Brant Guillory, 22 January 2023
Some weeks ago, CIMSEC published Wargaming The Future: Educating The Fleet In Multi-Dimensional Warfare. We called it out in #TuesdayNewsday a while back, and had a few choice comments on social media, but hadn’t really dug into it until now.
First off, let’s note that there are definitely some areas of agreement in here. The idea that we need more wargaming built into PME1 is undeniable. Moreover, we agree that it should be early, often, and expected, to the point that servicemembers are upset if it’s not present.
Additionally, we can agree that there’s no good process for introducing wargaming as a part of an overall training program, largely because so few people developing those programs understand what wargaming can and can’t do.
However, there’s no shortage of other problems with this article. To paraphrase a friend, it’s full of unproven assertions, bad assumptions, inappropriate sources, a lack of historical understanding, and a mistaken impression of the art of the possible2.
So here we go. The original article is in black, with our comments & feedback in green. Note that there are places where we’ve cut from the original article as we had no real comment on it either way. The original can be read in full here.
Educational wargaming is underutilized and possesses the potential to teach warfighters intricate modern doctrine and force capabilities. Historically, analytical wargaming has functioned as a critical tool for military leadership, offering insights into force capabilities and aiding decision-making through experiential learning.
Well right away, we’re conflating issues – both of these statements are true, but the author is clearly setting up for a column on education wargaming and not analytical wargaming.
Yet, within the US Navy and Marine Corps, the potential of digital or electronic wargaming as an educational platform for junior officers and Midshipmen remains largely untapped.
Um… for years the USMC has had the DVTE suite of games that were packaged up to go to sea with them. The original combination of VBS2, Close Combat Marine, Tacops, and MAGTF XXI3 were all on high-powered Alienware laptops and deployed as a set of 32 laptops plus a couple of routers that could be set up on board a ship to allow for all sorts of digital training opportunities for Marines afloat. These equipment sets were around almost 15 years ago, so it’s not like this is a new capability.
Moreover, it’s almost comical that we’re ignoring the existence of “Marine DOOM” from the late 90s, which even made it to the cover of WIRED Magazine.
Now, we can certainly argue about how effectively they were deployed or how widely used they were, but their existence is inarguable.
Traditional tabletop wargames, once favored by older generations, fail to engage the younger, digitally-raised cohort and instead cater to a niche community.
That’s a wide and sweeping statement that lacks any evidence to support it, especially given the relative (re?)explosion of tabletop gaming over the past 15 years, projections for the future, and the players & participants driving it.
Statistics speak volumes— about 80 percent of Generation Z and Millennials play video games and average around seven hours of weekly gametime—highlighting the opportunity for a new generation of wargames. This data underscores a missed opportunity in leveraging simulator-based educational wargaming for the 21st-century Navy and USMC.
Yes, but what games are they playing? Candy Crush while standing in line at the food court is a very different world than a tactical-focused wargame, and the referenced citation does not distinguish. Moreover, the stats at the link are worldwide, not US-only, which can definitely skew the participation numbers given that some other cultures are actually even more plugged in than Americans are.
Historical instances, such as the development of War Plan Orange prior to the Second World War, demonstrate how effective analytical wargaming can be when mixed into scenario decision-making. Yet, no standardized efforts were made to prepare junior officers similarly.
The Navy are not the only ones in this boat. No one in the military has any standardized wargame preparation for analytical wargaming.
The Naval War College and officer training pipelines did not see the value in educating junior officers like senior officers. However, even though junior officers do not require the same analytical gaming experience as fleet commanders, they can benefit enormously from exposure to educational wargaming to introduce them to various topics. As a learning tool, wargames can train the participants in force capability and doctrine, provide terrain familiarization, and offer opportunities for decision-making development. Additionally, they challenge the participants mentally, stimulating and driving sophisticated problem-solving and decision-making. As a tool, variables can be added or subtracted to increase/decrease game complexity, allowing for infinite theoretical scenarios.
Absolutely agree on all counts – especially for educational wargaming.
Updating the naval officer training curriculum should not be difficult. The United States Naval Academy (USNA) and Naval Service Training Command (NSTC) promulgate curriculum guiding Professional Core Competencies (PCCs) roughly every three years that govern “the foundational standards of ‘officership’ by delineating core competencies required of all officer accession programs.” Whispers of a new competency for basic instructional wargaming exist, but even if included in the 2024 PCCs, this will require significant time and resources to train unit Officer Instructors to run educational games proficiently. Additionally, few ROTC courses have extra time, and an already burdened weekly schedule leaves little for adding extra training on top of current requirements for Midshipmen. To the collective groan of students and instructors alike, adding wargaming to officer training will necessitate a standalone time slot in weekly schedules, rather than shoehorning wargaming into existing time. Furthermore, Officer Instructors will need professional training to standardize implementation and enable cross-unit competition.
