A War-Gaming Renaissance

By Captain Thomas J. Culora, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Multiplayer Games

This first class of game is what most people think of—a one, two, or multi-sided game with 30 to 200-plus military and civilian game participants who spend a week working through a scenario with subject-matter experts (SMEs) who set the pace and perform real-time adjudication to determine the outcome of moves. These games are often conducted at the operational or strategic level but can also be tactical and can be designed in a myriad of ways based on the questions at hand. They consume a considerable amount of man-hours to design and execute—especially as the scenarios, researchable questions, and complexity of play vary from game to game. In addition, depending on the size and location, the logistical demands and planning for these events rival the most elaborate June wedding.

Examples of this class of war game include series such as the Navy’s Title 10 Global War Games and the Deterrence and Escalation Game and Review (DEGRE). In the case of the former, SMEs come to the Naval War College to fill out the roster of opposing teams. Through game play, these teams explore a series of questions designed to reveal insights and ideas about operational issues within a specific area of responsibility. In the DEGRE series, experienced SMEs play the roles of senior leaders to explore issues at the strategic level. While played at different levels for different purposes, both games involve free-play gaming in which each side puts forth a series of moves and countermoves to meet their objectives in the most realistic manner possible.

The anticipated value is twofold. The first is what my war-gaming colleagues describe as the “phenomenological experiential learning” that the game participants share during and after the game. 3 This is often cited as the great utility of the games held at the Naval War College during the interwar years, as the officers who participated in those games emerged with a common understanding of the geography and operational challenges that a Pacific-theater war would present. 4 Second, the game reports and analysis produced at the conclusion of a game are valuable, but their quality and fidelity rely on the expertise or knowledge of the post-game analysts and are constrained by the time allocated to produce them. Sponsors commonly expect a “quick look” from the game that often gets conflated with solid analysis. This means that the final report, complete with more detailed analysis, is sometimes viewed as yesterday’s news. Patience is a virtue; the data collection processes embedded in the design of the game often yield the best insights and information.

When determining the amount of effort and resources necessary for developing multiplayer games, several essential questions should be asked. First, who could best contribute to and directly benefit from the shared and individual experience of a particular game? After all, these participants will return to their commands with knowledge to share. Second, what post-game analytical product can realistically be expected as an outcome, and how will it be used? When is the game report due, and how will this timing affect the fidelity of the analysis? How can sponsors work with staff to ensure the final report is disseminated in ways that ensure appropriate attention and follow-through on substantive ideas? Are there other ways to garner this information more efficiently or faster in another analytical process? Key stakeholders such as the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the Naval War College, and the Naval Warfare Development Command are addressing these critical questions now in a holistic, enterprise-wide effort.

Modelers and program managers often suggest that some types of war games do not produce sufficient data to aid in making programmatic choices. At some level they are right, but the value lies in the games’ human decision-making and experiential-learning aspects. To suggest that war-gaming is not useful in making programmatic choices or netting actionable data undervalues another class of game: the long-running iterative game.

Small-Cell Iterative Games

This type, played by a small cloister of gaming professionals and SMEs, culls the best aspects of war-gaming, academic research, intelligence analysis, and certain elements of modeling and simulation. These games often take multiple months to play, require the application of a highly detailed level of adjudication, and involve an exhaustive number of move combinations. A unique example is the process employed by the Halsey Alfa and Halsey Bravo Advanced Student Research Groups at the Naval War College. Skilled faculty researchers leverage the subject-matter expertise of the mid-career officers in the residence course there to conduct a detailed level of analysis and gaming. 5

These games culminate in an approximation of the best set of possible operational moves and outcomes for each side. The value is not in experiential learning (though that occurs) but in muting the decision-making aspect so that a multifaceted understanding of the critical tipping points and nodes in an operational scenario can be determined. The games do not necessarily test the broader strategy or compensate for cultural or regional factors, but they are invaluable for informing strategy and stimulating tactical development.

The other strength of small-cell iterative games comes from the players’ ability to hold certain elements constant and vary others, allowing for a more systematic testing of alternative assumptions and a broad range of courses of action. This makes them the perfect vehicle for experimenting with new capabilities and innovative concepts to rapidly test their impact on warfighting and strategy. The results can feed directly into larger multiplayer games to help clarify how humans will perceive and make decisions based on these new concepts and capabilities.

