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Category Archives: simulation and gaming ideas

Wong and Heath: Is the (US) Department of Defense making enough progress in wargaming?

At War on the Rocks today, Yuna Huh Wong and Garrett Heath ask whether the US Department of Defense is making enough progress in the quality and effectiveness of its wargaming efforts.

Five years into its reinvigoration, the military’s interest in wargaming remains strong. Strategy writing teams in the Pentagon extensively wargamed candidates for the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Demand has only increased for approaches that can help senior leaders think through everything from technologies such as artificial intelligence and cyber to fully fledged concepts such as the joint warfighting concept and joint all-domain command and control. Wargaming plays a key role in these activities and, despite its limitations, few practical alternatives exist.

Yet, if wargaming continues to be one of the few tools available to better prepare the U.S. military for the future, is wargaming, as conducted by the Department of Defense, up to the task? There are four questions the department needs to answer before it will know.

First: Is the quality of existing defense wargaming sufficient? Is the overall defense wargaming enterprise able to support the present challenges in concept development, analysis, capabilities development, and professional military education?

A second key question for the department to answer is whether wargaming does in fact improve learning and innovation. The truth is that we have little to no empirical research that shows wargaming promotes learning, creative thinking, or problem solving — at either the individual or organizational levels.

A third question for the department to answer is whether there is sufficient wargaming capability and capacity across the defense enterprise to support current and future wargaming needs.

This leads us to the fourth question the department needs to answer: What is the state of the wargaming workforce, and does it need to modernize this workforce, in terms of backgrounds, skillsets, and professional practices? 

It’s a very valuable discussion that raises some very important questions—you should go read the entire piece at the link above.

Wargaming in the era of telework

At the Modern War Institute (West Point), Yuna Wong discusses “going virtual: wargaming in an era of telework, travel restrictions, and social distancing.”

One of the many ways that COVID-19 has impacted the US Department of Defense is in its wargaming activities. Typically conducted in person, wargames face challenges from travel restrictionslarge-scale shifts toward teleworksocial distancing measures, and state and local lockdowns that affect the defense industry. Wargames are also often classified, and classified work has faced particular challenges during the pandemic—although it has given rise to classified telework.

There are significant limitations of using many of the same approaches we have always used, just now in the virtual space. Additional thought and better design are required to improve the virtual wargaming experience and to gain the full advantages that distributed wargames may offer. As we have all discovered, virtual events come with their own set of challenges. The lack of face-to-face engagement takes away many of the benefits from traditional, in-person wargames and tabletop exercises. Zoom fatiguedistractions in the home; bandwidth and connectivity issues; anxiety, frustration, and boredom from social isolation; plus general pandemic stress all hamper participants’ engagement. Multiple, day-long tabletop exercises and wargames are impractical and ineffective when simply moved to Microsoft Teams without additional adaptation.

What, then, can wargamers do in light of these difficulties with virtual gaming?…

You’ll have to read the her article to find the answers.

Wargaming the laws of armed conflict

At War on the Rocks today, Thomas Gordon IV, Adam Oler, Laurie Blank, and Jill Goldenziel discuss “Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter: Wargaming the Role of Law in War.”

In partnership with National Defense University and the Emory University School of Law’s  International Humanitarian Law Clinic, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College implemented National Defense University’s “Burning Sands” wargame for the student body of 213 midcareer military officers and civilian counterparts. Burning Sands was created by faculty at the National War College and designed by National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning for the university’s War Crimes and Strategy elective. As students simulate a joint force command staff tasked with liberating an Islamic State-controlled city in North Africa (a fictional scenario based on Israel’s experience during its 2014 “Operation Protective Edge”), they navigate war’s changing character —and recognize its enduring nature.

At the start of the wargame, the students received an order with three mandates. First, they were tasked to secure the town as quickly as possible. Second, U.S. and coalition casualties were to be kept to a minimum. Third, students had to comply with strict rules of engagement, including stringent limitations on civilian casualties. None of these demands were surprising, at least initially. Political pressure to achieve military objectives rapidly and with minimal casualties is hardly new. Minimizing civilian suffering maintains coalitions, undergirds military ethics and the profession of arms, and is central to the just war idea. To accomplish the mission, students were provided a variety of military forces and weapons, ranging from special forces to cruise missiles.

Through a series of injects, students faced immediate operational dilemmas that raised legal questions and, in due time, presented challenges to the legitimacy of U.S. and coalition actions. Students quickly ascertained that, as several put it, “I can get you two, ma’am, but not all three mandates.” Students were required to assess the legal, operational, and policy issues and brief the joint force commander accordingly. To be clear, none of the options were close to ideal. Each time the coalition attacked a target, the results were immediately captured on video and broadcast to the world. For example, when the game started, students learned that the Islamic State was operating its main command and control node deep inside the city’s only hospital. As designed, the students wrestled with whether and how attacking the hospital would be legal once the Islamic State was using it for military purposes, as well as the accompanying moral and operational considerations. To start, the target could be destroyed with minimal coalition casualties with a large air-delivered ordnance. However, this decision would increase the prospect of civilian deaths. Alternatively, the students could recommend a ground assault on the hospital to neutralize the command and control node, limiting civilian casualties but increasing the risk to coalition forces. Most students asked for more time and intelligence reports, but the joint force commander reminded them of the time pressure imposed by Washington. Students would have to make a timely decision, as they would in the real world, in the absence of complete information….

