Battle Lab: Someone Should Make A Game About Becoming A Professional Wargamer

Or: haven’t we seen this movie before, and the sequel, and the spinoff, and the remake, and the prequel of the spinoff of the remake?

Brant Guillory, 22 May 2020

Caitlyn Leong is a Georgetown student and an aspiring professional wargamer.  From her column on PaxSims, as well as what her faculty have to say, all indications seem to be that she’ll succeed in that field in rather short order.  But it is her remarks in an excellent column over at PaxSims that need some attention today.

 

A Quick Digression for Those Not Familiar With the Professional Wargaming World

For many people – and likely most of our readers – the idea of “professional wargaming” seems nuts.  We play these things for fun, right?  But there’s a wide range of legitimate uses of wargaming in different serious & professional contexts.  The obvious one is military training.  But there are other uses in which wargaming practitioners will frequently delve: analyzing or testing courses of action (including acquisitions), exploring untested concepts, familiarizing an audience with new ideas or processes, and rehearsing contingency plans are all common uses of wargaming, from your local fire department all the way up to Congressional staffers.  NGOs & relief agencies, your local EMS and police, the State Highway Patrol, and FEMA all conduct these sorts of exercises.  Heck, the Canadians even conducted one to explore their response to a swine flu outbreak.
Sometimes these events are referred to as readiness exercises, tabletop exercises, or ‘drills’ for specific events.  The kinds of events we’re discussing and describing will rarely include participants out ‘in the streets’ or actually executing much of what’s war-gamed out.  Those sorts of training exercises are valuable, but beyond the scope of the exploratory or comparative serious games under discussion in Ms Leong’s column, or this response.

 

Back to our (ir)regularly-scheduled program

Ms Leong rightly points out that there is a lack of a clear glidepath for prospective entrants into the professional wargaming field.  The idea of ‘dumb luck’ playing an overarching role in the identification, selection, and development of wargamers is, quite frankly, silly, especially for an undertaking of such significance in the national security space.  And yet, here we are, after decades of knowing the value of professional wargaming, still just muddling along and happy when we find a good success story like hers.

What’s wrong with us?
(OK, let’s be honest, we don’t have that much time.)

What’s wrong with us that we can’t figure out a better process for identifying and developing aspiring professional wargamers, and alter the ‘inverted pyramid‘ to something both less-inverted, and less-pyramid-y?  And maybe shake up the color scheme and the gender combination while we’re at it.  

Well, frankly, one significant thing wrong with us is, well… us.

 

Lemme ‘splain.  No, there is too much.  Lemme sum up.

In a discussion at Connections 2011, there was an entire panel, led by Michael Garrambone, about “Building a Wargame Profession”.  Among the speakers that day we had Ellie Bartels, Yuna Wong, and Erik Kjonnerod, none of whom should be strangers within the professional wargaming ranks (though hobby wargamers are unlikely to know them).  Among the topics raised, and discussions discussed, and arguments argued were the ideas around “what is a profession?”  What do we expect from a profession?  How do we define and identify the professionals?  Do we need a professional organization to help coalesce this body of knowledge?  There were a great many solid questions asked, all of which tie directly back to Ms Leong’s point of “how do we find – and develop – these people?”

One recurring point during this panel was the repeated comment that many of the old hands in the group had been having this same discussion for over a decade.
Say that again, slowly –

Ten years ago, members of a panel at the premier conference of wargaming practitioners discussing the wargaming profession noted that they had been asking the same questions as Ms Leong, since before she was in middle school.

And we still don’t have the answers.

 

Or do we?

Again, part of what came out of the discussion of “Building a Wargame Profession” is that to truly be recognized as a profession, especially by those who are not a part of it, is some sort of consistent body of knowledge around which the profession rallies and holds as a center-of-mass touchstone.  Think of the project management world: are there PMs out there who build a tidy career without ever even attempting a PMP certification?
Certainly.
But is there also a codified body of knowledge maintained by a standards-based organization that also offers a formal channel for exchange of professional developments, certification of standards-based performance, and recognition to the rest of the world as to the purpose of their profession?
Also yes.

And yet whenever any discussion of formalized professional development pathways was started – the exact types of entry points proffered by Ms Leong – there was a loud chorus of naysayers, including many of the luminaries near the top of that inverted pyramid.  The (understandable) fear is that as soon as anyone formalizes a path through which aspiring professional wargamers might be grown and developed, it would become the path, and all other possible points of entry would be immediately, completely, and irrevocably closed to the initiate wargamer.  

