Last month I visited the UK for a week of discussions on professional wargaming. My trip report has now been cleared for publication (public release identifier DSTL/PUB097079), and I’m pleased to present it below. It was a terrific visit as you’ll see below.
Dstl Day 1: Wargaming and its challenges
In late June I spent a week as a guest of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), at their Portsdown West campus near Portsmouth. Dstl is an executive agency, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. Dstl ensures that “innovative science and technology contribute to the defence and security of the UK.”
Dstl responsibilities include:
- supplying sensitive and specialist science and technology services for MOD and wider government
- providing and facilitating expert advice, analysis and assurance on defence procurement
- leading on the MOD’s science and technology programme
- understanding risks and opportunities through horizon-scanning
- acting as a trusted interface between MOD, wider government, the private sector and academia to provide science and technology support to military operations by the UK and her allies
- championing and developing science and technology skills across MOD
I was hosted by Dstl’s Wargaming Team, the team having recently been described in a memo to the UK MOD Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff as: “an MOD S&T asset responsible for enabling MOD’s wider wargaming activity”.
Since WWII, Dstl and its predecessors have had a good track record of delivering wargames, mainly in support of decision support and operations. One of the current challenges for the team is determining how best to reinvigorate, and grow, a wargaming capability (a combination of people, processes, and tools) that can respond to the high levels of customer interest and demand. One of the ways that the team is tackling this problem is by capitalising on external expertise, in particular academic staff who specialise in, and have a passion for, topics such as political science coupled with game design.
They certainly kept me busy, with four and a half full days of lectures, workshops, and discussions on various aspects of wargaming.
I started on Monday with a presentation on The Social Science of Gaming in which I presented ten sets of findings from social science research that I thought had important implications for wargame design and implementation. Since this was a first draft of my September keynote address at the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference, I won’t spoil the surprise by posting the lecture slides here—instead, you’ll have to come to King’s College London in a month’s time.
Next, I was asked to give a brief on A Personal Journey Through (Sometimes) Serious Gaming, in which I discussed may own background first as a wargaming hobbyist and later as a social scientists using serious games to support teaching and analysis. [slides here]. Among the highlights was a satellite photo of the exact location in a British schoolyard where, in the autumn of 1975, I met my first two fellow teen wargamers, David Knowles and Matthew Hayward. The legendary (to us) Lymington and District Wargames Club would be born soon thereafter.
In the afternoon attention turned to a presentation entitled Blessed are the Cheesemakers: The Challenges of Gaming Information Operations [slides here]. The title of the talk was a reference to a memorable scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and I was happy to be speaking in a place where most of the audience recognized it. I offered some thoughts on gaming IOs: either as an adjunct to another, generally, kinetic process, or as a primary focus (focusing either on their employment, as part a process, or in an effort to develop content).
Information and influence, I noted, were part of highly contextual social and political processes that were often poorly understood, so I was a bit dubious about placing a great deal of weight on the specific outputs of IO-focused games.
Instead, I suggested, such games should largely be valued for their heuristic value in generating greater critical awareness of the role, potential, limitations, and difficulties of information and influence operations. Members of the audience also offered a great deal of useful insight into the issue, based on their own experience. As with almost all my sessions at Dstl I may have taken away far more from the conversation than I ever contributed.
The final session was devoted to Managing Player and Client Engagement: Skeptics, Seekers, and Enthusiasts [slides here].
I had more to say on the player end than with regard to clients, since in many cases I’m my own client or have been given very free reign to design a game as I see fit. Much of the discussion ended up focusing on problems—such as unwillingness of players, especially senior players, to risk losing—and how they might be dealt with. Not for the first time I argued that managing players and game facilitation was a skill more closely related to roleplaying games than conventional hobby wargaming—a point that I really need to develop into a full PAXsims post sometime. I learned a lot from the experiences and approaches that were shared by members of Dstl, and there were certainly several ideas that I’ll add to my game design and facilitation toolkit.
Dstl Day 2: Daesh and matrix gaming
The second day of my visit involved a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game, followed by an extended discussion of the potential use of matrix game methods for educational and analytical gaming. Major Tom Mouat—who developed most of the materials for the game—was there too.
