Software bugs can prove deadly on the battlefield — a lesson learned when a buggy Patriot missile defense system failed to intercept a Scud missile that killed 28 American soldiers during the first Gulf War in 1991. To prevent such weapons disasters, the U.S. military wants to transform dull bug-hunting tasks into fun problem-solving games that attract swarms of online players.
The idea cooked up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) , the Defense Department's research arm, follows in the spirit of the "gamification" trend that transforms ordinary or routine activities into entertaining ones. Each game would be tailored around common bugs or problems in the software programs that control modern military weapons.
But this is no small order. DARPA envisions "hundreds of thousands of games" tailored to each specific software problem, according to a request for proposals issued in December. That would require a developer tool that could automatically create new games from scratch.
In this case, DARPA's games would allow anyone with an Internet-connected laptop, smartphone, tablet or video game console and some free time to join in on the fun — and perhaps help save American lives. By contrast, the military currently relies upon an estimated 1,000 experts trained in hunting down software bugs.
Such games may even allow software programs called "robots" to automatically play alongside humans. Use of such robots is typically considered cheating in popular games such as "World of Warcraft" or "Modern Warfare 3," but DARPA is clearly seeking all the help it can get in finding show-stopping software bugs.
If this all sounds crazy, consider that games have already proven their power to solve many real-world problems. S cientists have harnessed the intelligence of thousands of online gamers to figure out the 3D shape of proteins. Even the U.S. Navy has been testing a game that recruits online players to play out strategies for fighting pirates.
The U.S. military's love affair with games doesn't stop there. The U.S. Army runs an online game called "America's Army" that resembles first-person shooters such as "Modern Warfare 3" or "Battlefield 3," but also acts as a recruitment tool. And it has also begun developing gamelike virtual reality technologies that would allow soldiers or Special Forces to rehearse missions in full "battle rattle" gear.
Still, if the DARPA project proves successful, it will likely be because it targets casual players beyond military gaming enthusiasts — the bug-hunting games may end up looking no different from any popular puzzle game that is currently available.