A Report From Connections 2014

Guest columnist Brian Train gives us a peek inside the annual premier gathering of professional wargaming practitioners.

Once there was an Air Force Captain named Matt Caffrey who realized that commercial wargame designers had a lot to teach and learn from military and government analysts, planners and other subject matter experts. So in 1993 he organized the first CONNECTIONS conference, for the purpose of bringing these two worlds together to talk, for a few days at least. Now retired, Lieutenant Colonel Caffrey has worked to make this conference happen each and every year since then. The 21st annual CONNECTIONS conference on professional wargaming was held at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, August 4-7, 2014, and I attended.

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Monday, August 4, was a half-day featuring presentations and discussions by individual speakers. Matt Caffrey spoke on the history of wargaming using information from his upcoming book, the engaging Dr. Peter Perla, author of The Art of Wargaming spoke on analytical wargaming, and Dr. Joe Saur and Chris Weuve spoke on the basics and pitfalls of wargame design.

Tuesday morning featured the lead keynote speaker for this year’s conference, who was a coup indeed: Professor Thomas Schelling! An early member of the RAND Corporation, his contributions to the field of wargaming and modeling diplomacy and political-military conflict have been hugely significant. His 2005 Nobel Prize was for his work in understanding conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis. A number of people came to the conference expressly to hear him. Sharp as the proverbial tack at age 93, he fascinated us with his accounts of early political-military simulation games in the late 1950s (Iran) and early 1960s (Berlin, Cuba). He also observed how difficult it is to play these games effectively through clear signalling and understanding of the adversary, and sensible use of time and effort – if things get this mixed up in a simulation, it’s remarkable how we weather real crises. Schelling was followed by Milan Vego, who spoke on the influence of German wargaming (that is, the early professional development wargames called Kriegsspiel, developed between 1798 and 1875) on the militaries of other nations.

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After a “show and tell” period of demonstrating new wargames over lunch, there were three panels: two on “understanding international wargame cultures”, where speakers went into the differing natures of wargaming and how wargames are used by the militaries of different countries, and one on “international cooperation through wargaming”.

That evening was spent in Ellis Hall, where people could play many of the games that were demonstrated in the lunch period. Game topics ranged from medieval miniatures and early 20th century naval warfare to games on the ISIS crisis in Iraq, cyber security, and an elaborate multiplayer game on modern social and political conflict in a fictional African country.

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Wednesday morning saw Larry Bond as the third keynote speaker, who addressed the topic of “explaining wargaming to other cultures”. He related his attempts to use games to teach students on Marine intelligence courses: these were highly educated and motivated people, who made absolutely no progress on playing a manual game because so many of the concepts lay outside of their experience – but once they had had time to absorb the ideas, they did well. It’s always a challenge to remember what kind of rarified atmosphere wargamers (and game designers) live in.

A panel followed, on “cultures within wargaming”. Speakers on the first panel discussed gaming in terms of military decision support, education about peacebuilding, the moot court process, and reflective practice among institutes of higher education using simulation gaming – in this case, at the United States Naval War College or its equivalent among the nations participating in the 2013 Inter-American War Game.

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Over lunch there was a great presentation on current political-military wargaming by an analyst from the Studies, Analysis and Gaming Division, who works literally in the basement of the Pentagon. This is an important area that is often gamed but rarely talked about, where the games are mainly meant to gain insights.

A second panel in the afternoon went into “how social science can increase the value of wargaming”. A Dutch social scientist explained her experiences in use of games to develop complex decision-making skills and situational awareness among members of military, civilian government, and disaster relief organizations. Another presentation on narrative analysis in seminar wargames introduced the method of “actant analysis”, which examines the narrative grammars of relationships, both cooperative and conflicting, to show how much (or normally, how little) the parties in the seminar understood each other’s narratives and objectives. This made an interesting complement to Dr. Schelling’s remarks the previous morning about how poorly adversaries in a conflict can understand each other, even in “think-tank” games when they come from common cultural, educational, and linguistic backgrounds. A presentation on cross-cultural communication in wargames outlined the value of trying to construct wargames and exercises designed to understand the perspective of the Other, whoever that might be, and in so doing challenge the spoken, implicit, unspoken, and hidden assumptions people carry within themselves and which so thoroughly affect their behaviour. Finally, a speaker presented on a chapter written by Dr. Schelling, of a 1987 book with the title Managing Nuclear Operations called “The Role of Wargames and Exercises” which mentions the Impossibility Theorem: no one could ever draw up a list of all the things that would never occur to him. (Hm, that never occurred to me.)

Following the panels, the group split for two sessions of hands-on teaching of wargaming techniques: one group learned how to do actant analysis, and the group I joined played a couple of moves of a “cultural wargame” – players took the roles of central figures in a small British rural village during a near-future civil conflict, and explored how we would react to the quartering among us of a unit of Bangladeshi peacekeeping troops sent there by the United Nations.

The last event of the day saw three working groups discussing in parallel: “Who Wargames?” (an inventory of wargame cultures); promoting international cooperation through wargaming; and advancing wargaming by promoting transfers between wargame cultures.

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As is usual practice, Thursday was a half-day spent reporting out from the previous day’s working groups and workshops, and the “hot wash” discussion of what could be done next year to improve the conference. Themes for discussion included: alternatives to and uses for the “game lab” quick game design exercise that was done in 2012, and which people wanted to see return to the agenda; improving contact with and promoting the presence and value of both this conference and wargaming in general to potential audiences (e.g. particular areas of the Department of Defense, academia and commercial game publishers); breaking the conference up to focus on specific issues, problems and techniques, either by small groups working in parallel or for serial consideration by sections of the agenda; and improving the experience of remote participants in the conference (this was the third year where people had the opportunity to participate in selected parts of the conference by audio or by video tele-conferencing, and a growing number are taking advantage of these means).

This was the fifth CONNECTIONS conference I have attended. As always, I found it very valuable, both for being able to talk and work with among other toilers in the field, and to discuss old and new issues and problems.

The Connections website is here


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