Most Wargames Are Analytically Bad

My post "Lessons from Wargaming" reviews what I've learned from wargaming and best practices for players. In this post, I argue that most wargames are designed to be educational rather than analytic, and should be treated as such.

Wargames can be analytical or educational. Analytic games are often iterative, use surveys, and have clear independent and dependent variables. They are designed to support the game developer and researchers. Educational games, on the other hand, are usually one-and-done and offer players far more freedom of action. They are designed to support the players, and can be fun informative and a good bonding activity.

As the wargaming enjoys a revival in the Department of Defense, a growing number of game designers are selling analytic snake oil. Their games are educational but are being advertised as if we can derive strategic lessons from them. This is dangerous for the research community, who may not be familiar with the limits of wargaming, and misleading for player participants.

Educational games are not analytically rigorous by nature. In each gameplay, numerous variables change to keep the experience "fresh." Players are not selected based on their backgrounds or related experience—anyone and everyone should be allowed to enjoy, after all. Their thinking throughout the game on desired ends, ways, and means are typically not recorded because that would slow down gameplay or require an overseer.

Educational wargames and conflict simulations also suffer from overactive Control Groups. Control is not going to plan a complex, three-day wargame and allow it to end on Day #1 with a peace settlement. Instead, Control will force a team's hand, adding "injects" (game updates) that increase incentives for military action. These games may also emphasize first-mover advantages, further pushing players to strike first, fast, and hard. Players may derive faulty lessons about the need for kinetic military action in pre-conflict scenarios in which both sides still have the opportunity to deescalate.

In short, we cannot and should not derive lessons for the Department of Defense via Monopoly-like board games.

Good analytic wargames do exist. My CSIS colleague Ben Jensen, for example, specializes in creating these games. His simulations iterate the same conflict multiple times, incorporate participant surveys to gauge how and what players are thinking, and carefully modify independent variables to measure specific effects.

This approach is not easy. It requires a large number of iterations for effects to be statistically significant, and patient, knowledgeable participants. These requirements both lead to greater funding needs.

The analytically rigorous approach is also narrower in scope. The lessons derived are typically tactical or operational rather than strategic—we might say JASSMs deployed in X location are useful in a Taiwan contingency, rather than the U.S. will beat China so long as it does Y. These results are less interesting to those outside the security community, and thus receive less media attention and prestige.