Gaming as #FICINT

a reaper shooting a laser

We are often accused of preparing for “the last war.” I think that’s a bit unfair. When you actually look at it, we’re mostly trying to figure out how to adequately train for the wars we’re fighting now while keeping an eye on what might be out there lurking.

We dominate in Gulf War I, and we turn towards the Revolution in Military Affairs. We get bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we triple-down on training counter-insurgency, trying to eke out a win.

Now, in the era of ‘Great Power Competition,’ we’re thinking of Multi-Domain Operations and Large Scale Combat Operations. 

For the majority of the serving force, combat experience is limited to the counter-insurgency operations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thinking about what war might look like against a different foe in a different environment requires looking further back into the past, when the equipment, technology, and tactics employed were also very different.

Or, if we’re willing, we can look to the future.

And if we’re really brave, we can look to fiction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fictional intelligence, or ‘FICINT,’ lately. While it’s a new term to me, it’s one that I’ve learned I’m already very familiar with.

FICINT is the idea of looking at fiction for inspiration. And in a military context, as “intelligence” to prepare for future conflict. The term was coined by Peter Singer and August Cole – authors of Ghost Fleet. 

For the uninitiated, Ghost Fleet is a novel set in the near-future that depicts a future war between the United States and China. It includes anti-satellite warfare, total annihilation of troop formations, biologically enhanced super-soldiers, entrepreneurs at war, and more. 

It’s a terrifying look at what a true “peer-to-peer” war might look like. 

While terrifying, it is also inspiring. It’s a call to do the work now.

If we keep doing what we’ve done, we will eventually be out-innovated. It’s only a matter of time. Using FICINT to imagine some of these seemingly absurd challenges can prepare us for them. 

Which brings me to the rub. Military thought leaders and senior officials are getting comfortable with FICINT as a concept. Books like Ghost Fleet and 2034 are finding spots on military reading lists across the force. 

Now what would be truly disruptive? 

Gaming as FICINT.

Open the aperture a bit and look at what gaming has to offer in terms of FICINT. Gaming has exploded over the past thirty years – and the narrative, development, and seriousness of the genre has professionalized and matured. 

I’d argue (and I do) that games are better for FICINT than television, film, and literature. Why? Gaming allows for more, and with fewer restrictions. Films, at the most, last a few hours. Television shows can last multiple seasons, but there are studio limits to what gets packed in. Books, arguably, can go on forever and can pack it all in. But, while I know you read, as an art form, reading is in decline.

Games are also limited, but not to the same extent. AAA games regularly clock in at over 100 hours to fully explore the world. These games are dense. Cyberpunk 2077, for example, features a script that includes over 100,000 lines of dialogue.

While I have explored filmtelevision, and books for FICINT before, I’ve spent most of my efforts with games. 

Over the years I’ve written a number of pieces pulling directly from games as a way to think about mental healthstolen valorsuicide (and here), the military’s role in a zombie apocalypse, the RPG elements of military service, the importance of “staying alive,” military deception, the absurdity of war, soldiers vs. warriorsdecision makinggrand strategy, and toxic mentorship.

Still, I always get the sense that when I write about gaming or use it as an anchor for some other idea, I am met with a too-critical eye – that this is still the stuff of adolescence. Many individual leaders still don’t want to take it seriously – despite the fact that it is pervasive and dominating other markets, including the movie industry.

Institutionally, the services get it. The Army, Navy, and Air Force have stood up eSports teams as another way to aid in recruiting. Most people game, so it makes sense to go where the people are.

It should not be that challenging a jump to turn to the genre for inspiration.

Our future might depend on it.


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FICINT: Imagining our own destruction

two female soldiers from mass effect

This blog is becoming a shill for great podcasts.

During this episode, Mr. August Cole discusses fictional intelligence (or FICINT) and how it can help leaders understand emerging concepts such as the cognitive warfighting domain. August observes that plausible fictionalized future scenarios which are rooted in academic research communicate to leaders and decision makers better than do white papers and powerpoint slides. He also emphasizes the importance of experimentation and stress testing ideas. One of August’s primary goals with his writing is to use FICINT and narrative to prevent strategic surprise.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #33 Cole on FICINT and the Cognitive Warfighting Domain

When I read Ghost Fleet, it scared me. Future war is terrifying.

But it also motivated me to work, and to keep working to get ahead of some of the challenges it prophesizes.

Ghost Fleet is a work of “FICINT” or “fictional intelligence,” a play on the other “INTs” of the intelligence community (SIGINT, HUMINT, etc.).

One of the key findings of the 9/11 Commission Report is that we suffered from a failure of imagination. FICINT offers a way to imagine future threats, and then, hopefully, prepare for them.

This was a great episode. Things that stuck out below:

On writing about a “Crimea-like” unconventional warfare campaign waged by the US (Underbelly).

“What rules would US and allied forces break in wartime? When you go back in history, it’s quite clear that norms and rules are broken in every single conflict, like unrestricted submarine warfare in the 20th century – so what’s the equivalent of the 21st century? Is it going to be breaking down all the barriers of data access?”

Returning to the idea of “what rules are we going to break,” Cole empahsises the point that we can use FICINT to start thinking through these problems now.

“The more time we can invest in understanding the ethical, legal, operational, and doctrinal implications now, the better chance we have to make those decisions as carefully as a country like ours needs to during a large scale conflict.”

The podcast wraps up with Cole recommending listeners read Agency by William Gibson. Gibson, for the uninitiated is the author of Neuromancer, which is the inspiration for much of the “cyberpunk” genre of fiction.

I haven’t read either (yet), but Cyberpunk 2077 is up next.


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