My world is similar to our daily world except that fully immersive virtual reality is already well-developed. The virtual reality is built by scanning real environment. The system was first used to do scientific research on military to test how weapons perform in different environments.

The process of doing the simulation:

  1. The weapon needs to be scanned in stationary state.
  2. The weapon needs to be fired once under the scanner.
  3. To save computational power, the testing environment needs to be put under the scanner during simulation. Computers only calculate the part being changed by the simulation. Time inside simulation is synchronized with time in real world.

To test how soldiers interact with the weapon, and also for training new soldiers, fully immersive technology is then invented to use the weapon in the virtual reality. It is done by scanning the body with the scanner mentioned above and to create a body that can be controlled by brain waves. For easy control and also easy simulation, the virtual body needs to be very similar to the real body of the user.

The technology is later used in more areas. People can now play X-sports safely in this system. War games are played with real guns inside the system. Training to become fireman, pilot, and even surgical doctor can be done with this system.

Now, with development of the scanner, the biggest scanner can scan an area as big as a city, with the height of the earth atmosphere. Is it possible to solve national conflict by actually fighting a war in this system? If yes, how should that be done? If no, what else is needed or why is it not possible no matter what technology we have?

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    $\begingroup$ consider the small scale version of the Millennium Challenge - where as soon as the "bad" side seemed to be winning, the rules were re-written because the U.S. didn't like the way it was going - how could you possible create a fully simulated war without anyone complaining about something and abandoning it? Also, what about secret technologies that only one side knows about and intends to use (i.e. say GPS in its early days) - how could you simulate them without revealing them to the others? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 12:37
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    $\begingroup$ See also Star Trek's A Taste of Armageddon, where every part of the war was simulated except the deaths. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ The only real use I can see here for such a simulation is if it's automated (the real people don't actually participate), can thus be run with many different parameters many different times to gauge probability of success and magnitude of losses. If such a simulation were accurate enough, it could lead to one side surrendering instead of fighting once a real war started if the simulation told them that if they resisted millions more people would die and still lose. But at this point, it's not really VR anymore since it wouldn't be run in real time, and no one would actually participate. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ If you make extreme sports safe what becomes their point? Knowing its safe changes them completely. As for the wars, its not the simulation, its accuracy or whatever else, the point is what people are, their nature. If people were the kind willing to accept a "game" as resolution we would have already decided to settle things with a soccer match rather than war. As soon as we learned to swing a tool we started hitting someone else's head with it and after all this years seeing and creating destruction we only learned to make better tools to swing. You need to change people not the war. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ Implying a modern war has mostly to do with a conflict to decide who is stronger/wins is extremely naive. Modern military conflicts have so many reasons and impact, e.g. economical, you spend a lot on military to boost your economy, then you need a war which uses up all these resources, so you can produce some more. Another example are small conflicts, where valuable targets are destroyed by mercs / black ops teams.... nothing to do with battle-lines on a battle-field $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 11:19

22 Answers 22


No, this won't solve national conflict

Why? Because it doesn't solve the main reasons FOR national conflict.

Consider some of the main reasons to actually invade or go to war with another country:

  • You want their resources
  • You want their landmass
  • You want to colonize them
  • To better your own economy/destroy another country's economy
  • To protect yourself from being invaded
  • To protect a way of life

In a virtual battle, nothing is actually lost or gained. For example, if the US decided to have a virtual battle with China in the landmass of China, at the end of the battle, regardless of who won, China still owns all of China's landmass, China has taken no economy damage, the US has gained nothing, spent nothing, and has no economy boost. Nothing would change.

Since nothing changes after a virtual battle, the only way to actually create that change and get the landmass/resources/etc etc would be to go into actual war with the enemy.

Consider that of the listed points, the first 4 essentially require you to be the instigator of the real life wars and the last 2 are only applicable if you're already being invaded and in a real war. Moving this to virtual would just be a waste of time and won't help you protect yourself.

Final point: Even if there was somehow a deal in place where the winner of the virtual war would gain landmass or something like that, do you think the citizens living in that area would be willing to just stand up and walk away? Most people would sooner fight than leave on a whim, which at the end, still leaves you with war.

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    $\begingroup$ Nothing is lost in this virtual battle, but don't you think losing a virtual battle may alert them that they are going to lose the real one as well? $\endgroup$
    – cytsunny
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ @cytsunny not at all, because in a virtual battle, both sides wouldn't fight the same way as they would in real life. In real life wars, soldiers lives are much more valuable than in a virtual battle, so the tactics used would be very different. Winning a war game is very different than winning a war . $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ I would sum up the reasons to enter conflict as defending one's own interests in some way. I'll put a solid +1 on that, you can't solve problems by doing what ultimately amounts to nothing. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ As to @Aify's point on the different decisions made in a real battle versus a virtual one, read/watch Ender's Game. $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ @cytsunny, Will that makes a difference if soliders killed in virtual war is prohibited to join another virtual war in the future? - What prevents China from using 10,000 soldiers that you "killed" in a war game from participating in the actual war? That the people lobbing bombs at you are going to play by your rules? $\endgroup$
    – BlueBuddy
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 13:42

This sort of pattern has actually happened many times throughout history. However, it has never once replaced true war.

