War, Games, and the Civil-Military Divide by Eva Kahan (A’19)

by tuftsigl
May 10

Over President’s Day Weekend, a caravan of two cars - full of six students, two student teachers, and many overstuffed backpacks - departed to the Montreal 2019 Connections Wargames Conference.  We had few detailed expectations but abundant excitement.

Daniel Lewis (A’20) and I spent the fall semester of 2019 teaching an Experimental College seminar for the freshman class on wargames and their impact on strategic thinking. The Experimental College model is a unique method for students to fully shape the communal structure of simulation-based learning. Throughout this past semester, our class has formed a close-knit community of students and practitioners, eight of whom helped staff another large-scale wargame at Harvard University. Our syllabus included tactical games, conceptual challenges, and negotiation simulations. We organized a weekly game for our students and we invited speakers who were experts in game writing and playing.

In preparation for the course, Daniel and I had attended the Connections Wargaming conference in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2018, where he first heard rumors about the Canadian edition. When we discussed the conference with class, our students were thrilled to have a chance to expand our classroom learning to the real world, and to exchange ideas with professionals in the field. Connections conferences are intended, of course, to “connect” the various types of actors who take an interest in conflict simulations (or “wargames”), typically for the purpose of improving skills and conflict resolution techniques.

At our first Connections conference, Daniel and I came into the field as learners, absorbing other teacher’s plans and trying to align their advice about class structure and assignment design with our budding class plan. Before this conference, we took advantage of our stance as teachers, hoping to share our perspective on how our students learned best. We were introduced at the start of the conversation as the “Tufts delegation,” and had the opportunity to individually present our course design to several of the other professors present at the conference. This sparked conversations about our varied positions and how undergraduate civilian educational opportunities varied from military and higher-level education.

The convener of the conference had a background in Middle East refugee rights negotiations. In his presentation, he shared his experience training the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to cope with the recent drop in US funding.  He used the same style of game that another presenter who taught at the United States Naval War College used to train students to conceptualize counterinsurgency warfare and shift ground tactics in order to meet the requirement of winning “hearts and minds.” (This was occasionally simulated through “hearts and minds” tokens, but often required a much more complex understanding of the other players involved, their cultures, and their individual motivations.)

Other attendees included members of several branches of the American and Canadian armed forces, commercial and amateur wargame designers, and many other teachers and students. We were drawn into several conversations as peers, and shared our perspectives on the state of war-gaming for undergraduate civilians.. We discussed building up a civil-military wargame exchange with the coast guards of six Baltic states. We also exchanged syllabi with other professors, all of who were interested in accessing and supporting undergraduates who may not have otherwise seen the value of conflict simulation as a teaching tool.

This exchange culminated in the second day’s “Mega-Game,” in which each participant’s competitive or collaborative nature - and their expertise - came out. The interaction of three levels of governance, multiple nations and military forces, and the chaotic attacking zombies highlighted the different actors required to succeed in a peacebuilding scenario.

I represented the military arm of the American embassy.  My responsibility was  coordinating American forces to work with and under the Canadians - including leaders that the American troops were not eager to follow. As our students buzzed about solving problems and achieving their own objectives, I realized that in this simulated space we were on equal ground with the experts and professors around us. Each player’s actions shaped the ground for the next, requiring sharing of both skills and motivations to achieve a collective victory.