Procurement: November 14, 2003

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Wargames have had a hard time finding a home in the American armed forces. The ones that are actually used the most are commercial products, created for entertainment, but with enough realism to be useful to people in the military. But most Department of Defense wargames are not for individuals, but groups (combat units or staffs). This is a multi-billion dollar a year business. The Department of Defense wargames are quite the opposite of their commercial counterparts. The "professional" wargames require days or weeks (and many people) to set up, and even more people to run. These wargames do serve a useful function, as they allow staffs (especially brigade, division, corps and larger) to exercise a large operation without breaking the bank. Sending a brigade out to play for a few days costs millions of dollars (fuel, ammunition, wear and tear). Larger organizations use more aircraft and ships, and this sends the cost of week long exercises have costs running into nine figures (over $100 million.) Using one of the large Department of Defense wargames allows the largest exercise to be done for one or two percent of that cost. This is all very well for the commanders and their staffs. But what about the other 99 percent of the troops? Pilots have flight simulators, but the 95 percent of the air force that are not pilots or staffs hardly ever see a wargame. The navy has, for the last two decades, created wargames that can plug into the ships radios, radars and other sensors and allow the ship commander and his immediate staff practice fighting battles. But the other 90 percent of the crew is pretty much left out.

There have been efforts to provide wargames for all the troops. The army has built armored vehicle simulators. But these are expensive and not readily available to all that need them. All the services have made a few moves at creating games and simulations for "the rest of us," but there's not much to show for it. This is slowly changing as computer and console wargames become increasingly "photorealistic" (they look like movies.) All the services are working on using spiffed up (more realistic, by military standards) commercial games. 

But just because a game is cheap and easily available, doesn't mean it will be used. The big, expensive, mainstream games come with large (and lucrative) contracts to provide training and support. Not so with the commercial, and commercial like, wargames. Several of these have actually been created by enterprising officers. But they have found that it's easier to sell the game to the military than it is to build a user base within the military. The troops are pretty much on their own when it comes to learning how to use the commercial type wargames. There is never enough training time, which means that the troops and their instructors often use most of their allocated wargaming time just learning how to use it. It was thought that this would be overcome by troops using these games on their own time. Some do, but not enough to make up for the need to train everyone. 

What it comes down to is that the cheaper, easier to use wargames (either commercial products, or stuff created by enterprising officers) suffer from the lack of a distribution and training system. Commercial games solve that problem by spending lots of money (often over half the list price) for distribution. Training takes care of itself because these games are only meant for those eager to buy, learn and play them. In other words, a self selected niche market. Naturally, the commercial games are designed to be (relatively) easy to learn and "intuitive" (to account for the fact that no one wants to read a users manual.) Actually, the ease of use problem is easier to deal with because the commercial game developers draw on  a huge array of techniques and practical experience in making games quick to get into. Distribution is a more difficult problem. Most wargames, especially inexpensive one, have not reached the point where the military expects the troops to master them and then prove it by passing some kind of skills test. The less expensive games are made available, free, to everyone and nature is expected to take its course. But it doesn't work that way in reality. 

As usual, a New Age is said to be just around the corner, where "you are there", photorealistic games based on ease of use found in console games will solve the training problem. This next generation of games (like Full Spectrum Warrior) will, it is hoped, be realistic enough to train, and test, the troops with. But for the moment, it is hoped that easy to use products like Full Spectrum Warrior will just be widely adopted (voluntarily) by the troops. But what do you do when you want all the troops to train on computer software (a wargame)? There has to be a shift in thinking to go along with the cheaper and easier-to-use games becoming available for the troops. The military has to accept the fact that all software requires training and support. Even software with "game" in its name. Until then, it's going to remain hit and miss in the military wargames department.

 


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