Iraq: the computer game.

The best new ideas for rebuilding a nation.
June 19 2003 5:05 PM

Iraq: The Computer Game

What "virtual world" games can teach the real world about reconstructing Iraq.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The United States sent 250,000 soldiers across the world to rebuild a society. You can do the same thing from your living room. One peculiar development of the last decade has been the astonishing popularity of online "virtual world" role-playing games like EverQuest, Asheron's Call, Ultima Online, and Lineage. At every minute of the day, hundreds of thousands of people are gathering online to build digital civilizations. As this Slate piece described, players erect cities, open businesses, form governments, muster armies, commit crimes, take jobs, earn decent wages, make friends, marry, and die. The virtual money they earn has real value: They can trade it for U.S. dollars at online auction sites. Thousands of players consider themselves citizens of their virtual world, and some spend more time there than in ours.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

It's obviously frivolous to mention computer games in the same sentence as Iraq. Iraqis need running water and electricity: What does that have to do with a 57th-level wizard who wants to swap his "barbed dragonscale pauldrons" for a "book of Obulus"? But during the past year, the Defense Department has been sniffing around the online gaming community: The Army just hired gaming firm There Inc. to develop a virtual world that can be used for anti-terrorist training, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has signed at least one online gaming expert as a consultant. There's good reason for the U.S. government to be interested in these virtual worlds now. These games—in which societies are built from nothing—may offer useful lessons for rebuilding broken nations in the real world. The games, as well as cruder simulations, can be a living experiment, testing ideas without actual risks and consequences.

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Some of the real-world uses of games and simulations are common-sensical. Some are pie-in-the-sky. Here are four applications, moving from more to less realistic.

1. SENSE. The Defense Department has already written a game that could help the Iraq reconstruction, but it seems to have forgotten about it. Three years ago, then-NATO Commander Gen. Wesley Clark prodded the Institute for Defense Analyses—a government-funded think tank in Virginia—to invent a game to help in the reconstruction of Bosnia. Clark wanted a crash course that would teach government officials in a wrecked nation how to build a successful market economy. The game that resulted—drearily and inaccurately named "Synthetic Estimates of National Security Environment (SENSE)"—is an interactive simulation of the Bosnian economy. Compared to fancy commercial games like EverQuest, SENSE is Pong, with rudimentary charts, no cool visuals, and no character interactions.

SENSE is a game for about 50 players, each of whom plays an important figure in the economy: a minister, a legislator, a multinational corporation, a foreign-aid donor, a central banker, a local businessman, etc. They sit at computers that show them spreadsheets and graphs detailing the economic condition of "Akrona"—essentially Bosnia after the '90s war. When the game starts, the players representing government officials start deciding the level of taxation, the tariffs to levy on foreign goods, and how they should privatize state enterprises. The other players react to the government decisions. The multinational corporation may or may not buy up state enterprises. The local businessman may move his investment from textiles to auto manufacturing. The foreign-aid donor may extend loans or deny them. Each turn, which represents one month, lasts two to five minutes. Between turns the players negotiate—the banker checks monetary policy with the foreign donors, the private sector complains to the legislature about taxes. Sometimes the game supervisors instruct players to change places, so that the banker learns what it's like to run a private business. Every so often the game breaks for seminars where organizers replay what happened and discuss the economic implications. One simulation of 12 "years" can last up to five days. As the game unfolds, the players come to realize that a free-market economy leads to happier results than a protectionist, command economy.

The Institute for Defense Analyses ran SENSE twice in Sarajevo, once with midlevel Bosnian bureaucrats and private-sector figures, and once with Bosnia's president, top ministers, leading businesspeople, central bankers, and foreign aid officials. It also ran SENSE for the governments of Georgia and Montenegro. The games are intense and competitive, says Dayton Maxwell, who consulted for IDA on SENSE. The Georgian game got so heated that one participant had to go on national television later to explain why he had performed so poorly as "president."

Maxwell says SENSE builds social relationships among officials who need to work together because it puts all the relevant players in an economic reconstruction in a single room, perhaps for the first time. The new nation may be so chaotic that the key figures have never even met each other. SENSE also helps leaders understand the pressures that the others face: The legislator, for example, sees the impact of taxation on the entrepreneur.

More important, says Maxwell, SENSE instills the principles of market economics in a way nothing else can. "Until they experience the actual dynamics of making the decisions under stress, they can't internalize what they learned from textbooks," he says. SENSE offers participants experience without the possibility of a shrinking GDP.

Some who have worked with SENSE hope to refit it for economic decision-makers in Iraq (converting the economic data from "Akrona" to "Nineva"). But so far SENSE is non-SENSE. The Defense Department abandoned SENSE after Clark retired, and no other American agency has yet stepped forward to sponsor it for Baghdad.

2. Lessons from Lord British. Richard Garriott is the Thomas Edison of the virtual world. He founded Origin Systems, the company that developed Ultima Online, the first successful virtual-world game. He ruled Ultima Online as "Lord British"—the absolute monarch, umpire, lawgiver of that virtual community. (He now helps run the U.S. arm of NCsoft, the Korean company that has the world's biggest game, Lineage.) Garriott believes that creation of a virtual world like Ultima Online is a powerful experimental model for the rebuilding of a devastated country.

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