PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

How to raise a wargamer

The following article is by Caitlyn Leong, a M.A. candidate and CyberCorps Scholarship for Service Fellow at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. She currently serves as the President of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society and previously served as Director of Simulations for The George Washington University’s Strategic Crisis Simulations. She specializes in wargaming, emerging technologies, and cybersecurity policy.


 

As a discipline, wargaming has numerous appeals – the styles and subject matter are varied, there are constant opportunities to learn, and the community of wargamers is largely friendly and engaging. Currently, however, there is no clear pipeline or navigable process for starting a career in wargaming. There is plenty of conventional wisdom on how to get started: design a game, play as many games as one can, and work in defense analysis somewhere that also does wargaming. Many wargamers confess that their careers in wargaming are happy accidents – they started out doing something else, found wargaming, and stayed.

Back in 2016, Dr. Yuna Wong characterized the wargaming field as an inverted pyramid, dominated by an older generation, and is certainly not as diverse as it could be. There has been some progress on this issue, but there is still room for improvement. So, how can the wargaming community establish a career pipeline, ensuring that the next generation of wargamers is as distinguished and robust as those that have come before?

To understand the experience of aspiring wargamers at the base of this inverted pyramid, we must identify what experiences are unnecessary, what experiences are helpful, and how the wargaming community can ensure that future generations of wargamers have the necessary skills and opportunities to develop.  Looking back on my collection of experiences, I identified challenges, helpful opportunities, and ways the wargaming community can further develop the pipeline of talent it desperately needs.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Forays into the Wargaming Community

As a freshman International Affairs major at The George Washington University, I joined Strategic Crisis Simulations(SCS), a student organization that designs educational exercises and political-military simulations for NCR students and young professionals. I started out writing scenario injects – simulated tweets, news articles, and think tank reports – as part of our effort to put on four large-scale simulations per academic year. These simulations were designed to place students in the roles of top civilian and military decision-makers across the U.S. government as they played through kinetic and non-kinetic crisis scenarios.

At the end of my freshman year, I was selected for a three-year leadership role, guiding the design process of those simulations as a member of SCS’ Simulations Directorate. This led me to a year-long internship at the National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning, which boasts several SCS alumni, where I was able to learn firsthand about designing exercises for JPME and the various types of gaming that were popular within the U.S. government. My time at CASL convinced me that I wanted to be a professional wargamer and that I loved educational games, but I was left looking for additional experiences to make that a reality.

Aside from my extracurricular involvement with SCS, I had no idea where to look for other wargaming opportunities and what my job options might be after graduation. So, for the next two years, I focused on improving SCS and building a cadre of professional mentors who would attend the simulations and advise the control team and participants, hoping that through networking, our membership, including myself, could learn more about professional wargaming opportunities.

Despite my SCS experience and my network, I found myself struggling to move forward. My mentors helped me identify which organizations had wargaming components, but many of those organizations were not hiring undergraduates or civilians. I seemed to hit an educational dead-end as well. At the time, I only knew of wargaming courses at military PME institutions, which I couldn’t attend as a civilian. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in wargaming, but no one seemed to be able to tell me how to go about it. Of course, I am now aware that there are several civilian wargaming courses in addition to those offered at PME institutions, but at the time, I was woefully underinformed about existing educational and professional opportunities.

Then at graduate school, fortune serendipitously intervened. Georgetown’s Security Studies Program (SSP) was offering a first-time “Basics of Wargaming” course taught by Sebastian Bae. I re-arranged my fall course schedule to take the elective. I had never taken a formal wargaming course and I simultaneously debated whether I already had “enough” experience or if I was woefully unprepared to complete the course assignments. Through the course, I was exposed to the best articles, books, and handbooks in wargaming literature. I also led a team of two other SSP students to design an original box-set wargame, Reconquering Rome, which examines the Byzantine reconquest of the Italian peninsula in the 6th century CE.

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Final version of Reconquering Rome.

