Wargaming – Does “better” mean more Art, or more Science?

Dr. Perla’s paper on the recent calls for reinvigorating wargaming within DoD has generated a lot of fascinating discussion, particularly on the Simulating War Yahoo Group. (If you are not aware of Dr. Phil Sabin’s “Simulating War” group and have an interest in his work, access can be requested from simulatingwar-owner@yahoogroups.com).  Some important and related issues arose in these discussions: To what extent is Wargaming an art or a science? How should wargames be adjudicated – through rigid rules or more freely by an umpire? Ultimately how do you know when a wargame is “good”. There are threads connecting these questions together. Here is an attempt to tie some of them together.

My point of view here is from the military wargaming perspective. Military wargaming unfortunately has atrophied in many respects, an issue CDR Phil Pournelle addresses in excellent fashion in a recent piece over at the USNI site. Within this framework, wargaming is a process. It’s expertly explained in the Naval War College’s Wargaming Handbook

Largely this handbook is descriptive about the process of “how to put on a war game at the Naval War College”. Note the two-word form that Dr. Perla points out in his piece. NWC is very successful at what it does because it has systematically refined its process. Using “science”, in the meaning of “a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”, that handbook provides a good look at the “science of wargaming” – at least in the opinion of the Naval War College. The word “art” applied to wargaming does not appear once in the body of the document. It does appear in the introduction a few times in an interesting context:

“This is truly the world of the war gamer—dealing with those ill-defined problems that commanders and their staffs cannot get their arms around and have neither the time nor even an idea of how to address. Thus, the war gamer must be able to dig deep into the tool kit to find a way to examine the problem and provide actionable information to the commander and staff. That tool kit is really the art of war gaming—it means the war gamer must develop a game in which humans make decisions, hold them accountable for those decisions throughout the game, and then use the data from the game to provide insights and recommendations.” (my bold)

So it’s the ‘tools’ – in this context “game mechanics” – that are the ‘art’ of wargaming? I tend more toward Dr. Perla’s admonition that “the instrumentality is not the game”.  Emphasizing the “science over the art” – or at least the process over the substance, takes one down that road.  The quote comes thiiiiiis close to getting at a better answer in the sentence prior. It’s not the toolkit that is the ‘’art”, but the:

“…(ability) to dig deep into the toolkit to find a way to examine the problem…”

That is where the “art” comes in. Creating tools – methods, mechanics, etc – an analytic engineering-like process. Putting those ‘tools’ (components) together into an elegant and holistic abstraction of the subject matter is synthetic, requiring inspiration, insight and creativity. Too much emphasis on the PROCESS of assembly rather than building expertise in the art of creative use of the piece-parts leads one down the slippery slope from “science” in the meaning above, to “scientism” – the “dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable” and “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience” (see Wikipedia for sources).

This brings us to the tie in with free vs rigid methods of adjudication. It is ironic that while the military game design process (the NWC process seems to be fairly representative of the one used in other services) is so tilted to science, the adjudication methodology used has been similarly tilted toward subjective “free kriegspiel” (again from the handbook):

“Free adjudication is a method frequently used in the WGD, since operational and strategic games are more dependent on SMEs to exercise professional judgment, as opposed to strictly following prescriptive rule sets.”

I remember my first experience participating in a Global wargame back in the 90s. I was asked to fill in for a more senior analyst as the “ASW adjudication analyst” or some such billet. Being a hobby gamer, I spent over a week getting a “crib sheet” together for the role, but was crestfallen when showtime arrived and the head umpire basically looked at the map and declared what the results needed to be. “Who’s my ASW guy?” I pipe up “Here, sir”. Without looking he asked, “You have a problem with any that? Sound reasonable?” I glanced at my crib sheets sheepishly, none of the results were outlandish, and replied “Sounds good, sir”. That was my introduction to “Free Kriegspiel” and the delicate process of providing adjudication that is not unreasonable, but more importantly moves the game toward achieving its objective. To paraphrase the old saw: “Some things are too important to be left to dice rolls”.

