Mitch Reed has served in the United States Air Force since 1986 as both a commissioned officer and a government civilian. He presently works at Headquarters U.S. Air Force as wargamer and is also a hobby wargamer who runs the website NoDiceNoGlory.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an ofﬁcial nature nor does the content represent the ofﬁcial position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing Practical Educational Wargaming
Date Originally Written: June 8, 2021.
Date Originally Published: June 14, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a retired U.S. Air Force (USAF) officer and a wargamer in both the USAF and the hobby communities. The article is written from the basis that wargaming is the perfect laboratory for social science students and helps develop leaders with critical decision-making skills.
Summary: Hard science educators use laboratory environments to assess student progress. Social sciences and other areas of endeavor can do the same via wargaming. While one may assume wargaming focuses solely on war, its applications are both for war and beyond, including nearly any context in which an organization or individual desires to determine the cost of action or inaction.
Text: Educators continuously seek means to validate the progress of their students. In hard science curriculums, educators often use a laboratory environment where the students can apply and hone their knowledge in a controlled manner. Subsequently, educators can truly assess the level of learning of their students – beyond a student’s ability to retain and recite the coursework. In contrast, social science courses lack a laboratory environment where knowledge transforms into practical application. Within the Department of Defense, wargaming is used a practical exercise to validate learning. A wargame creates a specific environment where the players face challenges and will need to apply their knowledge to come up with decisions to solve the problems that the game presents.
In 2021, the author supported a global wargame at the Marine Corps University (MCU) where the War College students played the roles of various nations involved in a major conflict. The students were all senior Field Grade Officers with 16-18 years of military experience and various positions of leadership during their military career. Despite their years of experience, students consistently stated how the wargame enabled them to utilize what they learned over the preceding eight months in a manner where they were able to test the concepts in a simulated environment. This “eureka” moment was not evident at first. Initially, the students relied on concepts they felt most comfortable with, often reverting to knowledge they had before attending the course. Yet, the students quickly recognized that by synthesizing and applying the coursework, they could solve the problems that game presented. The students were able to leverage military capabilities and execute them across warfighting domains to generate the effects they desired to “win” the game.
These observations validated two concepts; the first is that the students grasped the coursework and secondly, they were able to use what they learned during the wargame. This second point is critical because it indicates that after the students graduate the War College at MCU they will have the capability to apply the knowledge they have gained in a manner which will benefit the military operations they are involved in for the rest of their careers. These observations validate not only what the students learned at MCU but also the need for professional military education and the need for wargaming to play a major role in these courses.
The author’s experience at MCU was not a singular. When teaching concepts such as military operational planning and execution as an instructor or mentor war-games are invaluable to reinforce the curriculum.
It should be no mystery on why wargaming provides such a robust means of validating learning. Through a wargame, an instructor can tailor the environment of the game in such a manner where students apply the newly learned concepts in a pressure-filled environment. Unlike a test where each question usually has only one correct answer, a wargame offers no simple answers, but a multitude of paths forward. Students possess several means to solve a problem and the outcome is not predetermined if the game uses a stochastic methodology. A risky gamble may succeed, a thorough plan may fail or vice versa – reflective of capricious reality. Ultimately, students must contend with decisions and their consequences.
Seemingly counter intuitive, failure serves to illustrate several factors, which are often out of the control of the players that can affect the game’s outcome, which proves that the lessons of a game may be quite indirect and gives the players a sense of uncertainty when making their decisions. Within its artificial environment, a wargame can pull a student out of their comfort zone and force them to make sound decisions rapidly to prevent a negative outcome in the game. Wargames also emulate the environment the students will have to make decisions in when in an operational assignment.
The military is not the only benefactor of wargaming and the benefits of wargaming translates very well to other fields. Students learning about the failure of the Weimar government in 1930s Germany can use a game to examine a ‘What if” scenario that can uncover the events that lead to the election of the National Socialists in 1933. In business, a wargame can gain insight into how best to market a product or execute a product recall. The uses of wargaming in social science matters is endless and is worthy of inclusion in any course of study or decision-making process.
Despite their value, war-games are not often included in the educational environment. Wargames are not always the easiest of things to create and making a wargame that achieves all desired objectives is as much of an art and science. No matter how tough the challenge, educators can gain by seeking out avenues in which wargaming can enrich the academic environment.
Wargamers are the best ambassadors for wargames as an educational tool and are well positioned to describe the benefits of war-games and wargaming to the uninformed or curious. Grassroots advocacy will ensure that wargaming grows and plays a major role in academia.
 Elg, Johan Erik, “Wargaming in Military Education for Army Officers and Officer Cadets,” King’s College London, September 2017.
 Wong, Bae, Bartels, Smith (2019) Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps, retrieved 21 May 2021; from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2227.html