Information Warfare: Video Game Games In China

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January 8, 2014: In late 2013 China banned Battlefield 4, a popular American video game. Despite having done this dozens of times over the last few years, this particular ban got picked up by the mass media. Battlefield 4 annoyed the Chinese because one of its scenarios portrays a China that has undergone civil war and sundry other humiliations. But these bans are largely ineffective because Chinese gamers are heavy users of pirated versions of video games and can also buy banned games without too much trouble. The bans are mainly for show, to demonstrate that the Communist Party (which runs China) will not openly tolerate anything that is immoral (especially anything related to gambling or drugs) or that makes China look bad.

Meanwhile the Chinese government (other than the Ministry of Culture, which issues the bans) has recognized the usefulness of video games and the fact that the bans are an annoying inconvenience. In that light the government recently lifted the ban (in place 2000-2013) on video game consoles (XBox, PlayStation and the like). Banning hardware just made smugglers and other criminals rich and annoyed a lot of Chinese. 

The Chinese military is particularly enthusiastic about video games.  Earlier in 2013 China released a video game for use in training its troops, and for use as a recruiting tool. Called "Mission of Honor", it uses the same technology employed to build similar commercial games (like Battlefield 4) and the bad guys are usually Americans. Like the 2002 online game "America's Army" (www.americasarmy.com/), the Chinese game has training and familiarization tasks the player has to successfully complete before going off to war. Whereas America's Army had generic opponents, the enemy in Mission of Honor is very clearly American. This is mainly about Chinese politics, where portraying the United States as the potential enemy has become a way of proclaiming China's renewed power, without scaring the neighbors (who are scared anyway).

China has been observing, and copying, the American use of video game technology for training for over two decades. Just about every (publicly known) American military video game has been carefully scrutinized by the Chinese military, and many have since appeared in a version for Chinese troops. This includes air and naval combat simulators. Computer games are very popular in China, and most young men joining the Chinese military bring video game skills with them.

Meanwhile, for over a decade, the U.S. Army has been increasingly using video game technology (especially FPS, or First Person Shooters) to create training systems to teach combat troops how to be more successful on the battlefield, and now even with support jobs. This includes over a dozen computer games, with America's Army simply being the most well-known to civilians (and one of the few civilians can easily get access to.)

The military video games are notable for their attention to things that are important on the battlefield. This includes running out of ammo and other supplies, and gear breaking down in a realistic fashion (often when you least need it to happen.) There are lots of even more exotic (to civilian gamers) features, like allowing troops to use foreign languages, and knowledge of the local culture, in realistic situations. This often requires the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and NPCs (Non-Player Characters controlled by software.) Commercial games use a lot of AI powered NPCs, but the military needs them more for extreme realism, not dramatic effect. Thus the Department of Defense is doing a lot of original research on AI (which may then be sold to commercial game developers). The increased military AI requirements means that military games often need more computing power than even the most ambitious commercial games. Military games also need tools that enable the user to rapidly create and put to use new scenarios.

The U.S. armed forces are also expanding the use of first person gaming technology to training non-combat troops. That's about 85 percent of personnel in the army. That covers everything from medics to mechanics, interpreters, intelligence analysts and interrogators and, well, everyone. American military games also deal more realistically with psychological issues, like the impact of an ambush, and combat in general, on NPCs and the abilities of the players themselves. Then there is the ultimate goal of having these training game systems everywhere, so that troops can just switch to the training software, and use existing computers (or the gear they use for their job) and go through realistic training exercises. This is easy to do for tanks and other vehicles, but will need special equipment (PCs), or more computers imbedded into equipment, for everyone to be able to quickly switch to training simulation mode. China is also pursuing this type of gaming.

The army began using simulation training game tech for recruiting a decade ago when it created the online game "America's Army". It was originally developed as a recruiting and public relations tool. It cost over eight million dollars to create. By late 2002, it had 929,000 registered players, 563,000 of whom stayed around long enough to finish the basic training exercise. The game costs over $4 million a year to maintain. So far over ten million people have downloaded the front end (player) software. At peak times, over 5,000 players are online with the game simultaneously. Recruiters are satisfied with the number of prospects coming in because of the game. But an unexpected bonus has been the number of other uses the game has been put to.

The military video games, like many commercial games today, was based on one of the "game engines" that are for sale to those developing commercial games. A "game engine" is the software for an earlier, successful, game, with all the specific graphics and play elements removed. When you buy a game engine, you add your own graphics and specific game and play elements, and have a new game. America's Army used the Unreal game engine, and that led to clones of the America's Army software for additional training systems. Using the highly realistic combat operations depicted in the game, special versions are used to create specific games for all sorts of combat situations. The public will never see most of these, especially the classified ones.

Using the America's Army software, and a "tool box" that has been created to quickly modify the software, you can quickly create a custom version of America's Army. To do this from scratch, would cost over a million dollars, take over a year, and might not work. With the America's Army resources, it takes a few months, and often costs under $100,000. In this way, weapons (and equipment) simulators have been quickly created, and put to use. Because America's Army is web based, the troops can start to use it quickly, from wherever they can find a web connection. That means in the combat zone these days.

To the despair of parents everywhere, it appears that video games do serve a useful purpose. Research has shown that those who play video games a lot develop faster reflexes and better decision making and problem solving skills. These skills are very useful in combat.

There are plenty of video game developers in China, and they have access to the same commercial tools as their American counterparts. Thus the Chinese troops can, if their generals want to spend the money, have many of the same, or similar, games used by American troops.

 

 


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