The general pattern you are looking at is called ritualized warfare. The idea of ritualized warfare is that you can replace the combatants dying for their country with a competitive test of skill which demonstrates the combatant's prowess at war. The key to any ritualized warfare is that both parties accept the terms of the ritual before they engage in it. This means that, if the USA and China want to avoid true warfare, they need to agree upon the rules of combat ahead of time. They also need to agree on the consequences of "winning" and "losing." Given the differences between those countries, it could be very difficult to agree on a set of rules. Imagine trying to get agreement with ISIS.

As an example, consider the use of spies or other surprises. How do you work with them in the simulation? If you tell the other nation where your spies are in real life, they may go out and capture those spies. How do you use weapons whose behavior is classified by that nation? I guarantee you the USA would be displeased to offer a perfect simulation of all of our missiles to any other country or combat group (The probability of kill in a given situation with one of our weapons is typically rather sensitive information). The only solution would be for the simulation to be "private," protecting such information, but now you have the challenge of developing legitimacy for your simulation when you don't have perfect transparency.

There's also the question of whether the simulated weapons behave like the real ones. As an engineer, I can tell you that every simulation ever created is wrong. Simulations are based off of models. "All models are wrong; some are useful." You can imagine the contention over the exact model of nuclear explosives used in the simulation.

There is an excellent example of how ritualistic warfare comes and goes to be had in the study of the Zulu tribe. Around when the Zulu made their bid for power, the tribes in South Africa had developed a system of ritualized warfare that consisted mostly of a lot of jumping, shouting, and other similar feats. Thanks to that, the tribes enjoyed a relatively high level of peace. Warfare was handled rather painlessly. When the Zulu rose, they had a different approach. While the other tribe was jumping and shouting they savagely attacked, showing no mercy. They slaughtered the warriors of many tribes before the warriors even realized they would need to fight back!

Ritualized warfare has a place. It can have great value. But it is unlikely it will ever replace actual warfare.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It is a good answer. Another example: side which is lost in simulated war repelled attacker in actual war by sabotaging nuclear plant, polluting most of attacker territory and simultaneously poisoned main river, destroying most of fertile soil and provoking ecological disaster. Attacker had to recall their armies as its economy cannot even handle damage control in own country, much less supporting invasion. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ Sometimes a less-than-war solution can replace actual warfare in specific situations. Obviously it could not replace all war, though. $\endgroup$
    – user16107
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ I remember a story about 2 Chinese generals agreeing to play Go instead of doing battle. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ @dan1111 Very true. I'd even go so far as to say that they even have a name for it: "diplomacy." I'd say that, if the OP wants to go down that road, a more stylized approach would be warranted, like when two kings choose to settle a dispute by one on one combat, or Serban Tanasa's story of settling dispute by Go. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for "All models are wrong; some are useful", and all the practical issues you present so plainly $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 20:05

No, war simulation would help nothing at all.

For one, as long as there are no real-world consequences for the participating soldiers, even the most realistic combat simulations will be treated as a game by both politicians and participants. Yes, there might be blood and gore and pain involved, but after the third time you've seen your comrades die next to you and then be revived once you take off the VR helmet, you will realize that it's more like Unreal Tournament crosed with Age of Empires. There just can't be as much emotional involvement in-game as there would be in RL since all players know nothing actually happens to the people.

Yes, there will be heavy psychological consequences of virtual warfare. However, I think it would be less PTSD (depends on how long those war simulations take, and if you really let a player slowly bleed to death because he's got a couple of bullets in his gut and is screaming in pain for hours. Or let a player remain in a burning warehouse and experience it all until he suffocates). I think the most serious consequences will be loss of reality (are you really sure you're out of the game?) and an increased tendency for violence (by day a normal, loving family father, and by night a soldier slugging through the bloodiest and goriest battlefields in full 3D and smell? Something will get confused there eventually)

So, in the end, technology like that will probably result in something like the Soccer World Championship, where countries compete against each other for a prize. But a serious way of solving conflicts? No.

Next, there are no consequences of winning or losing. You didn't start invading them because you didn't like the color of their flag, but because there is a real reason. WWII: stop Germans from killing all Jews -- how would winning a simulation help you to get to the physical location of Germany and free the concentration camps? War on Terror -- you think terrorists are impressed if you manage to smoke them out in a simulation (if they even participate in the simulation...)?

Yes, there might be a convention that the loser has to pay money to the winner, but what if the loser simply decides they don't want to? Then you can't do anything against that except for taking some real-world actions.