Rex himself said in his 2011 Connections wrap-up

The third breakout group discussed building a wargame profession. A key issue was how one identifies the emerging generation of wargamers (and wargamer users), and brings them into the community of interest. There was also considerable discussion of professionalization, certification, institutionalization, and related issues.

As noted earlier, I’m doubtful of the value of doing too much of this since I think there are easier (and cheaper) ways of promoting more effective networking. Certification, I think, would actually be counter-productive by erecting professional boundaries that would actually make it more difficult to draw upon a broad range of expertise and experience that stretches far outside military wargaming. Professional development opportunities, on the other hand, would be useful. Networking, information-sharing, and opportunities for ongoing “conversation” is essential.

 

Right now, those networking opportunities consist of the Connections conferences, and – if you’re lucky enough to have a security clearance – the Wargaming Community of Practice (COP) at the Military Operations Research Society.
(Let’s also take a moment and chuckle at the irony that we’re in the middle of a group that wants to eschew the formal trappings of an organized profession while simultaneously wanting to use a networking opportunity that’s an offshoot of….  a formal, organized profession.)

Discussions on whether or not the field of professional wargaming should have something as simple as an occasional professional journal through which articles, thoughts, and, I dunno, maybe job listings(?!) could be shared have, again, trended toward “not no, but heck no.”

In fact, right now, the closest thing that the wargaming profession has to any sort of ‘organization’ is the dual track of “do you attend Connections?” and “do you read PaxSims?” in roughly equal measure, despite a noted need for better networking, exchange of ideas, and information-sharing.  The professional wargaming community has repeatedly noted the need for better ladders to climb up into the community, but at every turn, any attempt to nail those ladders to the wall, reinforce their footing, widen the ladders, extend the ladders, or increase the number of ladders, and to establish some sort of caretaker oversight of those ladders, has been met with a rousing chorus of indifference on the best days, and outright hostility on most occasions.

 

Dumb Luck?

Seriously – go back and watch the GUWS video about entry into the wargaming profession.  How many of the panel (and the audience) completely backed into a career they never knew existed?  How many of them had any sort of formal job preparation for that field?  For that matter, how many of them have had any formal professional development in a structured process over time even after they joined the profession?

Ms Leong offers 3 suggestions for helping aspiring wargamers into the profession:

  • Eliminate the disconnect between aspiring wargamers and professionals
  • Improve opportunities for civilian-military interaction in wargaming
  • Offer more academic wargaming opportunities

None of these are undermined by the idea of a more codified body of knowledge around wargaming, or the organization of a professional journal, or literally any other step ever discussed and immediately shot down by the existing practitioners and developers of professional wargaming.  Moreover, these might all be enhanced by the idea that there’s some sort of professional society out there to which queries could be addressed by outsiders seeking knowledge.  Better outreach to other design communities?  Wouldn’t a central point of contact as a starting point (note: not an endpoint) help foster those discussions?

A recent NPR report interviewed Margaret McCown about the wargaming of a pandemic response back during the Bush (43) administration (she’s previously written about these sorts of exercises in JFQ, too).  No idea how NPR managed to connect with Ms McCown, but if anyone else in the mainstream press was inspired by this interview to follow up on high-level wargames influencing national policy, where would they turn?
Are they calling Margaret because she’s the one in the NPR article?
Are they calling Volko Ruhnke because of his appearance in the Washington Post a few years ago?
Are they calling Mark Herman or Larry Bond because they’re the only ones with anything resembling “name recognition” outside of our industry?
Or maybe if there was an Ancient & Royal Society of Professional Wargaming or something similar, they’d have a central point of contact that could then route the query to any one of a dozen dynamic speakers in a position to offer a variety of viewpoints on the topic, and all of whom are remarkably good at breaking down wargaming non-wargamers, Barney-style.

But hearing the wails of anguish at the possibility that such a society would act as a negative gatekeeper and an impediment to involvement in the profession just inevitably leads us right back to the status quo that’s hovered over us since the year on the calendar started with a “1”:
Who do you know?
Can you get to Connections?
Do you read the right blogs/sites online?
Are you lucky enough to have a friend in the business?

