Getting the Story Right about Wargaming


There is a debate about wargaming in the Pentagon and it has spilled out into the virtual pages of War on the Rocks. Some say wargaming is broken. Others believe the cycle of research will solve our problems. There is a deeper problem at the root of all of this: There is a widespread misunderstanding of what wargaming is and a reluctance to accept both the power and limitations of wargames.

What we are seeing in the debate about wargaming looks a lot like what wargaming is best at: telling stories. But we have told ourselves several different stories at the same time, and none of these stories really agree with reality. This is not just a problem found in the community of wargamers and their customers. As Mackenzie Eaglen notes in a recent article, the Pentagon says great power competition is its most important mission, but happily takes on many other different missions that distract it. Misconceptions of wargaming are among the many we entertain.



But failure to understand wargaming — what it is and what it is not — risks screwing up the one tool that enables defense professionals to break out of the stories we have locked ourselves into.

Wargames are about understanding, not knowledge. They are about ideas, not facts. They are about people, not technology. They do not help us make better decisions through their outcomes. Rather, they help us make better decisions by sharpening and refining the stories we tell ourselves. If defense leaders are looking to produce knowledge, confirm facts, and evaluate technology, they have many tools at their fingertips, but wargames are not meant to be among them.

And since some of the stories we tell ourselves are important — as well as confused — games are the perfect way to sort through them.

Wargames do not do this through analysis. Indeed, wargaming is not analysis. “Analytical wargaming” jams the two terms together in a vague way that can mean anything, and often does. To be sure, good wargaming requires analysis: To design a game, one has to understand how things work. But the most important analysis one does for a wargame is about the people and organizations involved, not the systems. For example, defense analysts often find themselves grappling with future force projections and procurement. But the one organization that matters most for future force structure is not included in the assessments: Congress. Wargames can help senior leaders consider things like Congress whereas standard models and analyses cannot.

Wargames can also be the subject of analysis, but tread carefully: Wargames are not experiments unless they have been specifically, and painstakingly, designed as such. They are events: unrepeatable, chaotic, vague, and messy events. Collecting data from them is difficult — they produce “dirty” data, you often miss the best parts, and they cannot be repeated. But if you think that means you can’t learn anything from them, you might as well stop trying to understand real-world conflicts, because everything I have written about wargames in this paragraph is also true for wars.

So, you can analyze wargames, just not the same way you would analyze a set of data from a radar system or a series of ship trials. But in your analysis you have to focus on what wargames can actually tell you, and avoid making conclusions about what they can’t.

So, what are wargames good for?

Answering this question requires us to remember that, regardless of advances in military and gaming technology, wargames are a human activity. That is their real advantage. They are not better because they use fancy displays (they really don’t need them) or elaborate models (which can bog things down and get in the way). Their advantage is to bring the human element into a problem. When people lose in games, they feel the loss. When they win, they get excited. Even just rolling the dice to determine an outcome affects the players, changing how they play the game.

The human element is composed of more than “human factors” and personality types. It encompasses ambition, greed, misunderstanding, glee, and all of the other things that real people experience. It’s hard to simulate these traits in a model or, in some cases, even admit that decisions are affected by it. Remarkably, and contrary to most opinion, senior decision-makers are in fact human. They get angry, excited, and scared, just like everyone else. Wargames capture the human aspect of decisions.

This human element often seems forgotten in considerations of combat. When it is remembered, it is in the context of getting an algorithm to somehow do it or mapping human terrain. Historically, we know that human traits had a huge sway in combat operations, but we’re reluctant to think they have any impact on decisions unfolding today or around the corner. There is a difference between social models of behavior and a person across the table trying to beat your strategy. Wargames draw this out.

Our presence and the presence of other people in wargames is what makes them unique. This presence forces players to deal with their own perceptions, feelings, ambitions, and concepts, while also having to deal with opponents. It forces players to confront the fact that war is about beating other people, not just their technology.

Critically, wargames are also stories. While we can debate the differences and similarities between games and narratives, designing and playing a wargame inherently involves storytelling.  There can be many different types of stories being told, but in general they circle around what is possible, what is unexpected, what worked and led to victory, or what failed and led to defeat.

These stories are important. Because the stories we tell ourselves — for example, that China and Russia are significant threats — get overlaid with other stories, such as those that tell us leaders are doing enough to counter them when they are not. You can break down the layers of stories within games, starting with the personal image that the players want to present of themselves within the game all the way to the institutional reasons for having the game.

The stories games tell matter because they are the way we create new ideas and understandings to feed into the cycle of research. Players in a game find, “Gee, we never thought of that!” They pass their finding to analysts who say, “I have analyzed what they saw in the game and found it might be sustainable if we change how we operate.” When the concept is tried in an exercise, the aviators report back, “We just flew that and found that we run out of gas, but we can fix it with extra tankers.” That is the cycle of research, with games playing the role of identifying the opportunities and concepts at its start.

