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Shall We Play A Game? [Part 1 of 10]

[Editor’s Note:  The following is Jeffrey Webb’s noteworthy college thesis from 2015, written during his time at the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia, to be reprinted here in its entirety, in ten parts, with the author’s permission, for your reading enjoyment. Footnotes have been extracted from this presentation of Jeffrey Webb’s writings, to enhance this casual reading experience, but we’ll gladly share footnotes with anyone who is interested in seeing the sources and such.]


Written by Jeffrey Webb

Part 1 of 10: Introduction

“…the war with Japan had been reenacted in the game rooms here by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise– absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics at the end of the war.” – FADM Chester Nimitz

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, a native of Texas, might be right at home at the Millennium Con wargaming convention held each November in the Texas city of Round Rock. At Millennium Con crowds of hobbyists gather to match wits over tables adorned with the accoutrements of war in miniature, most lovingly hand painted with the sort of eye for detail only devotees of history seem to possess. At Millennium, year after year, Nimitz’ own battles are re-fought, along with conjectural battles that could have occurred and those that exist only in the fancy of popular culture. Guadalcanal might be re-enacted in 1:2400 scale next to a table representing the surface of the Death Star, where X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon are moved across the model game board with the same care and attention as the Pacific Fleet engaging the Imperial Japanese Imperial Navy just a few feet away. Downstairs, the biplanes of Canvas Eagles soar over a museum-quality shadowbox model of a trench-ridden WWI battlefield complete with Christmas lights creating flashes and explosions, with cotton-ball puffs of artillery smoke and fine-gauge filament standing in for razor wire. Conflict of all description is re-enacted time and again with miniature figures, cardboard chits, dice and models with players fueled by passion and caffeine. These are hobby gamers, playing for the love of the game.

Across the United States, on the East coast, each year professionals from the military, government and intelligence communities come together for Connections, a wargaming conference founded by Colonel Matt Caffrey, USAF (Ret.) to gather professional wargamers and hobbyists alike for the betterment of the discipline. Caffrey, like many professional military officers, places a great deal of importance on wargaming as a tool for the military establishment. At Connections, run each year since 1993, many types of wargame and methods of playing are explored with a new theme at each subsequent conference.

The theme of Connections 2015 is “Reinvigorating Wargaming for Innovation”- reflecting the focus of Connections as “Advancing and Preserving the Art, Science and Application of Wargaming.” Many of the military wargames at Connections bear a striking resemblance to the events in Fleet Admiral Nimitz’ game rooms, or those being played at Millennium- but some would look much closer to a group of teenagers gathering around a table for a game of Dungeons & Dragons, and are adjudicated in much the same way. These are professional gamers, playing to better understand the subjects and actors their games portray.

There is much overlap between the hobbyists and their professional counterparts. Many professionals wargame as a hobby, and some hobby game designers like Larry Bond, designer of Harpoon, have found themselves involved in the professional gaming arena. Each slice of the wargame community simultaneously feeds and is fed from the other in an ouroboros-like cycle of inspiration. Wargames come in a staggering variety of themes and formats, from the historical to the hysterical.

Dr. Peter Perla, author of The Art of Wargaming and research fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, defines wargames as “A warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operations of actual forces, and in which the flow of events shapes and is shaped by decisions made by a human player or players.” Perla specifically omits computer simulation without players (CSWP) from his definition, as his ideal of a wargame requires the input of human players for validity and efficacy. Perla’s definition can be extended to both the military and civilian applications of the wargame, and he himself is engaged in both sides of the discipline. A wargame can simulate non-military or asymmetrical conflict situations as well as traditional warfare.

The professional military wargame grew from games played as diversions or pastimes that were abstract, like chess or Go, and then began to evolve into games that more closely simulated reality, like the 19th century German Kriegspiel. This set off a repetitive cycle of hobby gaming informing professional gaming, which in turn influenced hobby gaming and so on. The advent of the computer meant that medium would soon be used for both professional military and hobby wargaming applications as is apparent from the first purpose-written computer game, Space War, being conjured from a PDP-10 computer paid for by the military for research. The family tree of games beginning with Kriegspiel leads to games that have touched civilian and military personnel alike. What started as a strategic tool for officer training has evolved into something that every enlisted soldier can find of use. Entire research establishments like the Center for Applied Strategic Learning are dedicated to the development and conduct of professional military wargames.

What significance do these games have on actual military outcomes? How can something like Dungeons & Dragons even be considered an effective military instructional tool? Have these games actually shaped the course of history in an appreciable way, and do they seem likely to continue to do so? Within the pages of this work answers to these questions will be proposed along with an analysis of the development of the professional and hobby games alike and how they have influenced one another to the benefit of the military establishment. Examples will be given of historic outcomes that were the direct result of commanders relying on data supplied by war games and other influences these games have had in less dramatic but no less direct capacities.

The narrative of how one medium begat the other and the process of cross-pollination of ideas can be at times convoluted. The story of Gorman’s Gambit, an experiment championed by retired US Army General Paul Gorman, involves the use of Neverwinter Nights in the training evaluation of decision-making capabilities in platoon-level leadership. Neverwinter Nights is a commercial video game, based on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game. Does its pedigree lie with video games, tracing its lineage back to Gauntlet, to Missile Command and ultimately back to Tennis for Two on an oscilloscope? Does its utility stem from the D&D connection, developed by devotees of traditional wargames and the concepts of “Free Kriegspiel” developed in Prussia by von Meckel and also in the United States by Charles A.L. Totten?

The branches of this family tree are many and varied, and each branch leads to a concept used to train military leadership or to civilian games that were influenced by and in turn influenced professional games. The same tool Tom Clancy used to game out his novels Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October were used at Annapolis and the Naval War College for professional military education. Kriegspiel was designed for kings, revised for generals, and adapted by civilians for entertainment. Neverwinter Nights was designed for fantasy geeks, used by a US Army General and the DARWARS program. Battlezone, a futuristic tank game released by Atari in 1980 was adapted into the ill-fated Bradley Trainer by Atari personnel at the behest of the US Military, leaving its ultimate legacy in the extremely popular Star Wars series of video games when its military utility failed to pan out.

Far from merely anecdotal bits of history, these items of trivia and others weave a tapestry of influence that is revealed in the conventional and the controversial. FADM Nimitz himself establishes the importance of wargames to the planning and execution of the Pacific War- but what about other leaders? Conventional wisdom on the German operations at the outset of WWI was that they followed the Schlieffen Plan- a war plan created by repeated wargames over the course of twenty years. Historian Dr. Terence Zuber has called this perception into question, stating that the actual actions of the German army followed a completely different concept designed by German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. Moltke’s key tool in planning this alternate war plan? Wargames. Could the fates of tens of thousands of soldiers in the First World War have been decided by the proverbial toss of the dice?

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  1. Avatar
    John Enfield

    This is interesting because usually, people talk about how war games are based on real-life wars and some of the tactics used in the battles. Neat to see serious scholarship on the reverse situation.

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