geopolitical chess (

DARPA wants war games that write their own rules

At the Defense Department, war gaming comes in all stripes --  from designing battle plans for entire armies and fleets to simulating the actions of individual soldiers. But the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency wants to take war gaming to the next level:  strategic gaming that models the behavior of an entire nation, with its complex interplay of political, economic and social factors.

While most military war games aim to determine how a given plan might work out if implemented, DARPA's Foundations for Strategic Mechanism Design wants to devise a high-level war game that starts with predetermined outcome, and the players determines the rules and the decisions that will achieve it.

In a recently issued request for information, DARPA asked for solutions that can help the Pentagon create a useful high-level game. "War gaming at the strategic level is decision-centric and heavily dependent on both priming of the players and the question construction to elicit meaningful responses," noted the DARPA RFI. "[B]ut principled inclusion of relevant factors such as adversarial reasoning, information warfare, and economic incentives is lacking."

"We would want to shift from a 'simulation' mindset to thinking about the creation of the rules of the game itself," DARPA spokesman Jared Adams told Defense Systems, a sibling site to GCN. "Given a desired set of strategic outcomes, could you define the rules of the game in such a way that the decisions will lead to that?"

DARPA envisions a game that encourages players to meet various objectives through mechanisms such as dynamic economic and trade structures, diplomatic alliances, military posture and action and infrastructure. Yet a big problem with strategic gaming becomes obvious by a glance at the newspaper: while games reward rational behavior such as maximizing a player's score, the behavior of nations -- including the United States -- is often anything but rational.

But DARPA researchers wonder whether advances in artificial intelligence and the social sciences will allow a realistic simulation of irrationality. For example, research in behavioral economics has demonstrated that social factors explain consumer behavior as much as "rational actor" models that simply assume that consumers want to pay the lowest price for a product.  "If you understand the social contexts, environments and influences that shape how people perceive their problems they are seeking to solve, and the strategies they use to try to solve them, then their behavior becomes much more understandable," Adams said. "And, if you think of it this way, potentially much more amenable to simulation."

While strategic war games are complex, some of DARPA's solution may not be. The RFI points to the classic board game of Diplomacy, a simple, yet abstract game of negotiation -- and backstabbing -- in pre-World War I Europe. "Simple exploration of mechanisms employing multiple modalities of deterrence could be explored using modified rules within the game Diplomacy."

This article was first posted to Defense Systems, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Michael Peck is a freelance contributor to Defense Systems.


  • 2020 Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    21 Public Sector Innovation award winners

    These projects at the federal, state and local levels show just how transformative government IT can be.

  • Federal 100 Awards
    cheering federal workers

    Nominations for the 2021 Fed 100 are now being accepted

    The deadline for submissions is Dec. 31.

Stay Connected