James Lacey has an excellent piece in War on the Rocks today on his use of historical wargaming in the classroom at the Marine Corps War College:
The results, so far, have exceeded all of my expectations. For six or more hours at a sitting, classes remain focused on the strategic choices before them, as they try to best an enemy as quick-thinking and adaptive as they are. Every turn presents strategic options and dilemmas that have to be rapidly discussed and decided on. As there are never enough resources, time and again hard choices have to be made. Every war college administrator can wax eloquently about their school’s mission to enhance their students’ critical thinking skills. But they then subject those same students to a year of mind-numbing classroom seminars that rarely, if ever, allow them to practice those skills that each college claims as its raison de`etre. Well, wargaming, in addition to helping students comprehend the subject material, also allows them an unparalleled opportunity to repeatedly practice decisive critical thinking. Moreover, it does so in a way where the effects of both good and bad decisions are almost immediately apparent.
At the end of each wargame, students walked away with a new appreciation of the historical circumstances of the period and the events they had read about and discussed in class. And even though all wargames are an abstract of actual events, I am sure that no student exposed to historical gaming will ever again read about the Peloponnesian War without thinking about Sicily’s wheat, the crucial importance of holding the Isthmus of Corinth, or what could have been done with a bit more Persian silver in the coffers of one side or the other’s treasury. Similarly, the next time one of this year’s students reads about Lee and Grant in 1864, they will also be thinking about how the truly decisive actions took place out west. For, as it was during the actual conflict, in every game the students played, Grant’s role was to pin down the Army of Northern Virginia, while the western armies ripped out the economic heart of the Confederacy.
In fact, I was astounded at the number of students who approached me after the Civil War exercise to mention that despite having studied the Civil War before, this was the first time they realized that the war was won in the west. I could go on for another few thousand words discussing other revelations students experienced through gaming and simulations, but the key point is that these experiential learning experiences linger in students’ minds for a very long time. I once asked my seminars how many of them had discussed the games and their results with their spouses. Every hand went up. I am quite sure that very few of them ever discussed one of my lectures with their spouses.
He goes on to discuss what he needed to make it happen (enough time in the teaching schedule), how to overcome problems of game complexity (including support from the local hobby wargaming community), the need for adequate debrief time, the dangers of critiquing student play, and what he plans to do in the future. The piece is essential reading for anyone interested in the educational use of wargames, especially in professional military education.