Terrorism and Game Theory

While on the phone with Brad Fregger a week or two ago, I found out a pretty interesting tidbit about this particular AR contributor: Brad has produced some of the most successful computer games of the past three decades; for example, he was the designer and producer of the first commercial version of computer card solitaire. In addition, while at Activision, he became the first person in the world to hold the title of Computer Game Producer. His book, Lucky That Way: Seizing the Moment While Creating the Games Millions Play, tells the stories of his years in the industry. – Jeff

As a computer game producer early in the life of the industry, I was deeply involved in the creation of a theory of computer game design. Essentially, the objective was to grab the player’s attention immediately (much like a good writer does) and then provide a challenge that was both compelling and addicting while delivering a payoff that was worthy of the effort extended. Beating the game was payoff enough for most hardcore players. This was especially true if the final levels were a challenge that could only be accomplished by the most experienced and persistent players.  This is still true today; just ask anyone addicted to Angry Birds.

While I have known some of the best game designers in the world, in my opinion the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is doing a pretty good job as they attempt to foil the activities of radical Islamic terrorists. The department is creating the perfect game, the dream of any game player — each time the player beats a level, DHS adds more difficulty, thereby creating the next level of the game. What makes this game so exciting for the terrorists is the ultimate reward: if they win (kill the infidels), they believe they will gain an honored place in heaven and all of the earthly pleasures that they have been denied in this life.

That we know of, there have been eight attempted terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by fanatical Muslims since 9/11, six of which have occurred since 2009. It is interesting that the website islam: the religion of peace has chronicled over 16,000 deadly attacks by Islamic terrorists around the world since 9/11. If this is true, America’s counter-terrorism activities have either been extremely effective or very lucky.

Here is a list of the eight attacks on the United States, the first seven of which were gleaned from Wikipedia’s worldwide list (while nowhere near the 16,000 suggested by “the religion of peace” website, the total list is still mind blowing):

  1. December 22, 2001: A failed bombing attempt (shoe bomb plot) that occurred on American Airlines Flight 63 flying from Charles De Gaulle International Airport in Paris, France to Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida.
  2. July 4, 2002: An Egyptian gunman opened fire at an El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two Israelis before being killed himself.
  3. June 1, 2009: In Little Rock, Arkansas, American Muslim Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad opened fire on a U.S. military recruiting office. Private William Long was killed and Private Quinton Ezeagwula was wounded.
  4. November 5, 2009: In Killeen, Texas, U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, killing 13 and wounding more than 30.
  5. December 25, 2009: Nigerian Muslim Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an explosive tucked behind his scrotum on an aircraft enroute from Amsterdam to Detroit. During the incident, the suspect set himself on fire and, once the fire was extinguished, he was overpowered by two passengers. The aircraft landed safely in Detroit with the only injuries reported to be the suspect himself and two others.
  6. May 1, 2010: In New York City, Times Square was evacuated after the discovery of a car bomb by a street vendor. U.S. government believes radical Islamists in the Pakistani Taliban directed the plot, and may have financed it.
  7. October 29, 2010: Two packages, each containing a bomb consisting of 300 to 400 grams (11–14 oz) of plastic explosives and a detonating mechanism, were found on separate cargo planes. The bombs were discovered as a result of intelligence received from Saudi Arabia’s security chief. They were bound from Yemen to the United States, and were discovered at en route stop-overs, in England and in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
  8. November 27, 2010: FBI agents arrested a Somali-born teenager for planning a “spectacular terrorist attack.” The suspect was apprehended as he attempted to set off a bomb near a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.

A quick analysis of these events shows us that only three out of the eight were successful, all by using guns in areas where there was no security in place. The lack of security, however, is not an issue. It is not feasible to have a high level of security wherever groups of people are congregating. It is essentially impossible to stop a determined gunman as long as he (or she) is operating in a random fashion and does not care who is killed or when they are killed, nor whether he dies during the process. As far as the Islamic terrorist is concerned, being killed while killing the infidels in the name of Allah is the ultimate objective.

