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Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by James Halstead. Part 2 can be found here.


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Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework 

Wargaming offers a unique methodological toolset to study historical conflicts and while there has been interest in using wargames as an educational tool, there is little focus on what wargaming can offer analytical, military history research.[1] The first part of this article will outline how the structured, and exhaustive, research necessary to design historical simulations can provide unique insights for historical research. Since wargame design needs to account for player decisions that diverge from history there is a need to comprehensively research not just the historical record but counterfactuals too. This analysis is carried out in a structured framework which helps the designer to understand both the environment the battle is fought in, but also the military makeup and performance of both sides and how best to incentivise historical play.[2]

The research for a wargame therefore requires the creation of a very different and, in some ways, more rigorous and encompassing model than many traditional military histories. While there is a strong element of the counterfactual to wargaming this still presents ‘a highly useful way of exploring cause and effect.’ Developing a rigorous and thoroughly analytical representational model of historical conflicts can be of huge value in giving greater prominence to underutilised sources and in understanding contemporary opinions and priorities.[3]

Wargames research utilizes a framework that studies the geographical environment, the orders of battle of the opposing sides, generic capabilities of the formations involved and opposing decision environments.[4] This first section will study these factors individually, exploring exactly why they are important and the consequences that proper examination and integration of these factors can have for understanding of military history.

Geography

Studying the ground over which a battle is fought is vital for any study of a battle. Along with the Order of Battle, it is one of the most obvious research benefits of war gaming. Properly modelling a battle’s geographic environment can lead to interesting insights. For example, the German Operation Michael Offensive in March, 1918, against the British Fifth Army and elements of Third Army is often seen as being so successful (at least initially) because of the favourable force to space ratios in favour of the Imperial German Army, better tactics and weak British defences. What is often not considered is the nature of the terrain itself with the British defences lying on a wide, flat plain, with higher ground to the north and south. Approaching Operation Michael as a wargame reveals the nature of the terrain acted against the British defenders and they were forced to give up so much ground, falling back on river lines such as the Somme, partly because of the dearth of defensible features behind Fifth Army’s front line. In turn, these river lines were often only given up when outflanked; meaning that the British Army simply was not able to fall back on terrain favourable to a defence across the entire width of their front line. The German assault against the southern portion of Third Army units to the north of Fifth Army was less successful during Operation Michael and the follow-up, Operation Mars, partly because the British defenders were fighting in much more favourable terrain for defence. Because terrain is such an integral part of the wider model wargames encourage far more engagement than is usual with the characteristics of the terrain on which the historical conflict was fought. With most traditional military histories lacking good-quality maps this can encourage the wider use of easily available sources with a corresponding increase in the level to which terrain is considered as a factor in the historical result.

Order of Battle

Alongside the creation of a proper map, researching an order of battle and the generic capabilities of formations are the basic building blocks in the creation of a rigorously analytical model. This is important to the creation of a wargame because, unlike traditional military history, missing key formations out or incorrectly modelling their capabilities in combat can have important consequences.

The research of an accurate Order of Battle is often nothing much more than a necessary task that doesn’t reveal anything particularly exciting; however, it is still an important step to creating a viable model and therefore something that needs to be properly addressed. Again, like maps, many traditional historical works often give the order of battle only the most cursory of attention. Although orders of battle often do not provide anything particularly revelatory, they undoubtedly contribute a great deal to the wider framework. Knowing exactly which troops were where is an important part of creating a valid simulation and, again, creates a valuable, if incremental contribution to the wider wargame model and can lead to some important, if seemingly minor revelations regarding force to space ratios and the true strength of formations often represented on maps as abstract unit symbols.

However, in some cases the value of proper orders of battle created through commercial wargames have provided interesting revisions to historical works. Dave Parham’s research on the Battle of Stalingrad in the 1980s points out the 76th Infantry Division did not fight at Stalingrad: the assault on the city centre consisting of only two divisions rather than the three that many histories have commonly asserted.[5] Similarly Orders of Battle for Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia in 1914, are obscure and hard to come by, with the most modern, and easily accessible, order of battle found in a commercially published wargame.[6]

Generic Capabilities of Formations

Understanding the generic capabilities of formations which took part in the conflict is really the full marriage of the geographical study and order of battle into a fully realized model simulating the physical capabilities of the military formations involved. Studying the combat record of formations provides a wider appreciation of the generic capabilities of both side’s formations while understanding how the terrain affected the ability of the units collected in the Order of Battle to move and carry out combat introduces completes the basic physical model. The final step is to understand the contemporary military objectives, doctrines and politico-social priorities of participants.

Decision Making Environments

In order to produce an accurate simulation, designers must understand why commanders behaved as they did historically, which requires the priorities and motivations for both sides to be incorporated into the wider model. Historical actors often do not behave rationally to modern perspectives, and what good wargame and historical research does is uncover the reasons that made their choices made appear rational. It is necessary to study the strategic priorities and objectives of both sides to understand why they behaved as they did, and to introduce incentives into the design, to encourage players behave in this way.

For example, in a simulation of the German invasion of France in World War Two, it might seem obvious to the player that they need to attack on either side of any German breakthroughs, neatly cutting off and isolating the Wehrmacht Panzer formations. However, in any accurate simulation of the battle, there will be rules simulating command and control confusion in order to prevent the Allied player from doing precisely this. Similarly, accurately depicting the decision-making environment can also help bridge the gap between military and cultural or social history. A simulation of British and Commonwealth forces in Western Europe in 1944 and 1945 would not just require the accurate modelling of their capabilities but also consideration of the specific style in which they fought battles; to avoid casualties and maintain morale. A successful simulation might, for example, impose heavy penalties on the Commonwealth player for taking infantry casualties and encourage them to use heavy artillery support and set-piece attacks.

Studying the decision environments and the factor’s which the opposing commanders took into account when making their plans can provide very different perspectives from the logical assumptions modern audiences can make when analysing history. This is, of course, something that all good historians should be doing in the first place but the clear analytical framework process that war game design necessitates can often make those perspectives much clearer and assist insight into the wider battle.

Wargames, while utilizing the same skills as traditional military history, research within a framework that provides much more technical and specific understanding of conflicts which can, in turn, challenge many assumptions made by existing histories. It is not so much a radically new way of approaching research but of framing the evidence and creating an emphasis on underutilized, but very accessible, sources such as Orders of Battle or maps. In the second part of this article, this framework will be applied to studying the ‘Gaza School Counterfactual’ that was developed in the 1930s about the Third Battle of Gaza, as an example of the way that this wargaming research framework can benefit historical research by framing underutilized, but easily accessible evidence.

[1] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) and Robert Citino, ‘Lessons from the Hexagon’ in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming

[2] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) p. 47

[3] Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: An Epic History , (New York, 2013), p. 126

[4] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) p. 47-48

[5] John Hill, Battle for Stalingrad Main Rule Book, (Simulation Publications Incorporated: New York, 1980), p. 19

[6] Serbien Muβ Sterberien, (GMT, 2013)


James Halstead is a military historian who is primarily interested in the two world wars of the 20th century. He studied for his Masters at Kings College London (including Professor Phil Sabin’s Conflict Simulation module) and is currently studying for his PhD on Information Management in the British and Commonwealth Armies at Brunel University, London. James has delivered lectures on the Royal Flying Corps and Air Force in the Palestine Campaign at the RAF Museum, Hendon and will do so again at Wolverhampton in 2020. James can be found either on twitter at @JamesTTHalstead or you can read his research blog at:  youstupidboy.wordpress.com

Gender and overconfidence in wargames

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This isn’t a new piece of research, but I just came across it and thought it might be of interest to PAXsims readers: a 2006 article by Dominic Johnson et al on “Overconfidence in Wargames: Experimental Evidence on Expectations, Aggression, Gender and Testosterone,” in Proceedings. Biological sciences  273, 1600 (2006).

Overconfidence has long been noted by historians and political scientists as a major cause of war. However, the origins of such overconfidence, and sources of variation, remain poorly understood. Mounting empirical studies now show that mentally healthy people tend to exhibit psychological biases that encourage optimism, collectively known as ‘positive illusions’. Positive illusions are thought to have been adaptive in our evolutionary past because they served to cope with adversity, harden resolve, or bluff opponents. Today, however, positive illusions may contribute to costly conflicts and wars. Testosterone has been proposed as a proximate mediator of positive illusions, given its role in promoting dominance and challenge behaviour, particularly in men. To date, no studies have attempted to link overconfidence, decisions about war, gender, and testosterone. Here we report that, in experimental wargames: (i) people are overconfident about their expectations of success; (ii) those who are more overconfident are more likely to attack; (iii) overconfidence and attacks are more pronounced among males than females; and (iv) testosterone is related to expectations of success, but not within gender, so its influence on overconfidence cannot be distinguished from any other gender specific factor. Overall, these results constitute the first empirical support of recent theoretical work linking overconfidence and war.

