Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Joe Saur

Saur on Teaching Gaming

Joe Saur gave a good talk on teaching gaming at the MORS Community of Practice. I’ve been remiss in not posting my notes before now, particularly because teaching gaming is a subject near and dear to my heart.


Saur’s presentation focused on his experience teaching 70-plus students across the military, many who lead organizations that use wargames for analysis and training. One point that Saur highlighted was that even though his students had extensive operational experience and are quite likely to be game sponsors, very few had previously seen a wargame. This is a critical point to consider as the community thinks more about how to best communicate of methods and results to our sponsors. It really reinforces the need to spend more time and energy thinking about how we as gamers to educate sponsors and stakeholders. While Saur was working within one of the military school houses, we are going to need more approaches in the long run to get a broader understanding of the benefits and uses of gaming.

Saur noted that there are not many syllabi for wargaming classes. He was able to reference a UK wargaming and combat modeling class, but that was largely focused on the math required for combat and campaign modeling with participation in a staff game. As a result, this course provided limited guidance on how to teach gaming.

In building his syllabus, Saur aimed to teach mechanics that staff officers can actually use. His goal was to expose students to a range of games as a starting point to support student development of operations game. As a result, he tended to focus on concrete mechanisms like dice, hex grids, miniatures, and cards drawn from hobby gaming, with only limited coverage of less structure techniques like matrix and seminar games.

One point that I found particularly interesting is that during student discussions, they hypothesized that as the average member of the force has less combat experience moving forward (or their combat tour is further in the past), rigid adjudication will become more critical. Students argued that free adjudication relies on operational experience.

Not surprisingly, I’m fairly skeptical of this claim, particularly in the case of operational and strategic games. Most of the strong game designers I know are civilian analysts, because members of the military are rotated through positions too quickly to gain mastery. Furthermore, rigid systems of adjudication rarely survive analytical games intact, as players almost always seem to do something not anticipated in the game rules. As a result, even highly formalized rules will often require impromptu adjudication calls. Finally, I’m fairly skeptical of rigid adjudication’s ability to capture interpersonal social and political dynamics that strongly impact strategic and operational outcomes. Limiting ourselves to rigid rule sets cuts off from gaming many of the complex, unstructured problems that games are best suited to examine.

The presentation concluded with a selection of the games built by the students. These covered an impressive range of topics and game design approaches. In part, the approach seemed particularly impressive because Saur instructed the students to tie the games they designed to their follow-on posting. As a result, the games were designed to be practical and helpful, rather than academic in nature. I’ll be interested to see if any of the students follow up with notes about how deploying the game in their new posts goes!

NDU CASL roundtable and talk (with thoughts from a virtual lurker)

The Centre for Applied Strategic Learning had its quarterly roundtable today at National Defense University, with audio streaming of the event for those of us not in Washington DC. Mike Markowitz (Center for Naval Analyses) talked about CNA’s work for Army TRADOC on wargaming irregular operations, while Joe Saur of the Georgia Tech Research Institute presented “Thoughts on DIME and PMESII Modeling: the DARPA Integrated Battle Command Experiment.”

The slides and audio may or not be available later, as CASL sorts out attribution issues. In the meantime, however, you’ll find a live-blog of the event by Brant Guillory at Grog News.

In his presentation, Mike drew a distinction at one point between simulation “modeling” and “representation,” the former more appropriate for the physics of kinetic operations, while the latter highlights the importance of narrative (as well as the inherent “fuzziness” of diplomatic, social, and economic factors—especially in irregular warfare). A large part of Joe’s presentation also touched upon the challenge of validating simulations of insurgency with their substantial DIME (Dime/Information/Military/Economic) or PMESII (Political/Military/Economic/Social/Infrastructure/Information) elements.

The picture is complicated still further, I think, by the tension between doctrinal fidelity versus critical thinking. US and Western militaries have developed extensive population-centric doctrinal approaches (exemplified by FM 3-24) that emphasize the importance of securing local populations, building host country legitimacy, and winning “hearts and minds.” These are, however, essentially a set of hypothesized relationships, based on a particular inductive, largely qualitative reading of contemporary modern history. Others have argued that this particular view of insurgency, advanced by the so-called “COINdinistas,” is wrong, or at least misleading. The “COINtras” argue that the FM 3-24 approach is based on a misreading of past campaigns, and underestimates the role of kinetic force (see, for example, here and here). While US COIN doctrine is currently undergoing a rewrite, I’m not at all convinced that the new version will fully resolve these tensions.

With regard to gaming COIN, then, one is faced with a challenge. Does one build dynamics into the game that reflect doctrinal assumptions about the way the world works? Or does one build a model of the world and then see how doctrine (or alternative doctrinal approaches) work, thereby encouraging original, critical thinking? In the former case, how does one avoid building a simulation that confirms existing approaches because it is, in essence, biased from the outset to do so? In the latter case, where does one derive that alternative model from?

It was, as always, another excellent CASL roundtable, with two great presentations and some stimulating discussion—although I must admit that I missed the excellent snacks that NDU usually provides!

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Last week, CASL also hosted a talk by Peter Perla on April 4. They’ve now uploaded both the audio and the slides here.

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