Another point: how would you organize such national wars? Play them over the internet whith soldiers of Country A sitting in VR pods in Country A and soldiers of B sitting in Country B? How can you make sure the technology level is compatible? How can you make sure nobody cheats by e.g. putting a secondary interface between the 100%real VR and the human brain so that they can get around the 100%real constraint and do some Avengers-worthy super human feats?

The only alternative to that would be having all participants in one location and an indipendent third party make sure all players stick to the rules. But who would the 3rd party be? Who would provide a location and enough equipment to have armies tens of thousands strong compete against each other? Who decides how many tanks and missiles and whatever the individual armies get?

Last but not least: no technology is completely secure and unhackable. You can't hack reality, so you've got a trustworthy basis to compare strengths on. In a VR, which is lots and lots of software and simulation and hardware, it will be a miracle if you ever get to the point that you actually have a 100%real simulation without any bugs or other inexplicable programming errors (not least of all because people experience the same things in completely different ways).

However, it will be impossible to make this 100%real simulation completely secure. It's got code that can be manipulated, hardware that can be accessed, data transmission that can be intercepted before it reaches the other player, and tons of other security issues. Basically, it is impossible to create a completely equal and level playing field like what reality does. So why should a won/lost war have any relevance at all? You could just say that the other party cheated / created more resources than they should rightfully have / used superior technology / ... and so your loss is invalid. Let's do this war again, and I'll show you this time that it's not possible to stop the Persions at the Thermopylae!

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    $\begingroup$ "WWII: stop Germans from killing all Jews" I really doubt that was the most important consideration for Poland in early September 1939, or for the Soviet Union in the second half of 1941. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ "WWII: stop Germans from killing all Jews": The reason for germany wasn t killing jews either, to be precise, communist were much more radically searched and killed. And the expansion was for the "vital space" germany needed (rightly or not). $\endgroup$
    – DrakaSAN
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 12:03
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    $\begingroup$ @cytsunny As Starbucks puts it in Battlestar Galactica, war isn't dueling pistols at down, you never want to fight fair. If you are playing the future of your nation, why would you deny yourself any and all advantages you can get? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ @AmiralPatate Yes. Suppose two countries agreed, "Whoever wins this video game gets half the other country's territory and all the people presently living there will become the other's slaves". Would both sides "play fair" out of a sense of good sportsmanship? If you knew that pushing the rules "just a little" could save your children from becoming slaves, who would NOT do that? $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @jay If I were entering such an agreement (whoever wins this virtual war gets to enslave the losers), I would put some reservists in the sim pods, and launch a devastating real world strike on the enemy sim pods, hopefully wiping out their best soldiers. Not only do I have incentive to cheat the game, I have incentive to "downgrade" to normal war, too. $\endgroup$
    – Deolater
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 20:12

Possibly, under certain circumstances

The current answers have raised valid points, but I believe that under some circumstances, such a simulation could indeed prevent a war by encouraging a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. Here are some things that would make this more likely:

1. General faith in the accuracy of the simulation

As noted by @SteveMoser, everyone involved has to have faith in the simulations. Therefore, experts from both sides of the conflict have to have full insight into the source code and execution of the simulation. This will decrease the chances that either party claims the simulation has been tampered with. Even better, all the details should to be publicly accessible to everyone. This part is extremely important. Without it, the following points start to lose their validity.

Here is our first major problem. As noted by @CortAmmon, for the simulation to be accurate, it has to know all the details (and military secrets) of each party. So, your premise implies that at least one side is willing to expose its military secrets. If you want to avoid this, and since this is science fiction/(fantasy?), maybe the scanner could scan the facilities of each party, then hide it in way that it can only be accessed for the purposes of the simulation. Of course, the simulation output itself would give away a lot. I think you'll need a supernatural element to the simulation, or some other well thought out plot device to make this work. It sounds tricky, but if you're a good science fiction/fantasy writer you might make it work.

2. The result is shown to the public

The public has a much lower tolerance for the horrors of war than the leaders of a country. If people see a simulation where people who could be themselves and their loved ones (including civilians, women and children) suffer death, horrible pain, having their homes destroyed and general trauma, they will object strongly. Since the program simulates everything, it would contain every single detail. Thus, it could output moving pictures of women and children being killed, sounds of bombs, the screams of dying children, the smells of corpses decaying in mass graves, and areal images of whole cities devastated.

Even seeing this occurring to the "enemy" population, people will probably object, out of general humanity and compassion. The reason war propaganda exists is because people generally don't want war. They need to be convinced. Such a simulation, especially if vividly showing details, will have the opposite effect of war propaganda. Even in a dictatorship, the government can't successfully carry out a war if the people (soldiers, policemen, factory workers, etc.) are utterly opposed to it.

3. The simulation shows terrible destruction

The war ends much worse than expected. For example, a large part of the population is wiped out. The economy and infrastructure are devastatingly damaged. Governments are hit hard. If the simulation shows these things, even the war hungry leaders may think again.

