Kriegsspiel: Powerful Lessons from War Games

Matthew Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English and Associate Director, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) over at University of Maryland, has a most excellent article on wargames at Play the Past.

“To a wargamer,” writes Greg Costikyan in the just published collection Tabletop: Analog Game Design, “wargames are not abstract, time-wasting pastimes, like other games, but representative of the real. . . . You can learn something from wargames; indeed, in some ways you can learn more from wargames than from reading history”

I agree. Gee has been telling us for most of the last decade that we can learn from games.

Kirschenbaum went to the recent Connections wargaming conference. He says wargaming has a rich history:

Indeed, the Connections conference advertised itself as being held on the 200th anniversary of the “invention” of wargaming. What can this mean, with games like Chess and Go dating back to antiquity? In the early 1800s, the Prussian staff officer Georg von Reisswitz formally introduced his Kriegsspiel, a game played by laying metal bars across maps to mark troop dispositions (derived from a set his father had made up) to his fellow officers. “This is not a game! This is training for war!” one general is said to have exclaimed. (The authoritative account of the origins and development of Kriegsspiel is to be found in Peter Perla’s excellent The Art of Wargaming.)

One of the key elements of beneficial learning players obtain by engaging in these games is not so much historical knowledge, but rather decision making skills. When faced with limited resources, for instance, in times of high crisis such as war, what are the best decisions a leader can make? Better yet, what are the best skills a leader can acquire so that he or she can make the best critical decisions when previously unforeseen circumstances arise? It is within this context that wargames provide a beneficial sandbox.

Most of the action seems to involve sitting around a table and talking (sometimes colloquially referred to as BOGSAT, “Bunch of Guys [and Girls] Sitting Around a Table” by those in the know). Such games, which are staged not only by the Pentagon but also by corporate consulting firms like Booz Allen Hamilton, can be about response to a global pandemic or an interruption in the supply chain for a manufacturing process as well as military operations and contingencies. Wargaming, increasingly, is a term as likely to be encountered in a business leadership seminar as inside a Beltway think tank.

The article hardly qualifies as a blog post. It is more along the lines of something one would read in The Atlantic. It’s a very interesting perspective and well worth the read.



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