The world lives in fear of an all-out nuclear war, but we don’t know much about how one might go down. The only wartime use of nuclear weapons happened more than 70 years ago, and technology has changed dramatically since then. What can we do to learn about, and prepare for, how world leaders might react to a nuke in a world with cyberwar, artificial intelligence, and advanced surveillance?
What if we played a video game to find out?
This approach is unconventional, but not unprecedented. During the Cold War, military and political leaders played hundreds of games to predict how a nuclear war might play out. With that in mind, the Project on Nuclear Gaming (PoNG)—helmed by a team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratory—created an online multiplayer strategy game called SIGNAL, or Strategic Interaction Game between Nuclear Armed Lands.
SIGNAL is part video game, part experiment, and part data collection tool. The hope is that, by observing people playing the game and collecting the data it generates, PoNG can learn about human decision-making during nuclear conflicts. They’d love for you to play a few rounds and see how you fare.
SIGNAL is fascinating, but flawed. It’s attempt to study something terrible—nuclear war—in a controlled environment. I didn’t have a good time playing the game, but PoNG didn’t design it as a commercial product. But it also felt like the in-game consequences of nuclear war were low, and the games so short that I had to wonder: Is a game really a viable medium for learning about something as important and complicated as nuclear war?
“The promise of experimental wargaming is that it offers an additional tool in the toolkit for scholars to consider questions that can’t be answered using ‘real-world’ data,” the researchers of PoNG told me in an email. “The data collected may serve to generate theory for further study.”
SIGNAL began life as a board game, but the PoNG team concluded its use was limited, though they still use the analog version to gather data. One of the problems with the board game was that the participant pool was limited. PoNG offered the game up at conferences and got a certain kind of player, what it calls its “elite” pool—government functionaries, politicians, military leadership, and defense journalists.
This kind of narrow participant group is a historical problem with war games. RAND—a Pentagon-backed think tank—ran the bulk of the Cold War-era wargames, and felt that data generated by wargames only mattered if elites played the games.
Putting people from all walks of life in charge of nukes was important to PoNG. They wanted as broad a data pool as possible, and so they decided to make SIGNAL an online multiplayer game that anyone can join from home.
“ SIGNAL offers the opportunity to examine whether and how players from different backgrounds and with different political-military experiences might play the game differently,” PoNG told me. “We collect demographic data on players, including their level of knowledge on nuclear issues, and our pool includes a number of players with extensive knowledge of nuclear weapons, weapon effects, military strategy, and diplomacy.”
Can a game really mirror nuclear war?
SIGNAL plays like a browser-based, multiplayer game of Civilization distilled down to a few quick rounds. It takes place on a world map made of hexes, everyone can see what everyone else is doing. Players take control of one of three fictional and nameless countries abutting each other. The goal is to score points by expanding your country’s infrastructure, gathering resources, and defending yourself from assault.
The game introduces some wrinkles to keep things interesting. Occasionally, for example, one player may spawn without nuclear abilities in order to act as a potential neutral ally. There’s also a chat window so everyone can talk openly with each other, or negotiate in private messages.
Each round begins with five minutes of “signalling.” The “signalling” phase of the game is the most crucial, the player has markers they can put on the board to show that they’re interested in a hex. They don’t have to explain what they’re going to do on that hex—they may build a farm, they may deploy troops, or even launch a nuke—just mark that they might to do something there; or, a player may do nothing at all.
“Signalling” takes five minutes and happens in real time. During this time, players can negotiate with each other; money, resources, and territory can change hands. You could, for example, drop a signal flag on an opponent’s city, and then claim in the chat that you’re going to nuke that space unless the opponent pays a ransom. After five minutes, players take turns executing actions on the hexes that they’ve marked. Each of these action phases only lasts 45 seconds and there’s pressure to play well or lose big.
Purely in terms of game mechanics, the built-in consequences of using nuclear weapons are low. According to PoNG, that’s part of the point of the game. “Players control a good deal of the costs of military action, including nuclear use,” they said. In effect, players create the costs of nuclear actions in the game.
“We have…seen players make all sorts of agreements concerning nuclear use from ‘no first use’ policies to, in [the board game], disarmament as players discard their nuclear capabilities altogether,” the PoNG team said.
PoNG pointed out that, in the real world, nuclear taboos and treaties are only as good as long as they’re agreed upon by all parties. For decades, Russia and the United States had a treaty against intermediate-range ballistic missiles. As of August 2, that treaty is dead. Another Obama-era treaty may be next on the chopping block. “After a lot of debate, the team agreed that for this version of the game, an attempt to manufacture either deterrence……..Read More>>