Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Michael Peck on the military and serious games

Rex asked me to write something for PAXsims. For those who don’t know, I’m U.S. Editor of Training & Simulation Journal, a wargamer since age 12, and probably the defense journalist who most focuses on games and simulations.

I thought I’d start with a few lessons I’ve learned about the military and serious games:

1. Serious games need serious reasons. When it comes to games, missiles, or any other military item, the first question I’ve learned to ask is, “What need or requirement does it fulfill?” Because that is exactly what the Pentagon will ask. The people in the military who are in charge of games frequently don’t play games for fun. The military also procures games in the same way that it procures tanks, rifles and boots. Serious games don’t have political clout; no Senator is going to throw a filibuster because a few geeks in a basement office didn’t get a $500,000 contract. I’ve met a lot of people with great ideas for games on topics like counterinsurgency. Bringing those ideas to fruition may be a little easier if it’s a specialized simulation for a select audience, like a military staff college. But a game for all the privates and sergeants and lieutenants? Not going to happen without a requirement, with all the bureaucracy therein. Gamers and bureaucracy mix as harmoniously as dogs and cats. But that’s how the system works.

2. The only thing separating the military and gamers is a common language. To gamers and the general public, “wargaming” is gunning down ninjas on a computer screen, or running around the woods with a paintball gun. To the military, wargaming is a analytical process that means exploring various alternatives. Game designers think of “immersiveness” as the player suspending disbelief enough to have fun; the military thinks of immersiveness as suspending disbelief so the player actually learns something that keeps him alive on a real battlefield.

3. The Pentagon can’t afford not to use games. Forget realism, portability, immersiveness and all the other selling points of serious games. Money is the issue. Games can never replace live training. Yet it’s extremely expensive to train with real jet fighters and tanks, or hire unemployed actors to pretend to be Afghan villagers. Games are effective training tools in some areas, and not so hot in others. But their effectiveness is almost immaterial. America and Europe are broke, defense budgets are going to shrink as the Afghan and Iraq conflicts wind down, and games are relatively cheap. The interesting question won’t be which live training will games replace, but which live training they won’t replace.

4. The military doesn’t give a damn about paper wargames.  Period. The end. I got into wargaming with paper games in the mid-1970s. Most soldiers today have never seen a paper wargame and think a grognard is a French pastry. Gaming today is perceived as computer games, and shooter games for the most part. That’s too bad. For all the clunkiness of cardboard, a paper game can incorporate sophisticated concepts in two paragraphs of rules where software would need a million lines of code. You can also change the rules with a pen instead of an army of contractors. But that’s not how the world thinks anymore. Just simply the way it is. The dodo feels your pain.

5. Games for work is work, not fun. People think I have a great gig writing about the military and games. They’re right. I’ve had the chance to play a variety of serious games, from intelligence analysis to diplomacy to logistics (amazing the topics you can turn into games). I truly enjoy the challenge of examining games from the military perspective, and examining the military from the gaming perspective. It’s much more interesting to write about games in terms of their real-world potential, rather than having to churn out yet another review on how cool the graphics, or how many zombies a game lets you kill. But at the end of the day, it is work. If I talk to an Army colonel about a video game, I ask him the same questions that I would ask about a missile or a radar system. What does it do? What requirement does it fulfill? What does it enable you to do that you couldn’t do before? In the end, we are talking about decisions with life-and-death consequences. Serious games demand serious questions.

Michael Peck

13 responses to “Michael Peck on the military and serious games

  1. Skip Cole 21/05/2011 at 9:46 am

    Great post Michael! I think that for people thinking about getting into the military space, this is really excellent advice.
    What are your thoughts on other games that people consider serious, such as “Darfur is Dying” or “People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance” ? I hope to see more posts here from you. Your articles are always the ones I look forward to reading in the TS&J.


  2. Stephen Downes-Martin 23/05/2011 at 12:29 pm

    Accurate and to the point. Thanks. Where do seminar wargames like those done at the Naval War College (where technology is used as labor saving devices for manual adjudication) fit within paragraph 4?.
    All the best

  3. Christopher Weuve 23/05/2011 at 7:10 pm

    Well-said, but it’s worth pointing out that merely because the military view games as part of an analytical process does not mean that most military wargames use good analytical practices. Most do not.

    Wargaming done right is incredibly powerful, and even done wrong it’s usually worth doing. But sometimes the best that can be said is that because they are cheaper than the alternatives, they waste less money than the alternatives.

  4. Michael Peck 23/05/2011 at 10:06 pm

    Thanks, guys.
    @Skip – I’m not that familiar with the political activist games. But I’m not sure that all of them are games. Darfur is Dying seems more like an interactive children’s book, with avatars substituting for text that says Darfurian children have to search for water, etc. But to convey the horror of Darfur through a game would require an unpleasant graphic simulation. It seems a great way to publicize a cause, but no one will learn anything more than a very simplistic view of the conflict.

