Ben Kohlmann on Wargaming

Many of you may have seen Lt Ben Kohlmann’s post on Small Wars Journal, and the wide variety of discussions it sparked. Ben’s Blog: Disruptive Thinkers has some excellent posts, most recently some thoughts on wargaming.

The following I found interesting (I edited out a section for brevity):

Historically, war gaming has had two meanings. First, it means any game that involves combat, the threat of combat, or the concept of combat. Examples of each include Gears of War, Diplomacy, and Epidemic, respectively. Most war games follow this definition, especially those marketed to the general public. These games are meant to take the aspects of war and bring them home in a digestible, exciting, and ultimately disposable way.

The second definition, however, is the one applicable to real world scenarios. This applies to scenario-based situational decision-making in a structured environment without using live troops. The intent is to train, educate, or perform research using human beings as key elements of within decision-making and strategic thinking. To put it in another way, it’s presenting players with situations to either show them what to do, or see what they do and analyze it.

Understanding this second definition is where the military derives the greatest benefit. A player fully immersed in a simulation begins to think differently than one being asked questions about their job or sitting in a classroom. They perceive other players differently as well, and will take actions based on a personal, individual investment in the outcome.

Most importantly, the player has to care about the actions, outcomes, and rewards inherent to the system.

Military war gaming sometimes overlooks this last point, with disastrous results. Organizers task players to fill roles, and then tell them it is “just a game”. Players have no input into the next version, and organizers write off any complaints as “whining.” A game of any sort, but especially complex games that replicate irregular warfare, should get the players involved on a personal level.

Some recent games, appear to negatively reinforce this view. A game with a high degree of player involvement in “constructing the narrative” though deemed successful, is considered to produce outcomes somehow less compelling almost by definition than a game where players “went through the motions” of supporting a “high end simulation” that in many ways was set up to “validate” the points desired to come out the other end. The “process” is deemed to be better because it included a “physics-based simulation” despite the fact the simulation had little effect on player decisions. Whereas a game designed to promote a high degree of player interaction and decision-making is deficient because it lacks “sufficient rigor” to lend credibility to the results.

To me, more reason to continue to harp on the “simulating to study process, gaming to study decision-making” because while that may seem obvious, we not only don’t do it, we have those who believe its wrong – without (expensive) simulation, there is no “study of decision-making”.

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About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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