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Shall We Play a Game? [Part 9 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

Chapter 9: Dungeons, Dragons and DARWARS

During the early 1970s, video games were on the rise, RAND was wargaming the Vietnam War, and companies like SPI and Avalon Hill were keeping the hobby wargamers rolling dice. In this time period a synergy took root that would lead to the kind of wargames that are in use currently to train troops for the US involvements around the world. That sort of game was an outgrowth of one innovation, and one limitation. The innovation was the creation of the role-playing game as a subgenre of wargaming. The limitation was the fact that early computer games like Battlezone as a Bradley Trainer lacked the sophistication to simulate multiple trainee vehicles on the field, or even all the crew positions in a single Bradley.

Ernest Gary Gygax (1932-2008) was an avid wargamer involved in several wargaming clubs, publications and even the founding of the GenCon wargaming convention in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Gygax became active in game design and writing for the wargame periodicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He also had an interest that differed from the wargamers of the period – fantasy. The vast majority of miniature-based wargames in the 1970s were historical in nature, based on actual periods and forces throughout the ages. Players recreated Cannae, Hastings, Waterloo and the Bulge. Gygax, on the other hand, had a bag of plastic dinosaurs and wanted to write rules for dragons.

In 1971 Gygax published Chainmail, a set of medieval miniature war game rules that differed from contemporary games in two important ways. First, unlike Kriegspiel and its derivatives which used counters, block or miniatures to represent a unit of like troops, Chainmail used miniatures to represent a single combatant.  This new resolution meant that, for the first time, the equipment of an individual soldier had an effect on the game. Rather than a unit performing with an ‘average’ of the equipment and training level of the unit overall, Chainmail allowed each figure to have its own weapon, armor, and experience level. Maces had different effects than swords, plate armor had different qualities than leather armor.

Gygax added the second important innovation to Chaimail in the form of an appendix based on the popular tropes of fantasy fiction. His miniature games could now include dragons, spell-flinging magic-users, even elves. The popularity of fantasy literature was not limited to Gygax or his friends, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings selling extremely well beginning in the 1960s. While The Lord of the Rings had been available since the 1950s, it was not until the unauthorized Ace publishing editions of the novels that their popularity soared. The formation of the Society for Creative Anachronism with its first Coronation and Crown Tourney in 1967 was further evidence that fantasy was beginning to take hold in popular culture. Gygax’s fellow wargamers, however, were initially derisive of his attempt to add Hobbits to history. The wargaming community was quite comfortable with their historical games and found the concepts of Gygax’s fantasy dalliance to be unworthy of the serious matter of gaming historical battles.

Two Daves enter the story in 1969. Dave Weseley and Dave Arneson were gamers and college students who were, like Gygax, looking for new ways to play their wargames. Weseley came up with the idea of assigning roles to players that were not the traditional wargame roles of military unit commanders. This idea – developed independently but concurrently by the RAND think tank during the same period – was new to hobby wargaming. The similarity of this concept to the kind of pol-mil games run by RAND and other academics is striking, but these games were being run entirely for entertainment. Weseley named his game Braunstein, for the fictional European town whose likeness graced his sand table. The Braunstein game was organized with Weseley’s friends playing not only the military forces closing in on the town to do battle with one another but also civilian factions like the university students opposed to the war, a spy, the mayor of Braunstein and others. This placed players into non-traditional roles, and was the cause of much non-traditional play. Players would take each other aside away from the game table to discuss the situation and make deals. The game progressed over the course of the evening into what Weseley thought was a complete failure of game play and total organizational chaos.

The following day, Weseley was asked by his players when he was going to run another Braunstein game. The concept of non-traditional roles was fascinating to his players, some of whom had tired of fighting the same Napoleonic battles. This game style was something new and interesting. When Weseley left to fulfill his military obligation to the US Army, Dave Arneson took up the mantle of Braunstein game master and ran games in the same style using Old West, South American and fantasy themes, the last of which he called Blackmoor. This is where Arneson caught wind of Gygax’s Chainmail rules from other wargamers and the seeds of an idea began to take hold in the two men’s minds.