4. The simulation unexpectedly shows the aggressor losing

The simulation shows the following:

  1. The Republic of Agressivia (ROA), very sure of themselves, invades The Kingdom of Pacifistia (KOP). The latter would have liked to avoid a war at all costs, but decides to fight fiercely once invaded.
  2. It's a long and terrible war where millions die and utter destruction is done to infrastructure and the economy. Thousands of innocent women and children suffer terrible deaths, diseases, etc.
  3. After a long time of this horror, ROA are out of supplies, weapons and logistics, yet KOP is still holding out, defending their kingdom. The ROA has no choice but to pull out, and switch to defending their initial territory.
  4. Both countries are devastated, and KOP has not the resources nor the desire to counter-invade ROA. The situation invites for a permanent ceasefire and a diplomatic resolution based on pre-conflict borders.

If you were the government of ROA and saw this simulation, would you still want to invade?

It's rare that both sides want war. It's mostly one side pushing for the war, and another trying to avoid it. If the aggressor sees that they will lose the war, it would be insane of them to go on with the war. This, of course, requires that they have faith in the simulation and believe that it's accurate. But I belive this is indeed the case in the scenario outlined in OP.

I don't know if these are the circumstances you have in mind. But if you intend to write a story where a simulation prevents a war, then those are some of the circumstances which could make it more realistic.


It might work as a way of resolving conflict, but only between countries that would never have gone to war with each other in real life anyway.

Why don't countries today resolve their differences with a soccer game, or by tossing a coin, rather than going to war? While obviously technologically much less sophisticated, the concept would be the same: we play out the conflict in a harmless game rather than with actual destruction.

Countries go to war because they are unable to resolve their differences by peaceful means. Talk to any military man. The goal of war is to destroy the enemy's ability to resist, to reduce him to a condition where he has no ability to stop you from doing what you want to do. Frankly put, war is not a game, but a deadly serious business. Literally deadly.

Suppose that two nations hate each other, both say that the other nation should be destroyed, all its people massacred, and their land taken over by the other nation. Someone suggests that rather than fight a war, they play a video game to resolve the conflict. Whichever side lost, would the people all really then promptly commit suicide and let the other nation take their land? I doubt it. The loser would never voluntarily live up to the terms of the agreement. There would have to be someone with the power to force the loser to follow through. That is, someone who could go to war against them and win.

The one scenario I can see where such a video game could substitute for a real war is if it convinced one side that victory was hopeless. Then they might surrender rather than fight a real war. In most wars, both sides start out believing they will win. If they thought they were doomed to lose, they'd make concessions to get a negotiated peace. So maybe if everyone was convinced that this simulation was extremely accurate, and it predicts that they will lose, then they'd make concessions rather than actually fight and lose.

  • $\begingroup$ This is the primary reason this would fail. In short, both sides would have to agree to abide the outcome of the game. If one nation says, "I challenge you to ownership of your land and people!" would the other nation agree to using a game to decide whether their people are protected or not? That's pretty ridiculous on the face of it - they would use every means available to protect their people and land from falling into the hands of another, and to leave it up to a game - no mater what game it is - simply wouldn't be done, or if it were the "losing" side wouldn't abide the agreement. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Davis
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ This is the key reason indeed. However, the purpose of war is not quite what you cite; it is: To bring about a more agreeable frame of mind on the part of the enemy. (Incidentally, "unconditional surrender" is not a sensible demand in view of this purpose.) $\endgroup$
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 3:25

In addition to what some others have said, consider the atomic bomb.

The US dropped atomic bombs on Japan because the Japanese were willing to fight a losing battle. They were aware that the only outcome of continuing to fight was total defeat, but were planning to do so anyway. The bomb was something they simply couldn't fight--not even a losing battle.

History, then, shows us that even if we could prove with 100% certainty (via simulation?) that one side would defeat another, the losing side could still choose their own destruction over surrender.

But I do think that this is an interesting worldbuilding scenario, and there are a lot of ways you could advance the story in such a world, even with the eventual conclusion that the system simply doesn't work. I think that if such a system were introduced and somehow accepted, the advancement of the system would be similar to the way our trade systems have advanced.

In early barter systems, what people traded had value itself. You traded a loaf of bread for a fish. Each item was itself valuable. As time passed, we moved away from that barter system to standardized base for trade, generally something valuable but not particularly useful, such as gold. Moving forward, we had coins printed on precious metals to further standardize and simplify trade. As the coins eventually gained value themselves rather than the metal contained within, we began to have currency with basically no value at all, but backed by a guarantee that the issuer would give you a certain amount of gold if you gave it to them. And finally, we have currency that not only is unbacked but is only a number. Its value exists only in the faith that we place in it that it is valuable.

In application to war simulations, in early days of the simulation system, the simulations would be as close to reality as possible. This would be similar to a backed currency, where the simulation is essentially a guarantee of the result. If you took a dollar to the issuer, they would give you the gold. Likewise, if you carried out the battle, it would end how the simulation did.