The course opened up the opportunity for me to meet professional wargamers, pitch Reconquering Rome to commercial publishers, and become a founding member of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS), of which I am currently president. Working with GUWS has connected me and our membership to a plethora of wargaming resources, established professionals, and organizations in the field that I had never imagined existed before. I acknowledge that my experience is simply one way forward, but I have endeavored to identify lessons learned that the wargaming community can act upon to improve the pipeline for aspiring wargamers.

Logjams in the Wargaming Pipeline

I believe that the current wargaming pipeline has unintentional choke points, where the pipeline narrows and only the very lucky or the incredibly determined manage to squeeze through.

For budding wargamers, student-run wargaming organizations are simultaneously fantastic access points and disappointing dead ends. Membership in a wargaming organization is not mandatory for a wargaming career. However, these organizations often serve as the first introduction to wargaming, both as a tool and as a career option. My time with SCS exposed me to design concepts and built my repertoire of wargaming experiences. Yet, only select undergraduate and graduate programs outside of the National Capital Region have student-run wargaming organizations. Those that do exist are frequently islands unto themselves. They are wonderful, vibrant communities, but there is no clear path forward after graduation. Beyond the occasional individual mentor, the connection between student-run wargaming organizations and the professional wargaming community is infrequent – if not nonexistent.

Beyond the university, there is a scarcity of entry-level opportunities to develop young wargamers. My CASL internship helped me get my feet wet in professional wargaming and I enjoyed my work there immensely, but access to these professional opportunities is severely limited. Within the national security ecosystem, there exists a myriad of internships and fellowships, ranging from regional to domain-specific interests. Wargaming is the unfortunate exception. There are several wargaming institutions that could offer entry-level opportunities if they wanted, such as the Naval War College, Center for Army Analysis (CAA), and federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs). By creating more access points for young wargamers, wargaming organizations can systematically cultivate talent and develop enthusiasts into professionals. These wargaming opportunities can also build transferrable skills for any analyst – such as research, military analysis, writing, and analytical skills.

Squeezing Through the Wargaming Pipeline

Formal wargaming courses are invaluable resources and experiences. Admittedly, establishing a formal wargaming course or certificate can prove difficult, with as many failed attempts as success stories. However, although limited, there are formal wargaming courses offered by select universities, such Georgetown, McGill University, and King’s College London. I learned more in my one semester in Basics of Wargaming than I did in the previous four years, where I was piecing together on-the-job knowledge in isolation. In the Basics of Wargaming course, I learned about the different styles of wargames, their uses, the strengths and limitations of wargaming, and the wider body of wargaming literature. There is a fundamental difference between simply reading Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming, Phil Sabin’s Simulating War , and Graham Longley-Brown’s Successful Professional Wargames: A Practitioner’s Handbook, and using them as guides in creating your own wargame. The opportunity to research, design, and develop an original wargame in fourteen weeks was both a trial by fire and an irreplaceable learning experience. However, formal courses are not the only answer. Professional designers could mentor interested student groups to develop their own wargames, providing experience and structure to their learning.

Professional wargaming organizations and communities offer critical access to nodes of connections, knowledge, and experiences. The MORS Wargaming Community of Practice, PAXsims, and Connections conference are some of the cornerstones of the professional community. These professional organizations offer insight into the career path and a way for young wargamers to identify what skills and experiences they need to get there. The jump from student-run organizations to professional societies is crucial. My path in wargaming began to open up when my various experiences converged to reach that critical point, but taken individually, my experiences would not have been enough to break into the field. Incrementally, however, the transition to professional wargaming communities is proving less precarious. For instance, several wargaming organizations have increasingly sought to engage a wider audience. The diverse audience of the GUWS webinar series, where military officers, students, educators, and hobbyists interact on a global scale, is a strong example of this type of engagement.

Finally, studying and playing different types of wargames – especially commercial games– aids in developing an understanding of the depth and breadth of the field and game design. This provides an encyclopedic base of knowledge to draw upon for future game design and career opportunities, as appropriate. Some professional wargamers may not see the value in commercial games, but aspiring wargamers generally lack access to unclassified and freely available professional wargames. Commercial games offer a way to learn about different game styles, mechanics, and topics, and until an aspiring wargamer joins an organization, commercial games may be all they have. And let’s not forget, many of the giants of the wargaming field learned on SPI and Avalon Hill commercial wargames.