I would consider the above events to be equal to a very simple level-one game design. Allowing the player to blow away as many people as he wants, when he wants, and where he wants without warning or penalty is just too easy. To make the game harder there would, at the very least, have to be specific targets and penalties for killing the wrong people.

With the instance involving the two packages containing explosives that were being sent across the Atlantic and designed to explode while over the United States, we have the beginning of good game design. Something different–and necessary–was tried, something that in all likelihood would have succeeded if the authorities had not been on the ball. It is critical in game design to have the video game equivalent of authorities who are “on the ball” and trained to uncover threats before they become events.

This also happened in December 1999, when Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam “was caught trying to cross the Canadian-American border at Port Angeles, Washington with explosives in his car … apparently planning a millennium terror attack at Los Angeles International Airport.” Again, if this were a video game, intelligent and well-trained border and security personnel would be critical to upsetting the strategies of both experienced and novice players.

Essentially, the other four terrorists were game-playing novices, who attempted to jump to a higher level without the knowledge and skills necessary to carry it off. The result?  They were beaten by their own incompetence, and not effective game design.

The DHS, of course, realized that had any of these four terrorists achieved their goal, there would have been much explaining to do about how DHS could have allowed this to happen. Had they all accomplished their goals, the impact on the United States psyche would have been devastating. So, the inexperienced “game” designers of the DHS set out to stop future players from being able to use any of these failed strategies again.

Of course, a game can’t be designed in this way … the game would be destroyed by any experienced player, prior to the opportunity to “fix” it, after which the player would toss it in the garbage and tell his friends that it wasn’t worth the money he paid for it. As a game designer, therefor, you have to be able to anticipate game player strategies.

Regardless, if you stay within the reality of the game, it is impossible to design a level that cannot be beaten. In other words, it is impossible to stop a terrorist attack on the U.S. when perpetrated by an experienced player. So, if we can’t stop experienced, determined terrorists, what is the alternative?

First, we have to put into place reasonable processes designed to safeguard against all but the professional. For example, allowing open borders, with a significant lack of knowledge about who is entering the country, would be a very bad game design. Alternatively, the basic scan and pat down–which has worked effectively for almost a decade–seems to be a reasonable process. Especially when you consider that, out of thousands of terrorist attacks since 9/11, only eight attacks have been perpetrated on the United States of America.

On the other hand, taking off one’s shoes and, purporting to prevent more than three ounces of liquid from traveling through to the gates at the airport are probably unnecessary, while full-body scans and intrusive pat downs are definitely over the top. We do not want to create a solution where the resulting loss of privacy and freedom is not worth the probable risk of a terrorist getting past the more reasonable security measures. This would especially be true if TSA personnel were trained in identifying those who are a higher threat to our security — in other words, focusing more on the terrorist and less on the weapon of choice.  However, the importance of protecting our freedoms cannot be underestimated; to summarize Benjamin Franklin, “those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either.”

Every time we insist on more security we are giving up a bit of our liberty. You may say, “it’s such a small thing to give up, why are you concerned?” Well, it’s much like boiling frogs — If you toss them in boiling-hot water, they will quickly hop right out; but if you put them in cold water and heat the water slowly, they will stay in the water until they have been boiled alive. Allowing our freedoms to be lost, bit-by-bit, will ultimately result in a total loss of those freedoms.

Second, we have to realize that it is impossible to stop the experienced, determined terrorist who cares nothing about loss of life, including his (or her) own.

Third, we must realize that life itself is a risky business; nobody and nothing can assure our safety under any and all circumstances. The politically correct life we have chosen to live is a major part of the problem; the litigious society that we are creating is another. Every custom designed to protect the feelings of one group or another and every law or regulation designed to stop “bad” things from happening chips away at our freedoms and takes responsibility away from the individual and puts it on the State, where it is destined to fail. The State cannot protect you from everything you fear — that is an illusion, as the Obama administration is proving to its supporters more and more every single day.

Fourth, we need to realize that terrorism is essentially a random act that, when carried out effectively, cannot be anticipated or stopped. We need to accept the fact that there are situations that we, as individuals, do not have obvious control over. For example: if we live in California, we have no control of when or where an earthquake will occur. We can build better buildings, even move to a safer place, but we can never be assured that we won’t be killed when the next earthquake occurs. Likewise, if we live in the Midwest or on the Gulf Coast, the same thing is true regarding tornadoes and hurricanes.