Read the rest at the link above.

Bae on educational wargaming

At the Australian Defence College website The Forge, Sebastian Bae addresses how to develop an educational wargaming programme at civilian and military educational institutions alike:

Educational wargaming is experiencing a remarkable resurgence, reflected in the growth of wargaming Fight Clubs and the embrace of wargames as pedagogical tools in the classroom. From civilian educators to senior military leaders, there is an increasing consensus that wargames can be powerful learning tools – better equipping future decisionmakers to face a broad spectrum of challenges. As universities, both civilian and military, continue to develop a model for 21st century learning and education, wargaming and other forms of experiential learning may increasingly become permeant fixtures in curriculums. This begs the question: how does one cultivate wargaming at the university?

There is no singular, definitive answer. Several universities, such as King’s College LondonU.S. Army War College, and U.S. Naval War College, have established excellent wargaming programs, each with their unique character. However, if a university is aiming to build a wargaming program, storied wargaming histories or boasting one of the giants of the field are not prerequisites. Over the last two years, Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program (SSP), U.S. Marine Corps Command & Staff College (CSC), and the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) have all established respective wargaming initiatives. With the support of amazing partners and colleagues, these initiatives feature a wargaming lab, student societies, and wargaming design courses where students research, design, develop, and execute an original educational wargame.

The key to success and rapid growth of these initiatives lies in cultivating a wargaming insurgency, a grassroots movement to foster experiential learning on campus. Admittedly, the idea of establishing any wargaming initiative, whether an extracurricular student society or official course, can be daunting. Institutions of higher education, whether civilian or military, may be resistant to change, reluctant to assume risk, and may stifle innovation with bureaucracy. Hence, for those aiming to start wargaming programs of their own, I offer four potential overarching principles for conducting a wargaming insurgency: crawl, walk, run; find champions and sponsors; collaborate to generate growth and value; and be adaptable and exploit opportunities.

Read his full piece at the link above, and also check out the Educational Wargaming Cooperative.

Davis: Wargaming has a diversity problem

At The Wavell Room, PAXsims associate editor Sally Davis argues that wargaming has a diversity problem. She gets straight to her point in the opening:

Wargaming has a diversity problem: 98% white and male.

I propose there are two ways that people engage with wargames:

1. To dominate, to win, to prove their mastery, to confirm what they already know.

2. To experience a new perspective, to learn, to grow, to embrace the unknown.

Playing for domination leads to misogynist and toxic behaviour towards women and minorities.  It leads to playing for indulgence rather than learning the meaningful lessons serious games can impart—which is bad for the outcomes of wargames, bad for the culture of wargaming, and bad for diversity and inclusion.  Wargaming is literally meant to teach us to be better.

We need to stop pretending that arguing against diversity and inclusion is anything more than the masturbatory indulgence of straight white men.

If your organization would like to indicate support for diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming, there are many things you can do—including lending your support to the Derby House Principles.

Congress should be wargaming (but not Battle Force 2045)

The following piece was submitted to PAXsims by an anonymous contributor.


Rep Mike Gallagher claims in a recent War on the Rocks piece (with commentary by Rex Brynen and others here), that the US Congress needs to take a trip to the Naval War College to participate in a wargame showcasing Battle Force 2045, the Department of Defense’s recently announced plan for a 500 ship Navy. In order for “Naval advocates in the executive branch … to sell a simplified vision of integrated American seapower to the legislative branch”, he claims, they should participate in a wargame to understand the “assumptions, vulnerabilities, unknowns, and risks being assumed in the absence of change.” But selling concepts is a dangerous place for wargames to tread.

Rep Gallagher acknowledges this, saying that “wargames could be rigged to put a positive outcome in front of lawmakers.” He’s very right. A skilled interpretation of wargames takes experience and understanding its craft. You don’t need to have been in the Wargaming profession very long to see, or at the very least hear, a story of DoD leaders misinterpreting or over-interpreting the results of a wargame in support of their preferred concept or program. But wargames provide valuable insights for those willing to put in the effort. Congress should be wargaming – but at the strategic level, and with representatives from the entire interagency, to understand how best they can legislate, provide oversight, declare war, and wield the power of the purse for the benefit of our nation and its citizens.

Battle Force 2045, like all military plans, concepts, or proposed force structures, should be wargamed (and I’m sure it has been). Wargames, together with the rest of the cycle of research, give the planners, concept builders, and force structure assessors the information that they need to build a better plan, concept, or force structure. But that’s the job of the Department of Defense, not Congress.