Braunstein’s role-playing style, coupled with Chainmail’s focus on individualized combatants, produced a new gaming experience—the role-playing game, or RPG. In their early years, RPGs would be grouped with wargames as a single type of entertainment. Indeed, the 1980 The Complete Book of Wargames published by Simon & Schuster includes an entire chapter on RPGs, stating “Paradoxically, role-playing games are both the oldest and youngest members of the wargame family…” and likening the role of game master to a Kriegspiel referee. This is such an apt comparison of game referee duties between serious games and hobby games that RPG historian and blogger Rob MacDougall referred to Charles A.L. Totten, author of Strategos: The American Art of War as “Dungeon Master Zero.” Later sources seem to disagree with RPGs being wargames, rather suggesting that they are a genre in and of themselves wholly separate from their bellicose ancestors.

Arneson and Gygax labored together to create the first Dungeons & Dragons game, published with $1,000 starting capital and assembled in the garage of Gygax’s long-time friend Don Kaye. D&D was a synthesis of the role-playing elements of Braunsten with the single-character focus of Chainmail to create something that was by title a wargame, but by play style something new.  The original edition of D&D required the use of the Chainmail rules to adjudicate combat situations and encouraged the player to purchase Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival and use the map furnished with that game as a representation of the wilderness area in which the D&D games would take place. The original rules were more than a bit difficult to understand for players who had never before been wargamers. Much of the nomenclature of game mechanics was lifted directly from Chainmail and other wargames. Armor Class, Hit Dice, Saving Throws and many other pieces of D&D vocabulary began as terminology for conventional wargames.

Despite these challenges and limitations, D&D gained popularity with an unintended audience. While traditional wargamers tended to eschew the game and its fantasy elements, the game attracted considerable attention on college campuses.  So popular was D&D that New York Times best-selling author Aaron Allston recalled that copies of the D&D rules could simply not be found and that the game was often played with bootleg mimeographed copies run off on college duplication equipment. The fantasy subject matter was quickly joined by the science fiction, western, espionage, and post-apocalyptic genres. Very quickly, everything from historical periods to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos became an official or unofficial source of setting and information for a roleplaying game, D&D specifically or one of its many quickly appearing imitators. Owing to their wargame roots, some games like Behind Enemy Lines, Twilight: 2000 and The Morrow Project detailed military hardware in Janes’-like detail.

Roleplaying games differ from wargames in several important respects. The game master, or Dungeon Master in the specific parlance of Dungeons & Dragons, is very much like the all-powerful referee of a free Kriegspiel game. The scenario of the game is adjudicated by the GM or DM, and it is this person whose responsibility it is to fairly apply the rules to the situation and react to the actions of the players. This is pivotal to the success of the game, as many RPGs eschew maps, boards or other physical representations of the “battlefield” for what is referred to as “theater of the mind.” That is, much play takes place in the imaginations of the players as the GM describes the scene in a way not unlike the narrator of a 1930s radio play. While some games do use hexagonal or square grids and miniatures, including the original Dungeons & Dragons game, even later versions of the same game disagree on the matter of the importance of such miniatures. The possibility of “theater of the mind” style play is a major factor in differentiating RPGs from their pure wargame cousins.

Aside from the all-powerful referee and the possibility of mapless or boardless play, another pivotal factor distinguishing RPGs from wargames is that each player typically controls a single individual character. These characters are often differentiated in what they are able to accomplish by sets of statistics and ratings in skills or abilities that set them apart from their peers. Where a historical wargame might show that a particular Soviet tank has less accuracy than an American tank of the era, the ability to fire anti-tank missiles from its gun tube might be an ability the American tank lacks. Likewise, in a game like Dungeons & Dragons a Fighter could be much more likely to wound an orc with a sword, while being completely unable to put it to sleep with a magic spell as a Magic-User might. Like pol-mil games, RPGs tend to have focuses other than or in addition to combat. A character might be involved in a secret plot against a king, or have a romantic subplot with another player or a character in the game world played by the Game Master. It is the possibility for events that could not practically be quantified in any single set of rules that makes the judgement of the GM of such vital importance.

