I've always loved war games, probably out of a combination of tactical curiosity and moral failure. Risk and Axis and Allies are still family favourites at my parents' home. My university days were punctuated by campus-wide competitions in the marvelously engineered Age of Empires II. And, of course, since the advent of e-sporting, these competitions—most especially since the release of Starcraft II—have gained a new notoriety both at home and abroad. That community and its professional advocates have long had a home in Korea, but now foreigners in North America and Europe are taking up the standard with equal fervour. My day job regrettably stands in the way of me making it pro.
Every generation has its war games, which have probably been around since human beings first picked up a wooden stick as an imitation sword. By the fifth century B.C. the ancient Greeks were playing petteia, one of the first modern board games modeled on war. Chess was invented in the sixth century A.D. in India, evolving into its modern form around the fifteenth century. The invention of firearms in China complicated earlier gaming, meaning that battles could no longer be accurately simulated without actually killing people. More abstract means were required.
But it was really not until the Prussians came along that war gaming took on the professional fervor that it has today. What Foreign Policy calls the grandfather of all modern war games was invented by the Prussians: kriegsspiel. It was a system used for training officers and its first set of rules was put to paper in 1812 under the title, Instructions for the Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a Wargame.
Since Prussia, and certainly because of its two intervening wars, wargames have exploded in the last century under the push of both modernization and realist political thought: the former which makes practice and prediction possible on a scale never before possible, the latter which puts more faith than ever in this same predictive power. One U.S. army general describes it as "writing history in advance."
Gaming became serious business, and not just for entertainment, though those lines became increasingly blurry. What became known as game theory in the social sciences was applied to the business of war, taking on some responsibility for concepts like hegemonic stability theory and mutually assured destruction. This glut was partly what inspired Scott Card's futuristic dystopia, Ender's Game, where genius children are bred for the purpose of war gaming against a genocidal insect-alien race. The plot is farfetched science fiction, the gaming premise is not.
And every now and then gaming turns up some embarrassing insights, like the 2002 games the summer before the invasion of Iraq which played retired Martin Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper as a wily Saddam-like dictator, bringing the American military to its knees with tactics eerily prescient of the insurgency.
War gaming works for a variety of reasons, but what's fascinating is when it doesn't. When I teach Realist game theory in class I introduce it using Settlers of Catan, and its priority on relative rather than absolute gains. But what throws Settlers out is playing with people who don't respect the internal logic of the game. Order is disrupted when players have agendas or loyalties that exceed what's happening on the board. It's not technically a violation of the rules, but when material self-interest is interrupted, the game becomes chaos.
That gets at the soul of war gaming. It depends on human beings filling their roles as materially self-interested agents in a rationally organized context. Modern life is predicated on a board much of the world refuses—or is struggling to refuse—to play on. It might be time to switch games.