Building a Pipeline of Wargaming Talent: A Two-Track Solution
How does the Department of Defense imagine the future of war and make long-term investments to confront the challenges ahead? On issues ranging from potential conflicts with Russia to the future of transportation and logistics, senior leaders have increasingly turned to wargames to imagine potential futures. Wargames bring together military and civilian experts, challenge them to make decisions in a simulated environment, and observe the potential consequences of those decisions. By allowing policymakers to explore potential futures, games provide a unique tool for considering long-term threats, concepts, and investments.
Because wargames are used to analyze a wide variety of problems, they can look very different from one another. Some focus on junior service members and use computerized systems to explore tactics. Others draw on military officers and experts using paper maps and counters representing different forces to explore theater warfare and develop new concepts. Still others draw on senior decision-makers to discuss potential trajectories of emerging strategic crises touching all instruments of national power. Because a game designer may be called to build any or all of these, master designers throughout government and industry work for years to develop the knowledge needed to select the right approach for the problem at hand.
As senior Defense Department leaders have come to depend on games to answer important questions about the future, experts warn that increasing demand for these games requires more trained game designers to keep up quality analysis. In a recent article, my colleague Sebastian Bae argued that the wargaming field lacks good ways to train new designers. Bae is right to point out that wargaming has a pipeline problem. The road to becoming a professional gamer is informal, often difficult to access, and produces games of uneven quality. However, Bae’s focus on broad-based education of military officers will not solve the problem.
Instead, the wargaming community needs separate education tracks: one that goes deep for wargame designers, and a second, more tailored set of programs for the project managers, experts, and sponsors of game results who need different skills to contribute to games. These tracks will provide more targeted education to ensure games provide credible, useful information to decision-makers while being run in a cost-effective way. If wargaming professionals lack a thorough understanding of the approach, games are liable to misinform decisionmakers, leaving the Defense Department unprepared to face the future.
A Broken System
The path to becoming a gamer today is modeled on the careers of the last generation of gamers — most often members of the military or defense analysts with strong roots in the hobby gaming community of the 1960s and 1970s. This has given rise to a belief among some that wargame designers are “born, not trained,” and, correspondingly, a view of games as an art or craft, not a science.
Because of this focus on innate ability and craft, gamers often joke that the field works on the guild system — gamers learn on the job working with a more experienced designer, gradually gaining more authority in the design process as they build skills. For the first year or two, novice gamers essentially work as apprentices, supporting games designed by others, building game materials, taking notes and facilitating game play, and drafting analysis. Over time, they graduate to journeymen, taking on more responsibility for the design of game and analysis plans while still working under a more experienced designer. In a recent survey, most designers didn’t identify as a “master” gamer until 10 years or more into their practice.
This model has clear flaws. First and foremost, an emerging designer’s ability to enter and make a career in the field depends on finding a master gamer to mentor them. This creates a range of barriers to breaking into the field. For example, a master gamer who believes hobby gaming or military service is the most important prerequisite may not take on a new gamer whose experience analyzing conflict in structured ways would make them a great gamer.
Second, this system can obstruct progress even after getting one manages to get a foot in the door. If, for example, a mentor is unwilling to delegate additional responsibilities, it would impede a junior gamer’s growth. Bae’s essay clearly articulates the frustrations of many entering the field who feel there is not a clear road to mastery.
These frustrations are costly. As a result of barriers to entry and subsequent career progression, many people interested in gaming never enter the field, and analysts who might well be good designers leave after a short time. This has led to a situation where games have the attention of senior leaders, but designers are increasingly concerned about whether there are enough gamers to keep up with the demand. The system is badly in need of fixing if it is to ensure future generations of gamers. Without experienced designers, the department faces two bad options. If there is not enough capacity to game in response to senior leader questions, the department may be unprepared to face competition from adversaries. Alternatively, the department can turn to untrained and inexperienced gamers, who produce results that are misleading or not credible. At best, this wastes defense dollars that could have paid for other priorities. At worst, bad games could lead decision-makers to make the wrong investments for future defense.
Concern about how to best train future generations of designers and analysts is not new. For example, since 2011, the Connections Wargaming Conference, one of the largest gatherings of professional gamers in the United States, has included a working group session on “building the wargaming profession.” The Military Operations Research Society, another convening organization for professional gaming, introduced a certificate program to teach the basics of gaming. Within the military, particularly at the military schoolhouses such as the Naval Postgraduate School, a range of classes to introduce game design have been established, targeting both staff rotating into billets with game design responsibilities and current students hoping to make their careers in policy analysis. More classes are also being taught in civilian universities, including the Pardee RAND Graduate School, King’s College London, John Hopkins SAIS, and McGill. Students at other institutions have stood up their own crisis simulation organizations to teach one another. Professional gaming centers have also published a number of handbooks to help new members in the field, and several other initiatives are underway.
In short, there are many more opportunities today than only a few years ago.
However, while these efforts represent an important base, there is more to be done. First, these courses tend to be targeted at new gamers. While the basics are important, experts require more. Second, the courses often focus most on the needs of game designers, rather than the sponsors and other stakeholders of games. The rest of this article presents the case for both types of training.
