One of the appeals of video games is the “realism” that today’s biggest titles can offer. While no video game is truly realistic when it comes to combat – you don’t have to worry about the endless hours of boredom and in reality you don’t get to respawn when killed of course. But when it comes to the equipment, especially the weapons and vehicles, games are especially detailed.

While many game studios must turn to museums, collectors, and even design blueprints to replicate tanks and aircraft from past conflicts, with “modern equipment” the issue is a little trickier. In some cases, modern – as in currently used – equipment is represented in the game, and the developers must make best guesses as to sensitive details.

The Fine Line Between Classified and Unclassified

This was the case in the game War Thunder, which included the British Army’s Challenger 2 tank. The tank has been in service 1994, and has seen operational service in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and most notably in Iraq. Visually, the tank looks spot on in the free-to-play online war game, and the game’s publisher Gaijin Entertainment did the best it could given that the tank is still in service. However, in July one particular gamer thought some of the details were off enough that he shared details online with fellow players in the game’s forums.

Such sharing of information is normal, and even encouraged – if the information is publicly available and isn’t classified. But as ClearanceJobs reported in July, the individual posting the details on the Challenger 2 was actually a British Army tank commander, and the information he posted came from the “Challenge 2 Army Equipment Support Publication,” which is essentially the tank’s “user manual.”

According to the UK Defense Journal, the images were heavily redacted but still carried “UK Restricted” labels. Additionally, the labels were amateurishly crossed out, while a stamp of “Unclassified” was added. Despite the fact that it seems the manual may have been declassified, the posting of the documents and images was enough to cause concern with Gaijin, which soon contacted the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD). It didn’t take long for the MOD to then respond that the manual was classified.

“I can confirm that it does appear to be a genuine extract,” a representative of Defense Equipment and Support at MoD Abbey Wood told the game publisher “It certainly has not been released under FOI previously by DE&S or considered for redacting. We also do not recognise the ‘Unclassified’ stamp as something that has been used in DE&S.”

It is unclear if the tank commander has been reprimanded, but in the end, the posting of the information on the Challenger 2 wasn’t used anyway. Because they are classified, the company essentially said they were not acceptable as a “valid source material.”

Sharing of Military Secrets

The posting of a potentially classified manual on an active piece of military hardware is actually just the latest in such accidental leaks. In 2012, several U.S. Navy SEALs found themselves in hot water, and were subsequently reprimanded for leaking military secrets to video-game publisher Electronic Arts, while they were working as paid consultants on the game Medal of Honor: Warfighters.

One of the seven had reportedly even been involved in the raid that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden. Seven of the SEALs were disciplined as a result of their “over sharing,” while four others were also investigated. The main complaints against the SEALs were that they failed to seek permission from their commanding officer to take part in the project, but also that they showed the game designers some of their specially designed combat equipment.

Discipline included losing their ability for military promotion as well as forfeiting half their pay for two months.

Going for Realism

What was notable with the sharing of the details on Challenger 2 main battle tank (MBT) was that the commander seemingly wanted to improve the experience. Already, the game has earned accolades for its realism, and here was a case where a gamer – who happened to have extra insight – was guilty of sharing details he shouldn’t have.

“The realism in the games has certainly increased and the modeling capabilities of consumer video games now rivals that of simulations run by the military,” said technology analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.

“The U.S. military is even using War Thunder to teach team work,” Entner told ClearanceJobs. “The gaming companies usually take the conservative route of modeling things knowing that they are off, but as long as they are off by roughly the same amount for everyone it is fine.”

In this case, the gamer/tank commander thought that improving upon the design might give him an edge in the game.

“What we are missing is that in these games tactics and capabilities are more important than the equipment,” added Entner. “One of the eternal truisms of computer war games is that teamwork is overpowered. In the end, a well organized team with inferior equipment – modeled or real – will win against a better equipped but disorganized team.”

Too Much Information

Simulations such as War Thunder have become popular because these games provide all the thrills of combat without the risks that live trainings have. For some gamers, the level of accuracy doesn’t matter, but as more veterans play these games, they tend to be the harshest critics.

That was likely the case with the tank commander’s over sharing. He may have thought he was improving the game, but he did so at the possible price of putting actual tankers in harm’s way. If the games are too detailed, there won’t be a need for spies, as potential adversaries can just download the latest add-ons packs with new vehicles.

“Simulations are supposed to be accurate; however, we generally care more about playability than accuracy,” explained Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group.

“For instance, not many of us want to experience fixing a broken tread or trying to dig out a stuck tank, Enderle, who has closely covered the game industry for years, told ClearanceJobs. “But experience with the actual weapon should provide an advantage as that will more deeply engage the players into the game background and lower the complaints on inaccuracy.”

 

 

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.