Still, many people choose to live in those places and readily accept the risk of doing so. In addition, they often rebuild when their homes are destroyed, choosing to stay rather than leave, even after suffering such hardship.

The vast majority of us choose to use cars as our major means of transportation, even though we are well aware of the tens of thousands that are killed every year in automobile accidents. Why? Because the chance of being killed is insignificant when measured against the loss of freedoms we would experience should we give up our cars. Some few have made this decision, for many different reasons, but they must make compromises … compromises of their own choice.

So, it seems obvious to me that we should treat terrorism in the same way that we treat these other issues. There will be risk, but the alternative means a loss of freedom which, for the majority of us, is not worth the sense of security gained by what we consider to be over-the-top security measures.

We are all responsible for our own lives; we make security-versus-freedom choices all of the time. We decide whether or not to live where earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. may happen. We decide whether or not to use cars, bicycles, trains, planes, etc. for transportation. We decide to have a baby, even though the world seems to be going to hell. We decide to eat hamburgers, rare meat, or genetically engineered foods even though some tell us that these foods are harmful.

There was a science fiction short story written years ago that took Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to their extreme. The story was titled something like “Twiddling Your Thumbs” and chronicled a society where everything of danger was removed in order to keep the population safe. The end result: we were only allowed to twiddle our thumbs, since that was the only activity that involved a zero level of danger. While an exaggeration for effect, the implications of this story frighten me to this day.

It’s time we approach this issue from a mature, reasonable perspective instead of insisting that our government provide us with “complete” security — which, as I’ve stated again and again, is basically impossible.

Therefore, we as individuals should accept the existence of terrorism and take responsibility for making the decisions related to how we, again as individuals, will respond to this reality. As a society, we can explore alternatives that will keep us safer, just as we do regarding earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and more. Then, as individuals, we can decide what level of risk we will take.

Will we build earthquake or tornado shelters? Or, will we decide that the risk is too low, not worth the effort or expense? Likewise, we can decide not to fly if we are concerned about a possible terrorist act on the plane. Or we can skip the Super Bowl if we are concerned that the event is ripe for terrorist activity. Some similarly may choose to forsake the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square.

When we decide what and how to risk, we accept responsibility for our own lives, we limit our impact on others and, most importantly, we keep our freedoms. However, when we ask government to take responsibility, we place our future, our safety and our security in the hands of those who care little about as us as individuals, who make decisions on what they deem to be best for the collective. And not only do we lose our freedom, but we cause the loss of freedom to all … even those willing to take the risk.

There is no doubt that we must take all reasonable precautions and that the United States government has a major responsibility for working to ensure the safety of the American people. However, the American people cannot demand–or even expect–that we will be kept 100 percent safe. Successful attacks in turn need to be analyzed and a determination made regarding what went wrong and what might have to be done differently. Most important of all, however, we cannot allow these random terrorists attacks to create an environment in the United States where the freedoms we live and die for are taken from us in the name of greater security. We must not abandon our freedoms in order to save them.

It would be easy to develop a computer game where the objective was to kill as many innocent people as possible. Start out with simple attacks and relatively few people killed, then ramp up until the final challenge where your objective is to smuggle a nuclear bomb into the U.S. and detonate it on the mall in Washington D.C.  The game itself would be simple to design.

Can you imagine, though, the outcry should anyone actually create such a game? Yet, this is the dangerous game that the terrorists are playing and that the DHS has bought into, a game the terrorists will ultimately win. We must find a way to beat the terrorists without playing their game. The future of our society, possibly our civilization, depends on it. The only power the terrorists have over us is the power that we give them by fearing them, by overreacting to their threats and their killing sprees. Today even more than during World War II, there is much truth to FDR’s most famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”



  1. John Buyon says:

    bravo Mr. Fregger bravo
    I have not seen a more professionally crafted article anywhere on this site.
    why aren’t you working for the department?

