Cyber Wargamers Set Sail Against Pirates

June 15, 2011
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Connections

The Office of Naval Research is turning to a community of more than 1,000 cyber wargame players in a three-week effort to crowdsource new ideas on how to combat Somali pirates. The game carries the ungainly moniker of the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) and aims at finding ways to defeat pirates operating off the northeast coast of Africa who have proved over the last several years to be a menace to commercial maritime shipping interests. Most recently, Somali pirates’ actions turned deadly in the Indian Ocean as they shot and killed four American hostages last February while the U.S. Navy conducted talks for their release.

Dr. Larry Schuette, director of innovation, ONR, explains that the game featuring Somali pirates as the enemy is part of “a pilot with our MMOWGLI to see if we can try to get people to come in with good ideas, in this case, on the piracy issue, and then team up and form up with other people online and get them to help solve our tough problems.”

Schuette says invited users, who will be drawn from academia, the defense community, government and nongovernment organizations, will play the game through a special secured website. “I would liken this to a sophisticated wiki, as opposed to a first-person shooter game. This is an online ‘card deck,’ where you essentially tweet your idea in the first round, 140-character ideas, so it’s less graphic and more text. The idea is to harness in the virtual world the ideaspace, if you will.”

He says MMOWGLI players will be evaluated two ways. One, moderators from the Naval Postgraduate School “will be online, looking at people’s ideas,” and deleting those that are irrelevant to the game. “If it’s a really good idea,” he continues, “and the moderator says ‘that’s really good,’ you can give it a thumbs up, if you will.”

Schuette says other players will be able to see each other’s ideas, “and as you do in a comments section of an online newspaper, you can say ‘I like that,’ “it’s a good idea’ or ‘it’s a bad idea.’”

He goes on to say that the crowdsourcing of ideas through the MMOWGLI is “critical here. It’s the online suggestion box, where the people who are suggesting have a vote on whether it’s a good or bad idea.”

Schuette says that the Palo Alto, California-based Institute for the Future designed the MMOWGLI. “When we were looking for a way to do an online game, all roads led back to them in this kind of game design.” The Naval Postgraduate School is the developers and programmers for the game, as well as the game directors, he adds.

The MMOWGLI had been scheduled to begin in mid-May, but instead a soft launch occurred May 31 because of the overwhelming response and surge in player registrations once word got out about the project. Schuette is amazed that more than 9,000 people have signed up for a chance to play the MMOWGLI, and he anticipates finding “hundreds of ideas that are worthy of consideration, and from that, then, perhaps a dozen ideas that we should form teams around, and reach back out to examine more in-depth.”

Despite what turned out to be an alarming number of potential participants, the ONR has a plan in place to move forward smoothly. “We plan to focus the initial stages of gameplay on a core group of innovators and early adopters that we have identified. In many ways, early adopters can be viewed as a game developer’s best friend.

“As we engage with this community, we expect to leverage their feedback into a phased rollout resulting in progressively more capability for more players. We anticipate this rollout lasting through the month of June.

We were frankly a bit surprised by the number of people who indicated an interest in the game,” he says. “I hope that this phased approach gives players an opportunity to gradually build their networks and strategies, while giving us an opportunity to make sure that this pilot platform supports a more robust and diverse community than we originally planned.”

If the MMOWGLI pilot involving scenarios with Somali pirates proves successful, ONR hopes to use the concept in the future to crowdsource solutions to other complex problems.
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This idea seems to have a high interest level and a good chance of identifying new approaches to handling rogue states and non-state organizations.