Bin Laden author's input on video game could prove troublesome
By Alex Pham | Los Angeles Times | Published: September 19, 2012
The former Navy SEAL who wrote an unauthorized account of the Osama bin Laden raid also participated in the development of an upcoming video game that features real-world U.S. anti-terrorist tactics, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Matt Bissonnette, who wrote the bestselling book “No Easy Day” under the pen name of Mark Owen, was among two dozen active and retired special operations members who consulted with Electronic Arts Inc. to help make “Medal of Honor Warfighter” as authentic as possible, these people said. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Military personnel are required to receive authorization to work on such projects to prevent classified information on military tactics, strategies and protocols being made public, officials said.
No such requests were made for the “Warfighter” game, according to Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart and Col. Tim Nye, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command.
“In general terms, if any of these ... servicemembers signed a nondisclosure agreement, then that agreement would most likely be as binding for an electronic game as it is for a book or movie,” Nye said. “Having never played the game, I have no idea if it discloses any classified information or sensitive ... tactics, techniques or procedures.”
Bissonnette could not be reached for comment. Earlier this month, he was rebuked by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta for writing his detailed account of the May 2011 raid in which Bissonnette and fellow members of SEAL Team Six invaded Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
Jeff Brown, a spokesman for the Redwood City, Calif., game publisher, confirmed that retired and active-duty special forces members, including several SEALs, had worked on the game that is set for release Oct. 23. He said his company, which released a similar version of the game in 2010 called “Medal of Honor,” was not required to make sure the consultants had obtained the necessary government clearances to work on the game.
“The Department of Defense has never asked to vet the games or the contribution of veterans and active service members,” Brown said.
The use of veteran military experts in developing video games is potentially troublesome because they could inadvertently reveal information that could give enemies a window into actual weapons and their capabilities, how troops maneuver and communicate with one another and the tactics they use in combat situations, said Mike Zyda, founding director of USC’s GamePipe Laboratory.
“When soldiers sign an agreement with the government, they have to live up to it,” said Zyda, who developed a game called “America’s Army” that the U.S. Army used to recruit soldiers when he was a professor of computer science at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate Institute.
But as a practical matter, Zyda said, games typically focus on action sequences that are less likely to reveal military secrets.
“In all of these games, they don’t simulate the intelligence infrastructure, which is where most of the classified information sits,” he said. “The goal of a game is to be fun and exciting. Some amount of realism is necessary to achieve that, but a lot of [what happens in missions] isn’t in games because it’s just not that interesting.”
These concerns were discussed in depth at a March press event promoting the game “Tom Clancey’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier,” by Ubisoft. Developers of that game — and most other military titles — rely heavily on active and retired servicemembers for advice on weapons and techniques as well as motion-capture.
During a panel discussion, the game’s developers and advisers said they strive for reality, but always keep operational security in mind. They work hard to make the game’s action seem realistic without providing a training tool for terrorists.
“We think about: Bad guys are going to play this game,” said Travis Getz, authenticity coordinator for Red Storm, which helped develop the game for Ubisoft.
However, several of panel members said that advisers for some other games have been “a little too forthcoming” with details.
“Medal of Honor Warfighter,” which was developed at an EA studio in Playa Vista, takes players into combat in Afghanistan and several other true-to-life conflict zones including Somalia, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf and the Philippines. The single-player mode lets players take on the part of a Tier 1 soldier as he navigates through one deadly skirmish after another with his squad in order to track down an underground web of terrorists distributing pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a potent explosive used unsuccessfully in 2001 by Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber.” Players are able to choose from an arsenal of weapons used in real-world combat and select from a range of authentic military tactics to defeat their enemies.
Devoted players of the highly competitive military shooter genre, which generates well over $1 billion in sales each year from such franchises as “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor,” judge games by their levels of realism and accuracy — at least for the combat scenes. With powerful game consoles, developers are more than ever able to deliver on those fronts.
Some game technologies are so advanced that they are also being used by the military to train forces. For example, a game engine called CryEngine used to develop “Crysis 3,” an upcoming shooting game also being published by EA, is used to create training simulations used by firefighters and service members.
But technology is only one requirement for creating a shooter game. Also critical are the visceral nature of combat and the psychological effect on troops. To re-create this, game companies routinely hire current and former special forces members, such as Tier 1 Units, the elite troops within Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, who are called upon to conduct sensitive counter-terrorism missions across the world, to advise developers on making their games feel as close to the real thing as possible.
On its promotional website, “Warfighter” claims its “motion capture technology combined with input from Tier 1 consultants, immersive lighting and beautifully rendered environments create a visual representation of human action in combat that takes authenticity to a new level.”
To drive the point home, EA brought on stage two former Navy SEALs — Kevin Vance and Nate Brown — at a game developers conference panel in San Francisco in the spring, according to people who attended the presentation.
Vance and Brown could not be reached for comment.
In an interview with The Times in March, Vance and Brown said they developed the script that formed the kernel for “Warfighter” while on an anti-terrorism mission around 2006. At the time, the two would not reveal their last names.
EA’s Brown would not confirm the names of the former troops. Asked about Bissonnette, who went under the name of Mark Owen in his work for EA, Brown said, “EA did not directly remunerate Mark Owen for his input on ‘Medal of Honor Warfighter.’ “
A person who has knowledge of the work said EA didn’t hire Bissonnette directly, instead paying a company called Silent R. EA’s Brown acknowledged that his company used Silent R “to produce a series of promotional videos on authentic combat experiences in the war on terror.”
Messages to the North Carolina company were not returned.
It’s not unusual for the U.S. government to advise book writers and film studios. The upcoming film “Zero Dark Thirty” received help from the Pentagon and the CIA. Another film, “Act of Valor,” released in February, used active-duty SEALs as actors.
By contrast, neither “Warfighter” nor “No Easy Day” received government assistance or clearance.
The Pentagon in August threatened Bissonnette with legal action, saying he violated his nondisclosure agreement by revealing classified information in his book. Pentagon attorneys did not say which details were considered classified.
Panetta denounced the book on Sept. 11 in an interview that aired on “CBS This Morning.”
“I cannot as secretary send a signal to SEALs who conducted those operations, ‘Oh, you can conduct these operations and then go out and write a book about it ... and/or sell your story to the New York Times,’ ” Panetta said. “How the hell can we run sensitive operations here that go after enemies if people are allowed to do that?”
Stars and Stripes' Brian Bowers contributed to this report