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Wargaming and its place in PME


War on the Rocks has just published a piece by Carrie Lee and Bill Lewis of the US Air War College entitled “Wargaming Has a Place, But is No Panacea for Professional Military Education.”

The school year is about to start, and not just for the kids. Senior-level professional military education is about to begin a new academic year, with new classes of students from across the services preparing to embark upon ten months of education that is meant to elevate their thinking from the operational and tactical to the strategic level. In the two years since the release of the National Defense Strategy (and the now-infamous paragraph that declared professional military education to be “stagnant”), a heated debate has emerged on the pages of this website about the best ways to accomplish the mission of professional military education. Suggestions for improvement have spanned the gamut, from teaching students to be good staffers to introducing diversity — both in the faculty and the curriculum — to improving the ways in which we assess strategic competency. Others have pushed back, pointing out that professional military education already is highly responsive to change and warning about the dangers of the “good idea fairy.” In April, James Lacy of the Marine War College proposed another solution: All professional military education institutions should include board game wargaming as a part of their curriculum.

While this recommendation may hold appeal with those who are explicitly focused on military history and operational art, Lacey’s proposal is both short-sighted and misses the importance of diversity in professional military education — both between service colleges and in the curriculum itself. There is little doubt that experiential learning can be a valuable part of any education, including professional military education. But it also comes in many forms, all of which have benefits and costs. If the mission of professional military education is to educate the next generation of senior leaders about the strategic level of war and expose them to the tools they will need to succeed at that level, then we must use a variety of methods across the service colleges, rather than defaulting to a series of one-size-fits-all solutions.

They conclude:

In order to best educate and prepare our students for this complex and challenging environment, a variety of tools are necessary, and “one size fits all” solutions may do more harm than good. There are many types of immersive programs that can be employed to achieve a broad range of learning objectives. We should strive to view our curriculum not as a checklist of required activities but instead as a wholistic educational experience.

Lee and Lewis are right, of course, that serious gaming is not some magic educational bullet. It takes times. Not all wargames are fit for educational purpose, even if they work well as hobby or analytical games. Academic schedules are crowded, and you can only do so much. There are many teaching techniques available. There is even overwhelming evidence that simulations, when used poorly, can do educational damage.

That being said, I’m not sure they really offer a great deal of guidance in what should be used when and in what ways, how this relates to other teaching techniques, and how we know we measure the effectiveness of all this.

Jim Lacey, who the authors critique as a point of departure, was quick to post a response to Facebook (reproduced here with permission):

Well it is not every day my approach to teaching strategic studies is called “shortsighted” by folks who apparently have no idea what I do. But, I suppose it is always an easy-out to set up a strawman – no matter how it departs from reality – as a foil to base an article upon .

In any event, it may have helped if you had read my earlier article on the topic

But in hopes of increasing your understanding of how we educate MCWAR students, please allow me to offer the following.. During the course of the year MCWAR students participate in a number of experiential events, including:

  • Conducting several staff rides, including Yorktown, the Overland Campaign, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Normandy. – FYI, the students also go on a two week trip to either Europe and Asia to immerse themselves in current issues
  • Engaging in multiple simulations (as you describe them). This includes participating in two multi-day geopolitical simulation at Tufts and Georgetown universities. Moreover, we employ a number of in-house simulations throughout a spectrum of historical, current, and future related topics.
  • I would dare say we also employ a large number of models (as you describe them) throughout the year.
  • When it comes to wargaming MCWAR employs the entire gamut: seminar games, matrix games, board games, computer assisted games, etc.
  • Engage in a number of simulations and wargames based on future scenarios against China, Russia, and Iran, which feed directly into ongoing concept development and Title 10 wargames
  • We also use boardgames, but they remain both a subset of our overall curriculum and a subset of our experiential learning program.

In any event, boardgames are never used in isolation. Let me give one example.

