Wargames as an Educational Tool


Feb 8, 2021

Intricate real life-like models in a wargame at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Quantico, Virginia, August 23, 2017, photo by Frances Seybold/U.S. Marine Corps

Intricate real life-like models in a wargame at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Quantico, Virginia, August 23, 2017

Photo by Frances Seybold/U.S. Marine Corps

This commentary originally appeared on The Forge on January 15, 2021.

The benefits of games for military education are well documented: in the words of previous U.S. Department of Defense leadership: “Building school curriculums around wargaming might help spark innovation and inculcate the entire Joint Force with a better appreciation and understanding of trans-regional, cross-domain, multidimensional combat.” New guidance (PDF) for professional military education has called out the importance of games, arguing “Curricula should leverage live, virtual, constructive, and gaming methodologies with wargames and exercises involving multiple sets and repetitions to develop deeper insight and ingenuity.” Games also feature in calls to further revitalize defense education—including by applying social science approaches and illustrating new paradigms for competition.

While games are a powerful teaching tool, not all games can serve all these purposes. Like games for research, which are designed to produce specific types of information, different educational game designs excel at different tasks. Rather than making one-size-fits-all promises about what games can achieve, games for use in the classroom may require tailoring to their specific learning objectives.

Mini-Games for Teaching Fundamental Concepts

One category of games popular in U.S. undergraduate education is the use of “mini-games (PDF).” These short exercises are intended to enliven the classroom and reinforce key concepts, particularly those that might be counterintuitive. Perhaps the best known of these is a version of the famous game theory problem of the prisoner’s dilemma, illustrating the dynamics between two actors who must decide whether to cooperate or defect. While the game’s theoretic problem is fairly tractable, over time instructors have found utility in having students role play through the scenario to observe how their own decisionmaking is shaped.

Rather than making one-size-fits-all promises about what games can achieve, games for use in the classroom may require tailoring to their specific learning objectives.

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So, what then are the characteristics of these “mini-games” and their purpose in the classroom? These games are played in small groups (often two teams each made up of a single player), involve roleplaying, and follow simple rules. They often consist of only one decision, with a very clear set of finite choices about how to interact. Generally, these games involve very simple prompts, including instructor cuing and perhaps a simple handout. Many of these games are available online from other instructors, and most take only a portion of a class period—often 10-15 minutes—to play through.

In turn, this simple structure makes them well suited to communicate information—with set rules and limited role play options, students are making decisions in a world fully of the faculty’s design. This means there is not much space for players to inject their own understanding of the topic of study—instead, the game is teaching students with a fairly traditional, top down approach. The simple structure of these games also means that they are more appropriate to foundational educational objectives—particularly application of general concepts to the concrete example of the game. Higher-order tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation tend to be absent from these simple activities. In short, these games may enliven and reinforce traditional instruction, but they are unlikely to promote deeper engagement and innovation.

Role Playing for Peer Learning and Community Building

A second class of games used in the classroom is a more complex roleplaying game, in which multiple students take on roles with objects and constraints to try to solve a shared problem. In the United States, several games of this model are available through think tanks like United States Institute of Peace and Council on Foreign Relations. In contrast to the mini-games’ focus on individual concepts, these role-playing games expand the aperture to look at a broader scenario, with stronger ties to real world problems. For example, games of this type might illustrate international negotiations in the UN, sub-state actors navigating a civil war, or interagency actors responding to a crisis.

As a result of the more complex topics of these role-playing games, the game designs themselves tend to have more moving parts then mini-games. In particular, the number of roles is usually much greater (often one role per student), and the scope for action much wider than in the smaller games. In addition to conventional role playing, it may also be possible to leverage differences in player background to achieve the same effect. For example, RAND Australia has run games related to whole of government response to cyber incidents using the 360 framework. In these games, the 360 approach is designed to bring together diverse real-world experts to look at a problem from multiple angles. Regardless of set-up, game materials usually consist of a common scene-setting scenario and role-specific documents outlining objectives, capabilities, and red lines. There may also be rules governing communication between groups, but generally the role capabilities provide the bulk of the rules governing what actions can and cannot be taken. Put differently, they are both more complex, and less structured than the mini-games.

The broad scope of play and open rules makes role-playing games well suited to peer learning and community building.

