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What is a War Game?

There are a variety of definitions for a war game. Joint Publication 1 defines a war game as: "A simulation, by whatever means, of a military operation involving two or more opposing forces, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or assumed real life situation."
Peter Perla, author of "The Art of Wargaming", defines it as: "A warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operations of actual forces, in which the flow of events affects and is affected by decisions made during the course of those events by players representing the opposing sides." Frank McHugh, naval war gaming expert, offered: "A simulation of selected aspects of a military operation in accordance with predetermined rules, data and procedures to provide decision making experience, or decision making information that is applicable to real world situations."

The common thread through these and other definitions is that war games involve PEOPLE making DECISIONS in a context of competition or CONFLICT (with themselves, other people, or their environment).

How are War Games Used?

War games at the US Naval War College are used for two broad purposes: educational games are used to provide players with decision-making experience and illustrate "teaching points," while analytic games seek to obtain information and data that will assist in future decision making and provide insights into war fighting and policy issues. War games are useful for investigating processes, organizing ideas, exploring issues, explaining implications and identifying questions. As a learning tool, war games can help to organize information and improve understanding, explain how and why events unfold, and explore "what we didn't know we didn't know" through discovery learning. However, war games do NOT calculate outcomes, prove theories, predict winners, validate concepts or produce quantitative data.

According to William McCarty-Little, who introduced war gaming to the Naval War College in 1887, a war game's power "...lies in the existence of the enemy, a live, vigorous enemy in the next room waiting feverishly to take advantage of any of our mistakes, ever ready to puncture any visionary scheme, to haul us down to earth." 

How are War Games Different than Exercises or Models and Simulations? Aren't they the Same?

There is often confusion as to what is and what isn't a war game, as there is no universally accepted definition. At the US Naval War College, we consider an exercise to be an activity designed to rehearse or practice, with actual forces or assigned staff, specific sets of procedures. Similarly confusing is the term 'seminar': an event with the primary goal of presenting, exchanging, discussing and/or gaining information. 'Seminar' and 'seminar game' are often incorrectly interchanged. A seminar event might use a round table discussion, a panel of experts, a single presenter with Q&A, or a game format. The extent to which the game "play" directly contributes to the seminar's objective tends to determine if you have a seminar using a game format, or a game using a seminar format. Another misused term is 'workshop': an event similar to a seminar, but with a specific product (the 'deliverable') to be developed during the activity by the participants. While these events may use gaming techniques, in and of themselves, they are not strictly games. Likewise, some organizations will refer to war games as "experiments." An experiment is a repeatable scientific method designed to test a hypothesis.

A hypothesis is proposed as an explanation for an observed phenomenon. Independent and dependent variables are defined, controls are established, multiple tests are run, actual outcomes compared to expected outcomes, repeat, etc. In this light, war gaming does not fit this model, though the term "experiment" is often casually used without strict adherence to its scientific definition in reference to games.
Finally, a model is generally thought of as a representation of something, often on a smaller scale. It can be rendered in a variety of ways: physically such as with clay or plastic, or virtually such as a computer model of a jet fighter. When that model begins to interact with other models, or when we wish to represent the model's behavior within a complex synthetic environment, we now have a simulation. While they can be used as tools to support games, by themselves, models and simulations (or M&S) are not games.