Congress needs to be informed about the threats, the risks, and the opportunities afforded by everything that they legislate. When it comes to the military, it’s the DoD’s job to provide them with a clear and accurate articulation of the problem. When I brief the results of a wargame to leaders in the military, I don’t run a wargame for them. I use the insights that we learned in the wargame to provide actionable information relevant to the decisions that those leaders need to make. I don’t run a wargame for them to watch; I run a wargame to help me (and my analysis team) understand the problem, which helps me articulate the situation to those decision makers. If the DoD cannot articulate the situation to Congress and the White House, then the perhaps it is they who need to go back to the wargaming table (and the analytic reports, and the exercise schedule). 

What are the problems that Congress needs to understand?

Rep Gallagher and the bipartisan colleagues he references are right in saying that Congress should spend some time wargaming. There are many problems that wargames can and should help understand, not the least of which is the U.S.’s current relationship with China. But my experience via many wargames in recent years, from tactical to operational to strategic, have made one thing very clear: competition and conflict with China will rely on much more than Battle Force 2045 or any other force structure that the U.S. military will propose.

International conflict with peer competitors like China will require a robust response from all the pieces of the federal government. The Department of Defense must clearly be ready to deter, and if necessary defeat, aggression against the US or its interests abroad. The Department of State must be able to negotiate with China and come to a clear understanding about red lines, interests, national objectives, and international relationships. State must also be engaged with our allies and partners, exploring not only issues of access, basing, and overflight for our military, but also economic, social, and (dis)information issues that are critical to the US building a coalition of like-minded nations. The Department of Treasury must be engaged with our allies and partners to ensure our and their domestic security and quality of life, which is critical to supporting national will during a contest with one of our major trading partners. The Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Education, and even Transportation have an opportunity to be engaged in the escalating tensions with other global superpowers.

The DoD spends a good deal of money, and quite a lot of time, Wargaming a conflict with competitors across the globe. But rarely do those wargames include representatives from the interagency for a very good reason: that’s not the DoD’s job. Congress, on the other hand, has the ability to legislate issues surrounding all of these Departments. However, a myopic exploration of any one is likely to give a skewed perception of the importance of that line of effort when. If Congress were to declare war against a global superpower, then they must have a holistic view of the interagency problem and understand the broad ramifications – or at least that there are broad ramifications – of that act. Wargaming is a very effective way to do that.

Gaming for Congress?

At War on the Rocks today, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI8) of the House Armed Services Committee argues that the US Navy and Department of Defense need to to a better job of of selling their proposed naval force structure (Battle Force 2045) to members of Congress. The way this could be done, he suggests, is through a wargame:

Naval advocates in the executive branch need to sell a simple vision of integrated American seapower to the legislative branch in order to get budgetary buy-in. This will require the Pentagon to step out of its comfort zone.

This should start with a three-day trip, a short congressional delegation. Regardless of who is president and secretary of defense in 2021, this delegation should occur as soon as possible next year, as it may well be the most important government trip that will occur in the next decade. Pentagon leadership should gather congressional defense leaders, interested members, authorizers, and appropriators in the Mecca of seapower and wargaming at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. Over the course of 72 hours the department should walk Congress through a wargame that demonstrates the forces it needs, and how Battle Force 2045 will deny Chinese objectives in the Indo-Pacific generally and the first island chain specifically. The Pentagon needs to put it all out there: assumptions, vulnerabilities, unknowns, and risks being assumed in the absence of change, for legislators to understand and debate.

This idea of wargaming with Congress should have bipartisan support, if for no other reason than I stole it from Democrats. In an op-ed earlier this year with Gabrielle Chefitz, Flournoy argued that the Pentagon should invite members of Congress to observe its wargames in order to provide them with the context behind its budgetary proposals. This makes a lot of sense to me as a defense authorizer. The standard congressional hearings with the department are important, but are suboptimal forums for candid conversations, as neither members of Congress nor defense officials want to embarrass themselves on television and even classified discussions are frequently limited by time. A three-day wargame at Newport, on the other hand, would give members of Congress a rare glimpse behind the curtain of defense planning, allow members to ask stupid questions without generating negative press, and allow defense leaders to admit their intellectual or doctrinal blind spots without getting fired.

This does not need to be fancy. Congress just needs a map of the Indo-Pacific and a secure room filled with the Pentagon’s smartest people who can explain to members in simple terms the Chinese military threat, the blue force structure and capabilities needed to deter the People’s Liberation Army or defeat it in war should deterrence fail, and a clear understanding of what American allies bring to the fight. Defense officials should walk congressional leaders through how the current force structure in the Indo-Pacific is inadequate and how Battle Force 2045, in concert with the rest of the joint force, will turn an unfavorable military balance around and lead to victory. Armed with the analytical and tactical context behind the Future Naval Force Structure and the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan, congressional leaders would then be in a position, despite budgetary headwinds, to make tough choices and convince their colleagues and the public to go along with them.

The idea has already received some pushback from those who fear that wargames can overemphasize military solutions to diplomatic problems.

This is a legitimate concern, although it is possible to run policy games on South and East Asia issues that don’t presume military solutions—as we did for Global Affairs canada in our South China Sea game.