The game itself was insightful. The Iraqi government tried to launch a systematic campaign to advance north towards Mosul, but found itself stymied by poor coordination with supposed allies, ISIS terrorism, Iranian heavy-handedness, and internal tensions. The Kurds did well and finally manage to secure some extra heavy weapons from the US, but advanced little beyond their start positions. One US air strike in support of the Iraqi government went very wrong, exacerbating Sunni anger and causing a brief hiatus in the tempo of American operations. Iran, concerned that the Iraqi cabinet was insufficiently compliant, sponsored a proliferation of Shiite militias under its direct control. Although ISIS lost some of the territory under its control, it was able to use US and Iranian actions to spur additional recruitment. Finally, the Sunni opposition eventually rose up against ISIS and supported the central government’s military campaign, but at the cost of increasing tension with the Shiite militias. This finally erupted into open sectarian fighting when Iranian-backed militias undertook security operations in the capital against suspected Sunni insurgents.
After lunch, the post-game session was perhaps the richest and most valuable discussion of matrix gaming methods and applications that I’ve ever participated in. Among the topics we collectively addressed were:
- Variations in format, including larger games with team dynamics (as I used last month at MIGS), games where a team leader selects from multiple potential courses of action proposed by team members (thus increasing the number of possible COAs (Course Of Actions) generated), distributed games, interlinked games, and matrix games used as an element of other, more traditional wargames.
- Facilitator skills and requirements for subject matter expertise.
- Suitability for various audiences.
- Variations in adjudication methods.
- Representation of kinetic and non-kinetic activity in matrix games.
- Suitability for various topics recently wargamed by Dstl.
- The value of developing a generic “matrix game construction kit” with basic components.
Dstl Day 3: AFTERSHOCK , humanitarian assistance, aid, and stabilization
The third day of activities at Dstl revolved around gaming issues of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). We started with a game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis. The players secured a modest success in dealing with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in fictional Carana. The NGO team did particularly well in racking up “organization points” (reflecting public profile and political capital), although their single-minded focus on shelter projects caused some friction with other teams. The HADR Task Force had successfully withdrawn almost all their personnel by the time the game ended, and the government—although politically vulnerable to the end—utilized its informal aid distribution networks to good effect, while managing to contain or defuse any social discontent. Needs assessments proved particularly important in identifying emerging needs and challenges.
Later that same day I made a presentation on the considerations that had informed the design of AFTERSHOCK, as well as the various ways in which in might be used [slides here].
My other presentation this day was on Aid, Stabilization, and COIN (COunter INsurgency) [slides here]. In it I warned that many of the key assumptions of COIN doctrine—namely that victory is about legitimacy; poverty and unemployment generates support for armed opposition; legitimacy is about the delivery of core government services; patronage and corruption is bad; and that we know what we’re doing—were contingent relationships. Because of this, COIN doctrine, while a useful guide to what might work most of the time in most places, does not always provide useful guidance all of the time in all places. This suggests a vital need to promote critical thinking and a willingness to modify views and approaches. I particularly stressed the importance of avoiding hubris, and the powerful (often overriding) effects that politics among local actors has on outcomes.
Dstl Day 4: Hybrid Warfare and Measures Short of War
Thursday was hybrid warfare day at Dstl. I offered some thoughts [slides] on the notion of hybrid warfare, arguing that most warfare was hybrid and that conflict activities across a broad spectrum were hardly new. (Later I suggested that the term had come to mean “challenges from opponents that we did not anticipate, plus things we once did that we’ve forgotten how to do.” We also identified some of the things that are commonly identified as part of hybrid warfare.
After this, we spent the rest of the day playing a few turns of three different games. Each of these explored the topic from different perspectives using a different gaming system: LTC David Barsness’ Kaliningrad 2017 (a matrix game), Brian Train’s Ukrainian Crisis (a more traditional rules/assets/area-movement wargame), and Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth (a card-driven game).
