The Military January/February 2010

SimCity Baghdad

A new computer game lets army officers practice counterinsurgency off the battlefield.
QuickHoney

Lieutenant Colonels Matthew Moore and Kevin Mindak repaired the airport, the bus terminal, and the water-treatment plant. They silenced three insurgent groups and won the support of many in Al-Hamra’. But the mayor, Anwar Sadiq, still spoke out against the U.S. Army battalion stationed in his town.

Sadiq was causing similar headaches for Lieutenant Colonels Brian Payne and Isaac Peltier.

“We may have to remove him from office,” Peltier said.

“Why is he not on board?” Payne wondered. “We fixed something for him. We went to visit him. And still, governance is going down.”

“We’ve done a lot for the Sunni people, too,” Peltier said. “He’s just corrupt.”

As Payne and Peltier debated what to do about the mayor, a female suicide bomber killed 20 police recruits, and the people’s anger shifted from the insurgents to the U.S. troops.

The Americans had met men like Sadiq before, albeit under different circumstances. Peltier had been to Iraq three times; Payne spent 26 of the past 40 months there. And they would likely be going back to Iraq or to Afghanistan. As part of their training, Peltier, Payne, Moore, Mindak, and five other lieutenant colonels in the Army’s School for Command Preparation, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, were wrestling with Sadiq in a new computer game called UrbanSim. Rolled out last May, UrbanSim allows U.S. officers to practice counterinsurgency without suffering real-world consequences.

As the men hunched over their computers trying to decide how to handle Sadiq and a range of other problems, Matthew Bosack, his crisp blue shirt a sharp contrast to the officers’ combat fatigues, peered over their shoulders with a slight smile. “The cocktail-party explanation: I say I make SimCity Baghdad,” said Bosack, a project manager at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, which developed the game. “You’re basically the mayor. But instead of tornados, earthquakes, and Godzilla running around your city, it’s insurgents.”

In recent years, the military has ramped up training at places like the National Training Center, in California, and the Joint Readiness Training Center, in Louisiana, where Arabic speakers play the parts of mayors, police chiefs, and townspeople. Although effective, these exercises are hugely expensive and logistically complex; any one officer might have just a few interactions with his “counterparts.” But computer games are cheap and can be played anywhere. And because the students all run the same scenarios, they can compare the efficacy of different approaches.

Over dinner several years ago, an Army officer lamented to Randall Hill, the executive director of the Institute for Creative Technologies, that he and his men had been unprepared for what they faced after Baghdad’s fall. “We need SimCity,” he told Hill. The institute, which receives much of its funding from the Army, modeled UrbanSim on those experiences—the blood and tears of officers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bosack and his team then built the game’s characters as autonomous agents that react not just to specific actions, but to the climate created by a player’s overall strategy. Members of a tribe, for instance, want jobs, but they won’t work if they don’t feel safe. Instead, they might join the insurgents. Patrolling neighborhoods, meeting with tribal elders, and creating more economic opportunities—tactics straight from counterinsurgency manuals—can reduce the likelihood of that outcome in the game.

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