Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Art of Wargaming: Creating Interactive, Social and Immersive Platforms

Wargames have always been a part of military training.  With new technologies come new techniques on appropriate integration of these tools.  Our guest author, Benjamin Wintersteen, is an anthropologist specializing in gaming, gamers, and the military.  He currently performs research with the Training and Doctrine Command Analysis Center (TRAC) out of White Sands, New Mexico. His current project involves tactical level human-in-the-loop representations of complex environments.


Flashes of light betray movement behind the crumbling mud brick walls of the village. Sparks fly from electrical wires struggling to remain attached to pock-marked poles looming above the homes of “innocent” civilians. Another flash of light beams, this one yellow instead of static blue.  Then the stone next to your head explodes in a shower of tan and brown clay. You turn as quickly as you can, adjusting your goggles to account for the second flare of your weapon. A second too late, more flashes of yellow light appear and you find yourself unable to move, a red mist covering your field of vision. Frustrated, you tear off your headset and virtual reality mask, grumbling under your breath “Who designed this piece of crap?”  The illusion has been shattered; it will be a long haul to get it back...

Always start RISK in Australia.  Or so the adage goes. Much of what the public understands about warfare comes from interactive games of strategy.  With the rise of gaming consoles, millions of American's have chosen to experience the chaos of infantry combat -- from the comfort of their own homes.  But far from being merely outlets of entertainment, Gaming provides a valuable assessment and teaching tool.  The military would do well to understand the tenants of good gaming if they desire useful wargaming outcomes.  These principles apply from small, platoon level simulations to fleet-wide scenarios involving all four services. 

Games can best be seen as models designed to present a set of problems, a limited set of tools to solve those problems, and a desired outcome to provide the player with motivation. The key to that motivation is how much the player cares about the game they are playing. In social science circles, we call this ‘immersion’, though other concepts such as suspension of disbelief, transformation, or the synthetic experience are also referenced.  

Ultimately, a “Good Game” draws the player in.  A player will internalize the goals of the role they inhabit, understand the tools they are expected to use, and desire to reach the “victory conditions” set for them. Wargaming, due to its very nature, should focus on this aspect of the environment and player first.  It should be central to the design, purpose, execution, and conclusions of the game. If the player does not care about clicking the button, moving the little tank, or flipping the card, anything we try to do with the game is irrelevant.

All games have three things in common. 

Now this is Immersive...
First, they are interactive. The player does something and then something changes based on those choices.

Second, they are social. You may think Solitaire isn’t, but ask yourself how much you must learn from others just to play it.

Third, they seek to be immersive. Immersion into virtual worlds is a lot easier when accompanied by high-tech neuro-interface equipment and reactive controls. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the fast-twitch vehicle available, so we refer to more imaginative, and less declarative, means of creating alternate realities within which people function.

Some additional foundation is required before we go into deeper detail.  

Games all deal with some level of abstraction. It is rarely possible to represent everything in reality to the finest detail. Monopoly doesn’t include the choice to build a resort or a Gold’s Gym: you can either build houses or hotels. It is assumed you have to destroy houses to place a hotel where they once stood. There is no recourse for those poor, nameless families to address the planning board or protest your petty grab for capital.

Next, we find a corollary of the first: games are never complete. Elements deemed less relevant or too difficult to simulate are always left out. Just like Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons only mentions bathrooms where it is pertinent to the plot. No one really cares about the fact that a fully armored orc in World of Warcraft would sink like the Lusitania in deep water. In fact, drowning sucks, and wouldn’t add a whole lot to the game.
Finally, it is a game, not reality. Games require mechanics. Sometimes these mechanics are nothing like real life, and they have to be that way. In the CCG Magic: The Gathering, you start with twenty “life points,” just like your opponents. As you go through the game, lightning may strike you and take three life points, or a dragon may skirt your defenses and “attack” you in some unspecified manner for five points instead. This is just a mechanic. Would lightning really do three-fifths the damage of a full-force dragon? Who knows? To be honest, who cares? What matters is that the dragon does something, and that something must be predictable and reasonable to the player.

Thus we arrive at the concept of immersion. If you take these considerations in mind, immersion describes how “into” the game the player feels. In real life, we have a complex system of biological, cognitive, and social processes that convince us that what we are experiencing is real. Adrenaline pumps, our life flashes before our eyes and we look for nearby allies -- and this is just when we visit the in-laws.

Besides the SIMS, the vast majority of games don’t replicate such banal problems as explaining to your mother-in-law why you got her daughter pregnant after only five years of marriage. Games are about conflict, and most games are about the most intense conflict we can imagine: war.

Historically, war gaming has had two meanings.  First, it means any game that involves combat, the threat of combat, or the concept of combat.  Examples of each include Gears of War, Diplomacy, and Epidemic, respectively.  Most war games follow this definition, especially those marketed to the general public. These games are meant to take the aspects of war and bring them home in a digestible, exciting, and ultimately disposable way.

The second definition, however, is the one applicable to real world scenarios.  This applies to scenario-based situational decision-making in a structured environment without using live troops.   The intent is to train, educate, or perform research using human beings as key elements of within decision-making and strategic thinking. To put it in another way, it’s presenting players with situations to either show them what to do, or see what they do and analyze it. 

Understanding this second definition is where the military derives the greatest benefit. A player fully immersed in a simulation begins to think differently than one being asked questions about their job or sitting in a classroom. They perceive other players differently as well, and will take actions based on a personal, individual investment in the outcome.

