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Wargaming

By Caitlyn Leong

President of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society

Sponsors drive the objective, design, and implementation of wargames.1 When it comes to educational wargaming, the instructor is often cast in the sponsor role, driving the selection of games that match the objectives of their course or program. However, I argue that students should also be viewed as the game sponsors in conjunction with instructors, since it is their educational needs that must be met. Acknowledging that students are also sponsors of educational wargames means that one must understand and prioritize the student perspective when bringing games into the classroom or starting a wargaming initiative.

So, from a student’s perspective, what are the wargaming opportunities and challenges? How can wargaming initiatives ensure that they are providing the best educational experience? In an effort to answer these questions, I will draw on my experiences as a wargamer over the last five years, my experiences as a student of Georgetown University’s wargaming initiative, and my current role as president of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS). Focusing on the role of students within a sponsor framework, I offer my insights on educational wargaming at both the micro and macro levels. I discuss how wargaming can be both appealing and daunting for students in the classroom, and what I believe a wargaming initiative should do at the organizational level to provide a solid educational experience.

The Student Perspective: The Allure and Dangers of Educational Wargaming

Wargaming is a powerful tool for experiential learning, giving players space to explore new ideas, scenarios, and conflict dynamics. As an educational tool, wargames promise to educate the civilian decision-maker and the warfighter in how to think about war before a conflict ever starts. Players can grapple with complex problems in an environment where their actions feel real but have no real-world consequences. As a student, I have witnessed the powerful allure of wargaming. I first became interested in wargaming because it offered an opportunity to explore the real-world applications of concepts that I had learned about in my lectures and readings. Through my educational wargaming experiences, I have schemed with my peers to find ways to thwart dirty bomb attacks and observed as military officers and civilian officials try to devise a cohesive grand strategy for future conflict. As a graduate student, I have rolled dice so poorly that I doomed my team to an early loss, despite our well-thought-out strategy. In all of my personal wargaming experiences, one thing is clear: gaming in the classroom allows students to take an active role in their learning and generates excitement for the course material.

Despite the promise of educational wargames, there are several pathologies of educational wargaming that highlight dangers of poorly applied educational wargames. Games may not take place in the correct environment, fail to account for the skill and rank of their players, and may not provide opportunities for student feedback or adapt to student needs. As both a student and a facilitator, I have witnessed several poorly executed Professional Military Education (PME) and civilian “educational” wargames that left players dissatisfied and learning objectives unmet. With PME, there is the challenge of accounting for rank and relative skillsets in the student pool, as students may expect to be assigned to roles or teams based on seniority and may use that seniority to push their in-game agenda over lower-ranking peers.

I facilitated a game for a group of civilian government officials and military officers where the senior-most player leveraged their rank and refused to hear the inputs of the rest of the group when it came time to finalize their move sheet. As a student, I once had a professor who ran a wargame for our course that was worth a quarter of our overall grade. The goal of the game was to test how well we could represent various roles in the U.S. government. We received no advance reading and were assigned to our roles on the day of the wargame, when we were informed that we would be graded in competition with each other. We walked out of the classroom three hours later, after a debrief where we were critiqued on our performance in front of the entire class but were not allowed to offer feedback on the game. A group of my peers vowed to never participate in a wargame again.

So, how can these dangers be avoided when wargaming with students?

Wargames should take place in an environment where players feel comfortable dynamically engaging with the game scenario. The game should be realistic and create an immersive experience where players are encouraged to freely interact with each other and the game material. To accomplish this, instructors need to carefully prepare their players for the wargame and their assigned roles. This is especially true for wargaming novices, who may not fully understand their roles and the game material.2 This is further exacerbated when there is a grade applied to their performance during the wargame, which can create perverse incentives for competition and magnify any existing personality issues in the classroom. I have seen how a poorly executed wargame is more likely to teach students to dread wargames than it is to meet any stated learning objectives. Grading an educational wargame, if it must be done, should be based simply on attendance and a baseline level of engagement with the scenario.

For military professionals, one must also consider the ranks of the players who will be participating in the game or course and how they may impact the game. Having players who try to pull rank or create hierarchies that raise the inputs of some players over others inhibits the overall educational experience. On this point, it is important to consider how to level the field. Here, history offers a potential solution. The U.S. Naval War College’s (NWC) interwar wargames (1919-1941) were an integral part of the PME course of study, with a class composition ranging from O-2s to O-8s.1 With such a wide range of ranks, it was critical to the wargames’ success that NWC staff found a way to encourage collaboration. The uniform of the day for all wargames was civilian clothing, no rank insignia were worn, and players did not address each other by rank.2 While clothing and a change of protocol seem simple, they can go a long way towards fostering the educational environment needed for all students to learn from a wargame. Unless rank is strictly necessary in the context of the game, it is best to find ways to set your players on equal footing, whether that is done through protocol changes or carefully monitoring discussion to make sure all students are heard.

Wargaming at the NWC in the 1940s

Wargaming at the NWC in the 1940s.1 Players are seen in civilian clothing, staff and observers wear their dress blues.