The full article (at the link above) also includes this experimental finding too:

Finally, in probing the characteristics of individuals that were prone to overconfidence and launching wars, we found that levels of narcissism (as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Raskin & Terry 1988) were significantly related to pre-game self-rankings. Males (but not females) with high narcissistic qualities tended to expect to do better (all data, Spearman’s ρ=−0.21, N=185, p=0.005; males only, ρ=−0.25, N=106, p=0.012; females only, ρ=−0.20, N=79, p=0.074). Moreover, those males (and again not females) who launched unprovoked attacks on their opponents had significantly higher narcissism scores than those who did not (Mann–Whitney U-test: all data, Z=2.23, N=46,137, p=0.025; males, Z=2.09, N=33,72, p=0.037; females, Z=0.92, N=13,65, p=0.36; see figure 3).

In short, “narcissism scores predicted both overconfidence and unprovoked attacks among males”—but not females.


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Room to game (or, the Battle of Winterfell explained)

 

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Course of action wargaming for the Battle of Winterfell. Might the room be responsible for the defenders’ military missteps?

 

The Battle of Winterfell was the final battle of the Great War against the Night King and Army of the Dead. While ultimately successful, the human defenders adopted a notoriously weak defensive strategy, involving poorly-defended ditches, misplaced archers and artillery, and a suicidal frontal cavalry charge.

Scholars and historians have suggested that weak scriptwriting was responsible for this. However, recent scientific research suggests that the real culprit might be the room selected for pre-battle course of action wargaming.

Everyone who has ever conducted a serious game knows that the room matters. How early can you get access? Are the tables big enough? Can they be moved (and are they all the same height)? Will the audiovisual and IT systems work on the day—and what’s your fallback if they don’t? Are there breakout/team/control rooms nearby? If so, will their location enhance gameplay (by fostering the rights sorts of interaction and immersion), or undermine it? Where will coffee and lunch be served?

There is also, however, considerable evidence that room quality affects player performance in more fundamental ways. A recent study by M. Nakamura in Simulation & Gaming found that the size and layout of the room had significant effects on how players assessed the gaming experience in their debriefings:

Results from the current study demonstrate that the difference in room condition was influential. In HACONORI, participants felt more satisfaction in the small room than in the large room, while in BLOCK WORK, participants felt less usefulness in the small room than in the large room, but only when asked about the degree of usefulness before being asked about their degree of satisfaction. The effect of room condition seems to trend in the opposite direction in the two gaming sessions. This difference is because the amount of space has a different meaning in HACONORI and BLOCK WORK; for example, in HACONORI, group members can successfully work together by providing quick and responsive communication with each other. The small room must have encouraged such speedy communication. Conversely, in BLOCK WORK, participants can successfully work when they have more personal space since the task is more individualized; however, this may be affected by the order of questions. When participants were asked about the degree of usefulness after being asked about their degree of satisfaction, their attitude tone was fixed and the degree of usefulness was not affected by room condition. When asked about the degree of usefulness before being asked about their degree of satisfaction, they recognized the usefulness of the BLOCK WORK session in the large room more than in the small room.

We should take into consideration the movability of the desks as an essential factor in improving room function as this must have affected the results. In HACONORI, participants felt more satisfaction in the small room than in the large room. This is because the movability of the desks was high in the small room but low in the large room. In other words, the small room functioned well because of the movable desks.

Both studies reflect the powerful effect of room condition, which depends on the game attributes. They also demonstrate that the effect of the debriefing form is not as powerful as the effect of room condition, although as noted above, it is advisable to consider the order of the questions.

Perhaps even more striking are the results of a 2016 study by Joseph Allen et al in Environmental Health Perspectives on the impact of room ventilation on cognitive performance. They established three experimental room conditions (“Conventional,” “Green,” and “Green +”) with varying concentrations of volatile organic compounds and C02. The study found that “cognitive scores were 61% higher on the Green building day [and 101% higher on the two Green+ building days than on the Conventional building day].”

In other studies, lighting has also been shown to affect recall, problem solving, and other cognitive tasks (with some gender variation too). Room temperature has demonstrable effects on productivity, with 21-22C the ideal temperature—although this likely also varies with age, gender, and other factors.

Taken together, the existing research on environmental conditions suggests that wargame participants in an appropriately lit, well-ventilated room will perform complex cognitive tasks roughly three times “better” than those in one that is too hot or cold, poorly lit, and poorly ventilated. I suspect that even my PAXsims colleague Stephen Downes-Martin—who could quite rightly quibble quibble how I’ve rather breezily aggregated different measures of task performance here—would agree that the room matters a lot.

Back to Winterfell. Course of action wargaming of the battle took in a cold and dimly-lit chamber of the castle (above). The tallow candles and open braziers used to illuminate the space undoubtedly produced high levels of CO, CO2, and particulate pollution of various toxic sorts. Moreover, few of the participants had bathed in weeks.

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Was it the dragon or the room? Use of a well-ventilated war room (with natural lighting and healthy sea air) may have been an important factor in planning the very successful Battle of the Goldroad.

 

By contrast, planning for the very successful Battle of the Goldroad took place in the war room at Dragonstone. Unlike the dark and frozen chamber used at Winterfell, the room here is extremely well ventilated, has natural lighting, and is situated in a much more amenable climate. While many commentators suggest that the deployment of a giant fire-breathing dragon was key to the success of Daenerys Targaryen’s forces, we clearly cannot ignore the contribution made by an appropriate wargaming space during the critical planning phase.


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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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The Future of Wargaming working group report

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PAXsims is pleased to provide more of the impressive work done at the Connections 2019 (US) professional wargaming conference. Many thanks to Ed McGrady for passing this on for wider distribution.

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At Connections 2019 we held a working group (WG2) to explore the future of wargaming.  We approached the problem several different ways.  First, several members of the working group contributed fictional stories describing what gaming might look like in the future.  Second, we had baselining briefs on future technologies, including virtual and alternate reality technologies and artificial intelligence.  Finally, we did a scenario planning exercise with the working group attendees at the conference.  This process resulted in a wide-range of different ways to think about, and predict, the future of gaming.

The working group was co-chaired by Mike Ottenberg and Ed McGrady, with stories contributed by Sebastian J. Bae, Michael Bond, Col. Matt Caffrey (Ret.), Dr. Stephen Downes-Martin, Dr. ED McGrady, and Dr. Jeremy Sepinsky.

Wasser: I Run War Games. Too Often, I Am the Only Woman in the Room.

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In today’s New York Times Magazine, Becca Wasser (RAND) discusses the endemic underrepresentation—and even marginalization—of women in professional wargaming. It’ is an outstanding piece, and should be considered a must-read for anyone involved in the national security or serious gaming fields.

As a game designer and facilitator, I have to create a believable environment and tell a compelling story that makes the players — usually United States military and government officials — take the game seriously, believe that their decisions have repercussions and play hard so that the results simulate the real world. I need to take a problem, boil it down to the basics and identify the details that really matter while still leaving enough color to make it interesting…. Too many options make the game ponderously slow, with players never getting a chance to see the results of their decisions; too few choices mean that I have potentially predetermined the game’s outcomes.

But there is something else dictating the available choices in war gaming, and that is a lack of gender diversity. War gaming — as with war more generally — has long been a male domain and has significant barriers to entry, retention and advancement. You can’t learn by reading; you have to learn by doing. Many women — myself included — find themselves doing managerial or administrative work for games in a bid to break into the field and learn about war game design and execution, but they often find themselves stuck in that track. I didn’t grow up playing Axis & Allies or memorizing all the fighter aircraft flown by the United States Air Force, like some of my male colleagues did. These are the sorts of things that started me at a disadvantage. Everything about war gaming and military operations more broadly I have learned as an adult, from scratch, whereas most of my male counterparts have been inadvertently training for this job since they were children. Even now, 10 years into my career, I am still playing catch up. This sense of disadvantage tends to discourage women from joining war gaming teams — let alone the national-security field — because many feel that there is not a clear substantive role for them to play or a path to advancement.

The unspoken gender divide that exists in the war gaming field comes out in funny ways. I know that when people arrive at most of my games, they don’t expect me to stand up and run the game, or to play judge, jury and executioner in deciding combat outcomes. I’m expected to be the note taker or the event coordinator. The number of times I have been asked where coffee is and whether I could fetch it is staggering. I will admit that there is something empowering about being able to command a room and prove my audience wrong. But the thing is, I’m tired of being a rarity. I don’t want to be the only woman in the room running a war game.

