Warcraft, for Real: U.S. Navy Launching MMO Game to Help Catch Pirates

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You know how you’ll be playing World of Warcraft or Halo: Reach or Call of Duty: Black Ops with a bunch of friends and somehow you execute a decoy-flank-covering fire strategy that’s so brilliant it completely overwhelms your opponents? Well, the Navy wants to harness that same kind of emergent thinking in an MMO designed to tackle real-world threats.

Announced this week by the Office of Naval Research, the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) aims to pull together 1,000 users and pit their collective intelligence against enemies in military engagement scenarios. Chances are, this is one beta you won’t get into: players will be drawn from the ranks of other defense departments and academia, as well as government and nongovernment organizations. The first scenario will deal with at-sea piracy off the Horn of Africa on the continent’s eastern coast, but ONR says that they want MMOWGLI to provide a template for multi-user, multidisciplinary problem solving.

Sadly, we get no screenshots, but from the press release, MMOWGLI sounds like an old-school MUD (multi-user dungeon). It also reminds me of Warren Ellis’ great Global Frequency comic series, where 1,000 interconnected experts from a broad range of fields tackle dangers that standard peacekeeping organizations aren’t equipped to handle. A Fast Company report on MMOWGLI says that a control group will be managing the play experience, not unlike a dungeon master in D&D games.

Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but one of the lasting legacies of al Qaeda has been to show the world that modern terrorism happens in a decentralized, hard-to-pin-down fashion. Traditional forms of deployment–large numbers of troops on the ground, airstrikes, etc.– still have their place, but need to be paired with more rapid, agile responses to better protect people and ideally preempt threats. MMOWGLI’s crowd-sourced, hivemind philosophy represents a forward-thinking step in that direction, in a world where terrorism is constantly changing.

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