One of the many ways that COVID-19 has impacted the US Department of Defense is in its wargaming activities. Typically conducted in person, wargames face challenges from travel restrictions, large-scale shifts toward telework, social distancing measures, and state and local lockdowns that affect the defense industry. Wargames are also often classified, and classified work has faced particular challenges during the pandemic—although it has given rise to classified telework.
There are significant limitations of using many of the same approaches we have always used, just now in the virtual space. Additional thought and better design are required to improve the virtual wargaming experience and to gain the full advantages that distributed wargames may offer. As we have all discovered, virtual events come with their own set of challenges. The lack of face-to-face engagement takes away many of the benefits from traditional, in-person wargames and tabletop exercises. Zoom fatigue; distractions in the home; bandwidth and connectivity issues; anxiety, frustration, and boredom from social isolation; plus general pandemic stress all hamper participants’ engagement. Multiple, day-long tabletop exercises and wargames are impractical and ineffective when simply moved to Microsoft Teams without additional adaptation.
What, then, can wargamers do in light of these difficulties with virtual gaming? One idea is to learn from the real-time and large-scale experiment unfolding as much of the education system in the United States has transitioned to virtual learning. Many schools have adopted hybrid models of synchronous and asynchronous learning, which is a blend of content that students can engage on their own and activities done together in the virtual classroom. How much of your wargame content can be provided asynchronously ahead of time, either through prerecorded video or as reading material? Scripting, storyboarding, and rehearsing prerecorded content beforehand—as well as having good audio and video—is key in online instruction. Other recommendations are to use chat, polls, frequent breaks, and virtual breakout sessions to maintain engagement.
Wargame planners can also draw lessons from the tradition of play-by-mail (PBM) games, which are entirely asynchronous and distributed. Players located anywhere send in their turn via mail or e-mail. The PBM community identifies many advantages of PBM over face-to-face board games, and argues that the format allows for more time to think between moves and for greater game complexity. PBM players also highlight the ability to accommodate different schedules, the low technical requirements for participating, and the larger number of players that these games can traditionally allow (up to hundreds at once).
Professional wargamers should recognize that this ability to participate from any location is especially relevant to a globally distributed US Department of Defense that spans not only all US time zones but many around the world. There are other important advantages in PBM that matter for defense professionals. One of these is data capture: entire answers submitted in writing allow for near-complete data capture. This eliminates the need for notetakers and could allow for significantly improved analysis of the qualitative data from wargames. Another lies in the reality that research on group brainstorming shows it is often ineffective—people are more likely to generate more original ideas when working individually. The asynchronous, individual work time naturally built into PBM is something that defense wargamers should consider.
Yet another idea is to bring back some of the tangible experience that used to be more common in wargames. Can you create and send players a game kit with printed cards, physical maps, tokens, game pieces, and visual aids for your wargame? Can you have a deck of cards with different scenarios on them? Actual maps with pieces players can have in front of them? A booklet of physical worksheets to write on before sharing answers? What elements of your game kit could players use during the individual, asynchronous work? What elements can they use to augment their synchronous, virtual sessions? At best, well-designed and visually interesting artifacts could increase the engagement and interactivity in your wargame. At worst, it might give players something to fidget with during their umpteenth video conferencing meeting of the day. (If they are going to fidget, it might as well be with something from your wargame.)
Another set of ideas is around reducing the demands on executive function for players in a virtual wargame. This is important for two reasons: 1) to reduce their cognitive load, which is already stressed by the numerous facets of the pandemic, and 2) to counter the sheer number of other activities competing on their executive functioning in the work-from-home environment. Look for ways to help players organize all their tasks and interactions for your wargame, be this a single, self-contained binder that is mailed or a link with all the materials online and in one place. Reduce uncertainty and help individuals plan their work day by giving estimated time requirements for offline tasks.
How can wargame planners bring all this together? Consider story boarding or visual planning each time segment for each player. What is the task and its output? When is he or she working synchronously or asynchronously? Is the player passive or active? Alone, in a small group, or plenary? Does a player engage with an element of a physical game kit or prerecorded media? How many different places does the player need to go for information for this task? Block out the player’s entire schedule for your wargame and minimize the amount of both passive time and time spent in virtual and synchronous sessions; design visual and organization aids to help each player with tasks at each point.
Many skillsets needed for building virtual wargaming from first principles are also missing in the wargaming community. While wargamers often have hobby wargaming, military planning, or modeling and simulation backgrounds, they are not necessarily expert in the design and technical tools that commercial firms and educational institutions use to create effective virtually based interaction. Expertise exists in relevant areas such as interaction design, online learning management systems, webinar software platforms, hybrid learning, and user-centered design. Bringing people with these kinds of backgrounds into virtual wargaming would add needed skills and ideas and would boost the level of professionalism in virtual events.
Although the pivot to virtual wargaming comes with significant challenges, it also presents DoD with many opportunities to rethink virtual and distributed wargame design from first principles in ways that should benefit wargaming even in a post-pandemic world. Even as US forces have been globally distributed for decades, in-person wargames have not fully addressed the needs of the distributed force. The scale and basic design of virtual and distributed games have often fallen short as well. Many events—in-person and virtual—also continue to be uncomplicated and unadjudicated tabletop exercises, whose scenario–response–discussion format leaves out thinking adversaries and therefore one of the main acknowledged benefits of wargaming. The wildly incorrect notion also persists that tabletop-exercise discussions (usually unchallenged assumptions and beliefs) “validate” anything. And lastly, rather than seeing virtual wargaming as a temporary adjustment until COVID-19 blows over, DoD should explicitly embrace the benefits of reduced travel costs, wider access to participation, opportunities for focused individual work inherent in asynchronous designs, and other opportunities that virtual wargaming can provide. That being said, it will require developing explicit design and practices with the virtual foremost in mind to realize the full benefits of wargaming. Just as computer games are best designed first as computer games, rather than as board games to be ported to digital spaces, developing good virtual wargames calls for its own fundamental principles.
Yuna Huh Wong is a research analyst with the Institute for Defense Analyses, where she currently supports Joint Staff and Combatant Command tabletop exercises. She co-led the Hedgemony wargame that supported the 2018 US National Defense Strategy and was co-director of the Center for Gaming while at the RAND Corporation. She is also founder of the Women’s Wargaming Network.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any organization with which the author is affiliated, including the Institute for Defense Analyses.
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