UC Berkeley researchers develop online game to study nuclear escalation

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Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, in partnership with UC Berkeley, have developed a new online game to study military escalation after receiving a $500,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The “Strategic Interaction Game between Nuclear Armed Lands,” or SIGNAL, is designed to study situations such as nuclear escalation and to explore the realm of online war gaming in military research. The turn-based war game pits three teams against each other to vie for dominance.

“We hope to use SIGNAL to help understand conflict escalation and strategies for managing it, but also to explore the opportunities and limits of applicability of experimental wargaming as a data-generating process for policy relevant inquiry,” said Bethany Goldblum, an associate research engineer in the campus department of nuclear engineering, in an email.

SIGNAL is part of a large array of military- and international relations-focused projects funded by the Carnegie Corporation, according to the Carnegie Corporation’s 2018 annual report.

According to researcher for the Project on Nuclear Gaming Andrew Reddie, the research team for SIGNAL does not foresee the Carnegie Corporation having any specific targets for how the project would be used in policymaking decisions.

“From our team’s perspective, (the Carnegie Corporation does) not have any specific targets in funding the project beyond producing a series of academic and policy-oriented publications,” Reddie said in an email.

SIGNAL gathers its data through periodic “open-plays,” or windows during which players can more easily match with the server, according to the Project on Nuclear Gaming’s website.

When asked whether they had worries about the data being used to assist in military aggression rather than dispelling it, Reddie said in an email that SIGNAL works to understand escalation rather than change its nature.

“(SIGNAL) attempts to understand the conditions under which escalation or de-escalation may be more or less likely. Like a majority of academic research, it is not normative in the sense that it seeks to change those conditions. Rather, it seeks to provide a deeper understanding of them,” Reddie said in an email.

The Carnegie Corporation was not able to be reached for comment as of press time.

Researchers on SIGNAL said the project was a part of a new field of “experimental wargaming.”

“We are developing a new methodology, experimental wargaming, that can be used to generate data on human decision making in complex national security relevant scenarios,” said Kiran Lakkaraju, a senior member of the technical staff in the Systems and Analysis III department at Sandia National Laboratories, in an email. “Using experimental wargaming, we hope to quantitatively and systematically study the impact of different conditions on strategic decision making.”

Ben Klein is an assistant news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BenKlein_dc.