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.