What You Can Learn from War GamingThree years ago, Robert Rubel, Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport RI, published "The Epistemology of War Gaming" (pdf).1
Aside for what Rubel has to say about what you can learn of military significance from war gaming, his article is also useful, more generally, as a guide to learning from any strategy-based simulation. I say "strategy-based" to distinguish the simulations Rubel and I are talking about including some that take strategy as given and operate at the tactical level from simulations that are designed to impart concepts and principles.
Rubel adopts Peter Perla's definition of "war game":
... a warfare model or simulation whose operation does not involve the activities of actual military forces, and whose sequence of events affects and is, in turn, affected by the decisions made by players representing the opposing sides.2In explaining his view of what one can learn from war gaming, Rubel sounds several themes, which include:
- A war game is "valid" to the degree that it helps with problem solving.
- "[A] war game should be designed with as much fidelity as possible without including factors that, because they are not clearly related to its purpose, risk diluting or masking valid knowledge ..."
- A war game is not predictive because in the real world there are too many factors influencing the outcome of a military engagement to allow for modeling that captures determinate cause-and-effect relationships.
- War games are best viewed as research tools. While they don't provide proof that A leads to B, X leads to Y, etc., they do produce insights and highlighting of issues in need of further analysis.
As Rubel puts it, "what games can reliably produce [is] knowledge about the nature of a warfare problem such as potential flaws in a plan, the potential importance of geographic features, gaps in command and control, logistical needs, etc."
Rubel explains that "the knowledge emanating from a game is ... weakly structured, meaning that such knowledge is conditional and subject to judgment in application."3 Applying judgment is not easy because of political pressures, because of game users' frequently powerful attachment to conventional wisdom, and because "game results are often equivocal, open to interpretation."
Rubel suggests, "Perhaps the best way to characterize this conditionality is to say that knowledge produced by war games is indicative that is, at its best it can indicate the possibilities of a projected warfare situation and certain potential cause-and-effect linkages."
And then Rubel notes how war gaming can, as I would put it, help participants develop skill in improvisation: "The primary mechanism through which war games produce such knowledge is visualization. Games allow players and observers to see relationships geographic, temporal, functional, political, and other that would otherwise not be possible to discern. Seeing and understanding these relationships prepares the mind for decisions in a complex environment."
- Letting organizational politics influence the official report of how a particular war game played out will surely warp the conclusions drawn. Rubel notes that the key to extracting all the learning that the results of a war game embody "is objective, disinterested sponsorship, or at least analysis."
1 "The Epistemology of War Gaming," Robert C. Rubel, Naval War College Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, (Spring 2006), pp. 108-128.
2 You can find Perla's definition (worded slightly differently from the text quoted here) in a paper entitled "An Introduction to Wargaming and its Uses" (pdf) that he co-authored with Raymond Barrett (Center for Naval Analyses, October 1985), p.3.
3Rubel is using "weakly structured" in the sense of "structurally indeterminate," as that is defined by John Hanley on p. 13 of his 1991 Yale dissertation, On Wargaming: A Critique of Strategic Operational Gaming: "Significant elements of the problem are so little known or understood that we cannot define the problem in terms of the other forms of indeterminacy [statistical indeterminacy, stochastic indeterminacy, strategic indeterminacy]. Such elements might be 'indeterminacy in current conditions, the kinematics of the process [motion of ships and aircraft, as determined by course, speed, and altitude/depth parameters], acts of nature, the available response time, and the perceptions, beliefs and values of the decision makers.'" (Hanley's dissertation is available through Dissertation Express.)