Roleplaying games quickly diverged from mainstream wargames, but their popularity and mathematical combat systems lent them to one other application— the computer RPG. Video and computer RPGs began to appear in the late 1970s, with games like Zork and Adventure emerged as early versions of the genre. While these games lacked the free-form elements of tabletop RPGs run by human referees, they were far more suited to solo play and quickly found their way onto computers around the world. As these games proliferated, they became a genre in and of themselves, the Computer RPG, that is familiar to any modern player of massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. Beginning with the MUD, or Multi-user Dungeon, the nascent Internet and modem technology allowed players of computer RPGs to begin playing together as a group against computer opponents. Player-versus-player, or PVP play soon followed. As technology improved, the realism and depth of the games improved as well.  This drew, once again, the attention of the military as the games became more sophisticated.

Much as a group of Army officers approached Atari about Battlezone, General Paul Gorman, US Army Retired, came to the conclusion that multiplayer RPG-style video games could be useful training tools. Gorman decided that rather than have the video game altered to the reality of the physical world, he could use a game as-is in order to teach fundamentals of military operations. The game would not have to model modern battlefields, a squad leader had to make the same kinds of decisions in any team-based combat situation. For instance, rather than deciding where to set his mortar team, a small-unit commander would decide where the fireball-throwing wizard would best be employed. This initiative, known as Gorman’s Gambit, was undertaken as part of the DARWARS program. The DARWARS program, designed to research training systems that can be rapidly adapted or used off-the-shelf, is overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, whose predecessor created ARPANET, the forerunner of the modern Internet.

Gorman’s Gambit consisted of the game Neverwinter Nights – a Dungeons & Dragons computer game that was designed for network play. Through the use of the Aurora tool set included in the game, situations and missions could be authored by the game referees to fit the training needs of the project. Run over a course of weeks in 2004, the Gambit grouped soldiers into 20-person platoons each consisting of three squads. The squads were composed of varying character types from the D&D game— Fighters, Wizards, Cleric warrior-priests, and so forth. Each platoon had its own camp, and games lasted 30 minutes, preceded by a 15-minute planning stage and followed by a 15-minute debrief. The mission objective was a simple “capture the flag” setup, where each team attempted to capture the enemy platoon’s flag while maintaining control of their own.

As Neverwinter Nights was a commercial product, there was no method embedded within the software to record the type of data the DARWARS researchers hoped to capture. Due to this deficiency, the Gambit employed human observers. During the conduct of the games, observers carefully recorded the teamwork skills of the players. The areas observed and recorded were outlined in teamwork literature from 2004. Such things a monitoring, team coordination, information push and pull, orientation, adaptability and other areas were scored and compared. This pilot study revealed that the play of a non-simulationist game like Neverwinter Nights could indeed be useful in the training of teamwork, small-unit leadership and tactical adaptability. The verdict on Gorman’s Gambit was that off the shelf software could in fact be used to some good effect in military training, but that it did have limitations in that it was not designed to capture training data. At nearly the same time soldiers were playing Neverwinter Nights for DARWARS, a quite opposite cycle was occurring. Starting in 2002, civilians were playing an entertainment game created by the military for civilian consumption— America’s Army.

America’s Army was developed as a recruiting tool rather than a training tool. The game represented an evolution in the way the US Military thought about video games for official applications. As early as the 1980s, DIS – distributed interactive simulations – were used as training aids that created electronic battlefields allowing simulated unit leaders to interact in realtime. General Donn Starry of TRADOC, the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, knew interactive electronic training aids would appeal to the soldiers of the 1980s. “They belong to the TV and technology generation…” Starry said at a TRADOC conference in 1981. “…how is it that our soldiers are still sitting in classrooms, still listening to lectures, still depending on books and other paper materials, when possibly new and better methods have been available for many years?” The focus throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s had been on training aids – not recruiting tools. America’s Army was something new, and potentially disastrous for public opinion of the US Military.  Such was the case with Doom and other 1990s games that came under congressional scrutiny.

Doom was released via Shareware in December of 1993 by Id Software. The release followed its earlier Wolfenstein 3D by eighteen months. These games used a first-person viewpoint, just as America’s Army and many others were to do to immense commercial success. Wolfenstein and Doom included pixelated blood and gore and images of Nazis and demons arousing the ire of a subsection of America. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) had become vocally opposed to video game violence like Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat included “fatality” moves which, when executed properly by the player, would result in the opponent being decapitated, or having their spine torn out, or some other explicit and fatal fate.  When hearings began Doom, Wolfenstein and many others came under Congressional scrutiny, though not to the extent of Mortal Kombat itself. This scrutiny became important when the US Marine Corps began in-house development of a version of Doom to use as a training aid.

