Business war gaming an effective instrument for improved decision-making

08 August 2018 9 min. read

Gamification can sound like a buzzword, but by deconstructing what games actually are and by applying a games mindset to solve real life challenges in businesses, people can see for themselves just how powerful game approaches can be within business. As a result, so-called serious gaming has recently become a popular tool for decision making, testing scenarios and the transformation of organisations. Even the more traditionally-oriented worlds of the government and the financial sector are slowly but surely taking on serious gaming, with ‘war gaming’ – game forms in which (military) strategic decisions can be tested in conflict situations – gaining popularity in particular.

In its simplest form, serious gaming is gaming with a primary purpose other than entertainment. Instead, the main goal is to show how taking decisions, increasing insight, selecting certain options or a certain situation, such as an acquisition, may impact a business in a safe environment. Understandably, serious games have already become fully established within military organisations – giving such entities safe ways in which to plan out decisions which could ultimately be life or death – with many operations and scenarios being practiced with the help of war games. In his book 'The Art of War Gaming', which describes various applications of the technique, author Peter Perla found that war gaming in the United States has spread far beyond defence, however.

In the business world, there is a growing interest in using the methods of military strategic decision-making for their own decision-making, and by actively using the military term ‘war games’ – albeit strictly as a metaphor – strategic workshops have often become more effective and result-oriented. This is not only in the terminology, but even more in the approach, direction and supervision of the games, which aim for supported solutions (consensus) and increasing the mentality to tackle problems ('one team - one fight'). In addition, such games also aim to be refreshing and fun, thus making for a welcome change from less to-the-point traditional strategy sessions.

Business 'war gaming': an effective instrument for improved decision-making

The impact of (war) gaming

To illustrate the impact of war gaming, it would be helpful to examine a brief summary of an operation started in 1942. In Europe and Britain’s darkest hour, where extremely important supply routes across the sea were threatened by German U-boats, researcher Paul Edward Strong tells the story of how a handful young women were able to make the decisive difference with the use of war gaming.

When it became clear that the U-boats were on the winning side, Captain Gilbert Roberts (an experienced but retired navy man) supported by a team of ten WRNS (Women Royal Navy Service, pronounced 'wrens') devised a solution. Captain Roberts taught the WRNS in a short time the intricacies of the profession using a war game, the same war game that would later be used to train more than 5,000 commanders of the escort ships in securing cargo ships during a barren crossing across the Atlantic. The preparation and execution of these war games would be carried out by the aforementioned WRNS. The WRNS would test the commanders to the utmost, give them space in the game environment to fail and learn from their mistakes, and give them insights into the dynamics of security and how to be successful.

By executing strategies in these games, by interacting with experience experts (commanders of the escort ships) and by their attitude of continuously wanting to examine intelligence reports, the WRNS understood the protection of U-boats so well that they regularly attacked during exercises, teaching British submarine specialists the best ways to stop such an onslaught. This expertise also forms the basis of operational analyses which the WRNS would carry out using the same games. In those analyses, the WRNS made the dynamics in the competition between U-boats and escort vessels simple and clear. In this way, they succeeded in predicting the development of new techniques and new behaviours (tactics) used by the U-boats, to the extent that when Germany rolled out their new innovative maneuvers, they did not surprise the Allies. On the contrary, they were often provided with new resources and new strategies to be able to anticipate the new strategies of the German U-boats.

Years later, after the liberation of Europe, if archives of both parties in the conflict were to be accessed and compared, they would clearly show how strong the contribution of the WRNS was to keeping Britain alive in a war that could otherwise have ended in famine, ammunition shortages, and defeat. At crucial times, the WRNS ensured that the security of cargo ships became better and better, particularly due to the successful use of games in training, analysis and innovation.

The expertise of the WRNS and the way in which they performed in the games formed an important link in improving the operational communication between the various security experts of the Royal Navy. Think of intelligence experts, commanders of escort ships, pilots of patrol aircraft, R&D staff, route planners and operational staff at the headquarters of Western Approaches. In this way, the games became pivotal in the collaboration between the various parties involved. An incentive for effective and practical co-operation in the turbulent and savage environment of the Atlantic Ocean.

"The business war game is a game-form in which three steps of a military planning process are simulated in an interactive one-day strategic workshop."
– Leon Veenhuijzen and Swen Stoop

Why is this story important?

The value of war gaming is demonstrated here, through the possibilities of understanding complex situations and educating people to act successfully in those complex situations. It shows that the essence of conflict simulations is to better understand situations and to better understand how people deal with those situations, and even anticipate how competitors might try to outflank organisations in the future, something that everyone could benefit from.

Certainly, repeating the spectacular results of the WRNS is easier said than done, but there is a lot that can be done all the same. For example, look at the story of Dutch dairy multinational Friesland Campina. The company uses a form of conflict simulation to understand the behavior of other market parties and to develop market strategies to improve the position of Friesland Campina. The game-form of Friesland Campina is derived from the business war game.

The business war game is a game-form in which three steps of a military planning processes are simulated in an interactive one-day strategic workshop. In a mutual competition, some teams try to convince the game commander (often the CEO) of the value of their CoAs (Courses of Action), and act as Red team to expose the weaknesses of their own organisation. Not only is this much nicer to participate in than the classic strategy session, but according to many it is also much more effective for Friesland Campina.

Another interesting form of war gaming that has become available for business and government is the matrix game. In the original military form, different players, bent over a map of the relevant area, take decisions back and forth and respond to each other's actions. The success or the impact of these actions is decided by the players at the table together, and it is also important to what extent a player can and may take a certain decision.

The first generation of matrix games have now also appeared beyond defence contexts. The authors of this article were, for instance, involved in a matrix game about the Brexit process, and a game about the crisis caused by Spain’s quashing of the Catalonian referendum result. The game principles and design factors of those games do not differ substantially from the military variants. As a result, it is possible to design such a matrix game in a short time in a way that suits a specific problem or situation and to 'play' soon afterwards. Because the predictive value of a matrix game is quite high, it may be relevant to play such a matrix game several times with different players. If the results align, then there is a good chance that such a scenario could also occur in reality, and requires preparation.

Tom Mouat, game expert and inventor of various (semi-) military matrix games, summed it up best when he said, "Experts predict what should happen, gamers predict what will happen."

Want to know more about war gaming?

Since 1993, Connections US has been sharing knowledge and experience in war gaming. More recently, Connections also launched in the UK, Australia and the Netherlands.

In September, Connections UK is hosting its annual seminar at King's College London, while one month later, in October, Connections NL will follow suit with its 2018 edition. During the events, keynote speakers will share their vision on the value of war-inspired gamification and experts will provide demonstrations and case studies.

About the authors of this article: Leon Veenhuijzen is game-enthusiast and active at Delta Capita as a consultant in the financial sector. Swen Stoop works for the Dutch government and is also a designer and researcher of conflict simulation and war games.