“Strange game.  The only winning move is not to play.  How about a nice game of chess?” – Joshua, (from the 1983 film, WarGames)

Thankfully we never had to play out the game of global thermonuclear war with the Soviets for real during the Cold War, but in the digital age that we live in, war certainly does make for good entertainment. The idea of conflict has permeated virtually every artistic medium we’ve come up with, including video games. The video game industry is massive and games about conflict span all the different gaming genres, as well. Strategy games, first-person-shooters, vehicle simulations, arcade-style games, massively-multiplayer-online, role-playing…the list goes on and on. The complexity of wargames ranges all the way from the simplistic to the high-fidelity simulators. Our focus here in part one is to examine the broad idea of wargaming and the conceptual uses behind it.

What is Wargaming?

Let’s define what “wargaming” is, first of all. Francis McHugh (2013) defines a war game as, “a simulation, in accordance with predetermined rules, data, and procedures, of selected aspects of a conflict situation” (p. 2). For the sake of clarification, I’ll use the term “wargaming” here, very broadly, to mean any game that simulates or depicts a state of conflict. Board games like chess or checkers can easily be classified as wargames just as much as the wargames practiced by the military at the war colleges or in actual field exercises. We can extend this definition to include computer simulations and modern video games, as well.

Games vs. Simulations

The terms “game” and “simulation” need to be defined as well. It all depends on what lens we’re looking at them from. In the video game industry (and as a gamer myself), the term “simulation” refers to the genre itself which implies games that are more complex and realistic in terms of their play. In contrast, the term “game” encompasses all types of video games, but can be implied to mean an “arcade-style game” where the complexity and realism being modeled are far more simple and forgiving. For example, a flight simulator game being played on a gaming console with a 16-button controller is far less complex and more “arcade-styled” than a flight simulator game being played on a PC that requires a mouse, keyboard, and other peripherals such as a Hands-On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS), rudder pedals, and TrackIR to attain the full experience. Such an in-depth simulator is generally referred to as a “high-fidelity simulator.”

From the lens of education, the terms “game” and “simulation” take on more abstract meanings. Marc Prensky (2007) notes the difference in that “simulations are about things (or systems) and how they behave, and games are about a fun user experience.” It can also be noted that games often have clear winners and losers or outcomes whereas simulations are not necessarily competitions and are more analysis-based. Indeed, when we talk about game theory, then we’re referencing the applications of mathematical models to decision-making processes. A math equation, in and of itself, can be a simulation. Broadly speaking, Greg Costikyan theorizes that games have the following characteristics:

  • Interaction: the game changes with the players actions (and often with the players’ interdependent actions)
  • Goal: there is a purpose to the game (and often this includes a winner or loser)
  • Struggle: every game has an element of a struggle, even if it’s a non-competitive game (think Minecraft or Sim City, where the struggle is often creative)
  • Structure: games have rules, procedures, and systems
  • Endogenous Meaning: here the game structure creates its own meaning

(as cited in Spencer, 2018)

These educational definitions are more along the lines of what we’re looking for. However, we might say that there is significant overlap between games and simulations. The terms are not mutually exclusive. So let’s settle on a combined definition of games and simulations as: a user-oriented, interactive experience, with defined rules, procedures, and systems that model aspect(s) of reality.

Now that we have a working definition, let’s move on to how games and simulations are applied to depicting conflicts and our study of them. Believe it or not, there’s a term for this. It’s called game-based learning, of which wargaming falls under.

Game-Based Learning – What is the purpose of wargaming?

While some students (and educators) are incredulous at the pedagogical idea of learning through games, the interactive nature of games has been shown to increase retention, boost engagement, and enhance critical thinking, just to name a few. John Spencer (2018) opines that “Game-based learning is an immersive experience, where students master learning targets through gameplay. Unlike a review game, game-based learning introduces new ideas and concepts through a virtual environment.”  Spencer just summed up the purpose of wargames, at least as is done on a professional level.