A bigger concern, I think, is that of “gamewashing”—that is, designing and running a game designed to reach a preconceived conclusion. This is the issue that Jacquelyn Schneider raises:

Moreover, methodologically, it is simply impossible for a single wargame to “prove” the superiority of a particular force structure or set of defence investments, both because game outcomes depend (or should depend) on decisions made in the game and because you also need to test out alternatives. Did the US Navy emerge victorious in the wargame because of Battle Force 2045, or because of brilliant US game play (regardless of the asset mix), or because the Chinese side played poorly? Did eight nuclear aircraft carriers and six light carriers prove to be the key to victory, or would the US have done even better with fewer aircraft carriers and more investment in submarines, UAVs, or something else? How much advantage is gained from investing in Navy versus Air Force capabilities? Would the asset mix that proves most effective in defending Taiwan also be the most effective in other scenarios? And so on.

What you risk ending up with is wargame theatre—slickly-produced to engage and convince the audience, but telling only one possible story.

All that being said, I do think there is value in engaging legislators (and legislative staff) in games—largely to educate, to build the foundations for cooperation in times of crisis, and to seek their input into the political dimensions of policy analysis.

Downes-Martin: Swarm gaming

Today at the US Army War College War Room, PAXsims associate editor Stephen Downes-Martin argues the need for “swarm gaming”—running many smaller wargames rather than one big one, to explore the decision and issue space in a more agile way.

One approach to deal with the constraint is open adjudication where the players participate with the adjudicators in determining the outcomes of interactions. The wargame becomes a structure within which the participants explore the novel scenario as they decide about novel warfighting concepts. The structure forces decision-making within a competitive environment followed by a cooperative exploration of possible outcomes, and this sequence is repeated as the game progresses.

The requirement can be satisfied by many small games run in parallel where each game is repeated multiple times with game design between each iteration modified by insights generated by the previous iteration. The iterations spawn multiple trajectories and create breadth across the decision and outcome space. Both Matrix Game and map/board based Hobby Game techniques can satisfy these requirements.

Each small wargame has one player per side and one adjudicator who also acts as a data recorder. Each subgame is played many times with players rotating between sides and the adjudication position. Rotating roles is critical for games that explore novel situations, as it forces players and adjudicators to see the situation from different perspectives and be innovative about adjudication. Repetition forces the players to think harder about how to win as they face players who have seen their previous attempts. Whether players stay in the same groups for all the subgames or are shuffled between subgames is an open question. I call this “Swarm Gaming” (not wargaming swarms, that is a different topic).

You can read his full piece at the link above.

Moving online: Thoughts on digital learning games in the COVID-19 era

The following piece was written for PAXsims by Matthew Stevens and Ben Stevens.

Matthew Stevens is Director of Lessons Learned Simulations and Training, a professional development training firm for humanitarian workers with a focus on simulations and serious games.

Ben Stevens is an expert in group facilitation and education via non-traditional media, with a growing portfolio in learning game development. He joined LLST as a Project Assistant in September 2020.


Like the rest of society, over the past six months serious gamers have scrambled to move our profession online. New methods have proliferated to adapt our favourite mechanics to online platforms, and even those designers most reluctant to leave behind face-to-face gaming (myself included) have been forced to experiment with this new digital medium.

Shortly before COVID-19 changed the way we work, Imaginetic and Lessons Learned carried out research for Save the Children UK in Kenya, Jordan, and Canada on the potential uses and effectiveness of learning games in humanitarian training. That work feels especially timely now, as our study included an examination of the differences between digital games and face-to-face exercises. The main thrust of the findings will cause many long-time serious gamers to nod in agreement: face-to-face learning games were much more engaging, enjoyable, and effective than their digital counterparts. 

But hold on: the reality might be more complicated. In the early days of the lockdown, the Lessons Learned team spent some time gaming out pathways to a best-case digital future. Here are some of the key takeaways we identified.

What Makes a Good Digital Game?

A key recommendation from our pre-COVID-19 research was that, for a learning game to be successful, the form of the game should be dictated by the learning goals. Genre, mechanics, and theme should all mirror function. A game about information flow, micro-frictions within teams, or inter-agency coordination should require players with different perspectives to discuss their actions face-to-face. If we want players to learn empathy for others, they should be emulating the decision-making processes and emotional states of others with as much accuracy as possible. Conversely, an action side-scroller makes for a poor tool to teach about a crisis case study if players are paying more attention to the nuances of the controls and the gaps they have to leap over than to the artificially injected learning moments—assuming they have the skill to pass the obstacles at all.

One corollary of our findings is that digital and tabletop games are fundamentally different learning tools. They do different things well and, similarly, are limited in different ways. As experienced tabletop game designers, we are experts in designing with the strengths and limitations of our medium in mind. We know that fog of war is hard, so if it’s needed we make that a central design feature. We know that buy-in is difficult, and so our games should be quick to set up, quick to learn, and quick to start. In particular, we know that our games should involve people with different points of view collaborating on a plan around a table because that is something our medium does exceptionally well.

But are we keeping these principles in mind as we pivot to the digital environment? For many of us (myself included!), pivoting to digital has simply meant running our tabletop learning games over Zoom. After examining my own experiences, hearing about the experiences of others, and playing a lot of games, I think that to succeed in a digital future we need to get back to basics.