I’ve seen subtle but important differences emerge from games led by women or involving women in the design process. For a game exploring future technology, my male colleagues created a list of military capabilities — the order of battle — that focused heavily on systems that could be used to attack and destroy targets. In contrast, an order of battle created by women included more systems — like reconnaissance platforms — that provided better tools to more quickly alert war fighters of adversary activities and locations. This eye toward inclusivity can also be seen when women run games, as female facilitators are more inclined to encourage different voices to contribute to discussion and in turn gain a greater range of insights into the particular problem at hand. It is not so much that female war gamers approach the critical problems differently or focus a game on “soft” security issues like gender and humanitarian affairs. Rather, they are likely to have different perspectives, based in part on their experiences navigating a man’s world. By not having female game designers, facilitators or players, opportunities to uncover new and innovative strategies are falling by the wayside.

The article also discusses the work of Girl Security, the Leadership Council for Women in National Security and NatSec Girl Squad to address these issues, including the Korea wargame that Wasser and her colleagues at RAND recently conducted for female high school students.

In follow-up posts on Twitter, Wasser commented:

At the various Connections professional wargaming conferences only 5-10% of panelists are typically female, and about 15% of participants. In hobby wargaming, the proportions are markedly lower and the problem even more severe. In some surveys, only 1-2% or so of hobby wargamers identify as female.

At Connections North last year, 25% of our participants were women—probably because the event is held on campus, and significant numbers of students attended. The social and other barriers to entry to wargaming certainly seems to be lower at universities than in the national security field, with women making up almost half (19/40) students registered in my POLI 452 conflict simulation course next term. It probably also reflects the larger proportion of women in social sciences fields in general, as well as students whose interests are more focused serious games more broadly.

For other resources on gender and other diversity issues in (professional) wargaming, see these previous PAXsims reports:

 

 

Lacey: Teaching operational maneuver

The following piece has been contributed by Dr. James Lacey, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps War College and author of the recently-released The Washington War: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Power That Won World War II.


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Picture credit: War on the Rocks

TEACHING OPERATIONAL MANEUVER

For well over five decades the U.S. Military has ruled the tactical battlefield. While much of this tactical superiority is explained by superior military technology, it mostly reflects the literally thousands of “set and reps” tactical leaders receive in training events, professional military educations system (PME), and actual combat. We have highly capable and rapidly adaptive tactical units because, to a degree unequaled in other militaries, U.S forces really do train as they fight. As such, the battlefield is a familiar place, and given virtually any situation, an American combat leader can instantly reach into his memory to retrieve a similar circumstance from training.

This capacity of “instantaneous pattern recognition” is what keeps leaders from freezing in combat. So, although every training or combat situation has its own unique elements, effective training almost always creates sufficient similarities for experienced leaders to draw upon a stored “mental template” to rapidly build, in their mind’s eye, an accurate picture of the fight, and to immediately start making decisions. It is during home station training, while at training centers, on deployments, and in classrooms that our tactical leaders get the “sets and reps” they require to “see” the battlefield and react rapidly and appropriately, while under the stress of combat.

Unfortunately, none, or precious little, of this level of preparation exists at the operational level and above. While we are fantastic at fighting battalions and regiments/BCTs, the skills necessary to fight a dozen or two dozen BCTs as a coherent whole in a swirling maneuver battlefield have atrophied. If Multi-Domain Battle is going to become a battlefield reality, we must once again teach senior leaders how to fight battles, campaigns, and wars above the BCT level. Further, rising senior leaders need to relearn the art of combining a series of battles into combinations of war-winning campaigns.

Some may argue that PME accomplishes this at the ILE level.  And admittedly, there are some small pockets where the rudiments of what is necessary are still being taught, but, for the most part, ILE (and related) institutions no longer teach operational maneuver.  Instead they teach the “process.” Told to get ‘Force A’ to ‘Objective X’, an ILE graduate can layout courses of action, and present a plan to move along ‘Axis Y or Z’ to arrive at the objective. They can also do much of the detailed staff planning necessary to make such a move possible. What they cannot tell you is whether “Objective X” was the right place to assault in the first place.

I first noted that our senior officers had no idea about how to ‘think about or conduct’ an operational battle while attending various Service wargames. For instance, in one major game the scenario called for US and NATO troops to retake the Baltics, currently occupied by Russian forces. The solution that a room full of field grade officers arrived at was to send the attacking force straight north from Poland. The predictable enemy response was to launch the 1stGuards Tank Army into the attacking force’s unprotected flanks and rear – obliterating the four NATO divisions.

This only confirms something that has disturbed me ever since I began employing wargames in War College classrooms. To help the students master the mechanics of these complex games I bring in local civilians with years of operational and strategic level wargaming experience… but no military experience. In every case, no matter the time-period, or the game level (strategic or operational), the war college students are consistently outclassed by civilian hobbyists – it is not even close. This holds true even after the students have played the game a few times and fully understand the game rules and mechanics.  Time and again, my students are out-thought by civilians with no military experience or education.

This does not mean that civilian wargamers would be effective on a real battlefield.  In truth, few of them could lead a platoon out of a paper bag and most of them would seize-up if confronted by a real combat situation.  Moreover, wargamers lack the experienced-based judgement that is a product of years of training and combat experience.  When one plays a wargame, every unit has a set of assigned numbers, which typically everyone knows at the start of the game. For instance, unit counters will typically have their strength, speed of movement, and other factors printed on them. So, when a friendly unit runs into an enemy unit one can quickly calculate relative strengths and with a glance at the game’s combat results table instantly know the probability of success of any engagement.  In real life things are never that easy.  A unit’s strength is always a judgement call that must be made by an experienced commander. Moreover, this judgement (a mental number) is constantly changing as the battlefield situation evolves.  For instance, a battalion commander might mentally consider his best company a “10” on a scale of 1 to 10.  But, maybe he will assign that same company a “6” after it has been in prolonged combat for 72-hours without a rest… and reduce it further to a “4” or lower if it has lost a few key leaders. If he manages to rotate the company out of the line for 48-hours rest he may, once again, elevate it to a “7”, and then make it an “8” based on getting some quality replacements. In combat commanders are continually assessing their units and judging their relative effectiveness; no one is giving them that number.  Moreover, the best commanders are doing the same thing when they judge the relative combat power of their battlefield opponents.

At the operational level of war, the capacity to make such judgements are the result of years (decades) of accumulated experience. This is why the judgement of wargamers cannot be applied in an actual combat environment. Still, wargames remain the only way to “simulate” war at the operational level and above, short of training maneuvers on a scale no one is willing to pay for. And despite the shortcomings of wargames and civilian wargamers as military leaders, a singular truth remains; at the strategic and operational level, civilian wargamers display a capacity for “instant pattern recognition” that very few field grade officers can match. In most cases, a civilian wargamer requires only a cursory glance at a map and a rudimentary understanding of the game mechanics and objectives to comprehend the entire situation and decide on a course of action. Similarly, I can set up actual operational or strategic situations from World War II (or any past war) on a map and the civilian wargamers will come up with a plan of action in a fraction of the time it takes most professional military officers.

The answer appears simple; our PME systems must wed its students’ undoubted tactical expertise, leadership abilities, and judgement to the “instant” operational and strategic “pattern recognition” that many civilian wargamers possess. Getting there, however, is not going to be easy, as it means undertaking a major curriculum upheaval within almost every PME institution at the ILE level and above.

For over a decade-and-a-half, field grade PME institutions have been focused on teaching leaders how to integrate an all of government approach to fighting COIN conflicts. Given the global situation – almost all of the nation’s landpower engaged in two COIN fights – this was undoubtedly the right thing to do. But, while we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world refused to sit still. As we rise our sights above the COIN fight we find ourselves confronting two global military powers, each capable of meeting U.S. forces on the battlefield as peer competitors. It took nearly a decade to get the right people within PME to transform our institutions into COIN academies. Unfortunately, our potential peer-level opponents are unlikely to allow us that much time to realign curriculums back toward operational maneuver.

At this level of warfare civilian wargamers have a tremendous intellectual lead over most military professionals, as they typically have thousands more strategic and operational “reps and sets” than the average field grade officer. Our nation has been served well by company, battalion and brigade level leaders who, because of enduring thousands of “tactical reps”, have repeatedly proven themselves demonstrably superior to their battlefield opponents.  After two decades of training and combat experience we can be reasonably sure that a lieutenant-colonel confronted with almost any tactical situation (real or simulated) will think quickly, move rapidly, and act decisively; all because he has a stored “mental template” to work from. But, unless they are self-taught, military leaders are given few, if any, “reps and sets” at the operational level. Consequently, when confronted with an operational or strategic level problem, their capacity for rapid and decisive action vanishes.

