The Games We Play: Understanding Strategic Culture Through Games - Modern War Institute (2022)

This article is part of the contribution made by the US Army War College to the series “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of theCompetition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the serieshere.

Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.

There are relatively few individuals within the United States government who understand how, for example, Napoleon used the strategy of the central position in the Hundred Days campaign. Nevertheless, there is almost no one who would not understand, “It’s fourth and ten—we have to punt.”

The games we play represent our first, and arguably our most important, strategic language. Sports games such as American football, soccer, or basketball, tabletop games such as chess or go, and even video games such as Starcraft or League of Legends provide a common, implicitly learned language of strategy. This language channels strategic thinking while facilitating communication. These games not only influence the strategic planning of countries but also of important world leaders. Just as it is possible, for example, to see elements of American football in US strategic thinking, it is also possible to see the fundamental premises of judo, Vladimir Putin’s sport, in Russia’s efforts to use its opponents’ strengths against them.

It is, of course, possible to overextend this insight. Games are certainly not the only influence on a culture’s, a country’s, or a person’s strategic thinking. History, education, economics, politics, as well as the broader context of the situation play a role. That said, games, despite their obvious influence, have historically been underexamined as both an inspiration and a catalyst for strategic thought.

The Power of Games and Implicit Learning

While writers such as Herodotus, Benjamin Franklin, and even Clausewitz have commented on the value and influence of games in life, politics, and warfare, these mentions focus on the explicit value of games. For Herodotus, for example, the ability of the ancient Lydians to survive an eighteen-year famine was largely due to games. In this article the focus is on what an individual learns implicitly about strategy from the games the individual repeatedly plays.

Implicit learning is “nonepisodic learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned.” It is the learning we accrue in life, not through active study, but just along the way. Researchers test the scope and nature of implicit learning using experimental models such as artificial grammars in which participants have to deduce grammar rules from repeated exposure to sentences in a made-up language. Even amnesiacs are able to identify the grammatical structure of artificial languages at a rate far higher than chance. This suggests, in turn, not only that implicit learning is a fundamental way that humans learn, but also that it uses a process that is quite different from the one used in explicit learning.

One of the authors has argued that the ancient Viking game Hnefatafl (or King’s Table) is a good example of the power of games to teach strategy implicitly. With rules pieced together from the available archeological evidence, modern Hnefatafl is typically played on a board made up of a 13x13 grid of squares. One player, with a king and twelve other pieces, sits surrounded by an opponent with twenty-four pieces, six on each side of the board. The game is fundamentally asymmetric. Not only does each player have different forces and a different starting position, but each player also has a different objective as well. The larger force needs to capture the king while the smaller force only needs to help its king escape via one of the corner squares.

Found in settlements throughout the Viking world, it is hard not to see this game as a simulation of the Vikings’ worst-case scenario—a small group of raiders, cut off from their boats, must hold a large force at bay and escape. The game implicitly reinforces several lessons that would be useful. For example:

  • You need a battle buddy. This is one of the few games where it takes more than one piece to capture another piece. Basically, one pins, and the other piece comes up and deals the killing blow.
  • It is good to be king. The only piece that really matters is the king. If the king escapes and loses 90 percent of his soldiers in the process, it is still a victory. Likewise, if the king is captured but at a horrific cost to the enemy, it is still a loss.
  • It is easier for the player in the center to win. Because of the value of interior lines and because of the difficulty of capturing the king, the player who is surrounded, cut off, and outnumbered two to one has the advantage. In fact, in games with novices a simple, “fight through the ambush” strategy almost always wins.

Without a West Point or a War College to teach its combat leaders strategic thinking, the Vikings still managed to impart important lessons through a game.

Strategic Lessons of Popular Sports and Games

If more modern sports and games are implicitly teaching strategy to national security decision makers, what are these decision makers likely learning about defining victory, achieving it, and managing the resources available? That, of course, likely depends on the game.

Virtually all games have some sort of victory condition associated with them. Baseball, for example, is one of many games where the team with the higher score at the end of the game wins. Implicit in this, of course, is that someone is keeping score and that it is possible to have an end. Neither condition is true in geopolitics yet American football, at least, offers frequent exposure to this kind of thinking. That, in turn, has to have an impact on both professional and public expectations.

