2a. Purpose


Close Combat Computer Game
"Here is the pre-meditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster--and no smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet, and charming thing, that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence."

H.G. Wells, Little Wars 97 (1913)

The first step in any qualitative analysis is to determine a criterion for evaluation.  Evaluative criteria are usually based on assumptions about the goal of an activity.  (Sprinters attempt to run fast, businesses attempt to make money.)  The goals of wargaming are less clear, and thus harder to evaluate. Given the broad scope of professional and hobby wargames, the various genres of wargaming, and the multiple needs and preferences of their constituencies, it is obvious that there can be no single criterion for judging the quality of a wargame.  However, most wargames generally seem to share a common set of goals.  While not all wargames may be designed to meet the following goals, they might be seen as a representative list of goals, some of which guide the design and play of most all wargames.

Goal #1: Prediction
Though most all wargamers are against the use of wargames as predictive tool, wargames are often used for this purpose. The dangers of using wargames for prediction are obvious: in the event that models do not perfectly represent reality (and no model does), the interaction of these models in a game produces an unrealistic result.  The problems of effective modeling are myriad, but even if one party were to have perfect models based on perfect information about opposing forces, there is still the danger of misjudging the strategy of an opponent.  Since wargame simulations are interactive not just with models, but also with the actions of an opposing force, strategic plans can never be determinate, since the opponent's actions always constitute an unknown factor.

Yet given these caveats, wargames can still be used to predict events in ways that are not possible in other forms of predictive analysis.  Because strategy and tactics play a significant role in military conflict, there are limitations on the information that can be provided by "straightforward" analysis.  Military strategy, while often driven by doctrine, is also driven by creative thinking, deceptive ploys, and the innovative use of untested technologies. By mirroring the strategic considerations that drive the flow of war, wargames can account for these factors where other less competitive models cannot.  Even in cases where the post-conflict resolution is of dubious predictive value, a wargame may reveal that certain technologies, time periods, or terrain will play a decisive role in the potential conflict.An elaborate setting for a miniature wargame

Goal #2: Model Exploration
A second and related goal of wargaming is exploration of the model created. At the very least, playing a wargame gives participants a better understanding of the model on which the game is played.  To the degree that the model corresponds to the thing represented in significant ways, the players also gain an understanding of reality.  Some model aspects (e.g. spatial arrangements) are generally accurate, but may be imperfectly understood without some form of active engagement.  For example, seeing a mountain range represented on a map does not reveal the strategic role that the range could play in a military conflict, or how it might affect (precisely) the movement of troops and supplies.  Wargames are one means by which information that is technically "known" and presented in model form can be learned more deeply and integrated into constructive knowledge.  Extensive gaming of military conflict in the European theater, for instance, will likely give gamers an intuitive grasp of the region--at least insofar as the models used are accurate.

Historical games are often played as a way of exploring the strategic concerns and doctrines of a different time period with different technological constraints.  Much like other historical simulations, historical wargames allow players to achieve a fuller understanding of warfare during a given historical period through simulating the environment of that period.  Through re-creating and re-playing historical battles, participants appreciate the wisdom or folly of the strategic decisions made by past generals.

Models can also be critically explored, though this is undoubtedly less common in wargames.  For instance, playing a wargame and gaining a closer knowledge of a model can lead gamers to question the assumptions of the model, based on the results of the simulation.  This, in turn, may result in the revision of models to produce more accurate results.[1]  Similarly, military-political wargames might reveal that players lack understanding of the effects and strategic implications of some key technology and that more research and analysis in that area is required.A chess variant

Goal #3: Developing Competitive Strategic Skills
A third goal of wargames, perhaps the main goal proposed by most advocates of wargames, is to use games to foster strategic education and innovation.  Wargames serve as possibly the only theatre, outside of actual warfare, where military officers can be trained in decision-making and can be allowed to experiment with new ideas and tactics.  Wargames allow rank novices to use games to explore novel and unorthodox strategies without running the risk of catastrophes involving loss of lives.  Though "game-smarts" do not always translate directly into better abilities in actual war, good performance in war games probably demonstrates strategic aptitude more convincingly than paper-and-pencil testing.