Moreover, in discussions with civil authorities who have a basic understanding of the value of professional wargaming, and who are in a position to influence its introduction into their offices within their local, regional, or state governments, there is a resigned acceptance to the fact that credentials matter, especially to those not ‘in the know’ that frequently hold the checkbooks.  If we’re going to expand the overall usage of professional wargaming, and thereby create additional opportunities for whip-smart wargamers like Ms Leong to seek gainful employment in the field, we need audiences beyond the same two dozen to which we’ve been beholden for the past 50 years.  Roger Mason and Graham Longley-Brown have built some successful businesses around wargaming as a consulting tool with a variety of audiences.  But we need more.  And to get more, we have to sell the value of the service to those who would be our clients.
The reality of those clients is that they are dazzled by credentials, regardless of how little they understand about what’s behind them.  Is that a crappy reality we’re forced to deal with?  Yep.  Is that a crappy reality we can change or influence by refusing to recognize it or address it?  Nope.

 

Why Not?

Ms Leong has raised a good number of valid, important questions.  They are questions that need to be answered, especially if we want to cast a wider net for participation within the profession for anyone that’s not in, well, in my demographic: older white guy (yes, Rex, Mike, Chris, Matt, Merle, etc…  you can laugh at me for characterizing myself as “old” at this point, but I’m not wrong).  Having a recognized, and recognizable, organization at the center of that profession has consistently been portrayed as not just a stray inconvenience, but a highly-undesirable one.

The recognition of “project management” as a professional field has in no way inhibited the ability of entrants to the field to bypass formalized professional certification and development in favor of on-the-job training and experiential learning.

It needn’t be.  As noted above, there exists a body of knowledge around “project management” including a variety of certifications, conferences, journals, local chapters, informal meetups, etc, ad nauseam.  The recognition of “project management” as a professional field has in no way inhibited the ability of entrants to the field to bypass formalized professional certification and development in favor of on-the-job training and experiential learning.  Similarly, in the IT field, I dare you to find someone with the role of “business analyst” who studied “business analysis” in school, rather than backing into it, just like pretty much every wargamer out there.  (note that I speak of the IT world in greater detail because that’s the one I know best, but note that this also applies to journalism, rock & roll, and auto mechanics, all to varying degrees, as well).

Lest anyone think that I am stumping for the existence of a guild in an attempt to stamp out all possible competition for the wargaming practitioner, that is not what’s being promoted here.
Do we need a more organized practitioners’ society to support our profession?
On balance, I don’t see how we avoid it.
Does it become a gatekeeper intent on monopolizing trade to the benefit of its members?
That is, in fact, one possible course of action.
Is it the most likely?
Is it the most dangerous?
Is it the quickest one to emerge?
I don’t know.  Perhaps we should hold a wargame to explore the possibilities.

But I’d like to think that with a core group of thought leaders who have spent years simultaneously (1) identifying the shortfalls of our existing system, and (2) admitting that we haven’t done nearly enough to address those shortfalls, we could shape this organization toward a series of positive outcomes, so that 10 years from now, when the next Ms Leong is finding her footing in this profession, there’s a whole series of ladders to different places within it that she can pick and choose from, instead of stumbling around in the dark until she gets lucky and accidentally trips over one.

One final note: one of the biggest artificial ‘obstacles’ thrown up around the idea of any formal organization for the profession is the ‘time’ issue.  Who has the time to run this?  Who is going to make the time to recruit members, organize a professional journal, interface with Connections for membership & involvement, promote the organization to outsiders, or engage the current profession for their assistance.  Truthfully, we don’t know.  But the reason we don’t know is that no one has ever tried, or asked, at least within the last 20 years.  We’ve collectively found more than enough time to repeatedly bemoan the lack of effective information-sharing across the professional wargaming ranks, but never once attempted to channel that time into any sort of organizational effort.
It’s almost like we prefer the complaining to the addressing of the complaints, which might be the most grognardian feature of our community.

 

Do we need a professional society?  We’ve been muddling along just fine without one for a while, so of course the (anti-)institutional inertia is to just keep on (not) going.  But given that this same topic has been raised at one point or another for so long that it could be collecting its own military retirement, there’s clearly a continued interest in it, just as there seems to continue to be an interest in saying ‘no’ whenever the topic is raised.

At some point, maybe the “‘No”s need to get out of the way and let the kids give it a whirl, before they end up at the top of the of the inverted pyramid and are writing a variation on this column during the Sasha Obama administration.


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Battle Lab: Someone Should Make A Game About Becoming A Professional Wargamer

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