It goes beyond this, however. American sports fans, by and large, do not like tie games. Baseball goes into extra innings, hockey has its shootouts, and basketball has overtime. This is dramatically different from games such as chess (where over 50 percent of ranked games end in a draw) or even soccer (where over 24 percent end in a tie).

Does this influence US strategic thinking? Circumstantial evidence suggests it does. Ed Sobiesk believes that international relations and the strategies of other nations are much more focused on ideas of national interest whereas American strategies are focused on end states. Unfortunately, competition never ceases, the points tallied by one side are not necessarily measured in the same way by both sides, and the winnability of a competition is fleeting.

Other games hew more closely to Clausewitz. Go, chess, and the modern video game League of Legends have victory conditions involving capture. Go emphasizes the need to capture territory while in chess it is the king that needs to be taken. League of Legends, a highly popular video game where a team of players needs to fight through a layered enemy defense, also ends when the opponent’s base—its nexus—is captured.

These binary, win-or-lose games tend to ignore any other metrics if the center of gravity is captured. Chess and go have long influenced conversations regarding strategy. League of Legends, and other video games like it, with as many as a billion players, will no doubt inform the next generation’s implicit understanding of strategy.

Just as certain games imply certain strategic lessons about ends, these games have a similar impact on ways. Rules define many of the ways a player or team can achieve the primary goal in a given game. For example, because American football requires teams to advance the ball a certain distance over a series of downs or give up the initiative, the game evolves as a series of set-piece plays. Soccer, in contrast, is far more fluid, with virtually continuous activity throughout the game. Soccer and American football do share one common rule in that both last a standardized period (albeit with opportunities for additional time). Games like chess, go, and League of Legends have no set time limits (go’s so-called game of the century, for example, lasted from October 16, 1933 to January 29 of the next year).

At higher levels of play, of course, these sports and games teach more nuanced strategic lessons. Fans of aggressive, offensively oriented teams, such as the Air Coryell offense of the (then) San Diego Chargers or the Total Football strategy epitomized in the play of soccer legend Johan Cruyff, have likely internalized different lessons than those of fans of teams that sought deliberate command of a game’s flow rather than explosive offense, such as Dean Smith’s four-corners basketball offense or Woody Hayes’s “three yards and a cloud of dust” ground-control form of American Football.

In reference to means, go offers perhaps the simplest and starkest example. Here each piece has the same weight and capabilities. Its importance in terms of the game depends entirely on where and when it is played. A piece placed in a critical position at exactly the right time can find itself, over the course of just a few more turns, in a position of relative unimportance. Contrast this to games like chess and American football, where each piece or player is highly specialized. Modern video games are at the far opposite extreme from go. League of Legends, for example, has 120 playable characters, each with its own set of capabilities and limitations. Other video games, with nearly endless customization options, offer even more choice.

Games do more than implicitly teach strategic principles, however. Popular games also give people a common language with which to communicate strategic principles to others. Go has a long tradition of influencing Chinese strategic thought in business, politics, and the military. There does not appear to be a thorough scholarly project tracing the etymology of sports-related words and phrases referenced in national strategy documents. However, many of the common words and phrases from sports used in the workplace and in historical references are immediately recognizable.

This, in turn, informs how senior leaders convey strategic principles to the public. It is not by accident, for example, that parts of the complex ground assault in Operation Desert Storm are regularly described using football terms such as the “end run.” Even General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of all allied forces, called his rapid and deep rush to bypass entrenched Iraqi forces by overloading his attacking forces on the left the “Hail Mary”—not because he thought the plan had a low chance of success, but because the football formation for a Hail Mary pass often has multiple receivers lined up on the same side of the field to overwhelm the defense. Schwarzkopf, a 1956 graduate of West Point, was a respected scholar-athlete who played football and would have likely practiced both the end run and the Hail Mary.

