Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections 2015: Day 1 AAR


The Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference began today at National Defense University with a series of sessions introducing wargame methodology. While these were primarily aimed at those who might be relatively new to the craft, their content also proved to be of interest to veteran wargamers too.

Matt Caffrey (USAF) started us off the day with an excellent lecture on the  history of wargaming. Immediately after this, Philip Pournelle (USN) introduced key wargame terminology and concepts. After lunch, two simultaneous sessions were offered: one by Matt that offered an overview of wargaming applications, and another by Shawn Burns (US Naval War College) on implementing a war game. These were then followed by two more simultaneous sessions, one by Matt with insights into how leaders can receive more value from wargaming and another by Phil on improving wargaming at the Department of Defense.

One issue that arose in several of these talks might be termed “mislearning,” or the learning of wrong lessons from games. This might happen either because a game was designed poorly, or simply because any game—as a simplified model of a possibly poorly-understood reality—can never render complex processes with perfect fidelity. On the other hand, I would suggest, a weak game can still generate valuable learning or analytical outcomes if critical assessment of the game design is included as a key part of the debrief and analysis process.

Next, Steven Downes-Martin (US NWC) addressed wargaming as a catalyst for innovation. Not surprisingly, since he is provocation personified, Stephen’s presentation delivered plenty of food for thought. He suggested that wargaming has failed to provide innovative insight to DoD for years—at times, a problem of the-blind-leading-the blind. Sponsors and senior players tend to believe they know about wargaming than wargaming experts, or are unwilling to entertain game designs or outcomes that question favoured concepts. Players may also be unwilling to take decisions that will embarrass their (professional) community. Now, in an era when DoD is placing new emphasis on gaming as a way of generating innovation, how can that best be achieved?

Stephen argued that while senior military and political leaders tend to be selected on risk adversity and willingness to play by the bureaucratic rules, high functioning borderline “psychotics” are often the best innovators. “Cheaters” were an asset too, since they challenged players and game designers alike. He noted that there was little point innovating merely for the purposes of innovative process, but rather one innovative results: why use a novel, complex process to generate mundane insights? He suggested that more strategic-level top-down games were needed, since the integration of policy elements couldn’t adequately be explored from the bottom-up. It was useful to stress players and to link career development to effective wargame performance.

In the subsequent Q&A, I offered a series of questions. In honour of Stephen’s seminal 2014 article on “The Three Witches of War Gaming,” I termed all these the “Yes, but how do you know she’s a witch?” challenge.

  • First, how do we balance efforts to promote innovation with the need to generate useful innovation, and therefore filter out other novel, but unproductive, ideas? After all,not all innovation is good: the Edsel, the Apple Newton, and New Coke were all “innovations.” They were also failures. The F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship are innovative too, but will they turn out to be the right sort of innovation?
  • Rule-breaking psychotics, I suggested, are sometimes just rule-breaking psychotics. How can one separate those bright, atypical innovative personalities who add unique value to games from those who might adversely disrupt game play?
  • Similarly, when are “cheaters” useful challengers to the status quo, and when are they simply lost in win-at-all-costs “gamer mode” and actually undermining game objectives?

In response, Stephen stressed that this is why post-game analysis was important: not all novel ideas generated in-game will necessarily stand up to subsequent reflection and scrutiny. (Update: Stephen has incorporated his responses into a revised version of the paper, which you’ll find here.)

Finally, the day ended with a panel on learning wargaming that featured Ed McGrady (CNA), Peter Perla (CNA), and Yuna Wong (RAND). They largely discussed efforts to put together a Master’s-level programme in game design to be offered at George Mason University. Emphasis would very much on design issues, with a strong element of practice and professional training. Such a program needs to be well-rooted in interdisciplinary academic research, linking especially to the broader literature on ludic studies. The discussion raised the broader question of what skillsets one would want to professional wargamers to have—and how they might acquire them, especially if they hadn’t already allocated their youth to hobby gaming. There was also discussion with the audience on whether there was a sufficient market for graduates of such a programme, although panel members suggested it would be sufficiently interdisciplinary to have wider applicability beyond national security gaming.

All-in-all an auspicious start to the week (despite the torrential downpour and flash flood warnings received in the early afternoon). I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of Connections 2015.

3 responses to “Connections 2015: Day 1 AAR

  1. Stephen Downes-Martin 24/08/2015 at 3:45 pm


    The file loaded onto the Connections Web site for my presentation “Wargaming as a Catalyst for Innovation” is the “Speakers Notes”, not the PowerPoint I used during the presentation. It’s the draft paper on the subject I am writing … after I remove some of the acerbic comments and add some references (!)

    All the best


  2. Brant 28/07/2015 at 6:17 am

    Re: The Edsel, New Coke, Apple Newton
    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
    —Thomas A. Edison

  3. Swen 28/07/2015 at 4:22 am


    Thanks for playing the report. Though this is double edged, now I definitely know I should have been there.

    Great first day.

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