A Wargamer’s Response to Dave Anthony: Welcome!

October 13, 2014

It seems everyone is up in arms (virtual arms, of course) about Call of Duty: Black Ops’ writer Dave Anthony’s appointment as a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. His aim to help build a more creative vision of the future of war and his first public event as a fellow on October 1 were greeted with skepticism. Critical comments have focused on the morals embodied in his games and the value and originality of his predictions.

However, listening to Anthony’s remarks as a wargame designer, I was struck by how much descriptions of his “non-traditional” creative process mirrored methods for envisioning the future already in use by wargamers to help the national security community think about future challenges. However, the critical response to his ideas illustrated the essential nature of making claims about the future in defensible ways, which Anthony did not do to the national security community’s satisfaction. In my work as a wargamer, I have been trained that for “out of the box” ideas to be influential, they need to be made understandable, compelling, and defensible. Anthony’s presentation achieved the first and second of those principles, citing touchstones of current wargaming practice including the need to synthesize diverse perspectives, consider potential crises as if they were currently happening, and seek solutions that work under many possible future conditions.

As a quick orientation, wargaming is a broad set of methodologies used throughout the national security interagency community for analytical and educational purposes. Wargames can range in medium from tabletop exercises to computer simulations, but regardless of form, all wargames are models, which simplify aspects of a phenomenon in order to be able to examine other aspects more clearly (War on the Rocks has previously published a nice overview on modeling that elaborates on this point). What distinguishes wargames from other types of models is that they include decisions made by people as a key component of the model. Because of this attention to human decisions, all wargames will include: a problem to be solved; an environment that provides context for the problem; players that represent key actors who must make decisions to solve the problem; and the rules that explain what players can do, and how their choices may change the environment, actors, and rules of the game moving forward.

As far as most wargamers are concerned, the difference between Call of Duty and their work is rooted in the divergent goals of creating a commercially successful game, and the analytical or educational value of wargaming. An audience looking to be entertained will be better served by a game that spends more time explaining different parts of the problem than an audience looking for a basis for new policies. For example, a commercial game is likely to deal with issues like logistics and legal permissions through very simple rules that players rarely have to consider. In a professional wargame, these may be a focus, as members of different parts of government try to establish a common understanding of what can and cannot be done in a crisis. The tradeoff is that participating in the professional game is not likely to feel like anything other than work. While the design choices driven by different goals make findings non-transferable, the process used to identify interesting problems and creative solutions within the boundaries of the game can be quite similar between games. Furthermore, professional wargamers often crib mechanics from commercial games to animate models in more engaging ways. Therefore, the sections of Anthony’s remarks in which he discussed his process, rather than his specific conclusions, caught my ear.

Anthony spoke passionately about the process he used in the writing of Black Ops to generate his vision of future conflict. He argued that the best way to generate rich, innovative ideas is to bring together a group of experts on diverse subject matters to share their different perspectives in an open debate. In his view, this process generates ideas that synthesize the experiences of the participants, leading to results that are more innovative than what any single participant could produce on their own. This process will sound deeply familiar to wargamers who also try to foster the same type of discussion. In what is called an analytic tabletop or seminar exercise, diverse participants discuss their perspectives on the problem in a structured way, allowing not only for the synthesis of different experiences into new ideas, but also the identification of why and how different types of expertise lead participants to have different views of the problem in the first place.

Because generating these diverse, open discussions is so critical for our work, wargamers have developed specific methods for structuring wargames in order to mitigate the risk-intolerant, conservative mindset that Anthony cites as a frequent, Washingtonian barrier. The most powerful of these methods is the immersive, narrative-driven environment created by the wargame itself, which allows participants to more fully internalize the conclusions of the wargame. Recent research on wargaming of novel problems focuses on the importance of allowing the expert participants to decide the outcomes of their actions based on their collective expertise, rather than leaving synthesis to “neutral” analysts. Other research looks at the importance of participant diversity for generating innovative findings, as well as the importance of giving participants the freedom to experiment (this vein of wargaming research also mirrors the findings on forecasting more generally, which argue that diversity of opinion and flexibility are far more important than expertise in predicting future events).

Other portions of Anthony’s remarks also resonated with the aims of current wargaming. For example, he highlighted the way in which crises spur creative, energized thinking, pointing to the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He advocated exploring ideas in the “present tense” in order to reap the benefits of this creative thinking before disaster strikes, rather than only looking at the most recent set of changes to predict what will happen in the future. Wargamers often try to leverage the immersive environments they create to do just that. For example, specific wargame structures like RAND’s “Day After” methodology are designed to let participants not only walk through the response to a hypothetical future incident, but also think through how decisions made now may set up successful future conditions. Similarly, Anthony points out the advantages of considering many possible futures by identifying tools and strategies that will be helpful in as broad a spectrum as possible. Currently, methods like scenario planning are used to think through diverse paths and identify solutions that are robust across many possible futures.

In each of these cases, it would have been helpful for Anthony to have moved past the importance of generating novel ideas and instead discussed what has made him such a successful game designer: the ability to convert his ideas into compelling stories and immersive environments. How did he decide which ideas to move forward with? How did he construct a narrative around these ideas that hooked the skeptics while not boring the early converts? How did he balance the need to build an immersive environment with the need to convey technical information about this potential future? It is these decisions that have made the franchise so successful. National security analysts could learn a lot from this man, who has reached millions of people, about how to make our products more understandable and compelling to our stakeholders and clients.

I would also suggest that the cool reception many of Anthony’s big ideas received reveals that wargames may also have something important to offer the broader national security community: tools and techniques to make big ideas defensible. National security professionals’ critique of Anthony’s concepts as unoriginal, incorrect, or unimportant was caused in part by the lack of strong evidence defending the soundness of the conclusions. Without analysis to defend why ideas are important, innovative, or valid, the value of creative endeavors is not immediately or obviously apparent. To gain support, ideas must be defensible, as well as understandable. Wargamers can surely sympathize, as the big ideas that emerge from our wargames can be met with everything from suspicion to effusive praise. In order to make our results more robust, many wargamers are applying rigorous methodologies to wargame designs. For example, recent work by professional wargamers has ranged from improving wargame design to better represent the actors we are interested in, to experimenting with new analytical techniques in-game to produce more robust findings, to refining how we collect data during the wargame to create more traceable results.

Rather than stopping the conversation here, I hope Anthony uses his position to reach out to wargamers and futurists. We can learn a lot from him about how to make our findings understandable and compelling to a much broader audience. At the same time, the exchange might give Anthony new methods and tools to defend the work he will do at the Atlantic Council.


Elizabeth “Ellie” Bartels is a senior associate at Caerus Associates and focuses on leveraging social science methodologies to improve wargaming and national security analysis. Prior to joining Caerus, Ellie designed educational and policy games at the National Defense University with a focus on irregular warfare.


Photo credit: Get Gaming Now

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One thought on “A Wargamer’s Response to Dave Anthony: Welcome!

  1. Excellent summary exposition. I am, however, left with a question. That is, did Anthony make any distinction(s) in regard to the validity of using wargames as predictive tools at the tactical versus operational versus strategic levels?