“Train the trainer” and integration into the schoolhouse will always be the hallmarks of how seriously wargaming is being integrated into the curriculum. We’ve argued for this for almost 10 years now.
Tabletop wargaming, while valuable, is not sufficient. Tabletop gaming offers an immediate but temporary avenue for educational learning at a remarkably affordable investment.
“Immediate but temporary” – and yet there are no educational uptake studies from which this idea is sourced. Experiential learning is not limited to A/V cues processed from external stimuli.
Straightforward tabletop problem-solving games can be completed within a brief timeframe, ranging from twenty to thirty minutes. An illustrative example is the microgame “Call Sign,” which concentrates on carrier combat and introduces singular variables, showcasing how these games can efficiently impart knowledge and skills, but these games are insufficient to meet the needs of the ROTC curriculum and lack the potential of digital games.
Let’s start by setting aside the issue of whether microgames are analytical or educational wargaming, or maybe something else, since the author tends to mix & match the two depending on their rhetorical convenience at any given moment. When all you’re doing is focusing on single skills, you’re in the realm of “learning” rather than training. Microgames are largely designed to focus on individual skills, or to start conversations about wider topics. If they were larger or more complicated games integrating a variety of skills, they wouldn’t be ‘microgames.’
For a much more in-depth analysis of the differentiation between “learning” and “training” and the relative complexities of the games needed to support those efforts, there’s a video on our YouTube channel covering the topic in some detail, as well as a pair of columns.
As to “lack[ing] the potential of digital games” . . . this statement simply confirms that either (1) the author has no clue about the breadth of available analog games, and/or (2) has a vendetta against them4.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) sponsored a study on the value of video games, which concluded that “people who play video games are quicker at processing information” and that only “ten hours of video games can change the structure and organization of a person’s brain,” therefore tying informational learning to entertainment has a remarkable potential to increase retention.
Yes, but that study was based on comparing video games to no games at all. It had no comparison condition at all for analog games. Moreover, that study was focused on tasks that require ‘twitch reflex’ decision-making rather than extended contemplation. In short, it was based around reps-&-sets to create mental muscle memory for reactive tasks.
Most importantly, education must be balanced with entertainment, meaning accurate force capabilities and doctrine must coincide with quality graphical rendering of the action and include regular updates. Simulating forced decision-making with minimal time and minimal information provides invaluable experience for future military decision-makers. Furthermore, an in-depth military simulator would require knowledge of blue force design and doctrine, cultivate warrior skillsets, and increase tactical acumen. A competitive gaming culture amongst recruits and service members will ensure the longevity of such a program.
This is just Jane McGonigal’s “gamification” come to the military. There are some things that can and should be gamified. Others, not so much. But it’s not a new or novel concept, and failing to recognize the source of the idea just reinforces the lack of underlying research on which this article is based.
Effective strategy games blend a minimal initial learning curve but increase in depth and complexity while remaining re-playable due to variety.
This is just Csikszentmihalyi’s state of “flow” but again, failing to either reference the originator of the theory, or fully explain the theory (that the increase in depth and complexity must be tailored to match the skill of the player and drifting outside of those boundaries will result in either boredom or frustration) again shows the lack of attention to the research instead of flinging assertions about the page and hoping at least some of them stick.
Like traditional board wargames, turn-based games necessitate a fundamental understanding of force design and doctrine. Conversely, real-time strategy (RTS) games demand swift decision-making, compelling players to act within a restricted timeframe. Modern games often integrate these two approaches, allowing players to oversee larger forces strategically in a turn-based mode while enabling detailed control over individual units during confrontations. This amalgamation of turn-based and RTS elements harnesses the educational advantages of understanding force dynamics while providing experiential learning through decision-making, offering a holistic approach to strategic gaming.
Or, they’re focusing on two different skill sets that are often trained independently of each other in order to focus on the one being trained.
One potential commercially available wargame is Command: Modern Operations. However, this game suffers from being overly complex, detracting from the entertainment value of the equation as it requires many hours of instruction to play.
So, it’s an actual in-depth wargame that offers an “amalgamation of turn-based and RTS elements [to harness] the educational advantages of understanding force dynamics while providing experiential learning through decision-making, offering a holistic approach to strategic gaming” is complex and considered by this author to not be entertaining? Huh. Weird.