Accepting and Avoiding Digital Limitations 

Try playing your favourite board game online, and you’ll quickly notice that the components we use just don’t work as well in the digital space. Moving digital pieces on a digital board feels disconnected. Virtual decks of cards can be confusing. Where can I put my tokens and why? How tall is this stack of cards? Did we shuffle or not? What deck did this draw come from?

This isn’t to say that the same mechanics can’t be used, but we should not assume that the tactile user interface we employ via units, tokens, decks of cards, and dice in a tabletop exercise will translate directly to a computer screen.

Digital games do not allow for the type of fluid, dynamic conversation that we rely on in tabletop learning games. After six months of remote work, we are well aware that Zoom calls and forum threads are less efficient than face-to-face meetings. Of course, that principle is equally true when we are engaged in a serious game. Conversation, debate, coordination, and group goal setting—the bread and butter of our tabletop designs—are all bottlenecked by the limitations of online meetings.

If these classic tabletop features don’t adapt well to the digital environment, is that the fault of the medium itself? Or should we as designers be changing our approach?

Embracing the Digital Environment

Even before COVID-19 curtailed our ability to meet face-to-face, we used the digital medium to communicate in a bewildering assortment of ways: emails, WhatsApp messages, Slack groups, social media, shared documents, video calls, SMS—the list goes on and on. Instead of using these tools as imperfect facsimiles of in-person interactions, why not build our digital game designs around digital communication itself? 

What many of these tools have in common is that they are asynchronous. Digital conversations don’t happen all at once. Even an urgent email takes time to draft and revise. The slow pace of digital conversations has a serious impact on one of the most ubiquitous game structures: turns. If each turn requires communication between players, we can expect those turns to play out like an uphill slog through mud. It is becoming clear that our digital game designs might be more effective if we made clever use of asynchronicity instead of struggling against it.

I’ll go one step further: that list of digital communications software gives us an opportunity to exploit as digital designers. We already have a magnificent suite of tools at our disposal that our participants use every day. If we are deliberate about the tools we use to host our designs, we will not have to teach participants the mechanics from scratch. They already know how to send emails, manipulate spreadsheets, and participate in Slack threads. With well-fitted digital designs, we can offload the unfamiliar elements of running the game onto the control team, leaving participants to work in ways which already feel natural to them. Since we know that cards and small components often do not translate to digital space, where we can’t pick them up and look at them, it becomes much easier to present information via email, chat, spreadsheet, PDF, image, webpage, or any of the other myriad digital options. These tools also make digital games fantastic for concealing information. As designers, we have much more control over what players see and do not see in digital space.

Another great opportunity presented by the digital environment is that digital games do not require a physical space. We don’t have to book a meeting room to set up the board. Participants don’t have to meet to debate their strategy or submit their actions. When combined with asynchronous methods of communication, this flexibility gives us the opportunity to build games which run over longer periods of time but require less frequent input: fifteen minutes a day over the course of a week or five minutes out of every hour spread across a three-day conference, all largely run over familiar digital office tools (the archetype of this structure is, of course, PAXsims’ own Brynania civil war simulation).

Digital games are much more easily automated, allowing for much more complicated rules and mathematics. This automation could be as simple as a facilitator copy-and-pasting data into spreadsheets and emailing participants the results at the end of every round. Or it could be as complex as scripting fully automated solo experiences in powerful digital game design tools such as Unity. However, in these cases, we have to be cognizant of the drawbacks of offloading the processes from the player. If a player does not understand what is happening or why, they will struggle to connect with the learning objective. If players do disconnect, the more automated a game, the less opportunity a facilitator has to intervene in order to keep it on track.

Because digital games can be automated, played in shorter chunks of time, and do not take up physical space, they can be much more easily repeated than their tabletop counterparts. The potential for repetition is a major opportunity for all kinds of reasons. We know that repetition is a powerful tool for learning—and how often have we railed against the “n=1 problem” in analytical games? 

Back to Basics

Of course, we should not consider this an exhaustive list of the strengths and weaknesses of the digital design environment (nor should we think of that environment as being homogeneous). But I think it’s safe to say that, in making the move from tabletop to digital learning games, we will need to go back to basics in our designs. We need to return to the desired outcomes of the project, and we need to search for new game mechanics that maximize the opportunities of the medium while avoiding its pitfalls. For many of us (again, myself included!), this process is going to seem frustrating and limiting as we grapple with basic problems in ways we have not experienced since early in our careers. In some cases, we may have to completely re-examine our assumptions about what a learning game can do. 

It’s clear that, as responsible designers, we can’t just force what we’ve been doing into a new shape. If we want our learning game designs to make the transition online, we need to treat digital learning game design as a new art and invest time in learning how to do it well.

Matthew Stevens

Ben Stevens

Pellegrino: Modelling and games

Pete Pellegrino is a retired USN commander and former Naval Flight Officer, currently employed by Valiant Integrated Services supporting the US Naval War College’s War Gaming Department as lead for game design and adjudication and lecturing on game related topics for the department’s war gaming courses.  In addition to his work at the college since 2004, Pete has also conducted business games for Fortune 500 companies and consulted for major toy and game companies. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.

