Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Smith, Ringrose, and Barker: computer vs manual wargaming

Jeremy Smith, Trevor Ringrose, and Stephen Barker have published interesting article in a forthcoming (2023) issue of The Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation describing “an experimental intervention to investigate user perceptions of computer versus manual board wargame.”

Analysis of the literature related to wargaming identifies a requirement for the perception of immersion and engagement in wargaming. The references generally indicate that the computer is less able to facilitate collective engagement than a manual system; however, there is as yet little empirical evidence to support this. There are also suggestions that players perceive manual games differently to a computer wargame. An experiment, derived from the previous analysis, was performed to address the research question: Is there a discernible difference between the levels of players’ engagement in computer wargames versus manual wargames? The experiment provides empirical evidence that there is a difference in players’ engagement with a computer wargame compared to a manual game, in particular with the manual game providing greater engagement with other players. Hence, if engagement between players is to be encouraged and regarded as an important aspect of a wargame for defense applications, then this provides evidence that the manual approach can indeed be better.

The approach taken was to have students play two different but similar wargames—one a manual boardgame, the other a digital wargame—and then survey them about their engagement across several categories.

The two games were chosen to be as similar as possible in scale, scope, complexity, and length while team sizes were also the same in both cases and team members seated similarly closely together, with the main difference being people being individually seated at a PC in the computer case and seated round a table in the manual case. The test subjects were available and willing samples of those people taking these four courses. Each course ran each game once, with two courses running manual first and two running computer first. Questionnaire response was optional, and sometimes on different days, so that although the same people were playing both games, a paired analysis was not possible because not everybody responded to both. There is also a risk of non-response being indicative of non-engagement.

The students “varied across serving and retired military officers and other ranks, defense-related civilians, and non-defense-related civilians.” The manual game was “a very simple introductory tactical military game” developed at Cranfield University. The computer wargame used was CONTACT, “a computer-based wargame developed in the United Kingdom and used by UK MoD and several overseas military nations” used here as “a simple introduction to a computer-based military wargame, so that only a limited set of its functionality is exposed and used.”

The results showed slightly the manual game reported somewhat higher levels of personal engagement and much higher levels of engagement with others. (The “experience” row actually shows the number of respondents, 45 and 34 respectively).

The authors note some limitations to their study. Not everyone completed a questionnaire for both games and there is no way of knowing whether the “missing” responses might have systematically biased the results. They also used different games, so it is possible that the game designs were a significant factor in student evaluations. It might also be noted that while engagement is generally a desirable characteristic of all serious games, it is possible to be so engaged and so eager to win that players may potentially learns the wrong lessons—something that Anders Frank has referred to as “gamer mode.”

To date academic research on digital vs manual gameplay has largely been focused on hobby games (for example, some excellent research on the effects of automating the board game Pandemic here and here). Much of it has also been by digital enthusiasts. Smith, Ringrose, and Barker have performed a service by focusing attention on wargaming in particular.

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