The following guest post is by Lt Col Jason M. Trew (USAF), a senior pilot and a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). He is currently studying the history of technology at Auburn University. Part of his doctoral research is about the relationship between playfulness and airmindedness. He welcomes any feedback regarding this article or his research project (firstname.lastname@example.org).
War and strategy are serious topics and theorists constantly search for appropriate images to better grasp their complex nature. In their search, it is not uncommon to apply metaphors of games, such as gambling or wrestling. Indeed, a useful tool to “examine warfighting concepts, train and educate commanders and analysts, explore scenarios, and assess how force planning and posture choices affect campaign outcomes” is war gaming.
Does the image of a game imply playfulness? Is it appropriate to frame strategy as playful? There is actually some ancient precedent for this, as reported by Plato in his dialogue, Laches. Additionally, the literature on play is sometimes remarkably similar to strategic theory. In the list of quotes below, can you determine which ones are referring to military strategy or war, and which ones are from scholars analyzing play?
- “[It] proceeds according to a set of artificial rules and, to the extent that it does, stands apart from ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life.”
- “[Participants] try to position themselves within a protected occasion that contains both familiar and unfamiliar elements and that possesses problems or challenges they consider intriguing or significant…players address and respond to some of the challenges, tensions, or conflicts…[it is] a form of problem solving.”
- “[Thinking about this activity requires] imagination, insight, intuition, ability to put one’s self in another person’s position, understanding of the wellsprings of human motivation”
- “[In] a de-centered world, change, randomness, particularity, cultural and social diversity, conflict, and ambiguity [it] is perhaps the most appropriate response to contemporary circumstances.”
- “[It] is about exploration and the development of new ways of seeing, thinking, and being.”
- “[It is performed] before audiences who not only critically evaluate but also contribute to an unfolding scenario that has neither clear beginnings nor ends.”
- “[It is] confined only by the event horizon of possibilities, a horizon which expands anew with every action. A potentially unlimited panorama of choices may be revealed with the next moment. There is no beginning or end…only more or less.”
- “[It] occurs in physical environments that both enable the activity and provide forms of resistance…fostered by conditions that are ambiguous, novel, and changing.”
- “[It is] not a thing…It is an idea, a product of the imagination. It is about the future, and above all it is about change. It is anticipation of the probable and preparation for the possible.”
- “References to ‘adaptive variability’ and ‘selective simulations’ at the beginning and end suggest that it is best not to think of [it] as a thing…but as a series of connected events. In this respect, [it] resembles a revolution, or a journey, or growth, or acceleration, or other processes that unfold and move along at varying rates….a process of unfolding in the direction of order supplies the most useful trope for framing [it].”
- “[It] does not seek a specific outcome or decision.”
- “[It is] often about relations of power, showdowns that make public the respective capabilities of the persons and groups involved…people do not always win or get their way. To some extent, they do not desire that they should always win.”
- “[It] is not about winning,” but more about “embracing perpetual novelty.”
- “[It] promotes the survival…when confronted with new or difficult circumstances.”
- “Surprises must be expected. They must be embraced and seized upon as opportunity.”
- “[It is] an exploration of powers and predicaments…[to] find out what we can—and cannot—do and to see if we can extend our capabilities. As a consequence of these attempts, we also learn what the world can do to us.”
- “[It is characterized as] a Conceptual Spiral for Generating: Insight – Imagination – Initiative.”
- “[The purpose of it is to] make coherent their possibilities for acting in the world.”
- “[To be effective] we need a variety of possibilities as well as the rapidity to implement and shift among them.”
- “[It is] a kind of performance, an acting out of imaginative possibilities”
- “[It involves the] “play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam.”
Can you tell which ones strategists wrote and which were written about play? Starting with the first quote, every other line is from the former. The overlap is interesting, but—to quote another strategic theorist—“so, what?” Are there really advantages to construing strategy in this way, even in serious military matters?
Answering that question requires a preemptive reply to a reasonable objection: warfare and play are not coincident domains. Metaphors, however, never are. As the saying goes, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The utility is found both within the overlap between contrasting images and where they diverge; a process that itself has been described as cognitive play.
Like other mammals, physical play is a critical component of our childhood development. But humans also play, and play for much longer throughout our life, in the domain we command: the so-called cognitive niche. Our evolutionary advantages accrue from intelligent decisions and that intelligence is nurtured by mentally playing with patterns, stories, and metaphors. In other words, even if strategy is never playful, working through the competing images—that is, playing with the metaphor—yields cognitive benefits useful to strategists.
The alternating quotes above, however, reveal that strategy and play do share some elements. Therefore, those who have a role in the strategic process (theorizing, modeling, execution, etc.) should explore the origins and consequences of those connections; not in spite of the gravity of war, but precisely because of its high stakes.
We should not neglect any source of strategic wisdom, regardless of how peculiar it may first appear. Strategy as play does seem outlandish, bordering on inappropriate. But, even Carl von Clausewitz characterized war, in part, as the “play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam.” Or was that someone writing about playfulness?
 “Wargaming.” RAND. http://www.rand.org/topics/wargaming.html (accessed November 12, 2016).
 “The Athenian Sophists Euthydemus and Dionysodorus applied their skills to military strategy, explicitly calling their approach (as reported by Plato in his dialogue Laches) ‘playful’” (Armand D’Angour, “Plato and Play: Taking Education Seriously in Ancient Greece,” American Journal of Play, Volume 5, Number 3 (2013), 304).
 Martin van Crevald, War and Technology (2010), 286.
 Thomas S. Henricks, “Play as Self-Realization: Toward a General Theory of Play,” American Journal of Play, Volume 6, Number 2 (2014), 192-3.
 Jessie Bernard, quoted in Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (2013), 153.
 Henricks, 194.
 Dolman, Pure Strategy (2005), 188.
 Henricks, 195.
 Dolman, 13.
 Henricks, 195-6.
 Dolman, 1.
 Scott G. Eberle, “The Elements of Play: Toward a Philosophy and a Definition of Play” Journal of Play, Volume 6, Number 2 (2014), 220.
 Dolman, 43.
 Henricks, 205.
 Dolman, 5, 132.
 Henricks, 196.
 Dolman, 126.
 Henricks, 204.
 John Boyd, quoted in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2006), 228.
 Henricks, 190.
 John Boyd, quoted in Osinga, 186.
 Henricks, 195.
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1989), 89.
 Colin S. Gray, “Out Of The Wilderness: Prime Time For Strategic Culture,”
Defense Threat Reduction Agency Advanced Systems and Concepts Office (2006), 12.
 George E. P. Box and Norman R. Draper, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces (1987).
 Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2010).