The various Excel tools mentioned in the lecture can be found here.

Others in this series can be viewed at the PAXsims YouTube channel.

Schechter: Wargaming Cyber Security

The latest issue of War on the Rocks features a piece by Benjamin Schechter (US Naval War College) on wargaming cyber security.

“Wargames can save lives” is axiomatic in the wargame community. But can they save your network? As modern conflict has become increasingly digital, cyber wargaming has emerged as an increasingly distinct and significant activity. Moreover, it’s doing double duty. In addition to its application to national defense, it’s also helping protect the economy and critical infrastructure. Wargaming is a military tool used to gain an advantage on the battlefield. However, it has also found a home beyond national security, frequently used in the private sector. Cyber security straddles the battlefield and the boardroom. As a result, it is not surprising that cyber wargaming is increasingly common across both the public and private sectors. As cyber security concerns intensify, so too does the attention given to cyber wargaming.

Designed well and used appropriately, cyber wargames are a powerful tool for cyber research and education. However, misconceptions about what cyber wargames are, their uses, and potential abuses pose challenges to the development of cyber wargaming.

He offers some useful insight into how to do this well—and some equally useful comments on what to avoid:

Cottage industries have emerged that cater to every type of cyber security need. A variety of contractors, consultants, and specialists offer bespoke cyber wargames, support services, and wargaming tools. Often, they provide valuable services during a time when people are grasping for insights and solutions. Yet there are also potentially troubling challenges and conflicts of interest. Wargame sponsors and participants sometimes lack the social and technical ability to assess the wargame product they receive critically. Alternatively, the need for immediate, easy answers for hard cyber problems encourages problematic cyber wargames. Whatever the source, and there can be many, the potential problems and pathologies with cyber wargames go beyond the purely technical or conceptual.

In a world of new tech, vaporware, and buzzwords, cyber wargames can be used to sell other products, services, or ideas. The marketplace for cyber security may encourage using wargames as a sales pitch, leveraging the emotional and intellectual intensity of wargames for influence. One example is using cyber wargames to create anxiety or fear with “cyber doom scenarios.” While this may be appropriate in some specific instances, more often than not, it’s threat inflation to advance a program, advocate for an idea, or sell a product. This is not a new problem, nor is it limited to cyber or wargaming. Bureaucratic politics and defense procurement raise the specter of ulterior motives in wargames for the Department of Defense. The risks are significant for Fortune 500 companies as well as government agencies.

There’s also the problem of cyber wargames that don’t produce anything of value, either by design or by error. The most meaningless and infamous wargames are BOGSATs (a bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table). Cyber BOGSATs are common. These games may appear promising, with distinguished participants and institutions. But they lack clear objectives or game design leading to no substantial finding or benefit. BOGSATs occur when a wargame is not the best tool for the problem, is window dressing for something else, or is just poorly designed.

Particularly egregious are cyber wargames that actively cause harm by teaching the wrong lessons or creating false knowledge. Unfortunately, this is not a new or uncommon phenomenon. Common causes are ill-designed or unrealistic cyber elements and gameplay, poorly specified cyber objectives, and poor communication. A cyber wargame about a high-intensity conflict where cyberspace operations are consistently and catastrophically effective might lead to some skewed perspectives on cyberspace operations. Alternatively, poorly abstracted networks and computer systems may artificially limit player creativity or instill a false sense of security. Finally, and most fundamentally, they might fail to articulate how cyberspace has been abstracted or will be used within the game. Because cyberspace is synthetic, its representation can vary significantly and in different ways from other domains. In any case, poor design will result in games that fail to meet their objectives. Worse yet, they teach the wrong lessons, skew analysis, or stifle new or innovative ideas. My colleague, Dr. Nina Kollars, and I discuss these and related cyber wargaming challenges and pathologies in an upcoming Atlantic Council article.

You can read the full article link at the link above.

Successful professional wargames: The Movie

Graham Longley-Brown had the foresight to record his recent presentation at the Connections Global conference, in which he highlighted some of the key points from his book Successful Professional Wargames: A Practitioners Guide (2019). Here it is, via YouTube, for those who might have missed it.

CNA Talks: Diversity and inclusion in wargaming

Episode 67 of the CNA Talks podcast addresses the topic of diversity and inclusion in wargaming.

On this episode of CNA Talks, Dr. Chris Ma discusses the Derby House Principles on Diversity and Inclusion in Professional Wargamming with their creators: Dr. Yuna Wong of the Institute for Defense Analyses, Professor Rex Brynen of McGill University, and Sally Davis of the UK Ministry of Defence.

Biographies

Chris Ma Ph.D directs CNA’s Gaming and Integration Team.

Yuna Huh Wong Ph.D is a defense analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). She is a frequent organizer for the Connections Wargaming Conference series, and co-chaired the 2016 and 2017 Military Operations Research Society (MORS) special meetings on wargaming.

Sally Davis is a senior analyst at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, part of the UK Ministry of Defence. She writes software in support of analysis, simulation, and wargaming.

