Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Clashing in the classroom


Yeah I’m working in Harrisburg
Working hard in Petersburg (working for the clampdown, working for the clampdown)
Ha! Gitalong! Gitalong!
Beggin’ to be melted down

What do early 1980s  The Clash punk lyrics  have to do with serious games? Nothing at all, other than I’m writing this in the airport in Harrisburg, PA. Ever since we flew over Three Mile Island on the incoming flight I have had the song Working for the Clampdown stuck in my head.


The morning sun bathes scenic Three Mile Island in a faintly radioactive light. It would have been nice to linger, but we had to SCRAM

Rather than working for the clampdown, however, I spent Saturday in nearby Carlisle taking part in a US Army War College panel discussion on wargaming in the classroom. The primary focus, not surprisingly, was on professional military education (PME). I also ran two of the several demonstration games featured at the event. Over two dozen people participated.


Setting up the event.

The first panelist was Peter Perla (CNA), who made the general case for the value of wargaming. Key to what Peter had to say was the emphasis he placed on process rather than outcome: while the outcome of a game is not irrelevant, it is what goes in the mind of the player that is of key importance. I couldn’t agree more, and it points to why building an engaging game narrative is such an important part of effective wargaming.

I presented next, identifying a number of serious game “worst practices” that was partially inspired by a 2004 US Naval War College and CNA study on (analytic) wargaming pathologies. Specifically, I addressed the dangers of:

  • Gaming for gaming’s sake. Problems soon arise when instructors devote inadequate attention to how and why they are using a game, and how this might support course learning objectives. Gaming enthusiasm is no substitute for effective teaching. One also needs to be clear about the opportunity costs of using scarce contact hours for games that might be used for other activities. It should be noted that learning is not the only reason to game in a classroom: a game can also serve break the ice in a  new group, promote networking, and to help assess student abilities.
  • Assuming that games teach themselves. How will you know that players are learning the appropriate lessons? Properly prebriefing and debriefing games is essential. I also pointed to the danger of gamer mode, whereby players exploit game rules (such as unflankable map edges, zone of control rules, or using disposable units as “speed bumps”) or computer AI to secure victories in ways that would not work in real life or otherwise be inappropriate.
  • Not listening to participants. If instructors want to know what students are taking away from the game, and whether the experience was worthwhile, be sure to ask them. While self-assessment is not always a reliable indicator of actual learning, eliciting feedback will help to identify problems and shortcomings.
  • All game, no gaming. One can take this last point further, and elicit feedback on the game system itself and encourage students to suggest possible game modifications. Indeed, encouraging students to think as game designers, and not just as game players, appears to improve learning outcomes. In the context of professional military eduaction is also serves to enhance critical knowledge of wargaming, thus leaving participants better-equipped to assess the value of future games, derive the greatest value from a game, or even help to design or facilitate one.

James Sterrett ( Deputy Chief, Simulations Division,  Digital Leader Development Center, US Army Command and General Staff College) then offered some thoughts based on his experience of supporting and encouraging classroom wargaming at CGSC. He emphasized the practical considerations that affect what sort of game will be useful and appropriate, and the need to design educational wargames and scenarios so that they are fit for educational purpose. One-size-fits-all solutions, he suggested, rarely work well. He also highlighted that not all instructors are the same, and that classroom wargaming approaches need to take account of a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses too.

Finally, James Lacey (Marine Corps War College) focused most of his comments on the obstacles to the use of wargames to teach strategy in professional military education. He suggested that PME institutions tend to be too rigid and structured, and discourage instructors from experiment. He also mentioned some of the criticism his critique, has received and—in typical fashion–pushed back hard. In subsequent discussion Peter noted that despite the current DoD push for more and better wargaming (inspired by the DEPSECDEF memo of February 2015), this has largely focused on analytical gaming with no clear direction from the top to more fully and effectively integrate gaming into PME.


Playing AFTERSHOCK. What is the UN so happy about?

