Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Teaching strategy with wargames (Navy vs Marines edition)


Marine Corps Navy

Image credit: Lionheart Designs.

Last month we pointed to an excellent article by James Lacey on his use of historical wargames to teach strategy at the Marine Corps War College. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.

Lacey’s piece—and his implied criticism of the use of more traditional lecture-and-reading methods—provoked an annoyed riposte in The National interest by James Holmes and John Maurer of the US Naval War College:

Let’s congratulate Professor Lacey for raising awareness about professional military education and the value of gaming at war colleges. Readers of his missive, however, could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that war colleges not named Marine teach the Peloponnesian War almost wholly through passive methods such as lectures: students come to class, a professor drones on for the allotted time, there’s a perfunctory Q&A, they go away. That’s what Lacey says he did when starting at Quantico a few years ago. Ergo, it must be what other military education institutions do.

Now let us give you a view from Newport, where the picture differs radically from the one Lacey paints.Having afflicted our students with a passive learning experience, opines Lacey, we benighted old-timers are “fooling” ourselves if we believe they come away knowing “anything about Thucydides besides reciting the mantra ‘fear, honor, interest.’” Oh, and they might remember that “attacking Syracuse was bad,” even though “there were a number of good strategic reasons for Athens to attack Syracuse.” Who knew there was sound logic behind the Sicilian expedition?

“Certainly not any War College graduate over the past few decades.”

Thankfully, along comes Jim Lacey to save a complacent war-college professorate from our “mentality” that “things are fine as they are.” There’s just one problem with his tale of discovery and redemption. We and our illustrious predecessors in Newport have been teaching the Peloponnesian War for forty-plus years, since Adm. Stansfield Turner, then the president of the Naval War College, instituted a curricular revolution.

And never since 1972 have the faculty taught Thucydides—or any other segment of the strategy courses—solely through lectures. While lectures are used, they are but one element in the course of instruction. Their purpose is to fuel thought and debate in seminars while helping students compose essays wrestling with strategic problems….

While recognizing the value of wargames, they also pointed to their potential weaknesses, as well as the constraints of classroom time and the trade-offs involved:

…Lacey is to be congratulated, too, for arguing the value of war games as part of a war-college experience. No one, of course, would deny the value of gaming as a tool for assessing the feasibility of operations and testing doctrine. As Clausewitz long ago highlighted, war is concerned with assessing probabilities of outcomes. Gaming can help assess those probabilities for operational success and failure. By gaming a scenario a number of times, a planner can gain an understanding of the likelihood of success for a projected operation.

During the interwar period, over many years, students at the Naval War College gamed different scenarios. On the gaming floors of Newport, imaginary battles were fought by the United States (Blue) against Britain (Red), as well as against Japan (Orange). War games have thus long provided a tool for operational learning and experiment.

Education, however, is filled with tradeoffs. Should students read Thucydides, or spend the time that could have been spent reading Thucydides learning the rules for a game on the Peloponnesian War—a game they might never play again? Of course, in a world of no constraints, you can do both if you have the luxury of plenty of time. If you’re forced to choose, the primary sources must come first.

Nor should we in looking back to the historical record conclude that gaming is a panacea for solving complex strategic problems. Many examples can be adduced to show the limits of gaming. All too often, the results of games are corrupted when they are used to support entrenched doctrine, bureaucratic inertia and sacred budgetary priorities. It’s all too common to replay a game that produces unsatisfactory results: rejigger the assumptions underlying the game until it yields more congenial results.

Rather than liberating the thinking of those who play, then, war games can be abused by participants and onlookers who do not want to challenge conventional thinking, but instead want to propagate a party line. Such games confirm what the leadership wishes to confirm—and leave the service ill-prepared for thinking, determined foes bent on thwarting America’s will.

Games can miss future challenges, furthermore, if the game designers are lacking in vision and tied to conventional scenarios….

In short, they argued, traditional methods work:

As professional educators, we would be letting down our students if we do not prepare them with disciplined habits of thought that are the products of a rigorous education. We believe in investing in the intellectual development of those in the profession of arms, to include a heavy dose of reading, writing in-depth analyses on complex problems, and grading that informs the students about how to improve their skills in thinking and communicating.

To be a professional entails lifelong learning, requiring a commitment of time to study in preparation for action. This investment in our people’s capacity to think before they act is nothing less than a national strategic imperative. And it’s an imperative we’ve been pursuing through time-tested methods—for generations.

In the best Marine Corps tradition, Lacey promptly counterattacked in the comments section of the piece. In a lengthy point-by-point riposte he argued that Holmes and Maurer were overestimating how much reading, thinking, learning, and retention their students were actually doing:

Is it possible that my critics actually believe that sitting hundreds of students in a darkened auditorium so they can listen to professors drone on about his/her PowerPoint lectures is actually conducive to serious learning? They apparently like the process so much that they repeat it week-in-and-week-out for three months or more. Maybe I stand alone, but this is insane.

