Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

“Political correctness” and professional wargaming

Every once in a while, a hobby wargame forum will feature dire warnings that “political correctness” is threatening our ability to play with dice, cardboard chits, and toy soldiers.

Sometimes these debates revolve around issues of inclusivity, such as the experience of women wargamers. I think most hobbyists are happy the enlarge the pool of players, but there are always a few who raise the bizarre spectre of enforced quotas or make remarkably misogynist arguments rooted in a kind of archaic biological determinism. Reflecting this, at least one major hobby wargaming forum effectively prohibits sharing items on women and wargaming on the grounds that it is too divisive and “political.” Sheesh.

Other times, someone will suggest that discouraging Confederate flags in promotional artwork or sensitivities around the use of swastikas or SS insignia on unit counters imperils our fundamental freedoms or understanding of history. This too is a pretty hard argument to sustain. There are, after all, more than seven thousand American Civil War or World War Two-themed games listed on BoardGameGeek, and more every month.

Finally, in recent years the hobby (and society more broadly) has seen a much more thoughtful discussion of issues of representation, with greater attention to how hobby games and other forms of cultural production, such as cinema, might sustain certain biases—for example, in their treatment of colonialism or the non-European world. This discussion, which is fundamentally about greater diversity, inclusion, and accuracy in historical gaming, is generally a good thing, resulting in such positive developments as the Zenobia Award.

What does all this have to do with serious, professional wargaming? Very little, I think. It is fair to say that sensitivities around the presence of Confederate flags in a wargame is not something that any professional wargamer ever needs worry about. Indeed, the only American Civil War sensitivity that I’m aware of—related to me by an American government colleague—was him having to explain to foreign visitors why the name of a military base, street, statue, or artwork seemingly glorified those who committed treason and killed US citizens in defence of race-based chattel slavery.

Instead, the “political correctness” challenges faced within professional wargaming and other serious policy gaming are three-fold:

(1) Bureaucratic politics and inter-service or inter-agency sensitivities. Who do we invite? Who don’t we invite? If we game topic X will it cause problems with agencies Y and Z? Can we employ wargames as a tool (or weapon) of inter-service budget competition? Stephen Downes-Martin in particular has done seminal work on the broader institutional game within which professional wargames are situated. I’ve certainly spent many hours in discussions about who gets invited to games in which a key consideration is bureaucratic politics.

(2) Alliance sensitivities. “Political correctness” doesn’t just pertain to inter-service rivalries, but also to international partnerships. Anyone who has ever been involved in the design of a NATO wargame will have experienced how difficult it is to develop a scenario that doesn’t upset any of the alliance partners. During the Trump Administration in particular, many US partners were also very nervous about how to portray American policy in serious wargames—indeed, in an informal poll of non-American Western defence professionals at Connections North this year, almost a third reported that they felt they couldn’t accurately represent the US in their wargames for fear of damaging bilateral relations with Washington.

(3) Fear of the political or diplomatic ramifications of media leaks. Connections US once shelved a potential game lab topic (external intervention in the Syrian civil war) because the host institution—quite rightly—feared that the topic, if reported in the media, could be misinterpreted by the US public, allies, or adversaries. One serious game I developed for a government client was never used outside the department with key stakeholders out of concern as to how others might portray the game. Two others I was asked to assist with in the past year were never greenlighted in part because of concerns over diplomatic sensitivities if the outside subject matter experts involved spoke to the media. On more than one occasion I’ve had to run serious policy games or red teaming sessions under an academic “chapeau” to reduce the political or diplomatic risk to government participants.

You’ll noticed that I haven’t included diversity and inclusion in my list of “political correctness” issues here. While a few hobby wargamers may still yearn for the early twentieth century, when HG Wells could subtitle Little Wars “a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books,” in the professional domain it is now generally recognized that diversity can contribute to the quality of analysis, that a commitment to inclusion expands the pool of talent, and that eliminating formal and informal barriers is a good thing. Most major professional associations have endorsed the Derby House Principles, and most gaming professionals welcome steps to expand and broaden the community. I was struck by this at the recent Connections UK conference, where promoting inclusion was presented as a cornerstone of what it is professionals do. It can also be seen in this recent Dstl job advertisement for a wargaming analyst, which makes a particular effort to reach out to underrepresented groups. This isn’t to say there aren’t obstacles and points of friction, and the burden of dealing with these often seems to unfairly fall on the shoulders of women and minorities. There are also real issues to be discussed about how to promote and how to harness diversity, how to identify and develop excellence, and what attitudes, behaviours,and institutional procedures might benefit from change. However, I think in general professional wargaming is turning the corner—not as quickly as we might all want, perhaps, but turning it all the same.

Which brings me back to my central point: handling the inevitable political sensitivities in professional wargame design, or indeed in other serious games. What are the tricks and techniques for doing this? It would make a great panel or working group topic for a future Connections conference…

3 responses to ““Political correctness” and professional wargaming

  1. Rex Brynen 19/09/2021 at 8:05 pm

    However, the history of WW2 wargaming suggests that the issues I identified did matter: Gilbert Roberts had to fight significant bureaucratic battles to keep WATU alive, and Japanese pre-war and wartime gaming was influenced by an array of bureaucratic and political constraints. In the US, the prewar development of naval wargaming was shaped by intra-USN considerations too.

  2. Tracy Johnson 19/09/2021 at 7:44 pm

    On the opposite spectrum of Dr. Downes-Martin, I have always been a hobby gamer. In the past couple of years am grateful to have been let into their discussion circles.

    My opinion is thus: All this will go away in the next major war for the simple expedient nobody will have time to put up with it. Wargamers will either put-up or shut-up on the gaming table, because their lives will depend not on their political correctness, but in their loyalty to the state that employs them to game future possible outcomes, historical or modern.

    This goes for both sides in any such future war.

  3. brtrain 19/09/2021 at 4:38 pm

    Dr. Downes-Martin, paging Dr. Downes-Martin… indeed.
    While I’m proud and grateful for what opportunities I have had to be involved in professional wargaming and more broadly some PME, I’ve never forgotten that while there are fruitful “connections” between the wargaming worlds that allow one to borrow from the other, the two have fundamentally different purposes.
    I also think the small-p political concerns have been there for as long as there has been professional gaming, perhaps even before it became an established practice (look at the variable pace and practice of its adoption between the American service branches).

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