Sunday, March 18, 2007

Orbis Forum on Political and Military Gaming

In 1984, the journal Orbis published a series of articles on the state of political-military gaming. The exchange is unfortunately not available for free online, but it appeared in the winter 1984 issue, which is probably widely available at university libraries. As a group, these articles are an excellent source of reflections on gaming by some prominent practitioners and theorists.

This is a long post, and it covers four separate articles. If I had known it would take me so long to get around to finishing it, I would have split it up. Lesson learned.

Lincoln Bloomfield was a pioneer in political-military gaming, particularly in his work organizing research-oriented political exercises (referred to as POLEXes) for senior-level decisionmakers at MIT in the late 1950's and throughout the 1960's. All of the POLEX research results are apparently unclassified, but I can't find any reference to them on the web. In his Orbis contribution, Bloomfield discusses the history, practice, and realism of political gaming, based on his own experience. His explanation of how free-form gaming requires experienced participants in order to generate useful policy results is particularly well laid out:
No satisfactory model yet exists of the national security decisionmaking system of the United States (or any other country), nor of the larger system of interactions and perceptions that connects them. Thus one either specifies a crude, oversimplified model or relies on the complex model inside the heads of experienced professionals. How successfully a simulation emulates reality depends on the extent of the players' knowledge of the structures, routines, and probable responses of decisionmakers. Great pedagogic, but little policy value results from putting inexperienced individuals in the shoes of decisionmakers.
Even today the national security decisionmaking process is not sufficiently understood as to negate the value of free-form gaming. I would suggest that it never will be. (More on this in a future post.) There has been some debate over issues related to the last part of Bloomfield's remark above, and in the 50's and 60's several researchers (Guetzkow and Hermann are the two I can think of offhand) used inexperienced participants in games to study various aspects of crisis behavior, then tried to generalize conclusions based on a number of runs of the same game. Whether or not those efforts are considered to have produced valid results, exercises designed as experiments in that way bore little resemblance to the high-level games Bloomfield is basing his conclusion on. It is reasonable to agree that given Bloomfield's type of political game, he is correct in asserting that inexperienced participants who do not have carefully calibrated internal models of the world situation would not produce particularly meaningful policy-oriented results.

Among the points Bloomfield makes that have a special relevance to the epistemology of gaming is this:
Games do not predict future events or policy outcomes and can be misleading for specific contingency planning purposes. But they can indicate in detail how a future situation might develop and, even more important, why. A little-noticed fact is that in such games he controlling prediction has already been made: the situation the players face is not of their making, but rather is decided by the game designer. Both MIT and government games relied on scenarios prepared by experts asked to depict a specified future situation in a way that would be accepted by other experts as plausible. A prediction was thereby made that partially determined the game results. Thus, such POLEXes have been biased by game designers, whether for experimental, bureaucratic, or merely frivolous reasons.
These remarks remind me of some of H.A. DeWeerd's concerns about the contextual basis for scenarios, previously discussed here.

Although Bloomfield argues that "In a properly designed POLEX, a knowledgeable non-national can often approximate the policy options likely to be considered by another country's decisionmakers," he also notes that:
Given our national tendency to ascribe Western "rational" mindsets to others, crossing cultural barriers to investigate probable foreign reactions is a valuable and neglected use of gaming. A comparable value derives from putting military officers in the shoes of civilians and vice versa. (A survey of several hundred officials who participated in MIT games reported "role-exchange" as the most useful aspect of the games.)
I suppose that the idea here is that worthwhile results can be generated by non-nationals playing a country's decisionmakers, but only if there is an attempt to understand the cultural context in which those decisionmakers would operate. That may be an element, in Bloomfield's thinking, of proper POLEX design.

Paul Bracken (professor of both political science and management at Yale) contributed an article titled "Deterrence, Gaming, and Game Theory." Among other things, this article includes a short discussion of the distinction between gaming and game theory. This is an issue, because there is a tendency to lump the two together, which is part of the problem with gaming terminology. While Bracken's distinction relies on a rather specific definition of "gaming," it illustrates the difference between the two very well:
Gaming and game theory are sometimes confused with each other, because of their similar names. Gaming refers to an exercise in which opposing teams of human players are confronted with a situation or problem and work out responses to the problem and to the moves of the opposing team. The use of human players to simulate specific political or military decisionmakers is the key to gaming. Such role playing gives the game its richness while distinguishing it from a mathematical model or computer simulation. However, models and simulations often are included in political-military games as supporting tools to facilitate human decisionmaking. When there is extensive use of such models and simulations in a role-playing game, or when computerized communication and control systems are included, the entire exercise is sometimes referred to as a "man-machine simulation."

