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A Navy Game to Outwit Pirates

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 12, 2011

A New Navy Game and Crowdsourcing May Help Patrols Outwit Somali Pirates

Think you know how to fight pirates? Think you could be a pirate? If you and your friends and a multitude of friends of friends do, the U.S. Navy may come up with creative new ways to make the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea safer. The Navy has designed a new online game project, based on years of research, called MMOWGLI - Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet-that will invite more than 1,000 military and civilian players to try their hand at thwarting Somali pirates. A Fast Company story by Neal Ungerleider reports this is the first effort by the American military to integrate crowdsourcing and gamification into traditional war games.

The Economist magazine reported that this January Somali raiders mounted 35 naval attacks and captured seven ships with 148 hostages. The magazine reported that as of February, Somali pirates were holding 33 ships and had 758 hostages. Despite anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, the Economist says 2011 is shaping up to be the worst year for Somali piracy since the Union of Islamic Courts collapsed as a government in January 2007. The U.N. estimates the annual cost of piracy in the Indian Ocean in $5 billion to $7 billion.

A group of North Carolina graduate students in marine studies who write about the ocean in their blog Southern Fried Science have produced an interesting history of Somali piracy. Beginning in the 1990s, when Somali governments were weak or nonexistent and coastal waters were unprotected, Somali fishermen collaborated to fend off foreign vessels whose crews exploited their resources and dumped toxic waste. But the defenders, soon realizing that piracy provided a rich source of revue for a desperately poor country, evolved into marauders themselves. The blog quotes a piracy researcher as having found that some coastal Somali communities have built economies around piracy and even have a stock market where the public can buy and trade shares of different pirate crews.

An Economist story says business professor David James suggests managers of legitimate enterprises could learn from the Somali pirates' decentralized business model. He says they avoid "symmetrical" conflict. Rather than head on attacks against targets that could overpower them, they use stealth and surprise that lets a few sailors wrest control of hugely valuable assets, such as oil tankers. But don't underestimate their danger. While Somali piracy usually involves hijacking and extortion, rather than conventional robbery and violence, several hostages have been murdered.


Dr. Larry Schutte, director of innovation for the Office of Naval Research, told Fast Company "We hope MMOWGLI will help us understand what happens when your insights are combined with observations and actions of another player-will that fusion result in a game-changing idea or solution, or will the MMOWGLI platform teach us something about our traditional thought processes?"

Players will take the roles of participants in a multinational anti-pirate effort, or they will be pirates themselves. Both sides will use their wiles to outwit each other. Individual players can work together to arrange hostage rescues, raid pirate camps, or provide humanitarian assistance to Somalia that might weaken piracy's hold on the economy. Sign up to be notified when MMOWGLI launches.

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