Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 16/08/2011

Learning from wargaming

Over at the always-excellent Play the Past blog, Matt Kirschenbaum asks what is wargaming—and what can we learn from it?

…By any measure, wargaming is in an interesting place right now. On the one hand there is a documentable design tradition that goes back at least decades (to Charles S. Roberts and the founding of Avalon Hill in the early 1950s) or centuries (to von Reisswitz), or, if you like, even further back than that, to the clay figurines discovered in Egyptian tombs. But as wargaming seeks to expand the purview of its design space beyond only martial topics and themes, its relationship to other areas of game design becomes more nebulous.  What does a “war” game about the water supply in Yemen or influenza teach us that a newsgame on the same subject might miss? If wargaming is indeed applicable to any contemporary situation that seeks to examine decision-making amid an atmosphere of crisis, uncertainty, and conflict or competition, then it seems important to be able to discriminate its capabilities vis-à-vis other game design movements.

So what can we learn from wargames? Where Costikyan sees realism and historical fidelity and validity in simulation, I see a contemporary player and design community (both hobbyist and professional) that values attention to process in the procedural or quantitative representation of complex, often literally contested phenomena. Where Costikyan sees a focus on outcomes, I see a focus on the in-game experience, and the after the fact analysis and discussion of what happened and why.

Perhaps most importantly I see a game design tradition with a remarkable amount of open source material (collected in magazines, some books (like SPI’s 1983 Wargame Design), and today on the internet) that engages with its own practice and craft, one which is the scene of often sharp disagreements and ongoing critical self-reflection. Designer’s notes are commonplace in wargame rulebooks, rare in computer game manuals and Eurostyle rulebooks. The impulse that’s at work here seems fundamentally pedagogical to me, and perhaps that’s also why I respond to it so deeply.

Wargaming must do a better job of outreach to neighboring design communities, and to vetting and evaluating its own contributions. There is, at present, no peer-reviewed journal to serve the professional wargame design community; the closest is a SAGE publication, Simulation and Gaming. Connections, as a well-established conference (its been meeting for almost twenty years now) would do well to make deeper inroads into both the serious games movement and academic ludology—there was precious little awareness in the discussions I heard of the outpouring of game scholarship in the last fifteen years or so…. Most of all, though, we need to engage wargaming as a living tradition of game design, one has responded to changes in the games industry and the world around it, one that is no longer simply about hexes and zones of control, and one that has preserved a space for critical, independent game design addressing a broad spectrum of contemporary issues and topics. War, it turns out, is good for lots of things—just so long as no one is actually fighting one.

Its a thoughtful piece, and the excerpts don’t do it justice—so click the link at the top and go read the whole thing. (I must admit, I’ve obviously been an academic far too long—within minutes of reading of reading it I was thinking “now that would make a great subject for an edited volume…”)

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