War games and crisis simulations are exercises where participants make decisions to simulate real-world behavior. In the field of international security, games are frequently used to study how actors make decisions during conflict, but they can also be used to model human behavior in a myriad of other situations.
According to Benjamin Harris, a PhD student in the Department of Political Science and convener of the MIT Wargaming Working Group at the Center for International Studies (CIS), war games take place in “structured-unstructured environments”.
This means that games operate on two levels – an overarching structure dictates the types of moves players can make, but the interactions between team members are unstructured. As a result, people with different backgrounds are forced to engage and learn from each other throughout the simulation. “The game goes where the participants go,” says Harris.
MIT researchers have been developing the art of war gaming since the late 1950s. In “The Pioneering Role of the CIS in American War Gaming,” Reid Pauly PhD ’19, assistant professor and CIS research affiliate at Brown University, attributes the modern war-gaming approach in large part to MIT professor Lincoln Bloomfield and other professors. Affiliated with CIS.
Today, CIS is again at the center of new developments in the methodology, pedagogy and application of war gaming. Over the years, CIS and the MIT Security Studies Program have responded to the growing demand for war gaming among students and the policy community. This has resulted in new course offerings, student- and faculty-generated research, and on-campus simulations.
Learning through games
PhD students Suzanne Freeman and Harris started the Wargaming Working Group as a forum for students to engage with the war-gaming community on campus and in the policy space. Now in its third year, the group has developed a partnership with the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) that brings together mid-career military officers and academics for an annual simulation.
Richard Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of CIS, participated in his first crisis simulation at a game hosted by Bloomfield and then hosted nearly a dozen major games at MIT from the 1990s to the early 2000s, most focused on Asia-Pacific Security Dynamics. Eric Heginbotham PhD ’04, principal research scientist at CIS, and Christopher Twomey PhD ’05, were active participants. Together they established a working group partnership with NPS, where Twomey is an associate professor.
This year, participants worked in crisis situations centered on the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Taiwan. Teams were assigned to represent Taiwan, China, the United States, and Japan, and the game was designed to predict how civilian and military sub-teams would interact during a crisis. Freeman and Harris presented some of their findings from the war game at Georgetown University in October 2021.
In addition to planning tabletop exercises at MIT, the working group invited speakers from universities and think tanks to present war-gaming research and hosted online war games when MIT went virtual due to Covid-19. The working group has been particularly successful in bridging the gap between academia and policy, allowing PhD students and military officers to learn from each other, Freeman says.
For students hoping to further explore the history and practice of war gaming in a classroom setting, MIT now offers “Simulating Global Dynamics and War,” a biennial course co-taught by Samuels and Heginbotham. Students participate in four war games over the course of the semester – an operational war game, a political-military crisis game, an experimental game, and a game designed by the students as their final project.
While the class is designed for security studies students and military colleagues, it also includes students and practitioners from other fields interested in incorporating gaming into their work. Lessons from the curriculum can be applied to issues such as global pandemics or refugee crises, says Heginbotham.
For MIT undergraduates taking courses in political science, war gaming is also an educational tool used to consider the consequences of policy decisions. In the fall of 2021, students in Eric Linn-Greenberg’s National Security Policy class participated simulation Centered around a cyber attack on US soil. Students worked in teams to represent US government agencies at National Security Council Principals Committee meetings. Lynn-Greenberg is an assistant professor of political science at MIT.
The revival of war gaming
Political scientists are increasingly considering how the methodology of war gaming can be improved and used in research and pedagogy. For scholars of interstate warfare and nuclear weapons, war gaming is a particularly promising research tool.
In the past decade, Samuels says, researchers have recognized that “war games and crisis simulations may have had a greater influence on Cold War policymakers.” “A close, archival, analysis of Cold War games can provide insight into how policy elites think about nuclear war.”
At the same time, according to Samuels, the emergence of empirical methods for political analysis coincided with the revival of war gaming as a research tool. “Experimental war games allow researchers to derive generalizations about leadership choices under stress,” says Samuels. However, scholars still face challenges related to external validity, or the applicability of the effects of war games to real-world situations.
In addition to advances in experimental war gaming and nuclear simulation, Heginbotham adds that scholars are increasingly applying war gaming to emerging and unconventional security challenges. “War gaming allows scholars to model complex conflicts, change individual variables, and run multiple iterations,” says Heginbotham. For researchers trying to understand the dynamics of political events, gaming has many advantages.
In January 2022, Steven Simon, a former diplomat and National Security Council director now serving as a Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at CIS, wrote an op-ed The New York Times With Jonathan Stevenson on the need for war gaming focused on backsliding US democracy. For Simon and Stevenson, war gaming is a tool that scholars can employ when studying low-probability but high-risk events.
He says, “War games, tabletop exercises, operations research, campaign analysis, conferences, and seminars on the prospects for American political conflict—including insurgency, secession, insurgency, and civil war—must proceed at high speed and intensity.”
A bright future for war gaming
Lynn-Greenberg ’09, MS ’09 joined the Department of Political Science and the Security Studies Program in 2020 after completing a dissertation using empirical wargames in international security research. As part of his doctoral research at Columbia University, he conducted war games with military audiences to understand how drones influence escalation dynamics. He wrote in War on the Rocks“Experimental wargames have shown that the deployment of drones can contribute to lower-level escalation and greater crisis stabilization than the deployment of manned assets.”
At MIT, Lynn-Greenberg, Samuels, and Heginbotham co-chair the Wargaming Working Group, mentoring PhD students working on war-gaming research and continuing to advance the field of war-gaming methodology.
With co-authors Polly and Jacqueline Schneider, Lynn-Greenberg published “Wargaming for International Relations Research.” European Journal of International Relations In December 2021. The article establishes a research agenda for war gaming and highlights some of the methodological challenges of using war games.
The authors explain how “researchers can navigate issues of recruitment, bias, validity, and generalizability when using war games for research, and identify ways to evaluate war games as a means of examining potential advantages and disadvantages.” According to the authors, one of these benefits is the potential of war gaming to provide new data and help answer challenges and questions about human behavior and decision-making.
For Heginbotham, there is something different about designing and participating in war games where decision-making under pressure leads to learning. “The data you uncover in the process of designing a game and the lessons you instill while playing a game are very hard to replicate in any other setting,” he says.
Likewise, Samuels is optimistic about the role of war gaming going forward. He explains that as long as organizations – political, academic, industrial, military and civilian – recognize the need to train future leaders to make decisions, the future of war gaming is bright. Samuels likes to quote Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, a pioneer of civil-military war gaming while at RAND in the late 1950s and Lincoln Bloomfield’s partner at CIS, who once wrote: “Games will not play music or cook fish, cure a stuttering man, or my Improve the children’s French so they don’t guess Pearl Harbor. But until then [critics] The games may have increased the tendency to ignore Pearl Harbor, showing… [they] It might have taught us something more useful.”