It’s still a dangerous tightrope to walk in such adjudication between “reasonably advancing the game toward its objectives” and “influencing the outcome of game”. The standing joke about “carriers never get sunk in Navy wargames” to Gen van Riper’s blunt reaction to having the ships he sank refloated to “get on with the game” back in Millennium Challenge 02 raise eyebrows and questions.  Can a game that doesn’t meet its original objectives, but exposes something important, but different, be considered a “good game”. Sponsors typically consider games “good” when they advance their agendas. Games that rock the boat or go down unexpected, yet valuable, paths can be problematic.

Does more rigid adjudication solve the problem? There is a move to greater use of “semi-rigid” adjudication as the handbook calls it, which together with a somewhat finer granularity in representing decisions and interactions, provides more structure – and hopefully consistency – to the adjudication process. It can still  be “overruled” if a “bad dice roll” threatens to send the game off the rails, in which case it’s much easier to understand when and why it happens if it’s an “exception” vice the “rule”. So far it has promise to be a step in the right direction for many types of games.

I’ve seen several situations where a series of events transpired that likely would have resulted in vociferous critique of what must be going on inside the inscrutable black box that is the simulation used to the support the game, but instead was begrudgingly accepted. The decision-maker was told his course of action had about an 83% chance of success. That seemed quite acceptable. Until he was given a d6 to roll. “A six and your force gets sunk”. Suddenly faced with Russian roulette, he thought a moment, stuck to his guns, rolled the dreaded six, and accepted the fate of his cardboard heroes. A combination of communicating the risk associated with alternatives, the opportunity cost of delay, and a simple combat system can produce acceptable, effective results.

If semi-rigid is good, can more rigidity be better? Sometimes. There is a class of games that places like NWC used to use where rigid adjudication was a significant benefit. Concept development and planning games were successfully used in the past with great success. The “glory days” of NWC wargaming (all one word)  earlier in the century – particularly between the wars – saw tactical and operational wargaming where the evolution of the rules was an important part of the process. When you bring together teams of officers with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences “arguing about the rules” becomes a norming process where conceptions of “how things ought to work” get vetted, corrected, and evolve. We harken back to those times as if to rest on their laurels, yet always seem to have a reason why we can’t emulate it today.

In some ways however, we have, or think we have. The controllable and reproducible part of a game are its rules. Why have abstract rules that are not strictly correct when you could have higher fidelity simulations running to adjudicate? Don’t leave it to subjective arguments among the players to slowly evolve them – its physics-based science after all! Why not codify the rules in computer code that ensures that they are followed when the game is played. That will allow the players to simply “do their job” as though they were actually fighting the war and the results of their cumulative actions will be adjudicated with precision limited only by the zeroes on the check you provide the contractor! In fact, why not take your doctrine and simply use that as the basis for decisions and you can save a ton of money on all but the high-level decision-makers having to play. You expect your troops to follow doctrine, right? Taking it a step further, decision-makers are busy, so if you really want to make this painless, have their staffs make up a plan and we will use that – defeating Rommel’s plan is the same as defeating Rommel! Right?

That is the primrose path that takes you “scientifically” from wargaming, the “great secret of which” as McCarty Little says:

“…lies in the existence of the enemy, a live, vigorous enemy in the next room waiting feverishly to take advantage of any of our mistakes, ever ready to puncture any visionary schemes, to haul us back down to earth.”

to just another simulation system, necessary to the analysis of military problems, but wholly insufficient to tasks which wargaming is being called in as reinforcements to achieve.