The author says “I want X” and when handed “X” decides “No, not that X. I want deep and engaging but I want it easy and fast.” Deep and engaging things are often complex and time-consuming. Do you want a marriage or a one-night stand?
Unfortunately, no commercially available modern strategic video game fits this balanced role, and most avoid contemporary conflict scenarios and instead focus on fictional Cold War scenarios.
Well, you have the key descriptor right there: “commercially available” – these guys gotta sell games because they don’t have the luxury of being bankrolled by the government. Moreover, there is a commercially available modern strategic video game; the author just doesn’t like it.
More to the point, why are we only looking for a “strategic” video game? Shouldn’t we be tailoring the scale of the game to the scale at which the player is operating, or perhaps at most one level up? Infantry lieutenants aren’t worried about corps-level maneuver. Naval ensigns aren’t focused on fleet ops.
For example, naval-centric Cold Waters (2017) and land-centric WARNO (2022) display well-researched military simulators exhibiting the capabilities of Cold War-era forces. The success of Cold War-era simulators remains undeniable, as the developers of Cold Waters have showcased an upcoming impressively modeled new game, Sea Power: Naval Combat in the Missile Age. The cost of developing a modern video game ranges from $10,000 to millions. However, the DoD could drastically cut this cost by leveraging an already created modern simulator, such as WARNO, funding this successful team and providing experts to modify a pre-created simulator to reflect modern force capabilities.
So, uh, kind of like the DSTL did with Flashpoint Campaigns, or the US Army did with Tacops Cav Edition back in (checks notes) 1995. Or Harpoon, which is being used by dozens of navies around the world for training. That these tools exist, are in use today, and do what the author has described in wanting again speaks to the overall lack of domain knowledge in either the commercial or practitioner wargaming space.
Even more damning is that there are plenty of commercially-available post-Cold War analog/tabletop games that do exactly what the author wants, but since they lack a power cord, he’s already dismissed them before even writing the article, assuming he ever cared enough to even look into their existence: GMT’s Next War series, Breaking the Chains, A Distant Plain5, Zurmat, the District Commander series, South China Sea and Indian Ocean Region, We Are Coming Nineveh, Naval Command, all the tabletop iterations of Harpoon and folks, we’re barely scratching the surface here.
Furthermore, the official Navy/USMC stamp on a military simulator would draw outsized attention from the private market, serve as a potent recruitment tool, and create a competitive outlet for Midshipmen and officers.
Ah yes, the optimism of one who hasn’t seen the complete and utter lack of attention the private market has given official stamps on military simulators. Jim Lunsford’s Decisive Action (which was in use with the US Army Command & General Staff College) was commercially available for almost 20 years now, and was so overwhelmingly successful that when GMT announced a new game with the same name this past year, a preponderance of the audience (including the designer!) had never even heard of the original.
The Navy has already worked to capitalize on the popularity of video games by creating an E-Sports team, which is run by the Navy Recruiting Command. Yet, an official strategy simulator would draw further interest through military recognition by connecting to modern youth in the popular video game dimension.
Has there been any evidence of the Army eSports team “draw[ing] further interest through military recognition by connecting to modern youth in the popular video game dimension”? If so, the author should use that to bolster the argument. If not, that’s a convenient omission. If the author doesn’t know, why not? Heck, we’ll even throw in a point of contact to help get the investigation started!
In the US alone, the strategy game market revenue reached $14.88 billion in 2022, exhibiting a significant market share of overall games.
Utterly dumb source. Follow the link and check what’s in-scope vs out-of-scope, and this statistic is 100% related to phone-based gaming and has fuck-all to do with the kinds of strategy gaming being described throughout this paper. This is one of the most useless references in this entire document.
Ultimately, the success of a military simulator hinges on player enjoyment and support; popular strategy games such as Starcraft II maintain over a five million monthly player count despite being a decade old. In comparison, WARNO only sold 213,000 copies so far, as it lacks competitive depth.
How is “competitive depth” being measured and assessed? What are the benchmarks for against which “competitive depth” is being compared, and how does Starcraft line up?
Unfortunately, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has outpaced the US in competitive digital wargaming, recognizing its potential for education since the early 2000s. Notably, since 2017, the PLA has organized national wargaming competitions, boasting more than 20,000 participants in 2019 alone. Emphasizing the educational aspect, the PLA actively encourages military simulator usage to instruct on force design changes and to promote military affairs to the civilian population. Initially, the PLA benefitted enormously from mimicking US civilian market military simulators, but has since shifted to domestic-made strategy games, such as Mozi Joint Operations Deduction System, which enables military members to fight simulated battles with Chinese equipment. Additionally, the PLA copied popular US titles, such as Call of Duty, to create their own first-person shooter, Glorious Mission, to “improve combat skills and technological understanding” in military members. Wargaming has evolved into an integral part of PME for the PLA, gaining widespread popularity even amongst the civilian population. This exemplifies a dimension where the PLA initially imitated the US military, strategically leveraged the US private sector, and ultimately leapfrogged US capabilities to outperform the US military in PME.
