The re-emergence of wargaming

Wargames have a cold war-feel to them, and are sometimes associated with cynical and military men turning the tragedy of war into a calculation. So it seems confusing that the practice of wargaming should have regained some of its popularity no, long after the cold war disappeared – but a few recent articles suggest that this is indeed the case.

“We wargame because we must. There are certain warfare problems that only gaming can illuminate.” – Robert Rubel, Professor Emeritus, Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College.

The use of wargames is also hotly debated. Are they anything but just games? Can we learn anything from what is essentially a game of Dungeons & Dragons, but played on a geopolitical stage rather than in a dark cave? I think the answer to that is a clear yes – but perhaps not for the reasons you would think.

First, I think the practice of formalizing the situation we want to study as a game is enormously helpful in creating a shareable model that we can debate and develop. Any formalization is helpful, but games are extra helpful because they contain key elements such as a way to keep score, a sense of progression and ultimately an idea about what it means to succeed in the game at hand.

Second, wargames exercise your imagination and force you to tell stories. These narratives you craft together will feel credible to a lesser or greater degree and when they feel most credible, they will become experience, just like living through any real episode of history becomes experience. The ability to analyze the world in narratives is – I increasingly believe – key to good decision making. Wargames can also allow us to expand the realm of the probable – just selecting scenarios to game out will allow us to really explore low probability high impact events, not because we believe they will happen but because we want to know how we will react under such conditions.

Third, wargames seem to me to be great exercises in collaboration between groups in society or functions in a company that have to collaborate in rare cases, but do not know each-other. It is perhaps trivial to point this out, but a crisis creates a very different pattern of cooperation in an organization than the running of business as usual. Building the alternative networks needed for crisis patterns is a great way to prepare – and then gaming together helps you understand how these functions think and act. I am thinking of simple things – like how the litigation lawyers in an organization work with engineers when there has been a data breach, and what this means for the set of choices the organization makes over time.

All in all – we spend to little time thinking about the future as it is, if wargaming can help us prepare for a set of possible futures and build shared models of reality we should embrace it. One possible caveat – the ide that these games are “war” is somewhat off-putting. War is the most destructive game of all, and very few games are as finite and destructive as this. It may be better just to call it gaming (and avoid the notion of serious gaming – all games are serious in the game’s frame) and explain that this is a key mode of learning for us as human beings.

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