It is also important to recognize that students possess varying levels of experience int terms of wargaming. Some may have participated in wargames many times in a professional capacity or as hobby wargamers. Others may have absolutely no exposure to wargames. For wargaming novices, both military and civilian, it is helpful to introduce students to wargames using commercial games. In this instance, one must be careful to select the “right” games and the right delivery method. Just as students have different learning styles, they may have different ways of learning to play a game. Some students may do just fine with a twenty-page rulebook and no guidance, but I have found that it helps to offer varied ways to understand the game. Students can watch rule videos, play or watch practice games, and rely on simplified reference sheets as they get used to gameplay. The games should also be iterative, so multiple groups of students can play at the same time with different outcomes or can play the game multiple times, switching teams or sides.

Lastly, it is also important to establish a feedback loop, where each game session allows time for a hotwash discussion to address what went well, what went wrong, and what the students would like to see in future games. By giving an opportunity to provide feedback to the instructor, students can know that their concerns and input have been heard and may be acted upon in the future. This is invaluable for helping students understand the value of wargaming, as well as identifying areas where the application or design of the game needs to be adjusted for future use.

Avoiding Danger: What a Wargaming Initiative Needs to Do for Students

Having highlighted the appeal and dangers of educational wargaming from the student perspective, I will attempt to offer brief and general insights that can be used at the institutional or organizational level to maintain a focus on the student as your sponsor. I have found through my experience with GUWS that these insights are critical to the success or failure of wargaming initiative.

1. Focus on providing diverse options for students & instructors

All wargames are ultimately driven by their players and this is especially true if one views the students as sponsors. To ensure that students have the best experience with the wargame, instructors who are not wargaming experts themselves should consider bringing in experienced facilitators or game masters to help run the game. Your institution or organization can provide support to the instructors by providing them with wargaming spaces and connecting them to experts and facilitators who can help them implement effective educational games. This will also help lower the cost of entry for wargames in classes.

At the organizational level, your initiative should provide a wide range of wargaming opportunities. Options include miniatures, crisis simulations, social game nights, and more. A variety of choices increases the likelihood a student will find a wargame or event that interests them. In particular, creating opportunities for civil-military engagement provides members with new perspectives on their counterparts’ roles and responsibilities and expands their professional networks.

2. Set a culture of accessibility and engagement

Like the classroom, a diverse membership will bring a greater variety of experiences, interests, and perspectives to any wargaming initiative. The responsibility of instilling a welcoming culture typically falls on its leaders to lead by example. If done right, this can reap tremendous benefits from informal mentorships to creative synergies. Yet, this also means that students will most likely possess varying levels of interest and time to devote to wargaming. For instance, full-time undergraduate students typically have more availability than part-time graduate students who work during normal office hours. Additionally, any wargaming initiative is competing for limited attention and time of its members, ranging from childcare to internships. So, it is important to find an organizational rhythm that encourages sustained accessibility and engagement between your initiative and your membership – which require consistency and regularity. Social media and platforms like Discord can also be incredibly useful in amplifying your institutional reach and maintaining engagement.

All of this does not need to happen right out of the gate, but gradually finding ways to offer a spectrum of low to high engagement opportunities will improve member participation and overall engagement. Identify what your organization can do well in the wargaming space and start from there, leveraging your existing resources and connections to established wargamers and initiatives.

3. Ask for feedback & adapt as needed

Just as an instructor should ensure that they are soliciting student feedback, a wargaming initiative should consistently ask for feedback and be ready to adapt as needed. Ask for general feedback on the initiative or feedback on a specific wargame or event. Your initiative does not need to be all things to all people.  However, keeping abreast of what your members want and find useful is necessary for long-term success and the sustainability of your initiative.

In the early months of running GUWS, we were forced entirely online shortly after our first on-campus game night. We soon realized that the members emailing us for professional advice and resources were not the same members attending our game nights and seminars. Armed with that knowledge, we were able to stand up a digital library of resources, including books, articles, tactical decision games, and a catalogue of our physical game library. We also sent out surveys soliciting feedback about what games people would like to play in virtual game sessions and what speakers they wanted to see during our webinar series. By adapting to our circumstances, we were able to reach more of our members and provide experiences that were meaningful to them.

These three recommendations are by no means the only path to success, but they should be strong considerations for any wargaming initiative. Maintaining a focus on the student as sponsor is key to getting students excited about wargames, ensuring that your wargaming efforts will last long into the future.

Caitlyn Leong is a M.A. candidate and CyberCorps Scholarship for Service Fellow at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. She has over five years of experience in wargaming and currently serves as the President of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society. Caitlyn previously served as Director of Simulations for The George Washington University’s Strategic Crisis Simulations. She specializes in wargaming, emerging technologies, and cybersecurity policy.

 

Bibliography

1 Stephen Downes-Martin. "Your boss, players, and sponsor: the three witches of war gaming." Naval War College Review 67, no. 1 (2014): 31-41.

2 Elizabeth M. Bartels. "Gaming–Learning at Play.".ORMS Today 41 (2014). https://www.informs.org/ORMS-Today/Public-Articles/August-Volume-41-Number-4/INNOVATIVE-EDUCATION-Gaming-Learning-at-play

3 John Curry and Chris Carlson. The United States Naval War College 1936 Wargame Rules: USN Wargaming Before WWII Volume I. The History of Wargaming Project, 2019, 11; John M. Lillard. Playing War: Wargaming and US Navy Preparations for World War II. U of Nebraska Press, 2016.

4 John M. Lillard. Playing War: Wargaming and US Navy Preparations for World War II, 37.

5 John Curry and Chris Carlson. The United States Naval War College 1936 Wargame Rules, 16.

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