Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

McGrady: Pipelines, chokepoints, and what the heck are we doing?

The following article was written for PAXsims by ED McGrady. Dr. McGrady spent over 30 years at CNA where he built and directed teams on wargaming and other defense topics. He is currently a Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and Principal at Monks Hood Media LLC.

There has been some recent discussion within the community about how to move people from “not a game designer/controller” to “professional (paid) game designer/controller” in an effective, efficient, and inclusive way.  As someone who once upon a time had the ability to hire, mentor, and promote game designers (and analysts) I thought I’d weigh in a bit on this issue.  Since I now run classes on wargame design for the Military Operations Research Society I still have some stake in the problem.  

I’d like to talk about two questions:  how do people transition from “not game designer/controller” to “professional game designer/controller?” Why is it so darn hard to make the transition?  What would I say to someone looking to become the next Peter Perla?  (Other than “Oh, my!”)  I’d also like to talk about and “what, exactly, are we doing with all this education on wargaming?”  And are our classes building the next cadre of game designers, or are they building better consumers of games?   Or a little of the first and a lot of the second?

First of all, as usual, let’s play the definitions game.  I’m talking about games that investigate or explore important and complex issues in a professional context.  These games involve players who are familiar with the profession and context of the game and are often doing something that resembles the job they have outside of the game.  I do not mean games for education, training, or entertainment, or even games that address broad policy or conceptual subjects.  Specifically, I’m talking about detailed, technical, games, whether they involve military units, disaster response, law enforcement, or disease response.  For military operations we’d call these “force-on-force” games but the forces don’t have to be military units – figuring out how to respond to a pandemic can be just as challenging.  These are the games that involve the most technical detail to build, and the ones that people are coincidentally willing to pay the most for.  Note that I said “technical detail” as policy games can be just as difficult to build, requiring the designer to often extrapolate knowledge that no one, including the intelligence community, has.  

Because of this when hiring I gravitate toward people with technical degrees.  When you’re running a game and someone turns to you and says “I’m using an AI-enhanced, spread-spectrum, wideband, emitter/receiver to manage the EM spectrum of the warhead” you cannot stare blankly at the person or guess what the impact will be.  Even if you had never heard of it before.  You have to have the technical prowess and engineering knowledge to be able to understand the technology and make a split second assessment that someone from the program office will buy into.  Or at least meet them halfway in a conversation.  

The nature of modern joint warfare requires a baseline level of experience with science and technology.  That often comes from experience in the military.  But with technology and systems moving quickly military experience alone can be inadequate to assess things we don’t understand.    Without a mathematical and scientific background, it can be difficult to imagine scenario details and extrapolate outcomes in games of exploration.  It’s not that it is impossible to do it, it is just harder when you don’t have the scientific or engineering background.  

That means the first hurdle to becoming a professional game designer is having the technical chops to manage the kind of systems that we use in modern warfare (and disaster response and disease response and cyber response: the list could go on).   You can get that from experience, but mostly you get it from having a technical degree in science or engineering.  

It’s easier for me to teach someone with a technical degree how to design games, and how the military works, than for me to teach a game designer or military professional science or engineering.  For professionals with degrees in the liberal arts who want to be game designers – there are ways to make it work – but I can’t have only philosophers and political scientists on my team (I’ve had both working for me).

So that is the first hurdle.  You have to be familiar with engineering or science.  You have to be able to do good operations analysis because a lot of game design and control involves operations analysis.

You also have to understand how the military, and organizations, work.  This requires, in my opinion, no small amount of cynicism and experience.  Games are about people, and about organizations.  How the 3 doesn’t get along with the 5, how the CDC ignores HHS, and how everybody screws up the public information message.   Where I used to work we’d solve this problem by sticking a PhD with a physics degree out on an aircraft carrier for a year or so.  Problem solved.  They came back with a lot of appreciation for how the military works, and how staffs and complex organizations try to get things done despite all the people who work there.

I can’t have a game designer who doesn’t know the subject area in enough detail to build in the tricks and complexities of real life, but I also need someone with enough technical chops to stand up to the O-6 who has flown the aircraft all his career.  