The Case for Specialists
What types of game design expertise does the department need? Here, it can be helpful to think about games not as a flashy, exciting experience, but as an analytic method like any other. In the software era, it’s rarely hard to learn how to execute any particular model — rather, what is time-consuming is learning the range of different models that are available, what types of problems they are suited to, what types of data are required for each, and what the problem at hand requires. So too with games: There are many different types of games, suitable to different types of research questions, which produce different types of results.
What’s more, the guild system is right to insist that developing expertise requires more education and hands-on experience than a short course, participation in a design competition, or notetaking during a handful of games can provide. To get good analytical games that design the right tool to answer a given research question, you need specialists.
Developing specialists comes at a cost, so it’s important to think about who needs to know what. Bae argues that members of the military at large need gaming expertise and raises concerns about the concentration of gamers among civilians and contractors. This perspective misses the structural reasons that this situation has emerged.
Very few military units or offices will find themselves with enough work to support a full-time team of gamers. Instead, wargaming capability tends to be clustered with other types of research and analysis functions in a small number of offices. A more common solution is for an office to hire a team of contractors to answer the specific question at hand, who will then move on to supporting other offices. To replace these with military specialists, the Defense Department would need to create tailored career tracks to match specialists to billets where their skills would be used, a task with which the military personnel system has historically struggled. Gaming experts are civilians and contractors because that is the only economical way to build specialists in the current system.
Given that gaming will likely remain in the hands of civilians and contractors, how can we make them as effective at their jobs as possible? Clearly, adding to existing courses, written resources, and on-the-job training practices can make gaming education more accessible. However, once people enter the field, there is a dearth of educational opportunities for mid-level gamers looking to move to the next level. Such courses are urgently needed to diversify the skills of journeyman designers and ensure long-term career progression. For example, learning design approaches to represent emerging phenomena like major wars in the space and cyber domains, or studying underrepresented topics like the will to fight and operations in the information environment through games are crucial for representing the multi-domain operations of the future. Additionally, a clearer set of practical milestones, so emerging gamers know what skills to develop next, is critical to building a new generation of master gamers.
Training Beyond the Specialists
In addition to wargaming specialists, a range of civilians and military service members also come into contact with games as sponsors, project managers, and subject-matter experts. Far more can be done to educate these communities, but the types of training they need are not the same as those needed for game designers.
The senior military officers and civilian leaders who sponsor wargames and serve as action officers play a particularly important role. Unlike many other types of analysis, games often get specifically commissioned by a sponsor, who then gets involved in game design decisions such as suggesting scenarios and selecting participants. Right now there is relatively little guidance available to the sponsors of wargames about how to get the most bang for their buck. Sponsors are more likely to be involved in making decisions about games that impact the quality of results, but have less information with which to make those decisions.
Sponsors could provide better oversight of games if they receive training about what problems games are appropriate to address and the analytic costs and benefits of different design choices. For example, games that bring together diverse experts to collectively formulate their understanding of a problem generally cannot also provide detailed evaluations of a potential solution — the problem is still too poorly understood to know on what criteria a course of action should be evaluated! A sponsor who understands this can scope project expectations appropriately, rather than receiving poor analysis at the end of the gaming process.
Similarly, as Bae mentions, most gaming centers include a cadre of military officers, few of whom have much prior exposure to gaming. Instead, these officers provide overall project management and the substantive content needed to populate the game design with realistic detail. While some offices have developed handbooks, many who fill such roles say they could have been more effective with greater training. In particular, these officers need to understand the steps of the design process and how they will look different for different games in order to partner effectively with expert designers. For example, a game that requires a detailed future environment will require a great deal of work to research the geographic reach, military capabilities, and infrastructure of all combatants. A game about crisis management in a simulated national security council will not need nearly that level of detail, but it will need information about a much broader set of instruments of national power, including diplomatic, information, and economic options as well as military tools.
While basic game design courses may cover much of what the sponsors, project managers, and subject-matter experts need, more focused courses for each role would provide more efficient, tailored experiences. For example, a designer needs to know the full range of possible game types, whereas a sponsor may only need to know that there are many different types, suitable to different problems, so they do not proscribe an inappropriate design out of ignorance. Additionally, separating training for sponsors and entry level designers can clarify roles and responsibilities. As a result, rather than hoping for a one-size fits all approach, the Defense Department needs to build new courses that take seriously the needs of those who work alongside expert designers.
For gaming to help prepare the Department of Defense for the future, different types of wargame education are needed, aimed at different communities. Deep study of games is required for game designers to develop mastery. For those who work alongside these experts, in roles ranging from sponsor to subject matter expert, short courses may be a valuable addition to existing government educational institutions, most notably the military schoolhouses. Building up a new generation of experts, and giving civilian and military partners the tools to ask the right questions and provide information to designers is key to building more high-quality games. Without these pipelines, the existing cadre of designers will not be able to keep up with demand, leaving the department unprepared for the future.
Elizabeth “Ellie” Bartels is a doctoral candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and an assistant policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Image: army.mil/Capt. Charlie Dietz