Connections 2018 poster.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend Connections Wargaming Conference 2018 hosted by the Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., this year, and wanted to write a bit about the experience.
I heard about the Conference when I attended a panel on wargaming during MAGFest back in January. The speakers were excited to talk about the different ways that gaming and simulations can be used to predict future outcomes and gather data on performance. I wanted to find out more, and was delighted to discover the Conference is open to the public.
The wargaming community wants to diversify its attendees in order to get new perspectives on simulation and innovation.The Conference was attended by a variety of professionals including military and government intelligence professionals, private sector policy researchers, and plenty of gaming enthusiasts. I have a background in role playing game design, and was a little concerned I would be in over my head. I soon learned that my background was just as desired as other gaming professionals.
The week-long event featured a variety of speakers, seminars, workshops and demos that I regret I was unable to attend all of, but these are some of the thoughts I had from what I was able to see.
It’s all important
A slide from Brian Train's seminar "Perspectives on Counterinsurgency Wargaming." Counterinsurgency (COIN) games fall into the "irregular" wargame category.
Wargames are defined by Dr. Peter P. Perla of the Center for Naval Analyses as “a warfare model or simulation in which the flow of events shapes, and is shaped by, decisions made by a human player or players during the course of those events.”
Wargames can involve a model or simulation of the real world, but ultimately their purpose is to provide a safe environment in which to see how a course of events could play out, or see how the people who would made decisions during such events would react.
The Conference was an event for all kinds of gaming. Whether it was strategy, hidden agenda, worker placement, role playing or any other genre, they all had a place at the table because they all offer something to be learned. A repeated idea in all the talks I attended was that one of the best things a wargame can do is put someone in the right mindset to understand the conflict that’s being simulated. That way, both the people playing the games, and those who analyze the results, can look at what occurred and apply lessons learned to similar situations in the real world.
For example, Tom Mouat, of the Defense Academy of the UK, brought the Hostage Negotiator game, a commercial game for a single player where you play as the titular hostage negotiator trying to ensure the safe release of hostages. As the game goes on, the player’s actions can cause the hostage taker’s mood to change, possibly resulting in them taking violent action. The officer proposed that lessons learned from this game - managing the mood of a hostile agent who you have limited communication with - could be used to teach players and analysts about the actions of people on social media, like shooters who are responding to what they saw online.
Not everybody thinks so
Another recurring topic was that, even though wargaming has been shown to simulate the outcomes of real-world events with astounding accuracy, they are not as seriously taken as the community would like. Many analysts spoke about the reluctance they’ve had to deal with from policy makers and other parties whose actions that these games give insight into. There’s still a stigma around gaming in the intelligence and military communities. It doesn’t end with people refusing to play games, but also policymakers not acting upon the gathered data for a variety of reasons. Some may not like the results, or believe they know better.
This can have disastrous consequences as Sugio Takahashi, chief of the Policy Simulation Office in the National Institute for Defense studies in Japan, mentioned in one of his presentations. Back before World War II, the Japanese military simulated how a war with the US would go, and the results showed that the conflict wouldn’t go in their favor. These results were given to command, but ignored.
What’s more, few people are willing to look into games that look at modern conflicts involving such complex topics as counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East through games because of the “indecency of recency,” as presenter Brian Train put it. In both the private sector and in wargaming, people are reluctant to associate something as important and controversial as current world politics with a game, even though those games could allow players and researchers to better understand the conflict.
It’s about abstraction
The Conference hosted several game labs, where small groups discussed specific gaming-related issues. The groups I attended were geared towards finding out how to properly account for certain real-world aspects of policy and conflict in games in a way that accurately portrays them in a smaller scale. One such discussion was about how to properly represent deception in a game. The group turned to what games are currently on the market and looked at how they mechanically represent and incentivise deception, like how the party game Werewolf bases itself entirely around its players hiding their roles from one another so they can pursue their own agendas without interference.
