In preparation for the NYU Game Center’s PRACTICE conference, we are publishing long-form interviews with some of the amazing designers that will be speaking at the event.

The PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference runs on November 9-11 2012.

In this third interview, MFA student Noah Schnoll interviews David E Ward, a Senior Military Analyst with Cubic Applications, Inc., supporting the War Gaming Department as a Game Designer. David is a former surface warfare officer with 21 years of service in destroyers, cruisers, carriers, amphibious ships and fleet staffs.

Noah Schnoll: How would you draw the distinction between war games and games about war?

David Ward: We ask the question about War Gaming:  is it “war, played as a game” where you bring in players to perform actions that are the same as though at ‘real’ war:  military planning process employed, Course of Action development, orders writing, staff battle rhythm, military organizational structure, etc.  War played as a game tends to lead to a “design by decomposition” activity where we represent the needed aspects of a conflict while abstracting or notionalizing other parts.  So, what do you keep, and what do you take out as a designer?  Typically you are looking to analyze specific military issues.

When it is a game about war, design tends to be more of a construction activity.  What aspects are needed in the game?  What are the key elements that must be represented?  How do we simplify what must be played?  A game about war does not attempt to directly replicate any military process.  Player moves may be highly abstracted and player activities may include things such as surveys, ranking activity, etc.  The game about war is analyzed to see what we can take-away from the activity and apply to the problem the game was built to inform.

NS: Many of us attending PRACTICE may be unfamiliar with the work that goes into designing war games as opposed to digital games, board games, and card games. What are the fundamental elements that go into the planning and execution of war games for the U.S. Military?

DW: The art of game design as applied to a game or analytic event will vary widely from one game to the next, but designers of any genre of games will see elements of game design in the process of building a war game.  I work with a very talented group of colleagues who design games using elements from board games (or just building a board game), card games, and digital games–to the extent that a computer interface (that mundane monitor/keyboard/mouse combo) lets our players submit moves in the games more efficiently.

We typically work to delve deeply into the elements of the sponsor’s problem that a game can tell us more about, design a game to provide data that can be analyzed, and analyze the game data to inform the problem (often through a report).  Games may be inductive or deductive, with 0, 1, 2 sides, or multisided events.  A ‘zero-sided’ game isn’t really what we would consider a game, but it is instead an analytic event typically in the form of a structured seminar where we lead participants through a process to gather data that informs the question at hand.  Games I have been involved in are not tactical such as first-person-shooter, or really immersive where the players might think they are part of the ‘Truman Show’.  Instead, we look at providing ‘enough’ familiarity to players to get them to think about the problems we give them and then look at the decisions the players make.

NS: As an analyst supporting the War Gaming Department, can you speak to the evolution of War Gaming as digital games have grown in influence in American culture? Are there any modern games released within the past few years that have influenced the design of War Games?

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DW: The evolution of war gaming that I have seen is in the growth of the connections between the problem the game is designed to address, the player activity, analysis of the player activity, and the reporting that follows.  We don’t begin to create the digital environment of some modern games.  We use enough technology to present players the situation at hand and allow them to submit moves.  Additionally, we may use technology to inform or shorten the adjudication process.  Finally, we are learning and adapting technology to improve the analysis process.  We often get visitors who want to see the ‘war gaming computer’ — it doesn’t exist.

I am not familiar with specific modern games.  I read what I can and work with a lot of people smarter than myself.  Whether it is Rules of Play by Salen/Zimmerman, The Art of War Gaming by Perla, Simulating War by Sabin, Reality is Broken by McGonigal or other works, the bar has been set high by those who have preceded us.  The Naval War College has included gaming in the curriculum since 1887, and the War Gaming Department grows faculty war gamers internally through an educational process and on the job experience.

NS: What three responsibilities make up the majority of your work as a War Games Analyst?

DW: Most of our work is done in ad-hoc teams that include a Game Director, Game Designer, knowledge and information manager, Lead Analyst, Lead Adjudicator, and Logistics.  I did all of these jobs on different projects while on active duty as War Gaming Faculty at the college.  As a civilian contractor, I tend to do more game design; additionally, I have been leading efforts to improve kIM (knowledge & Information Management) both within the games we do and across the department and into the wider college and beyond.

NS: What is the ultimate goal of a war game exercise? Specifically, what is the exercise designed to instill in the soldiers and officers who participate? Is it simply an exercise in combat readiness or is it something more?

DW: Goals vary and are typically unique for each game.  As Perla describes in his book, we differentiate between games and exercises.  Exercises involve actual military units/forces operating to train and improve their combat or deployment readiness.  Games employ no real military forces.  Games are designed to examine typically ‘wicked-hard’ complex problems.  While all games have an experiential aspect (you can’t play the same game twice), we have to be very careful that the players don’t learn the wrong lessons or think that they can always directly apply what happens in a game to their day jobs and the real world.

For example, we create ‘game artifacts’ when we give one side in a game cloaking devices and not the other.  The players might leave after the game thinking that in ’20XX’ cloaking devices are going to be the best thing ever!  If we needed to create the conditions where one side would fight with low-observable forces (or better communications, or satellites, etc ) versus the specific capabilities and forces that are provided to the other side, then we do so in order to create conditions that allow the players to play the game and make hard decisions about how to employ those capabilities and win the game.  The analysis of the game would inform how the capability was employed, or how the other team defended against it, what the players used as decision criteria, etc.  Our games are never a direct input to the combat readiness of a military force; however, games that educate the players or give them an opportunity to think in new ways may lead to better thinking by those officers in the future.

NS: What games do you find yourself playing away from work? Do you think these games influence how you approach your work?

DW: I have two children, 10 and 5, and so I tend to play what they enjoy.  Yes, I tend to look at games through ‘design glasses’:  what elements are part of the game, why do I think the designer chose those elements, how well do the rules ‘work’, what unique or nifty elements of design are present in the game, etc.  There is so much to learn from game theory, brain science, the behavioral sciences, etc.  Since the games and projects I work on tend to be about human decision making, I try to think about what may be influencing a player and how it might affect his decisions.  For security reasons, cellular phones are not permitted where I work.  So, while I used to have one the size of a lunch box, with a shoulder strap, back when I lived on a sailboat in 1991-1995, I haven’t owned one since.  My daughter’s badgering about an ‘iPod’ this year is as close to digital gaming as I have been since having Tetris on the computer back in college.  From that perspective, I stay on the ‘cutting edge of obsolescence’.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the author, and do not reflect official policy of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the United States Government.

David Ward is a speaker at PRACTICE this year. Join us on the weekend of November 9th – 11th for a deep dive into game design theory and practice with David and a collection of the best game designers in the field.