Rex Brynen is professor of political science at McGill University, where he specializes Middle East politics, complex peace and humanitarian operations, and serious games. He is senior editor of the conflict simulation website PAXsims (http://www.paxsims.org).

CNA is a cosponsor of the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming.

Mentioned in Dispatches: The Derby House Principles

This week, the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast at Armchair Dragoons is all about diversity and inclusion in wargaming and the intent behind the Derby House Principles.

There’s been many facets of public life that have been touched lately by discussions of diversity and representation in different spheres of public life, and gaming has been no different.  From the cancelation of Origins Online to the Twitter mob stalking designer Eric Lang to GAMA’s comms director quitting to the Diana Jones Awards at GenCon, there’s been a non-stop list of game-industry headlines all summer long.

Enter, The Derby House Principles, promoting diversity & inclusion in professional wargaming. Focused on the practitioner community that designs, executes, evaluates, and teaches the art & science of wargaming in the realms of defense & security policy, national defense, emergency preparedness, and the intelligence communities, the Derby House Principles have been endorsed by a wide array of government and government-adjacent organizations.

While the professional wargaming community is not our focus, it is still an area of interest for much of our audience.  Some of The Dragoons have worked in both the hobby and professional communities, and some professionals will look to hobby sites like us for information on the current practices of the hobby community, or creative approaches to wargaming events.

With that in mind, we reached out to some folks in the professional wargaming world who were well-positioned to discuss and describe not only their own experiences as under-represented minorities in professional wargaming, but also their thoughts on the operationalization of the Derby House Principles.  While neither were officially representing any agency or organization, both Yuna Wong and Sally Davis were have long resumes of experience in the professional wargaming world and their insights made for a fascinating podcast.  Rex Brynen also stops by at the start of the episode to discuss the genesis of the principles and their initial spread among the professional community.

This is a pretty long episode folks – well over an hour – but we didn’t want to cut the discussion short.

You can listen to it at the link at the top. Our thanks go out to Brant Guillory for recording and facilitating the discussion, and his strong support for a more diverse and inclusive hobby and profession.

derbyHouse

NWC Wargaming: Go Big or Go Home

The following piece was written for PAXsims by Thomas Barnett and Lea Culver.

Thomas P.M. Barnett, Director of Research at Creek Technologies, is a NYT/WAPO bestselling author of multiple books on global affairs and US global leadership (e.g., Pentagon’s New Map). He has served in the Office of Secretary of Defense following 9/11, at the U.S. Naval War College as a Senior Strategic Researcher/Professor, and at Oak Ridge National Lab as a Visiting Strategist.

Lea Culver is the Founder/President/CEO of Creek Technologies, a former Army Intelligence Officer, and a doctoral candidate with Franklin University. Creek Technologies specializes in Information Technology and Education Support Services across the government.

Comments are welcome below.


On May 1st, the nation’s war colleges received a brutal – if pre-emptive – failing grade from the Joint Chiefs, who declared that Joint Professional Military Education schools are not producing military commanders “who can achieve intellectual overmatch against adversaries.” Because China increasingly matches our “mass” and “best technology,” the Joint Chiefs argue that America will prevail in future conflicts primarily by having more capable officers. As for those “emerging requirements” that “have not been the focus of our current leadership development enterprise” (e.g., integrating national instruments, critical thinking, creative approaches to joint warfighting, understanding disruptive technologies), please raise your hand when you hear something new. 

Brutal and timely.  

China’s rising naval power compelled the Joint Chiefs to identify the leadership margin between defeating, or yielding to, the People’s Liberation Army, and they judged the Defense Department’s educational institutions as presently not providing it

So where does Joint Professional Military Education go from here? The Joint Chiefs of Staff were very clear: comprehensively integrate wargaming into a “talent management system” that produces officers who can “apply our capabilities better and more creatively” than our peer competitors. How comprehensively?  Enough for future commanders to hone these skills for “thousands of hours of deliberate practice, pushing cognitive limits and intellectual performance.” 

The Chief of Naval Operations’ response? Slot the Naval War College under a new Warfighting Development Directorate established within his office – specifically in Warfighting Development (N7), moving it from its traditional spot in Manpower, Personnel, Training, and Education (N1). The institutional signal here is clear:  Forge a far more direct link between education and warfighting – a bridge best captured by wargaming. 

True, we have witnessed some bureaucratic waffling since then, most notably in the announced “Education for Seapower” program review by the new Secretary of Navy, but that sort of institutional pushback is to be expected during a tectonic shift. Serious money remains slated for future naval education efforts ($350M annually), and, while that probably will not be enough to stand up the proposed U.S. Naval Community College,  it is more than enough for the College to upgrade its wargaming program in response to the Joint Chiefs’ urgent mandate.

The Naval War College annually conducts 50-plus wargames, which is impressive, but these simulations are decidedly platform/network-centric, resulting in “quick-look” reports of high immediate interest only to Office of the Chief of Naval Operations’ sponsors. That is not Newport’s fault: it was simply responding to enduring market demand and the Chiefs just radically redefined that. The good news? The tools, technologies, and techniques that the College now needs to recast wargaming as a learner-centric enterprise are readily available – and at reasonably modest cost. 