At a time when the entire education establishment is denouncing auditoriums filled with students – as is commonly found in many undergraduate institutions – professors at the Naval War College is claiming this as a virtue. No one can possibly believe the students retain any of these lecture for any length of time, assuming, of course, that they refrain from napping.

I have decided on a different approach. My tradeoff still captures most of what is good about the NWC method, and adds substantially more. I have a method focused on long-term retention and developing critical thinking skills. NWC has a method that gets flushed from student memories at the end of each week.

Finally my critics argue that NWC students need to do more than focus on gaming – No kidding! Can you tell I am getting tired and cranky? — This is another strawman, as no one is claiming that wargames should be conducted to the exclusion of all else. My contention is that wargames are a valuable asset, and that they should be employed much more than they are. Doing so reinforces all of the other teaching going on at the various war colleges.

I see nothing in my critics’ arguments that will lead me to change anything about my approach. In fact, I have become more convinced than ever that it is time to blow up all of the war colleges and rebuild them from the bottom up. NWC’s 40-year-old methodology needs a serious updating for the 21st century.

So what’s the answer? Reading the Great Books of Strategy? Traditional sage-on-the-stage lectures? Seminar discussions? Or innovative use of serious educational gaming?

As a dedicated wargamer and the editor of a blog on serious gaming, my thunderous response would be:

all of the above


it depends.

Decades of research on serious games shows that they they are often popular with students, can often be effective methods for teaching, and are sometimes much more effective than seminars or lectures or readings. You’ll notice the “can be” and “sometimes” caveats attached to those statements. Much depends on the design of the game, its actual implementation and facilitation, the integration of the game into curriculum, and the relationship of all this to education broader educational requirements.


Indeed, you might call this Brynen’s Iron Law of DICE, whereby the educational impact of a wargame, or any other serious game, is a function of all four variables combined:

Design  x  Implementation  x  Curriculum integration  x  Educational requirements

A bad design can render the effort useless, or even have negative effects if students take away the wrong lessons. A good design can fail if implemented and facilitated poorly. For a game to work, it has to link effectively to other elements in a course curriculum. Finally, it has to serve a broader educational need—it is possible for a game to function well in a course, but for that the course itself to do a poor job of preparing students for what they need to know more broadly, whether it be professional military education or post-secondary education or anything else.

The Iron Law of DICE can be seen at work in the debate over the educational effectiveness of the Statecraft international relations simulation. Some studies have reported positive effects. One has reported quite negative outcomes (which the game’s designers blamed on poor implementation).  Another study points out that “it depends“—that is, that the negative findings arise from the way the simulation was used in the classroom and linked to other course materials.

The same incidentally, applies to lectures and seminars: they can be designed or implemented poorly, fit well or poorly into course curriculum, and be part of a course that contributes well or poorly to overall educational objectives. As for assigned readings, it’s fairly clear that long, boring ones don’t get read as frequently or as well as shorter more interesting ones, that lectures and class discussions can illuminate or obfuscate reading material, and that student motivation to do reading is also shaped by whether they’ll be tested on it or not. As Crispin Burke notes regarding the strategic classics, it’s only a lot of reading if you actually do it.

In my own teaching, the ratio of classroom lectures, smaller seminar (“conference”) discussions, and games-based learning varies dramatically depending on the size of the class, the students, and what I need to teach. In one class on peacebuilding (POLI 450) I use simulations extensively, since they are an excellent way of exploring conflict negotiation dynamics, inter-agency process, and the fog and friction of humanitarian, peace, and stabilization operations. In another, on Middle East politics (POLI 340), I use no simulations at all: I have an awful lot to cover, the class is large (around three hundred), and I can simply do it much more efficiently with lectures and readings. In a large, 600+ student introductory course on the politics of developing areas (POLI 227) I’ve set online simulations as homework/reading assignments, and run a one-hour simulation early in the term both to illustrate material and foster an engaging classroom experience. All the rest of that course, however, is a more traditional combination of lectures, readings, and small-group sessions with my (excellent) teaching assistants.

In short, framing the debate in terms of gaming vs traditional methods potentially does a disservice to both. Both can be useful. Which one should use depends on what you what to teach to whom, the associated opportunities and constraints (who you are teaching, how much time and other resources you have), and, critically, how well you do it.

Assessment and feedback helps too, especially if it is collected in a systemic way. Although they are an imperfect instrument, anonymous students surveys are useful in telling an instructor whether his or her methods resonate with those in the classroom. So too are debrief assignments, although here—as with anecdotal feedback from students—one needs to be careful, since in these cases students may be inclined to tell an instructor what they think they want to hear.

* * *

On a related topic, at the Wargaming Connection blog Paul Vebber offers his own reflections on a recent three day course he cotaught on wargaming, decision-making and naval operations at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. His piece is especially useful in that it identifies shortcomings as well as successes, and offers a series of tips and take-aways that will be useful for anyone trying to teach about wargames or use them in the classroom. Paul has also made his slides and additional reading materials available too.

Day 2 brief reva.jpg

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