    P.S. as you have noted :
    aren’t we lucky to be dealing with such stupid adversaries?

  2. Randy Wills says:

    Great insight and application of game theory to interpret present circumstances, Brad.

    I believe that it is axiomatic that every intrusion on personal choice by an overweening government can, and likely will be, used to control the masses in ways diametrically opposed to the intial, ostensible, purpose. In this case, the loss of privacy and personal choice is a much greater loss than the mythical security as defined by protection against in-flight terrorism.


  3. Anonymous says:

    I fear progressivism much more than terrorism…… but that’s just me.

  4. Gail B. says:

    Jeff, Brad is brilliant!

    John Buyon’s question rings in my head: “why aren’t you working for the department (of Homeland Security or TSA)?

    Yesterday, I ran across something about the FEMA camps and the legislation showing that they are, indeed, real and in place. They were supposed to lodge people here illegally yet they remain empty. WHY?! Well, the question cooked in my subconscience while I slept, and I woke with it on my mind. I’m afraid that I have the answer.

    With the cost of everything about to skyrocket, with seniors living on social security, with healthcare designed to be rationed to seniors, and with retired seniors being considered by this regime as essentially useless to its agenda (and voting against liberals at every election), why not round us up and house us in those camps, take our property, and –who will know, if they take control of the Internet? — gas us like the Jews were?

    Personally, I’m tired of being “nudged” by this regime, tired of being lied to, tired of the corrupt judicial system, and bone-weary of power-seeking Progressives!

  5. Anonymous says:

    You have to be real quick to catch it, but there is a little piggy in the bottom right of that main page graphic for this story. Is the idea of the game to keep the Muslim pres away from the pork?

  6. Speaking of gaming says:

    How do some people sleep at night, gaming the system like this.
    Mom and Dad, thanks for raising me better.


  7. Gail B. says:

    That was so interesting that I read it again. My opinion has not changed. You really are brilliant!

  8. Stupor Obama World says:

    Super, Obama … world

    oxymoron man

  9. T.I.M. says:

    Speaking of “game theory”…your link to the concept of 72 virgins describes the pleasures awaiting true believers as “ineffable”. Coincidence?

  10. Anonymous says:

    8:43 seems to me 72 cougars would be more interesting

  11. Matthew says:

    This is an excellent article, thank you for writing it!

    A few comments:

    I believe there have been far more terrorist attempts than the eight you mentioned. There was one in Dallas, TX and another in Springfield, IL; both of which were prevented as the suspect attempted to detonate a van the FBI had loaded with fake explosives. I can cite numerous other cases, but in the end your points and suggestions remain just as accurate.

    Secondly, I imagine freedom/liberty as a weight on the scales of justice while the counter-weight is safety/security. Balancing the two priorities is a delicate matter, but this analogy fits right in with what you said in the article. We can take some steps toward safety/security but should not infringe too much upon freedom/liberty. This would have made a great SIM CITY concept back in the day.

    The extreme of having all freedom and no safety is anarchy while the extreme of having total security without freedom is tyranny. It could also be said a totally free society is not safe (everyone can do what they want in any manner, place, and time they want) whereas a totally safe society is not free (too many rules saying you can’t do this or that). This is just to say we need to have a balance of both, but we can place higher preference upon one or the other. America was founded on the idea we preferred freedom over safety unlike some other countries which put higher priority on safety versus freedom.

    Some want to move away from our original values which respect freedom over safety and that is perhaps the root of all political disputes in this country today. They have already gone too far, yet are not satisfied because (like you said) their goal is impossible to achieve.

  12. Dean says:

    The government, which was designed to be of the people, by the people and for the people, no longer belongs TO the people. It has gotten into the hands of a few elitists who think that they, and only they, have all the answers to all the problems – they just need to tell us what the answers are. If the people disagree, they are ignored or, more often, told they don’t understand the problem OR the solution, and to “just trust us to do what is right.” Very soon, those people will be living in a repressive country, giving all their money to the government to be redistributed to ….. WAIT A MINUTE!! I have seen the future and it is HERE!!!! (My apologies to Pogo.)

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