This is accomplished through multiple, interrelated ways.  A player must feel that all reasonable options are either available in the game, or excluded for obvious reasons. For instance, Chess does not include mobile towers or air support for the lowly pawns sent charging into battle with knights. That isn’t the point of chess. There are versions of chess that include more complexity, but even those provide a finite set of additions to the basic game, and very few players question those choices.

Additionally, a player must feel that the options provided actually deliver as promised. This includes consistency of rules, predictability, and the general promise to the player that an action taken will have some impact on the game. If you can jump ten meters in Prince of Persia, then you better be able to jump from rooftop to rooftop as long as they are no more than ten meters apart. If the player goes to jump and finds himself falling into an alley, broken and bloody on the sandy ground, he is not going to know that the programmers never finished with the rooftop he was heading to; he is just going to think the jump function is broken.

Will Play for Hay...
Most importantly, the player has to care about the actions, outcomes, and rewards inherent to the system. This is easier than you think. Farmville rewards players for planting new crops by allowing them to purchase bigger buildings, better equipment, and more variety. They also encourage players to spend real world money to expedite this process. Angry Birds rewards players with only momentary feelings of satisfaction, such as a screaming green pig head. Yet both these mechanisms have created many fanatical fans. 

Military war gaming sometimes overlooks this last point, with disastrous results.  Organizers task players to fill roles, and then tell them it is “just a game”.  Players have no input into the next version, and organizers write off any complaints as “whining.” A game of any sort, but especially complex games that replicate irregular warfare, should get the players involved on a personal level.

This is where the training and research applications of war games currently fail. When players do not care about their performance, they will be disengaged and often times hostile to the creators and administrators of the program. How many check-the-box trainings have servicemembers sat through where the person explaining whatever task or process assumed that everyone in class cares because they were told to care? How can a game train people to react in a certain way or to consider certain things, like population response, when there is no intrinsic motivation for clicking on that mouse or moving that peg across the board?

The same goes for research and analysis on war games. If you want to study people playing a game, there are many cheaper ways to do it.  People are always people, and there are many ways to study what they do and why. Unfortunately, if the game does not immerse players, you will end up studying “people who have to cope with a broken game” and not “people in a battle for the hearts and minds of the population.”

Currently, war games simulate a wide range of situations. These range from international diplomatic relation, to tactical-level tasks, kinetic and non-kinetic, executed by a variety of stakeholders in an irregular warfare environment. Without attention to player motivation, development, immersion, and social psychology, we are ignoring the vast field of research and market-tested principles that focus on providing an immersive mindset in players, one exploitable to researchers.

And that last advantage may sum up the entire point. Training and analysis both seek to exploit the players’ perceptions and knowledge to test a strategy, perform an experiment, teach a new skill, or understand decision-making in a complex environment. If we want to extract the data we need, and impart the ideas we wish to impart, we first need to prepare the subject in such a way that they are ready, and more importantly, willing to be open enough to give and take as war gaming requires. 


  1. Are you familiar with the work of Jane McGonigal? She addresses some of these kinds of issues:

  2. Your point about getting buy in from players is a really important one. There are two aspects too it. One, as you point out is drawing the players into constructing the narrative of the game. Too often the players act as almost impediments to game progress by wanting to "do their day job, just how they would do it for real" and when frustrated flood the white cell with requests for information they think they would have "in real life" - I won't get into HOW they would get that information in real life...) At best they 'go through the motions' but without any understanding of the "abstraction layer" between themselves and the game world they have no other choice.

    The other issue is when we append future oriented wargames to exercises. Not only do we expect buy-in, but we expect players to "do their day-job" often for a grade one minute and then mentally transport themselves 5 or 10 (or more) years into the future and suddenly "make up what their day job will be like then, and employ some new systems based on a ppt quad chart they saw in the pre-Ex breifing.

    And we wonder why we don't get 'game-changing' results from our wargames and experiments.

    Paul Vebber

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  5. (I apologize for the delay; I was out most of the month of May.)

    macengr - I am familiar, though I regret that I haven't read her book yet. I think she is absolutely right, however, that games should be utilized much more often, especially in the modern world. In ancient times, commanders would play chess to teach and test real battlefield strategies. The reason was simple: it was cheap, allowed margins for error, and engaged the decision-maker. I cannot imagine a problem we face today that would not benefit from the same.

    Paul - In regards to your first point, I believe much of that stems from the fact that most people playing games, even people who swear they hate them, fall into somewhat predictable "gamer behaviors" (such as venting, metagaming, etc) and the one you identify is a product of a core gamer behavior: trying to get the most resources from the system. If they can beg, argue, whine, or steal more resources from the white cell, they will. There is rarely a cost for trying and the potential benefits can be game-changing. In some ways, it is like prayer, if people didn't think it would give them some advantage, they wouldn't try, and there is rarely a harm in doing so. In games, however, God is next door and probably exhausted, so it's easier to get "one more unit." out of them.

    The second part you mention is more a function of an adverse reaction to "role-playing" many non-gamers have. We tell them to "do their day job" so they don't feel like they are acting and they can call on their experiences, but that only works if their current execution of their duties applies to the scenario. If we stressed role-playing more, then it wouldn't matter if it was an 18th century cavalry-man, a 21st century Regimental commander, or a 25th century Space Marine, because "stepping into the role" would be more important than "stick with what you know."