So that’s another hurdle.  

Then there is the small, and really tertiary, problem of knowing how to design games.  I can probably teach you that if you fit all of the above criteria.  

But you have to be interested.  

That, frankly, is a huge challenge.  People who are good analysts and have knowledge of the subject area have lots of potential opportunities.  Watching me do the same force on force scenarios over and over again while getting fussed by the players is not necessarily an attractive advertisement for a long-haul career in gaming.  You have to be dedicated, which is something that hobby gamers have in abundance.     

Hobby gamers’ role in professional games also raises another issue: some groups not traditionally associated with hobby gaming can feel unwelcome due to hobby gaming’s culture.  That is not appropriate in a professional environment but it does happen.  In my opinion some of the fault lies in the blending of the hobby culture, which can be quite misogynistic, with the profession.  If you don’t believe me look around the next time you are at Con and note all of the magazine game book covers with buxom women on the front, or the “joke” minis of the same.  It’s a bit awkward and a lot embarrassing.  I tend to think we need to work on it by distancing ourselves from that culture, but that is another essay.  

But this is where we lose a lot of our best candidates:  the field is not that exciting once you get in the trenches.  It’s a lot of slogging through sponsor’s bureaucracies, same scenarios, and endless arguments about systems.  And pitching for new funding.  You can’t run a game unless someone pays for it.  But if you are a hobby gamer this is your life’s dream and all the nonsense is merely the pain that lets you appreciate the joy of your job.    

Unfortunately for hobby wargamers there is a fourth hurdle.  You have to actually know how to behave yourself in a modern, high-speed, progressive, organization (see my remark about Cons).  That can be a bit of a problem.  Organizations like to screen out the difficult and challenging during the interview process.  That screening works pretty well.

The upshot is that it’s really hard to hire a game designer/controller, and you are almost better off building them yourself instead of trying to hire one from outside your organization.  (But wait, you say, “I’m a hip hobby designer who majored in operations research twenty years ago.” kbye.)

The good news is that you really don’t need a heck of a lot of top-level designers.  You certainly need analysts and support personnel, but the amount of business probably supports one or two top level designers per FFRDC, and one or two per major staff element within the military.  That’s not a lot of people.  

And once they get established designers don’t tend to die very quickly (despite their lifestyle choices) and don’t tend to leave because – “I’m a freaking game designer why would I ever leave that job?”  (Other than the constant travel, need to work hard for funding, and dealing with all the unrelated organizational issues you have to deal with, like hiring people.)  This means that the pipeline is narrow, and long, which is even more discouraging to that new, highly educated, smart, and marketable analyst I’ve just hired to do wargaming.  

So, “why are we doing all these classes on designing professional games?”  Let’s ignore the obvious answer that staffs think if they train a couple of guys on staff they will be able to avoid the rather expensive cost of paying contractors or FFRDC’s to do it for them.  Or the pain of getting their commander to task another over-tasked, wargame-providing, command to do it.  Instead I’d say that we are not actually building a lot of high-speed game designers in our classes.  Rather we are teaching people to:

  • Be good consumers of games.
  • Be better players in games.
  • Be better sponsors and funders of games.

We do this by telling people about the basics of game design, and, I believe more importantly, helping people understand what games are and are not.  For designers that take our classes we can pass on pointers and tricks that we have learned from years of experience: but I don’t believe that in one or two weeks we can build a professional game designer that can hold their own against a crowd of unruly O-6’s.  Our classes may be a stepping off point for a long period of apprenticeship and learning to be a game designer.  But for the vast majority of people it will be a (hopefully) pleasant introduction to the things they should ask, task, and review when they encounter a game in their day jobs.  

Now I have outlined a somewhat unhappy and difficult path into game design.  It is one path and based on my experiences doing complex games for demanding sponsors.  There are other routes you can take, not the least of which is that you simply declare yourself a game designer and do what the last guy in the job did.  But I’m talking about building people who will move the field forward, will bring in considerable funding for their organization around gaming, and will build a cadre of new analysts who are capable of, and enjoy, doing gaming.  Analysts that will become insightful, creative, and critical game designers.  That is a narrow path which, unfortunately, can be quite discouraging.  

