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Online Wargaming

Advantages of distributed strategic wargames




Online wargaming is a solution to some problems you are aware of, and even some that you are not. COVID created challenges for all professions as organizations attempted to move their activities online, but for those involved with wargaming the challenges were particularly acute. Wargaming is a discipline that typically insists upon face-to-face communication, as many of the benefits from the experience revolve around unplanned discussions on events that occur within the structure of the game.

Further, the nature of many games aimed at professional audiences simply made online options poor substitutes. Complex rule sets, the role of white cells (game controllers) and even classification issues for government organizations resulted in many beneficial activities simply being shut down. Yet, just as businesses learned, there are benefits to maintaining an online capability for core organizational functions – even for wargaming.

In this article, we will cover some of the unique benefits that can be derived from an online wargaming capability, and wrap up with a brief exploration of how WarPaths can help you reap those benefits.

Want to learn how WarPaths can help your organization conduct distributed strategic wargames, with your own custom scenario and conditions?

Check out our case studies here, or contact us below!

Benefits of Online Wargaming

Organizations that were forced to look for creative solutions during COVID conditions found few viable options. Those that were typically were aimed at a more hobby-oriented audience. Benefits to these games were more general, and difficult to adapt to a specific problem set in a professional setting – even for educational institutions.

Soon, conferences began to address the topic of distributed gaming, with lessons being shared on the benefits of putting in the effort to establishing this capability. Broadly speaking, we can identify three broad themes in these benefits.

Integrate distributed expertise

First, and perhaps most obviously, online wargaming allows organizations to leverage the expertise of participants that are offsite. This can reduce the problems that revolve around coordinating schedules and paying for travel and accommodations.

Moving a simulation online also means you can more easily integrate participants from outside organizations, as well. This allows you to bring in new perspectives on the problem set under study. Often, running a wargame with only participants internal to the organization means biases and blind spots can begin to shape the lessons of the experience. In the worst case, such biases can result in very misleading results.

Wargames, particularly strategic wargames, are best thought of as structured debates. Bringing in participants with very different perspectives can expose the scenario and assumptions to a higher degree of scrutiny and ultimately result in higher quality lessons.

Ease of resetting and reworking

Utilizing a digital format also significantly decreases the marginal cost of conducting another game. As is the case with all digital goods, the development costs are all associated with providing that very first version under development. Subsequent games using the same version then become much cheaper with most costs being tied up in the participants’ time. In-person formats come with additional costs that multiply each time a game is run.

Online wargaming allows you to take advantage of this cost aspect and reset the game multiple times to rework key assumptions, explore new options, and include varying participants to get additional scrutiny and insights on the issues at hand.

Time to develop new perspectives

This advantage applies to either asynchronous game (where not all participants are online at once) or sporadic game (participants are online at once, but over multiple sessions) formats. This would not apply to online synchronous games completed in a single session.

Asynchronous or sporadic formats provide additional time for participants to consider and mentally explore options prior to committing to a course of action in the game. This mitigates an availability bias, where the insights are limited to those that are already contained within the heads of the participants.

Additional time between sessions allows for more research to inform choices, creative ideas to be translated into possible actions, and new mental models to be explored. Further, it helps those that are naturally quieter to find the words to confidently express their thoughts.

Perhaps more importantly, additional time allows for objections to be more fully developed as the participants think through second and third-order effects of a move or argument. This is often short-changed in single session formats as participants move on to the next event within the game fairly quickly.

This video is a short overview of how WarPaths is used to conduct a synchronous online wargame. This mode requires that players be conversing on a video chat application of your choice, while being logged into WarPaths. All gameplay functions are contained on the page demonstrated here.

Analytic Online Wargaming

We can classify wargames into two broad categories that are specific to professional applications. First, there are analytic wargames that are focused on a real-world problem that requires analysis. Second, there are educational wargames that are intended to teach professional topics in an experiential setting. They may deal with current issues, or fictional ones, but the intent is mainly to instruct concepts that will be applied later by the practitioners. In this section, we’ll explore one more advantage created by online formats for analytic wargaming, as well as one unique problem.

