Simulating the world is a human obsession.
You don't hear scientists talking about monkey war-games, or role-playing games, for that matter. You don’t hear about reports of gold fish, sharks, or octopodes (it’s not octopuses, folks), and other marine wildlife duking it out over sand table terrain for glory only known among fellow hobbyists. In fact, simulating the world through games and gaming seems to be what makes humankind stand out. It is what makes us different from the animals. Play, games, and gaming have all taken on an importance not seen in the animal world. To channel what many might be thinking, play (and games and gaming) is an important element in the generation of culture and those actions or reactions deemed appropriate by culture.
Despite the importance play, gaming, and games have on the production of culture and those actions or reactions deemed appropriate by culture, academics have not given war games the benefit of being serious subjects of study—that is, until recently. The hesitation on the part of many academics, prior to the new millennium, might be linked to several factors. War games are not, overall, played by a majority of people, with maybe Go and chess being exceptions to this rule. Thus, studying such activities may seem frivolous, even pointless, to many academics and serious scholarly publishers alike. Furthermore, war-gaming has an inextricable link to the military-industrial complex, and some academics might see war-gaming as being part of the military-entertainment complex, which conditions civilians to view armed conflict, military might makes right, with favor. Academics also seem to be solely focused, although I could be wrong in my assertion here, on more recent gaming developments. In other words, academics seem to focus on the prevalence of computer-mediated games and gaming in our world today. (In their defense, this is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with considerable reach in politics, economics, and culture.) Computer games have, indeed, ushered a new era in war-gaming history.
Traditional war games, particularly those played in the analog rather than the digital realm, are the focus on this second installment. This particular installment attempts to delve into the sources, looking at traditional war games, both civilian and military in flavor, in order to better understand the importance of such games in our society. Further, I hope to show why war games have been adopted by modern militaries and hobbyists alike, showing the importance of the challenges offered by these games. It is important to remember that games, especially war games, fulfill important human needs, whether they be socialization, training, or even mental stimulation.
Academic interest in war games, and gaming in general, can be traced to the 1980s, 1990s, and with an explosion of interest in the 2000s. Prior to these years, academic coverage of war-gaming, even gaming, is quite spotty, to say the least. This makes my task even harder, but not entirely impossible, when trying to establish the history of war-gaming, both civilian and military in flavors.
Glick and Charters, writing in the Journal of Contemporary History in 1983, offer up some interesting insights concerning the academic uses for war games, particularly its uses in the subfield of military history. According to Glick and Charters, military historians, at least in 1983, paid little attention to war-gaming, especially concerning its impact on military circles, which baffles Glick and Charters, who both point out the importance war-gaming has had on military organizations.1 As a student of history, someone who has studied history at the undergraduate and graduate levels, has found that historians aren’t fans of counterfactual speculation when it comes to matters of history. In fact, many historians see this sort of speculation as frivolous, devoid of useful data for academic inquiry.
Glick and Charters argue that war games, civilian or otherwise, can provide important analytical tools for historians.2 These analytical tools should be taken seriously by historians because they help historians view important historical events with a lens attempts to mimic conditions and uncertainty of the battlefield. Many war games rely on what is often called the Monte Carlo method (see Glossary), where certain things are left to chance within the game’s framework, which means, when properly run and designed, war games have been able to predict the outcomes of military conflicts. This could, in turn, be used to help military historians understand the options and opportunities to military commanders training with war games.
Our obsession to simulate the world, whether small or large pieces of that world, can be seen with war games, particularly in military circles. Robert T. Foley, writing in 2004, explores the important of war games among Germany’s military elite, which had a tremendous amount of success with war games under the Prussian Ascendancy of the late nineteenth century. According to Foley, who focused on Alfred von Schlieffen (whose name lived on with the infamous Schlieffen Plan) and Moltke the Younger, both Schlieffen and von Moltke utilized war games to train their subordinate officers. Foley notes
Each commander had the responsibility to train his men to the utmost of their ability, and every officer was expected to continue his education throughout his career. To this end, senior officers throughout the various armies that made up the Kaiserheer set up training programmes for their subordinates. Officers were not only expected to be competent on the drill deck, but also to display the progress of their learning in wargames such as staff problems carried out indoors and staff rides carried out in the field. Their performance in such exercises served as important indicators for promotions and assignment to other positions. Training and educational exercises were taken very seriously, therefore, by most officers. 5
From Foley’s astute analysis and findings, we see that the use of war games as a training tool had been institutionalized within the Germany military, for better or worse, prior to the outbreak of First World War. War games in this sense had moved outside of the traditional Kriegsspiel war game. In other words, the war games used by the German military prior to World War One had already evolved into something we are familiar with today.