As part of our military history curriculum we examine the Civil War. The structure of that program breaks down as follows:

  1. The students are given a set of readings to finish before they enter the classroom
  2. They are then directed to a website I am developing, where they can listen to lectures from some of the best Civil War historians in the nation.
  3. They are also given CDs so that they can listen to other lectures in their cars
  4. Then, once they have absorbed this material, we conduct our seminar sessions. We only have two seminars at MCWAR…. So I break each of them into two parts and conduct a series of seminars with only 7-8 folks in each (as close to an Oxford tutorial as I can get).
  5. After all of this we conduct a board wargame. I run 3-4 wargames at the same time, so all of the students can fully participate. I have local community volunteers (long-time wargamers) sitting at each game to take care of the game mechanics, so that the students can focus on strategic decisions
  6. Then, when all of that is done, the class goes on their staff rides.

I am always looking for way to improve, and am hopeful that you can suggest ways I can do so.

In any event, I just wanted to clear the air and correct any misperceptions you and your co-author have as to how MCWAR sets-up its curriculum, as well as my approach to teaching and the use of wargames. Of course, a much of this could have been easily cleared-up with a phone call or an e-mail before you went to print. But, moving on… if there is anything I can do to assist your efforts to increase and enhance the use of modeling, simulations, and wargaming – or any other experiential learning methodology – at the Air War College, please do not hesitate to ask.

Thank you for your time and comments. I look forward to learning more about the Air Force conducts experiential learning.

This isn’t the first such debate. I’m not sure is should even be a debate, however. Rather, it points to the value of a common-sense “toolkit” approach to serious gaming. Wargames are tools. Sometimes they may be the best tool for the job. Sometimes there are better tools. Sometimes they are a pretty bad fit. Almost always, they need to be used in conjunction with other techniques.

Wargaming as an academic discipline


P1110648a.jpgThe following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by Dr. Aggie Hirst (left), Lecturer in International Relations Theory and Methods in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.


Wargaming as an Academic Discipline

On 16th January 2019, Dr. Yuna Wong spoke to an audience of policymakers, scholars, practitioners, educators, and students about the establishment of an academic field of Wargaming, in the second public lecture of the King’s Wargaming Network’s inaugural series. The King’s Wargaming Network (KWN) was established in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London in 2018 as a global hub for the theory and practice of wargaming, drawing together a diverse range of academics, professionals, and stakeholders from War Studies, International Relations, defence, policy, industry, and civil society with an interest in the topic. In response to the currently diffuse and ad hoc character of wargames research and practice, the KNW seeks to take a leading role in the development of an integrated, globally recognised academic discipline in which knowledge about wargaming may be produced, preserved, and transmitted.

In her talk, Dr Wong set out a series of pathways, possibilities, and pitfalls associated with the establishment of such a field. Her comments built upon discussions held earlier the same day in the first meeting of the KWN’s Academic Working Group, comprised of leading figures in the professional wargaming community. She addressed the questions: Why do we need an academic discipline of Wargaming? What concrete steps can be taken in the short and medium terms to establish such a discipline? What obstacles might be faced in this endeavour? Below I provide an overview of Dr Wong’s comments and suggest some key critical contributions that academics can make in the current wargaming renaissance.

Beginning with the oft-cited DoD-wide memos issued in 2014 and 2015 by then Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Bob Work, a renaissance in US military wargaming is currently underway.[1] Indeed, in what Dr Peter Perla has called the ‘sine wave of popularity’[2], professional wargaming is also enjoying renewed interest across government, business, third sector, and hobby spheres. The origins of this renaissance in the military can be traced to the priorities outlined in the Third Offset Strategy (3OS),[3]and associated Defence Innovation Initiative (DII), launched by Hagel and Work, which identified wargaming as a key method by means of which US strategic advantage might be maintained in an environment of narrowing technological superiority. Spanning areas as diverse as education and training, research and analysis, doctrinal innovation, operational concepts, and procurement, military wargaming, its proponents claim, can mitigate the structural uncertainly and complexity of the current security and operational environments. It can do this by allowing players to ‘climb inside’[4] scenarios and explore individual and collective decision-making practices. In this way, they assert, wargaming can facilitate institutional learning and assist with future planning by examining the human domain of contemporary conflict in ways quantitative Operations Research (OR) cannot.

