Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections UK 2014 final report


(For a report on the previous day of the conference, see here.)

The final day of the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference started today with a panel on the use of seminar wargames in defence. Katherine Banko (Canadian Army Land Warfare Centre) discussed the application of a mixed methods, pretest/post-test methodology to a course of action seminar wargaming. Specifically, her case study focused on the Canadian decision to acquire new tactical armoured patrol vehicles (TAPV), and the use of a seminar wargame to explore optimal force structures and associated TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) for the proposed TAPV. Game preparation took five months, including pilot testing. Participants were asked to pretest rank-order five proposed courses of action for each scenario. COAs were also rated against the “principles and fundamentals of war” as taught in Canadian military doctrine.

After the game, post-test rankings showed a change in participant evaluations of the various COAs. There was also some difference between a first and second post-test. The subsequent discussion addressed some important technical issues, including the use and aggregation of ordinal ranking scales, possible anchoring effects caused by administration of the pretest, and an experimental design that would one to assess the effects generated by the moderator/umpire.

IMG_2299Next, Hans Steensma (Military Formats in Business) and Steven van Agt (PWC Netherlands) provided an example of a business wargame, Operation Fleet Street. In this, we all assumed the role of members of the Guardian Media Group, forming groups of eight or so and tasked with identifying the characteristics of the media battlefield (potential threats, allies, and other relevant characteristics). We then identified a major threat to our company, and then developing a proposed course of action. Each team’s COA was then briefed back to the full conference, and a winner chosen. Obviously we were working much more quickly than a real group would be, and we lacked the knowledge of the UK media market that actual corporate participants would likely have.

On the sidelines of this I had an interesting discussion with John Curry, Matt Caffrey, and Hans on whether this was “real” wargaming, or simply a wargame overlay applied to what was basically a BOGSAT. I’m not sure I much care what is, or is not, wargaming—what really matters is whether gaming approaches can address issues in a useful way. Indeed, I’ve used a somewhat similar format to address humanitarian policy planning, without any reference to wargaming at all. Some of the brief-backs from the session seemed quite good—so yes, it did seem quite useful.


After a break a panel addressed manual wargaming in defence. Graham Longley-Brown started it off with some initial comments on course of action wargaming, and also underscored how manual and computer wargaming could be linked (drawing upon the example of a project he had recently been involved with in Qatar). Paul Strong (DSTL) emphasized how important it was that game design must always keep the study requirements in mind. Manual games were, he suggested, were very flexible, and can be modified on the fly. His very rich presentation (far too rich to be summarized here) looked at DSTL support for strategic (POL-MIL), operational, and tactical games. Seminar games are often used, even as part of preparation for larger wargames. Thematic games focus on particular issues, such as IEDs and casualty evacuation. Experiential wargames are used where player’s response to unfolding events is of greater interest than the end-state. Wargames are also used to explore possible future trends and futures. he briefly discussed the Peace Support Operations Model (PSOM) too as a computational support for wargames.

Roy Benda (TNO) discussed wargaming of land-based operations. PSOM is used for training and education. MARVEL is a model-building and simulation system focused on system behaviours and relationships, rather than being geographically based. GO4IT is a tabletop roleplaying game used for training battalion and senior commanders about civil-military cooperation in complex environments. TACTIS is a digital tactical combat simulations. TNO also uses the commercial mid- to low-fidelty digital wargame Steel Beasts. CDEG (the Concept Development & Experimentation Game) has been used to explore IED and counter-IED measures.

After lunch attention turned to digital wargaming. Paul Pearce delivered a presentation on the evolution of analytical and experimental wargaming at DSTL. He framed this in the context of Operational Analysis, and the importance of repeatability, independence, grounding in reality, objectivity of process, uncertainty in data, and robustness of results (RIGOUR). Modern OA/OR started in WWII. Into the 1960s wargaming was still manual (with terrain models or maps), but computer assistance was introduced. Map-and-computer games were the norm by the 1980s, using discrete event simulation rather than turn-based moves. Databases became more sophisticated, allowing fuller post-game analysis. From the 1990s fully computerized games were also common, often with linked satellite simulations. Perception-based modeling and C2 issues assumed greater importance. In recent years there has been a return of 2D manual games (such as RCAT) with computer assistance, in part because of the flexibility of this format and in part because of the diverse range of challenges and contexts that the contemporary UK military faces.

photoTom Mouat examined computer simulation in defence. He noted that the UK Ministry of Defence had many simulators—but relatively few real wargames. Simulators are favoured because they save money. UK military training expenditures are about £7 billion per year, of which over £2 billion spent on running costs—the area where simulations save money. He gave an overview of several systems: CAST (Command and Staff Training, using simulated troops in a simulated environment to train battlegroup command), CATT (Combined Arms Tactical Trainer), TES (Tactical Engagement System, a laser tag system for exercises). BCT, JOCAST, MTWAS, and especially VBS2 are used at other locations. Because live exercises are so expensive, it is essential that soldiers first be trained and tested on lower-cost simulations. The UK has many individual air simulators, but few that are linked (in large part because simulators are aircraft and manufacturer specific). While in theory linked simulators can be used for wargames, generally simulators are used more for scenario role-play. The situation is similar with maritime simulation, although simulators are more flexible and Royal Navy officers has a better sense of how to get the most out of their simulations.