Since the birth of Network-Centric Warfare in the mid-1990s, defense firms have amassed an impressive array of capabilities under the human performance engineering rubric (oftentimes called human-centric engineering), which addresses the third dimension of modern warfare (see  below) – namely, the interface between commanders and that “best technology” (systems) controlling our military “mass” (platforms). While traditional wargaming has amply explored strategy (officer-platform interface) and modern simulations plumb the depths of networked warfare (system-platform interface), human performance engineering truly completes that operational triad by rebalancing attention on the officer/system interface, in turn enhancing individual/team cognitive skills while optimizing command architectures. This is exactly what the Joint Chiefs want: systemic overmatch in cognitive skills and decision-making structures.

This vision mirrors the predominant logic coming out of Silicon Valley on the future of machine learning and artificial intelligence: both are best employed in combination with human decision-making in the so-called centaur model. So, again, China eventually matches us on platforms and systems, but we stay ahead thanks to our officers’ superior command skills augmented by cognitive computing. This is how the Joint Chiefs see Joint Professional Military Education becoming a true “strategic asset” – i.e., our winning edge in future warfare.

Such ambition compels the Naval War College to rebalance its wargaming – long skewed toward problem-centric designs – with a learner-centric emphasis on decision-making competencies. This begins by introducing advanced human performance engineering capabilities to assess officer development. 

Yes, the War College has longed structured its wargames to test out competing command-and-control structures. But it has done so to ensure that students know how to use those systems as designed within a single domain context (e.g., surface, sub-surface, air), when what the Joint Chiefs now desire are commanders capable of routinely achieving combined effects across domains (air, land, sea, subsea, cyber, space) – suggesting a “multiverse” of possible command-and-control structures appliedly fluidly across the conflict spectrum. In effect, the Joint Chiefs seek the equivalent of “multilingual” officers capable of creatively commanding across domains. Ambitious yet achievable, this goal requires a sophisticated, orchestrated application of assets and technologies from multiple domains to effect an outcome that would otherwise be impossible within a single domain.

In sum, it is not enough to train officers on how to effectively communicate and coordinate actions in a joint command-and-control environment where the primary decisions involve choosing which tasks (and where and when) to hand off to other services. They need to be able to adeptly select combinations of resource from across all services to achieve those desired effects across all domains

Instilling this sort of cross-domain ingenuity starts with more effectively data-mining joint exercises. These complex wargames generate troves of human-learning data available for capture and systematic analysis. However, the live and post-game analytic tools currently employed at Newport do not come close to comprehensively processing all available data, resulting in final reports that arrive too late to allow for a rapid and robust game-sequencing that builds upon – and integrates – previous learning and outcomes.

By promising systematic feedback on systemic performance across all three wargaming dimensions (officers, platforms, systems), human performance engineering incentivizes schools to pervasively instrument simulation environments with innovative measurement technologies (right down to player-worn sensors) of sufficient sophistication to decode cognitive processes (i.e., decision making) – applying artificial intelligence not so much to the play as to the players, because that is where “talent management” naturally applies.

In capturing and exploiting wargaming’s big data “exhaust,” Joint Professional Military Education faculty, wargamers, and research staff can “incorporate active and experiential learning to develop the practical and critical thinking skills our warfighters require.” Since human performance engineering expertise is not presently resident at military schools, there must be an infusion of private-sector talent to continuously refresh staff skills, knowledge, and innovation. 

For the “Navy’s Home of Thought,” it is time to go big or go home

The Joint Chiefs’ guidance mirrors what Naval War College researchers have argued for years: namely, the utility of teaching integrated with gaming. The most cogent expression of this was put forth by the 2015 cohort of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group, whose work on talent management accurately presaged the Joint Chief’s May mandate to finally move ahead. Now, the addition of subject-matter experts steeped in human performance engineering starts that ball rolling by asking: Which new data can be captured in a wargame? Wargaming professionals can then answer the question: What do we learn from that data? Finally, and in a reach-out to research and teaching faculty, the Naval War College as a whole asks: What should we now teach based on this new understanding?

And yes, this is yet again one of those instances where innovation within the defense community can and should spill over into similar advances across the commercial sector, where the globalization of technologies and capital have largely eliminated the West’s historical advantages over the “Rising Rest.” We either field more creative executives who can tilt that now-level playing field back to our advantage or we learn to consistently lose market shares across an emerging global middle class hungry for consumption. Gamifying our educational systems to instill cross-domain creativity is the way ahead, particularly in processing generational cohorts (e.g., Millennials, GenZs) who have grown up with gaming as a way of life.

By systematically introducing human performance engineering to wargaming, the Naval War College establishes itself as a central repository to shape and ultimately drive future joint exercises across the Defense Department’s Joint Professional Military Education enterprise. America employed similar institutional dynamics to leave the Soviets behind in the Information Age, and this is how we do the same to China in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: moving the goal posts on command performance.

The Naval War College knows how to go big on wargaming, having done so in the past to global effect. It is time to do so again.

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