Saturday, May 03, 2008

Worry about the Daemon not Grand Theft Auto by Roderick Jones

DaemonBookIsometric01.jpgThe release of Grand Theft Auto IV accompanied as usual by howls of protest from certain quarters of the media about declining moral standards. For the uninitiated Grand Theft Auto is a video game where the player takes on the guise of a criminal character in Liberty city, which is modeled to look like New York City. Whatever the protests the game is set to break opening week sales figures of over $400M, arguably making video games the most dominant of all media forms. This fact, rather than the predictable tut-tutting of assorted commentators is a trend, which is worth examining from a security and intelligence perspective.

There are a number of ideas flying around at the moment that don’t fall under a single banner but which taken as a whole can be thought of as suggesting a new way of considering terrorism or counter-terrorism, particularly through the lens of gaming and other immersive environments. The two categories that roughly coalesce are the application of gaming logic to real-life scenarios and the projects that have emerged from the ‘human terrain mapping’ initiated by the Pentagon. Putting these two modules together allows for a peek over the horizon at what might be next.

There is little doubt that gaming culture is becoming a powerful and pervasive part of society, especially the compelling nature of Massive Multiplayer games. The way these games are designed-- the intricate procedural architecture of earning points for completing certain tasks in certain ways, is a template that can be applied to real-life; especially if one were to overlay a gaming template onto real-life activities. One group that has been active in this realm is 42 Entertainment that produce Alternative Reality Games 42 Entertainment. The ‘AI’ game involved millions of people across the planet collectively solving a series of puzzles both online and in the real world and became known as 'the Beast'. ARG game tasks are too complicated for any one person but the Internet allows for a collective intelligence to emerge and assemble the pieces and solve the puzzles. (ARGs) in order to market products. The first such ARG was tied to the Steven Spielberg movie, ‘AI: Artificial Intelligence’ and was developed by Jordan Weisman, then a Microsoft executive.

Two authors have recently expertly explored these themes in two quite stunning books. The first and most far-reaching is Daemon by Leniad Zeraus (Daniel Suarez). The book explores the overlaying of a gaming system onto real-life by a deceased computer game designer. This book is as intellectually expansive as Snow Crash, which is widely credited with inspiring today’s virtual worlds. The books suggestion of a world controlled by techniques directly adapted from gaming procedures is provocative and compelling. The second and more focused book is Halting State by Charles Stross, which explores a robbery at a virtual bank and again the overlaying of gaming architecture onto real-life. This theme of applying gaming logic over real life doesn’t as yet have a snappy title, although ARG comes close (perhaps Daemon is better though). Whatever you call the system it does rely, at heart, on the fact that human behavior is becoming more predictable through the collection of data about our online lives. What is remarkable at The Daemon is how much the novel relies on human social engineering as well as advanced software to make its case.

crowds.pngThe data being collected on users by technology companies, ISP’s and a host of other entities allows for the creation of models that with a built in level of error can somewhat predict future human behavior. One such researcher in this area is Paul Torrens who has programmed avatars to replicate certain human physical behaviors, and then by placing them in crowd situations predications can be made on the direction of the crowd. This is the fruit of the human terrain mapping projects coming out of DARPA. Nobody is quite clear as yet what the models can be used for other than obvious areas such as, the design of buildings or crowd control but this research could be combined with the gaming architectures to produce real-life gaming parameters where human responses are predictable within a range of options.

By now you may be wondering what has this all got to do with national security? Well these systems may be very good ways of organizing distributed groups to complete complex tasks -- for good or ill. The first advantage is the built in level of security as participants would not be required to know who else was involved in the wider platform or what the end result was supposed to be. The best way to highlight this is to think about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in gaming terms. By considering the desired end result the terrorist-designer of the real-life game could work backwards to gather the necessary resources and skills. Entry level gamers would (in real life) score points for learning English, becoming familiar with airport security (again tested online), radicalization (their zeal could be ranked using online quizzes and interviews and scored accordingly) and of course their capability on flight simulator software. This ‘game’ could be offered to numerous people without any of them being aware of what the purpose was. Those who score the highest could be sent the actual funds to carryout the operation. This is of course looking backwards an ARG (or Daemon) system such as this could be constructed by any radical or even mainstream organization in order to develop recruits or conduct a wide variety of distributed small tasks that collectively add-up to a significant whole. What works for one side also works for the other. Intelligence agencies around the world are currently asking themselves what their response should be to virtual worlds and gaming in general. One answer is certainly to adapt the underlying systems of these games to conduct some national security functions - training agents and organizing individuals to act as part of a massively distributed project are two such possibilities. Drawing the larger lessons from gaming architecture is the strategic response to rise of gaming and virtual worlds.

The adoption of gaming culture and platforms into real-life is a realistic scenario and one with potential benefits as well as pitfalls. The lesson from Grand Theft Auto IV’s expected success isn’t that we should be worried about declining moral standards, it is that gaming culture is now pervasive and as with all technology innovations it can be adapted by anyone for fair means or foul.

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