One more advantage…

In addition to the advantages discussed above, online wargaming provides another that is specific to analytic wargaming. In most games, participants are often very focused on the current/next move and fail to keep a 30,000-foot view of the issues being developed. This is often the domain of the White Cell, which enjoys information advantage over the teams. Yet, with multiple teams working independently, it can be difficult to maintain enough information awareness to be able to surface insights that would be otherwise lost.

Properly configured tools to conduct an online wargame will allow the White Cell to view the “sausage making” of the teams as they consider their unique positions in the simulation. As a result, the White Cell may see issues and items that deserve further exploration that would otherwise get lost in the rush to the next turn. In an in-person game it is often difficult to both (1) get teams to devote enough time to move development and (2) maintain sufficient White Cell awareness of each team’s efforts. Online tools can provide a digital record to review for these things.

…and a challenge.

One problem that may hamper the use of online wargaming capabilities is the issue of security classification. For those in the national security field, it may be difficult to conduct a game where the objectives or lessons expected to be learned can exceed an “unclassified” label.

One way to approach this is to be clear about what make the wargame a classified event. Aside from the inclination to over-classify everything, there may also be reasons why the classification does not rise to the level you believe it will.

For example, are the starting conditions of the game the problem? Almost any scenario you can imagine can be built on information freely available in open sources. Running a wargame based on this information, even though it may be adjacent to more detailed classified information, can still result in useful insights once complete.

Might the weapon system classification or location be an issue? At the strategic level, wargames can be easily run with purposely “blurred” information detail to prevent relying on information – assuming it is relevant at all. In most cases, strategic level games do not require this level of detail to generate useful information.

If the purpose of the game is to explore a concept or its application, scenarios can be easily developed to address it narrowly and sidestep classification issues related to linking multiple ideas or concepts. Scoping the game broadly to improve the contextual information may have its place, but the ability to run the games quickly and repeatedly with distributed participants means you can take smaller bites – and focus more deeply on your central concerns, one at a time.

Educational Online Wargaming

Online wargaming can also be useful in an educational setting. By their nature, educational activities require that a student contemplate issues and research topics outside of the formal classroom setting.

In most cases, wargames are considered an “in-person” activity as discussed earlier, but this limited conception only addresses half of the educational activity requirements. This need not be the case.

An asynchronous or synchronous-but-sporadic approach to games allows students the time to wrap their minds around difficult concepts or develop actions in complex games. Considering second- and third-order effects is an essential aspect of learning to think critically in an educational setting, but something that often gets derailed during in-person wargames with definite end times.

Exploring difficult topics through wargames is becoming more popular in education and utilizing online tools can bring a range of benefits to both students and instructors to help solidify the learning objectives.

Online Wargaming with Warpaths

If you are considering using online options for your next wargame, WarPaths was built for the purposes of delivering the advantages discussed above. Specifically, with WarPaths you can:

  1. Integrate the distributed expertise you need on the scenario, both inside and outside your organization, with email-based invitations that assign players to teams you identify.
  2. Customize the scenario, map, teams, and incidents to address your specific analytic or educational requirements.
  3. Easily reset the game to “turn 0” to rework the issue from different angles, or utilize different players.
  4. Provide the time essential for developing innovative insights by switching between synchronous and asynchronous play – even for the same game.
  5. Allow White Cells to observe all team argument drafting to ensure all key issues are identified for further analysis/exploration.
  6. Review each turn’s team moves for the entirety of the game for conducting after-action reviews.

Feel free to reach out below to learn more.

Contact Us

WarPaths is a platform for conducting strategic wargames online with distributed participants in synchronous or asynchronous play. It is aimed at national security professionals and students. Please contact us for any inquiries related to bringing WarPaths to your organization.

Government organizations can request a capabilities statement through a message in the form below. We look forward to hearing from you!.