Wargames Are for Players
The Department of Defense is breathing new life into wargaming. Since Deputy Secretary of Defense (DepSecDef) Bob Work signed his February 2016 memo challenging the department to rejuvenate a venerable tool of military professionals, there have been more general officers and assistant secretaries discussing wargaming than at any other time in recent memory. Legions of staff members are following suit.
For those of us in the gaming community, there is a sense of vindication. For entire careers, wargamers have tinkered away in relative anonymity, tolerated as harmless but generally dismissed by “real” DOD analysts. Now we have a champion and have been called upon by the DepSecDef himself to help dispel the darkness of a reduced topline.
Or so we tell ourselves.
Since February, all manner of experts have found receptive audiences eager to discuss the power and limitations of wargames. But as the initial wave of enthusiasm ebbs, it reveals the true quandary.
Wargamers will not be the heroes of this story. They are not the innovators who will develop the Third Offset Strategy, avoid operational or technical surprise, and help make the best of the department’s shrinking resources. Actionable insights–the ideas that spur innovation, address emerging challenges, exploit new technologies, and shape the security environment–are the purview of the sponsors of and participants in wargames, not of the game staffs. Certainly, gamers distill the question into a “gameable” model, craft an environment that prompts insight, and are invaluable in interpreting findings. But wargames will only meet the DepSecDef’s intent if someone does something with those findings. The arbiters of that decision–those who do–are the ones who will change the future. Not us.
Why? Wargames exist to provide insights into questions. Wargamers, however, generally do not own those questions. Within the broader DOD, the majority of offices, contractors, universities, and research labs that actually wargame are service providers that design, execute, and report on wargames on behalf of someone else. In my office, we call them sponsors.
In our excitement to discuss how to game, gamers have allowed a chasm to open between how we game and why we game–and we game for the benefit of our sponsors and our players.
Beginning to fill that chasm are words like “standards” and “validation”–the seeds of our demise–and gamers seeking to preserve this moment are taking the bait. First codify what makes a “good game,” they say, and with standards in hand we can resist critique.
That is a losing proposition focused on the wrong audience.
All wargames are wrong to some degree; some are useful. Wargamers certainly have a professional responsibility to improve the craft. But all wargames require a simplification of reality just to play, and each simplification is tailored to the question at hand. So if all wargames are “wrong” to some extent, there is an insidious danger in the notion that if we just make games “more right,” we can assuage the critics and produce innovation. Yet the chasm will remain: What is the question? How does the game explore it? Who is playing?
Proscribing any methodology absent the context of the research question is a cardinal error in study development. Deciding how we game before discovering why we game presumes that the game staffs know the problem better than the sponsor asking the question. Moreover, method-before-quest ion perversely excludes from study any question outside the scope of the method–akin to wargamers polishing the old Harpoon rules while looking askance at a question about deterrence. Such cart-before-horse judgments only tempt gamers into self-absorbed arguments over who is the “real wargamer”–a debate of little use to those who will grade our value.
While the DepSecDef is right that games can help build a culture that embraces experimentation and tolerates dissent, gamers must remember that the experimenters and the dissenters are not the game staffs; they are the students, planners, policy directors, and program managers who provide for our defense. They are the generals and assistant secretaries responsible for making decisions in the face of uncertainty and risk. They will determine whether the findings were useful and whether the reinvigoration of wargaming helped the department in these troubled times.
We must redirect the focus from whether a game is “right” to whether a game use “useful” to our sponsors and players. Because as to the question of whether we are re invigorating wargaming itself, it is our players and sponsors who are ultimately judging us.
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Adam Frost is a wargame analyst and Acting Deputy Division Chief for the Joint Staff J-8 Studies, Analysis and Gaming Division, an office that has had the privilege to execute wargames for all ranks of sponsors and players from the Department of Defense, National Security Council, foreign allies, and interagency partners since 1947.