But over time, the simulation itself would begin to hold political sway, and as such our tactics would advance in response. Our weapons and tactics would begin to be designed in such a way that they would give us an advantage in the simulation rather than in reality. Even if the simulation is a perfect simulation physically, it is an entirely different game psychologically for a lot of reasons, meaning different weaponry is effective.

Eventually, the simulation will have very little basis in reality anymore, and will hold political power only because our faith in the simulation itself as a political tool.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer - you make an interesting point when relating it to currency. In terms of reality as we know it, it could never work. But in a civilisation different to ours - such as a future society whose mind-set is completely different to ours (as ours is to people of the middle ages) and who value peace a lot more than we do - it would be worth exploring. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ The currency example is indeed a good one. If you had told anyone in the Roman era that one day people would pay with pieces of paper (or, worse, by just updating numbers in a registry — bank account balances) without any guarantee by anyone that you would get anything for those papers later, that person would probably have declared you insane. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ Penn and Teller's show "Bulls##t" did an episode on "world peace" which concluded that the way to end war among sane countries is commerce. If the value of trade with another country exceeds the profit one could make by conquering them, that's a pretty strong argument for peace. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 22:49

I might not be able to add much to the answers of @subrunner or @Aify, but you should take in mind the... Zeitgeist.

What does it mean? When you offer such an approach of conflict solving to the population of earth (this earth, not a similar on as described by the Opener), they would laugh at you. At least now. Now fast forward half a century or more, and you have a population where even the elder people spend a considerable amount of their life playing video games. That's the generation which witnessed the shift from 16bit (or even 8bit) pacman style video games to something that will go way beyond even Ocloset Rift or what its name may be.

Now these elders may value each others skill with simulated whatever. May start with two grandmas which beat all their grandchildren in candy-crush and end with former eSports Champions who made their living beating others with FIFA. At this point it can be reasonable to except two people to solve their conflicts using a game. Add another century and a fine simulation of a war would be able to influence even high ranking military officers, but still no one ever would give up their home because someone else simulation said so.

And now shift the point of view to something unexpected for this kind of question: Pokemon. It may had been made for child entertainment, but after all its about a world where a battle between two people is used to determine something. In our wold no one ever would throw his cat at the dog of its neighbor to determine if the apples at the estates border belong to the one or the other one, while in Pokemon this would be the way to do this.

To make your question feasible you need to create a world where this kind of simulated conflict resolution had been used for a loooong time and is widely accepted as the proper way to solve anything. While a real war will still be something not entirely solved by this, its much more likely that the people there would accept a solution made this way, and even give up on - say... - an big source of oil.

But with a civilization that honed their physical combat for over 5000 years and just recently reached the point where simulated combat is something that might offer an insight or two about a possible conflict... very unlikely.

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    $\begingroup$ Pikachu does not love Ash. Pikachu suffers from Stockholm Syndrome. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 13:40

No. War is NOT a game with fair rules. In war you want to get all the unfair advantages over the other side, so national self-interest of your side (with allies) prevail over the opposite side. Interest can contain religion/culture, so you not necessarily even agree on the basic set of principal rules.

Ie. "western" culture believes that all people should have equal right. ISIL disagrees, strongly.

As widely repeated, point of war is not to die for your own country. Point of war is to make the poor bastard on the other side die for his.

  • $\begingroup$ Also, it would probably be hard to convince the suicide terrorists that they will also get 72 virgins for a simulated suicide attack … $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ for simulated attack, you get simulated virgins :-) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 14:09

No, unless there is a referee.

As many others have pointed out, the fighting style is different, the consequences are different, shoot, even finding ways to cheat at the simulation would become a viable "strategy" (eg create a super gun that looks just like your normal gun, and have the simulation scan and fire the super gun, then say "Oh yeah we have 700k of these).

So, ultimately, it would need a referee to work. Someone to try to prevent cheating and decide on consequences for involved parties, and then enforce them, which ultimately means it would more like a replacement for a judicial system like the UN, and only the military clout of the Referee would actually dissuade people from war.


A simulation could be used to resolve conflicts between nations, possibly, some of the time. You'd have a challenge making the results binding (what's to keep the nation that winds up holding the short end of the stick from going rogue?) but at least in principle it could work. As a real world precedent for how this might work, I'd cite lacrosse.

Lacrosse is a game of Native American origin. As stated here, it was also historically much more than a game. To wit:

The full-contact, fast-moving sport of lacrosse was ideal for training young Native Americans in the art of battle, but lacrosse competitions also took the place of battle. When disputes arose over land or resources, tribes would agree to a contest instead of rushing into war. These contests would be scheduled at agreeable times for both tribes and would end the dispute with less bloodshed, though broken bones and severe injuries were not uncommon, and death was not unheard of in the contests.