    @Stephen – I don’t know that much about the Naval War College games (and I haven’t had much luck in learning about them, either. Seems like a rather opaque shop). I’m curious how satisfied the human participants are with the validity of the computer adjudication. Do the results make sense to them? How sophisticated is the adjudication of a political-military exercise? I would be especially interested in what the computer CANNOT handle.

    @Chris – I wonder whether military wargaming – or at least at the higher-lever seminar games – is closer to fantasy roleplaying than an analytical tool. I suspect that Dungeons & Dragons may have a fair amount to teach us regarding how and why humans behave around a conference table.

  5. Rex Brynen 23/05/2011 at 10:18 pm

    @Michael – I think that BOGSAT seminar games can provide a great deal of useful insight into how actors might approach a problem, the range of options they might consider, and so forth. I’m less convinced that they produce terribly useful specific predictions, in large part because they necessarily limit both the number of actors and the range of variables that can be captured.

    What they might do, however, is sharpen the analytical abilities of participants (in the same way that a lot of Red Teaming does).

  6. Skip Cole 24/05/2011 at 2:19 am

    > Darfur is Dying seems more like an interactive children’s book.
    Exactly! In fact, simply publicizing a cause may be completely counter productive, as the book “The Crisis Caravan” discusses. (Turns out that the bad guys know how to game situations pretty well also. Want more international attention and humanitarian aid? Start amputating limbs from innocent people.) I bet that this article will enthrall you:

    I do hope you get a chance to look at the ‘People Power’ Game. I consider that of legitimate value. Waging a successful non-violent campaign requires a great deal of preparation, discipline and strategic thinking, and that game tries to prepare people for that.

  7. Christopher Weuve 24/05/2011 at 12:27 pm

    Mike: Seminar games are not M&S, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be analytically rigorous in their approach and claims. But one of the things I learned in ten years of doing wargaming for the Navy is that the sponsor usually can’t differentiate between a quick, non-rigorous answer and a slow, methodologically sound answer, which has the effect of creating incentives to produce the former. Sadly, leadership with both the competence and integrity to resist those incentives is more scarce than it should be.

  8. Skip Cole 24/05/2011 at 1:22 pm

    PS. I think that I used the wrong verb in my previous post since ‘enthrall’ (in the cool light of morning) seems to imply not only fascination, but also enjoyment. I didn’t mean to imply that anyone would take pleasure out of learning how sick some people can be. But I do find it fascinating, and it sends a strong signal to me that we need to get better at figuring things out.

  9. Mike Markowitz 24/05/2011 at 1:49 pm

    Michael Peck is a thoughtful and serious writer and I concur with his good sense, but I would add that “The Pentagon” and “the military” are not the only customers for conflict simulations. The intelligence community — to cite only one example — needs to educate a whole generation of young analysts (who are typically quite unfamiliar with the rudiments of geography, military technology, tactics and operations). Not “training” but professional education, which is something quite different. Tabletop (“paper”) wargaming can be an excellent tool for this purpose, although it is very difficult to sell to most managers and senior leaders.

  10. Brian Train 26/05/2011 at 10:32 pm

    Thanks Michael, I guess, for the straight talk. As a paper wargamer designer (and probably ’twill ever be thus, even if I ever figure out VASSAL), it’s discouraging to be left behind by the professional military world, but that’s life in Mauretania. I still think there is great value in seminar-style games as Rex describes; you don’t need half a million dollars worth of breakable technology to shake peoples’ minds loose and consider alternate ways to solve problems.

  11. Tim Carter 18/06/2011 at 1:12 pm

    I don’t think you’re write about the paper games comment. I designed a couple paper tabletop disaster simulations for computer game prototypes, and they went down really well. The ultimate products, of course, were computer games, but the learning was there.

  12. Christopher Weuve 20/06/2011 at 9:01 am

    There are examples here and there of table top games that were well-received (been involved in a few myself), but they are often a hard sell, and the higher up the chain you go the harder the sell becomes. I think Mike’s comment is right-on-the-money at the institutional level.

  13. Stephen Downes-Martin 28/06/2011 at 2:07 pm

    Sorry for the late response to Micheal Peck’s question to me posted 23/05/2011 at 10:06 pm concerning computer adjudication. As I stated, “technology is used as labor saving devices for manual adjudication”. The War Gaming Department rarely does computer adjudication, it sometimes uses computer models as information for the manual adjudication process. This approach fits the inductive game design called for by operational and strategic gaming of novel situations for which there are no developed or acceptable computer models. This is in contrast to deductive design for wargaming tactical problems for which there are many computer models.

    As far as learning about the War Gaming Department games at the Naval War College is concerned, their publications are mostly reports to the sponsor, however the department has recently started making some game reports available at—Gaming/War-Gaming/Documents/Publications/Game-Reports.aspx.

    Caveat — I no longer work in the War Gaming Department, I now work in the Warfare Analysis and Research Department where we use deductive and inductive wargaming as a research tool (—Colleges/Center-for-Naval-Warfare-Studies/Warfare-Analysis-and-Research.aspx)

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