American Officials Play Board Games to Understand War

A friend of mine kindly shared a link to this story on Business Insider: American Officials Play Board Games To Understand War

The idea that the military uses games to train personnel is nothing new. There’s been a lot of recent attention on the use of videogames specifically, but war simulation games go way, way back in time. Like, say, chess. (Jon Peterson does a terrific job chronicling the history of war games in relation to the genesis of role-playing games in his comprehensive book Playing at the World, which I highly recommend.)

Regardless, this Business Insider article makes a very common mistake in that it assumes that these games necessarily and correctly represent contemporary global challenges. Sure, it’s fun to play a game where you spin out countless possible outcomes—potential replayability is an important aspect in game design. However, it’s a little alarming to ponder what kinds of lessons the players might be learning. I’m less concerned with games that deal explicitly with combat because such scenarios are more contained. Even if no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, military encounters can have only so many plausible outcomes. Things like weaponry, terrain, and numbers of troops are easily quantified and thus more easily calculated, meaning that military leadership know with a high degree of accuracy what it takes to achieve certain military objectives. Given that the military has finite resources (believe it or not), combat simulation games can effectively highlight the best risk vs reward options in complex scenarios.

Diplomacy is another thing entirely though. Part of my problem with digital role-playing games is that the game designers need to distill the complexity and unpredictability of human personalities into calculable code. This results in pretty stilted, unconvincing interpersonal interactions since everything boils down to numbers, e.g. if I have high enough charisma then I can charm the innkeeper into giving me the magical amulet for free. All context and subtlety gets blasted away in favor of a simplistic resolution bound by few dialogue options. The BI article even gives a nod in this direction, explaining that board games are more easily customizable than digital games for this very reason.

The big problem is that you can’t quantify and calculate diplomacy so easily. Imagine the amount of guesswork and margin of error in predicting how another human will react given a set of continually shifting circumstances. Building a game simulation might help train military leaders to think on their feet in terms of rapidly switching strategies, but this should not be confused with the prognosticative ability of combat simulation games. Having heard non-experts talk about the educational potential of games, let’s say my confidence level that this is being handled appropriately is low.

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