From Pixels To Policies

Image: Call of Duty Black Ops III / Activision

While popularly thought of as a phenomenon among young millennials, the current generation of national-security leaders is the first to have grown up with video games.

Jens Stoltenberg, chairman of NATO, plays Red Alert, a Cold War-themed video game widely renowned as having revolutionized the real time strategy game genre. Video games now shape the way we view our world, just as film, literature, and music have before. Through their narratives, video games can analyze contemporary issues. With the expansive military genre of the medium, they have frequently utilized their narratives to analyze their contemporary security environment, from Red Alert, which gave a quirky futurist lens to superpower conflict during the Cold War, to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which provided a scathing critique of heavy-handed American interventionism four years after the invasion of Iraq.

Video games are unique, however, as they not only contribute narratives, but can also actively shape problem-solving perceptions and simulate factors in future conflicts. What this means is that to stay competitive and relevant policy makers should take a hint from Chairman Stoltenberg and don’t be afraid to pick up a controller or wield a mouse.

Here are five video games set to be released this fall that policymakers should play for insight into the future of armed and social conflict.


Fallout 4 (Role Playing Game)
Release Date: November 10
Policy takeaway: Because war never changes. For putting those interested in foreign aid and security issues of a failed state in the position of security provider.

Fundamentally, the Fallout franchise is a fable about society in shambles. It represents the universal constants of modern warfare, where small factions can wield incredibly powerful weapon systems with the capacity to destabilize or control communities. What makes Fallout 4 unique to its predecessors within the franchise and even the role playing game genre is its allowance for players to craft their own communities and societies using scavenged materials from the wasteland, producing local and interconnected economies, while providing an invaluable commodity: security. This places players at the forefront of decision-making and implementing the factors that will determine the success or failure of a nascent community within a failed-state. After the prophetic Fallout: New Vegas, it would be a mistake to ignore what the developers at Bethesda Softworks have to say about the future of conflict.


Call of Duty: Black Ops III (First-Person Shooter)
Release Date: November 6
Policy takeaway: Looking to a future where weapons shape humanity. For the futurist who wants to understand how technology might change war and society.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III offers a guns-out look at the future of technology-driven warfare: the seamless integration of weapon systems with human beings to create a chimerical cyborg-like warfighter. Set in 2065, Black Ops III depicts a world where the sophistication of air defenses has rendered air power near-obsolete. Wars are fought covertly on the ground, utilizing robots and mechanically enhanced super soldiers.

Gameplay reflects this integration of enhanced capability. It is fast-paced in a rapidly changing tactical environment where on-screen player movements flow as seamlessly as their charter’s marriage with technology. Jumping, sliding, swimming, and running along walls are done with ease while performing other critical tasks, such as shooting. Call of Duty: Black Ops III is perhaps the most dramatic counterargument to Fallout 4’s tagline: War Never Changes. In Call of Duty: Black Ops III, the more technology changes humanity, the more it changes war.


Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Role Playing Game)
Release Date: September 1
Policy takeaway: An on-the-ground view of the battlefield for intelligence policymakers, providing gritty lessons on adapting to environment and circumstance.

In Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of the Patriots, Kojima Productions gave a darkly plausible look at a world in perpetual conflict, with private contractors fighting on behalf of sovereign states in low-level proxy wars for resources. Now turning to the past, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will depict Cold War proxy wars, set in 1984 Africa and Afghanistan. Taking the perspective of a US Army Special Forces operator, players will navigate freely through the franchise’s first open-world map. Unlike the linear gameplay of traditional shooter games, The Phantom Pain will place emphasis on reconnaissance, tactical planning, and stealth to achieve mission success.

Perhaps the greatest take-away for policymakers will be the effective uses of Special Forces operators in remote and unfamiliar regions, the intricacies of the operation, and the value of gaining information on the ground. However, the Metal Gear Solid franchise, known for its complex and thought-provoking storylines, will likely also give players an intriguing retrospective view of Cold War proxy conflict. This is extremely relevant to the modern security environment, in which small scale proxy wars continue to be fought throughout the world. For its storyline and tactical gameplay, this game will be a must-play in September.


Act of Aggression (Real Time Strategy)
Release Date: September 2
Policy takeaway: A sober analysis of the US military’s capabilities in modern conflict, and its projected capabilities in a future where non-state actors command sophisticated hardware. For the national security wonk.

Act of Aggression depicts a not so distant future in which the collapse of the Chinese financial system has caused a global economic recession. Three playable factions dominate this world’s battlefields. The United States Army is the most familiar of the three. Spread wide and thin, the US army leverages experienced veterans and battle-proven weapons systems over technological sophistication, a reflection of current trends in US military procurement and research and development. A second faction and the primary antagonist, the Cartel, is quite the opposite. A non-state military-industrial syndicate, the Cartel’s strength stems from technological superiority through the rapid development and adoption of state-of-the-art weapons systems. The third faction, the Chimera, is a UN-led multinational force tasked with opposing the Cartel’s growth. While technologically superior to the US Army, it too lags behind the Cartel’s technological dynamism.

The game’s reversal of the dynamic of state vs non-state power, in which the latter utilizes high-tech force multipliers to compensate for the brute strength of the former, depicts how increasingly difficult it is for rigid and large armies to adopt exponentially advancing technologies. The lessons of Act of Aggression may be the most directly applicable to the conceptualization of future warfare. It is up to policymakers to play and find out for themselves.


Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void (Real Time Strategy)
Release Date: Fall/winter 2015
Policy takeaway: Strategy is independent of circumstance. For the military strategist keen on mapping innovative 21st century solutions within rigid bureaucracies.

Starcraft, a sci-fi real time strategy game depicting galactic colonialism in the very distant future, has been a cultural phenomenon since 1998. It is renowned for its fantastic multiplayer gameplay, in which players, fielding any of three asymmetrically-balanced factions, mine resources and produce units with the objective of destroying their opponent’s bases. Much like chess, the simplicity of play lends itself to complex strategies. As such, the game commands a grand following of strategists around the world. The game’s professional players draw audiences comparable in number to professional sports broadcasts. While the core game Starcraft II has been out since 2010, Blizzard Entertainment will be releasing its second major update for the game at the end of the year.

The update will be well worth picking up. With new units and a single-player campaign mode, Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void will significantly alter the game’s strategy and provide a look at new weapons systems of the far future. With a fantastic gamer community, the update will unleash strategic innovations by millions of players and professional players. This is perhaps where Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void’s true modern analogy lies.