The second great advantage civilian wargamers have over most military professionals is a deep grounding in history, particularly military history. That this advantage exists is somewhat surprising, as military officers are told from the start of their careers that they need to read widely and deeply into all aspects of military history. Unfortunately, disturbingly few bother to do so.

Almost every wargame hobbyist I have met is a walking encyclopedia of historical knowledge. Sit down to play one in a simulation of the Battle of Gettysburg and you will discover that they not only know the big events of the battle; most of them can also tell you what time and from what direction each of Hill’s and Ewell’s brigades arrived on the first day.  But their knowledge usually goes far deeper than such minutiae. Over numerous discussions, I have discovered that they are almost always well-read on the politics, diplomacy, and economics behind any strategic game or simulation. In fact, when it comes to discussing history the average wargamer of my experience can hold his own with any War College faculty member.

Consequently, when a wargame hobbyist examines a new operational or strategic situation he draws upon a huge reservoir of knowledge to contextualize and understand what he is looking at. In short, he has thousands of “mental templates” in his head that help him make sense of even the most complex situations. Moreover, they also have a very good idea of what others have done in similar situations – what worked and what failed.  On the other hand, the typical field grade officer, bereft of the opportunity to develop such “mental templates”, views every situation they are exposed to (and that is way too few) as something totally new… and every approach as novel.

As we begin to reform and realign PME our first question must be: how do we take tactically proficient proven leaders and turn them into – to use an old term – maneuverists? There really is only a single answer; it is the same one that that made them masters of the tactical battlefield. We must increase the number of operational and strategic “reps and sets” they are exposed too. This is the only way to instill in our future senior leaders the “instant pattern recognition” necessary to make them outstanding operational commanders and strategic thinkers.

There are, regrettably, no quick fixes for this problem, as there is no crash course that will give senior leaders the thousands of operational or strategic “reps” they require. Moreover, while most would agree that a leader’s progress toward higher levels of operational and strategic comprehension should start early in their careers, this has always proven a bridge too far. Besides, this is the time when young leaders must focus on the basics of the profession, learning how to lead, and becoming tactical masters.  We can, however, certainly do much better in placing more operational maneuver wargaming and simulations at the ILE level. And then using the war colleges to reinforce these initial “reps and sets”.

I am not advocating turning the “entire” curriculum over to wargaming/simulations and other forms of experiential learning, but they can and should become the “centerpiece” of operational level and strategic education. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Paul Selva have written: “Should we instead think about using wargames that explore joint multidimensional combat operations to pursue our JPME objectives? Building school curriculums around wargaming might help spark innovation and inculcate the entire Joint Force with a better appreciation and understanding of trans-regional, cross-domain, multidimensional combat.” Only by placing our future senior commanders within a series of operational and strategic situations can they begin building the “mental templates” and decision-making skills necessary for success on the maneuver battlefields of the 21stcentury. Time spent on often useless electives would be much better used running a series of operational and strategic exercises (or other experiential learning events) that will teach as well as challenge students at the higher levels of warfare.

The second part of the solution is to finally get serious about teaching military history to future strategic leaders. By this, I mean history writ large, in a program where military history is the focus, but also includes the political, economic, and diplomatic contexts in which conflicts are conducted.  It is no longer sufficient to create a booklist and hope officers read it (most do not). A professional reading program must be instituted and enforced (not talked about) at every level. At its best, such a program would eschew lists of required books, in favor of something akin to study guides. For instance, an officer desiring to develop a better understanding of the American Civil War, would be able to access a 2 or 3-page guide that lists a number of books he can choose from, depending on what his current emphasis of study is.

Where would I like us to get to? As a start, I would hope that every field grade officer would have the knowledge to reply to General Bernard Law Montgomery’s request for three courses of action to take Arnhem with: “Sir, should we not first consider taking Antwerp?

If you have no idea what the above analogy references, or you don’t know why “Antwerp” is the right answer then your study of military history is sadly deficient.  Get to work on that.

James Lacey
ME - 2

 

Wargaming and its place in PME

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War on the Rocks has just published a piece by Carrie Lee and Bill Lewis of the US Air War College entitled “Wargaming Has a Place, But is No Panacea for Professional Military Education.”

The school year is about to start, and not just for the kids. Senior-level professional military education is about to begin a new academic year, with new classes of students from across the services preparing to embark upon ten months of education that is meant to elevate their thinking from the operational and tactical to the strategic level. In the two years since the release of the National Defense Strategy (and the now-infamous paragraph that declared professional military education to be “stagnant”), a heated debate has emerged on the pages of this website about the best ways to accomplish the mission of professional military education. Suggestions for improvement have spanned the gamut, from teaching students to be good staffers to introducing diversity — both in the faculty and the curriculum — to improving the ways in which we assess strategic competency. Others have pushed back, pointing out that professional military education already is highly responsive to change and warning about the dangers of the “good idea fairy.” In April, James Lacy of the Marine War College proposed another solution: All professional military education institutions should include board game wargaming as a part of their curriculum.

While this recommendation may hold appeal with those who are explicitly focused on military history and operational art, Lacey’s proposal is both short-sighted and misses the importance of diversity in professional military education — both between service colleges and in the curriculum itself. There is little doubt that experiential learning can be a valuable part of any education, including professional military education. But it also comes in many forms, all of which have benefits and costs. If the mission of professional military education is to educate the next generation of senior leaders about the strategic level of war and expose them to the tools they will need to succeed at that level, then we must use a variety of methods across the service colleges, rather than defaulting to a series of one-size-fits-all solutions.

They conclude:

In order to best educate and prepare our students for this complex and challenging environment, a variety of tools are necessary, and “one size fits all” solutions may do more harm than good. There are many types of immersive programs that can be employed to achieve a broad range of learning objectives. We should strive to view our curriculum not as a checklist of required activities but instead as a wholistic educational experience.

Lee and Lewis are right, of course, that serious gaming is not some magic educational bullet. It takes times. Not all wargames are fit for educational purpose, even if they work well as hobby or analytical games. Academic schedules are crowded, and you can only do so much. There are many teaching techniques available. There is even overwhelming evidence that simulations, when used poorly, can do educational damage.

That being said, I’m not sure they really offer a great deal of guidance in what should be used when and in what ways, how this relates to other teaching techniques, and how we know we measure the effectiveness of all this.

Jim Lacey, who the authors critique as a point of departure, was quick to post a response to Facebook (reproduced here with permission):

Well it is not every day my approach to teaching strategic studies is called “shortsighted” by folks who apparently have no idea what I do. But, I suppose it is always an easy-out to set up a strawman – no matter how it departs from reality – as a foil to base an article upon .

In any event, it may have helped if you had read my earlier article on the topic

But in hopes of increasing your understanding of how we educate MCWAR students, please allow me to offer the following.. During the course of the year MCWAR students participate in a number of experiential events, including:

  • Conducting several staff rides, including Yorktown, the Overland Campaign, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Normandy. – FYI, the students also go on a two week trip to either Europe and Asia to immerse themselves in current issues
  • Engaging in multiple simulations (as you describe them). This includes participating in two multi-day geopolitical simulation at Tufts and Georgetown universities. Moreover, we employ a number of in-house simulations throughout a spectrum of historical, current, and future related topics.
  • I would dare say we also employ a large number of models (as you describe them) throughout the year.
  • When it comes to wargaming MCWAR employs the entire gamut: seminar games, matrix games, board games, computer assisted games, etc.
  • Engage in a number of simulations and wargames based on future scenarios against China, Russia, and Iran, which feed directly into ongoing concept development and Title 10 wargames
  • We also use boardgames, but they remain both a subset of our overall curriculum and a subset of our experiential learning program.

In any event, boardgames are never used in isolation. Let me give one example.

As part of our military history curriculum we examine the Civil War. The structure of that program breaks down as follows:

  1. The students are given a set of readings to finish before they enter the classroom
  2. They are then directed to a website I am developing, where they can listen to lectures from some of the best Civil War historians in the nation.
  3. They are also given CDs so that they can listen to other lectures in their cars
  4. Then, once they have absorbed this material, we conduct our seminar sessions. We only have two seminars at MCWAR…. So I break each of them into two parts and conduct a series of seminars with only 7-8 folks in each (as close to an Oxford tutorial as I can get).
  5. After all of this we conduct a board wargame. I run 3-4 wargames at the same time, so all of the students can fully participate. I have local community volunteers (long-time wargamers) sitting at each game to take care of the game mechanics, so that the students can focus on strategic decisions
  6. Then, when all of that is done, the class goes on their staff rides.

I am always looking for way to improve, and am hopeful that you can suggest ways I can do so.