ED McGrady

4 responses to “McGrady: Pipelines, chokepoints, and what the heck are we doing?

  1. Joe Saur 01/06/2020 at 11:20 am

    In thinking about what you said, I have to object to your statement that we only need 1 or 2 good game developers for each FFRDC; I would assert that we need many, many more, but at a much lower level. For James Sterrett and Mike Dunn out at Leavenworth, and in my class at MCU, the goal was to teach O-3s, O-4s and O-5s the basics of wargaming and wargame mechanics so that they could, in turn, use those to teach lessons from their MOS to their subordinates. So that Mike Robel could pull out a pocketful of 1:258 tanks when the convoy stopped on the way to the exercise area and review the upcoming scenario (with options) with his tank commanders. So my Norwegian Army officer could discuss options for stopping a Russian scouting patrol (with BMPs) from crossing a river in northern Norway. So that the Coast Guard officer could train his E-5 and E-6 boat coxswains who are tasked with providing armed escort to LNG tankers entering US ports. The issue is creating some sort of a career progression for these folks.

    Back in 1983, I had the opportunity to swap billets with Ed Sowa; he was taking my place as OinC out at Mass Maritime; I could have had his slot at the NWC Wargame Center. For a variety of reasons, I turned it down, but looking back, it would have been a perfect entry into the upper ranks.

    Bill Lademann’s staff, both military and civilian, are there because of their specialty, whether it be infantry, helos, statistics, or sociology; as a result, he runs his annual Professional Military Education (PME) days about once a year. He’ll run one game, and two or three of us were invited to run additional games to keep his entire staff occupied. Great fun for us, but for them, a chance to better understand the mechanics, the writing of rules, the form and function of a CRT, and to grasp the inherent enjoyment of the games, whether one wins or loses. Perhaps the various wargame staffs (War Colleges, etc.) need to go out of their way to recruit the mid-grade officers who have excelled at running those training games I mentioned earlier. And perhaps the Services should include grades for this kind of activity in their officer evaluations.

    For civilians who want to enter the field, your advice (learn technology, then the military) is sound, but leaves out all the individuals who know history (so that they can better predict what the Chinese government might look like in 20 years), geography (“Nine-Dash line? What’s that? And who cares?”), economics (and the potential impact of COVID-19, climate change/sea level rising, and AI on any future predictions). Oh, and the communicators: those who do well at getting their point across orally, in writing, and these days, via PowerPoint. In time, these also can become good game designers.

    So I guess my bottom line is that we need to enlarge the aperture when we discuss the entry level to the profession, and think about ways to make the steps in progression more visible, and more readily accessible.

  2. Joe Saur 28/05/2020 at 7:57 pm

    And, if you’re in the military, a lucky set of orders to work at the NWC, or for Bill Lademan, always helps…! (I found that most of their staff are there because of their MOS, not their interest in wargames…)

  3. Charles Turnitsa 28/05/2020 at 5:38 pm

    Ed – good article. I’ve been in the hobby side since the late 70s, and on the professional side since Millenial Challenge. From all I have seen, getting people interested is tough. While I don’t think being a hobby gamer (and the best I’ve seen, for professional work are tabletop gamers, not computer gamers, but that is just a generality, not a constraint) is a prerequisite, almost all the good professionals I have known do participate in the hobby side, at some level. A group of us that used to work for Joint Staff observed that the right people combined some level of each of the following: professional technical training (programmer, engineer, analyst, etc), interest in gaming, interest in military history, familiarity with military culture (even if as a DOD contractor), and some weird combination of enthusiasm/competitiveness/ego. The ego part is only in a small measure, too much (like pepper in an omelet) will spoil the rest, but the right person has to believe in their own designs and decisions to a certain extent.

  4. D R 28/05/2020 at 5:25 pm

    Yes, yes, yes and a few more yesses


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