CAPT Dan Moore, USN Ret, joins us for the first of his monthly series on naval leadership, “More with CAPT Moore.” In today’s episode, we discuss the education of 21st-century naval leaders by discussing examples from the present and past, such as GEN Mattis, LT Sims, and ADM Nelson. Some of the set-up and helpful readings are found in an earlier introduction article. Enjoy our newest episode of Sea Control, “More with CAPT Moore” (Download).
The age of Fourth Generation Gaming is upon us. With the launch of the PlayStation 4 this week and the Xbox One next week, the younger side of me emerges from its shell with interest. As we step into this new age of gaming, one has to wonder if these new sophisticated gaming devices have the potential to contribute to professional military training and education in an age of fiscal austerity. This article argues that specific video games provide users the opportunity to practice ground and naval warfare tactics in addition to leadership skills.
Going Beyond the Call of Duty
When one simultaneously thinks of the military and video games, notable first-person-shooters (FPS) such as Call of Duty and Battlefield come to mind. As fun as these games may be, they unfortunately serve the military little purpose besides acting as a recruiting tool. Yet, one title that focuses on land warfare (and dabbles in the maritime area) is the Arma series. Based off of the Virtual Battlespace engine, Arma II and the recently released Arma III bring unparalleled realism to the gaming realm. Accurate bullet ballistics, radio communications, wounding, and scale of the terrain are several features among many that create a multiplayer (players against players, not AI) platoon or company level large scale engagement. In addition to these realistic features, the Arma series features a comprehensive and versatile, but yet easy to use mission editor allowing users to set-up almost any tactical engagement in mind (I personally created a mission entailing a situation in which USMC forces had to assault a captured oil rig with helicopters and small boats; this mission exposed the tactical difficulties of VBSS as my team did not anticipate searching every inch of the complex platform for OPFOR.)
Although the educational benefits of playing a FPS video game may appear to be nonexistent, the Arma series illustrates that tactical lessons at squad, platoon, and company levels can be learned. Players can simulate a variety of engagements ranging from 300+ meters in mountainous terrain modeled after Afghanistan to larger conventional fights with armor and mechanized infantry (a typical Arma engagement video). At the squad level, players practice moving as a unit in different environments (rural and urban) against different enemies (unconventional guerrillas, rag-tag Third World armies, and sophisticated Russian and Chinese militaries). A different set of challenges confronts players commanding a platoon or company as they have to not only ensure that their units remain organized and move coherently, but also penetrate the fog of war to determine how to best apply their forces strategically, practicing combined arms operations (a skillset with potent consequences if forgotten).
Other games such as Combat Mission Shock Force and Flashpoints Campaign: Red Storm also provide players with the opportunity to experience with small-unit tactics, but the dynamic pace of the Arma series challenges players in ways these other games lack. Although the Arma series fails to embrace the maritime domain of war (with a few exceptions such as my team’s bungled oil rig assault), fortunately other games are available to provide players with this opportunity.
Bringing a CIC to Your Living Room
Less than a handful of video games embrace the concept of naval warfare, but the few that do surpass their users’ expectations. Many mimic the style of the notable Harpoon series by featuring an interface similar to a CIC rather than amazing visuals. One recent title, Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations, simulates naval tactics and operations by allowing players to command a variety of units ranging from a single destroyer tasked with ASW to all of the assets under the command of the 5th Fleet (even nuclear weapons are included, with dangerous consequences). Players command their unit(s) through a CIC-type interface. Accompanying the game is an enormous encyclopedia containing an endless amount of statistics for every ship, aircraft, and weapon automatically factored into gameplay. Unfortunately, all of these variables make playing the game itself a hard experience with a difficult learning curve (grasping the controls while being pummeled by Russian Backfire bombers does not help). Yet, this illustrates the complexity of how a carrier battle group functions. Fortunately, some of these features can be delegated to the Al (such as engaging with the most optimal weapon). For further information about Command, USNI published an excellent review.
Command’s ultimate benefit is its vast scale. The ability to employ nearly any naval or air unit in any corner of the globe allows players to experiment with various situations and conflicts including counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, transiting the Strait of Hormuz while being harassed by dozens of Iranian missile boats, counternarcotic operations off the coast of South America, and repelling Chinese A2/AD forces in the Pacific. Some units and methods work almost perfectly in some situations but fail in others. Players experience both the tactical and operational challenges in these various scenarios. Although the game lacks stunning visuals or sounds, it gives users a vast sandbox to practice a wide array of naval tactics.
Leadership: Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More
The previous two games discussed both allow users to practice maritime and ground tactics. These skills are incredibly important but by themselves do not make a great officer. I argue that leadership is another key trait. Although leadership (in my opinion—many others would disagree) is a natural trait that not everybody possesses, those that have this trait only improve their leadership abilities through experience; typically, the more someone leads, the better leader they become. There are almost infinite amounts of ways to practice leadership, but one that stands out is a video game titled EVE: Online.