In any event, I just wanted to clear the air and correct any misperceptions you and your co-author have as to how MCWAR sets-up its curriculum, as well as my approach to teaching and the use of wargames. Of course, a much of this could have been easily cleared-up with a phone call or an e-mail before you went to print. But, moving on… if there is anything I can do to assist your efforts to increase and enhance the use of modeling, simulations, and wargaming – or any other experiential learning methodology – at the Air War College, please do not hesitate to ask.

Thank you for your time and comments. I look forward to learning more about the Air Force conducts experiential learning.

This isn’t the first such debate. I’m not sure is should even be a debate, however. Rather, it points to the value of a common-sense “toolkit” approach to serious gaming. Wargames are tools. Sometimes they may be the best tool for the job. Sometimes there are better tools. Sometimes they are a pretty bad fit. Almost always, they need to be used in conjunction with other techniques.

Wargaming as an academic discipline

 

P1110648a.jpgThe following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by Dr. Aggie Hirst (left), Lecturer in International Relations Theory and Methods in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.


 

Wargaming as an Academic Discipline

On 16th January 2019, Dr. Yuna Wong spoke to an audience of policymakers, scholars, practitioners, educators, and students about the establishment of an academic field of Wargaming, in the second public lecture of the King’s Wargaming Network’s inaugural series. The King’s Wargaming Network (KWN) was established in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London in 2018 as a global hub for the theory and practice of wargaming, drawing together a diverse range of academics, professionals, and stakeholders from War Studies, International Relations, defence, policy, industry, and civil society with an interest in the topic. In response to the currently diffuse and ad hoc character of wargames research and practice, the KNW seeks to take a leading role in the development of an integrated, globally recognised academic discipline in which knowledge about wargaming may be produced, preserved, and transmitted.

In her talk, Dr Wong set out a series of pathways, possibilities, and pitfalls associated with the establishment of such a field. Her comments built upon discussions held earlier the same day in the first meeting of the KWN’s Academic Working Group, comprised of leading figures in the professional wargaming community. She addressed the questions: Why do we need an academic discipline of Wargaming? What concrete steps can be taken in the short and medium terms to establish such a discipline? What obstacles might be faced in this endeavour? Below I provide an overview of Dr Wong’s comments and suggest some key critical contributions that academics can make in the current wargaming renaissance.

Beginning with the oft-cited DoD-wide memos issued in 2014 and 2015 by then Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Bob Work, a renaissance in US military wargaming is currently underway.[1] Indeed, in what Dr Peter Perla has called the ‘sine wave of popularity’[2], professional wargaming is also enjoying renewed interest across government, business, third sector, and hobby spheres. The origins of this renaissance in the military can be traced to the priorities outlined in the Third Offset Strategy (3OS),[3]and associated Defence Innovation Initiative (DII), launched by Hagel and Work, which identified wargaming as a key method by means of which US strategic advantage might be maintained in an environment of narrowing technological superiority. Spanning areas as diverse as education and training, research and analysis, doctrinal innovation, operational concepts, and procurement, military wargaming, its proponents claim, can mitigate the structural uncertainly and complexity of the current security and operational environments. It can do this by allowing players to ‘climb inside’[4] scenarios and explore individual and collective decision-making practices. In this way, they assert, wargaming can facilitate institutional learning and assist with future planning by examining the human domain of contemporary conflict in ways quantitative Operations Research (OR) cannot.

This renewed attention, and the accompanying increase in funding, has led to the establishment of new agencies and working groups, such the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG), a series of Military Operations Research Society (MORS) special meetings,[5] a classified wargaming repository housed in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), and the publication of several handbooks and manuals outlining the value-added and best practice standards of military wargaming.[6] A small but committed wargaming community of practice (CoP) has capitalised on this renewed interest and is currently seeking ways to further proliferate its remit and mandate in DoD.

As part of this endeavour, the issue of the establishment of a dedicated academic field of Wargaming has been raised. As Dr Wong noted, while the practice of wargaming is proliferating, the scholarly study of the field remains limited and ad hoc. This is in part because almost all professional wargamers are first and foremost practitioners, whose work focuses on designing, facilitating, and analysing games from the perspective of a particular institution, objective, or stakeholder. These commitments often prevent them from conducting broader studies of the field. Accordingly, Dr Wong identified a series of practical and intellectual reasons why the establishment of an academic discipline comprising interested parties from with and beyond the wargaming CoP is desirable.

First, such a field would tackle the complex task of properly conceptualising and theorising wargaming, both as a method and an object of inquiry. As Peter Perla’s opening KWN public lecture in December 2018 set out[7], and to which KWN Co-Director Ivanka Barzashka responded earlier this year[8], practitioners variously view wargaming as an art, a science, or a craft, and opinion varies widely on its proper epistemological assumptions, its relationship to modelling/simulation/OR, and whether or not it should (continue to) be integrated with digital technologies. Without seeking to reduce this diversity, an academic field would play a central role in formalising these debates and pushing forward analyses through testing and mutual critique.

Second, an academic field would serve to train and qualify people to create, facilitate, and effectively analyse wargames, serving to professionalise the field and formally accredit practitioners. This would also help to open up the often opaque pathways via which wargamers can develop their skills from novice to journeyman to master, a shift which is all the more important as pressures to diversify the field in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and so forth are brought to bear.

Third, such a field would be less vulnerable to changes in government, administration, funding priorities, and individual preferences than are the military and consultancy institutions in which the CoP tend to be housed. While the acquisition of academic research funding is always a challenge, stability for the practice and study of wargaming could be generated through such grants and the establishment of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, provided a sufficient job market persists.

Forth, because it would comprise a focus on both applied and theoretical dimensions of wargaming, a dedicated field could act as a bridge between government/policy and the academy, filling the policy-relevance gap with which academics frequently struggle.

Fifth, such a discipline could function to draw together the existing rich but disparate research in a range of fields focusing on, and relevant to, wargaming. Dr Wong mentioned in particular the applicability of research in Organisational, Educational, Experimental, Social, and Military Psychology as well as advances in Education, Sociology, Applied Anthropology, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Uniting these discrete areas within an interdisciplinary field of Wargaming would serve to make the best use of existing research and develop new collaborative projects and funding bids.

Finally, an academic field would provide a context within which non-practitioner voices could study and evaluate gaming from political, social, ethical, and economic perspectives. An academic field of Wargaming, like any healthy discipline, should contain a plurality of approaches, foci, and interests. It should attract scholars, students, and practitioners from across of wide range of backgrounds, and comprise those for whom wargaming is a method of research and/or teaching, and those for whom it is an object of study. Furthermore, it should include seasoned pioneers and practitioners as well as those new to the field, and those offering critiques of existing artefacts, traditions, and practices.

In addition to these reasons for establishing a Wargaming discipline, Dr Wong noted the need for robust empirical studies to settle the debate surrounding wargames’ efficacy. While anecdotal evidence of its popularity and utility abounds, little concrete evidence that wargaming is superior – whether defined in terms of engagement, retention, results, or some other metric – to conventional teaching, training, and research methods currently exists. Academic research could play a vital role here by conducting multi-year studies with control groups to establish whether and how wargames really do facilitate unique and improved teaching and/or research.

Moving beyond this debate, the academic study of wargaming has the capacity to explore not only why wargaming works[9] but also how it works, and with what consequences. In other words, the debate could fruitfully be expanded from efficacy to effects. Similarly, scholars could move from evaluating wargaming and its effects in positivist terms to using post-positivist social science approaches, something also noted by Dr Wong in her talk. In particular, the rise of ‘critical’ and ‘deconstructive’ thinking as a military priority invites an analysis of the different uses of these terms and methods by post-positivist scholars in the civilian academy, who are interested in critiquing rather than promoting the current global order. Moreover, the challenges posed by the wargaming CoP to the modelling and simulations practitioners in the OR community parallel in interesting, and hitherto under-researched, ways the challenges posed by post-positivist scholarship to the quantitative and objective aspirations of positivist social science. This line of inquiry would open new pathways surrounding the enduring question of the validation and verification of wargames.

In addition, and as also noted by Dr Wong, an academic field of Wargaming would facilitate the analysis of wargaming beyond DoD. In addition to gaming in the fields of health, first responders, child and adult education, advertising, jobs and skills training, housing, and social engagement, a host of grassroots groups are currently developing and repurposing games in areas as diverse as political contestation[10] and veterans’ community-building and suicide prevention[11].

Finally, and I would argue crucially, the wargaming CoP has paid very little attention to the question of the impacts of wargaming on those taught and trained with them. Most professional wargamers are confident that because people find wargaming fun, it is a welcome break from conventional classroom and field methods. And yet important questions remain unanswered, and oftentimes unasked, about the state of immersion generated in play and the circumvention of critical reasoning than this state entails. One interesting line of inquiry, then, is the apparent paradox that wargaming simultaneously promotes and restricts critical thinking in players, and the distribution of these tendencies across the rank spectrum of service members.

