Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections 2015: Day 3 AAR

lyWwqCGy_400x400-1Appropriately enough, Day 3 of the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference started off with an excellent keynote address by Robert “Barney” Rubel, the former Dean of the Naval War College. The NWC has been hugely influential in the development of American wargaming since the interwar period. He strongly underscored the value of wargaming. Gaming, he noted, can generate ideas, support analysis, and support decisions—acting as a sensor (for example, detecting flaws in plans), a sandbox (for experimentation), as a catalyst, and/or a substrate. The identified three strata to gaming:

  • first, the epistemology of the game design;
  • next that of game itself;
  • and, finally, the game’s influence.

He admitted, however, that he was a bit of skeptic with regard to current DoD efforts to generate innovation through reinvigorated wargaming, in part due to several embedded barriers to innovations: tribes, cults, and baronies within the military; infrastructures and sunk costs; risk aversion; and “jargon-based metaphysics.” He talked at length about various organizational pathologies that inhibited good wagaming (such as throwing money but not thought at a problem; game distortions caused by the motivation of the sponsor; having a game because one always has a game); game design and execution problems (agenda-driven purpose; excessive desire to accommodate stakeholders; design/play/umpire by unqualified people; the “trap of simulation;” “fairy dusting” technology; straight-lining the future); and problems of analysis (questionable assertions of game outcomes; no assessment of player/umpire qualifications; no critique of game artifacts or identification of flaws; no identification of “whispers” or understated significant findings). He also bemoaned the over-used words such as disruptive, transformational, innovative, and dominant.

He also identified some “good things” that contributed to the more effective use of wargaming. These included commitment to objective enquiry; dedicated gaming organizations that were not profit centres; a cadre of individuals trained in research methods and an ethos of scientific method; people who knows math; an organization empowered to say no, and immune from blowback; an organizational culture based on the technique of wargaming (running good games), rather than substance (a particular doctrine or orientation to warfighting);  collegial and open dialogue; leadership; opportunities for debate; minimum internal hierarchy; avoiding “not invented here” responses; a commitment to publish (to invite feedback and criticism), and most fundamentally a common understanding and commitment to organizational goals:

  • Goal 1: provide good games
  • Goal 2: remember who’s your Daddy (don’t be a marginalized loose cannon)
  • Goal 3: advance the state of the art

All in all, it was an excellent presentation, and well worth reading in full when the slides are eventually uploaded to the Connections website.

After a short break I chaired a panel on using educational wargaming to develop innovators. Tim Smith (ONI, and also my session cochair) and James Sterrett (US Army Command and General Staff College) made presentations. Tim offered insight into how he has used wargames at ONI for analyst training, and also a quick overview of his work introducing wargaming to middle school kids. James made a number of important points about wargames in the classroom, noting that good instructors of the right type were very important to the adoption and effective use of educational gaming.

Blue reaches the LZ, only to be crushed by waves of Red strike aircraft.

Blue reaches the LZ, only to be crushed by waves of Red strike aircraft.

Lunch and a short talk by Robert McCreight (George Mason University) followed. Thereafter, we returned to the game lab that we had started yesterday, with a dozen or more simultaneous games of A2ADventure underway. I took on the role of the Blue force commander, trying to deliver and amphibious assault force to a coastal area well defended by Red admiral Tom Mouat and an array of anti-ship cruise missiles, surface vessels, subs, and aircraft. I managed to punch may way through the line of Red defenders, sinking two light surface action groups and a couple of enemy subs, and degrading several enemy shore batteries. This came at considerable cost, as I lost both a light and heavy surface group. Supported by decoys and cyber attacks, I managed to bring the amphibious task force to the designated area—only to see it wiped out in a massive wave of Red air attacks. I had lost!

The point of the game was, of course, to discuss game design and possible tweaks and revisions,  and we certainly did plenty of that.

Finally, the conference broke into three working groups:

  • Methods and applications of educational wargaming to develop innovators.
  • Reinvigorating wargaming through education.
  • Increasing the effectiveness and breadth of the use of wargaming as a catalyst for innovation.

I cochaired the first of these with Tim Smith, and we’ll present our summary and report for plenary discussion tomorrow.

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