Battle Lab: Uses for (Professional) Wargaming

Seeing a new way to do things ~

Brant, 31 March 2020

The professionals talk about wargaming in very different terms than the casual hobbyists do. Don’t get me wrong, the professionals know the difference between a hobby or game and their jobs. Most of them also wargame for fun, and have a huge knowledge of the hobby. But for casual wargamers the professional uses of wargames mainly seem like two cases, and an occasional third.


The first are those games played to learn something. Those are used when introducing new material to help maintain interest in participation on the part of the learners, and help with recall of important information learned through ‘gameifying” the content.

 

The second paradigm envisioned by the hobbyists are those used for training. These are primarily used to practice existing skills, such as command post training.  Many times, these training events take place with participants who understand their roles and responsibilities, but have not ever executed them under the time- and event-pressures of a simulated military operation.  With the unit turnover that’s present every year, it only makes sense that units would avail themselves of every opportunity to put wargames to use training their new members.

Professional Wargaming
1. Learning something new
2. Training something known
3. Decision Support
4. New material introduction

The final usage may be familiar to some hobbyists, but not widely so. Many professionals will use for gaming in a decision-making process test an idea for compare different courses of action.  This step is explicitly called out in the Military Decision-Making Process taught in the Army, and similar ones exist in other services.  Whenever preparing multiple courses of action, planners are instructed to “wargame” those courses of action to compare them against each other along certain specified criteria.  Some hobbyists are familiar with this process.

 

There is a fourth way that they are used. It’s one that I only became aware of about 5 years ago*, even with my own experience as a professional in the wargaming world. Some wargames are used in a curriculum in order to build interest in the material, as well as serving as a baseline for the instructors to establish students body of knowledge. This sort of working makes for a very interactive introduction into the new material, it gives all of the participants a shared experience going forward, that the instructors can readily reference as a common basis of comparison during subsequent instruction.

I saw this in action at the National Defense University, where they have a program for international students around fighting terrorism and counterinsurgencies. The primary students are senior government officials from other nations, but there is also a smattering of US government and defense personnel (we had folks from the Department of Energy, and SOCOM, among others). The program was run by the wargaming team at NDU, a whip-smart bunch of folks. The weeklong exercise was built around dealing with an internal counterinsurgency as national government, and the regional governments below it.  The students were divided into teams that represented the various levels of government, and were able to self-organized within both echelons as to how they would handle different facets of the exercise.

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Without going into specific elements of the game itself, it’s worth noting that some of the participants had counterinsurgency experience, both internal and external. It’s also worth noting that the exercises were built around real world insurgencies, using real countries and their actual situations, along with NDU alumni from those countries as the OPFOR.

The end result was a week of observation by the faculty that allowed them to get a sense of the expertise and experience the students were bringing to their classrooms.  It also gave the faculty a week of lessons they could store for future use during the next two years of classes. And what better ice breaker for the students to get to know each other than to throw them all into a very real situation that forced them to operate as a team to solve some very complex problems.

I had never considered the use of a wargame at the start of a course before. My own thinking from my time in the military, as well as my time in the hobby, was based around the first three types of war games that I described above. Additionally, having not seen it in action, my first inclination toward an out-of-the-gate wargame likely would have been “do the students have a clue what they’re doing?!” – an approach that admittedly would have sold them short.

But I was fascinated by the way NDU was able to use an opening week wargame for so many purposes in their program. The students all wholeheartedly agreed (at least the ones I talked to) that this was an excellent introduction to the course, and exceeded their expectations going into the exercise.

Just to be clear, this was a completely ungraded exercise. No one was being evaluated on their performance in the program, even though the economic and security metrics presented to them made it clear that some groups were better than others. What the participants got was a chance to try some ideas in a low pressure, low stress environment. Some of them were clearly successful, while others were abject failures. All of them, however, served as a common bond for the students going forward into their curriculum.

 

My personal lessons learned from this included the idea that wargaming can be very useful outside of the silos in which I was accustomed to thinking. It can be very useful to introduce new topics, ideas, and processes to students in ways that instantly grab their attention because they can see the immediate payoff of them. It is certainly a lesson I plan to carry forward in my teaching as I get deeper into higher education.

I was finally able to implement something similar (on a much smaller scale) in a class for this Spring semester.  Once the class start time hit, I made sure no one was sitting next to anyone they knew, and then I handed out the “Lost at Sea” worksheet from the US Coast Guard and told them they had 10 minutes to tell me their priority of what they were keeping with them in the boat.  I didn’t even introduce myself – I just put them right to work.  It took everyone a few minutes to get over the shock of going immediately to work, but the discussions rapidly took off and were a joy to watch.  I am absolutely using tools like these going forward from now on.

 

* Note that because this is a reprint of an older column, it’s now more than 5 years ago.

 

Note that this is a reprint of an older column by Brant from several years ago


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Battle Lab: Uses for (Professional) Wargaming

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