Why “Call of Duty” May Not Help Us Predict Future Wars


The Atlantic Council, seeking to enhance its exploration of the Future of Warfare with some new blood, recently hired Call of Duty: Black Ops series director Dave Anthony for an unpaid position as a senior fellow. At first glance, given the futuristic games Anthony has developed and the extensive consulting he has conducted with domain experts, the move seems like a no-brainer. Why not think outside the (policy) box with a man whose games rule the X-Box? Anthony’s Black Ops 2 in particular is seen by many defense analysts as a chilling vision of future warfare. However, this may have something to do with the fact that Anthony consulted many of them in the development process.

So what, then, can defense futurists learn from Black Ops 2 and other games? Additionally, what do videogame perspectives on defense futures really add in a town in which analysts instinctively reach for Hollywood, not their military history or political science books, when it comes to believable future threat scenarios? There is a better way, however, to use games to explore national security policy that may actually shake up DC’s defense analysis status quo – and one that men and women like Anthony could very well enable.

The Call of the Unoriginal

Anthony’s comments and his job description in the Atlantic Council press release suggest that he and the institution view his role as mining fiction to better inform reality. But the misleading qualities of immersive fictional worlds are well known by their creators. Like a computer wargame that merely reifies the assumptions of top generals, fictional worlds (especially science fiction) are often reflections of the underlying biases of their creators.

Black Ops 2’s future war elements are a case in point. A declining West and a rising East? Check. Cyber catastrophe? Check. Power diffusing to non-state actors with an Occupy/Anonymous-like dynamic? Got that too. Drones gone wild? You get the idea. Good or bad, in 2014 these visions of future war are not challenging or innovative. They are the collective imagination of today’s national security community, distilled into an addictive video game. This makes sense given that national security experts extensively informed the design of the game!

Why do national security thinkers somehow believe a game that they themselves influenced will provide bold new insights about the future of war? This is not a recipe to actually challenge assumptions. Instead, it depressingly reproduces them with fancier graphics and a nice first person shooter engine.

Similarly, Anthony’s assessment of the Mumbai attacks also – as described by Foreign Policy – simply reflects conventional wisdom:

Anthony has created a presentation that juxtaposes footage from the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai with images of Las Vegas to suggest how easy it would be for terrorists to “buy assault rifles, walk into a casino, and slaughter everybody.

Mumbai-like attack scenarios have been identified as a future defense threat since Christine Fair and others’ 2009 study of the Mumbai assault. Mumbai in 2014 is not creative or innovative –it’s played out. It would be like remaking Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s airport massacre scene and calling it original. Gamers wouldn’t buy that, so why should the policy world?

Similar conservatism motivates both science fiction and defense futurism. Cyberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s envisioned such goofs as a culturally, economically and geopolitically dominant Japan. This is not really bold geopolitical futurism. It is presentism – the projection of the assumptions of the present out to the future in a linear fashion.

Yet at least William Gibson and others could adjust their projections. Many intelligence community futures assessments still read like they could have been written 20 years ago in the era of Robert Kaplan’s “Coming Anarchy”. Why are we still treating these kinds of ideas as somehow controversial, edgy or futuristic?

Here’s a disruptive assumption – the consensus future of defense futurists might be totally wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. And a game that reinforces their existing biases might not be the best guide to future conflict.

How about a game in which a supervillain can’t cause some sort of cyber catastrophe? Or a strategy game in which a plucky group of guerrillas are crushed by an authoritarian state willing to ignore the United Nations and kill its way to victory? Or, better yet, Call of Duty: Russian Warfare. In this game, you play as a doomed Ukrainian soldier watching conventional Russian soldiers surround your bases as Russian special ops and intelligence forces organize local rebels and do many other dastardly things while denying everything at the political level! Frantically mash your PS4 buttons as you try to avoid being blown apart by a low-tech, yet lethal artillery shell! Ragequit when a rebel sniper puts one right between your eyes and your war buddies are paraded as propaganda objects along the streets of rebel cities.

I doubt it would get good reviews from Kotaku, but it might actually be our future. It is after all, our present. And yes, maybe it’s bad to project that present out to the future too. But if we’re doing it anyway with drones, terrorists, and hacking, why not make our presentism more diverse?

Let’s face it: Defense futurists are mostly unwilling to acknowledge that COD: Russian Warfare may be just as likely a future as Black Ops 2. Maybe that’s why real Russians pouring into Ukraine took defense experts by surprise.

The Call of the Improbable?

The great thing about fiction of any sort is that suspension of disbelief is the goal. We sit in a movie theater and for a few hours turn off our analytical minds. Where this can be a problem for defense futurism is that prediction is not just a matter of the possible. It is also a matter of the probable. This is another area in which mining fiction to better inform reality can be problematic for policy decision-making.

For example, Anthony’s suggestion that quantum computing will enable a “coming explosion in artificial intelligence,” or AI, seems at odds with the skepticism of computer scientists like Scott Aaronson about current quantum computing efforts. Quantum computing aside, a lot of progress in AI also has been on small, isolated components of intelligence. AI itself is also notorious for overpromising and under delivering. It’s certainly possible that he could be right about, say, an explosion in war-revolutionizing quantum AI being just around the corner. After all, Paul Krugman once scoffed at the idea that the Internet would ever be a thing, right?

