Game on

Autumn 2016
Bruce Milligan '73 in front of fencing logo

When he’s not designing combat simulations, Milligan coaches fencing at the Baltimore Fencing Center. The 2011 U.S. Vets-60 Men’s Foil National Champion, he was a member of Colgate’s club team, an award-winning head coach at Vassar College, and a U.S. team member at the Veterans World Fencing Championships. (Photo by Kanji Takeno)

Bruce Milligan ’73

One missing punctuation mark on a U.S. Department of State form. That’s all it took to ensure that Bruce Milligan ’73 would become the architect of legendary video games rather than a Cold War hero.

Milligan always wanted to work for the government — like his father, Bill Milligan ’49, who served in the Army, the FBI, and the CIA. But Bruce’s blood pressure kept him out of the military, Radio Moscow had no use for an employee who couldn’t speak Russian, and he failed the Foreign Service Officer Test by two points.

Milligan soldiered on. He applied for a job with the state department’s security office. All indications were positive, until he received a letter saying that he flunked the physical. Thinking it was his high blood pressure again, he tracked down the chief medical officer at the state department. Milligan still remembers the conversation. “He said, ‘It appears that you have a bit of a weight problem. You’re 60 inches tall, but weigh 183 pounds.’” The government had written 60″ as Milligan’s height rather than 6’0″.

By the time a waiver board could vote on Milligan’s measurements, his résumé no longer stacked up against newly discharged Vietnam veterans applying for the same position. Milligan moved to Baltimore and accepted a marketing position with famed game company Avalon Hill. He spent five years managing the company’s Sports Illustrated line, editing All-Star Replay magazine, and writing ad copy that paired his lifelong passion for games and his quick wit.

The contacts he made there in the ’70s were strong enough to pull him back into the gaming world in the ’90s, when designers like Sid Meier were trading in cardboard for circuit boards as the canvas for their creativity. He partnered with Meier on Civilization in 1991, co-writing the Civilopedia, the in-game encyclopedia that laid out rules and defined key terms. He tested the game as it developed and suggested new features. He also worked on Nintendo games, such as F-117A Stealth Fighter and F-15 Strike Eagle.

After stints with companies like AOL and UbiSoft, Milligan took a job with Breakaway Games in 2002 and began to develop software for government agencies. FEMA regulations require that emergency responders demonstrate understanding of the government’s Incident Command System (also used at Colgate for emergency management) to receive federal funding. So Milligan created a computer simulation called Incident Commander based on government protocols. By following the rules, firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and others prove their knowledge.

It wasn’t long before another client came calling: MedStar Health — the largest health care provider in the Washington, D.C., area — asked Milligan for a first-person, 3-D game to simulate the effects of a mass-casualty incident on a busy metropolitan hospital. Real-life simulations are expensive and disruptive. “But if you take a dozen people and put them [in front of] computers,” Milligan said, “everything can go on as normal at the hospital.”

Today, the man who used to advertise games is forbidden by his current employer, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, to talk about his newest simulations. He merely says that, as senior gaming and operations research analyst, he is exploring the nature of warfare circa 2035.

Milligan has found additional ways to channel his martial spirit. He coaches fencing, a sport he played in high school and at Colgate. He’s also a member of Company K, First Pennsylvania Reserves, conducting Civil War reenactments for the U.S. National Park Service.

Thanks to a bureaucratic typo, Milligan’s battles are fought on glass, but the import of his work as a game designer has only grown. And even though his office door faces a college quad rather than the national mall, he said with conviction, “I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”

For a man who spends his days imagining robot-powered warfare, that’s saying something.

 — Mark Walden