These are laudable goals. Nevertheless, creating, orchestrating, and observing recent games across the Department of Defense — and conferring with the broader gaming community — has made us aware of a number of potential challenges. These are important to keep in mind for a reinvigorated wargaming enterprise to succeed.
Bonanza or Bust
A failure to appreciate the strengths, weaknesses, and limitations of wargames and wargamers could lead to a situation in which “bad games drive out good ones.” This is not a new concern. As wargaming expert Peter Perla has observed, wargames have often been “oversold” and “abused,” and wargaming as a method has suffered as a result. Given the current zeitgeist, this could become a problem again.
Supply and Demand
The growing demand for wargames also might outstrip the wargaming community’s capacity to successfully execute good games. This mismatch between supply and demand could negatively impact the quality of wargames and contribute to a potential backlash against gaming. The professional wargaming community may have already reached a point where the demand for games is exceeding the current supply of experienced game designers, skilled players, and other subject-matter experts vital to conducting first-rate games. As the number of wargames has swelled, the increased operational tempo also has the potential to stress organizations that are now being asked to run many small games each year instead of one large annual or biannual exercise, taxing short-handed staffs (especially if those small games need to be executed simultaneously or in quick succession).
Failure is an Option
To facilitate the dissemination of information about wargames, the Department of Defense has created a wargaming repository that will house the results of all completed games as well as information about planned exercises. Additionally, a Defense Wargaming Alignment Group is being created to ensure that senior leader priorities shape wargames while the insights from wargames inform senior leaders. These are important initiatives. But like all good initiatives, the Pentagon needs to be mindful of the unintended consequences that could emerge.
One of the main virtues of wargames is that they offer a low-risk and “intellectually liberating” environment. Yet the current effort to catalog, scrutinize, and utilize game results might inadvertently undermine this environment by raising the stakes of each game. This, in turn, could have two effects.
First, players might become more reluctant to criticize current plans, policies, and programs. For wargames to succeed, participants need to set aside parochial interests and try their best to identify, assess, and solve problems, even if their insights challenge the status quo. Increased oversight of the wargaming enterprise — and greater dependence on wargame findings to shape budgets in a time of resource scarcity — could actually make games more conservative when the intent may be exactly the opposite.
Second, organizers might exaggerate their findings to demonstrate that games are indeed the driver of innovation that many assume. Yet not all wargames uncover new insights, no matter how well-designed and well-executed they might be. Thus organizers and their sponsors need to adopt a “venture capital” model and understand that the failure to identify new solutions is not itself a failure of the game.
It’s a terrific piece, and well worth reading.
For more on current efforts to reinvigorate wargaming, see also these PAXsims posts: