Two recent articles from different think tanks talked about using wargames for predicting the outcome of a future conflict. Both articles talk about what makes a good wargame by focusing in on analytic wargames—as compared to wargames for entertainment. Both articles raise important points about the art and science of wargame design that hobby wargame designers and players should consider.
Financial Times meets Berkeley
The first article is by Jacquelyn Schneider, the director of the Hoover Institution’s war gaming and simulations initiative and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University. Schneider’s article in the Financial Times online (March 18, 2023, paywalled) titled “Can war games really help us predict who will win a conflict?” defines a wargame this way:
While often called “simulations” or “exercises,” war games are distinct from computer imitations of combat, field exercises or organized brainstorming sessions. Instead, they are interactive events that display four characteristics: expert players, immersed in scenarios, bounded by rules and motivated by consequence-based outcomes.Schneider
The second article is by Bethany L. Goldblum, a nuclear scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a research engineer in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and executive director of the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium. Her co-author is Andrew W. Reddie, the founder and faculty director for the Berkeley Risk and Security Lab and assistant professor of practice in cybersecurity at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information, where he works on projects related to cybersecurity, nuclear weapons policy, wargaming, and emerging military technologies. Their article, “Integrating the Art and Science of Wargaming” appears on the Lawfare blog of the Lawfare Institute published in cooperation with Brookings on March 16, 2023. Goldblum and Reddie’s defintion of a wargame has several parts:
- “…policymakers often rely on inferences drawn from wargames—strategy and analytical games that simulate tactical, operational, and strategic aspects of conflict.”
- “They represent an immersive synthetic environment in which players engage in strategic interaction and must live with the consequences of their decisions.”
Schneider states that a wargame designed to answer a question, such as who would win a war over Taiwan, needs to possess five qualities:
- It needs to be believable.
- It needs the right players with the correct expertise and demographics.
- There must be enough players and game iterations to come to realistic conclusions.
- It must control bias within the scenario and rules.
- It must incorporate good data collection.
Goldblum and Reddie talk about wargames in a similar manner. For them, wargames have three primary applications—teaching, exploration, and analysis. When talking about that second case—exploration—they note it “involves engaging current or former policymakers, subject matter experts, and scholars to consider current and previous problems.” They caution that exploration wargames should not be confused for analytic wargames “designed to collect data to answer a specific question—whether driven by current events, at the direction of policymakers, or academic debates.”
Schneider glibly writes, “War games are not crystal balls that tell us what will happen in conflict or crisis.” She goes on to state “This is the value of war games. They can help us understand human behaviors in unpredictable or rare scenarios but not necessarily predict the future.” Schneider cautions:
The lesson is that we shouldn’t draw too much certainty from any one game and should instead look for insights across multiple games. The US think-tanks’ games suggested there would be no clear winner in a Taiwan fight. That fits with other analysis.
However, variables such as individual leadership styles, weapons capabilities or campaign choices can lead to different results. This is why we must evaluate not just the outcomes of the game, but its design: the rules, assumptions, scenarios and players.Schneider
Goldblum and Reddie likewise talk about the importance of wargame design, “Perhaps, as important as the findings are the game manual and account of the game design decisions that were published alongside our work in the hope that other scholars and analysts will examine the methods, replicate the study, or tweak the game design as they deem appropriate.” They go on to state “Game design requires artistry (recognizing that engaged play is intrinsic to the value of the medium), but if a game is going to be applied to a problem of national security or foreign policy, then science has to play a role.” They then weigh in on one of the oldest arguments in wargaming and one the “scientification” crowd very much want to stay in the realm of wargame practitioners and away from hobby gaming:
There remains a rampant debate as to whether wargaming represents an art or a science.
Our answer to this question is that it is—and should be—both. Game design requires artistry (recognizing that engaged play is intrinsic to the value of the medium), but if a game is going to be applied to a problem of national security or foreign policy, then science has to play a role.”Goldblum & Reddie
“Engaged play” sounds like “immersive” and “believable.” To design that wargame one needs to be as much an artist as a scientist. That is a design goal worthy of wargame practitioners—and hobby wargamers—alike.
Feature image “Wargaming today…” courtesy @JimDaws93102644 on Twitter
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