While hobby wargaming has a plethora of outlets during this global pandemic, the same cannot be said for professional wargaming.
The pandemic has completely disrupted professional wargaming, which is typically played en masse and in person. Hundreds of people tend to gather for the signature "Title 10" wargames of each service, such as the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Warrior or the Navy's Global wargames. These events bring together the artists, scientists, and practitioners of military disciplines to practice, explore, and critique the newest concepts the U.S. military will face or bring to bear. But in the last three months, all of CNA's in-person wargames have been postponed or cancelled, and the larger military events have mostly been postponed, cancelled, or significantly scaled back.
In this time when virtual meetings are becoming the norm, it may seem obvious to simply start running these wargames online. But shifting entire wargames to virtual events can never fully replace in-person events. A successful wargame is inherently a many-to-many conversation, in which disparate participants from a broad range of organizations gather to share their unique perspectives. Virtual platforms are not yet able to duplicate the experience.
But wargames are simply too critical to the national planning processes and to developing senior leaders for us to simply throw up our hands and wait for a COVID-19 vaccine. We must learn to execute virtual wargames that yield at least some of the same impact and insight. And so we have to reckon with their many challenges.
Reconstructing those many-to-many conversations is the largest challenge. A facilitator at the front of the room for an in-person wargame may guide and synthesize discussion points. But importantly the participants talk with each other. Whether strangers or colleagues, people sitting next to each other begin having a conversation; they share information relevant to the conduct of the game. Those conversations between people with interest or expertise in the topic build the collective knowledge of the room. Over the course of the hours or days of the wargame, each of those conversations is repeatedly combined, filtered, vetted and summarized through the minds in the room. The result has a chance to be a rarified nugget of insight, molded by every participant's tiny mote of knowledge about the same problem.
When it works well, it's beautiful to behold. But the management of that process is what makes wargame facilitation such a challenge, even with the advantages of in-person interactions. Designing a wargame to incorporate those interactions — and be flexible enough to leverage them — is part of the art of wargame design. And it is that challenge we designers now need to overcome in the virtual world.
In the time of COVID-19, wargamers no longer share thoughts over a cup of coffee and a flaky pastry in a room full of people. In virtual wargames on a videoconference platform, players sit at home with their laptops, watching wargame briefs. And — let's face it — reading their email, watching their kids, folding their laundry, or reading news on their phone.
Beyond those distractions, the biggest challenge is that virtual conferences are, at their heart, a one-to-many conversation. Virtual conferencing tools are a great way to present one person's ideas to a large group of people. They grow your audience, projecting your voice to people who would not otherwise be able to hear you in person. But when only one person can talk at a time, the many-to-many conversations that distinguish professional wargames are lost.
After the introductory briefs, a wargame facilitator knows they did their job well when the room erupts in conversations. Whether those voices are happy, sad, angry or excited, a good facilitator charges the players with energy to go forth and solve the problem at hand. And a good wargame design gives them a productive place to channel that collaborative energy.
That transfer of energy rarely happens in a virtual conference. The challenge for wargaming during COVID-19 is finding a way to stoke that energy, capture it within the bounds of the wargame, and focus it into productive work in support of the wargame problem.
For an in-person event, stoking this energy gets easier with more people in the room. Large numbers of people tend to self-organize, finding something productive to do so they won't be bored while trapped in a conference center for a week — usually without their cell phones. More people means more "error correction." Participants can easily interject their corrections into the primary thread of the wargame by raising their hands, asking a question, or simply catching the ear of a facilitator during the break. They can also have their own internal "errors" corrected by a room full of subject matter experts.
In a virtual event, the formula is reversed. Keeping the number of players small helps maintain coherent focus by allowing all to see when someone is not participating. The larger the virtual group — whether on a chat room dialog or video screen — the fewer creative outlets individual participants have for their energy when the single line of discussion is not about their area of interest. When you fail to provide an outlet for an interested person, the wargame instantly loses value.
Enabling the text chat in a video conference buys us back some aspects of the many-to-many conversation, but it is still not quite there. The chat window is full of questions, insightful thoughts, and the occasional joke or snarky comment. That's great — and can be kept for posterity, which is a win for the wargame analysts¬ — but paying full attention to the chat and the presentation at the same time is a skill few have mastered.
We need to experiment with allowing players to self-organize into breakout rooms to solve problems, but I have yet to find a platform for government systems that easily enables these. Platforms like Slack or Discord might get us there — if we can overcome security challenges and technology barriers for players. But we still have to find ways to keep breakout rooms from becoming isolated stovepipes of excellence. And wargame facilitators need a way to monitor them all to determine the right time for the game to move on to the next topic. The corporate world has been telecommuting for years. What lessons can we learn from the way multinational businesses function and interact?
We particularly need to find solutions to the conundrum of large virtual wargames. Ordinarily, the larger the virtual event, the more likely the teleconference system will limit side interactions by not showing the participant list, by removing the chat function, and by channeling questions to a single moderator. These restrictions allow the facilitator to keep order over the single thread of the discussion. But wargames are not about singular information delivery; they are about communal information collection. Wargames are not about trimming off the unwanted threads, they are about weaving disparate threads into a single narrative.
COVID-19 may confound live wargaming for many months to come. When stay-at-home orders first began, our wargame sponsors postponed their events a few weeks. But as awareness of the severity of the disease grew, the planned dates slid to the right more and more. Now, three months into this global challenge, wargame sponsors are increasingly accepting the new normal and asking the question: "Can we do this virtually?"
The answer cannot be "No." Wargaming saves lives. As a community, we need to accept this reality and understand that it will be different. I don’t yet know what the effective virtual wargames of the future will look like, but now is the time to experiment and try something new. Some will fail. And that has to be OK. After all, as wargamers, we know that failure is how we best learn to be better.