Case Study: Sacrifice

In addition to how ways and means accomplish the desired ends in games, a second important concept in the language of games and sports needs to be emphasized: sacrifice. The concept of sacrifice, or more precisely, the willingness of players to sacrifice themselves or their pieces to achieve desired ends is a strategic lesson that is influenced by games and sports.

In go and chess, sacrificing pieces is standard practice. Players choose to sacrifice something only when they expect that the loss of the piece will bring about greater gain. In chess, sacrificing a piece means losing that asset for the duration of the game. However, with go, there is always a new piece to play, so often the sacrifice is about ceding territorial gains. In fact, sacrifice is the central theme in at least half of the Wang Jixin’s ten golden rules of go.

In sports, however, sacrifice presents itself in a more muted way. Barring an unfortunate injury, no one who is sacrificed is forever out of the game. In American football, sacrifice goes hand in hand with deception tactics. Faking a handoff to a running back usually draws the attention of the defensive line, and perhaps buys the quarterback a few precious moments to throw to a receiver further downfield. The running back does not get to add another carry or more yards to his personal stats, but the team scores instead. The sacrifice is measured in yards the receiver makes, or the hopeful touchdown. Other sports often have similar tactics, such as the sacrifice fly in baseball.

The wildcard game that sits between the permanent losses of go or chess and the deception-oriented sacrifices of sports is found in the growing popularity of esports and the MOBA genre—multiplayer online battle arena games that involve a battle royale—a category that the wildly popular League of Legends, Dota, and Fortnite fall into.

Most of the popular competitive esports have a “respawn” mechanic, where the player who is killed or disabled must sit out for a time but then gets to come back. As the game progresses the respawn timer often increases in length and influences how careful players become. Sacrificing early does not have as steep a consequence as doing so later, when the players have had time to earn items and become much more powerful. A power play with a one-player disadvantage late in the game may lead to an outright loss.

As esports continue to climb in popularity, and the player base surpasses the numbers of rugby, football, and baseball players, it is worth asking the question: What does the constant respawn mechanic mean to the next generation of strategic thinkers? Perhaps it implicitly teaches them about supply chains, logistics, and reinforcement rates that were at the forefront of World War II strategists’ minds. Will future strategists implement concepts that mimic respawn as they consider how to manage the battlefield while waiting for X or Y resources to come back? Casualty aversion within US strategy has significant political implications, yet politicians and senior military leaders are only occasionally seen playing MOBA-style esports with respawn mechanics.

Caveats

Most games and sports lack the fidelity needed to be able to make direct comparisons with geopolitical situations. Likewise, not all language developed around sports and games directly translates into strategic thought. Lauren Dickey suggests that,

To assume that Chinese defense planners were raised playing this strategic board game [go], and that such formative experiences continue to shape their thinking today, is a precarious assumption at best. Even if true, does an avid Go player—or in a Western context, a diehard Risk or Settlers of Catan gamer—have the operational knowledge or qualifications to translate strategy at the conceptual level of board games into national or military strategy? The impact of such strategic games upon the individual strategist is undoubtedly highly subjective.

Dickey, notably, does not discount strategic games, but cautions against generalizing how those games directly influence strategy. We agree.

Rather, we argue that games indirectly influence strategy by forming the strategic language that informs both decision makers’ thinking and their language in communicating these concepts to nonspecialists.

Sports and games played and enjoyed over a lifetime undoubtedly influence the strategic thinking of individuals. To the extent that these activities are well-known or widely played, they also arguably influence the way national security decision makers think and act when making strategic decisions. Perhaps most importantly, however, these sports and games create the language with which senior leaders can better communicate their plans and intentions to fellow citizens. While the exact nature of these connections is clearly a subject for future studies, such studies will likely shed light on the wide range of influence the implicitly learned lessons of games continue to have on the strategic thinking of leaders across the globe.

Kristan J. Wheaton is the professor of strategic futures at the US Army War College. He is a futurist who specializes in forecasting methods and techniques. He has also run several gaming companies and designed a number of games for use in the classroom and for entertainment purposes.

Lieutenant Colonel Jason C. Brown is a research scientist at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. He specializes in information conflict and uses futures-thinking methods to help practitioners avoid, disrupt, and recover from next-generation threats.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Craig A Rodway

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