But real-world allocations of resources and policy decisions – especially concerning security – cannot ignore questions of probability. Creative threat scenarios aren’t the same thing as likely defense scenarios. Security experts derisively refer to “movie plot” threat scenarios that do not incorporate real-world probability, costs and practicality. So much of tech-driven analysis of drones, military robotics futures and cybersecurity are essentially Hollywood plots that policymakers somehow take seriously. We’ve had a lot of “creative” threat analysis in the last few years and little substance. As Dan Trombly gripes, the last thing a defense tech conversation already laden with Hollywood scenarios (see: the recurring use of Terminator to talk about military robotics) needs is another dive into fantasy.

Anthony declares that movies like The Lone Gunmen and Turbulence predicted 9/11 and plane hijacking more broadly. But a look at the actual movies Anthony cites suggests a highly selective reading of their predictive accuracy. For example, had we listened to Turbulence, we would be preparing for the threat of prisoners transported by air marshals, not terrorists armed with box cutters and trained to crash airplanes. Moreover, The Lone Gunmen’s 9/11 plot is a false flag endeavor, as befitting the conspiracy themed X-Files spinoff.

If The Lone Gunmen predicting 9/11 is a sign of how fiction can inform security planning, perhaps the Atlantic Council ought to have hired 9/11 truthers like the makers of Loose Change. In fact, one of the star actors from The Lone Gunmen dubs 9/11 “America’s Reichstag.” Does this mean the U.S. government ought to have prepared for a plot by the U.S. government to attack the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? Arguing that The Lone Gunmen was prophetic would seem to indicate this!

Leveling Up Defense Analysis

Real value for videogames or any kind of fiction-informed defense analysis comes not necessarily from “out of the box” thinking or having expertise in a dramatically different field. Drawing from games to inform national security is of little use unless the effort really makes the most of both game knowledge and the real world of conflict, security and strategy. But it doesn’t seem that defense futurism efforts that draw on games really do both.

However, I’d be a hypocrite and intellectually dishonest to say that Anthony has nothing to contribute. Griping about unrealistic or flawed defense futurism is also not as valuable as proposing constructive (and fun) alternatives. And given how beloved both the regular Call of Duty and Black Ops spinoffs are, I’d rather not be the Vladimir Makarov or the General Shepherd of defense commentary in throwing shade on the idea that the same talent might help win real-world wars.

There’s a lot that Anthony could teach DC’s stuffed shirts about how to populate a dramatic and compelling vision of the future. What I liked most about Anthony’s compelling (and historically appropriate) vision of Cold War black ops were characters like Viktor Reznov (“Dragovich. Steiner. Kravchenko. All must die”). Whatever vision of past or future war you have, you need your Reznovs to flesh it out. Otherwise it is just abstraction.

Anthony, like his fellow video game auteur Hideo Kojima, could also use the game form to ask deep questions about defense-relevant topics. Kojima, like Brecht, forced gamers to confront inconvenient ideas about their own cultural assumptions and identities. Kojima forces the gamer to confront the brutality of war head-on. His vision of the future is also founded in many fascinating ideas, including artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, meme theory and other well-known scientific fields. Kojima is honest (he insists on it through repeated breaking of the Fourth Wall) about the games being an artificial experience and a stylized and sometimes comically surreal vision of the future. They are useful and inspiring to me as a defense analyst not because I think that any of it predicts the future of warfare. I play them because Solid Snake, Raiden, the Patriot AIs, etc make me re-examine not just my ideas about warfare, but also my underlying beliefs about the nature of human life and society.

And this is precisely why someone like Anthony could have the potential to revolutionize the world of defense and security think-tankery. Games have the power, if taken seriously, to move us and force us to re-examine our beliefs. Judging by the sorry record of defense analysts in the last decade of war, such an innovation cannot come soon enough.

So don’t just hire Anthony – bring the rest of the core Black Ops development team from Treyarch on board. Think-tanks currently use the BOGSAT (Bunch of Guys Sitting Around a Table) method of brainstorming. Custom-designed versions of Black Ops that allow policymakers to demo future warfare scenarios, in contrast, would blow away even the most badass LAN parties I’ve seen. Lastly, some of the best work in training and simulation, from Marine Doom to AI players for military wargaming, comes directly from the videogame industry.

It’s Not Game Over

My suggestions and criticisms, at the end of the day, are also similar to those of a Call of Duty fan griping about changes to the multiplayer mode. After all, there’s a certain degree of presumption inherent in a PhD student (!) telling the creator of one of the most profitable first person shooter games in history what to do. And who knows? Maybe the initial vibes the project gives off (like a misleading E3 reveal trailer) aren’t representative of the end product.

Regardless, rehashing consensus defense futures is not helpful. Nor are movie plot threats. Thankfully, the idea itself of fusing games and policy is sound. With some tweaking, there’s nothing inherent in the project that dooms it to be as great a letdown as Aliens: Colonial Marines.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Photo credit: BagoGames