Sometimes, the only way to win is to fail spectacularly or simply not to play fairly.
Made famous by the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Kobayashi Maru is an unwinnable test taken by all Starfleet Academy Command School cadets. It has since become a term used by fans as slang for when situations have thoroughly fallen apart.
The point is to test the cadet’s sense of character as they respond to a rapidly changing situation. What will they do to try to succeed and how will they react to the distress of defeat and death?
Along with revealing a sense of character, studying these kinds of no-win scenarios are critical to military science and preparing for the unexpected events that are likely to arise. So, let’s delve deep into what the Kobayashi Maru is, what it truly represents, and what motivates participants in an unwinnable test.
What is The Kobayashi Maru?
As The Wrath of Khan’s opening scene depicts, civilian freighter Kobayashi Maru hits a gravitonic mine, stranding its crew of 81 along with 300 passengers in the Klingon Neutral Zone. The cadet receives a weak message from the freighter pleading for a rescue as the ship rapidly loses power, hull integrity, and life support.
There are no other vessels nearby, so the cadet must choose whether to risk entering hostile territory and perhaps spark a war. No matter what the cadet chooses to do, the scenario will always end in failure.
Klingon cruisers will decloak and attack if the cadet decides to enter the Neutral Zone to rescue the Kobayashi Maru. All attempts at communication will be ignored, and calls for reinforcements will be jammed.
Trying to fight the vessels will lead to the eventual destruction of the cadet’s ship, and everyone aboard the Kobayashi Maru will likely end up dying anyway. Ignoring the distress call and leaving the freighter to its fate is an option that’s discussed in the Star Trek novels with various outcomes.
They include the cadet’s ship mutinying, or the Klingons entering into Federation space in response to “provocation” by the Kobayashi Maru. In every case, the computer-controlled training simulation adapts to the cadet’s decisions, making each experience unique.
The simulation is a catch-22 situation on a number of levels because ignoring the distress call violates Starfleet’s policy of rendering aid to distressed vessels while entering the Neutral Zone violates the treaty with the Klingons. In any case, not rescuing the freighter is technically a failure.
Beating the Kobayashi Maru Simulation
Of all the cadets who’ve taken the test, only one person was credited with beating the no-win scenario, and that’s James T. Kirk. As described in the movie, Kirk took the test multiple times and beat it on the third try.
He did it by reprogramming the simulation to “change the conditions of the test,” making it possible for him to win. Many Star Trek fans regard this as cheating; at the very least, it misses the point of the training exercise.
However, Kirk received a commendation for “original thinking.” It’s revealed that Kirk did it because he didn’t believe in no-win scenarios and because he didn’t like to lose. In that case, the test did its job by revealing Kirk’s character.
Although the movie doesn’t describe how the simulation was reprogrammed, the 1989 Star Trek novel The Kobayashi Maru by Julia Ecklar provides the most widely accepted version of events. In it, Kirk changed the parameters of the program so that the Klingons would have a deep fear of the Captain Kirk.
Upon hearing his name, the Klingons immediately surrender to the legendary captain and even assist with the rescue efforts. Meanwhile, the 2009 Star Trek movie, which takes place in an alternate timeline, depicts the hack quite differently.
In the J.J. Abrams film, the simulation was reprogrammed so that the Klingon vessels suddenly lost shields and weapons without explanation, allowing Kirk’s ship to easily destroy them. This version of Kirk probably didn’t receive a commendation for hacking the test, though he did earn one by showing valor and leadership in a real combat situation.
Other cadets took radically different approaches in the Ecklar novel. Chekov sacrificed his ship to take out as many Klingon vessels as possible. Sulu, after telling a tale about his great grandfather, opts to leave the Kobayashi Maru to its fate rather than risk falling into a trap.
The book also explains how Scotty took the test because his family originally wanted him to attend Command School at Starfleet Academy. Technically, he beat the Kobayashi Maru similar to Kirk by destroying the incoming waves of Klingon ships using an engineering trick that only works in computer simulations, not real life.
He was investigated for possible cheating, but the hearing is used as an excuse to move Scotty out of Command School to study engineering, which is what he really wanted all along. Incidentally, this helps explain why Kirk was so comfortable with giving command of the Enterprise over to his chief engineer.
The Real Test
People like Kirk believe that no-win scenarios like the Kobayashi Maru are cheats in and of themselves, and that there’s no situation that you can’t outthink. Reality often proves differently, since life is unpredictable and unfair.
Even Kirk is forced to realize this fact in the Wrath of Khan. In the real world, no-win scenarios are used in police, military, and astronaut training. These tests aren’t necessarily for revealing character, but to prepare participants or rapidly shifting situations that could end in the worst day of their lives.
One of the most well-known military exercises is the Abel Archer 83, used by NATO in 1983 to simulate a Soviet invasion of West Berlin. As part of the scenario, the former USSR launches a full invasion of West Berlin and it is believed that all of West Germany will follow.
Both sides are assumed to misread every action their enemies take, continually escalating the situation toward nuclear war. The USSR will expect NATO to build up its forces to take East Berlin and launches a preemptive attack with its army. Tactical nuclear weapons are inevitably deployed, followed by an even larger nuclear response, until everything is destroyed.
In the book Moon Shot, astronaut Alan Shepard wrote about experiencing no-win scenarios to prepare for the moon landing. He describes one scenario where a simulated moon landing uses up most of the fuel reserves, followed by a long and impossible chain of system failures. Even if the astronauts successfully worked through the multiple system malfunctions to successfully land the craft on the moon, they died anyway because their equipment was giving them false readings all along.
Like how Kirk views the Kobayashi Maru, all these impossibly catastrophic scenarios feel like cheats. How likely is it that both sides of a conflict will completely misconstrue each other’s actions until the only possible response is nuclear war? What are the odds of every system on a space shuttle failing at once?
As improbable as these scenarios might be, they have tremendous value. Experiencing the impossible prepares the test takers for real catastrophes.
It’s plausible that these tests played a key role in saving the crew of the Apollo 13 from being stranded in space when it suffered a fuel tank explosion because they already went through worse scenarios.
A Test of Character
Some may argue that knowing you’re in a scripted no-win scenario undermines the character test itself. How can your true character show if you know exactly what’s going to happen? Not only did Kirk attempt the test three times, but the Kobayashi Maru is an open secret in the Star Trek universe.
Cadets aren’t supposed to know the details of the test, but they do, and often discuss the decisions they made under while under pressure, their results, and how they felt afterward. Instead of undermining the test, this knowledge reinforces the importance of it.
For example, the US Army has a Tactics and Combined Arms Doctrine course for senior first lieutenants or captains. In it, they are given scenarios with no definitive answers, and they’re expected to come up with responses to them on the spot.
The point isn’t to “win,” but to study how everyone reached their conclusions by having each participant vigorously defend their viewpoint. In this case, it’s the science of the situation that counts, while the scenario itself is almost incidental.
What truly separates these real-life tests from the Kobayashi Maru is that they’re administered by people, not generated by an exploitable computer system. By adding a human element, along with a wider selection of scenarios, participants will usually have no idea what will happen or what will go wrong.
Even if they all end in failure, these tests would show a clearer picture of what people like the soon-to-be Captain Kirk are capable of in high-pressure situations.