While advances in wargaming design, research, and execution are widespread, a lack of scholarly integration limits our understanding of these activities. And although a promising body of scholarly work on wargaming is emerging, it has yet to be drawn together to develop best practice guidance for research and teaching. In addition, little research exists which critically evaluates professional wargaming. As Dr Wong set out in her talk, there have been at least two attempts in recent years to establish an academic wargaming program in the DC metro area, but these have yet to be realised. With the rise of recreational gaming as the leading mode of entertainment in the current digital age, there has never been a better time to study gaming. While researchers in the Social Sciences have explored the videogame phenomenon in some depth, the study of professional gaming—both digital and manual—remains in its infancy. Whether through the establishment of a dedicated academic field of Wargaming, or by means of interdisciplinary work conducted across established fields, research examining how wargaming works and with what consequences for strategy, operations, and trainees is of key import in the current security environment.

Aggie Hirst 

References

[1] Chuck Hagel, “The Defense Innovation Initiative”, Department of Defence Memorandum, 2014; Bob Work, “Wargaming and Innovation”, Department of Defense Memorandum, 2015.

[2] Peter P. Perla, in Philip Pournelle (ed.), MORS Wargaming Special Meeting October 2016: Final Report, p. 87.

[3] Bob Work, “The Third US Offset Strategy and Its Implications for Partners and Allies”, 2015; Bob Work, “The Third Offset Strategy”, Speech at the Reagan Defense Forum, 2015.

[4] Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke, “Chess, Go, and Vietnam”, in Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (eds.), Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Cambridge; London: MIT Press, 2016), p. 526.

[5] Philip Pournelle (ed.), MORS Wargaming Special Meeting October 2016: Final Report; Phillip Pournelle and Holly Deaton (eds.), MORS Wargaming III Special Meeting October 2017: Report, 2018.

[6] Joint Publication 5.0, ‘Joint Planning’, 16 June 2017, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/ jp5_0_20171606.pdf; TRADOC, “The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook”, 2015; James Markley, “Strategic Wargaming Series Handbook”, United States Army War College, 2015.

[7] Peter P. Perla, ‘“The Art and Science of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate in an Era of Strategic Competition”: KWN Public Lecture, December 2018, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgHWLM5I32fRKgoclCDaNhg.

[8] Ivanka Barzashka, “Wargaming: How to Turn Vogue into Science”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 15 March 2019:https://thebulletin.org/2019/03/wargaming-how-to-turn-vogue-into-science/.

[9] Peter P. Perla and Ed McGrady, ‘Why Wargaming Works’, Naval War College Review64, no. 3 (2011): 111–30.

[10] See for example the group Class Wargames: http://www.classwargames.net/.

[11] Leading this field is the veterans’ group Stack-Up.Org: https://stackup.org/.

 

 

Setting the (wargame) stage

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I delivered a (virtual) presentation today to the Military Operations Society wargaming community of practice on the importance of “chrome, fluff” and other finer touches in promoting better game outcomes through enhanced narrative engagement. Having forgotten to set a calendar reminder I was a fifteen minutes late for my own talk, which only served to reinforce the stereotype of absent-minded professors. Apologies to everyone who had to wait!

The full set of Powerpoint slides is available here (pdf). Since the content may not be entirely self-evident from the slides, I’ll also offer a quick summary.

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First, I argued—in keeping with Perla and McGrady’s discussion of “Why wargaming works“—that narrative engagement is a key element of good (war)game design and implementation.

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In addition to their experience-based, qualitative argument, I adduced some quantitative, experimental data that shows that role-playing produces superior forecasting outcomes…

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..and that the way we frame and present games has profound effects on the way players actually play them.

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I also noted a substantial literature on the psychology of conflict and conflict resolution that points to the importance of normative and other non-material factors in shaping conflict and negotiating behaviour.

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In other words, if your games don’t have players feeling angry, or aggrieved, or alienated, or attached to normative and symbolic elements, they’re acting unrealistically. Since the selling point of wargaming is that it places humans in the loop, you need those players playing like real humans, not technocratic, minimaxing robots.

Doing that, I suggested, requires nudging participants into the right mindset. One has to be careful one doesn’t overdo it—some participants may recoil at role play fluff that makes it all look like a LARP or game of D&D.

What then followed was a discussion of some considerations and ways that I had done it, but which was also intended to spark a broader conversation. Specifically we looked at:

  • How player backgrounds and player assignment will influence how readily participants internalize appropriate perspectives.
  • Briefing materials should designed to subtly promote desired perspectives and biases (without being too obvious about this). Things like flags, maps, placards, and so forth can all be used to make players more closely identify with their role.
  • In repeated games—for example, some wargames in an educational setting that might be conducted every year)—oral traditions and tales from prior games can make the game setting richer and more authentic (although at the risk of players learning privileged information from previous players). Participants might also contribute background materials, chrome, or fluff that you can use in future games—such as the collection of songs from Brynania that my McGill University students have recorded over the past twenty years.

  • Very explicit objectives and “victory conditions” should often be used sparingly, lest they promote both an unrealistic sense of the rigidity of policy goals and promote excessively “tick-off-the-objective-boxes” game play.
  • Physical space should be used to subtly shape player interaction, whether to foster interaction, limit it, or even create a sense of isolation and alienation.
  • Coffee breaks and lunch breaks should be designed NOT to pull players out of their scenario headspace. The last thing you want is Blue and Red having a friendly hour over lunch talking about non-game matters in a scenario where they are supposed to distrust or even hate each other.
  • Fog and friction should be promoted not only to model imperfect information and imperfect institutions/capabilities, but also to subtly promote atmospheres of uncertainty, fear, crisis, panic, frustration, and similar emotional states, as appropriate to the actors and scenario.
  • The graphic presentation of game materials should encourage narrative engagement and immersion. Avoid inappropriate fonts and formats, make things look “real,” and be aware that game graphics can very much affect how players (and analysts) perceive the game and it’s outcomes.

A variety of other issues came up in the Q&A and discussion. Many thanks to everyone who participated—I hope they found it as useful as I did.

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Wargaming and representation

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At Vice, Rob Zacny published a thoughtful piece yesterday on representation within wargames (both digital games and serious manual hobby games), specifically regarding the sometimes sympathetic portrayal of the German army during WWII.

The issues with responsibly depicting German combat forces in World War 2, and their connections to Nazi crimes against humanity, are well-known at this point and have been a point of increasing discussion and debate among historical hobby gamers for years. EA’s flagship shooter might be on the cutting edge of mainstream video gaming, but its naive politics are years behind the state of historical research. The argument that a character fought bravely and heroically for Germany, but not the Nazis, isn’t just naive, but it’s one that was aggressively promulgated by German war criminals themselves.

There are two major tenets to the whitewashing of the Wehrmacht, one more reprehensible than the other. The first and worst is that the Wehrmacht was by and large the German army but was never a Nazi army, and did not participate in the crimes against humanity that was the bedrock of Nazi governance and expansion. This was false: Particularly on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht worked fist-in-glove with the SS to round up and exterminate Soviet Jews, Romani, and other groups the Nazis systematically persecuted and murdered. Whatever the different experiences and actions of the millions of soldiers (volunteer and conscript) who served in the Wehrmacht, the institution of the Wehrmacht was both complicit and participant in Nazi atrocities on a wide scale.

The second tenet is that the Wehrmacht was, in a word, awesome.

We’re not going to stop making and playing World War 2 games. For whatever reason, there are countless people (myself included) who are endlessly drawn to revisiting and refighting its battles. But that narrow framing of the history, that exclusion of all the crimes and murders that surrounded the actual fighting on the front lines, serves things beyond the purity of game design. It burnishes and reinforces myths, it divorces warfare from politics, it elevates the soldier—no matter what they serve or advance—as a kind of secular hero. And it gives cover for the idea that there was something admirable and heroic about waging war for Nazi Germany.

For the full depth and nuance of his argument, you should read the full article.

One can disagree with parts or even all of Zacny’s argument, of course. It is pretty clear, however, that he is very much writing about games, game design, game play, and the possible role of games in shaping popular culture. You would think that this would be and issue that serious wargame hobbyists would want to engage, right? After all, as Clausewitz argued, politics is central to warfighting. Moreover, many hobbyists pride themselves on their love of military history and argue that wargames offer insight into real conflict.

Except that’s not exactly what happened when well-known wargame scholar Matthew Kirschenbaum shared the piece to the large ( 11,000+ member) “Wargamers” group on Facebook.

