The following report has been cleared for release by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (public release identifier DSTL/PUB110424).
The legendary Dstl coin holds off RED forces on the outskirts of a small village.
At the end of June I spent a very pleasant week at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Portsdown West (Portsmouth), discussing various topics with members of the wargaming team there and others. I made similar visits in 2016 and 2017, and—as with the earlier occasions—this trip was very stimulating, productive, and enjoyable.
Day 1 of my visit started with a presentation on wargaming and forecasting (slides/pdf). Wargamers often intone that “wargamers are not predictions,” largely so that clients and participants will not hold games to an unreasonable standard of predictive accuracy. However, while wargames do not generate detailed findings about the future, they do contain an element of prediction in that they are usually intended to explore plausible futures. Assessing that a future scenario is plausible is, after all, an act of forecasting in itself.
Given this, the literature on political forecasting offers some guidance as to how games might be better configured to increase foresight. I also suggested that wargames were best used as an adjunct to other forecasting methods (helping us to identify key junctures, challenge assumptions, and encourage discussion) rather than a method in and of themselves.
This was followed by a second presentation on ethical challenges in wargaming (slides/pdf). Here I addressed three major themes:
- The use of serious games to teach about ethical decision-making, the laws of armed conflict, and similar topics.
- The use of games to explore the dynamics of mass atrocity and human rights abuses, so that we might develop appropriate policy responses.
- Finally, I discussed some of the ethical issues that might arise in game design and facilitation.
I was especially pleased with this presentation, since it raised issues that have not been discussed much within the professional community. How should games address sensitive issues such as religion and ethnicity? How can a game explore topics like torture, mass atrocity, or sexual and gender-based violence without having adverse effects on participants who may have had personal traumatic experience of such things? What is our ethical obligation to produce high quality games, given the implications of our work for policy or war-fighting? What is our obligation to produce games that have positive moral effects—and what should we do if we believe a game design might be put to unethical purposes? Interestingly, I was not the only one in attendance who had refused work from a client because we were uncomfortable with who might be using a game and what it might be used it for. (This is, of course, a rather more difficult choice if working on wargame design as a government employee.)
Much of the latter part of the session involved case studies to which members of the audience were invited to respond. How does one deal with player humour that might be seen as insensitive or offensive by some, given the game scenario? How does one incorporate issues of (countering) sexual exploitation and violence in wargames given the possible effects on players who have experienced the same in their personal or professional lives?
Next, came a session devoted to gaming indirect social media and cyber effects (slides/pdf). I started off by warning that not everything is new under the sun, and that communities and combatants alike have always leveraged new information and communication technologies to enhance their influence and effect. Certainly, the digital age had made it easier to do this, and to reach more people faster than ever before. However, the magnitude of this change might sometimes be exaggerated.
Maj. Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK) and I then moved on to discussing a variety of interesting games and game mechanics that might be adapted to explore such issues. These included:
Demonstrating influence dynamics in Hostage Negotiator.
The second day of my visit largely involved me participating in, and commenting on, other people’s wargames, which is always an enjoyable task. In the morning, our focus was matrix gaming. I made a quick presentation on the status of the Matrix Game Construction Kit, then Tom facilitated a session of the High North matrix game. This went very well, with Russia, the US and Canada all using environmental concerns to project their regulatory influence well beyond their established Exclusive Economic Zones. Chinese efforts to meddle in a Greenland independence referendum went badly wrong, while “the spirit of capitalism” pursued a variety of economic opportunities as the polar ice cap slowly receded due to global climate change. The session provided ample opportunities to discuss both matrix game design and game facilitation.
Gaming the “High North.”
After lunch, we discussed support for RAF wargaming. As part of this, Flt. Lt. Colin Bell (RAF) demonstrated three educational games he has developed for training cadets. I particularly enjoyed his air logistics games (in which players must move personnel and supplies using a variety of air assets to various locations, in response to randomly-drawn mission cards), and a game that explored mission planning and execution for offensive and defensive air operations. Playing a few turns of the latter, we lost a few Typhoons in our fighter sweep ahead of our main force but came out slightly ahead in air-to-air engagement. A heavy concentration of radar targets suggested an impending inbound enemy attack on our air defence command centre, so we ordered two other fighter groups to reposition themselves to respond. Meanwhile, we had two strike packages headed towards our target—an enemy destroyer, docked in port—when the game had to be brought to an early end.
RAF wargaming—teaching about air logistics.