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Graduate students from Georgetown and military officers playing Reconquering Rome at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity.

Widening the Pipeline: What the Wargaming Community Can Do

Currently, beginning a career in wargaming is a function of luck – a fortunate sequence of events and experiences, just coherent enough to get that first real wargaming job or opportunity. Expecting aspiring wargamers to navigate this in the hope of identifying and hiring the next generation of wargamers is both foolish and unsustainable. This is not the way to ensure that the next generation will be drawn from a diverse pool of talent – it will simply reproduce the same type of talent.

The wargaming community can change the experience for aspiring wargamers in three major ways:

  1. Eliminate the disconnect between aspiring wargamers and professionals. Aspiring wargamers are out there, if established wargaming professionals look for them. Wargaming professionals must actively participate in eliminating this disconnect – they must seek out and develop rising wargaming talent, instead of just leaving the door open behind them. This can occur on an individual level or by linking professional organizations to student organizations in a formal or informal way. These connections offer an incredible opportunity to identify and mentor the next generation of wargamers.
  2. Improve opportunities for civilian-military interaction in wargaming. There is a gap between civilian and military education, even though the civil-military relationship is foundational for U.S. national security. Robust educational wargaming can serve as the connective tissue between civilian and military student communities at all levels. In all my educational experience, I have only had rare opportunities to wargame side-by-side with the military personnel that I may one day have as colleagues. And yet, my favorite experiences in wargaming are those in which civilians and military personnel have participated in a wargame together. I have facilitated games that pitted midshipmen against undergraduates, colonels against GS-15s, and Marine Corps majors against Georgetown graduate students. More learning and exchange is necessary, both for education and enhancing the value of wargaming for both sides.
  3. Offer more academic wargaming opportunities. Academia should embrace wargaming, both as an educational tool and a skill to be taught. University is typically where students explore their career interests, so if wargaming is not even on the table as an option, how will they know if they are interested? Formal courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels can help students to build the transferable skills that they will need for a successful career in wargaming. Even when formal design courses are not an option, universities can leverage wargames as educational tools on a wide range of subjects, such as military history, crisis management, strategy, and more. Several courses, both civilian and military, are increasingly utilizing wargames in the classroom and this trend should be encouraged. To do this, universities must provide adequate resources and allow professors to freely include wargames in their curriculum.

The field of wargaming should not rely on happy accidents. For the wargaming community to evolve and grow, it will require a robust system of diverse opportunities and pathways. Producing wargamers should not be left to luck – a whimsical roll of the dice.

Caitlyn Leong 

5 responses to “How to raise a wargamer

  1. brtrain 28/05/2020 at 11:53 pm

    Sorry, I had to take the link parts out as I guess you cannot post URLs to this comment section as an anti-spam measure.

  2. brtrain 28/05/2020 at 11:52 pm

    David, I will say that compared to 25-30 years ago, there is an amount of information online that is just stupefying. And I have said elsewhere that the first wargame to be designed and developed collaboratively over the Net was Arabian Nightmare: Kuwait War, using the GEnie system, fully 30 years ago.

    Meanwhile, here are two Geeklists that list some wargame designers (and artists) with a military background.

    boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/59499/veterans-day-tribute-game-designers-and-artists
    This one has over 400 entries but it seems most of them are/were artists.

    boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/182302/military-veterans-and-wargames-theyve-designed
    This one is a lot shorter, but to the point.
    When I saw that someone had put me on it, I commented:
    “I will say that my time in the military gave me a deep appreciation for the effects of chaos generally: the order-counterorder-disorder process; the misdirection, wastage and frustration of effort, time and resources; the many ways in which command, control and communication can be misapplied, misunderstood, or plain ignored; the unpredictability of the effects (first order) of any particular action, or reaction to said action (second order) – in short, all the many things that are wrapped up in the word “friction” as Clausewitz used it. A German staff officer in WW II once quipped, “The reason that the Canadian Army does well in wartime is that war is chaos, and the Canadian Army practises chaos on a daily basis.” Hence the healthy respect in many of my game designs for random events, nonlinear results and the many ways plans can fall apart.”