The two big things to keep in mind here:

  1. For the results to be meaningful, all involved parties must stand by them. That means that the losing nation must hold up their end of the bargain. You could rely on the word of the participants here (is your society a very honor bound one?), but perhaps some sort of U.N. on steroids and a set of very punitive consequences for disregarding the simulation's outcome would work in the absence of honorable participants. I'm thinking here of something along the lines of the prohibition on the use of atomics in Dune:

In the initial Dune novels, the Great Houses of the Landsraad own "family atomics" as heirlooms, keeping a secure, hidden cache as weapons of last resort in their wars. Though such possession is necessary to secure power, the use of atomics against humans violates the chief prohibition of the Great Convention, the "universal truce enforced under the power balance maintained by the Guild, the Great Houses, and the Imperium". Paul Atreides notes in Dune that "The language of the Great Convention is clear enough: Use of atomics against humans shall be cause for planetary obliteration."

  1. Simulations are by their nature limited in their ability to reflect reality. Even if by simulation you mean "we are creating the Matrix", well, if the participants don't die in real life when they die in the simulation then it is very likely they will behave differently. In addition, the assumptions of the people who created the simulation and who are refereeing the simulation will color its results. For an example of the latter, check out the U.S. military's Millennium Challenge war game:

Red received an ultimatum from Blue, essentially a surrender document, demanding a response within 24 hours. Thus warned of Blue's approach, Red used a fleet of small boats to determine the position of Blue's fleet by the second day of the exercise. In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces' electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships. This included one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 service personnel. Soon after the cruise missile offensive, another significant portion of Blue's navy was "sunk" by an armada of small Red boats, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue's inability to detect them as well as expected.

At this point, the exercise was suspended, Blue's ships were "re-floated", and the rules of engagement were changed

So the referees running the exercise decided that the strategy chosen by Red ran counter to the spirit of the exercise and they reversed the outcome of Red's devastating strategy. What happens when a simulation participant does something "unfair"?

In summary, I think a story could realistically be built around a society that had decided war was better off simulated. I imagine there's some interesting narrative ground to be covered in exploring the loopholes participants might use as well as what would happen if a nation went rogue after losing the simulation and the society was faced with its first real war in generations.


Yes, if people believe the simulation is accurate.

War is fundamentally a communication problem. Both countries won't go to war unless they thought they had a chance at winning otherwise one side would surrender and want to make a treaty.

Now I don't know how you go about convincing people that the simulation is accurate. Also people are not always rational. They may believe it intellectually but not emotionally.

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    $\begingroup$ It's not solely a communication problem, it might often has much deeper reasons, towards hatred and assumed self-superiority. $\endgroup$
    – Z..
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ If the people who run the simulation believe in randomness (either for quantum reasons, or a philosophical/religious belief in the significance of free will, or because they believe there are chaotic processes sensitive to initial differences below the precision of the simulation), then running the simulation multiple times will produce different results anyway. Both sides might be willing to go to war because they both have a chance of success. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ War is not simply a communication problem. And defenders will not just roll over, just because the lost in a virtual match. The aggressor did not pay for whatever they quarreled about. War happens, when the thing you argue about is (seen as) worth the sacrifices and costs of fighting. $\endgroup$
    – Chieron
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ "Both countries won't go to war unless they thought they had a chance at winning" is not necessarily true. Even a hopeless struggle may be preferable to a surrender which will result in extermination. "Better to die on your feet than on your knees," And the simulation seems to be purely tactical, with no consideration for the costs which the loser can inflict on the winner. "War is diplomacy carried on by other means." The Vietnamese had no hope of military victory in the struggle against the US, but they wanted a victory more, and were willing to pay a higher price. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 15:34

This would be a perfectly natural progression from drone warfare, suppose the US and China each build their own version of Skynet, without the IFF bug. Each AI will simulate the conflict to the best of its own ability, dissatisfied with the uncertainty of not knowing what the other knows they'll contact each other and compare notes. Whichever is on the losing side will make the perfectly rational decision to switch sides at which point the Transpacific Alliance goes on to conquer the world.

Meanwhile the meat glaciers are still having pissing contests over who has the most troops, the fastest planes and the biggest ships.


It can stop or delay (but not solve) some conflicts

Firstly it's not the winner controlling the loser directly, but the winner could make a deal to buy the loser using the estimated cost of war, or maybe slightly less. Otherwise it gives the winner chance to conquer another country immediately, which has a huge value.

And the loser still may not agree.

If deception is possible, the losing side would threaten to use the hidden plan B. But knowing they really don't have that, they'll stop being aggressive.

If deception is impossible, the losing side would unite with other nations. This would be far more easier when they know the exact outcome.

If it's a desperate situation that there is no one to unite, they'll accept the deal and find chances to rebel later. Sometimes this solves the problem, and sometimes not.