Other Games

Small-cell iterative games and multiplayer games can inform the regency game, in which military and civilian leaders with direct knowledge of the issues under examination participate. Based on previous analysis and with game play drawn from small-cell iterative games and multiplayer games, these are usually played as a “tabletop” exercise. (The Naval War College conducts tabletop games but also uses large floor maps and models to depict specific geography and forces. More than a legacy holdover from the golden age of gaming, the oversize tool stimulates thinking and offers a unique way to visualize problems.)

The best-designed regency games bring the senior players to critical activity nodes and key decision points that most closely reflect the range of considerations in any given scenario. The dialogue among the players uncovers many of the explicit and implicit issues at hand. Senior leaders bring their judgment and informed decision-making, which they incorporate into the follow-on games and tangential analysis. This creates a cycle of learning that is a real pathway to innovation. Furthermore, senior leaders often return from a game with more knowledge and a clearer vision to inform the consequential decisions for which they are responsible.

Games that tap into crowdsourcing to innovatively leverage networks of gamers could enhance training and education. Applying massive online multiplayer games to support the Chief of Naval Operation’s guidance described in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority , particularly to achieve the goal of high-velocity learning at every level, is appealing. 6 Game players with divergent approaches and skills could be incentivized to participate. However, many participants may not be affiliated with the DOD and be minimally vetted. Therefore the scenarios used in these games must be unclassified and generic enough to share with the widest possible audience. This class of game could also be played by select participants from within the Navy, Marine Corps, and other DOD personnel on a controlled network in which a built-in set of SMEs could stimulate creative thinking and accelerate learning.

For massive online multiplayer games to be truly effective, there must be a more formal (though still rapid, replicable, and reliable) way to test new concepts and proposed capabilities against real-world classified scenarios. This is part of the larger cycle of creativity, innovation, analysis, testing, and exercising but is a vital aspect of using online multiplayer games to truly capitalize on the generated ideas. Without this, it will be difficult to justify funding decisions on what is essentially a Wiki game. However, the richest ideas that emerge from this can be inserted into other classes of games to validate their value, applicability, and desirability within a larger context.

Games from all four classes can deepen the services’ understanding of complex problems, especially when taken as part of a larger enterprise of gaming and analysis. Each type has its limits, however. The long-running iterative games produce high-fidelity data and insights into very specific sets of circumstances and assumptions. However, because of their nature, this depresses the decision-making and visceral elements of the gaming experience and may deemphasize the complexity and range of strategic factors. The regency games may prove highly beneficial to senior leaders seeking a venue to test ideas and experience the multiple considerations associated with making complex decisions, but they are unlikely to produce detailed data that would be of use in other parts of the enterprise. Finally, large multiplayer games may be perfect for establishing a common understanding of a complex concept or plan, but may only reflect the decisions made by the specific set of game players that may not be replicable elsewhere.

Necessary Elements

To extract the most value from the entire war-gaming enterprise, we need several other ingredients. First, as a research activity, war games demand a high level of experimentation and creative thinking; failures are not only to be expected but celebrated. War-gaming provides the safety vessel in which failure has minimum consequences as well as maximum high-speed learning potential. The naval services must move beyond paying lip service to the notion that they support failure—this is simply anathema to the core culture of the military. This can be overcome with rewards, incentives, and clear and forceful top-down leadership that does not flinch if something does not work right the first time.

Second, war-gaming is only one aspect of the innovation cycle. Strengthening the relationship to experimentation in the field and fleet by establishing or fortifying explicit links between centers of excellence and individual community experts to the gaming centers and developing a seamless exchange of data and ideas is vital. The Navy recently reinvigorated the Warfare Development Centers as nodes of excellence with formal links to the fleet and to research-and-development organizations such as the Naval Warfare Development Command and the Naval War College. 7

More needs to be done. For instance, ensuring that SMEs from the various warfare communities and commands attend a wide variety of games can accelerate the sharing and learning, effectively improving the innovation cycle. In addition, the Naval War College, partnering with the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, has developed a plan to implement a virtual practice community that will provide the foundation and structure to capture and share game outcomes, provide education to prospective gamers across the naval services and the DOD, and act as a vehicle for the ongoing development of war-gaming as an analytical tool. 8 Moreover, instead of adhering to the one-game, one-report structure, stakeholders and consumers can access a compilation of topic-specific and related reports through a single venue. Understanding that each game requires different levels and types of analysis will help inform a holistic picture of the challenges and solutions.