Wargames have their roots in antiquity and can probably be traced all the way back to the origins of strategic board games such as chess. I won’t bore you with the entire history, but the most commonly accepted forerunner of modern wargames was first developed in Prussia in 1811 by von Reisswitz and known as Kriegsspiel (literally: war play or war game). The original game involved moving wooden blocks around a table with terrain features modeled in sand. However, the game was heavily rule-based and time-consuming to play. Later developments saw the introduction of a freestyle game where the outcome of moves were under the supervision of a game controller or director. This significantly sped up the gameplay and allowed the games to function in real-time. Further developments saw the war game expanded, modified, and used by other militaries over the years, though mostly to simulate land warfare. At the time, simulations involving naval forces were largely supplemental. Wargaming was introduced to the Naval War College by retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant William McCarthy Little who gave a series of six lectures on the subject in 1887 (McHugh, 2013, p. 57). Since then, wargames have been updated as technology has changed, but arguably the concepts remain the same. When conducted at the Naval War College, McHugh (2013) writes that the purpose of war gaming is, “to provide decision-making experience and/or decision-making information that is applicable to real-world situations” (p. 9). This definition is certainly more focused, but it can be easily applied to game-based learning when a game is being used to reinforce concepts and promote critical thinking or problem solving.

How do military simulations & wargames work?


(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Military simulations generally exist on a spectrum (as seen above) which depicts differing levels of concreteness or abstraction, convenience and accessibility, and cost, depending on the medium being used. Wargames, computer simulations, and analytical models are more abstract and can be tailored to suit any number of scenarios or situations, whereas map exercises and field exercises are dependent on real-world data and assets. As McHugh previously wrote, wargames can be used with the intention of providing players with decision-making experience (educational games) and/or decision-making information (analytical games). There are further sub-classifications of war games which allow the games to take on any number of variations.

Categories and Types of War Games

General PurposeEducational / Analytical
Scope and LevelRange of Command Levels

Military Services Involved

Type of Operations

Area of Operations

Number of Sides1 / 2 / n
Amount of IntelligenceOpen / Closed
Method of EvaluationFree / Rigid / Semi-rigid
Basic Simulation TechniqueManual / Machine / Computer

(McHugh, 2013, p. 11)

A typical wargame is conducted as such:

  1. The game Director/Controller and their staff (Control Group) selects a scenario and briefs the game’s participants (if any sides exist). Plans may be prepared or the participants, or the participants may come up with their own plans.
  2. Game personnel are briefed on the rules, the forces are positioned, and the game is started.
  3. As the game is conducted, players make moves based on their appropriate decisions. All forces can be moved simultaneously.
    • (if a computer is simulating some or all of the moves, then it makes a Monte Carlo/probabilistic/stochastic choice based on its programming. I.e. a dice roll).
    • Moves can be represented by defined periods of real-world time (time-step) or by evaluating events that move the game at a set time period from one event to the next (event-store).
  4. The effects of player moves are evaluated based on the game’s rules and data from a variety of sources. Evaluations can be made by umpires in the control group (free), models and data (rigid), or a combination of the two (semi-rigid).
  5. Once the moves are evaluated, the appropriate sides are informed of their effects and they are free to continue the play.
  6. The game ends when one side is determined to have won, completed its objectives, or in the case of an analytical game, the appropriate data has been collected.

* with current digital simulations, many of the functions of the control group are performed by the computer.

As we can see, military simulations can take any number of forms and can be adapted to a wide-range of scenarios. However, there are always benefits and drawbacks to games and simulations which we will examine next.

Benefits of Game-Based Learning & War gaming

Given the history of using wargames to simulate conflicts, the military has made a number of attempts to utilize game-based learning through the use of video games and computer software. With recent generations having grown up with digital technology and video games, the appeal to using this technology to enhance training is apparent.

With regard to video games and helping military members learn concepts, Michael Macedonia notes that “the immersive nature of video games not only adds to their believability but also increases their storytelling power, one of the elements that gives them their training edge” (as cited in Mead, 2013, p. 58). James Paul Gee analyzed that video games are beneficial in providing context for people to apply knowledge and skills in simulated consequential situations (as cited in Mead, 2013, p. 66). In other words, students can learn and practice applying their problem solving skills in an environment or specific context that is more engaging than solving problems on standardized tests. Mead (2013) writes that video games further allow players to adopt a simulated identity and a type of “systems thinking” where players weigh their actions against the gameplay and other players (p. 67). Again, the idea of applying factual knowledge within a simulated environment helps in retention and application more than rote memorization.

