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 Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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.

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.

In the startup of a virtual world, Garriott says, the players—like Iraqis—face anarchy, confusion, and unclear rules. They are poor, they are at the mercy of brutal spoilers (players who rob and kill other players for kicks), and they are subject to a whimsical, alien overlord (the programmers). Of course players don't actually risk their lives, but they are passionate about constructing a successful society, and there are hundreds of thousands of them.

Virtual worlds with thousands of players may not offer much useful economic insight for Iraq or help anyone understand Iraqi social structure. But, says Garriott, the games do clarify the essential rules for stabilizing a chaotic society. Virtual worlds teach that there are really only two of those rules, one obvious, one surprising.

The first is the urgent need to protect lives and property. Ultima was plagued by murder and theft from its earliest days, as players exploited software loopholes to wreak havoc and get rich. As a result, other players quit the game or simply become villains themselves. Garriott says they had to fix the code and evict the anti-social players who were ruining the civilization for everyone else. Ultima didn't take off until the caretakers established security and law. Neither can Iraq.

The second requirement is an idea that hasn't gotten much attention from the U.S. occupation. It is that the ruler must let the people know he has heard their complaints. In a virtual-world startup, thousands of players gripe about the same thing (there's not enough money, my character keeps getting robbed …). It's incredibly important, Garriott says, that the ruler acknowledge he has heard the complaints. Not acknowledging complaints makes people nervous: It destabilizes and enrages them. Even if you have a plan to deal with a problem, you still have to let participants know they have been heard. Otherwise they panic or turn to some rival power that does admit their complaint. Broadcasting the acknowledgement to the whole community—"yes, we know you don't have enough running water"—is as essential as actually fixing the problem. Only once you have publicly recognized the problem, Garriott says, do you present your plan to remedy it.

3. The Kingmaker. Edward Castronova, an economics professor at California State University, Fullerton, is perhaps the most creative thinker about the real-world applications of virtual worlds. (Castronova's article on the economy of the game EverQuest is by far the most popular article in the leading online economics research archive. You can download it here.) Castronova has lectured at defense industry seminars on the real-world utility of online games. Last winter, before the Iraq war started, Defense Department officials asked him if he had any suggestions for how to use games in rebuilding what they called "a Southwest Asian country." Castronova recommended that DoD consider updating the 1970s game Kingmaker.

Kingmaker is an English board game based on the War of the Roses. It is now available as a computer game. Players, representing factions of English nobility, try to accumulate enough power to get their candidate crowned king of England. They have to seek the support of the church and Parliament, conquer castles and towns, and form alliances with other factions. "It's an accurate dynamic for a situation like Iraq—a country balkanized and regionalized, with an emerging democratic process," Castronova says. "People have different kinds of power, some military, some religious, some economic. Whoever is going to win is going to have to cobble together different kinds of resources."

In Castronova's ideal world, Defense and State would put their heads together and redesign the game to reflect the social and political realities of Iraq. It would be much more complicated than the original: It would need to estimate the possible strength of various Shiite and Kurdish factions, the influence of the Turks, the potential oil wealth, the ill-defined role of exiles, the extent of this mullah's power versus that one's, etc. Once they refitted the game, Castronova says, they would have a computer run the game a million times and see what kind of outcomes they get. The result of any particular game wouldn't tell much about Iraq, but taken as a whole, the results might indicate the probability of certain outcomes—for example, one-third of the time, the Kurds secede despite promising not to. In addition to handicapping the policy odds, the repetition would turn up results that planners might not have expected, the scary outliers: Perhaps you'd find that 1 percent of the time, Shiite radicals commit genocide against Sunnis.

The game would remind policy-makers not to get locked into a favorite theory. Even if some outcome seems most likely, there is still a possibility that, say, a Baathist guerrilla movement takes hold or Iran invades. A modified Kingmaker would be a cheap, fast way to get American leaders thinking about a wide range of possible outcomes, not just the few that seem likely.

Castronova, however, says he never heard back from DoD.

4. Policy analysts are usually wrong for the same reason stock analysts are usually wrong. One person sitting at a desk at the State Department, even one person with the best information the CIA can buy, is trapped by bias and ignorance.

Wall Street solves the problem of individual bias with mass. Individual stock-pickers rarely beat the market over time because the collective intelligence of the market—millions of individual decisions—is always better than any one person's repeated guesses. In a fantasy future, online games could harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people to develop better policy.

Jack Thorpe, a retired Air Force colonel who has long advised the military on simulations, speculates that the United States could use massively multiplayer online games to handle future geopolitical problems. (It's too late to help Iraq.) The U.S. government could hire gaming companies to develop virtual-world games based on geopolitical hot spots. (A game would cost $5-$15 million to develop, a pittance in Pentagonia.) A North Korea game, for example, would allow players to play the roles of North Koreans, South Koreans, Japanese, and Americans. The North Korean characters would be weak and poor, but they would excel at collective action, be fiercely loyal, and have powerful arms to deter attacks. The programmers would need to make the worlds so sophisticated and cool that people would actually want to play them.

The game-maker would open play to anyone, and policy-makers could watch the world unfold. They would create certain conditions—North Korea faces a drought—and see what happens. They could change the rules and learn how that modified the result: What if you assume North Koreans were more willing to experiment with capitalism? The game would be played repeatedly, modified repeatedly till policy-makers got a sense of what policies seemed most promising. The collective play of thousands of entertainment-seekers might produce more creative policies than a few desk jockeys could dream up. Who knows—the results might even cause North Korea to change its behavior, if it saw that alternative policies improved its standing. Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is certainly eccentric enough to go for this kind of thing.


Read the introduction to Iraq's Progress and the new ideas for bringing democracy, law and order, civil society, economic recovery, and religious harmony to Iraq.