1g. Professional Wargames


Large-scale professional wargaming, from Peter Perla's The Art of Wargaming

"There'll be contracts, there'll be money, there'll be experiments, because there is the same kind of quest for a persuasive wargaming capability as there is a quest for a laser beam that will bounce off a small mirror in space."

Lincoln Bloomfield as quoted in
Thomas B, Allen, Wargames (1987)

Professional wargames have existed for over a century, and as Professor Bloomfield notes, will continue to exist. In terms of their basic structure, professional wargames do not differ much from their hobby counterparts. Board and miniature wargames, role-playing wargames, computer wargames and physical wargames all appear in professional gaming.

Board & Miniature Wargames
Professional wargaming began (more or less) with Kriegsspiel, which is essentially a form of board game modeling the army combat. Soon after the invention of Kriegsspiel, the game was widely distributed to the German army, and shortly thereafter, all the European armies began to practice the game to some degree.[1] An American Kriegspiel was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, and its inventor taught for a time at the Naval War College in Newport, Connecticut.[2] At roughly the same time, the Naval War College began its own naval wargaming tradition under Professor McCarty Little, who used lead ships and the grid floors of a large room to plan annual wargame problems involving world-scale naval warfare between the United States and other major powers.[3] The tradition started by McCarty Little has continued to the present day, though the "global game" is no longer played using miniatures, but rather using high-powered computers. The Army and Marines also adopted Kriegspiel for use in officer training, and its use continues to the present day. As an example, during the 1980's the Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Texas, housed a 1/285 scale board game covering of a portion of NATO's Eastern Front, complete with miniature tanks.

Role-playing Wargames
Role-playing has been adopted as a technique for modeling the analytical dynamics of wartime decision-making.  Herbert Goldhamer, a RAND analyst, is generally credited with inventing military-political wargames in 1956. Others, at RAND and MIT, refined and developed these models. Military-political games resemble (and pre-date) role-playing games. Two or more teams of players are grouped together in a room and assigned the role of a country (the United States, an enemy, or an allied state). Teams are presented with a scenario, usually involving an international crisis taking place in the present day or near future. The scenario is described by a team of analysts and designers called "control." After assessing the situation, the team decides on a number of "moves" (e.g. troop mobilizations, press statements, demarches) which are transmitted to control. Control then analyzes these moves and returns to the team a new scenario (often set a few days or months later) with a new crisis situation that has resulted from the moves taken. Military-political wargames are often played by high-ranking military and civilian officials, and used as data in reaching policy decisions. The transcripts and results of the games, and the identities of participants, are almost always classified as top secret. Though the designers and participants of these games stress that role-playing is not a serious element of the games and that "this is not Dungeons & Dragons," the similarity between the two genres is self-evident. There are also reports (and RAND studies) attempting to solve the classic role-playing problem of attempting to "think" like someone else (i.e. the enemy).A professional machine simulation

Computer Wargames
As early as 1958, the Navy spent over $10 million on the Navy Electronic Warfare System, an early system that allowed wargames to be played utilizing a computer mainframe to track movements and calculate the results of combat. Although NEWS was very primitive by contemporary standards and replete with problems, the impetus that created it led to numerous other colorful acronyms and computer-based wargames in the various branches of the military. Often computers were used merely to handle the heavy analytical work of resolving combat, but just as in hobby wargaming, constant advances in graphics and processor speeds led to a greater variety of applications over time. In the 1980's and 1990's, the rapid pace of technological change and the problems of government contracting led computer simulations and tactical wargames to often cross the line between private and military uses. In some cases, mass-market computer games were based upon technological advances made in military games. In other cases, military institutions borrowed or adapted mass-market games for training exercises.  Although the details of professional computer wargaming today are classified, it is clear that contemporary research is proceeding on multiple fronts: including automating strategic planning, improving modeling accuracy, integrating computers into traditional military-political wargaming, and developing superior expert systems.

One side effect of the increasing use of technology in warfare is the possible erosion of distinctions between real and simulated war.  When much of warfare is dependent on remote sensing and automated systems, the consoles used for wargames may be the same consoles used for war.  This idea is hardly new (see the movie 1983 movie Wargames), yet the developments that prompted it continue to change the nature of warfare.
Solider in the JRTC training exercise
Physical Wargames
Field wargames, also called exercises or maneuvers, have a much longer history than paintball or laser tag.  Military units today regularly engage in training exercises which are essentially physical wargames. Outside of the confines of special forces units, physical wargaming generally seems to receive less attention in professional wargaming circles. Perhaps this is due to a belief that physical wargaming, since it involves the physical training of individual soldiers, is less important in war. War strategists often prefer to plan and analyze on a grander scale. There also may be some degree of skepticism over whether the technology of ground unit training can actually be meaningfully enhanced. Much of physical wargaming seems to be dependent upon developing and perfecting sets of fairly well-known skills, which may not lend themselves to theoretical improvement. This tendency to downplay the importance of individual soldiers in combat seems to be a flaw in current military modeling.

How Do Professional Games Differ?
Professional wargaming, or the wargaming practiced by the military, is an institutional exercise. This, more than any other factor, makes professional wargaming substantially different than hobby gaming. Professional wargames are generally less subject to market controls for entertainment or educational value. Those who play the games are usually obligated to participate regardless of their assessment of the value of the game, and those who design the games sometimes express skepticism about the design objectives and methodologies of professional gaming. Due to the hierarchical and professional nature of military institutions, strong criticism and radical revision of games is generally not likely. Since professional wargames are often designed by large teams, institutional "groupthink" and compliance with hierarchical mandates tend to suppress novelty and creative design.
Wargame at the Joint National Testing Facility
Yet despite these drawbacks, professional wargames are in some ways superior to hobby games. Generally speaking, professional game designers have greater access to financial and factual resources. Whereas hobby game designers are unconstrained in theory, they are often constrained by the need to design popular games quickly. Professional wargame designers can dedicate a large staff and budget to the creation of complex games that would never be popular successes.  Also, professional wargames in theory can make use of more accurate and current information, since military institutions will be likely maintain data on military subjects and provide access to internal personnel.  Professional game designers also may be professional  military analysts with extensive budgets for non-wargame research and development exercises.  Finally, professional wargames, being less responsive to market demands, may in fact be more "realistic" than hobby wargames. Actual warfare is not entertainment. Though entertaining wargames "make learning fun" and "fire the imagination," they may also jettison those aspects of war strategy that make games more tedious than enjoyable.

The differences between hobby and professional gaming should not be overdrawn. Some designers participate in both the professional and hobby markets, and many professional wargamers and game designers are also hobby wargamers as well.


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1(back).  See Peter P. Perla, The Art of Wargaming 26-33 (1990).

2(back).  Id. at 55.

3(back). Id at 63-69.