Second Lieutenants at The Basic School in the late 1990s were required to read Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game. At the time, I could not understand why, with the Marine Corps’ rich operational history, we were required to read commercial science fiction. Had learning from our own legacy become somehow insufficient?
Years later I came to appreciate the science fiction classic more – not only for the many leadership lessons identified by Ender Wiggin’s experience at the story’s Battle School, or for its conversion into a popular film but for the full potential which modeling and simulation in a networked environment holds for preparing for, or even conducting, future military operations.
As Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus identified in his speech at Sea-Air Space, “New modeling and simulation capabilities allow us to try new concepts without bending steel. They allow us to look at things like asymmetrical concepts without going through the tortuous, sometimes years-long acquisition process.” While modeling and simulation (M&S) offers tremendous advantages in military training and experimentation today, it is difficult to predict their full potential. Could Ender Wiggin’s combat experience be a harbinger for military operations in the future?
One group from the Army Research Laboratory recently took a closer look at Ender’s Game in this context and identified several lessons learned:
Lesson One — The Training Spectrum Ranges from Individual to Collective
All military services train their individuals before they train the unit. Ender’s time in Battle School was no different. All newcomers (“launchies”) to the school were subjected to classroom instruction and virtual simulations before they were assigned to an army. Once assigned to an army, their platoon leaders worked with them in small units prior to allowing them in the battleroom. Ender, by necessity, put this spectrum aside when training his so-called Dragon Army. He was forced by his instructors to train his army to perform as one team immediately. In this scenario, individual training asked more experienced soldiers to take on the less experienced, instructing them one-on-one under Ender’s guidance.
Lesson Two — All But War is Simulation
Army Doctrine Reference Publication 7-1, Training Units and Developing Leaders (U.S. Army, 2012) lists several principles of Army unit training. One is “Train as you will fight” (p. 2-1). A similar concept is codified in the former logo of the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation (PEO STRI): “All But War is Simulation.”
As Dragon Army’s leader, Ender embraced these concepts. His training sessions enforced primary concepts, such as maneuver and marksmanship, which he knew were crucial in the battleroom’s games. Ender was trained to view these games as war, honing skills needed for complex command roles. In the end, even “real” war became simulation, as Ender and his commanders did not realize their final battle made them commanders of a real force-on-force action, and not a simulation.
Lesson Three — Perception of Limitations
The training program at the Battle School was very challenging. Yet, critically, it was designed so that the children could challenge the training program itself. Indeed, they had to do so in order to succeed – success was defined as “winning at all costs,” with besting the simulation or other “players” in the simulated environment as the sole prize. Ender did this on multiple occasions throughout the novel.
For example, in the mind game involving the giant, the player appears to be faced with failure: by design, neither of the options led to a successful conclusion. As part of the training program, Colonel Graff and Major Anderson sought to discover how Ender would deal with the prospect of imminent failure. By killing the giant instead of accepting one of the choices it offered, Ender refused to be limited to failure. This was further confirmation to Graff and Anderson that their search for a brilliant leader was over.
Lesson Four — OPFOR Must Adapt
Early in his time at Battle School, Ender noticed older students playing 3-D games. Since he was still a “launchie” he could not play the game, so he learned by watching others do so. He discovered the older students often learned by playing against Artificial Intelligence (AI) opponents. The AI was not adaptive, which resulted in human players becoming predictable as opponents – accustomed to playing a static OPposing FORce (OPFOR). They solely employed the tactics and strategies required to defeat the AI OPFOR regardless of whether they played against AI or human opponents. Ender used this knowledge against his opponents: he knew how they would react because he knew how the AI would force them to react.
Resolving the issue of non-adaptive, static, AI is not just science fiction, however. “A major disadvantage of non-adaptive game AI is that once a weakness is discovered, nothing stops the human player from exploiting the discovery” (Bakkes, Spronck, & van den Herik, 2009, p. 28). Bakkes, Spronck, and van den Herik proposed a concept known as opponent modelling as a framework for machine learning algorithms to develop “case-based adaptive game AI” (p. 28). Had the virtual game been blessed with such a dynamic, adaptive AI OPFOR, Ender may well have faced much tougher human opponents, as they would have been forced to adapt their own game to beat the computer.