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The broad scope of play and open rules makes these role-playing games well suited to peer learning and community building. The wider playing field allows these games to become forums for analysis and synthesis of different concepts, as well as applying theory to the specific case of the game. Because of the number of actors and the range of possible behaviors, players have the ability to bring in far more of their own experience, and it is generally more difficult for the instructor to monitor all interactions to vet the information that players are incorporating. On one hand, this can be ideal when bringing together experienced students with diverse specialties—such a forum can allow students to exchange a great deal of information, and quickly form relationships of trust with others. On the other, this also makes such games difficult to assess student learning based on play alone. There is also a very real chance that players may learn things that are deeply reinforced through the game play, but are not actually correct. As a result, these games may be less beneficial with less-experienced audiences, and generally need to be complemented with post game activities for potential correction and assessment.

Structured Games to Experience a System

The next category of games also explores more complex topics then the mini-games, but seeks to do so through more structured game designs. This greater structure makes these games ideal for exploring systems—and particularly the mechanics of how different processes work—rather than the focus on objectives and perspectives highlighted in the role-playing games.

While the specific tools used to present mechanisms can range from board and counter to cards to computer systems, these games share a focus on set structure. In contrast to the relatively simple products of a mini- or role-playing game, development of these games is far more involved because of the need to build and test more substantial rules.

Given the substantial cost of development, an attractive approach to this kind of game is to leverage already constructed tools designed to support policymaking, like RAND’s recently published Hedgemony game. However, such transfers from policy spaces to educational ones are not always possible. For one thing, design work is required to translate a game designed for different audiences—for example the Hedgemony team undertook a separate effort to translate the product designed for policy audiences into a tool for educational groups. Because of the effort required, there are relatively few games of this type readily available to instructors. Another option is to leverage commercial games in the classroom. For example, the U.S. Army Command and Staff College has successfully used curated games, with a particular focus on games depicting historical battles. Unlike converted policy games, commercial games are easily available for purchase, and have been designed for independent play from the start, which can make entry costs for both faculty and students lower. On the other hand, because these games were originally designed for entertainment first, an educator needs to be careful that the game system is a reasonable model of the key systems under study, or risk teaching the wrong lessons. As a result, it may be difficult for instructors to find structured games that are a good fit for their curriculum.

When such games are available, they are a powerful tool for application and synthesis. However, careful thought is needed about how they are incorporated into the classroom. For one thing, the mechanism that provides the game its structure can also be confusing to students. In particular, instructors who are very familiar with commercial game mechanics may underestimate the difficulty a student may have in understanding these tools. As a result, considerable time may be required to learn how to play the game, making for a very direct trade-off with covering other material. Alternatively, an instructor may opt to facilitate more of the game, as is often done for policy audiences. This can lower the burden on students but increases the burden on instructors. Additionally, to the extent that the abstractions made in the game rules cut against principles being taught, careful discussion is needed to ensure that potential misconceptions are corrected.

Series of Games to Foster Innovation in the Force

Last, but perhaps most influential in the perception of the value of games are claims that games played for professional military education can drive innovation in the force—not just by improving the thinking of the players, but also by generating the ideas that will sustain the future force. In U.S. contexts, advocates for gaming point to the games played at the U.S. Naval War College between the first and second World Wars, and their influence on the development of tactics that would dominate the Pacific theater in World War II. The appeal of the model is clear—it holds out the promise that games played to educate officers can also feed into the planning and concept development tasks of the military, killing two birds with one stone. Modern incarnations of the model, like the Naval War College’s Halsey Alfa Group, continue to produce influential analysis for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Innovation comes not from running a game once, but from running it many times with different valuations in the scenario setup, roles, and rules.

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Looking across these examples, what is clear is that the innovation comes not from running a game once, but from running it many times with different valuations in the scenario setup, roles, and rules. This is not the work of a single class session, or even a single year of student time, but rather years (and in the cases cited above, decades) of work by a team of researchers who structured the evolution of the game across groups of students, including analysis, research, and communication with policy stakeholders between iterations of the game. In effect, from the perspective of the students, such efforts may look like the role playing or structured games described above. It is only from the faculty view that evaluation across games can really be done to identify and stress test innovative ideas. This work requires a standing staff, with considerable time to conduct research outside of classroom responsibilities—thus representing a substantial investment at the institutional level.

In Conclusion: Building Games into the Curriculum

Looking across these types of games and their requirements and benefits, it becomes clear that we need a tailored approach to incorporating games into the curriculum. Mini-games can be helpful in foundational course work, and provide an easier point of entry. While role-playing and structured games can provide access to more advanced learning objectives, they also can require considerably more effort if they are going to properly support learning objectives. These games may require more time to either build or identify an appropriate tool. They also may require more thoughtful integration to ensure students are able to fully participate and learn the right lessons. However, to really harness the potential of games to foster innovation, a far greater commitment may be needed to sustain gaming over the years needed to explore a problem space and develop and stress-test new ideas.

Elizabeth M. Bartels is codirector of the Center for Gaming and an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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