Navy Enlists Crowdsourcing in Fight Against Pirates

Ann All

A few weeks ago I wrote about the growing number of companies using game thinking and mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems. That definition for "gamification" comes from Gabe Zichermann, author of "Game-Based Marketing" and the forthcoming "Gamification by Design" and an absolutely terrific speaker on the topic. (I linked to one of his presentations in my post.)


Based on silicon.com and Businessweek articles and my own interviews, I cited several interesting examples of gamification in the corporate environment. And today I read about an extremely cool public sector gamification project, an online multiplayer game called MMOWGLI (Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet) that the United States Navy hopes will help it come up with creative new ideas on how to battle pirates like those in Somalia.


According to a Fast Company article, players can choose to act as members of an anti-pirate task force or as pirates. The anti-pirate forces will be tasked with determining safe shipping options through the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa, after considering all of the logistical challenges involved in the trip, including sorting out the financial and legal details of using military intervention to support non-military ships. Players will find out how well their plans work while engaging in online battles. Players can also team up to rescue hostages, raid pirate camps and attack Somali ships (or offer humanitarian assistance to the country).


The game was developed by the Office of Naval Research, with assistance from the Naval Postgraduate School and the Institute for the Future.


The military isn't new to games. As a Wired article notes, the Army created a recruitment game and even has an office devoted to gaming. But this is the first game the military has designed to tap into the crowdsourcing concept. Players will enter suggestions for dealing with pirates, then other players will vote on ideas and tweak them by expanding, countering, adapting or exploring them.


Larry Schuette, the director for innovation at the Office of Naval Research, tells Wired that about 1,000 people thus far have signed up to play the game, which will begin on May 16. (Both Fast Company and Wired include screenshots and links to the website where you can sign up to play.)


In an interview with Federal News Radio, Schuette says the Navy will view results of the game in real time for about three weeks, then follow up with another month or so of analysis to determine next steps.The primary criteria it will use to determine success are number of participants and what Schuette calls "signal vs. noise ratio" (and which I'd define as good ideas vs. dreck).


Schuette tells Federal News Radio interviewer Francis Rose that because games are inherently more fun than collaboration tools like wikis, they are more likely to attract large and diverse groups of folks willing to contribute and comment on ideas. He compares the game to an "amped-up wiki" and says:

We hope the graphics, video and compelling narrative that has been put together will drive ideas and content.

It's a safe bet the Navy may want to use gaming to address other problems, given Office of Naval Research spokesman Peter Vietti's statement that the software is "scenario agnostic." The Wired article quotes him:

It can be used to tackle other tough challenges. What if the next scenario was the future of Navy spending, and how we respond to significant budget cuts across the Department of the Navy?

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