Murphy's Law: The Rise And Fall And Revival Of Wargames


March 14, 2016: The U.S. Department of Defense is again calling for more wargame use to better examine an increasingly uncertain future. There is a sense of déjà vu in all this because using wargames to assist defense planning has gone in and out of fashion in the United States several times since the late 19th century. The problem is that the wargames often depict, quite convincingly outcomes that are not welcome with some government or military leaders. Worse, the wargames are sometimes corrupted (tweaked to get the desired results) and fall into disfavor.

While American officers first encountered wargames after the Civil War because of the success of the complex German “kriegspiel” (wargames) those fell into disfavor after World War II and nothing effective replaced the still valid German approach. What revived wargaming in the Department of Defense was the appearance of commercial of “hobby” wargames in the 1950s. These got the attention of younger troops and eventually got the attention of senior officers who called for using this type of game in the army (then the marines and then the air force) in the 1970s. The civilian wargames sold quite well until the 1980s when they were largely replaced by computerized versions.

These commercial wargames were found to be remarkably useful for military professionals and played a major role in reviving interest in wargaming in the Department of Defense and throughout NATO and then worldwide. While it was easy to keep everyone honest with the manual wargames, once they were computerized the military games started to become less useful for their users and often too expensive to fix.

Although hobby and professional gamers share many of the same techniques (and often the same games), there are some major differences between the two groups, differences that explain a lot of the differences in attitudes and accomplishments of the two groups. In short, these differences are;

Professional gamers are, well, professional. They get paid for it. To many professional gamers, it's just a job. For hobby gamers, it's an avocation and an unpaid one at that. While there are many enthusiastic professional wargamers, all hobby wargamers are very much into what they are doing. Often professional wargamers began as hobby wargamers and continue using professional and hobby wargames. These are the troublemakers who noted the military development of computerized wargames after the 1990s was often making wargames less, not more, useful.

Professional gamers cannot freely talk about what they are doing. Most of the classified wargaming work is severely restricted in terms of who can talk about it and where. Hobby gamers speak freely about their games and this torrent of comment and criticism makes the hobby oriented games much better for it. This became even more useful as Internet use spread and professional wargamers followed discussions and debates among hobby warganers, especially when it involved games on contemporary or future military situations.

There was another important difference between the pros and the hobbyists. Professional gamers do not worship validation (being sure their games represent reality as much as possible) the way hobby gamers do. Most hobby games are historical games which, in order to work, must be capable of recreating the historical event they are based on. This ability to recreate the historical event is also called validation. Hobby gamers take it as a given that if a game cannot be validated it's not worth bothering with. Nearly all professional games are on wars not yet fought, so validation in the classic sense becomes moot. However, there is a tendency for professional gamers (or at least their masters) to make up their "future history" as they go along. This often leads to major errors which are then made worse when similar hobbyist games turn out to have been much more accurate predictors of the future.

Another problem is that professional gamers serve many masters, while hobby gamers serve only one (themselves). Because professional gamers are getting paid for it, they have to be responsive to whoever is paying them. Often this involves not just one boss but an array of officials. All of these bosses want something from the professional games and often these demands are contradictory.

Professional and hobby wargamers have somewhat different backgrounds. Until the 1980s most of the professional wargamers had a computer and/or Operations Research background. Hobby gamers had a strong interest in history and technical subjects (science, engineering, medicine, law, etc., including OR and computers). After the 1980s professional wargamers were encouraged to pay more attention to history and many did. But the professional wargames organizations were dominated by techies, not all of them interested in much besides new and exciting hardware and software. To these folks history was boring. But for the troops history was often a matter life or death in combat.

Professional and hobby gamers have different experience with games and simulations. Hobby gamers nearly all have experience with general boardgames (especially chess, plus classics like Monopoly, Risk, etc.) Naturally, the hobby gamers are familiar with commercial manual wargames and, increasingly, commercial computer wargames. Hobby gamers are rarely familiar with non-commercial ("professional") wargames and professional wargamers are usually familiar with little else (except some of the general boardgames).

Programming experience is much more common among professional gamers, as most of their games are still run on computers. Military experience is quite common among hobby gamers. The commercial games are more accessible than the professional ones, there are no security issues to worry about and this allows military people to openly address issues that concern them. Civilians with military experience are also more prone to use commercial games. In a tradition that is now over thirty years old, military people and civilians use the commercial games to obtain a greater depth of knowledge on military affairs.

The major difference between hobby and professional wargamers is the way they use the games. Hobbyists are interested in experiencing history, professionals are more intent on doing heavy duty analysis (thus the predominance of computers) and, increasingly, training. But the current problems have to do with the military wargaming culture often losing sight of the need to make the games more accessible to and useful for their users.




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