The US Navy Taps the Crowd to Combat Marine Piracy

Published May-06-12

An open innovation approach that used gamification techniques to find new ways of stopping Somali pirates.

The Office of Naval Research, United States

The Story:

 The US Navy Taps the Crowd to Combat Marine Piracy There is a piracy crisis on the high seas, and according to many commentators it’s getting worse. Highly sophisticated pirate crews use the latest hi-tech equipment to locate and board ships and tankers.

Resolving the problem is no small feat, and in the search for fresh tactics the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Postgraduate School turned to the crowd for possible solutions through a video game project they developed with the Institute of the Future.


The game platform is called Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) and 800 players from the military, federal and foreign governments and NATO participated, as well as some academics. And there was also a version for the general public to allow them to come up with pirate-tackling ideas.

The project wanted to tap into the promise and potential of crowdsourcing to deliver diverse ideas from a broader group of people who all have a deep understanding of the problem’s complexity.

“MMOWGLI is an online game designed to find and collectively grow breakthrough ideas to some of the Navy's most complex problems--those 21st-century threats that demand new forms of collaboration and truly outlying ideas,” said Dr. Larry Schuette, ONR’s Director of Innovation.”

Playing the Game

Players were tasked with finding ideas for tackling the problems of pirates attacking ships in the Gulf of Aden. In particular the Navy was after novel tools, technologies and strategies that weren’t on their radar.

The project ran over a three week period during June 2011 and was the first major effort by American military to combine crowdsourcing and gaming in war game exercises.

Participants were presented with several scenarios in different game play chapters, with some situations kept ambiguous to reflect what happens in real life scenarios. Players had to deal with the logistics of arming ships, the difficulties and intricate nuances of military action to support commercial shipping, and the inevitable pirate attacks.


The piracy challenge was selected to test the feasibility of MMOWGLI as a problem solving platform, and to look at the implications it could have for training, and what it could reveal about the problem solving process.

“We hope MMOWGLI will help us understand what happens when your insights are combined with observations and actions of another player” added Dr.Shuette. “Will that fusion result in a game-changing idea or solution, or will the MMOWGLI platform teach us something about our traditional thought processes?”

Novel Ideas

More than 5,000 ideas were generated during the project’s run, and although it didn’t deliver a magic solution, some of the ideas are being presented to the military. These include thoughts on novel technologies and new ways of applying them, and new economic models.

Engine to Promote New Ideas

MMOWGLI can be applied to many scenarios and more games on a variety of topics will be released in the near future to help the Navy solve some of its toughest problems.

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