That cycle of research — the link between games, exercises, and analyses — was broken during the long time period between the end of the Cold War and the present. Admittedly the armed services had other things to do during that time, but the process of analytical and conceptual development, with the highest quality operators and analysts focused on winning the war, had escaped them. Now, the Department of Defense has a lot of wars competing for the attention of analysts and operators, and a much more stifling and bureaucratic process linking games to analyses and operations.

There is also a sense in the gaming community that wargames are being misused or misinterpreted by senior leadership. Some also decry the fact that some games are just bad games. Senior leaders, or anyone, can always misinterpret, misuse, or misunderstand analyses, simulations, or exercise reports. This problem is not unique to games. And if the senior leaders don’t misunderstand something on their own, they have their staffs and subordinate commands there to help them in misunderstanding games, exercises, or analyses.

Can game designers create a bad game? Sure. But there are also bad analyses, bad exercises, and bad wars. We probably have more bad events than good ones.

Should we identify bad games? Of course. And most experienced game designers will almost unanimously point to the discussion game, or BOGSAT (“Bunch of Guys Sitting Around a Table”), as the worst offender amongst games. And that is true. It’s a meeting with a fancy name.

But bad games occur for a variety of reasons, from not being able to construct a sensible scenario to player actions skewed by bias or meddling. Stephen Downes-Martin has written several papers about some of these challenges. But, just like any technical field that suddenly becomes popular (I’m looking at you, Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Defense ten years ago), charlatans and hucksters will always show up where the spotlight shines and the money flows.

We cannot solve those problems by changing the protocols for games, only by calling bad games out when they happen. Or setting an expectation in our own games about what a good game looks like.

But the best way to get around that is to tell better stories with our games. A good game can help you not only understand what to do, but also understand how all your “closest friends” are trying to stop you from doing it. That is an extremely valuable thing for senior leaders. Games can also show you weaknesses that you don’t realize you have; in people and processes, as well as concepts and ideas.

But by framing our discussion of games in terms of making them more analytic, more scientific, or more technical, we lose the most important characteristic of games: that they help us understand the human stories that go into decisions. And many of the decisions we really need to make within the Pentagon are based on stories, not technical details.

Let’s take the case that Eaglen made in her article: that the Pentagon wants to figure out how to prepare for great powers competitions but can’t because it’s too distracted by other, less relevant, missions. Being “unable to stop adopting new missions” is one of the challenges. Why? Why can’t the leadership just stop doing these missions? Probably because there is a story about how they might look later if they don’t act now. Or, if they act, they generate a few favors that they can cash in later for stuff they want. Or maybe they don’t know how to get their superiors to stop telling them to do these missions. Or maybe their own ambition makes them say yes all the time.

Games can out those stories. Putting the players in a well-constructed game with a clever scenario and a smart controller can have them confront those challenges and identify areas where they might be able to change. Or at least identify what the actual problems are. Understanding how to manage all of the forces pushing them toward certain missions, is a story that senior leadership can use. Games can change what senior leaders are doing based on what the game tells them. Senior leaders can re-prioritize, they can delegate, they can simply say “no” better.

So, what is to be done with wargames?

First, we need to get our story straight and get it out there. Wargames are the front-end, door-kicking tool of new ideas, dangers, and concepts. In particular, they help you understand how you will get stuff done in the messy, human organizations that we all work in. They are really good at that. We also need to make sure that people understand what wargames are not good at: detailed, technical, complicated analysis that needs to be done to optimize particular aspects of ideas or concepts. They can tell you that the enemy may target your logistics, but they won’t tell you exactly how many short tons you need to offload per day at the port.

Second, we need to push back against the opportunists and charlatans who are colonizing gaming. While these people always show up when areas get hot, they are particularly dangerous in wargaming. Wargames not only provide new ideas and concepts, but also influence the future decision-makers that play in them. About the best we can do is call out bad games when we see them and, as part of our getting the word out about gaming, describe what games to discount when you hear about a bad game.

We can start by saying meetings are not games and speculation is not play.

Third, we need to make sure decision-makers understand that a good game is only the beginning of the journey, not the end. Much more work needs to be done after the game to figure out, through analysis, whether all those fancy concepts and ideas will work. And if we think they just might work, then we need to burn jet fuel and soldier-hours in instrumented and observed exercises to figure out if our forces and equipment can actually execute them. For future systems where we can’t do exercises, this means bringing the actual engineers into the operational picture. One of the best ways to bring the systems developers into the picture is through games.

Understanding the role of games in situations where we are making trade-offs between a remote existential threat and today’s problem is an important national security challenge. We need to ensure that games are both understood, and used.



Dr. ED McGrady spent over 30 years at CNA where he built and directed teams on chemical and biological defense and wargaming. He has deployed as a civilian analyst with forces in support of Operation Desert Storm, Operation Uphold Democracy, and interdiction operations. McGrady currently teaches game design at the college level and in professional certificate courses for the Military Operations Research Society. He also consults on games and game design.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Lance Cpl. Shane T. Beaubien)