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Postcard From SGS 2005: Wargaming Science

Kicking off the first day of the Serious Games Summit, Dr. Peter Perla, the Director for Interactive Research at the U.S. Government-funded Center for Naval Analyses, and a veteran wargaming expert with over 30 years of hobby and professional experience, introduced his views on the concept of "wargaming science."

Simon Carless, Blogger

October 31, 2005

6 Min Read

In the first half of a dual-speaker keynote on the first day of the Serious Games Summit in Washington, DC, Dr. Peter Perla, the Director for Interactive Research at the U.S. Government-funded Center for Naval Analyses, and a veteran wargaming expert with over 30 years of hobby and professional experience, kicked off the conference with his look at the concept of "wargaming science."

Perla, whom noted author and game designer Larry Bond has called "the leading wargaming expert in the United States" is the author of important reference tome The Art of Wargaming, published by the Naval Institute Press. Perla started his lecture by noting that a colleague at the Naval War College, though a noted eccentric who suggested that the Department of Defense pursue research into using pigeon brains as the basis of robotic control systems, had challenged Perla to write a Vol.2 to his book, called The Science of Wargaming. This brought up an important point for Perla, as he recalled his internal response to this request: "Wargaming isn't a science- it's an art, it's a craft, but it's not a science."

However, his colleague's response was that much of what a physician does could be considered an art, but it obviously also referenced science in a major way - would you trust any doctor who didn't have a good grasp of science? This made Perla think seriously about scientific elements of wargames, and try to map out some scientific concepts that would map to "serious games" of any type.

Wargaming - An Overview

Firstly, Perla took a broad overview to define wargaming, arguing that a traditional definition: "Any type of warfare modeling, including exercises, campaign analysis, computer simulation without players," is not necessarily the best. He proffered an alternative definition, even broader still, suggesting: "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 opposide sides." The important point, it was argued, is that "We create a synthetic universe in which our players have to live," however that occurs.

So, when trying to get scientific with wargaming, what parameters can we possibly define to help us do this? Perla laid out what he described as the essential "wargame dimensions," as follows: time, space, forces, effects, information, and command. In this case, he explained, forces means both military force and forces in broader sense, including friction and momentum. That's the abstract, but getting to understand how it acts is equally important, and Perla referenced a book named Understanding Information Warfare, which proposed a construct that defined 3 domains of real war - physical, informational, and cognitory. In this model, the physical domain feeds information, which goes through human perception into the cognitory - filtered into people's thoughts. Perla explained, quite simply, that "science defines, constructs, and proves connections between the game and reality," and the measure of a game's realism is how well that relationships within the player's algorithms map with real domains.

The Four Wise Men

Next, Perla segued into important influences on any scientific model, whom he referred to as "our four wise men." These included Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, author of the seminal tome Vom Kriege ("On War"), published in 1832, whom the speaker referred to both as "the most influential military philosopher in the West" and as "our mandatory dead philosopher," as well as Booz-Allen and Hamilton researcher Mark Herman, who has been extremely influential in proposing the entropy-based warfare model. Perla also cited Martin Van Creveld's work on command and uncertainty and Paul Vebber's research into network effects as being extremely important to any model.

Perla went on to discuss the conceptual keys to real-life operational warfare, key to an understanding of what should be modeled. These include friction of various kinds (destruction, disruption, and chance), entropy (the inherent energy that's unavailable for carrying out the mission, and increasingly important), and circumstances in which entropy leads to uncertainity, which military command systems exist to overcome. In addition, what needs to be carefully monitored is the way that command counters friction/direction - essentially, it was suggested, in war, success is often a relatively better control of entropy. Perla urged: "As game designers, our task is to find a way to represent this." Needless to say, with a near-infinite amount of possible outcomes to any action, this isn't easy, but Perla suggested ways in which simulations could create system of interlinked topologies - essentially, both information, operational, and command topologies.

As for realism in wargames, Perla has a simple answer: "The true measure of realism of a game is the degree of agreement between how the players relate to the game's universe through the game system's topologies and how real combatants relate to the domains of real war." In other words, it's whether players identify clearly with the problems and can relate them to real life in a practical manner, rather than any other glitz factor, that makes the most sense.


In concluding, Perla tried to frame his debate in broader ways that would help all people trying to make "serious games" of any kind. Going back to first principles, he pointed out that anyone wanting to make such a game should identify the basic scientific principles behind the concept, and then identify the philosophers who have thought most widely and deeply in that field. Only then, after asking what basic concepts your game must represent and how you can make them tangible in your game universe, can you go ahead and use your artistic skills to make the game. In the end, Perla argued, better science will better make for better art, ending on a slide pastiching Alton Brown's factual and science-infused Food Network show, and urging the audience to consider "Good Games" in the same way as "Good Eats."


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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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