Department of Defense Wargaming in the Classroom

Posted: April 27, 2016 in Uncategorized

Dr. James Lacey, a professor at Marine Corps University, published a marvelous piece over at the War On The Rocks blogsite, entitled “Wargaming in the Classroom: An Odyssey.”   I was intrigued because I recognized every game on the table in the accompanying photos.  While it’s full of terrific advice on how to use commercial historical board wargames to teach senior military professionals, the article’s subject matter also implicitly suggests a number of interesting questions that are worth considering:

  • Why hasn’t this been going on routinely?   The article doesn’t say anything about this.  One could be forgiven for thinking this is done all the time, but that’s not the case.  There are some wargamers on teaching staffs (to include my own institution, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College), but they are few and far between.  It’s also not easy to integrate wargames into curriculum; time to deliver content is a huge limitation (wargames usually take more time than the syllabus allows) and selling the technique to typically skeptical supervisors can be difficult.
  • How does one measure the benefits of this technique against others?  This is the kind of question those skeptical supervisors will often ask.  At the very least, the wargaming proponent has to ensure that rote knowledge/comprehension is no less than what is traditionally done.  Dr. Lacey accomplishes that by “flipping the classroom,” making all that rote learning happen as homework before the wargaming session.  The burden of showing how superior wargaming methods are still falls on the facilitator/professor to prove, and the most successful method is simply getting a lot of student feedback saying how much they got out of the session compared to more traditional (e.g., lecture) methods.
  • When is wargaming more appropriate than Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) or decision-forcing historical prospective Case Method?  These latter two techniques, while immersive, are focused more on singular decisions and skills in communicating and justifying them to participant peers.  Wargaming involves constant and continuous estimating and decision making; its the very experience of having to do this that imparts insight into the subject.  Lacey talks about his students  frequently deciding to mount the Sicilian Expedition as Athens, even when they are well aware of its disastrous outcome in history.  The game used provides historical incentives for doing so anyway and so participants learn how strategic dynamics can often conspire in ways that making such high-risk decisions are worth it.
  • The Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, and his Deputy, Robert Work, want to incorporate more wargaming into the Department–is this what they are talking about?  Wargaming supporting education is but one way, although I’d argue it can be one of the most effective ways and certainly provides a great deal of value for the minimal cost.  But there are other ways wargaming is often used: (1) support acquisition analysis and decision-making, (2) support staff planning, and (3) support command-post exercises and training.  But none of these activities reach for manual conflict simulations–much less board wargames–to assist them; they typically use computer simulation with all the attendant expense and overhead.
  • Is wargaming in the classroom a passing fad?  Given past history of wargaming’s popularity in the war colleges, it very well could be, given the culture in the military.  For civilian institutions, possibly…but possibly not.  U.S. Naval War College was a hotbed of wargaming activity in the interwar period.  Since that time, using wargames in professional military education has come and gone, off and on.   At King’s College in London, their Conflict Simulation course still goes on strong, no doubt thanks to its professor, Dr. Philip Sabin.  It’s worth wondering whether this academic emphasis would outlive its energetic advocate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s