This renewed attention, and the accompanying increase in funding, has led to the establishment of new agencies and working groups, such the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG), a series of Military Operations Research Society (MORS) special meetings,[5] a classified wargaming repository housed in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), and the publication of several handbooks and manuals outlining the value-added and best practice standards of military wargaming.[6] A small but committed wargaming community of practice (CoP) has capitalised on this renewed interest and is currently seeking ways to further proliferate its remit and mandate in DoD.

As part of this endeavour, the issue of the establishment of a dedicated academic field of Wargaming has been raised. As Dr Wong noted, while the practice of wargaming is proliferating, the scholarly study of the field remains limited and ad hoc. This is in part because almost all professional wargamers are first and foremost practitioners, whose work focuses on designing, facilitating, and analysing games from the perspective of a particular institution, objective, or stakeholder. These commitments often prevent them from conducting broader studies of the field. Accordingly, Dr Wong identified a series of practical and intellectual reasons why the establishment of an academic discipline comprising interested parties from with and beyond the wargaming CoP is desirable.

First, such a field would tackle the complex task of properly conceptualising and theorising wargaming, both as a method and an object of inquiry. As Peter Perla’s opening KWN public lecture in December 2018 set out[7], and to which KWN Co-Director Ivanka Barzashka responded earlier this year[8], practitioners variously view wargaming as an art, a science, or a craft, and opinion varies widely on its proper epistemological assumptions, its relationship to modelling/simulation/OR, and whether or not it should (continue to) be integrated with digital technologies. Without seeking to reduce this diversity, an academic field would play a central role in formalising these debates and pushing forward analyses through testing and mutual critique.

Second, an academic field would serve to train and qualify people to create, facilitate, and effectively analyse wargames, serving to professionalise the field and formally accredit practitioners. This would also help to open up the often opaque pathways via which wargamers can develop their skills from novice to journeyman to master, a shift which is all the more important as pressures to diversify the field in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and so forth are brought to bear.

Third, such a field would be less vulnerable to changes in government, administration, funding priorities, and individual preferences than are the military and consultancy institutions in which the CoP tend to be housed. While the acquisition of academic research funding is always a challenge, stability for the practice and study of wargaming could be generated through such grants and the establishment of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, provided a sufficient job market persists.

Forth, because it would comprise a focus on both applied and theoretical dimensions of wargaming, a dedicated field could act as a bridge between government/policy and the academy, filling the policy-relevance gap with which academics frequently struggle.

Fifth, such a discipline could function to draw together the existing rich but disparate research in a range of fields focusing on, and relevant to, wargaming. Dr Wong mentioned in particular the applicability of research in Organisational, Educational, Experimental, Social, and Military Psychology as well as advances in Education, Sociology, Applied Anthropology, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Uniting these discrete areas within an interdisciplinary field of Wargaming would serve to make the best use of existing research and develop new collaborative projects and funding bids.

Finally, an academic field would provide a context within which non-practitioner voices could study and evaluate gaming from political, social, ethical, and economic perspectives. An academic field of Wargaming, like any healthy discipline, should contain a plurality of approaches, foci, and interests. It should attract scholars, students, and practitioners from across of wide range of backgrounds, and comprise those for whom wargaming is a method of research and/or teaching, and those for whom it is an object of study. Furthermore, it should include seasoned pioneers and practitioners as well as those new to the field, and those offering critiques of existing artefacts, traditions, and practices.

In addition to these reasons for establishing a Wargaming discipline, Dr Wong noted the need for robust empirical studies to settle the debate surrounding wargames’ efficacy. While anecdotal evidence of its popularity and utility abounds, little concrete evidence that wargaming is superior – whether defined in terms of engagement, retention, results, or some other metric – to conventional teaching, training, and research methods currently exists. Academic research could play a vital role here by conducting multi-year studies with control groups to establish whether and how wargames really do facilitate unique and improved teaching and/or research.