Day three of my visit involved a morning spent at Dstl’s annual historical analysis symposium. My own paper explored strategic communications, signaling, and deterrence in the specific context of Syrian use of chemical weapons (slides/pdf). Here I drew upon both the scholarly literature on deterrence and the findings of wargames to suggest how it is that what one side regards as a robust signal of capability and credible commitment might be seen rather differently by the recipient—in part because each side operates in a very different organizational and political context.
Wednesday evening was spent at the mess of HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy “stone frigate” (shore establishment) on Whale Island, Portsmouth. After dinner, not surprisingly, we all turned our attention to some less serious gaming. While some of the group plotted to assassinate Hitler in Black Orchestra, the rest of us played Bloc by Bloc. I’m happy to report that fascism had a bad day: Hitler went down in the former game, while in the latter a progressive revolutionary coalition of workers, students, anarcho-neighbours, and prisoners brought down the repressive state system.
The fourth day of my trip was wholly devoted to a day-long workshop on wargame adjudication (slides/pdf). In the morning, Tom and I started with a presentation on the topic, drawing upon our own experience. Adjudication runs along a spectrum from rigid (rules-based) to free kriegsspiel, with matrix games and hybrid approaches somewhere in between. Adjudication also varies depending on whether game play is turn-based, continuous, or a mix of these.
I suggested that wargame facilitators and adjudicators stand astride two essential mandates, sometimes complementary, but also sometimes in tension: that of the technician (committed to attaining the technical goals of the game) and the theatre director (responsible for bringing alive the imaginary world of the game narrative).
After lunch, we collectively discussed two recent Dstl games and the adjudication challenges each had presented. We then broke into smaller groups, and discussed how we might address a number of game adjudication vignettes:
- Dealing with an adjudication error in combat resolution. Do you rewind the game, admit the error but press ahead regardless, or hide the mistake from the players?
- What sort of adjudication would be most appropriate for a game intended to examine security planning for a forthcoming high-profile diplomatic visit, and why?
- How should one deal with a (more senior, male) SME who is persistently pestering a (junior, female) player with criticisms of the game system?
- How might adjudication approaches be configured to better withstand sponsor pressure to reach predetermined conclusions?
Interestingly, almost all of the participants felt that an adjudicator should cover up a minor error during a game if the mistake had no major game-changing effects and if informing players would “break the bubble” of narrative engagement—only disclosing the glitch after the game was over, depending on the participants and client. I concur and have done it myself, but I know others who don’t and wouldn’t. The issue was one that was further debated at the Connections US wargaming conference a few weeks later, during a session on in-stride adjudication.
The last day of my visit involved a trip to the Maritime Warfare School at HMS Collingwoodfor a playtest of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit naval escort game. PAXsims has extensively covered the work that Paul Strong and Sally David have done on WATU and its impressive contribution to World War Two naval tactics and training, and it was an absolute delight to see how it all worked.
Playtesting the WATU wargame.
During the playtest, I commanded one of the Type-VII U-boats attacking a convoy headed from Liverpool to Halifax. I did well, using the darkness to maneuver within the convoy formation and torpedoing three merchantmen before ordering a deep dive and hard turn to port to evade the now-alerted escorts. Initial depth charges fell well wide of their mark, but a couple of escorts did manage to ping my boat with ASDIC and had turned course towards us.
Just then, explosions at the far side of the convoy signaled that another German submarine had found its prey—hopefully distracting them while I dived even deeper and headed to the rear of the convoy. My intention was to surface once the action had passed me by, and then use my deck gun to finish off any damaged ships that were straggling behind the main formation.
We had to bring the game to an end at this point, but I must say it went well for an initial playtest. I think all of us who were there were very proud to be recreating a great moment in wargaming history. Sally Davis has also written up a brief account, which I have also posted to PAXsims.
The WATU wargame will be demonstrated at King’s College London in September, during the Connections UK wargaming conference, and shortly after that in a special session at the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool. I am especially looking forward to the latter—an opportunity to conduct a WATU game in the very rooms used to command the North Atlantic convoys during WWII.
Before I left, Dstl presented me with both one of their rare challenge coins (see picture at top) and a copy of their STRIKE! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame. Dstl has developed this manual wargame for the British Army to help it examine how the Strike Brigade would perform on the battlefield—we will be providing more detail on the game in a future PAXsims article. At McGill University I intend to use STRIKE in my conflict simulation course next year to illustrate fundamental elements of basic wargame design (such terrain and capability modelling), so you may see some after action reports here too.