Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Wargaming and academia


Academic wargaming?

From time to time I find myself involved in some version of a “why doesn’t wargaming get more academic respect” discussion, the most recent version of which has been via the Simulating War Yahoo group. Phil Sabin sparked the discussion by noting:

On Friday, I gave a short talk to a research symposium at King’s College about the challenges of using controversial methodologies like counterfactualism and conflict simulation. These challenges have been brought home to me even further recently through concerns that my books and articles on wargaming cannot safely be submitted to the forthcoming assessment of university research lest the assessors turn out to be sceptics, as so many academics are. We will be discussing this controversy and stigmatisation further at the final panel of Connections UK. It was interesting that the questions on Friday focused heavily on the ethics of wargaming – a salutary reminder that the uninitiated see our activities from a very different perspective.

It all has a rather let’s-hide-Harry-Potter-under-the-stairs feel to it, with UK academic assessors apparently playing the role of the Dursleys. Is it indicative of a bigger problem?

Here I think we need to distinguish between serious games and simulations (including conflict simulations) as a teaching technique, and conflict simulations as a research methodology.

Simulations and academic teaching

With regard to teaching,  I don’t think there is substantial resistance to the use of simulations as an instructional technique in most of academia. Indeed, in some social science disciplines (including political science), most undergraduate students will do a simulations or two at some point in their studies. In my own department at McGill University, I include simulation in three of my  courses, and Phil Sabin’s excellent book on Simulating Conflict: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games is required reading in one of my conflict-related graduate seminars;  Vincent Pouliot runs a negotiation simulation in his course on contemporary diplomacy;  Juliet Johnson incorporates a role play simulation into her Russian politics class; and Christa Scholtz does so in her teaching on federalism. Just down the street at Concordia University, Julian Schofield manages to include one or more  simulations in much of his teaching on international relations and strategic studies. McGill alumna Ora Szekely‘s classroom simulation of strategic interaction during the Egyptian revolution (which first appeared here at PAXsims) will be published in a forthcoming issue of the academic journal Simulation & Gaming. The professional/teaching journal of the American Political Science Association, PS: Political Science & Politics,  frequently has articles on classroom conflict simulation, while APSA’s annual Teaching & Learning Conference has so many simulation-related paper presentations they’ve had to establish to two separate conference tracks for them. There are several books by academic publishers with classroom simulation materials (like this and this), as well as online simulations designed for classroom use. In the field of history, the Reacting to the Past series of classroom historical role-playing simulations is now up to nine published volumes (with many more on the way), is used in scores of colleges and universities, and even has regular national and regional academic conferences. Journals on higher education frequently contain articles assessing the educational effectiveness of simulations.

There are, I think, three major obstacles to even greater simulation use in university teaching:

  1. Lack of expertise and familiarity by the instructor. Off-the-shelf simulations may not be entirely appropriate for a particular class, while designing your own can be quite daunting, especially for instructors who aren’t hobby gamers of some sort in their private lives.
  2. Time-effectiveness—that is, a simulation may use up too much scarce student contact time, or may require much more prior effort by the instructor to organize compared with a standard lecture.
  3. Classroom size. Simulations are much harder to manage in large classrooms.

Classroom time is a particularly serious constraint. In North America, the average one semester course involves around 35-45 contact hours in the classroom, or 15 hours per week across all of a student’s classes for students with a full-time course load. In the UK, the weekly average is similar. While the “sage on a stage” method of teaching is sometime derided, lecturing is a very efficient way of getting lots of information across to students in the relatively short time you have them in your classroom. There is thus an opportunity cost involved in running a simulation in terms of a corresponding loss of lecture time. In two of my regularly-taught courses I don’t use simulations at all because they would simply be less effective in conveying what I what to convey in the limited time I have available.

A further challenge is presented by large classroom size. It can be very hard running a simulation with classes that may have over a hundred students in them: doing them in the classroom would be chaos, while assigning them as homework requires very simple simulations that students can easily play at home. Digital simulations might make this easier, but these suffer from limited customizability.

In the specific case of wargames (rather than simulations in general),  one reason they are so little used is that military strategy—and even less so military tactics—are simply rarely taught at university. Most years my own university has precisely zero courses on military history and warfare (as opposed to the history of militarized conflicts). Similarly, my own department’s several courses on war treat it in the context of international relations theory (crisis behaviour, deterrence theory, balance of power and power transition models, and so forth) and don’t really explore issues of strategic or operational art. Within the field of history, scholarship in recent decades has swung away from focusing on great generals and great battles, and instead emphasizes either the social and economic context of conflict, or the lived and everyday experience of war. Consequently, most students of, say, European history never really examine why and how Napoleon won at Austerlitz or why and how the Germans lost at Stalingrad.

