It is August 2010, and Operation Glacier Mantis is struggling in the fictional Saffron Valley. Coalition forces moved into the valley nine years ago, but peace negotiations are breaking down after a series of airstrikes result in civilian casualties. Within a few months, the Coalition abandons Saffron Valley. Corruption sapped the reputation of the operation. Troops are called away to a different war. Operation Glacier Mantis ends in total defeat.

This whole cycle — arrival and then counterinsurgency and then negotiation and then end-game — took about 10 minutes. The nuances are contained within “Rebel Inc.,” a game from Ndemic Studios available for iOS, with an expansion to Android planned for this year. Since its launch in 2018, it became one of the most popular simulation games in Apple’s app store and was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times in the first month it launched. But the game is also an entire engine of counterinsurgency simulation, a holistic approach to understanding and navigating through the kinds of wars that the United States has found itself involved in for the better parts of two decades.

What can the Department of Defense learn from a game like this and why should Pentagon leaders care? Popular games deserve scrutiny because they can unconsciously shape the understanding of the conflicts they simulate. A soldier who deploys in 2019 into Afghanistan may not remember 9/11 or the Taliban’s escape at Tora Bora, but there’s a chance commanding officers will have played Rebel Inc.

James Vaughan — the founder of Ndemic Creations, the company that created Rebel Inc. — said that the game simplifies some aspects of the war, ignores others, but it does so “to help players understand the core facts and the core truths.”

Art imitates life imitates Jack Ryan

Recent studies in political science have demonstrated that, no matter the accuracy of the source material, the pop culture that policy makers absorb can influence how they think and how they talk about policy. A 2017 study by J. Furman Daniel III and Paul Musgrave specifically examined how author Tom Clancy’s descriptions of technologies and politics made their way into the rhetoric and correspondence of senators and President Reagan in the 1980s. In other words, the accessibility of those works of fiction, in part, made them easier to talk about than the actual white papers on the same topic.

“After watching the 1983 film ‘War Games,’ featuring a hacker’s attack on U.S. nuclear command and control systems, President Ronald Reagan worried about the vulnerability of U.S. strategic forces and asked the principals of the National Security Council if the film’s plot was plausible,” Daniel and Musgrave wrote.

“Although many officials dismissed Reagan’s query as merely wild speculation based on a silly movie, a review pursuant to his queries found that U.S. systems were vulnerable, prompting the first U.S. document on cyber defense.”

Clancy’s oeuvre in the 1980s was deep Cold War hypotheticals, which stayed relevant for much of the time that policymakers read and cited him. A game about counterinsurgency in 2019 may not have the same cultural reach as Clancy’s multiple best sellers, but that doesn’t mean no reach at all. (After all, this is an era in which members of Congress call into Twitch streams and are asked about their favorite video game systems.)

It’s possible that officers and politicians who pick up the game will internalize lessons from it with at least as much clarity as they would absorb from a briefing book.

Simulated diseases, real learning

Rebel Inc. is not Vaughan’s first game. He’s taken on war before, though on a far different biological level.

In 2012, he released Plague Inc. as a sort of pandemic simulator where players take on the role of a disease, directing its evolution to reach the goal of complete infection and then extermination of humans. The game became popular enough it led to more than 100 million users worldwide. In 2013, Vaughan was invited to speak at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on how the game educates users about disease transmission.

Rebel Inc. is different yet feels familiar.

From the timeline of the game to the names of the regions to the use of “coalition soldiers” to the October 2002 start date, Rebel Inc. is dressed in the trappings of the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, without ever explicitly making the connection. (“Afghanistan ’11,” a strategy game explicitly set in the conflict, was pulled from Apple’s app store for depicting a specific government or other real entities as the in-game enemy.)

The game Rebel Inc. is proving an increasingly popular counterinsurgency simulation on Apple (and soon Android) devices. (Courtesy Ndemic Creations)
The game Rebel Inc. is proving an increasingly popular counterinsurgency simulation on Apple (and soon Android) devices. (Courtesy Ndemic Creations)

The challenge from insurgents

To earn the support of the population and make sure they have the tools on hand to fight against insurgents, players purchase developments. Months click by in about six seconds, and sometimes players are asked to make choices about accepting refugees or choosing to fund a university with or without oversight.

After a few years, the game alerts players to the existence of an insurgency, and then players can purchase military options, starting with Coalition troops and then expanding to include everything from national troops to Human Terrain System training to drone surveillance to airstrikes.

Once insurgents attack, the players engage in a long campaign to try to stop the violence, reclaim insurgent-held territory, and eventually stabilize the entirety of the map. In my many times playing through the game, this outcome never happened without some form of peace talks.

Exacerbating the challenge is that the player has a reputation tracker to keep in mind. When reputation gets to zero, the operation ends and with it the game. The most direct trade-offs on reputation come in the negotiating process, where more favorable terms for the insurgents can undermine the international willingness to support the whole operation. This mirrors the dilemmas faced by Pentagon and State Department officials over the past 17 years in Afghanistan. While a game may not lead to any new thinking about Afghanistan, it may spark a new vision for future conflicts.

War gamer, war fighter

While Vaughan’s games are marketed at civilians and consumers, the Pentagon is increasingly looking toward games to teach complex concepts.

Through a challenge with the Air Force experimentation lab MGMWERX, the service asked game designers, engineers, students and hobbyists to come up with ways to teach space concepts.

In the early 2000s, the Pentagon invested in “America’s Army,” a first-person shooter built in part as a recruiting tool. The Office of Naval Research’s war fighter performance department has spent years looking at video games to both train and assess the cognitive abilities of sailors and marines. For the foreseeable future, games will inform how people understand the concepts discussed in the games and may even be an explicit part of how the military trains people up to speed.

“Board wargames are, of course, the genotype of computer war-games; at first, the early digital games inherited from their paper papas their mechanics, settings and appearance. But then as the programming of computer wargames gained in sophistication, the rules faded from sight,” said Brian Train, a civilian game designer.

“Chris Crawford, the author of the first book on computer game design, wrote in 1981 that this permitted the player to move from the role of game executor [mover of pieces, adjudicator of combat, shuffler of paper] to focus on the role of game player.”

With that shift came a transition from understanding the holistic model of the game to trying to optimize outcomes in response to whatever feedback the algorithm is designed to show. Learning the game, then, means less about learning how the elements fit together, and more about sinking oneself into the assigned role.

When it comes to policy makers drawing lessons from the game, Train said, they should “know it’s a game; nevertheless, don’t treat it as something to play and ‘win.’ It’s a vehicle for you to understand, classify and organize, at a higher and more aggregated level, all the minutiae you already know about the situation and, from that, try to derive the general directions the conflict could be headed, and then check why that would be wrong.”

Volko Ruhnke, a historical board game designer and retired analyst for the CIA, offered another perspective:

“You can read a description or a narrative history of a complex affair, but there is so much to understood from seeing the actors and environment in motion and affecting one another — especially if you are able to climb into the machine and operate it yourself, experiment, and see how the thing works from the inside.”

Vaughan himself sounded delighted with the broader interest in the game, though he cautioned that it is at best an introduction to the complexity of the conflict.

“It’s a good way to take something you know nothing about and grasp just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “This just helps people engage with it on a different level. We’ve already actually had a few professors reach out to us and say they’re planning on using it in various classes.”

Asked if he sees a future policy impact from the game, Vaughan laughed at the idea that someone can pick it up and suddenly gain deep insight into solving modern conflicts. If anything, the lesson he expects people to draw from the game is the difficulty of the task involved. There is no easy war.