the sky or avoiding making direct hits on other people but videogames in some way get them used to the idea of aiming at other people.
Which I thought was really interesting, but I don't know what that means.
Well, I wonder. Are there statistics about the number of types of people who really enjoy PvP areas? Because maybe it turns out they're all psychopaths and that's what this is.
Maybe it's just me but I honestly prefer playing things against bots and maybe it comes from that same place.
Oh, sort of stemming from the same idea of preferring single-player. But if I'm playing multiplayer, I think I'd rather just play against bots. I remember doing that a lot in Perfect Dark for N64. You could have a ton of them. And I would actually rather play the kind of multiplayer where we're all in the same room. My favorite thing to do is two or three of us against a bunch of bots. Like, the co-op play has a lot of untapped potential. There are few things more viscerally enjoyable than two people with light guns and Time Crisis.
Is people shouting at each other online a deterrent for you in playing online?
Yeah. I mean, that's part of it. And I think you're right. It's not everyone, though. It's probably not even a majority of people who act like that.
They've just been the louder ones. There are people who make good comments online, but they tend to be drowned out by the more boorish ones.
And part of it, too, I think is a lot of what I like in games, with certain exceptions -- I really do like narrative and story. And so the multiplayer modes of games just tend to be endless for the sake of itself. There's no larger story or narrative going on there. Which is weird, to say that "I love playing Call of Duty because shooting Russians is driving the story somewhere." But, you know, eventually you do get to the end of the level and start the next one, and it turns out, "Oh my God, they've destroyed the Washington monument. That’s something new.”
I think you were half-joking when you made that comment about sociopaths and shooters, but you made a really good statistical question in our email that I wanted to preserve and have you elaborate on here: "Has anyone ever plotted the gun homicide rate against rated-M games?"
Again, I think you're half-joking there, too, but I also don't know if anyone's done that and what it'd mean.
Well, the truth is that given their prominence -- the gun-homicide rate has actually dropped in the last 10 or 20 years.
Yeah, I've read about that. Although we hear a lot more about it now, on the whole it's actually on the decline.
Right. And I think there's really no way that the number of rated-M games has declined ever is my guess. [Laughs.]
You think it's climbing up?
Yeah. And so, I mean, maybe it's because of the size of the community of people who are playing the games, but that's how you can explain it away. But it's hard for me to even see a correlation, you know?
Yeah, I don't know that there is one. But I think a lot of people who play M-rated games also drink milk.
And wear shoes.
Right. And they might even be 17.
This is also probably true. [Laughs.]
Granted, we spent a lot of time talking about shooters, but there is this notion outside of videogames that that's all videogames are. Why do you think that still is the image they have after decades and decades of doing lots of other things, too?
I think they tend to be the biggest titles with the largest budgets and definitely the largest marketing budgets. That influences what games people see. Even other ones that stretch the mold and do something different like a Mass Effect, and that series tended to get some good advertising play. A lot of the component of that is shooting and that's sort of the easiest thing to demonstrate. If you're running a 30-second spot for a game, it's hard to go through the NPC dialog tree and really show the fun of that. [Laughs.]
Though I love NPC dialog, don't get me wrong.
But it's hard to embody a game showing that thing. So, the scenes where you're shooting people and playing the shooter are the more visceral and easier to understand because it's part of the vernacular. But it just reinforces that idea.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
That's a good question. The cop-out answer is it's too soon to tell.
But I think that honestly is part of the beauty of games as both industry and art form, is that nothing is set in stone yet. I think they've laid the groundwork of really interesting new ways of telling stories. If stuff like Oculus Rift can ever live up to its potential and designers who are making things like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable and sort of these ideas that take normal conceptions of games and invert them -- I think if you combine all that there will be some really interesting, new ways to tell stories, to consume them, and to take part in them, too.
It's hard to say, like, on the whole that this has had an impact. But the idea of having agency and playing a part in a story is a pretty cool phenomenon. That’s a unique ability that you don't get from a book or a TV or a movie or anything else in the same way. I think we have yet to unlock its full potential, but I think with the foundation that's been laid we'll get there at some point.