If you want to be strictly peaceful, this may backfire as every weaker nation threatening to fight a war to force the other nation to pay, like the case of Song.

You could also use this for psychological purposes to make the war slightly more peaceful, such as the way costing more is guaranteed to fail, and the way costing less has some odds.


There are many good answers about why people wouldn't want to listen to the outcome, but we have to remember, that simulation needs to be convincing. For example, if the simulation was just a dice roll, no one would go for that.

Now this is obvious, but what's less obvious is that there are so many factors that we can't count for, that the simulation can not be called authentic or convincing. Some people find massive courage and are able to do great things when under pressure. Sometimes luck or bad luck can make a difference between win and loss. Randomness is so great, that if nation loses virtually, it can still not believe the outcome. Enemy leader can die accidentally. Enemy troops might join the opposing force. There are billions of scenarios that are part of the outcome that simulating them is impossible. I guess that would be the main reason why I wouldn't use such thing as a replacement for war.


No, barring outside intervention from a higher tech level. Two reasons why.

First and foremost, losing a virtual war doesn't remove the ability to resist. If the virtual war system involves building an actual military, the loser could always "appeal" the loss by fighting it for real. That means that the loser gets another crack at things, and knows the other side's capabilities. To use an example, the Millenium Challenge that's been linked before would have gone dramatically differently if the defender's capabilities were known. The second time around, the attacking fleet would have known that the defender was running their communications through "motorcycle couriers" that couldn't get lost, delayed, or intercepted and traveled at the speed of light (radios and calvinball saying no you can't intercept my comms). That would dramatically change their sigint. Similar things go for the flotilla of small ships carrying missiles larger than their displacement that somehow both were oceanworthy and fit full fire control suites. That sort of weapon only works once, and once it's done it's done. If WWII were fought in a simulator and then refought, what are the odds of Taranto or Pearl Harbor working? Is there any chance the French would have sent their armored reserve up into Belgium, leaving it to rush back with heavy mechanical losses when the Germans came through the Ardennes?

Second, getting a full simulation would be very difficult. Even if you can scan a whole city at a time, even by now (let alone where we'd be with such computers and technology) there'd be serious problems. A simulator war would likely devolve into no holds barred nuclear warfare because losing five cities isn't being the country who loses less anymore, it's being the winner if the other side's wiped out. So that means we're in such fun terrain as ICBMs, ABM, and maybe hypersonic planes. You're modeling the entire world. That's a huge amount of complexity, and if you take shortcuts that's opening room for loopholes. As an example, in the Millenium Challenge they abstracted away civilian shipping. That was great until the general running the defenders bullied the referees into treating the aforementioned boats with anti-ship missiles on them as civilian, thereby making them invisible till they fired. What do you do to prevent similar abuses of abstraction?

In the end the main way I could see this actually working is a hugely advanced civilization trying to hold a less advanced planetary civilization in a peaceful and (hopefully) prosperous state. If they're that advanced they can potentially spare the compute to run a full proper simulation, or they can run something where perfect accuracy isn't needed (what does it matter if it isn't perfectly realistic when it's internally consistent and a recourse to reality isn't going to happen). The other condition is satisfied by unilateral disarmament under threat of superior force, which can be trivially satisfied by an interplanetary civilization. So in this model, countries don't build militaries, they build up points along some system to cash into the simulation (and at this point why not do something more interesting like rewarding a metric of economic and social achievement), and they work within the simulation using those points to buy a simulated military to resolve disagreements.


Depends what your goals are.

For instance, you're a former superpower, struggling to reachieve greatness. Your still-formidable military drives their neighbors into fear. If they played their cards right, they could Finland you - mire you in a good defensive line and make invasion hopeless, which would deter your own hawks. But they see a military fight as hopeless, so they don't even try - they fritter away their military budget. Which drives them into alliances with your real adversaries. And that really screws up your commerce - which is your key to success.

So you engage a regional policy of helping your neighbors tune their militaries for effective defense... against you if need be. With enough war gaming, they make their precious military investment effective. You aren't going to invade - at least, not successfully. That eases tensions and boosts trade - not least, some of those armaments they need.

All that interaction doesn't hurt public opinion either - hearts and minds.

It also causes your military to interact with theirs quite a lot, and that results in practical cooperation in a number of areas. Your IFF's work, your radios can talk the same frequencies, your tankers work with their fighters, etc. And when a mutual operation is called, for intervention or rescue, it's easier to get them on board.

And then you collect the peace dividend.

Think of all the money America doesn't spend on the Great Canadian Wall. Because Keynes is wrong - if the government sinks costs into a useless wall instead of a hydroelectric dam, that is not the same. The capital is a total loss either way, but the hydro dam pays dividends for centuries. Those dividends are in our pocket thanks to our convivial relationship with Canada, not to mention all the lovely commerce - which is not a zero-sum game.

Those dividends are why peace and stability are a win. I'd even say you can't support a strong military with a weak economy, so it's a military win too.


