Play Games

One way to get real is to create a game out of your problem. (Later we'll talk about the generalization of this idea, which is called simulation.) In the movie War Games, a high school computer whiz (played by Matthew Broderick) hacks into a U.S. military war simulator to play "Thermonuclear War." The kid doesn't know it's not a game, and he inadvertently starts World War III. The plot of the movie is based on well-established mathematics called "game theory."

The potential destruction that nuclear war could unleash is so vast that it is difficult to fathom. It is a difficult subject to think about for many reasons. Stanley Kubrick decided that nuclear war was such a depressing subject that he made his classic film, Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, into a satire. (I place it no. 6 on my Greatest Sci-Fi Films of the Twentieth Century.) Sometimes it is easier to tackle a profoundly serious subject with a good dollop of humor.

In the 1980s, I thought a lot about the problem of nuclear warfare but made no progress in understanding it until I made a game out of it. (My main interest was to try to understand the mechanics and strategies involved so I could answer for myself what the future is likely to hold for humanity. The intuitive answer— total annihilation—was just not satisfying.)

My personal feelings are roughly expressed by Major Kong, the B-52 pilot in Dr. Strangelove who gave a little pep talk to his crew just before delivering his fifty-megaton bomb to Russia: "Heck, I reckon you wouldn't even be human beings—if you didn't have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat!"

To create my game, I took the popular board game, Risk, which is essentially a WWII war game, and bumped it up to include nuclear weapons. (I hope Parker Brothers will forgive me.) By modifying just a few rules, I emulated the effects of nuclear buildup, nuclear shielding, nuclear waste, and post-nuclear war combat.

I was anxious to test my Nuclear Risk game with some intelligent players: I found a navigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a physics professor at Caltech. We played our first game on April 16-17, 1988.

What I discovered after several hours of (simulated) nuclear combat was somewhat obvious in hindsight. My game was more of a test of human psychology than of nuclear strategy. Here's my summary:

1. As soon as one nation gets one nuke, it is (usually) used on another nation (which, of course, has no nukes).

2. When two nations have nukes and a third does not-then nukes are used (almost) exclusively against the non-nuclear power.

3. If a nation survives a nuclear attack, it launches a counter nuclear attack as soon as possible.

4. In the unusual case when all nations have nukes but nukes have never been used, then WWII style combat continues in a struggle for territory.

5. Whether nukes are used or not, territorial conquest is only achieved by conventional arms. Nukes only destroy, they do not conquer.

6. Once all nations have stockpiled enough nukes to destroy the entire world, the state of MAD (mutually assured destruction) is reached. It is a test of the sanity (or patience) of the players whether to push the button to end the game.

One insight I gained from this experiment is why, during the Cuban missile crisis, some of the U.S. generals advised President Kennedy to launch an all-out nuclear attack against the Soviets before they got an arsenal of nukes. As U.S. Air Force Chief of

Chapter 11 Play Games

Staff General Curtis LeMay put it, "The Russian bear has always been eager to stick his paw in Latin American waters. Now we've got him in a trap, let's take his leg off right up to his testicles. On second thought, let's take off his testicles too." The reasoning of the generals, which sounds insane (and it is indeed horrific), makes sense from a purely game-theory approach. JFK didn't take their advice—and we're still here to talk about it.

Another insight is that if nukes are ever used again, they are likely to be used against a non-nuclear power.

The most important conclusion is the most obvious. It was also "discovered" in War Games by the computer: Thermonuclear war is a game that is not worth playing because there can be no winners.

To this we can add—only losers. But you already knew that.

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