The posting immediately sparked a heated discussion on how culpable the average German soldier was for Nazi war crimes, and some discussion of how to portray atrocity and evil in games. Sadly, however, it also quickly provoked comments that showed how unwelcoming the hobby community can be:

  • The first “snowflake/social justice warrior/political correctness” insults appeared around 15 minutes after posting (ironically, by those arguing that the topic shouldn’t be raised for discussion).
  • A racist and homophobic “Pepe” meme was posted after 24 minutes.
  • After about half an hour there were calls to lock or delete the thread because it was too controversial or divisive (that is, to discuss game design in a gaming group).
  • Less than an hour in, it was suggested that the article was part of a broader socialist/globalist/Soros conspiracy. A little later on, a couple of posters implied that this was all part of blaming white people.
  • A transphobic comment was added at 57 minutes, as well as one linking the discussion to feminism and/or insufficient testosterone.

Within two hours, the thread had been shut down by the group admins. A follow-up thread lasted about an hour. Threads were also shut down in several other gaming groups.

Now, it is important to point out that the most offensive posts were from a very small handful of people, out of the several dozen who contributed. It is also important to remember that internet discussion tends to bring out both extremists and uncivil behaviour.

Nonetheless, anyone who happened to be female, LGBTQ, liberal, a visible minority, or Jewish might well see in the thread a rather unwelcoming hobby. They would have been even more dismayed by how few people spoke out against the bigotry and insults. “Discussions” like this one inhibit growing the community, inhibit greater diversity and inclusion, and discourage thoughtful discussion of serious topics.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered this at PAXsims, of course.

Professional wargamers—those in the national security community whose gaming is intended to enhance security or save actual lives—tend to be far more supportive of addressing these sorts of issues. I’ve discussed issues of wargame ethics, sensitive topics, and representation in lectures I’ve delivered to defence audiences around the world, and without exception have found them receptive and reflective. These issues are also frequently raised and discussed at Connections conferences, in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

There’s a lot that serious gaming can learn from the hobby. However, there are also some bad habits and prejudices that remain far too persistent there—and which clearly need to be resisted.

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Kadlec: Modelling Competition and Cooperation in Strategic Games

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At the US Army War College War Room, Sean Kadlec discusses the use of relatively simple serious games (such as matrix games) to explore and foster interagency and civil-military cooperation.

Role-playing games and similar low-cost thought- and dialogue-based exercises can produce insights into and solutions for difficult national security problems, while also creating conditions for real-world cooperation. The USAWC — CSL, other institutes like PKSOI, and the student body — can assist operational units and interagency partners by combining such “experimental strategy” exercises with academic theory (like the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”) as in-class research or assignments. More importantly, however they are created and staged, security professionals should use dynamic gaming as a means to develop conceptual understanding, generate practical solutions, and foster cooperation in a low-cost game environment before implementing potentially costly and untested ideas in the real world. There is no dilemma here: “gaming” cross-sector collaboration is worth every penny not spent on untested strategies — especially when they fail for lack of forethought.

You’ll find the full piece here.

Bartels: Building A Pipeline Of Wargaming Talent

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At War on the Rocks, Ellie Bartels (RAND) discusses “Building A Pipeline Of Wargaming Talent: A Two-Track Solution.” In it she argues the need to educate neophyte and mid-career (war)gamers, and also to educate sponsors, clients and managers about best practices and using games most effectively.

For gaming to help prepare the Department of Defense for the future, different types of wargame education are needed, aimed at different communities. Deep study of games is required for game designers to develop mastery. For those who work alongside these experts, in roles ranging from sponsor to subject matter expert, short courses may be a valuable addition to existing government educational institutions, most notably the military schoolhouses. Building up a new generation of experts, and giving civilian and military partners the tools to ask the right questions and provide information to designers is key to building more high-quality games. Without these pipelines, the existing cadre of designers will not be able to keep up with demand, leaving the department unprepared for the future.

It’s an excellent piece, and well worth reading (and not just because Ellie is one of our associate editors).

“Raising the next generation of wargamers” (+a somewhat related rant)

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At War on the Rocks, Sebastien Bae (RAND) discusses raising the next generation of wargamers:

Wargaming in today’s defense community is the purview of a select few with the necessary niche expertise and experience. It relies on a cadre of senior wargamers who spearheaded professional wargaming during the 1980s and 1990s. The community is best depicted with an inverted pyramid, since senior wargamers significantly outnumber young, more junior ones. Military wargaming also relies heavily on defense contractors and civilian experts. However, this approach can be costly, doesn’t build long-term institutional knowledge, and can be unpredictable in terms of quality. In the absence of an official wargaming military occupational specialty, or a civilian degree in wargaming, most professional wargamers are usually converted hobbyist board gamers with backgrounds in political science, military planning, and operations research. Finally, despite existing wargaming education opportunities, there is no established talent pipeline through which young servicemembers are identified, trained, educated, and nurtured to be wargamers as with other military specialties.

As the demand for wargaming grows, cultivating the next generation of wargamers will become critical to the field’s future. Therefore, the Defense Department will need to draw from a much wider pool of talent, inside and outside the military, and change the way it recruits, trains, funds, and promotes wargamers.

He offers several ideas to address this potential shortfall, including learning through (wargame) play/competition and “establishing and funding a systematic process to expose both enlisted troops and officers to wargaming,” including regular exposure in professional military education. The latter is, I think, particularly important: wargames need to be part of the process early so as to generate familiarity, and inclulcate critical consumer skills (that is, the ability to distinguish between a good and flawed game).

Bae also notes:

For long-term success, the community of wargamers cannot be limited to the defense community and its periphery. Otherwise, wargaming risks becoming parochial, isolated, and intellectually stagnant. The Defense Department should consider supporting a wide range of efforts to broaden its talent pool with top recruits from academia.

He’s right—that’s a terrific idea, both in terms of encouraging student interest in wargaming and broader intellectual cross-fertilization. However, it faces a remarkable number of bureaucratic hurdles.

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One key problem is site access, especially for academics (who aren’t defence contractors or government personnel, or aren’t at US universities that do substantial defence contracting), hobby/commercial designers, and university students. It is even harder if you aren’t a US citizen.

For example, in my own personal experience, doing things like this:

  • Interviewing the senior leadership of a designated terrorist organization at one of their organization’s safehouses in Damascus.
  • Arranging to be flown into Benghazi on a rebel plane at the height of the Libyan civil war.
  • Setting up meetings at the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Visiting Iran.

…is considerably easier than:

  • Attending a MORS conference (some years are worse than others).
  • Getting someone to agree to process the paperwork for a wargame-related visit to a NATO facility on an American military base. (The fact that I spent this morning on the phone trying to get this done is entirely unrelated to this rant, of course.)
  • Running an (unclassified) game of AFTERSHOCK at a Canadian defence establishment.
  • Getting someone to put the UK IVCO paperwork in a fax machine at the High Commission (embassy) for a visit to Dstl.

Really.

This is not a US problem. Rather, it is (as some of the examples above suggest) a NATO-wide problem. And things are even worse if, say, you’re Brian Train.*

In addition to this is a labyrinth of contracting issues if you want to receive some remuneration, since the process is set up for large defence contractors not for individual designers and academics. It once took Tom Fisher and I almost a year to get a $150 invoice paid by one American professional military education establishment. Embarrassed colleagues elsewhere once had to do an office whip-around for the price of my Greyhound bus ticket, since they couldn’t get my travel expenses authorized in time.

One might think such issues of access and flexibility are most severe in the US, given the size and bureaucratic complexity of the US defence establishment, the presence of many large defence contractors, and the tendency of the US military to NOFORN things that really don’t need to be limited to US citizens. However, I would argue that this problem has even more deleterious effects elsewhere in NATO (and beyond), where the community of wargamers is much smaller, resources are more constrained, and the need for cooperation and outreach is correspondingly greater.

(/rant)

On a final note, it would have been nice to have seen some mention in Bae’s very good piece of the Connections interdisciplinary wargame conference, held annually in the US, UK, Canada, Netherlands, and Australia. It is not hard to get students to attend these: this year, I had students at Connections North, Connections US, and Connections UK.  Certainly, there is no better place to acquaint yourself with the art and science of wargaming and meet a (somewhat) diverse and (certainly) interdiciplinary group of professional wargamers.

 


*I’m willing to bet Brian comments on this within 48 hours.

Distilling wargaming wisdom at Dstl

The following report has been cleared for release by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (public release identifier DSTL/PUB110424).


 

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The legendary Dstl coin holds off RED forces on the outskirts of a small village.

At the end of June I spent a very pleasant week at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Portsdown West (Portsmouth), discussing various topics with members of the wargaming team there and others. I made similar visits in 2016 and 2017, and—as with the earlier occasions—this trip was very stimulating, productive, and enjoyable.