Thinking of EVE as a tool to practice leadership may appear to be out of this world (literally because of the science-fiction feel), but it is not. EVE is a science-fiction space game in which players fly their ships around different star systems for combat, industrial, commercial, and exploration purposes. In EVE, all players (approximately 500,000) are on the same server, making the game persistent, and player-driven (for example, corporations—or alliances—fight over sovereignty over key systems linking resource-rich areas with market hubs). Few ‘rules’ exist in EVE (although corporations try to enforce certain laws) allowing players to conduct practically any activities they desire. The economy is completely player based, making the most expensive ships in the game tradable for over $3000 USD (a lot of cash at stake for a ‘recreational’ video game).
Now, how does this game with spaceships simulate leadership experience? Essentially, Fleet Commanders in EVE are always applying Col. Boyd’s famous “OODA” loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act); the most successful Fleet Commanders are masters of this process. Combat in EVE is extremely complex with different types of ships (agile frigates, electronic warfare, logistics, stealth bombers, carriers, dreadnoughts, and many more) that each fulfills important roles; 3 battlecruisers with 3 logistics ships can easily take on 10 battlecruisers. A Fleet Commander needs to account for all of these variables when in the midst of a 3000+ ship battle. The Fleet Commander also ponders how he will get his 1000 ship fleet organized and to the staging area in a time efficient manner (Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is just showing up. In EVE, many “battles” are decided before they commence as players will only risk losing their thousand dollar fleets in fights they can win.), counterintelligence issues from spies embedded in his fleet, and his ultimate objectives. When targeting other ships (in combat, commanders tend to focus all of their firepower on only a couple of targets at a time), the Fleet Commander needs to analyze the changes in both the enemy and his fleet compositions while sounding confident over communications.
As earlier mentioned, EVE essentially provides players with a dynamic environment to constantly practice the OODA thought process. Despite its unrealistic setting, EVE demonstrates how a player-driven video game with a complex—but yet simple—combat system can serve as a tool to for users to practice the strategic thinking. In fact, some may argue that its completely fictional setting removes a commander’s obsession with certain assets and forces him to rely on the core aspects of leadership and critical thinking.
Integrating Video Games into Military Training?
This article is not arguing that the US military institutions should replace their training with video games like EVE (although this may be more reasonable in 2154). Yet, with the conclusion of major military operations and inevitable decline in military training exercises in an age of fiscal austerity, officers will have fewer opportunities to learn from practicing their leadership abilities and experimenting with different tactics. Thus, after illustrating several examples of video games providing educational lessons, this article argues that integrating video games with training may serve as part of a solution to this upcoming gap.
Bret is a student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, but currently abroad in Amman, Jordan studying International Politics and Arabic. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
Sea Control- Doyle Hodges Interview (Download)
So, as required of millennials (or people who know millennials) with opinions, we’ve started a weekly (we hope) podcast. Think of it as your moment of PowerPoint Rehab. Our first episode is with Doyle Hodges, author of the 1998 USNI Article, “Listen to the JO’s“. We intended to talk about leadership, which we made a great college try of. In the end, we segwayed into sea stories, technology, and other things. I am easily distracted and he has a beard. What do you expect? I suppose that’s at least ONE advantage of the “Next Slide” button.
If you have any suggestions, want to get involved, or have ideas for the show, email me at NEXTWAR@CIMSEC.ORG. If I know what I’m doing (which I don’t) it may be on Itunes soon.
You could hear a pin drop in the room. Retired Vice Admiral John Ryan, U.S. Navy, had the group of 35 midshipmen captivated as he recalled a remarkable young woman he’d met. She had been born without arms and legs, but she took her mother’s advice to focus on what one can do instead of what one can’t. This woman managed to become an engineer for NASA. The moral of Admiral Ryan’s story was to always examine other people’s lives and consider how they can shape the way we lead ours.
This was just one of the many lessons I took from the former Naval Academy Superintendent and current president of the non-profit Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). He spent the day visiting the Boston University School of Management and made time to address NROTC midshipmen.
What is striking about Admiral Ryan is his approach. His background commands great respect – in addition to his naval service, he oversaw 80,000 faculty and staff as Chancellor of the State University of New York – yet the soft-spoken former P-3 pilot also presents authenticity and humility. Perhaps that’s what makes his wisdom stick.
“You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Ryan said in describing the “learning agility” that distinguishes great leaders. He and his organization, CCL, have found that continually embracing challenge and having a “growth mindset” are essential to leadership success. Great leaders are able to learn from experiences and apply them to new ones. They also need to make their subordinates feel comfortable in “stretch assignments” and willing to take chances. This takes sincere mentorship and a culture that forgives occasional failure.
The other theme Admiral Ryan stressed was self-awareness. He jokingly recalled the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch who would famously ask citizens “How’m I doing?” Leaders need to open themselves up to feedback, be willing to hear the bad in addition to the good, and make time to reflect.
When was the last time you heard a naval leader encourage officers taking time to reflect and learn from their everyday leadership experiences? Yet as Admiral Ryan explained, this is essential to growth and self-awareness.
The U.S. Navy, by necessity, emphasizes technical and tactical proficiency, but through my MBA classes and now Admiral Ryan’s insights, the importance of “softer skills” is becoming increasingly clear. Vice Admiral John Ryan may no longer wear the uniform, but the Navy and our officers could learn a great deal from his lessons, as I myself was fortunate to do today.
LT Chris Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and an instructor at Boston University.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.