Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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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