New online strategy game advances the science of nuclear security

SIGNAL, a new multi-player computer game custom built to explore deterrence and decision-making in an escalating nuclear conflict. (Lorenzo Vidali, Sandia National Laboratories photo)

Love military strategy games like Risk and Diplomacy? Try SIGNAL, a new online game that lets you satisfy your appetite for virtual global domination while simultaneously helping researchers understand the risks of real-world nuclear conflict.

SIGNAL, made possible by a grant to UC Berkeley researchers from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, was designed to explore how various weapons capabilities, such as low-yield, high precision nuclear weapons, may affect the behavior of different actors in an escalating global conflict. Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are partners in the effort providing subject matter expertise and student mentoring.

“What we’re working toward is being able to better understand how different force structures, like what types of weapons you have in your arsenal, might change how people act in a crisis,” said Bethany Goldblum, a researcher in UC Berkeley’s Department of Nuclear Engineering. “The more we can understand that, the better we can inform policymakers on possible options for reducing the risk that those weapons pose to the world.”

On its surface, SIGNAL looks like many other military strategy board games: Each online player represents one of three hypothetical countries, and the goal of the game is to maintain territorial integrity while amassing more resources and infrastructure than your opponents. Players have the opportunity to “signal” their intent to take actions such as building civilian and military infrastructure or attacking an opponent with conventional, cyber or nuclear weapons. Players can also negotiate trades and agreements with other players.

A photo of a laptop screen showing the SIGNAL online game

A demo of the online version of SIGNAL. (Lorenzo Vidali, Sandia National Laboratories photo)

By tracking how players behave, the researchers hope to get a better understanding of how countries might react in times of conflict.

Military leaders and policymakers often explore these questions through “war games” — seminar-style discussions or tabletop exercises that explore tactical, operational or strategic aspects of a simulated conflict scenario. But these war games are limited, in that they only reveal how one specific set of people reacts to one specific set of circumstances, said Andrew Reddie, a Ph.D. candidate in UC Berkeley’s political science department.

Social scientists may also use surveys to understand how a broader swath of the population would respond to a particular conflict, but this approach also has its drawbacks, Reddie said.

“If I give you a piece of paper and say, ‘Read this, and then write down a response,’ you have no skin in the game, as a research participant. You don’t win anything or lose anything on the basis of answering in any particular way, whereas, if I put you inside of a gaming environment, and I say, ‘Here are the win conditions,’ we are arguably more likely to get a true sense of how you would respond,” Reddie said. “What’s cool about what we’re doing is we’re pioneering a new term, the experimental war game, which is to use this type of wargaming framework but for scientific inquiry.”

The team will be releasing the game publicly today (Tuesday, May 7) at UC Berkeley at a launch party in the Bechtel Engineering Center’s Garbarini Lounge. The event is free, but tickets are required.

A close up of the board game "SIGNAL," which looks like a military strategy game

SIGNAL began as a board game before making the leap online. (Lorenzo Vidali, Sandia National Laboratories photo)

Starting May 15, the game will also be available via this link during open play windows — currently scheduled from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. PDT every Wednesday and Thursday — for anyone to log on and play. Those times may be expanded, if there is enough interest.

Goldblum and Reddie said they currently plan to collect plays through the end of summer, at which point they will start analyzing data from the game. In the future, they may also consider adding additional capabilities to examine how other emerging technologies, like cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence or drones may also impact conflict escalation.

“There is no reason why we couldn’t include missile defense capabilities, or artificial intelligence decision support, and then use the same kind of experimental wargaming framework to be able to explore the potential impact of those capabilities,” Reddie said. “I think that’s what’s really interesting about this method — while we were looking at this specific research question, what we ended up doing was developing a method that can be applicable for a variety of different research questions. It opened up a lot of space for inquiry.”

Read more at UC Berkeley College of Engineering