In Ghost Fleet, an Oculus Rift starts World War III.

Well, it’s actually the Chinese hacker wearing the virtual reality headset who sparks the war, and it isn’t so much an Oculus as it is the great-great-grandchild of the device we know today. But the point remains that in the novel Ghost Fleet, a video game system helps fire the opening shots of a global conflict—one that transforms the battlefield into a hybrid of the physical and the virtual.

That’s not especially notable in and of itself. After all, more than one sci-fi novel has speculated that game technology will merge with military hardware. But what sets Ghost Fleet apart isn’t so much what it says, but who says it—since the book’s author, P.W. Singer, is America’s leading expert on 21st century conflict.

Singer has the kind of resume that, in a spy movie, would communicate to the viewer that a character is really smart. A Harvard PhD, he’s held top posts at Washington think tanks ranging from the New America Foundation to the Brookings Institution. He coordinated Obama’s Defense Policy Task Force during the 2008 campaign and published several well-received books about drones, military contractors, and cyber warfare. If you squint, you’ll probably recognize him from a TED talk somewhere.

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War is the brainchild of Singer and his writing partner August Cole, a former Wall Street Journal defense reporter and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Postulating a future conflict between the U.S. and China, Singer and Cole present a battlefield that’s digital as well as physical—thick with autonomous drones, augmented reality, and the shriek of electromagnetic naval guns. But what’s particularly interesting is how Singer and Cole base the novel’s technology on current trends, and hypothesize that video game hardware will increasingly become combat tools.

“Our rule in Ghost Fleet was no technology powered by teenage wizard hormones, dragon’s blood, or alien warp drive generators,” Singer told me over email. “Everything had to be pulled from either current technology or products already at prototype stage.”

Singer can prove it too, since citations punctuate the novel. If a character launches a missile, slings an acronym, or picks up a space wrench, readers can flip to the endnotes and find out which news article or government document the authors pulled it from. And what’s striking about these citations—apart from their frequency—is how often they refer to civilian technology. “We didn’t just visit military labs,” Singer says. The pair also visited consumer shows. Their investigations encompassed Google Glass, virtual reality systems, and even “smart rings” that may one day replace the computer mouse.


Singer tests experimental virtual reality goggles at SXSW

Singer tests experimental virtual reality goggles at SXSW

According to Singer, civilian tech is an important part of the puzzle. One of the factors that makes today’s military—and tomorrow’s wars—so different from past conflicts is how much consumer technology the military is adapting. “Much of the cutting edge technology, especially how we interact with our technology, is coming from the civilian sector,” he says. And many of those systems share DNA with video games.

“We’re definitely seeing a blending of certain aspects of conflict and video gaming,” Singer asserts. He points out that the military already uses games as recruiting and training tools, and that there are strides toward employing game controllers, VR goggles, and even brainwave interfaces to control weaponry. “We’ll see all this in future wars.”

Singer’s right. The Pentagon’s charging hard on video game tech. The Marine Corps just ordered a next-generation 3D marksmanship trainer. An increasing amount of military hardware—from bomb disposal robots, to drones, to the U.S. Navy’s new Laser Weapons System—use game controllers or flight simulator joysticks. In the virtual space, Pentagon researchers are eying the Oculus Rift as cyberwar equipment, and for a decade the government’s backed a USC project that leverages virtual reality as part of a PTSD treatment program. In other words, U.S. soldiers already use game technology at every stage of warfare. Should this trend continue, it’s possible future troops may train for, conduct, and recover from combat operations within virtual worlds.

In Ghost Fleet, games have helped spur a revolution in military optics. Google Glass-like augmented reality glasses—known as Vis glasses, which allow troops to have digital applications overlaying their vision—allow infantry to locate and tag enemies much like gamers can in the Ghost Recon and Call of Duty games. Cockpit displays and naval stations are described in a game-like manner, with fluid touch screen controls. On the cyber front, Chinese hackers and their western counterparts from Silicon Valley face off while wearing VR headsets, immersed in Second Life-style virtual communities that resemble libraries or oceans.

According to Singer, we’re headed toward that world, or something much like it.

“Google Glass and Oculus Rift receive their fair share of ribbing,” says Singer. “But we have to remember that they’re just the start. Of course they were going to be clunky and mostly for geeks. The same was true of early computers or even the first automobiles.” As these technologies move forward, he asserts, entrepreneurs will find applications for them in everything from surfing to infantry battle. In the case of Second Life and other virtual communities, it’s possible that these innovations came too soon, and the hype around them outpaced reality. But he points out that online interaction evolves quickly. “I’d be surprised if everything stays the way it is now for long. Indeed, just see how message boards evolved into social media.”

But in the novel, it’s not just the battlefield that video games change—it’s the briefing room too. In a particularly subtle touch, the admirals and officers in Ghost Fleet tend to enhance their presentations with the slick, infographic-rich style of Call of Duty loading screens. Maps zoom in from orbital views to settle on a sailor’s face. National flags expand to show territory gained over the last few years. When officers rise to address their men, it comes off more like an Apple keynote speech than a strategic planning meeting. That evolution makes sense—after all, the military abandoned chalkboards and terrain models once the much-maligned PowerPoint became available. And if you can produce energizing graphics presentations, how better to address a generation of soldiers raised on FPS games than by mimicking their popular entertainment? “Technology evolves,” Singer says. “And along the way it changes our expectations of how information should be packaged and shared.”