After a Q&A period, the rest of the day was devoted to demonstration games. I ran a session of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. The foreign military contengents of the joint HADR-Task Force did an exceptional job of quickly repairing the damaged airport and port. A critical moment in the game came when the NGO team unintentionally delayed implementation of a water infrastructure project in District Five, only to see the area stricken soon after with a dangerous outbreak of cholera. The United Nations—possibly having learnt from its real-life experience in Haiti—already had a cholera response programme readied, and was able to both halt epidemic and provide improved water facilities to prevent future outbreaks.


The United Nations responds to the cholera emergency.

The players were headed for a well-earned victory when we had to call an end to the game for reasons of time (not to mention my need to eat before the cafe at the US Army Heritage and Education Center closed for the day).

After a quick sandwich, I also ran several turns of the ISIS Crisis matrix game. The Iraqi government sought to build on its successes earlier this year in Fallujah and Ramadi by launching a bold, Patton-esque thrust along the Euphrates Valley towards the border town of al-Qa’im—hoping thereby the sever an important ISIS line of communication and further isolate Mosul. The attack, however, was hastily organized and went disastrously wrong. Local Sunni tribes were angered that the campaign had been supported by Shiite militias rather than coordinated with them, while ISIS benefitted from both a  morale boost and the capture of significant military equipment. ISIS also plotted terrorist attacks in Iraq and abroad—one of which, aimed against NATO facilities in Brussels, was foiled in the nick of time by an alert Belgian police officer.

The failure of the operation also aggravated growing tensions between Baghdad’s Iranian and US allies. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi used the defeat to justify a large-scale purge and reform of the Iraqi armed forces in an attempt to build a more competent and professional military. In doing so, however, he relied heavily on Iranian advice, advisors, and money—causing the US to temporarily withdraw some of its own advisors in protest. Washington also signalled its dissatisfaction with the Iraqi central government by providing the Kurdish Regional Government with heavier weapons. That, of course, only further annoyed Baghdad, which briefly closed its airspace to US aircraft. Meanwhile, Iraqi Sunni leaders were dismayed both by growing Iranian influence and by the government’s failure to deliver on its promise of a new law that would see more petroleum revenues invested in Sunni areas. Scandals and acrimony dominated the political process, and national unity seemed more distant than ever. Amidst all this, ISIS capitalized on the disarray by rebuilding its network of supporters in government-controlled areas of Anbar province.

All in all, I very heard some thoughtful commentary at the event, made new contacts, played some games, and otherwise very much enjoyed myself. I’m very grateful to MAJ Dennis Davis and his colleagues at the US AWC Center for Strategic Leadership for having me down.

UPDATE: You’ll also find a report on the event by John Carter McKnight (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology) at his blog Aporia.

Oh, and as for that song…



4 responses to “Clashing in the classroom

  1. John Carter McKnight 30/08/2016 at 10:33 pm

    This afternoon I was enthusiastically making the case for Aftershock to Harrisburg University’s other IR professor and our acquisitions librarian: it looks like we’ll be running a number of sessions this semester. We’ll have our work cut out for us in living up to your encouraging, engaging, and informative Gm-ing of our session, though!

    Particular thanks for the blog-link: much appreciated, as I relaunch my blog as an ignorant assistant professor instead of a know-it-all grad student!

  2. brtrain 29/08/2016 at 1:50 pm

    Now Brant, don’t gloat….
    Thanks for the report Rex; a really good selection of topics and speakers.
    It’s always fun to reverse things once in a while and highlight “worst practices”.
    I agree with Peter on narrative… I wonder what can do more to shut down narrative, a flawed design or someone who just does not get it (thinking of the slide on matrix games you posted a while back)?

  3. Rex Brynen 28/08/2016 at 2:22 pm

    Hehe, typo fixed. I was up at 3:30am to catch my morning flight out–you’re lucky it’s not all one long string of gibberish.

  4. Brant 28/08/2016 at 2:20 pm

    “Key to what Peter had to say was the emphasis he placed on process rather than overcome”
    hey now!

    “If you can’t win a wargame you’ve got no business commanding soldiers in battle!” – Überoberhauptfeldmarschall Cawley

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