One member of the group made an excellent point that deception is about the control of narratives, with interested parties distorting facts as necessary to support their own agendas. Controlling narratives is a central mechanic in the competitive card game Chrononauts; where instead of altering information, players alter the course of history to their own ends.
Similar mechanics were suggested over the course of the lab. This is how I approach game design myself, looking at how the themes and mechanics I want to examine are abstracted in different games and figuring out how I can approach them in a way to capture the spirit of the real-world equivalent.
I found that abstraction was an underlying aspect of game design that designers were very concerned about including in their games. Ben Connable, of the RAND Corporation, approached the topic by addressing a need for morale and fatigue to be considered in abstracting combat in his presentation, “Will to Fight: Adding Brutal Realism to the Military’s Games and Simulations.” Likewise, Anja van der Hulst, of the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, called upon designers to consider emotional responses of combatants in their war games, as such reactions are more likely to occur in the real world than combatants always making the most logical choices. This was in their presentation “Wargaming Hybrid Warfare.” Most wargames currently used in the military don't incorporate such factors, having combat units function at the same level at all times. Real soldiers can be fatigued from continuous action, and their morale can impact their overall performance. I find myself agreeing that If soldiers are to be properly simulated in games, they should include their inconveniences as well as their mechanical capabilities.
It’s also about analysis
On the other side of things, some speakers pointed out the need for strict recording of wargaming and simulations’ quantitative outcomes. The metrics taken from these, it was argued, were necessary to draw solid conclusions from the observations. While it can be easier to keep rules and mechanics light in order to abstract real world concepts in a way that players can process easily (and thus be more open to gaming) the results of those games can have more impact if there is lots of data that conclusions can be drawn from. Knowing someone’s emotional response to a situation is useful, but numbers on the likelihood of success and the resources needed to accomplish the objective can be more easily acted upon.
That said, it was also pointed out that results of wargames and simulations are open to interpretation. It was said that if you had three different analysts examine data from a wargame, you’d get three different findings. One speaker said it is best to treat findings like witnesses in a court case; they’re able to point you in the right direction, but shouldn’t be taken as dogma.
It’s possible to do both
Uwe Eickert and Mark Gelson gave a seminar titled “Military Heuristic Bias and Decisions,” where they touched upon this topic and how these two aspects of wargame design - the need to abstract real world aspects while collecting hard data on game results - by proposing that game design needs to be focused on specific subjects in order to be both useful for analysts while still accessible for players. To paraphrase what they proposed; designers need to find a part of a decision process they want the most data about, and focus the quality and quantity of the mechanics on that section. There are other parts of the decision-making process that should be considered in the situation, but designers should “design out” these aspects in order to keep their influence on the data and participants to a minimum. I believe this is the most reasonable way to design games that can be useful for both participants and analysts, as it leads to games that can give a focused experience to both. To use the previously mentioned Hostage Negotiator game as an example: hostage situations require responders to be prepared to forcefully respond to the hostage taker, but the negotiator game leaves out the planning of such an assault in favor of focusing on dealing with a single aspect of the conflict so that they can better understand it.
Major theme: Cybersecurity
I found that the Conference had some running themes going through it, reflecting the current state of the political community. The biggest one was cybersecurity. In light of recent events, many of the designers and analysts attending the Conference were concerned with how they can properly design to prepare for future cybersecurity threats. Hyong Lee, one of the staff at CASL presented “Educating Future Cyber Strategists Through Wargaming: Options, Challenges and Gaps.” He addressed how, since cybersecurity is a relatively new field, few designers are confidently able to create models and simulations that represent it. He called for designers to work with cybersecurity experts and policymakers so that all three can better understand the subject and create a wargame that would allow for better preparation against cyberattacks in the future.
J. Furman Daniel, III of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, gives his presentation "Fiction as a Wargame?" where he discusses the influence that fiction has had on modern military and policy.
These are just the biggest lessons I took away from Connections 2018. It was a lot to take in, and I hope I was able to accurately account for the ideas presented. I hope to attend future conferences so I can learn more about wargaming, and provide my own input on how the field can change and grow.