Another benefit of using video games for training scenarios is the mental processing speed and symbol recognition that is developed by playing the game itself. Video games have a literacy all to themselves. Mead (2013) writes that “Video games require players to understand and engage in a densely “literate space” of icons, symbols, gestures, actions, visuals, and text” (p. 61). This makes sense when you consider that current generations have grown up exposed to all types of digital media, and as military systems grow more and more digitized and interconnected, those skills related to the rapid consumption and interpretation digital information will be remain valuable. According to Ray Perez at the Office of Naval Research, “video game players perform 10 to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than normal people that are non-game players” (as cited in Mead, 2013, p. 63). Similarly, the MacArthur Foundation defined a set of competencies and skills that are central to video games:

  • Play: the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem solving
  • Performance: the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
  • Simulation: the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
  • Multitasking: the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details
  • Distributed Cognition: the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacity
  • Collective Intelligence: the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
  • Judgment: the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
  • Transmedia Navigation: the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

(as cited in Mead, 2013, p. 65)

Apart from the enhanced contextualization of information and mental processing skills, video games, and wargames in general, are inherently cheaper than the real thing. Michael Woodman notes that the military’s embrace of video games allows for economic benefits because “live field training is very expensive in terms of time, support, ranges, fuel, ammunition, the whole gamut” (as cited in Mead, 2013, p. 68). As for games played at the Naval War College, McHugh (2013) writes:

Because it can be played over and over again, the war game makes it possible to do what cannot be done in the field, that is, to vary characteristics, to extend the scope and value of limited peacetime engagements, to study the effects of atomic exchanges, to practice operations in any areas and with weapons of both the present and the future. Currently, war gaming appears to be one, if not the best, method available for visualizing and preparing for tomorrow’s battles and for developing the organizations and tactics of the future. (p. 21)

Thus, most of the benefits of video games as training tools appear in the realm of economics and convenience. The additional factors of the changes in technology and digital media literacy also become apparent when you take into account the generational changes in media consumption habits.

Drawbacks of Game-Based Learning & War Gaming

Where there are benefits, there are also drawbacks, and games and simulations are no exception. McHugh (2013) writes that intangibles such as leadership, esprit de corps, and the tensions of combat are nearly impossible for war games to simulate, thus, they are often treated as constants. All weapons of the same type are equally lethal and all pilots are equally skilled. Furthermore, some characteristics of weapons or vehicles can be modeled accurately and others not due to a lack of the game’s capabilities or real-world intelligence. In the case of the latter, the opponent is often given capabilities on par with that of the friendly side. In manual games, the judgments of the games umpires can be skewed by prejudice or a lack of experience in the situation being modeled. Finally, there’s the idea that wargames have rules which can result in players focusing on the limitations of the game as oppose to the advantages (p. 22-24). Essentially, there are limits to what technology can simulate. There are always issues of realism and the suspension of disbelief in simulations. Arguably one of the main criticisms of simulations is that because they are approximations of reality, they are therefore inherently flawed and not as useful for systems analysis as they are for education. Humans and the real-world are unpredictable. You can play a game and fail as many times as you want, but in life or death situations in the real world you only get one chance.

All the video games in my personal experience did nothing to prepare me for the intricacies of any of the professions I’ve worked in. Simply playing video games does not make automatically one more capable or well-rounded. In line with game-based learning, I do feel that video games can serve as a useful introduction or a gateway to broader concepts and skills, but there must be a deliberate effort at connecting the game to those real-life concepts and skills. It doesn’t just happen vicariously. Mentally, the player is more focused on the gameplay itself and not the broader or more practical real-world applications, unless there is motivation for them to do so. For example, simply playing any of the Assassin’s Creed video games by Ubisoft does not make someone more physically adept at parkour or more knowledgeable of the various historical eras that the games take place in. That would require the player to actually go and practice parkour for real and would also require a far longer commitment of historical and scholastic research. Similarly, playing first-person shooters such as the Call of Duty or Battlefield franchises does not automatically make a person more adept at handling firearms in real life. I’ll leave the debate about the correlation between video games and violence for another time.

If you speak with combat veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, you’ll find that many of them play video games and know that games are a simulation. They also note that there is no comparison to the real thing. To give just one example, video games do not put the same kind of physical strain on the body as conducting a foot patrol over several days while carrying upwards of 100 pounds of gear and operating on little food and sleep. My point is that there’s a big difference between using a controller or a mouse and keyboard in a video game, and physically performing in the real world. What we have here is an apparent gap in the spectrum of simulations between the physical and the virtual.


What About High-Fidelity Simulators?