In discussion, one participant noted that the increasing sophistication of mapping and imagery meant that truly immersive training required more sophisticated data presentation. This raised the question of the cost effectiveness of imagery and data immersion for training purposes. In turn, this led to a broader discussion over how much training could occur in synthetic contexts, and the extent to which this could truly replace real-world training and exercises.

Next, the conference divided into four break-out groups on the future direction of wargaming. These addressed:

  • balancing simplicity and accurate simulation
  • preserving and passing on design expertise
  • increasing the educational use of wargaming
  • involving and influencing decision-makers

With regard to the first of these topics, the group noted that complexity was not the same as accuracy, nor was simplicity necessarily the same as playability. Starting with simple games can be a useful way of encouraging players to try more complex simulations. On audience member noted that many wargamers start at the complex end of the spectrum, and only belatedly recognize the value of simple, elegant design. The second group noted that designers have both domain knowledge and game design knowledge. The former is easier to pick up. However, the ubiquity of computer and other entertainment wargaming may make it easier to develop game and game design skills to the current generation. This led to some discussion of how Connections conferences might do more to teach game design skills. The question was also raised of whether there had been much outreach to universities with strong digital game design programmes.

The third group accidentally met in two different rooms, and so there were two brief-backs. One (from the subgroup I joined) highlighted the importance of buy-in from students, who needed to see its relevance. This didn’t necessarily involve earning grades, but could also include relevance to their future careers, or even the simple social fun of participation. Instructors also had to be convinced, but the point was made that at even in the military (notably at Sandhurst) there may not be any local wargaming culture. Buy-in is also needed at a higher level. Networks of support can empower game advocates. The second sugroup highlighted the need to offset biases and stereotypes against wargaming. They also noted that gaming had weaknesses as well as strengths, and these needed to be recognized. Political dynamics, they noted, might be harder to game than purely kinetic military action.

The fourth breakout group noted that involving and influencing decision-makers required that one demonstrated the utility of wargaming as a training/education or analytical tool. It is also helpful to emphasize that wargaming has and is being used by others for similar purposes. One conference participant noted that if an interest in, and competence in, wargaming can be established at lower levels, these individuals may prove to be future senior leaders. There also a need to establish that losing at a wargame is a useful learning experience, and not a professional liability. As Phil Sabin noted, perhaps we should emphasize that the real choice may not be between “winning or losing,” but between “winning and learning” (or “you can’t really lose a wargame.”) I noted that we, as game designers and facilitators, have a responsibility to pre-orient game participants to the inevitability of mistakes and the value of learning from them. Stephen Downes-Martin thoughtfully suggested that the emotional commitment of not wanting to lose was valuable in driving a game—but that losing shouldn’t necessarily have negative career consequences. (I might also add that there may well be circumstances where a game really does reveal individual deficiencies that perhaps should have career consequences—I can certainly think of a few games which have, quite appropriately, shaken my confidence in operational colleagues.)

In his final conference comments Phil Sabin emphasized that Connections UK had highlighted the diversity of wargaming approaches and experiences. He also noted, however, that we remained a self-selected group, and that we needed to continue to promote outreach. Tom Mouat noted that a Connections UK LinkedIn group would be formed, and conference feedback elicited via an online survey. Graham Longley-Brown noted that the ability to effectively use wargames ought to be something on which military officers (and perhaps some in business too) were assessed, and that Connections should work towards promoting that long-term goal.


 Concluding Thoughts

Overall, this was a really excellent conference. I found both the panels and many side-discussions extremely valuable. Participants were eager to break out of professional and disciplinary silos, learning from and sharing with others. Almost everything was impeccably organized. The Connections conferences continue to serve a very useful role in facilitating the exchange of ideas and the development of professional networks.

The attendees of the conference tended to be white, male, and middle-aged. Only 8% or so of the participants at this Connections UK conference were female, which is about the same as the recent Connections conference in the US too. Part of the reason for this lack of diversity is the low proportion of women in the military and national security establishment. That has changed significantly in the diplomatic, intelligence, and aid communities and among defence social scientists during the past two decades, but more slowly in the uniformed branches. Part of the problem also has to do with the preponderance of men in the wargaming hobby.  I suspect that this gender imbalance can be daunting for neophyte female gamers, creating a self-perpetuating barrier to entry. (It also doesn’t help when a male conference participant, describing the accessibility of a particular piece of technology, deemed it so simple that “even a woman could use it…” Arghhhh! Fortunately that outdated attitude seems to be an extreme rarity.)

I’m not convinced that female (war)gamers necessarily bring different perspectives to the table, but it is clear that the field is denying itself insights, wisdom, and contributions from a very large demographic. The same could be said about others who are underrepresented. Coming from a context where typically 60% of participants in my serious games are women (and from diverse ethnic and other origins too) I’m acutely aware how unfortunate that is.

PAXsim’s own Archipelago Annie has raised the issue of women and professional gaming in the past, and we’ll continue to examine what can be done to further encourage a more representative, inclusive, and diverse professional wargaming community. It is also a topic that might be very usefully addressed at a future Connections or Connections UK wargaming conference.

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