Third, enriching the sometimes uneasy marriage between modeling-simulation and war-gaming is important. The analytical methods, structure, and associated tools of each approach complement rather than compete with each other. This takes active listening and openness to resolve incongruent findings for the real power of both research tools to accurately inform plans, programs, and strategy development.

Fourth, the naval services must establish a means to effectively adjudicate games using a commonly acceptable set of standards appropriately applied to every game played. Work among the Navy’s gaming community, led by faculty at the Naval War College, is now under way to establish a universal set of adjudication criteria. Elements of this include having an appropriate level of knowledge of blue-force capabilities and how they can be applied in a given scenario. The naval services have the SMEs to delineate this into a comprehensive “blue” gaming guide.

The Navy must also establish a common set of potential adversary capabilities and practices. This will require a confluence of intelligence input, review of open-source literature, and applied judgment to arrive at a common set of parameters that can be used in nearly every game. This information can reside in the virtual practice community but must go further and establish a cadre of “opposition red players” immersed in the issues and deeply familiar with war-gaming and game play. This group already exists, as these are the “usual” players invited to populate the red cells in various games throughout the year. A more formal structure to capture the knowledge generated by these players in every game will build a solid foundation on which advanced adjudication can occur. Without this, games designed to educate may deliver the wrong lesson, and games designed to extract data may result in outcomes fraught with errors and inadequate results.

Last, we must incorporate the appropriate level of classification into games and the gaming process. Some should remain as open and accessible as possible—especially some of the large multiplayer games or those that require outside experts who may not possess the requisite clearances. Still, we must also conduct games at the highest levels of classification to comprehend the full scope of the problem set and the widest range of related solutions. This is especially true in the ones that deal with cyber warfare and other domains, in which a high level of security must be maintained and the effects of the complete range of capabilities must be understood.

The naval services and the DOD must exploit the benefits offered by war-gaming. Constructing a systemic and systematic way to ask the right questions and properly resource a range of games will directly contribute to understanding the complex security environment we now face.

1. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and GEN Paul Selva, USA, “Revitalizing War-gaming is Necessary to be Prepared for Future Wars,” War on the Rocks , http://warontherocks.com/2015/12/revitalizing-war-gaming-is-necessary-to... . Peter Perla, “Improving War-gaming is Worthwhile—and Smart,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 14, no.1 (January 2016): www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016-01/now-hear-improving-war-gaming... . Elizabeth Bartels, “Getting the Most Out of Your War Game: Practical Advice for Decision-Makers,” War on the Rocks , http://warontherocks.com/2016/01/getting-the-most-out-of-your-war game-practical-advice-for-decision-makers.

2. Francis J. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming , 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966).

3. For a baseline guide to experiential learning, see David A. Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984).

4. McHugh, 56–67.

5. See https://www.usnwc.edu/Departments—Colleges/Center-for-Naval-Warfare-St... .

6. Chief of Naval Operations, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority , Version 1.0, January 2016, www.navy.mil/cno/docs/cno_stg.pdf .

7. Chief of Naval Operations, Transitioning Warfare Centers of Excellence to Warfighting Development Centers , OPNAVNOTE 5400, Serial DNS-33/15U102246, 30 June 2015, http://doni.daps.dla.mil/Directives/05000%20General%20Management%20Secur... .

8. Secretary of the Navy, Memorandum for Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps, Subject: War-gaming , 5 May 2015, www.secnav.navy.mil/innovation/Documents/2015/05/War-gamingMemo.PDF .

Captain Culora is the dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. He was a naval aviator with over 2,500 flight hours, commanding HSM-47 and the USS Boxer (LHD-4). He was a fellow at Harvard University’s Olin Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. A graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Naval War College, he also holds a BFA and has an active art career.




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