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With Plan X, the Pentagon tries to turn cyberwarfare into 'World of Warcraft'

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Even as cybersecurity has become a buzzword when discussing national security, there are real questions about how to fit online warfare into a traditional military model. How do you explain a hacking attempt to someone who's used to dealing in physical warfare? If you're working on DARPA's Plan X, you turn it into a video game. Plan X, which first surfaced in 2012, is an effort to make cyberwarfare as comprehensible and easy as firing a gun. "Say you're playing World of Warcraft, and you've got this type of sword, +5 or whatever," cybersecurity researcher Dan Roelker tells Wired. "You don't necessarily know what spells were used to create that sword, right? You just know it has these attributes and it helps you in this way. It's the same type of concept. You don't need the technical details."

This year, Plan X is set to enter the first full phase in a four-year program that will cost $110 million. A demo of the interface, however, has been developed with help from the luminary Frog Design and illustration company Massive Black, which has worked on BioShock, Transformers, and more. The gaming metaphor pervades every aspect of the project: One of Massive Black's ideas was a "playbook" full of attack templates that could be launched with the press of a button, something Roelker compares to a Madden NFL option. The demo even includes RPG-style action points, encouraging fighters to conserve resources: "Maybe we spent $5 million building X, and if we use it, there's a 50 percent chance we might lose it," says Roelker, describing a cyberweapon that would have a higher point count.

"Say you're playing 'World of Warcraft,' and you've got this type of sword, +5 or whatever."

At this point, however, the interface isn't tied to any real cyberwarfare system. "Battle units" might include denial of service attacks or rootkits, but Plan X won't research new exploits — it's focused on finding a way to make existing tools comprehensible to outsiders, allowing them to navigate a physical version of cyberspace on a massive touch table and select "nodes" to attack. At times, it's not even clear whether the metaphors will stretch to cover reality. Can diverse and often highly tailored computer-based attacks be distilled into something from Uplink or Hackers? And will the visualization system be good for more than letting non-technical officers feel like they're still in control?

The broader question is whether the game metaphor is an appropriate one for warfare. The interface described by Wired, which was able to see a demonstration, is largely full of placeholders, with fanciful weapon and plan names like "Angry Squirrel" or "Blanket Swarm." And the real version likely won't be a game any more than a tactical map covered in tokens is. But the constant metaphors are unsettling, as are the clear attempts to visually evoke a Hollywood movie or a hacking minigame. Unlike a "gamified" drone system, cyberwarfare doesn't involve actual violence. But as officials warn the public about dire harm from foreign cyberattacks, there's value in remembering that games often are so much fun precisely because they turn messy problems into neat, abstract puzzles.