If you are a professional wargamer and you are not paying attention to the work of the U.S. Army Futures Command Mad Scientist Laboratory you are sadly behind the times. To help you stay abreast of happenings I call your attention to a recent article from Ian Sullivan, Special Advisor for Analysis and ISR at the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Army Training and Doctrine Command. Mr. Sullivan can often also be found writing for GMT Insider with features like his recent “We’re Moving Through Kashmir: Playing Next War: India-Pakistan“ or “All Along the Demilitarized Zone – Playing Next War: Korea” series of articles.
In the Mad Scientist Lab article, “337. “No Option is Excluded” — Using Wargaming to Envision a Chinese Assault on Taiwan,” Sullivan uses designer Mitchell Land’s Next War: Taiwan (GMT Games, 2014 – to be updated in a forthcoming 2nd Printing) to explore just such an event, for good reason:
In November 2020, I wrote a previous post arguing that wargaming can help us visualize what the threat can be. It can help us imagine it and provide context to our thinking about it. It can help us check our assumptions, and perhaps even offer thoughts and ideas that we would never have considered. It will not tell us the future, or lay out with certainty what will happen. But it can offer us an opportunity to prevent a failure of imagination of the kind warned against in the 9/11 Commission Report. By imagining the threat, we may be in a position to make better decisions during moments of crisis. This time, I’m using a copy of GMT Games “Next War: Taiwan” to help visualize what such a fight could entail.MSL 337
Sullivan’s article appeared in the same week as strategist and retired US. Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix wrote his thoughts on the “Davidson Window,” and his interpretation of testimony from out-going Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral Phil Davison. Admiral Davidson observed that China might try to reintegrate Taiwan “in the next six years.” Sullivan uses a narrative built from playing Next War: Taiwan to tell us a very important story:
In an effort to guard against the failure of imagination, I will add a narrative to help explain what happened in the game. Rudyard Kipling once said that if “history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Narrative writing is a powerful, and by spinning it around the bones of a game, I hope to help imagine what a fight could be. Tom Clancy and Larry Bond used this method in their novel Red Storm Rising, where they crafted a narrative around the results of a series of scenarios they played of the wargame Harpoon. My effort here, however, is intended to be more in the spirit of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985, originally published in 1978, and intended to help NATO leaders imagine what a fight with the Warsaw Pact could look like.MSL 337
Sullivan’s narrative, written as a Report to Congress after a Chinese victory, is actually a great example of “Fictional Intelligence,” or FICINT. Unfortunately, the creators of FICINT, P.W. Singer and August Cole, might disagree.
In another recent Mad Scientist Laboratory episode of their podcast, Convergence, guests P.W. Singer and August Cole, co-authors of Ghost Fleet and the leading example of Useful Fiction (or as Cole and Singer like to call it, Fictional Intelligence – FICINT), talked about what FICINT is:
In today’s podcast, Messrs. Singer and Cole discuss the power of fictional intelligence; the importance of storytelling, narrative, and verisimilitude in crafting tales of future possibilities that resonate and inform; and the significance of imagination. The following bullet points highlight key insights from our discussion:
– FicInt, also known as fictional intelligence or ‘useful fiction,’ combines extensive research and futures forecasting with worldbuilding and narrative, one of the oldest forms of communication. The finished product involves an engaging and plausible storyline to introduce readers to novel trends and problems.
– FicInt has four “rules of the real” that separate it from science fiction: research must be embedded in the story (usually via footnotes); the story must take place in a real-world setting; the story must involve real world people; and the timeline must be realistic. Using these rules, any white paper, report, or executive summary can be distilled into its key themes and drafted into narrative.
– FicInt is also distinguished from science fiction via its engagement with the policy community. Fictional intelligence strives to react and be useful to the policy community, and thus engages with policy experts before, during, and after its development. This engagement may involve commissioned stories, workshops on how to create FicInt, or briefings on the end product.
– The goal of FicInt is often to expose and prevent a possible future, rather than predict it. By creating plausible storylines, the security industry can adapt and develop programs and technologies to create an alternate future that prepares for the situations exposed by FicInt.
– The value of narrative, compared to non-fiction research, can be found in three elements:
— Understanding: Narrative effectively packages information the way our brains are designed to absorb it, creating lasting messages.
— Action: By connecting information to our emotions, narrative is more likely to promote action.
— Connection: People are driven to share narratives, leading the audience of FicInt to become part of its marketing. This virality contributes to the creation of a network of people with increased understanding of potential futures.
– Establishing FicInt credibility involves connection with target audiences and the real-world people featured in the narratives and responding to their feedback. This process ensures the end story is as accurate and plausible as possible.MSL 332
I was surprised they didn’t mention it in their podcast interview, but Cole and Singer see wargames as very distinct from FICINT. In a post where I discussed narratives and wargaming (“#Wargame Wednesday – Narratives” 25 Nov 2020) I dug into some of Cole and Singer’s thoughts on FICINT and wargaming based on a journal article they wrote. To summarize, I think Cole and Singer confuse “simulations” and “war games” and thus do not give proper credit to the narrative power of wargames. I hope that Ian Sullivan’s article above shows the weakness of their position and lets us rightly focus on the narrative power of wargaming.
Feature image courtesy cdn.newsapi.com.au