Wednesday, May 11, 2011

75. US navy develops crowdsourced MMO to sink piracy

[Article first published as US Navy Develops MMO to Fight Pirates on Blogcritics.]

Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents would tell you that just being good at video games would never amount to anything and you should really be doing your homework? Maybe back then rescuing princesses from overgrown monster turtles had no impact on life or society outside of conditioned rage against little people in mushroom hats and a grand increase in thumb dexterity. We had no idea what was coming in the next 20+ years, where the world would see gaming becoming a mainstay of the mainstream, and even a tool used for training and simulation. So we’ll let your parents slide on giving you grief for now. When I say training tools I don’t mean your company running a little seminar on the dos and don’ts of HR policies on corporate dress code. I mean large-scale simulations like those used by the American government and the military. I wrote something a while back about the US military using crowdsourcing as a viable tool in project research. In that case it was a DARPA-driven simulator to track rogue submarines called ACTUV, as well as the XC2V vehicle.

There must be a lot of positive results from this method of research, as now the United States Navy is backing a simulation project called MMOWGLI (please, no Jungle Book jokes about Baloo or King Louie). MMOWGLI (Massively Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet) is a project that will involve over 1,000 civilian and military players to help the Navy better understand and come up with new strategies involving piracy. Don’t misunderstand – this isn’t about downloading movies from torrents, mind you, but far more serious subject matter, i.e. getting jacked on open water with automatic weapons. The game launches on May 16th this year, and is the first of its kind to test the effectiveness of combining an MMO like World of Warcraft with crowdsourcing in order to help to solve real-world problems. Larry Schutte, Director of Innovation at the Office of Naval Research says, “We hope MMOWGLI will help us to understand what happens when your insights are combined with the observations and actions of another player--will that fusion result in a game-changing idea or solution, or will the MMOWGLIplatform teach us something about our traditional thought processes?”

The original release will focus on the recent real-world issues of Somali pirates. Players will be able to choose between two sides: either members of an international anti-piracy task force or the actual pirates themselves. It’s a little deeper of a decision than “Alliance or Horde” to be sure, since this one clearly marks the “good guys” vs “the bad guys,” but you shouldn’t feel morally inferior to picking the pirates. There always needs to be at least two factions for PVP play. Task force players will have to come up with ways to safely pass commercial ships through the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden. This includes gauging the probability of a pirate attack, arming ships, and of course the political and financial strain associated with any sort of military action. Pirate players are tasked with circumventing the task force players’ plans and well, to put it simply, jacking their ships. Players are permitted to party up like in all MMO games to work together on humanitarian efforts, raids, and hostage rescues. Players are even allowed to get into the nitty-gritty details of hostage rescue and maximizing the efficiency of pirate attacks. This will all be tightly controlled by game masters to preserve as much realism as possible. They’ll be making sure that there aren’t any exploits that can be triggered, like the Orgrimmar secret room in WoW’sCataclysm expansion, or even someone pulling a Leeroy Jenkins and disrupting an encounter. You see, combat ships carry costs of hundreds of millions of dollars each, which I would venture is a bit more than a 70 gold virtual repair bill for your 359 epics.

The Navy has a presentation available here with a lot more information on the premise of the game, background and objectives. What they’re hoping for with MMOWGLI is “novel combinations and complex interactions of ideas” and to “encourage out of the box thinking about contemporary anti-piracy issues.” These types of insights, as is documented in their presentation, might not emerge from more traditional wargame approaches. Collective gamer intelligence, gotta love it. So do you feel like playing pirate? You can sign up for MMOWGLI here.


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