  3. sepinsky 26/05/2020 at 8:12 am

    Caitlyn, I appreciate your thoughts on this and agree that we have very significant pipeline problems in wargaming, which, as you correctly point out, is corollary to and pales in comparison to the diversity problem. One complication that to the pipeline argument, which I failed to emphasize in my remarks at the GUWS Wargaming career panel, is that few wargamers that I know have careers that involve only wargaming. At my FFRDC, if someone came in with a wargaming resume a mile long, there’s a significant chance we wouldn’t hire them. All of our wargamers are “analysts first”. The wargamers that I work (~10 on our team) with are often currently spending nearly 100% of their time working on wargaming projects – but of that, less than half of that time is spent doing what most people might call “wargaming”. Project management and analytical reports make up probably 30-50% of an average wargaming budget (by dollars; *very* rough swag). Those wargmers need to be able to write a really good, compelling, and high quality analytic report (which arguably has more lasting impact than the game). In the past, in periods where wargame projects are less prolific, those same analysts would have been expected to work significant parts of their time on non-wargame analytic projects. Wargaming is a small fraction of my FFRDC’s project budget, maybe 5% on a good year. So when we’re looking to bring people on to our team, one of the biggest questions we have is: “What can you do other than wargaming?” “If the wargaming projects stopped coming in, could we still find you work?”

    So while I entirely agree with your comments on the wargame pipeline, it also needs to include the complication that wargamers need a plethora of other skills and have to have, for lack of a better word, a “fallback career”; at least my my FFRDC. But my suspicion is that that’s pretty true elsewhere as well.

  4. sunray42 22/05/2020 at 7:58 am

    One of the missing elements not mentioned in this article for many professional wargamer designers entry into the field, is the obvious route and link through professional military education during or after serving in the military (eg Caffrey, Dunnigan, Train and many others were serving soldiers /officers first and wargamer designers afterwards). It is present today – Sebastian Bae being only one of a few recent examples. The other main recruiting ground was in the private military based research houses, eg RAND, or the defence research establishments- eg DSTL, TNO, DST etc
    A straw poll would find that a fairly high proportion of older wargame designers are ex-military, most have been Staff College trained, and many have seen active service in a variety of conflicts. Wargaming for these folks came after or during military service.
    Many of the the other routes in through academia were also linked directly or indirectly to military education organisations – eg through the military colleges : West Point, Quantico, Sandhurst, Monterey, Newport etc where the academic types rubbed shoulders with serving officers, and that led into their wargaming roles and design as they were the ‘constant’ in a rotational staff – Paddy Griffiths is one of the best examples here.
    These historical routes might also explain the scarcity of female wargame designers (not other non military serious games) in the same approximate age range, women simply weren’t allowed to serve in combat arms and it has been a very lop-sided demographic for male/females serving in the military until fairly recently – it still is a bit lopsided in the combat arms. Many of the best business game designers (certainly in the UK) were female, because they came to the trade through psychology, training, finance or marketing professional backgrounds.
    So the route into professional wargaming I propose, has often come from the people who first used them professionally or who had a professional interest as part of their job- not a big surprise there.
    Commercial wargame designers in the past were also often ex military, but that has changed gradually over time – l suspect largely as a result of the ability to do research and collaborate across time and distance more easily which has opened the field to some brilliantly gifted designers with absolutely no military experience…. this would be an interesting data trawl for someone with lock down time available!

    David

  5. John Curry 22/05/2020 at 4:40 am

    Well said. In recent years there have been some positive developments. The spread of professional wargaming conferences (Connections), the availability of various wargaming text books and handbooks for specific methods and the rise of scholarship that is examining various aspects of wargaming.

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