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Star Trek's Kobayashi Maru Exercise Explores No-win Situations

Kobayashi Maru
Saavik (portrayed by Kirstie Alley) is faced with a moral dilemma when she's contacted by the freighter the Kobayashi Maru. She must choose between rescuing its crew, a decision that would put Saavik's own ship at risk and potentially starting a war, or leaving the crew to die. StarTrek

A half-Vulcan Starfleet cadet is faced with a moral dilemma. While commanding the U.S.S. Enterprise, Saavik (portrayed by Kirstie Alley) is contacted by the Kobayashi Maru, a civilian freighter that's struck a mine and lost all power.

The situation is dire. Without assistance, those stranded souls are as good as dead. Yet the accident occurred in the Neutral Zone, an area of space dividing the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. Rescuing this crew means entering the Zone, a decision that would put Saavik's own ship at risk — and potentially start a war.

But can she bear the thought of letting innocent people suffer and die on her watch? Saavik decides she can't.

She orders the Enterprise into the Zone, violating a critical treaty. That provokes an immediate attack from Klingon warships. Within minutes, Saavik loses her vessel and its crew. And the worst may be yet to come.

So begins the 1982 blockbuster "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." Saavik, we soon learn, has just taken Starfleet's hardest training exercise. Simply called the Kobayashi Maru, it's a simulation that puts future commanders in a classic "no-win scenario."

Or at least, it's supposed to. The audience is told a certain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) was the only person to actually "beat" the Kobayashi Maru test — albeit, on his third try. How'd he do it? Well, by all accounts, Capt. Kirk cheated.

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Winning a No-win Scenario

"Star Trek" has been a playground for philosophers ever since the original series launched Sept. 8, 1966. Introduced in "Wrath of Khan," the Kobayashi Maru is what ethicists might call a "trolley problem." When the only way to save some lives is by sacrificing others, what's the morally correct thing to do?

Most of us would try to find a loophole. When young Kirk didn't just find one, he invented one.

"I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship," he tells a curious Saavik. "I changed the conditions of the test, got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose."

Neither does his counterpart in the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot. This "Star Trek" shows Chris Pine playing an alternate-reality Kirk who bests the Kobayashi Maru with the same trick — only this time, he's reprimanded instead of rewarded. Both iterations of the character swear they "don't believe" in no-win scenarios.

Obviously, we can't pick the brain of a fictional space captain, but we can talk to a lifelong Trekkie: "Star Trek" superfan Jessie Earl, who contributes to The Advocate magazine and explores the history of the "Star Trek" franchise on her YouTube channel.

"Perhaps the biggest misconception about the test [speaks to] the mythos surrounding Capt. Kirk's solution to the problem," Earl says via email.

As she explains, Kirk thinks "there is always a way out of a no-win scenario, even if it involves cheating. Starfleet itself, as well as many Trek fans, praise Kirk's ingenious solution to the test."

Kobayashi Maru
A soldier with the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade assesses weapons systems. The force-on-force Kobayashi Maru exercise simulation gives soldiers an opportunity to develop cyber skills while operating alongside their civilian and sister service colleagues.
U.S. Army

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To Boldly ... Cheat?

Good old Kirk has a real talent for thinking outside the box. By reprogramming the Kobayashi Maru, he avoided all the horrible outcomes it was designed to present.

Choosing between two bad options isn't always a necessity in real life. Americans love a good story about innovators who — when confronted by an unfair or narrow-minded industry — simply changed the rules to get ahead. Oscar-winning films like "The Social Network" (2010) and 2014's "The Imitation Game" arguably fall into that genre. Heist movies have a similar appeal.

Off-screen, we needn't condone cheating, but there's always something to be said for creativity.

Inspired by the Kobayashi Maru, Gregory Conti and James Caroland of the U.S. armed forces once encouraged their own IT students to cheat on an upcoming, one-question math quiz. But there was a caveat: Anyone caught cheating by the proctors would receive a failing grade.

That got everybody's creative juices flowing. One student painstakingly wrote the correct answer on a soda can. Another hid it in the near-exact duplicate of a textbook cover they'd made. Sometimes, cheating is hard work.

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A Test of Character

Getting back to Kirk, in the 2009 movie, he justifies cheating on the Kobayashi Maru by claiming the test "itself is a cheat" since it was "programmed to be unwinnable." Like the old proverb says, turnabout is fair play.

The problem, according to Earl, is that Kirk's solution "costs him an important lesson ... that there are some situations where you just can't get away unscathed."

"Humans are an incredibly binary-oriented species," she says. "No-win scenarios force us to acknowledge that often, there is no right or wrong answer, only differing answers with different results and consequences."

Pines' Kirk called the Kobayashi Maru unwinnable, but winning it was never the objective. "Wrath of Khan" posits that the test's real value lies in the way it forces Starfleet cadets to face death. Spock, as played by Zachary Quinto, repeats this sentiment in the 2009 film.

"The Kobayashi Maru is not at all about competence at technical skills, but a test of character," Earl says.

Leonard Nimoy's Spock proves his own mettle late in "Star Trek II." A showdown with the villainous Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán) leaves the Enterprise crippled — and well within range of a devastating explosive. At the cost of his own life, Spock enters an irradiated engine room and makes the repairs necessary for his crewmates to escape.

"I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now," the dying Vulcan muses to Kirk. "What do you think of my solution?"

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Final Takeaways

"The entirety of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan's plot is actually a rejection of Kirk's disbelief in a no-win scenario," opines Earl. "While Kirk's unwillingness to accept defeat allows him to continually push himself — even in the most desperate of situations — it sometimes makes him unwilling to sacrifice anything."

His tenacity has merit. Yet Spock's heroic death leaves a grieving Kirk to reconsider his philosophy. Though the Enterprise gets the better of Khan, it'd be hard to call the end result a "win."

"When weighing decisions, we must directly confront the ramifications of our actions," Earl says. "And the job of a leader is to understand that you hold the responsibility for others' lives in [your] hands."

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