Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 18/04/2015

Sabin on wargaming in higher education

AHHEIn a forthcoming article in the academic journal Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, Prof. Philip Sabin (King’s College London) offers his thoughts on “Wargaming in higher education: Contributions and challenges:”

Wargames, especially on historical conflicts, do not currently play much part in the booming academic use of simulation and gaming techniques. This is despite the fact that they offer rich vehicles for active learning and interactive exploration of conflict dynamics. Constraints of time, expertise and resources do make it challenging to employ wargames in academia, but a greater problem is the stigma which wargaming attracts due to its association with childish enthusiasts and its perceived deficiencies as a modelling technique. This article builds on my many years of teaching and research experience with wargames to show how playing and designing them can benefit students and scholars alike.

In his conclusion he strongly argues the case for adding wargames to the toolkit of scholars and educators:

Wargame modelling is an incredibly ambitious enterprise. In theory, a completely accurate wargame would allow players to experiment with different strategies and contingencies and obtain reliable insights into the workings of the real past or future conflict represented. The trouble is that such accuracy would require encyclopaedic research not only into the military factors involved but also into the wider political, cultural, social and economic factors which are so crucial in shaping human conflicts. Even if such daunting levels of knowledge and understanding could be gained in the first place, incorporating all this detail into the game would make it unplayably complex and time-consuming, and hence unworkable as an experimental tool after all (Sabin, 2012, chs.2, 4).

The key to wider acceptance of wargames within academia is to realise that they are not unique in facing this pernicious trade-off between accuracy and simplicity. There are certainly plenty of poorly researched and simplistic wargames, but the same applies to the majority of student essays and to many scholarly books and articles. Wargaming is simply one more technique, one more complementary perspective, with which to try to come to grips with the intractable problem of understanding the dynamics of human conflict. Rather than providing reliable answers, it is best at highlighting neglected questions. Rather than offering secure predictions, it is most helpful when it produces flawed or unexpected outcomes, since these force users to re-examine the assumptions programmed into the model and think about how it could be improved.

The most effective way of persuading people of the value of wargames is through direct hands-on experience. That was how the initially sceptical Prussian Chief of Staff became so convinced of the value of Kriegsspiel that he famously exclaimed, ‘This is not a game! This is training for war! I must recommend it to the whole army’ (Perla, 1990: 26). A consistent request of my MA students over the years has been for more time playing games, since only through such practical experience does the abstract theory start to make sense. I have now introduced several hundred students and other individuals at all levels to the academic insights which wargames can provide. The more people who are directly exposed to serious but accessible wargames, the less pervasive will be their image as trivial and childish diversions or impossibly complex and time-consuming pastimes for obsessive nerds. Playing wargames more widely offers the best chance of inspiring more use of this currently neglected approach to the study and understanding of war.

We couldn’t agree more.

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