Lesson Five — There is no “One Size Fits All” Training
Anderson’s and Graff’s conversations, which begin each chapter, offer insight into how Ender is progressing through the Battle School. However, their conversation preceding chapter 4 is especially poignant. At the close of chapter 3, Ender has agreed to leave his family and attend Battle School. Anderson and Graff discuss his training regimen, and it is clear that Graff has a plan for how it is to be structured based on data collected from Ender’s observed behaviors and mental patterns. While we are not at the point of embedding technology to read thoughts directly into students’ brains, we do have the capability of gauging the level of knowledge of incoming students via online pre-testing. Knowledge of an incoming class’s strengths and weaknesses can then be used to tailor the courses (Pike & Hosni, 2004). As an example, assume Ender and his fellow “launchies” performed poorly on a pre-test on first aid fundamentals, but all pre-tested well in weapon familiarization. Their weapon familiarization class could be shorted, and the extra time allotted to first aid.
Lesson Six — Fully Blended Learning
In Anderson and Graff’s training regime, all of the separate learning elements inform one another. From the classroom environment, to the individual and collective simulations, and even the social interactions of the soldiers during their free time, in each instance, Ender’s behaviors are evaluated, and his performance influences his subsequent learning experiences. Although the Battle School’s assessment system borders on Orwellian, it highlights two principles which can reasonably apply to real warfighters today.
First, performance in one setting, such as a simulated training experience, should help inform future learning. Although straightforward, most contemporary training programs still treat each event as a stovepipe. At best, participants must complete pass/fail “gates” to progress, but rarely do the specifics of their past performance directly inform the nature of later learning experiences.
Second, personnel should be assessed holistically during all learning experiences; classrooms are not the sole testbeds for declarative knowledge nor are live training evolutions the only place to evaluate applied tactics. Instead, the whole person is continuously tested in and by each context. Performance evaluation also extends to informal learning contexts, i.e., those events that take place outside of formally structured education or training settings. In Ender’s Game, comprehensive performance data from these diverse environments feeds into a unified learner profile. In the real world, new technologies, such as the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Next Generation Learning Environment, are beginning to enable the capture and integration of disparate, formal and informal learning outcomes.
Lesson Seven — Emphasize Cognitive Readiness
Much of Ender’s training in Battle School is designed to provoke his critical thinking, adaptability, decision-making, and team performance skills. Although he and the other young soldiers also study tactics and procedures, they spend significant time practicing the mental, emotional, and interpersonal skills needed for complex, uncertain future problems. In Card’s world, mankind faces an alien opponent which they cannot fully understand or predict; hence, they need to develop independent reasoning, good judgment, and mental flexibility. Although less extreme, in our own world warfighters face greater volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity; similarly, our personnel must develop the independent thinking, emotional regulation, and interaction skills necessary to cope with such contexts. This cluster of skills is often referred to as “Cognitive Readiness,” and programs like the Marine Corps’ Small Unit Decision Making (SUDM, 2011) initiative or the Army’s efforts to advance the Human Dimension (U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, 2014) exemplify the focus on it.
While this analysis focuses on M&S from a training perspective, many questions remain on how it may eventually affect actual military operations. It is widely recognized that both cyber operations and unmanned systems will play an increasingly important role in future conflict. In both of these emerging fields it grows more difficult to distinguish the live environment from the simulated environment. A decade ago, we witnessed the ease in which an ad hoc global command and control network could be established, with accounts of senior leaders monitoring real-time operations from the CENTCOM, the Pentagon and even the White House. Will the next conflict require senior commanders to actually deploy with their forces?
The military workforce of the future will be composed of people who grew up on video games and hand held technology. They will be completely comfortable making choices, even potentially life or death decisions, in a virtual environment. They need to practice and build these skills in a safe way. Will this convergence of technological and human trends reshape how future wars are fought? Will M&S systems better prepare the leaders of the future for decision-making in combat? Will today’s networked video game platforms evolve into an environment for state level competition? Ender’s Game suggests M&S belongs in military training. It fully justifies why the novel has been on the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Professional Reading List for decades and it may provide great insight into the future of military operations.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.