Game theory is a body of primarily mathematical theory concerning decisionmaking. Although often applied to real problems, game theory needs no justification of practicality. It offers a useful vocabulary for making subtle distinctions and precise definitions about phenomena that arise in gaming and decisionmaking.
Despite this important distinction, Bracken highlights the ways in which gaming and game theory can support each other as analytic tools. Both are tools dealing with the study of strategic interaction, and it is no accident that game theorists like Thomas Schelling and Martin Shubik (and presumably Bracken himself) were drawn to the study of gaming.
When many interacting moves are extended over time, the details of information processing, communication, decentralization, and sequencing are of the highest importance in carrying out a strategy. Gaming, especially with a large number of participants on each side, can make this process transparent. This is less likely when strategic analysis is compacted into verbal stories that rely on a handful of words like "counterforce" and "countervalue."
Specifically, Bracken recommends large-scale games that can encompass the complexity of interactions within the nuclear command and control structure: "The play of a large political-military exercise points to the importance of process, informational patterns, and institutional structure." These are precisely the points he felt needed most examination within the deterrence context. Today's context is greatly different from the nuclear confrontation of 1984, but the utility of large scale games for examining organizational/institutional factors would seem to remain. Bracken was skeptical of pol-mil crisis games that only included a few participants for their lack of emphasis on institutions, at least if they resulted in overly complicated or intricate plans for nuclear warfighting that did not take communication and organizational issues into account.

Garry Brewer (another professor of political science as well as management at Yale) contributed an article titled "Child of Neglect: Crisis Gaming for Politics and War." As might be expected from the title, this is a defense of the crisis game as an analytic tool, and a call for its increased use after a decade of very limited application.
These games never prove anything in a narrow scientific sense. They help to portray the complexities of international conflict; their role-playing aspects provide insights into the special problems of command and control; and they are important educational experiences, providinng participants an opportunity to become aware of facts associated with possible conflicts. Discovery is emphasized and highly valued. Positions, expectations, perceptions, facts, and procedures typically are challenged and improved as the game proceeds. Controllers and referees, who are often experts in particular areas, may question a decision or prevent individuals from making certain moves, but their actions are also open to challenge and debate. Thus, imagination and innovation play central roles in the drama of the manual game. The game also allows players to challenge the initiating scenario, including its explicit and implicit assumptions.
In discussing the original pol-mil crisis games of the 50's and 60's, Bracken notes that:
Political-military games directly addressed a number of important questions:
1) What political options could be imagined in light of the military situations portrayed, and what likely consequences would each have? How, in other words, is force related to political ends?
2) Could political inventiveness be fostered by having those actually responsible assume their roles in a controlled, gamed environment? Would the quality of political ideas stimulated be as good or better than those garnered by more conventional means?
3) Could the game identify particularly important, but poorly understood, topics and questions for further study and resolution? What discoveries flow from this type of analysis that might not from other forms and methods?
4) Could the game sensitize responsible officials to make potential decisions more realistic, especially with respect to likely political and policy consequences?
The flexibility and transparency of the scenario and its relevant assumptions in the crisis gaming technique is particularly important to Bracken:
It is not widely appreciated, but all computer-bassed models and games have embedded scenarios and associated assumptions. The technical problem, however, is that changing scenarios or assumptions means changing many complex instructions contained in the model's embedded codes - something no model builder relishes, especially considering the probable headaches he has already suffered in getting the device to run.
Finally, Bracken makes a necessary point about maintaining a broader view of analysis, incorporating whatever techniques best suit the material, while remaining open to alternative approaches:
A fundamental purpose of manual gaming is to encourage creative, innovative thinking about problems that defy treatment with more conventional analytic approaches and methods. This basic goal has not been achieved to the extent that it could and should be. Furthermore, political-military crisis games are best perceived as key elements in a generalized problem solving process. At present, the analytic community shows an unfortunate tendency to believe that a specific model or analysis will provide answers to a given problem. This is unfortunate for several reasons. The most essential: any given analysis or model can represent only one version and vision of reality. More is needed, and the inherent strength of the manual game in this respect calls it to our attention.

Lloyd Hoffman, Jr. worked at the War Gaming and Simulation Center at NDU, which I assume was replaced by the National Strategic Gaming Center (discussed previously here) at some point, but I haven't looked into the history. Suffice to say, there is no entity with that name at present. His contribution was titled "Defense War Gaming," and it provides a survey of what sort of gaming activity was going on in the Defense Department in 1984. While this is of great historical interest, I won't quote him at length here on that subject. Hoffman covers a wider scope of war gaming than the other authors in the series, delving into field exercises, tactical models, and other such areas.

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