Monday

Day 1 of my visit started with a presentation on wargaming and forecasting (slides/pdf). Wargamers often intone that “wargamers are not predictions,” largely so that clients and participants will not hold games to an unreasonable standard of predictive accuracy. However, while wargames do not generate detailed findings about the future, they do contain an element of prediction in that they are usually intended to explore plausible futures. Assessing that a future scenario is plausible is, after all, an act of forecasting in itself.

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Given this, the literature on political forecasting offers some guidance as to how games might be better configured to increase foresight. I also suggested that wargames were best used as an adjunct to other forecasting methods (helping us to identify key junctures, challenge assumptions, and encourage discussion) rather than a method in and of themselves.

This was followed by a second presentation on ethical challenges in wargaming (slides/pdf). Here I addressed three major themes:

  • The use of serious games to teach about ethical decision-making, the laws of armed conflict, and similar topics.
  • The use of games to explore the dynamics of mass atrocity and human rights abuses, so that we might develop appropriate policy responses.
  • Finally, I discussed some of the ethical issues that might arise in game design and facilitation.

I was especially pleased with this presentation, since it raised issues that have not been discussed much within the professional community. How should games address sensitive issues such as religion and ethnicity? How can a game explore topics like torture, mass atrocity, or sexual and gender-based violence without having adverse effects on participants who may have had personal traumatic experience of such things? What is our ethical obligation to produce high quality games, given the implications of our work for policy or war-fighting? What is our obligation to produce games that have positive moral effects—and what should we do if we believe a game design might be put to unethical purposes? Interestingly, I was not the only one in attendance who had refused work from a client because we were uncomfortable with who might be using a game and what it might be used it for. (This is, of course, a rather more difficult choice if working on wargame design as a government employee.)

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Much of the latter part of the session involved case studies to which members of the audience were invited to respond. How does one deal with player humour that might be seen as insensitive or offensive by some, given the game scenario? How does one incorporate issues of (countering) sexual exploitation and violence in wargames given the possible effects on players who have experienced the same in their personal or professional lives?

Next, came a session devoted to gaming indirect social media and cyber effects (slides/pdf). I started off by warning that not everything is new under the sun, and that communities and combatants alike have always leveraged new information and communication technologies to enhance their influence and effect. Certainly, the digital age had made it easier to do this, and to reach more people faster than ever before. However, the magnitude of this change might sometimes be exaggerated.

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Maj. Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK) and I then moved on to discussing a variety of interesting games and game mechanics that might be adapted to explore such issues. These included:

 

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Demonstrating influence dynamics in Hostage Negotiator.

Tuesday

The second day of my visit largely involved me participating in, and commenting on, other people’s wargames, which is always an enjoyable task. In the morning, our focus was matrix gaming. I made a quick presentation on the status of the Matrix Game Construction Kit, then Tom facilitated a session of the High North matrix game. This went very well, with Russia, the US and Canada all using environmental concerns to project their regulatory influence well beyond their established Exclusive Economic Zones. Chinese efforts to meddle in a Greenland independence referendum went badly wrong, while “the spirit of capitalism” pursued a variety of economic opportunities as the polar ice cap slowly receded due to global climate change. The session provided ample opportunities to discuss both matrix game design and game facilitation.

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Gaming the “High North.”

After lunch, we discussed support for RAF wargaming. As part of this, Flt. Lt. Colin Bell (RAF) demonstrated three educational games he has developed for training cadets. I particularly enjoyed his air logistics games (in which players must move personnel and supplies using a variety of air assets to various locations, in response to randomly-drawn mission cards), and a game that explored mission planning and execution for offensive and defensive air operations. Playing a few turns of the latter, we lost a few Typhoons in our fighter sweep ahead of our main force but came out slightly ahead in air-to-air engagement. A heavy concentration of radar targets suggested an impending inbound enemy attack on our air defence command centre, so we ordered two other fighter groups to reposition themselves to respond. Meanwhile, we had two strike packages headed towards our target—an enemy destroyer, docked in port—when the game had to be brought to an early end.

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RAF wargaming—teaching about air logistics.

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More RAF wargaming. Strike package inbound!

Wednesday

Day three of my visit involved a morning spent at Dstl’s annual historical analysis symposium. My own paper explored strategic communications, signaling, and deterrence in the specific context of Syrian use of chemical weapons (slides/pdf). Here I drew upon both the scholarly literature on deterrence and the findings of wargames to suggest how it is that what one side regards as a robust signal of capability and credible commitment might be seen rather differently by the recipient—in part because each side operates in a very different organizational and political context.

Dstl Communications

Wednesday evening was spent at the mess of HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy “stone frigate” (shore establishment) on Whale Island, Portsmouth. After dinner, not surprisingly, we all turned our attention to some less serious gaming. While some of the group plotted to assassinate Hitler in Black Orchestra, the rest of us played Bloc by Bloc. I’m happy to report that fascism had a bad day: Hitler went down in the former game, while in the latter a progressive revolutionary coalition of workers, students, anarcho-neighbours, and prisoners brought down the repressive state system.

Thursday

The fourth day of my trip was wholly devoted to a day-long workshop on wargame adjudication (slides/pdf). In the morning, Tom and I started with a presentation on the topic, drawing upon our own experience. Adjudication runs along a spectrum from rigid (rules-based) to free kriegsspiel, with matrix games and hybrid approaches somewhere in between. Adjudication also varies depending on whether game play is turn-based, continuous, or a mix of these.

I suggested that wargame facilitators and adjudicators stand astride two essential mandates, sometimes complementary, but also sometimes in tension: that of the technician (committed to attaining the technical goals of the game) and the theatre director (responsible for bringing alive the imaginary world of the game narrative).

After lunch, we collectively discussed two recent Dstl games and the adjudication challenges each had presented. We then broke into smaller groups, and discussed how we might address a number of game adjudication vignettes:

  • Dealing with an adjudication error in combat resolution. Do you rewind the game, admit the error but press ahead regardless, or hide the mistake from the players?
  • What sort of adjudication would be most appropriate for a game intended to examine security planning for a forthcoming high-profile diplomatic visit, and why?
  • How should one deal with a (more senior, male) SME who is persistently pestering a (junior, female) player with criticisms of the game system?
  • How might adjudication approaches be configured to better withstand sponsor pressure to reach predetermined conclusions?

Interestingly, almost all of the participants felt that an adjudicator should cover up a minor error during a game if the mistake had no major game-changing effects and if informing players would “break the bubble” of narrative engagement—only disclosing the glitch after the game was over, depending on the participants and client. I concur and have done it myself, but I know others who don’t and wouldn’t. The issue was one that was further debated at the Connections US wargaming conference a few weeks later, during a session on in-stride adjudication.

Friday

The last day of my visit involved a trip to the Maritime Warfare School at HMS Collingwoodfor a playtest of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit naval escort game. PAXsims has extensively covered the work that Paul Strong and Sally David have done on WATU and its impressive contribution to World War Two naval tactics and training, and it was an absolute delight to see how it all worked.

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Playtesting the WATU wargame.

During the playtest, I commanded one of the Type-VII U-boats attacking a convoy headed from Liverpool to Halifax. I did well, using the darkness to maneuver within the convoy formation and torpedoing three merchantmen before ordering a deep dive and hard turn to port to evade the now-alerted escorts. Initial depth charges fell well wide of their mark, but a couple of escorts did manage to ping my boat with ASDIC and had turned course towards us.

Just then, explosions at the far side of the convoy signaled that another German submarine had found its prey—hopefully distracting them while I dived even deeper and headed to the rear of the convoy. My intention was to surface once the action had passed me by, and then use my deck gun to finish off any damaged ships that were straggling behind the main formation.

We had to bring the game to an end at this point, but I must say it went well for an initial playtest. I think all of us who were there were very proud to be recreating a great moment in wargaming history. Sally Davis has also written up a brief account, which I have also posted to PAXsims.

The WATU wargame will be demonstrated at King’s College London in September, during the Connections UK wargaming conference, and shortly after that in a special session at the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool. I am especially looking forward to the latter—an opportunity to conduct a WATU game in the very rooms used to command the North Atlantic convoys during WWII.

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Before I left, Dstl presented me with both one of their rare challenge coins (see picture at top) and a copy of  their STRIKE! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame. Dstl has developed this manual wargame for the British Army to help it examine how the Strike Brigade would perform on the battlefield—we will be providing more detail on the game in a future PAXsims article. At McGill University I intend to use STRIKE in my conflict simulation course next year to illustrate fundamental elements of basic wargame design (such terrain and capability modelling), so you may see some after action reports here too.

 

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