Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Wargaming for Leaders

Mark Herman, Mark Frost, and Robert Kurz, Wargaming for Leaders: Strategic Decision Making from the Battlefield to the Boardroom (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009).

According to Herman, Frost, and Kurz, the “genius of modern professional wargaming is that it… provides a methodology to get at the things that one leader, no matter how visionary, cannot grasp on his or her own” by allowing them to “experience the future in a risk-free environment and find answers to questions that had not been on their radar screens before they began the wargame” (pp. 2-3). With this, the authors proceed to examine the use of wargames (or, more broadly, decision-making simulations) in three major settings: the military, business, and in preparing for global crisis. All three authors have very considerable experience. Mark Herman is both a well-known commercial/hobby wargame designer and a Vice President of Booz Allen Hamilton. Frost and Kurz also work with Booz Allen Hamilton’s wargaming division. As the blurbs on the book jacket from senior former politicians, generals, and cabinet members indicate, they (and Booz Allen Hamilton) are very well connected inside the Washington DC beltway.

Readers should not pick up this book expecting to find a broader, comprehensive, or independent account of the role of wargaming in government or business. Instead, every game that is described is an example of the corporate services offered by Booz Allen Hamilton. Every game is depicted as successful in allowing leaders to develop or refine strategies. To the extent that problems are identified in the course of simulations, they are almost all attributed to the failure of participants to approach the exercise with sufficient flexibility or inventiveness. The book draws entirely upon the principals’ accounts, with few reflections from participants or others outside the firm. In short, much of the volume reads as a lengthy PR release for a major US defense and commercial contractor—which may well have been how it was partially intended.

That being said, there are some insights to be gleaned here. From the outset the authors emphasize two conditions that are required for wargames to really work. First, clients must have a clear objective and vision of what it is they want to achieve through the wargame. Second, “it is crucial that there be key groups with different equities—interests that are at real or imagined odds with each other, based on arguments on strategic or tactical plans, data, or institutional culture” (p, 13). These are fundamentally important points for any successful and engaging simulation. The volume also provides insight into processes of wargame design for government and especially corporate clients.

Most of the games described in the book are two day exercises, in which various teams interact and hold discussions based on the simulation scenario, then submit decisions or a plans to the control team for adjudication—at which point the exercise is advance several months or years, and a second and possibly third game turn then take place. The authors several times offer caveats about the predictive value of all this, noting that games are far from a foolproof way of determining what the future holds. By the same token, however, they do allow plausible scenarios to be explored, and for participants explore the anticipated and possible unanticipated consequences of various actions.

Reading between the lines, a few of the case studies in the book also highlight some of the potential weaknesses of wargaming. In discussing a large crisis game that examined possible responses to HIV/AIDS in India over the next three decades, for example, the authors note, “our computer modeling staff developed what we called the HOPE Model—HIV operation planning environment” (pp. 245-246):

At the beginning of the wargame, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection was expected to grow from 0.5% of India’s population to 4.5% by 2025; by the end of the simulation, the strategies proposed by the teams had reduced that projection to 2 percent by 2025. Projected cumulative deaths, as a result, declined from more than 70 million to around 30 million by 2025.

Yet to what extent were these effects the results a function of the strategies chosen by the teams, and to what extent were they a function of assumptions about HIV/AIDS policy built into the computer model? While there is a rich academic and policy literature on the epidemic, we are very far from knowing what sorts of education and treatment programs, targeted at what kinds of client groups, in what kind of ways, in what kind of cultural and socioeconomic contexts, will produce precisely what kinds of health effects. Modeling it to one decimal place simply provides a false sense of precision, even validation. Indeed, in reading this I was reminded of a workshop that Gary and I attended where the simulation of irregular warfare in Africa by the US Department of Defense was discussed. DoD staff would input force levels, configurations, and actions. Defense contractors would take these away to crunch numbers, and return with predictions not only on casualties and bomb attacks, but also the impact of such actions on various indicators of corruption, the rule of law, and good governance. The problem, of course, is these things are really not understood with the kind of precision that makes such detailed social and political predictions meaningful, and in any case are highly contextual. It all remains much more art than science.

In fairness to the volume under review, the moderation of most of the games described does not appear to be driven by computational modeling, but rather by human evaluation. Even here, however, there are some interesting critical issues that could have been explored. How do game moderators, even acknowledged subject matter experts, avoid injecting their own analytical and other biases into the moderation process? In wargames that aim to allow participants to try out new ideas and potentially think outside-the-box, how does one minimize the risk of game designs that implicitly entrench flawed conventional wisdoms? How does one promote productive “red teaming” in a way that doesn’t fall into mirror-imaging (playing the opponents the way you think, not the way they think) or stereotypes, especially in cases where the real opposition can’t be engaged as participants? Given the rather poor predictive record of many (or most) subject matter experts, it is an important issue.

Overall, this book really doesn’t answer such questions in any deep and sustained way. Those looking for a critical exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of simulation and gaming as a policy development tool certainly won’t find it in this volume. However, if you are looking for a highly readable descriptive account of how wargaming is used by government agencies (especially in the US) and large corporations, you may find Wargaming for Leaders: Strategic Decision Making from the Battlefield to the Boardroom to be a quite useful introduction to a very interesting subject.

One response to “Review: Wargaming for Leaders

  1. Brian Train 19/11/2010 at 6:34 pm

    I had been wondering about this book since I’d seen it advertised on Mark Herman’s game design blog. Thanks for the review; I won’t bother to seek it out now.

    As always, you put your finger on two of the most important questions:

    1) What are the assumptions of the game, how are they modelled, and to what extent does the modelling affect the conclusion?
    2) How DO you “red-team” effectively?

    WRT the first, computer simulations are notoriously black-boxy in this respect, and even if you can figure out what the model figured, it often turns out to be not much more than the designer’s best guess. WRT the second, I have no ready answer.

    I’m left feeling, as I usually do, that the discussion and mental exploration of the issues raised in the game and its scenarios holds the point and ultimate value of these exercises. They have no dependable predictive value, and probably should not be expected to, but they do produce some notion of what could happen, and what could be done about it.

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