This is not, it should be added, a critique of social or political history—approaches that I greatly value, and draw upon in my own work. I do, however, think it is also useful for students to know how wars are fought and won. Indeed, the inability to learn such things at school is a frequent complaint from those of my students who wish to go on to conflict-related careers.

Wargaming and academic analysis

Although the distinction sometimes get lost in  “why doesn’t wargaming get any (academic) respect?” discussions, Phil’s main point concerned the use of wargames for analytical rather than educational purposes. Here I think the picture is more mixed.

Certainly one does not see traditional wargaming being used as an academic research method to understand conflict dynamics and outcomes. In both Simulating War and his earlier book Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World, Phil highlights the extent to which wargaming, done properly, is a systematic process of modelling conflict dynamics, and how that essentially theoretical model can then be systematically applied to answer historical or contemporary conflict puzzles. While governments understand this—hence the millions and billions they spend on their own professional wargaming—few academics would even think of it as an available and viable methodology, or have any training in how to do it.

Having said that, however, one does increasingly find recognition that games (broadly understood) can be used to explore the “outcome space” of social phenomenon. Game theorists do this theoretically (and have been strikingly successful in popularizing their analyses). Agent-based modellers do it, often on game-theoretic foundations. A very rapidly growing number of behavioural scientists do it experimentally, and get published in top journals. Data from my own civil war simulation was recently used by a PhD student at McGill as the partial basis for his doctoral thesis in psychology. This broader and growing academic recognition of games-as-analysis could be used to leverage greater progress in demonstrating the potential value of wargaming as a technique of scholarly  analysis.

To do so, however, will probably require several other things. It will require greater attention to methodology itself, the “how to” of wargaming and analysis—especially with regard to issues of model validation. It will require better instrumentation and measuring of games. It will require particular attention to developing rigorous standards of qualitative interpretation, especially in social science fields that have taken an increasingly quantitative term. It may also require greater cross-fertilization between those who do qualitative and quantitative conflict analysis. Finally, it will also need articles to start appearing in mainstream scholarly journals, or, even a special issue of an well-regarded academic journal devoted to the topic–assuming, of course, one could find an adequate number of scholars even able to contribute.

5 responses to “Wargaming and academia

  1. brtrain 28/06/2013 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you Rex, as always, for cutting to the heart of the matter clearly. As a designer who hangs around academics, the value of using games in these contexts is obvious to me but I think I am quite inarticulate in communicating this to the uninitiated. Your post covering my presentation at the MORS Virtual symposium a couple of posts back illustrated this well, in terms of the questions posed by the audience (except for you!) and my only semi-coherent replies (to me they were, anyway).

  2. Pascal Lévesque 29/06/2013 at 11:12 am

    Great article Rex. I am indeed very interested by the topic as: 1) I am part of the academia; 2) I am a wargamer (video) myself although not a designer; and 3) my classrooms are usually small. I am also a convinced apostle of the use of ‘role-playing’ as a very effective learning tool. In particular with a topic such as mine, perceived to be arid and boring if thaught without proper contextualization (Law of Armed Conflict or International Humanitarian Law). Have you heard of anything on the subject? In the same way, if I can assist in making sure a particular project complies with LOAC/IHL, let me know.

  3. Rex Brynen 29/06/2013 at 11:20 am


    I certainly build a lot of LOAC/IHL issues into my (role-play) civil war simulations, often around tricky issues where the IHL “choices” are far from clear. Drop me an email ( and let me know what you’re teaching.. perhaps there are some opportunities for collaboration.

  4. kingdaddy8Tom Grant 19/07/2013 at 10:56 pm

    When I was a grad student in political science, I convinced the faculty to let me teach a class on military organizations, strategy, and affairs generally. I felt strongly that the gap in the students’ understanding made it difficult for them to understand history and political science, when they touch on warfare. For example, the knotty problem of unraveling the history of Vietnam is impossible to solve without some notion of how the US Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy prepared for war. As luck would have it, the course coincided with Operation DESERT STORM, so I had real-time examples for each day’s lecture!

  5. Philip Sabin 07/09/2013 at 5:19 am

    Rex, this is a really excellent survey of the issue, which we discussed further at the Connections UK conference (the proceedings of which are now online at I think that my own difficult experience stems from trying to crack the hardest part of the challenge, as follows:

    – focusing on military strategy and tactics, rather than the more usual academic focus on politics;

    – concentrating on historical rather than contemporary conflicts, despite the fact that many historians see even counterfactual ‘what if?’ analyses (let alone wargames) as pointless compared to addressing what did actually occur;

    – trying to use wargames to provide research insights (as in my Lost Battles book), and not just as a teaching device.

    As you say, there are plenty of related articles in education, simulation and OR journals, but the real challenge is to get something into mainstream military history journals where it will be read by historians themselves. I will try to do this on the back of the 1914 kriegsspiel which I will be running at Windsor Castle in January during a counterfactual conference which I am organising with my colleague Professor Ned Lebow.

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