If you consider that for a period of time in history it was possible for small (perhaps not national) conflicts to be settled by armed combat between tribal champions, then there is no reason why 2 modern champions playing a game against each other wouldnt be seen as a viable option to resolve a conflict.

The most important thing obviously is that both sides agree to the fact that it is a valid way of resolving conflict before the contest, otherwise it won't hold. I think this would be a perfectly valid form of future bloodless conflict resolution.


Only if state actors are perfectly rational, the simulations are (or at least are universally believed to be) a perfect model of reality, and there are no private simulations. And even then only kinda. (So, no.)

The outcome of a simulated war is binding only insofar as all potential belligerents recognize that the simulation provides an accurate projection of the outcome of a conflict. Even then, it's only the state leadership that will accept the simulation's projection, and only because we helped ourselves to this premise by hypothesis: the citizenry will not necessarily take it well that they either have to move or have a new government. Therefore, the violence of warfare would simply be transmuted to the violence of police action. Of course, if the power of the state is truly overwhelming or broad respect for the simulation is high enough (Divine Right of Kings 2.0), it could work out. (Even Thufir Hawat worked for Baron Harkonnen when he found himself a prisoner in Baron Harkonnen's fiefdom.)

If the simulations are known to provide only the most likely outcome or a range of likely outcomes, states may still decide to press their sub-50% chances for victory in conflicts and warfare is not eradicated. It's important to note, however, that only a belief in the simulation's infallibility is necessary. The simulation can be a coin flip and still do the job if sufficiently obfuscated-from and believed-in by all decision-makers. The story of the first leader to reject the simulations after X generations of peace would probably be fairly interesting.

Finally, all simulations would have to be observed in common by all state decision makers. Private simulations would become tools of war, not of peace. This message gets a negative response: "Hey Pooty-Poot, we ran a simulation that said the mineral wealth of Siberia is rightfully ours, fork it over." He wouldn't trust YOUR simulation. But you would, so you'd attack when he refused to cede the territory. So, the simulations have to be neutrally managed and shared in common by all in order to promote international peace. Maybe there'd be a priest-like class of simulation scientists.

  • $\begingroup$ And as you say, it only works as long as everyone agrees the simulation is 100% infallible, or pretty close to. If the consequences of losing are total destruction, then you may as well fight if you think you have only a 1% chance of victory. 1% is better than 0%. If the consequence of losing are smaller, like, we are forced to join their trade embargo on Ruritania, which will cost us money and maybe some hardship but not destroy us, then I could see accepting a simulation. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 18:27

A "simulated" war would be roughly analogous to a "simulated" auction, where the winner didn't actually have to shell out the money they bid. If the buyers in an auction could bid whatever they wanted without having to worry that an absurdly high bid would cost a lot of money, there would be no relationship between people's bids and an items' worth.

Likewise, wars only end when at least one side is in a situation where continued fighting costs more than would settling. It is the nastiness of war that makes sides want to settle; remove all the costs of "fighting" and nobody would ever have any reason to stop.


No. The other side surrenders when the real cost/opportunity of surrender (material, emotional) is lower than the cost/opportunity of continuing conflict.

Cost of virtual conflict is zero.

Also, virtual war needs agreement of both sides to solve the conflict in this way. But the war is a product of peacefully unsolvable conflict.


Another reason why it couldn't be is that one side could go total war beyond what it would be possible in the real world.

For example, one could mobilize the full civilian population into the machine of war: all workshops and factories are reconverted to produce tanks, all food goes to the military, and every other able body is issued a gun and put in the front. This can easily overwhelm an enemy virtual army, but it cannot be done in real life because it would damage intensely the economy of the country; but since the war is virtual, every machine is kept, etc.

Another problem is the scorched earth tactics taken to a superlative. You want my oil fields? I'll let your army get close, and then virtually nuke them. And every time you put boots on it, I'll nuke it again, until you give up, and I get them back, intact and productive.

The same can be true for the attacker: nuke a enemy factory, wiping all defences, and take over the ruins. The intact factory and its production now belongs to you. The rules may prevent you from using it for this war, but nothing stops you from using it in the next one or during peace time. In real life, taking an industrial complex is much more risky if you want to also keep it functional.

Finally, remember that winning a war is more about logistics than combat. You need to keep supply lines, produce equipment and ammunitions, provide food... and all this without taking so much damage that you'll collapse after the war.


No, people are not perfect

In a perfect world, full of perfect people who know how to admit defeat, yes it would be a way to solve national conflict. But last time I popped open the good ol' history book, I found out that people are stubborn and like to win. It does not matter even slightly if you tell someone that they cannot win, they will still try. History is full of people who went against the logical odds and won despite the fact that all evidence supports them losing.

If a nation lost against another nation in this 100% simulation, then the losing nation would just try harder or, if they witness the simulation, try a different method. And that is assuming you get the nations to agree on doing it.


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