The Epistemology of War Gaming

By Rubel, Robert C. | Naval War College Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Epistemology of War Gaming

Rubel, Robert C., Naval War College Review

Anyone who has conducted or has studied actual warfare knows well its massive complexities.1

These complexities do not relieve humans from the responsibility for making decisions-difficult decisions-aimed at navigating their organizations successfully through campaigns, be they in a theater of war or in the halls of the Pentagon. Minds must be prepared beforehand, both in their general, educated functioning and in the specific, sophisticated understanding of conflict and the competitive environments they face. This preparation must be predicated on the internalization of "valid" knowledge about the conflict environment. There are many ways of gaining such knowledge: the study of history and theory, practical experience, and exposure to the results of various kinds of research and analysis. Each of these methods of developing knowledge has its own particular epistemology-formally, a "theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits and validity," or more practically, rules by which error is distinguished from truth. War gaming is a distinct and historically significant tool that warriors have used over the centuries to help them understand war in general and the nature of specific upcoming operations. The importance of war gaming demands serious examination of the nature of the knowledge it produces.

Before going farther, it is worthwhile to define exactly what we mean by "war game." Peter Perla provides as good a definition as any: a war game is "a warfare model or simulation whose operation does not involve the activities of actual military forces, and whose sequence of events affects and is, in turn, affected by the decisions made by players representing the opposing sides."2 War gaming, rightly considered, is inherently a method of research, regardless of how people apply it. The essence of war gaming is the examination of conflict in an artificial environment. Through such examination, gamers gain new knowledge about the phenomena the game represents. The purpose of a game is immaterial to this central epistemological element. Moreover, the gaining of knowledge is inherent and unavoidable, whatever a game's object. The real question is whether such knowledge is valid and useful. This question is all the more important because of the growing reliance on gaming techniques in an increasingly complex world.

This article will attempt to initiate a professional dialogue on the underlying logic structure of gaming by examining the epistemological foundations of gaming in general and ways in which the knowledge gained from specific games can be judged sound.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to conduct such an inquiry is the possibility of insidious error creeping into war games. War gaming, even after centuries of practice, is still more a craft than a discipline, and it is quite possible for rank amateurs, dilettantes, and con artists to produce large, expensive, and apparently successful but worthless or misleading games for unsuspecting sponsors. There is little incentive to apply incisive criticism to games in which heavy investments have been made, and persons or organizations inclined to do so are hampered by lack of an established set of epistemological theory and principle. This does not mean that the majority of games are fatally flawed; it does mean that there is no accepted set of criteria to determine whether they are or not. Judgment as to the success and quality of a war game, especially one of high profile and consequence, is too often the result of organizational politics.


Some elaboration of the meaning of this somewhat esoteric term is essential. To avoid getting sidetracked by philosophical complexities, we can adopt a convention based on current thinking. One widely accepted branch of modern epistemological theory holds that knowledge results from the building of simplified mental models of reality in order to solve problems. …

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