Moving beyond this debate, the academic study of wargaming has the capacity to explore not only why wargaming works[9] but also how it works, and with what consequences. In other words, the debate could fruitfully be expanded from efficacy to effects. Similarly, scholars could move from evaluating wargaming and its effects in positivist terms to using post-positivist social science approaches, something also noted by Dr Wong in her talk. In particular, the rise of ‘critical’ and ‘deconstructive’ thinking as a military priority invites an analysis of the different uses of these terms and methods by post-positivist scholars in the civilian academy, who are interested in critiquing rather than promoting the current global order. Moreover, the challenges posed by the wargaming CoP to the modelling and simulations practitioners in the OR community parallel in interesting, and hitherto under-researched, ways the challenges posed by post-positivist scholarship to the quantitative and objective aspirations of positivist social science. This line of inquiry would open new pathways surrounding the enduring question of the validation and verification of wargames.

In addition, and as also noted by Dr Wong, an academic field of Wargaming would facilitate the analysis of wargaming beyond DoD. In addition to gaming in the fields of health, first responders, child and adult education, advertising, jobs and skills training, housing, and social engagement, a host of grassroots groups are currently developing and repurposing games in areas as diverse as political contestation[10] and veterans’ community-building and suicide prevention[11].

Finally, and I would argue crucially, the wargaming CoP has paid very little attention to the question of the impacts of wargaming on those taught and trained with them. Most professional wargamers are confident that because people find wargaming fun, it is a welcome break from conventional classroom and field methods. And yet important questions remain unanswered, and oftentimes unasked, about the state of immersion generated in play and the circumvention of critical reasoning than this state entails. One interesting line of inquiry, then, is the apparent paradox that wargaming simultaneously promotes and restricts critical thinking in players, and the distribution of these tendencies across the rank spectrum of service members.

While advances in wargaming design, research, and execution are widespread, a lack of scholarly integration limits our understanding of these activities. And although a promising body of scholarly work on wargaming is emerging, it has yet to be drawn together to develop best practice guidance for research and teaching. In addition, little research exists which critically evaluates professional wargaming. As Dr Wong set out in her talk, there have been at least two attempts in recent years to establish an academic wargaming program in the DC metro area, but these have yet to be realised. With the rise of recreational gaming as the leading mode of entertainment in the current digital age, there has never been a better time to study gaming. While researchers in the Social Sciences have explored the videogame phenomenon in some depth, the study of professional gaming—both digital and manual—remains in its infancy. Whether through the establishment of a dedicated academic field of Wargaming, or by means of interdisciplinary work conducted across established fields, research examining how wargaming works and with what consequences for strategy, operations, and trainees is of key import in the current security environment.

Aggie Hirst 


[1] Chuck Hagel, “The Defense Innovation Initiative”, Department of Defence Memorandum, 2014; Bob Work, “Wargaming and Innovation”, Department of Defense Memorandum, 2015.

[2] Peter P. Perla, in Philip Pournelle (ed.), MORS Wargaming Special Meeting October 2016: Final Report, p. 87.

[3] Bob Work, “The Third US Offset Strategy and Its Implications for Partners and Allies”, 2015; Bob Work, “The Third Offset Strategy”, Speech at the Reagan Defense Forum, 2015.

[4] Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke, “Chess, Go, and Vietnam”, in Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (eds.), Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Cambridge; London: MIT Press, 2016), p. 526.

[5] Philip Pournelle (ed.), MORS Wargaming Special Meeting October 2016: Final Report; Phillip Pournelle and Holly Deaton (eds.), MORS Wargaming III Special Meeting October 2017: Report, 2018.

[6] Joint Publication 5.0, ‘Joint Planning’, 16 June 2017, jp5_0_20171606.pdf; TRADOC, “The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook”, 2015; James Markley, “Strategic Wargaming Series Handbook”, United States Army War College, 2015.

[7] Peter P. Perla, ‘“The Art and Science of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate in an Era of Strategic Competition”: KWN Public Lecture, December 2018,

[8] Ivanka Barzashka, “Wargaming: How to Turn Vogue into Science”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 15 March 2019:

[9] Peter P. Perla and Ed McGrady, ‘Why Wargaming Works’, Naval War College Review64, no. 3 (2011): 111–30.

[10] See for example the group Class Wargames:

[11] Leading this field is the veterans’ group Stack-Up.Org:



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