While this goal may seem oriented toward training, it also forms the basis of the entertainment value of wargames.  Those who play wargames often enjoy finding and exploiting the strategic weaknesses of their opponents, while "discovering" the most important ways to achieve victory in a game.  Wargames can be appreciated as free-form puzzles; the means to achieving victory are not readily apparent, but through continued play, certain strategies prove generally superior.  Yet wargames are superior to puzzles, since they can provide an entirely different set of problems based on the character of an opponent.  For example, in chess, a more skilled opponent can change the nature of a game and require the development of new defenses and strategies. Most wargames designers aspire to provide games with the strategic depth of chess.  Wargames that succeed in this goal provide the flexibility required for innovation, while maintaining the order required to reward planning instead of luck.

Goal #4: Simulation Immersion
In addition to predicting the future, fostering the exploration of models, and training participants in strategy, wargames also seem to provide participants with the vicarious experience of simulated participation in war.  At one level, this may be entirely about having fun.  Like Walter Mitty, wargamers can experience the thrill of escaping from tedium to stand in the shoes of Patton or Napoleon and shape the course of history.  Adults may enjoy "playing" at being their heroes as much as children do, though wargames may allow them to be somewhat less obvious about the endeavor.

The desire to reenact history and play a central role is evidenced by the care with which many wargame designers craft their "chrome"[2]  and market their products.  The detailed shield of a miniature crusader, the cannon-shaped game pieces used in the Diplomacy board game, and the authentic appearance of the dashboard of a Foker DR.I in a flight simulator all demonstrate that wargames seek to achieve more than the creation of an abstract exercise.Sierra's Red Baron 3-D computer wargame

The value of this goal is dependent on the related goals of the wargame design.  If the goal of a wargame is to train better soldiers and officers, these "flavor" elements may serve an important purpose.  Those who will some day be expected to operate military equipment and undergo combat conditions can gain the "feel" of these experiences in a simulated environment.  Wargames simulations can be a form of "dress rehearsal" for the actions that may be required in a combat situation.  However, many simulations fail to offer anything approaching "realism" in this regard [3]--and instead tend to make a fetish out of some elements of combat while ignoring others.  "Chrome" in some commercial wargames seems to be biased toward encouraging the mythology of war, instead of the portraying the less interesting or exciting details.  (E.g., Sierra's Red Baron provides lavish detail in planes, medals, and atmosphere, but does not provide much information about the lives of WWI pilots or the major events of the war.)  H.G. Wells seemed to believe this kind of sanitization of warfare inured to the benefit of wargames.  Though it may be considerable fun and succeed in selling games, the sugar-coating of warfare should be carefully scrutinized, since the distance between professional gaming and hobby gaming is often not too far.  Making war seem glorious and fun may encourage popular and institutional fondness for what is often a less than enjoyable experience in actuality.

This is not to suggest that all wargames are exercises in self-deluding fantasy. Not all game designers and players are interested in dressing up the past.  Some historical wargamers and military aficionados have a more scholarly interest in getting the "chrome" right, and appreciate games that sacrifice drama and glamour for period detail and historical accuracy.  War is a historic and contemporary reality, and ignoring the actual flavor of war can be just as dangerous as getting it wrong.

Goal #5: Policy Formation and Exploration
Some games, especially the military-political role-playing wargames played at the Pentagon and elsewhere, seem designed to foster serious thinking about the priority of policies and their implementation.  Most wargames do not allow for this kind of activity, since the goals of a game are often pre-ordained and not subject to revision.  However, this goal may be the best explanation for group role-plays that foster discussion of hypothetical near-future situations.  This kind of wargame can become a special type of "discussion" where the leaders in various executive departments can hash out military policy in a forum where potential conflicts can be identified and addressed prior to their appearance in an actual crisis. 

Goal #6: Fun
A final goal of commercial wargames is to provide pleasure.  While it is likely that many wargamers pursue the more academic goals of wargaming, the popularity of computer and board wargames suggests that a large number of wargamers simply prefer playing wargames to watching television or engaging in some other leisure activity.  Since wargames compete with games like Monopoly and Myst in these arenas, it would be foolish of commercial wargame designers to ignore the paramount need to make their games enjoyable to play.  Professional wargames are perhaps less attuned toward this goal--but still, if players enjoy the experience of playing, professional wargames are more likely to be successful.


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1(back).  See, e.g, the quote from Sid Sackson, supra, suggesting a game where Finland could conquer Europe must have contained flawed modeling.

2(back).  "Chrome" is the wargamer's term for those elements of the game which are not essential or overly important to the game, yet are added to fill out a game's detail.

3(back). Physical wargames would be a notable exception, since the participants in these games often get some exposure to their actual combat duties.  Still, even in physical games, it is debatable whether any military exercise or paintball game bears a relation to the psychological realities that will confront those participating in a real war.