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McGrady: Getting the story right about wargaming

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At War on the Rocks today, Ed McGrady notes the recent debates about analytical wargaming within the US defence community, and has some thoughts to offer:

There is a debate about wargaming in the Pentagon and it has spilled out into the virtual pages of War on the Rocks. Some say wargaming is broken. Others believe the cycle of research will solve our problems. There is a deeper problem at the root of all of this: There is a widespread misunderstanding of what wargaming is and a reluctance to accept both the power and limitations of wargames.

What we are seeing in the debate about wargaming looks a lot like what wargaming is best at: telling stories. But we have told ourselves several different stories at the same time, and none of these stories really agree with reality….

But failure to understand wargaming — what it is and what it is not — risks screwing up the one tool that enables defense professionals to break out of the stories we have locked ourselves into.

He goes on to question the notion that wargames are analysis:

Wargames do not do this through analysis. Indeed, wargaming is not analysis. “Analytical wargaming” jams the two terms together in a vague way that can mean anything, and often does. To be sure, good wargaming requires analysis: To design a game, one has to understand how things work. But the most important analysis one does for a wargame is about the people and organizations involved, not the systems. For example, defense analysts often find themselves grappling with future force projections and procurement. But the one organization that matters most for future force structure is not included in the assessments: Congress. Wargames can help senior leaders consider things like Congress whereas standard models and analyses cannot.

Wargames can also be the subject of analysis, but tread carefully: Wargames are not experiments unless they have been specifically, and painstakingly, designed as such. They are events: unrepeatable, chaotic, vague, and messy events. Collecting data from them is difficult — they produce “dirty” data, you often miss the best parts, and they cannot be repeated. But if you think that means you can’t learn anything from them, you might as well stop trying to understand real-world conflicts, because everything I have written about wargames in this paragraph is also true for wars.

So, you can analyze wargames, just not the same way you would analyze a set of data from a radar system or a series of ship trials. But in your analysis you have to focus on what wargames can actually tell you, and avoid making conclusions about what they can’t.

He goes on to suggest what we need to do:

First, we need to get our story straight and get it out there. Wargames are the front-end, door-kicking tool of new ideas, dangers, and concepts. In particular, they help you understand how you will get stuff done in the messy, human organizations that we all work in. They are really good at that. We also need to make sure that people understand what wargames are not good at: detailed, technical, complicated analysis that needs to be done to optimize particular aspects of ideas or concepts. They can tell you that the enemy may target your logistics, but they won’t tell you exactly how many short tons you need to offload per day at the port.

Second, we need to push back against the opportunists and charlatans who are colonizing gaming. While these people always show up when areas get hot, they are particularly dangerous in wargaming. Wargames not only provide new ideas and concepts, but also influence the future decision-makers that play in them. About the best we can do is call out bad games when we see them and, as part of our getting the word out about gaming, describe what games to discount when you hear about a bad game.

We can start by saying meetings are not games and speculation is not play.

Third, we need to make sure decision-makers understand that a good game is only the beginning of the journey, not the end. Much more work needs to be done after the game to figure out, through analysis, whether all those fancy concepts and ideas will work. And if we think they just might work, then we need to burn jet fuel and soldier-hours in instrumented and observed exercises to figure out if our forces and equipment can actually execute them. For future systems where we can’t do exercises, this means bringing the actual engineers into the operational picture. One of the best ways to bring the systems developers into the picture is through games.

You can read the full piece here.


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