Again, without know what they’re actually measuring against, “improve combat skills” tells us nothing. Moreover, if they’re starting at zero and improving to 10, but we’re starting at 8 and using experiential field training, including CTC rotations to Ft Irwin and TwentyNine Palms to go up to 18, are we really falling behind because we’re not playing more video games?
The author’s told us the Chinese are playing more videogames, but provided no benchmarks against which to measure their effectiveness other than “they got a lot of players” which is about the least unexpected thing in the world since they’re 4x as many of them as us.
Damien O’Connell, the founder of the Warfighting Society, recently penned an article, “Progress and Perils: Educational Wargaming in the US Marine Corps,” on The Maneuverist blog, which delineated implementation issues for fleet-wide educational gaming. He outlines five obstacles to greater implementation of wargaming in the operating forces: “(1) confusion about what educational wargaming is and is not, (2) skepticism of its value, (3) ignorance of its successful use, (4) limited time, (5) aversion to nerd culture, and (6) ignorance of how to integrate wargames into training and education plans.”
Most of which are spot-on.
The Navy and USMC must not conflate educational gaming with analytical wargaming.
And yet this paper nearly led off with that…and then does throughout.
Decision-making opportunities and force design instruction found in basic wargames will answer any confusion surrounding wargaming and its value and demonstrate its successful use to any observing critics.
By what observable and measurable criteria?
However, overcoming issues related to time and integration will demand a substantial initial investment and revised time requirements through curriculum standardization. Aversion to “nerd culture” stems from a historical stigma against board gaming, shared even by video gamers; this dislike can be easily solved by tapping into the voracious appetite for video games.
Or, it could be solved by the same educational efforts in favor of analog gaming that you propose to undertake for digital gaming. Moreover, that “historical stigma against board gaming” seems to be collapsing given the explosion in tabletop game sales that’s over a decade old. On top of that, hasn’t “nerd culture” pretty much won at this point? D&D is an underlying theme in the Stranger Things series. Battletech, Space Marine, and Munchkin are on the shelves at Target. Comic book movies rule the box office, now that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings (themselves quite nerdy) have run their course.
A secondary benefit of creating wargame literate junior officers would positively boost the ability of time-proven analytical gaming and thus improve force design and doctrine. The early introduction of wargames will create “a bigger pool of individuals who are exposed to the principles of wargaming, allowing the DOD to cast a wider net when looking for qualified individuals to build, run, and analyze games,” and in turn, increase the performance of future professional analytical wargaming.
Except that you just finished telling us that conflating educational & analytical wargaming is a problem. And you were right, because despite their being outwardly-similar skill sets, the implementation of them is different, and participants and (especially!) designers do not necessarily move easily between the two. It’s like comparing PR professionals to newspaper beat writers and expecting someone to move seamlessly between the two.
Furthermore, the over-reliance on civilian-run wargames has created a capability deficit among military personnel, because fewer are trained in how to run and manage wargames.
No, the over-reliance on giant everything-in-one-tool wargames has created a reliance on the civilians to operate them given their overwhelming complexity. Running CBS or JANUS is not two-players-and-an-afternoon event, but requires a small platoon of people to connect, install, and operate the games. Running a double-blind tabletop Kriegsspiel takes 2 GMs and a few tables that can’t see each other.
While there is a deficit in capability among military personnel, it’s not because of civilian-run wargames, but the overall lack of exposure to wargaming throughout their careers.
This culture change could imitate the drastic success of the Prussian officer corps, which spawned avid wargamers such as General von Moltke—the Prussian army chief of staff—who expanded the use of wargaming under his leadership. As a result, the Prussian military dominated the European continent in the 19th century and forged a dominant military doctrine that lasted a century. Unsurprisingly, “many countries attributed the battlefield success of Moltke and the Prussians to the integration of wargaming in their army.”
And yet the dominant Prussian strategic military successes were . . . what? The Franco-Prussian War, whose territorial gains were reversed within 2 generations? Wargaming gave them a head start on experiential training of their leadership ahead of other countries, all of whom caught up pretty quickly.
Junior officer education needn’t be limited to monotonous PowerPoint displays or exclusive to PME.
Hallelujah! The best thing about being in ROTC in the early 90s was it was a pre-PPT era.