On the more rigorous end of the gaming spectrum, high-fidelity simulators with steep learning curves do require a longer time commitment to become proficient at and often demand a better application of technical skills and knowledge (games such as Flight Simulator by Microsoft or Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) by The Fighter Collection come to mind). However, the range of high-fidelity simulations goes even further. Indeed, some simulators were designed with professionals in mind; removing many of the more “arcade” elements from the gameplay. For example, the tank simulator Steel Beasts by Shrapnel Games has been used by several militaries to train armored vehicle crew members, and the digital wargame, Command: Modern Operations by Matrix Games has been used by defense contractor BAE Systems to conduct data analysis. However, these organizations use professional versions of those games which are not available to the public. The versions of those games that are on the retail market have certain features removed or other limitations imposed on them. Additionally, the high-fidelity, multi-million dollar simulators used by militaries to train, for example, fighter pilots or vehicle crew members (with setups that physically model the actual cockpit or vehicle interior with all the buttons and toggles) are generally used for procedural training. That is, which buttons to press to start up the aircraft, or what to do if a specific scenario happens, etc. A fighter pilot will tell you that even the most expensive simulator is no comparison to actual time behind the stick in the real aircraft. In fact, I’ve heard that real fighter pilots don’t use simulators to train in Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM, i.e. dogfighting skills). Rather, they go up and train in the actual aircraft because they need to be able to feel how the aircraft is maneuvering and how those maneuvers affect both the airframe and their own body. Similarly, the best way to learn how to drive a car is to practice driving in a real vehicle under the supervision of an experienced driver. In doing so, the student learns how to “feel” the movement of the vehicle as it drives over the road, turns, accelerates, brakes, etc. You don’t get those same sensations while playing a game or simulator while sitting in a chair at home. It’s all well and good for the layperson to play games and simulations, but at the end of the day, the game or simulation is constrained by the limitations of its rules and programming.

Are some video games more useful than others for learning?

An infantryman with experience on field exercises or in an actual combat theater has vastly greater knowledge and experience than a person who’s played first-person shooters all their life. A sailor with even a few months on a boat or a ship has more genuine knowledge of the sea than a gamer with years of virtual sailing. A pilot with hundreds of hours of time in the cockpit knows their aircraft far better than an enthusiast with even the most realistic flight simulator. Can video game ever truly beat hands-on experience? Aside from the economics of time, money, and convenience…probably not.

I think video games are really only applicable to the basic levels of concepts. The more complex the problems become, the more video games fail to simulate their intricacies. Most popular video games out there, with some rare exceptions, have clearly defined outcomes. The levels or missions always end in success or failure with clear winners and losers. Real life doesn’t always work that way. Video games should never be taken as a true model or substitute for real-world exercises or experiences.

That being said, the more realistic, detailed, or historically accurate video game developers strive to be, then the greater the learning benefits. Physics teachers see the benefits of using Kerbal Space Program by Squad to introduce students to orbital mechanics. History teachers have used the Total War series of strategy games by Sega to help students learn about the ancient world (Darvasi, 2018). Popular video games can definitely be useful in the academic realm, but the right game must be chosen for the right lesson and aligned with content objectives. It must be understood that a video game is a supplement, and not a replacement for in-depth scholarship.

Lingering Questions

We can contemplate the uses of game-based learning and simulations all day long (and people probably have). In the end, much of it boils down to personal opinion. However, due to the topic’s subjectivity, it still leaves questions to be answered such as:

  • Do we need video games for learning when on-the-job training under the watchful eyes of a mentor can teach us just as much, if not more?
  • Do we need to throw video games at professionals to teach them abstract concepts?
  • Are video games really better for learning abstract concepts?
  • Can war games teach the importance of the interconnectedness of systems? (Is it possible to make a game that stresses logistics, economics, politics, intelligence, operations, strategy, tactics, combat, etc. all in one?)
  • Are games the end-result/culmination of training, or merely a stepping stone?
  • How do we balance the line between scholarship and entertainment?
  • Do training simulations “need to be entertaining?”
  • Should we allow war to be played out as a video game in professional circles? (Sure it’s fine for mass entertainment, but do we want to transpose that thinking into the professional military?)


I don’t want to overstate or understate the value of games and game-based learning. They have their place. We should understand that they exist on a spectrum of tools for learning. On their current course, it’s likely that video games will remain as an entertainment medium. More serious games that are oriented towards enthusiasts will continue to fill a specific niche. Similarly, training simulations target very specific applications in the professional world, but are unlikely to supplant genuine field experience any time soon.


Darvasi, P. (2018, April 26). Exploring Ancient History With Video Games. Retrieved from

McHugh, F.J. (2013). U.S. Navy Fundamentals of War Gaming. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.

Mead, C. (2013). War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict. New York, NY:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.

Prensky, M. (2007, March 9). Sims vs. Games: The Difference Defined. Retrieved from

Spencer, J. (2018, July 22). Seven Reasons to Pilot a Game-Based Learning Unit [weblog post]. Retrieved from