Marine Doom was created using the development tools ID software had written and released to allow users to create their own levels for the game. The same tools Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris used to recreate Columbine High School to help plan their mass shooting of 20 April 1999. A new set of senate hearings was called post-Columbine, at which retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman delivered damning testimony equating the popular games to military simulation training devices. Grossman even made the spurious assertion that he had trained on a handgun simulator that had “Nintendo” written on it. Nintendo never produced a handgun trainer, but the outrage over videogames was significant as was the thought that the militarization of youth might be occurring with games like Doom.

America’s Army had the potential to re-ignite these fears and the controversy that had caused multiple congressional investigations into the video game industry. With its release, the idea that video games could be militarizing American youth was given weight by the very intent of the game and its origin within the US Army. Following the footsteps of Marine Doom, the project lead for America’s Army used the commercially available Unreal engine to create the game with Army programmers. Lieutenant Colonel Casey Wardynski had begun work on America’s Army the same year Columbine had occurred, 1999. During the development of the game by a small team of Army programmers, Wardynski had every reason to worry that his project would be poorly received by the public. On 22 May 2002 his product released at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) show in Los Angeles, California. It became what the US Army called the most cost-effective recruitment tool in the history of the US Army.

The gamer-centric web site penny-arcade.com called America’s Army “the best misappropriation of tax dollars ever.” The Army would likely disagree that it was a misappropriation. MIT ran a study that concluded that 30 percent of the 16-24 age demographic had a more favorable impression of the US Army thanks to their experiences with the game. In other words, America’s Army had a more cost-effective and far reaching effect than more traditional forms of Army advertising. The game cost $7.5 million to produce, just 1/3 of 1 percent of the US Army’s marketing budget.

Borrowing from role-playing games, America’s Army did not just concern itself with shooting the enemy. The game emphasized the US Army’s seven core values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Failure to live up to these values can result in the player’s avatar ending up in virtual Leavenworth military prison. America’s Army had to sell the US Army on several levels. It had to be a first-class video game, which it was on release. It had to counteract the public perception that the Army was the least desirable of the US Military services compared to the perception of the Air Force and Navy as being less “sweat” and the Marines being more elite. Television and film had created a poor view of Army life, as films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket had painted an unflattering Vietnam-centric view of life in the military that was outdated by the 1990s.

This is not to say the game painted the US Army as full-dress balls and vacations to Italy. Wardynski knew the Army spent millions each year on training recruits who ultimately washed out, unfit for military service physically or mentally. He endeavored to create a realistic Army experience within the game that would weed out some of the players who might decide the Army wasn’t for them after all. The game also drove home the idea that the US Army does not use violence indiscriminately, that violence is employed in specific quantities to fulfill specific missions.

Further distancing the game from its commercial counterparts, players never played as al-Qaeda, the contemporary enemy in the game. Each team saw themselves as US Army soldiers and the enemy as al-Qaeda, so that every player from their own perspective was playing “the good guys.” The game went so far toward being culturally sensitive that the al-Qaeda soldiers were of various skin tones rather than stereotypically “Arab.” Later versions of America’s Army contained information on the actual Army Basic Combat Training program, promotion requirements, and the GI Bill. The game has been released for mobile devices and Xbox and Playstation series consoles. The game has also been modified further for use internally by the US Army as a training aid.

Aside from America’s Army, many combat arms soldiers in the US Army are familiar with Virtual Battlespace 2, a virtual combat simulation system very similar to the first-person-shooter style of America’s Army. It is also used by the Marine Corps, and is being adapted into an experimental 360-degree environmental trainer called Dismounted Soldier. The VBS2 system is making a large impact on the US Army, of which 50 percent of all troops are using VBS2 training with nearly the same utilization in the Marine Corps. The game is not as polished as commercial video game releases, but its utility lies not in its polish but in its adaptability to real-world military conditions.

