It's all a game

Philip Sabin on conflict analysis

Since the Prussian development of Kriegsspiel in the early 19th century, military officers have used "wargaming" extensively for planning and training purposes. Over the past 40 years, this activity has also caught on among civilian enthusiasts, with thousands of board and computer games being published that simulate historical battles and potential future conflicts. Some of these games are simplistic and unrealistic affairs - contemporary Battlezones with only a veneer of historical detail.

But many now involve extensive research and ambitious modelling techniques, which at least equal those found within the military and operational analysis communities. No longer the shoot-for-points agenda; they require intelligent manoeuvres and a critical analysis of battle operations from the player.

Drawing on the 20-year popularity of "role-playing" courses in politics teaching, where students enact actual decisions such as those of John F Kennedy's "ExCom" during the Cuban missile crisis, I started using such games in the teaching of war studies. Classroom role-play has its obvious limitations in the area of bloody battles, but by refighting battles such as Zama on the table top, my students could see for themselves the tactical interaction of the various troop types involved.

I soon realised that conflict-simulation gaming was worthy of study as a genre in its own right, just as we study other representations of war in films, poetry and so on. The result was an MA option course in conflict simulation. The focus of the course is on the most intellectually serious form of conflict simulation, namely the modelling of historical battles and campaigns using a map representing the actual terrain, counters representing the military units involved, and sophisticated rules to reflect the movement and combat capabilities of the opposing forces. The games combine mathematical modelling with decision simulation in a way that captures the essence of war as a contest of opposing wills as much as a physical collision of armed masses.

Just as politics students are normally assessed through their ability to write essays that approach the scholarly quality of the books they have studied, so my students' critical grasp of conflict simulation is judged by requiring each of them to design a complete mini-game representing a battle or campaign of their choice. The conflict has to be both accurate and playable. Not only must the students produce rules drafted with legalistic clarity and precision, but they must also reflect critically on the choices they have made and on what the whole process has taught them about the dynamics of their chosen conflict.

Such a course has only become possible now that computers and the internet have evolved to allow study of digitised versions of published simulations (libraries refuse to stock hard copies because of the many components involved), and to allow easy graphic design of the students' own projects. Electronic versions of their work are posted on our website in February, so that comments may be given by enthu- siasts around the world before the game is finally submitted for examination.

Recent television history programmes show how the use of simulation to portray past conflicts is becoming common. It is easy for academics to be "sniffy" about such techniques, based on the undoubted inaccuracies and populist character of some examples of this genre. But building on the more academic possibilities of conflict simulation not only helps to engage student interest and enthusiasm, but also fosters a combination of thorough research and analysis, intellectual creativity and practical skills that would be very hard to teach in any other way.

Philip Sabin is professor of strategic studies at King's College London

Visit to see the students' work

What do you win by studying conflict simulation? Two former students of King's College London explain

Tim Gale I was interested in the conflict simulation course because it seemed to offer an opportunity to examine the mechanics of warfare in a different way to that usually used by historians. I had to research the nuts and bolts of the French army's operational art of war in the First World War, and I am now undertaking a PhD on this subject. For a historian like myself, war is the motor of history (for good or bad), and thus worth studying in detail. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, by illustrating the importance of military studies, greatly increased the demand for such courses.

I'm probably not very representative of the typical student on these courses - I am 48 years old and a full-time trade union official. The course wasn't a career move for me. It was just something I was very interested in. One reason for completing a PhD is that, if nothing else, I would like to contribute to the academic literature with at least one good book - hopefully more!

Alessio Patalano The word "simulation", especially in an academic context, is too often synonymous with the word "game". Because of that, the MA course option in conflict simulation was not particularly popular among students. It was not thought of as "academic enough". I have never been interested in computer games, and the course has not changed that, but in the study of war, it was fascinating. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on history in a different and more dynamic way, by "living" a situation rather than just reading about it. Designing a game that accurately replicates a specific historical battle or campaign requires great knowledge of the event, analytical abilities and lots of creativity. Study through simulation is as valuable as traditional methods and programmes, and at the very least it enhances theoretical study.

I came to an MA in war studies with a background in political science and contemporary history. I wanted a programme that offered a comprehensive understanding of the nature of conflicts in the international arena. In the future, I would like to work as an analyst on East Asian security issues. This degree provided an excellent foundation for this career path. For those who are looking for similar careers in international institutions, the MA in war studies is a perfect choice, since it prepares students to cope with the "unexpected" of today's climate, where flexibility and sharp analysis are invaluable skills.