With the stream of announcements and hype (E3, anyone?) about this game series that has been inundating the Internet, some interesting questions have come up. Since mfk has done an excellent job of describing the actual game system above, I will skip right to the point. The most interesting question is, of course, why are they doing this? The software is being given away, with the Army funding its development by a number of gaming companies. What do they get out of it?

The following hypothesis is entirely my own, and in no way is derived from any 'privileged information' or official statements.

There are a number of possibilities, of course. Let's first look at the relevant characteristics of the game, as advertised:

One possibility is that the Army plans to use online gamers as an 'armed mob' OPFOR. While it presently is not possible to play anyone other than a U.S. soldier in the game, it is quite feasible for the Army to observe player performance and perhaps 'recruit' particular players for such tasks, both for prestige or perhaps monetary compensation. Consider the following points in favor of this scenario:

  1. 'Free' OPFOR on foot: The US Army struggled for quite some time in the late 1980s and early 1990s with integrating foot soldiers and AI-based OPFOR into SIMNET. AFAIK, it didn't work that well due to (in the first case) interface problems preventing soldiers from 'naturally' operating in the sim, and (in the second) insurmountable problems with the AI. If they were to utilize AA players, they wouldn't require an AI; and by tapping gamers, they would be able to capture a large group of people who are already comfortable with the current cheap interfaces (mouse/keyboard/joystick etc).
  2. Verisimilitude for certain scenarios: While it is true that it would be extremely difficult to utilize the online gaming community for trained force-on-force scenarios, there are other situations where it is extremely applicable. Think, for example, of the 'Blackhawk Down' scenario: A small, trained U.S. Army force is confronted with overwhelming numbers of opponents. While some or all of these opponents are well-armed and individually skilled in the use of their weapons (local fighters), a far smaller number will belong to any form of organized fighting force which actually fights together as a unit. Those that do belong to such groups, however, would really be indistinguishable from the crowd except by their actions. In this case, online gamers fit both of those criteria quite well; for additional verisimilitude, online gamers are usually quite willing to self-sacrifice both for individual and team small gains, a quality it is difficult to get proper soldiers to emulate, even in training.
  3. Genetic combat algorithms: The computing world has figured out that one of the best ways to get efficient algorithms is to steal a page from biology and simulate natural selection among candidates until winners emerge. In the case of combat, tactics can be viewed as algorithms. While it is possible to run the hundreds of thousands of trials or more required to evolve these algorithms inside a computer model, you lose the stochastic resolution achieved by having each trial done using 'real' agents. With this game, it would be possible to inject these algorithms into the game AI and watch thousands of players eagerly fight them. Even if they don't end up allowing players to play OPFOR, there's no reason the scenarios can't be tweaked to get the same effect, or the model simply constructed to account for that.

There are other advantages to having this pool of 24/7 testers on line as well. Readers of Ender's Game or watchers of Toys may well be first in line to suspect a devious X-Files-worthy scheme to harness the insanely creative destructive impulses of America's youth to remotely fight her wars. While this isn't likely in the case of the 'first person shooter' genre, it might be practical for screening for which demographics of younger gamer show aptitudes the Army is interested in. Although I doubt a The Last Starfighter scenario is in the offing, it would certainly allow the Army's Recruiting command to most efficiently allocate its advertising dollars - besides giving them a channel directly to those gamers!

The game interface itself could be made to serve the Army's purpose. The Army is on the verge of spending a great deal of money to create what it terms the 21st Century Land Warrior - an extreme-tech foot soldier. Individual systems are already in the field, such as wearable computers, helmet-mounted GPS systems, laser designators with position computers in them, head-mounted displays, and more. The problem with all this technology is, as the sage Robert Heinlein once said:

"If you load a mud foot down with a lot of gadgets that he has to watch, somebody a lot more simply equipped- say with a stone ax- will sneak up and bash his head in while he is trying to read a vernier."

Thanks to TenMinJoe for the precise quote from Starship Troopers

The wide distribution of an interface would allow widespread experimentation with features that might show up on individual soldiers' displays or gear. Algorithms might be embedded in the code to determine how often players use various features of their equipment, which might offer insight into what bits of gear are actually useful and which take too much attention and/or time to use.

These are merely a few of the possibilities. While I'm not saying any of these are being done, it is at least clear that the U.S. Army is quite serious about pursuing the youth of America to serve, and perhaps trying to overcome the popular notion that computer jocks tend to join the Air Force. In the meantime, I for one plan to enjoy their largesse; being a tad too old for the draft, I can safely go spend some time trying to get the 'Expert' rating in the Basic module so that I can qualify for Sniper School, soon to be released...because then I can select weapons like the Barrett .50 sniper rifle in online play. Heeheehee.

Note: Judging from messages I've gotten, I was not too clear in my last paragraph. Yes, I too think the most likely explanation is just that they're doing it as a buzz-generator and advertisement. But that's no fun to pick apart!