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Why is War Gaming Not Predictive

I have been reading some old articles and came across several interesting points that reinforce many of the principles that we discuss about the use and misuse of war gaming. Andrew Wilson in his 1968 book, The Bomb and the Computer, stated that “No amount of gaming, however well conducted, can uncover the future.” In the War Gaming Department, we have always stated that gaming is better used for uncovering trends, finding advantages or disadvantages of a plan, identifying potential risk, and even raising issues that had been previously unseen. We know that war gaming also allows the user to focus on issues rather than on outcomes, and the games stimulate thought through the competitive use of different player cells or by forcing the players to work through difficult scenarios by making decisions that they have to live with throughout the rest of the game. But there is still the underlying question of why is it that war gaming cannot be predictive?

We all know that by its very nature war is extremely complex. Thus, war gaming has to be complex as well. So in designing a war game, we have to realize that we are dealing with human nature on both the friendly side and the adversary side. Certainly, we won’t ever know what the enemy’s objectives are, and we can never really tell how a human will react to any given event. That is what makes the outcomes so difficult to predict. Also, no one can tell how people will respond to a given attack. Will they fight back, will they capitulate, or will they turn to an unconventional response? These are just a few of the options that an opponent has to react to a singular situation. Added to these human decisions are the almost innumerable factors that influence and impact the context of the situation in which the conflict exists. These include political, economic, intelligence, domestic, and international issues to name only a few.

The argument remains that a single war game cannot be predictive but the use of continuous war games can. To do so, would require the war gamer to control a magnitude of variables in the war game in order to produce the results with any precision. A single control would be to use the same players over and over. Yet, this is problematic in itself. In his 1988 article, “Unlocking the Potential of War Games: A Look Beyond the Black Box,” Arthur Mobley stated that the human factor in war games makes it difficult for them to be predictive. Mobley concurs with our beliefs above when he states, “it is virtually impossible to fully control variables and reproduce results with precision. If continuous gaming were to be predictive one of the things that would be necessary to control is the use of the same players.” However, Mobley believes that players repeating the game will have their judgment and experience influenced by previous game play. So, will their decisions be the result of familiarity with the game rules or how they would have reacted to the situation in a normal scenario? Mobley attests to the further difficulty of controlling the variables as I have alluded to previously when he states it is impossible to control “every determinant of pol-mil affairs.”

Games are very good at educating players and decision makers. Yet, we all have to be careful not to take the wrong lessons away from war gaming. Many times game inputs can lead the results down a certain path or take it away from other paths. Since games deal with humans and the decisions they make, it is difficult to use the results as predictive, since there are so many subjective inputs placed into the game. Again, I defer to Mobley, “Excess belief in game results is a recipe for self-deception.” This is why we focus on themes, insights, and further areas for exploration rather than on pure game results. In closing, let me return to Peter Perla who states, games are important tools to study that most interesting system – the human. Due to the human being the central character in all aspects of the war game, it is nearly impossible for them to be predictive. That is why we must always be faithful to the true art and value of war gaming and not try to oversell it.    

Posted: 5/5/2014 12:02:13 PM by Professor Dave DellaVolpe | with 0 comments


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