If Dr. Perla’s cycle of research gets stuck oscillating between exercise (read simulation) and analysis, we lose the third leg on the stool that allows for exploring options and coming up with new hypotheses – channeling my inner Jon Compton – ABDUCTIVE reasoning.  As C.S. Peirce defines it “the search for patterns in phenomena that suggest a hypothesis”. With that you can feed the inductive (analysis – producing theory from a set of observations) and deductive (exercises – testing a hypothesis through observation) parts of the cycle. Few people appreciate that the abductive leg is missing – and even if they did – often have incentive to avoid it, because it can upset the applecart with new and disruptive hypotheses that can get in the way of the “analytic agenda”

So the way we currently tend to operate we obsess with the parts of war gaming that tell us “what’s better”. War games that provide the players a Chinese menu of “new stuff” and a scenario and then ask them “what stuff on the list do you want” are legion. They also typically result in “we want everything” and if asked to “rank order” or “vote” on them, you typically get the high results from the ones that had the best briefs (i.e. the players understood). That is not to say there is not value to ‘bogsattery’ but it pretty much ends with “socializing” ideas – not pronouncing judgment upon them. In the end, simulation is better suited to tell you “what’s better?” Bogsattery can tell you “what’s attractive”, but not what we need to know to answer the “ill-defined problems that commanders and their staffs cannot get their arms around”. Answering the question “WHAT MATTERS?”

These “old school” competitive, rules-based, kinds of games are played by human competitors participating  in the “synthetic” (and I would argue “artful”) aspects of wargaming; first as players, creatively assembling the “pieces” they have been given to find ways to achieve their objectives and deny same to their opponents; second as ‘game developers’ lending their subject matter expertise and experience playing the game to aid in the “digging deep into the toolkit” to improve the gaming experience and improving the confidence that you actually have achieved insight into the realm of “what matters”.

While the process by which a game is constructed, the sequence of events during the game, and the artifacts produced by it can be subjected to scientific scrutiny, there is an experiential part of wargaming that leaves its mark in ways we often don’t realize until well after the fact. This brings us back to the free vs rigid kriegspiel issue. If you suddenly become very concerned with improving wargaming to meet tremendously increased expectations, the standard way the military bureaucracy deals with such things is by means of process control and standards. Rules beget rules, and in this case, I fear far too literally. You get driven from “wargaming” to a sort of “facilitated simulation”. “Good” becomes “easy” and “validated” and “process-driven”. Good becomes “controlled”. But you don’t get emergent behaviors from well ordered systems, but truly complex and a bit chaotic ones.

Science is indeed a part of wargaming, but we must resist calls to scientism for our tool to prove its worth to those ready to embrace it. There is also art. Powerful art. Art that can greatly complicate efforts to use a “systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”, but is nonetheless of critical importance to “goodness”. In the various discussions of Dr. Perlas paper, many have described how to make games “good”. There are as many definitions of “good” as people weighing in. There is good design process. There are innovative and elegant game designs. Some are historically evocative, others effective in achieving specific purposes. I offer another – value. How does a game produce value? One measure is how it changes the way we think about things. I difficult thing to measure because it is a thing we experience, but to give in the idea that if we can’t measure something, it must not be important, or useful, or valuable, is to give in the scientism.

Some consider culture to be the result of the stories a community believes about itself. Stories about overcoming daunting obstacles, about foiling the plots of adversaries, about rising above our own frailties, and about picking ourselves up after failing. Playing games is a way to interactively tell a story – to experience a story. Where stories provide analogies, we learn and apply them – more powerfully when sharing them together as a group. We draw inspiration and wisdom from them when we find ways to apply their lessons in the face of real world challenges. To improve the culture, we don’t change the game, we change the stories.

For the story created by a game to have relevance, it needs a strong connection to reality –the science of wargaming provides that vital connection. We can come up with processes and checklists and best practices for judging the goodness of that connection, but as Dr. Perla keeps reminding us, the REAL game is not the box of maps and counters and dice, but THE STORY we collaborate with the other players in creating in our heads. If the stories have meaning and value, the game that produced them is truly good. The best games – the most valuable games – I have played are not the ones with the most accurate combat tables, or fewest misspellings on the map, or most painstakingly researched counter values, but the ones I REMEMBER PLAYING. The ones that enabled me to construct the most compelling and memorable stories, stories that influenced things I did well after the fact.

Keeping that in mind as we endeavor to make the most of the opportunity we have been given, will be critical to success.

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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