Currently there is more time and people involved in playing than ever before, but is wargaming the best use of resources? Wargaming practices are both common and obscure, professional and hobby, allied and national. It has become a common methodology in many institutions of our times: analytical, educational, and academic. Despite its military origins, wargaming has been successfully used in business and innovation applications. There are many recorded benefits, serious risks and possible obstacles related to introduction of wargaming into an organization. At its best, it can be an instrument of improvement and a way to select the prime. At its worst it can promote false priorities and disrupt critical thinking. The difference between best and worst depends on engagement, purpose and experience. The following account summarizes the lessons identified in Wargaming Experiences: Soldiers, Scientists and Civilians book, describing the NATO Wargaming, Modelling and Simulation project. It renders the way of introducing wargaming and making the time to play for what is the most demanding, urgent and engaging.
Difficulty of Engagement
At the point of introducing a new method, wargaming is the equivalent of going the extra mile. It develops as an additional capability that can help in testing concepts, training tactics and connecting units. It starts as a complementary option to other solutions. Before it can become a self-standing capability, it will pull on all the existing ones in search for available personnel, time and resources. This is the moment of test and will determine whether wargaming can realize its best or slowly degenerate to the point of being meaningless. Engagement can’t be guaranteed, but it can be motivated by:
- Leadership – if the Commander validates wargaming and attaches value to its results, it becomes important to the participants to play their strongest game;
- Dedicated assignment – if the Teams are not driven away from their normal tasks, but wargaming is the task;
- Take-away – if the wargame and its conclusions are applicable and visibly improve the participants performance.
Engagement can be anchored by purpose – the higher the stakes, the less probable it is that people will walk away from the table. Purpose turns the random activity of wargaming into a directed effort.
Clarity of Purpose
Wargaming is experimental in its nature. It lies at the intersection of problem definition, search of relevant data and simulation of possible scenarios. This vast generality of possible applications needs to be precise to deliver tangible outcomes for the organization. Among many purposes, the most prominent ones include:
- Training – simulating scenarios requiring a particular set of skills that can be trained in the game;
- Testing concepts – replicating reality and testing the effect of proposed concepts;
- Red-teaming – providing an enemy that attempts to disrupt or destroy existing systems;
- Decision support – offering information that is calculated based on the wargame;
- Strategy generation – brainstorming strategies for future or current problems;
- Campaign planning – building or testing plans in place for future campaigns;
- Networking – connecting individuals from diverse positions and backgrounds.
Those purposes can guide the experience of participants of wargames: in simple terms, it is known what will be the main achievement. If the engagement is ensured and the purpose clear, the value of wargaming experience can be proven in practice.
Value of Experience
Wargaming at its best provides a sample of problems that can arrive and prevent being ambushed by its novelty. There are several ways of designing experiential games that bring forward meaningful decisions to be made:
- Drawing from previous experience – designing based on relevant problems that occurred to others;
- Searching for missing competences – interviewing staff and commanders in search for deficiencies;
- Identifying critical dependencies – looking into the most consequential failures and recognizing prevention measures;
- Proposing alternatives – demonstrating potential scenarios that require new approaches.
Experience that is valuable leaves a notion: of awareness, skill or solution. It can be a closed loop from a problem to its conclusion or an opened question that is not answered yet. Either way it gives a chance of trying without suffering the cost of failure. Most of the time spent playing is devoted to losing. Yet, it draws people into improvement, not surrender. Wargaming experience geared towards a purpose and backed with engagement turns into an effective method of turning play into profession.
Wargaming in NATO holds many lessons – on the difficulty of engagement, on the need for clarity of purpose and the value of experience. Wargaming introduces the practice of challenges, competitions and coordination among units. It can turn into a decisive advantage if is used the right way: dedicated to the meaningful decisions that have to be made.
In the end, taking the time to play wargames can provide a collective upgrade: in engagement of individuals, precision of purpose and the value of experience. I have rarely been reminded of a briefing or a lecture as much as I have been greeted by: “I remember the last wargame, where I played the red team and disabled the railroad…”. If the experience is valuable enough to retain and revisit, wargaming is worthy to take the time to play.