Singer delivers a lecture about Ghost Fleet at the U.S. Naval War College (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin Wriston)

Singer delivers a lecture about Ghost Fleet at the U.S. Naval War College (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin Wriston)

But these visual displays aren’t merely there for decoration. Instead, they uphold an underlying theme in Ghost Fleet: that technical innovations, though useful, also open up dangerous possibilities.

Dazzling as they are, these computer-generated briefings carry a menacing undertone. When a Chinese admiral uses them to address political and business figures, it’s hard not to read the briefing as propaganda. The facts themselves are true, but the images they’re paired with are chosen for emotional impact, subtly influencing the viewer’s opinions. Delivering information in this manner, the book hints, sweeps the audience up and kills their critical thinking skills.

In fact, the most interesting aspect of Ghost Fleet isn’t the parade of technology; it’s how these new innovations change, augment, or backfire on society—and often all three at once. Wearable technology lets soldiers mark enemy positions and allows spies to collect data at cocktail parties, but it also undermines attentiveness. Naval officers wearing Vis glasses tune out during morning meetings, reasoning that they can just review the footage later, while sailors covertly watch basketball games on duty.

But the most dangerous twist comes from augmented reality—the glasses, visors, and heads-up displays that give every soldier Terminator vision. As the novel’s physical battlefield melds with the virtual one, it becomes possible to manipulate perception, interrupting a person’s visual data stream or planting false signals. At one point, U.S. sailors even hack a Chinese-American colleague’s glasses so she, and only she, will see a racial slur digitally painted onto a bulkhead.

The problem with living in virtual reality is that anyone—friend or foe—can change that reality. This blending of the physical and virtual battlefield will present major problems in the decades ahead, predicts Singer. “We’ll be flooded with data,” he says. “But also slaves to our dependence on it.” Soldiers will augment their experience with multiple applications, ranging from advanced targeting to translating foreign languages in real-time. “But, as we explore in the book, all that data can be manipulated, changed, and taken away, so it can also set you up for a fall.”

The rapid technology adoption also creates a cultural gulf within Ghost Fleet’s military, as senior officers and enlisted men from the Millennial generation have to deal with data-glutton subordinates more accustomed to living submersed in tech. Indeed, Singer says that culture gap is already here. “There isn’t just a divide between the digital natives and the older generation,” he says. “You have a new generation moving in that’s going to look at Millennials as old school. What we play with in the book is what happens when those generations and the generations of technology they are each most comfortable with come crashing together.” (When a senior enlisted man makes a joke about Playboy to a subordinate, the young sailor responds, “What’s Playboy?” Review: Ghost Fleet—Zero Stars, Would Not Recommend. Just kidding, of course.)

These overlapping generations—of both technology and people—get especially complex when you consider that the military can be slow to upgrade tech. If an existing system works, it’s tough to allocate budget for replacing it, and that can create very real problems when you’re using game technology to create an “intuitive” interface. Robots and mounted guns that run on PlayStation controllers may seem second-nature to us today, but in Ghost Fleet, younger characters find them clunky in comparison with VR headsets and motion controls. It’s a realistic concern. A generation from now, soldiers may have to adjust to game-like weapons controls decades older than those they play with off-duty, negating all the benefits of these “easy” interfaces.


‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’

If this all this talk of drones, augmented reality, and cyberwar sounds a little familiar, that’s not surprising. Singer served as a consultant on Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, inserting much of his nonfiction work into the games. He credits the collaboration with teaching him to tie big themes to small details, and it’s hard not to see Ghost Fleet as a more nuanced, logical recasting of CoD plot points. While Black Ops II presented a war where humans triumphed over autonomous drones, in Ghost Fleet drone fighters are saviors, able to pull maneuvers that render the enemy’s flesh-and-blood pilots unconscious.

Even though the novel begins with a cyberattack and features a space station assault—like recent CoD games—these attacks aren’t trying to hijack America’s drone fleet or commandeer a weapon, but to knock out satellites and render the U.S. military deaf and blind. Ghost Fleet is what Call of Duty would be like if it put on a tie and went to Capitol Hill.

And that’s exactly what Singer is doing. The defense establishment has taken keen interest in the book, leading him to make the rounds in Washington. He’s received invitations to speak about the novel in Congress and at the Pentagon, and is scheduled to address 600 officers at the Naval War College. The government wants to explore the real-world lessons from Ghost Fleet, with particular focus on how it can avoid the security vulnerabilities the U.S. Navy falls prey to in the novel.

Twenty-four years ago, the media dubbed the First Gulf War “The Video Game War.” The moniker, now largely considered ill-fitting, referred to airstrike footage that struck journalists as detached and game-like. But with the U.S. military seriously examining a novel where game tech gets deployed to the front line, perhaps it’s time to resurrect the term.

So, does Singer think there’s a video game war in our future?

“I’m a bit of traditionalist,” he answers. “To be war, it has to involve politics and human stakes and human loss. Whether it’s a drone strike, a cyber attack, or all-out battle, it’s never going to be as clean as easy as in a game, and you obviously can’t just hit reset and play again.”

Robert Rath is a freelance writer who covers travel, history, and the overlap between games and politics. You can follow his exploits on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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