VBS2 includes geographically specific databases, allowing for missions to take place in actual locations around the globe. The game administrators in the Tactical Operations Center can make adjustments immediately to conditions inside the simulator as a simulation is running. Scenarios that have actually occurred can be input into the system so that soldiers can train on events that have been observed, such as IED attacks or ambushes. Scenarios input will be available via network to all commands within 96 hours, allowing units still stateside to train on the latest developments in active theaters. The ability for the game to record the actions and words of all participants means VBS2 has the tools games adapted from commercial sources that Neverwinter Nights did not. A full after-action report can be made, allowing commanders to review each and every action taken by soldiers in their unit. In an example of how quickly VBS2 makes new data available, a virtual version of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad stronghold was available for VBS2 training a few days after a raid caught and killed bin Laden at that location.

The most glowing recommendation for VBS2 comes from the soldiers themselves. The US Army Research Institute polled 165 soldiers trained using VBS2, and their responses were overwhelmingly positive. “the training [positively] impacted how well the soldiers felt they could work together as a team, as well as their attraction to the unit, including their attraction to their tasks and group members.” The soldiers reported themselves feeling more able to handle convoy operations following VBS2 training. First Lieutenant Roy Fish, USMC, has said that his platoon’s VBS2 training was as close to being in Afghanistan as one can get without being there, and that events that occurred to his Marines while in Afghanistan could be easily translated back to their VBS2 sessions. “It’s amazing how realistic it was. It’s literally the same terrain.” Fish stated.

Colonel Lyn McCall, US Army retired, worked on a completely different type of wargame for the US Army – Saving Sergeant Pabletti. This game was an interactive video film in which trainees made decisions that caused the film to continue in different ways. The concept of the film was that a drill sergeant was struck by a stray hunter’s bullet while conducting basic training. The recruits must then carry their sergeant to safety— but racial and sexual issues complicate the matter. The game was a response to the Tailhook sexual harassment case that had been prominent in the media in the early 1990s, and was used to show that the Army was doing something to combat sexual assault and race issues. “Values-based decisions” are the core of the Pabletti game, which focuses on ethics, morality and leadership.

McCall’s game was so well-received that it was used later as a training aid for soldiers on their way to Iraq. It created a niche for many other games that covered the non-combat aspects of soldiering. Beyond the Front dealt with a suicidal soldier, and placed players in that soldier’s role dealing with the issues he faced after deployment. The game became a mandatory exercise for every soldier in the US Army. A later game, The War Inside, covered topics like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, mental health issues, and relationship issues. These “wargames” were much like the pol-mil games or tabletop hobby roleplaying games in that combat was not their primary function. Games were now being used to look after the whole soldier, mentally and emotionally. The response from the troops was again overwhelmingly positive.

The Army, through WILL Interactive, continues to produce games to address the mental and emotional needs of soldiers. The social stigma within the Army surrounding mental health and seeking mental health treatment is covered in The Mission to Heal— which covers civilian roles as well as military. The Home Front covers the plight of National Guard and Reserve soldiers who lack the support structure regular Army soldiers have when returning from deployment. Single Parenting goes even further, putting the player in the role of a young Army Specialist who has just had a baby and is being deployed. The life balance of professional versus personal needs is addressed, and the player must weigh the options and react accordingly.

As Virtual Battlespace 3 enters development, the US Military has electronic training systems that simulate entire vehicle interiors. Submarine and warship bridge simulators are set up on gimbals to allow tilting and shaking reminiscent of a Star Trek episode. Games quite similar to commercial releases for Xbox and Playstation train soldiers and Marines and civilians explore the possibility of Army careers on their phone app versions of America’s Army. While all the technological gaming is occurring, tabletop and computer-assisted simulations continue to occur at RAND, the Pentagon and the military service academies. After a brief slowdown in the 1970s, wargaming returned to military service in with a vengeance, and shows no signs of slowing as technology continues to march on. Civilian popular culture seems to be aware of this trend as well and has begun to explore its implications.  Ernest Cline’s 2015 novel Armada posits a massively multiplayer video game commissioned by the military to serve as a stealthy way to train large numbers of drone operators. Could such a thing be considered far-fetched given the existence of America’s Army and the VBS series?

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