Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 13/09/2015

Saur on Teaching Gaming

Joe Saur gave a good talk on teaching gaming at the MORS Community of Practice. I’ve been remiss in not posting my notes before now, particularly because teaching gaming is a subject near and dear to my heart.


Saur’s presentation focused on his experience teaching 70-plus students across the military, many who lead organizations that use wargames for analysis and training. One point that Saur highlighted was that even though his students had extensive operational experience and are quite likely to be game sponsors, very few had previously seen a wargame. This is a critical point to consider as the community thinks more about how to best communicate of methods and results to our sponsors. It really reinforces the need to spend more time and energy thinking about how we as gamers to educate sponsors and stakeholders. While Saur was working within one of the military school houses, we are going to need more approaches in the long run to get a broader understanding of the benefits and uses of gaming.

Saur noted that there are not many syllabi for wargaming classes. He was able to reference a UK wargaming and combat modeling class, but that was largely focused on the math required for combat and campaign modeling with participation in a staff game. As a result, this course provided limited guidance on how to teach gaming.

In building his syllabus, Saur aimed to teach mechanics that staff officers can actually use. His goal was to expose students to a range of games as a starting point to support student development of operations game. As a result, he tended to focus on concrete mechanisms like dice, hex grids, miniatures, and cards drawn from hobby gaming, with only limited coverage of less structure techniques like matrix and seminar games.

One point that I found particularly interesting is that during student discussions, they hypothesized that as the average member of the force has less combat experience moving forward (or their combat tour is further in the past), rigid adjudication will become more critical. Students argued that free adjudication relies on operational experience.

Not surprisingly, I’m fairly skeptical of this claim, particularly in the case of operational and strategic games. Most of the strong game designers I know are civilian analysts, because members of the military are rotated through positions too quickly to gain mastery. Furthermore, rigid systems of adjudication rarely survive analytical games intact, as players almost always seem to do something not anticipated in the game rules. As a result, even highly formalized rules will often require impromptu adjudication calls. Finally, I’m fairly skeptical of rigid adjudication’s ability to capture interpersonal social and political dynamics that strongly impact strategic and operational outcomes. Limiting ourselves to rigid rule sets cuts off from gaming many of the complex, unstructured problems that games are best suited to examine.

The presentation concluded with a selection of the games built by the students. These covered an impressive range of topics and game design approaches. In part, the approach seemed particularly impressive because Saur instructed the students to tie the games they designed to their follow-on posting. As a result, the games were designed to be practical and helpful, rather than academic in nature. I’ll be interested to see if any of the students follow up with notes about how deploying the game in their new posts goes!

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