Interestingly, Foley notes that German officers, particularly von Schlieffen and von Moltke, took similar approaches when conducting their war games with their military forces. They often played war games where German forces were smaller in size and outnumbered by their enemies.6 This was an important aspect of German military strategy prior to and during the First World War. It assumed a weak or weakened Germany from the get-go would have to fight stronger, (and very possibly) more prepared enemies. Furthermore, von Schlieffen and von Moltke stressed the importance of using war games to see how the enemy thinks, in order to come up with the enemy’s most likely course of action, which could then be exploited on the battlefield for German success.
Hall, writing in Defence Studies in 2005, argues that “[i]n the German Army of the 1914–45 period, the term ‘wargame’ was applied rather liberally to cover a range of exercised include wargames proper, map exercises, staff exercises, training trips, tactical walks, command post exercises, sandtable exercises, battlefield tours and staff rides.”9 In other words, conceptually speaking, the German military, one of the forerunners in modern military training and education, stretched the term to encompass a range of activities. This range of activities is still found in military circles. Again, it appears that war games are, conceptually speaking, a sort of simulation before computers took over the simulating. In other words, war games are an attempt to speculate on how one might win a battle, defeat an enemy, etc. Moreover, this attempt to simulate conditions on the battlefield, along with its uncertainty and those elements left to chance, shows a human fascination (or obsession, really) with simulating the world, even if only a small portion of that world is being simulated.
This German military faith in war games continued well into the Second World War. In fact, Hall confirms this faith had a long history, stretching back to traditional forms of Kriegsspiele that existed in German armies since before the Napoleonic Wars.10 Hall continues
Kriegsspiele, in their various guises, had been a core component of officer training in the Prussian Army long before the Napoleonic Wars. They were equally important throughout the nineteenth century and as such they featured prominently in the education and professional development of the officer corps in the Imperial Army of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, and subsequently Alfred von Schlieffen. After 1918 the German Army reconfirmed its faith in wargames; first the Reichswehr and after 1935 the Wehrmacht were firmly convinced of the great important of these theoretical exercises to the training of their officers and the operational effectiveness of the Army as a whole.11
In order to understand German military thinking, particularly during the first half of the twentieth-century, one needs to understand the German military elite’s use of war games and war-gaming.
Hall also points out that the modern war game is relatively young. Their beginnings, if we take Hall seriously, are located as far back as the seventeenth-century:
The modern concept of wargames, historical studies and practical exercises aimed at improving professional standards officers and armies alike is believed to have its origins in the seventeenth century with the development of the ‘military chess game’ – an adaptation of regular chess that incorporated contemporary interest in mathematical principles and emphasised their relationship on strategy and tactics. Innovative though it was, the game was also severely limited by the rigid characteristics of the chessboard. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, military writer and tactician, Georg Venturini, transferred the game to a chart or map and thus began the development of the modern chartex and mapex – a regular feature in staff college courses today.12
Interestingly, modern (civilian) war games are heavily dependent on maps and charts, something taken from early war games seen in military circles. The addition of rules, dice, tokens or playing pieces, and even a sandtable are also linked to the military versions of these popular games. In civilian war games, war-gaming pushes a sort of realism. The same can be said of the military variety as well. This realism attempts to replicate, as much as one can, the conditions on the battlefield, the terrain, and the uncertainty. This, to me, is interesting, because it brings up something interesting about war-gaming and gaming in general. There tends to be a sort of simulation component to war games. Before I dive to deep into simulation, I want to say that I am on neither side of the ludology and narratology debate. In fact, I see importance (and valid) arguments on both sides of the debate. Nevertheless, games have a simulation component, which goes hand-in-hand with its narrative components. This simulation component, again, is trying to simulate part of the world, albeit a small portion of that world. Other games do the same thing. Some help us navigate economics. Others politics. Still others offer a way to navigate the social realms.
2 Glick and Charters, “War, Games, and Military History,” 568-69.
3 Glick and Charters, “War, Games, and Military History,” 569.
4 Glick and Charters, “War, Games, and Military History,” 569
5 Robert, T. Foley, “Preparing the German Army for the First World War: The Operational Ideas of Alfred von Schlieffen and Helmuth von Moltke the Younger,” War & Society 22, no. 2 (October 2004): 6.
6 Foley, “Preparing the German Army,” 9.
7 Foley, “Preparing the German Army,” 10.
8 Foley, “Preparing the German Army,” 12.
9 David Ian Hall, “IV. The Modern Model of the Battlefield Tour and Staff Ride: Post 1815 Prussian and German Traditions,” Defence Studies 5, no. 1 (2005): 37.
10 Hall, “The Modern Model,” 38.
11 Hall, “The Modern Model,” 38.
12 Hall, “The Modern Model,” 38.