Wargaming presents a straightforward remedy for a complex educational challenge and should not be dismissed as an after-school activity.
Wargaming – OF ALL TYPES.
If the US military aims to regain the edge against the PLA in critical thinking and education, it must create a finely tuned educational military simulation video game.
Why does it have to be a video game? Where is the evidence that a video game promotes critical thinking? More to the point what “edge” have we lost? The “edge” that they have more people playing video games? They also have more people at the rifle range, at morning PT, and eating lunch. This is pretty easily explained: they. have. more. people.
Furthermore, the potential for training will exponentially grow as technology such as virtual reality becomes more readily available. The Navy and USMC must stay ahead of the educational curve, set the foundation for a future sophisticated Ender’s Game-like military simulation or Star Trek’s morality-testing unwinnable game, the Kobayashi Maru, and turn science fiction into reality.
The Marines have been working on the ideas for a “holodeck” for at least 15 years. This isn’t new.
Existing tabletop games may temporarily suffice but must be formally integrated into the curriculum and eventually replaced by digital simulations.
Disagree on “temporarily suffice”; agree on “must be formally integrated”. The author has still never provided any relevant performance-based data on why tabletop/analog games must be replaced by digital simulations (and we’re assuming he’s using “games” and “simulations” as interchangeable, even though they are not).
The value of multi-domain educational learning from wargaming cannot be overstated.
Moreover, increased interaction with younger generations through a popular Navy-endorsed video game could help draw in technology-oriented recruits.
What does the Army’s decade-long experience with America’s Army tell us? Just like the eSports team, the Army will have data on what effects America’s Army had on recruitment. Were those effects positive? If so, the author should use that to bolster the argument. If not, that’s a convenient omission. If the author doesn’t know, why not?
The Navy and USMC must embrace 21st century technology and adapt it to benefit instruction for foreseeable near-peer threats. No military aviator argues against the extensive use of flight simulators in modern instruction; this attitude must be broadened to the entire Fleet.
This is a bad comparison because those tools are being used for different purposes. Flight simulators (and tank simulators, submarine simulators, and the others) exist for reasons well beyond inculcating rapid decision-making.
They are largely focused on muscle-memory buttonology so that equipment operators don’t have to think under fire, but can immediately reach for, and accurately operate, all the control needed to maximize the effects of their machinery. There’s no inherent decision-making gains or losses in a flight simulator practicing takeoffs and landings. Similarly, the driver training simulator for tank drivers isn’t trying to teach actions-under-fire, but rather ensure that tank drivers can consistently operate their vehicles with a constrained field of view, and instantly and smoothly access all of their relevant controls without taking their eyes off of their vision blocks.
The author does make some compelling points about the integration of wargaming into broader military PME. Unfortunately, the author also worships at the Altar of the Power Cord, assuming that just because a game plugs into the wall that it’s automatically and inherently superior to analog games without providing any specific conditions or performance standards to be measured, much less an evaluation criteria against which they are tested. Moreover, the author completely glosses over the inherent advantages of analog games – much lower technical support requirements6, the transparency of the game engine and effects models, the ease of the ‘pause’ button, and the ease of participation for outside observers, among others.
This is, at best, a first-draft of a sales pitch for a digital wargame from a large-system integrator looking for a seven-figure contract to build a self-licking ice cream cone to foist on the Navy. It lacks references to extant relevant programs with no explanation as to why they were not investigated. It brings in irrelevant or out-of-context references to bolster arguments that are already tenuous. It conflates terminology, presumably so as not to bore the reader with repetitive words, but (especially) in a military context the audience already inherently understands that synonyms have very specific, often non-overlapping meanings.
This piece is being celebrated in certain circles as “look, this is the perfect argument in favor of more wargaming!” and while it is undeniably pro-wargaming, its recommendations for implementation are shallow, short-sighted, lacking in broader context, and largely under-developed, and it’s frankly curious how this ever passed muster with CIMSEC without at least 4-5 additional rewrites for better intellectual development.
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There once were Dragoons in their chairs,
Wargaming expertise beyond compares.
With passion they’d play,
Strategizing all day,
The Armchair champions, nobody dares.
In the hobby, they stand proud and tall,
Wargaming prowess, they enthrall.
In each tabletop fight,
They prove their might,
Armchair Dragoons, the best of them all!
- Professional Military Education
- but other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you like the play?
- currently config’ed as VBS3, CCM, CAN, and TLTS
- or possibly (3) works for a digital game company, but that’s closely tied to (2)
- which we’ve also adapted to team play
- tables rarely need software updates or patches