In the matrix game, players were limited only by real-world capabilities in taking potential actions across the diplomatic/information/military/economic (DIME) spectrum. This approach certainly encouraged greater innovation by players, although at the cost of a single action per turn. Kaliningrad 2017 uses a number of marker tracks to measure the game effects of global opinion, nuclear escalation, and a refugee crisis, and this sparked discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach compared to the simpler design of ISIS Crisis. Generally I’m of the view that “less is more” in matrix games, and that marker tracks can risk excessively focusing player activities in a certain area.
Ukrainian Crisis builds on more explicit models and assumptions than does a matrix game. Here the analytical value is not in thinking of new applications of power (since these are predetermined in the rules), but rather discovering how the subsystems and constituent parts of a conflict might interact. Labyrinth also contains an established game model, with the cards being used both to drive these and to insert various capabilities and events. Conventional wargames can certainly do a better job of modeling combat operations than an argument-based matrix games, although they may have difficulty addressing innovation adaptation, or complex political and economic consequences arising from kinetic actions.
Because of this, I am of the view that a matrix game often offers the best way of exploring broad issues of hybrid warfare, although more detailed examination of particular domain areas could benefit from a more rigorous rules- and models-based approach. A matrix game could also be combined with another gaming approach, with the former perhaps best suited for the diplomatic/information/economic aspects, while the latter could address kinetic military activities. I also think the nature of the topic lends itself well to multimodal examination, whereby the same scenario is explored using several different gaming methodologies, each offering somewhat different insights.
Ironically, one of the problems of a matrix game approach is that it does not require a great deal of preparation, nor need it involve a great deal of materials and complexity. This makes it an unattractive proposition for defence contractors and consultants since product creation and delivery generates relatively few billable hours. Similarly, a sponsor may feel that it does not seem enough of a tangible product compared with a more complex, traditional wargame.
Dstl Day 5: Gaming wicked and messy problems
During my final day at Dstl we looked at gaming “wicked” and “messy” problems, with a particular emphasis on mass migration and refugee crises. The concept of wicked problems (first developed in 1973 by Rittel and Webber) addresses planning issues that are characterized by ten key characteristics:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
- Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
- The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
“Messy problems,” on the other hand, are rooted in complex adaptive systems wherein the key variables and the relationships between them are unclear or poorly understood, and in which adaptive subsystems seek to survive environmental change.
After a very brief introduction to the topic [slides], I highlighted a number of refugee and migration games I have either (co)designed or played:
Two of these (marked * above) were not really proper games or simulations, but rather had used game mechanisms to help motivate players.
Thereafter, we turned our attentions to identifying a migration-related topic that could be usefully gamed. After identifying the audience and purpose of such a game, we spent the duration of the session brainstorming game ideas. Some very good ideas emerged for a matrix game involving major European actors (Germany, Italy, the Balkan republics), possibly Turkey, the United Nations, an “other actors/subject matter expert” player, and the migrants themselves.
The migrant player would start the game with a “migrant deck “of economic migrants and refugees that they would seek to move into Europe. These would be played face down, with the identity of the migrant revealed only when they reached a final destination , were otherwise prevented from doing so, or died—the purpose being to personalize the otherwise faceless statistic of migrant numbers. (Tom Mouat subsequently made up a set of these, which you can download via PAXsims here.)
Source: Business Insider, 15 September 2015.
Other players would react to migrant flows in appropriate ways. National politics would be addressed by having each country played by a team representing political parties with differing interests and objectives, so that team members were essentially in competition with each other. Much like MIGS versions of ISIS Crisis, this would allow for a game-within-the-matrix-game approach.
Left to Right: Ruby Tabner, Stephen Ho, Me, Colin Marston and Mike Bagwell
The final day ended with a visit to Southwick House to visit the D-Day map room, followed by a pub lunch.
All-in-all it was an absolutely terrific visit that generated some excellent discussions and ideas regarding (war)gaming methodologies. Colin Marston and the others at Dstl were excellent hosts, and I even got a Portsdown West Wargaming Suite coffee mug out of the deal! I’m very grateful to Tom Mouat for helping out too. I’ll certainly look forward to seeing many of my UK counterparts again at the Connections UK conference in September.
Back home, with my mug.