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Become a Strategic Thinker by Playing Computer Games

Ah. The dream. To play games and claim it as work. This has been a vision for subbies for years; indeed from before they discovered Adventure Training ‘recon’ as a valid risk-reduction activity. But herein lies a problem – why do we continue to insist that games are mutually exclusive to work? Do we not spend millions on war games? Why are some types of games more important than others? In a previous article on the Cove, Mark Mankowski claimed that playing computer games actually improved the user?’s tactical nous.

While this is an extension of a previous discussion we had in our sister blog, the Land Power Forum? (here and here), Mark’s claim is extremely valid and worth extending upon. In this offering I would like to quickly explain why some games, such as Wargame Red Dragons, are useful in developing tacticians but useless in the development of strategic thinking. I will then propose a set of attributes for determining the usefulness of other games for developing the strategic thinker.

Using computer simulation can help develop battlefield intuition. Click on the image to access Mark Mankowski’s earlier article.

Developing tactical decision making  

One of the key characteristics of military leadership is quick decision making. We, as tacticians, are often required to make rapid decisions in information vacuums. Fast decisions based on a paucity of information, usually conducted in an unconscious or non-linear process, is the hallmark of intuition. Intuition relies on the unconscious recognition of a pattern of events to anticipate future outcomes. It is intuition that allows us to shortcut our formal decision making process and make snap judgements. It is why your preferred COA often looks exactly the same before and after you’ve rolled through the MAP. You have unconsciously deduced the optimum response based on previous experience.

Experience is the foundation of intuition

Experience allows you to develop mind maps (heuristics) that connect specific conditions with probable outcomes. In almost every situation, you are unconsciously comparing the present reality with your stored mind maps in an attempt to make sense of that situation. It’s why the first day of service is so difficult. There are no reference points for your new life. Yet you rapidly develop a set of mind maps that allows you to understand why that angry SGT is suddenly so important. Over time, the quality of your mind maps improves as similar situations are encountered and expected outcomes materialise.

Tactical wargames, such as Red Dragons, allow you to experience those conditions that directly relate to combined arms. Mark contends, quite rightly, that this experience will create a set of mind maps which directly contribute to your tactical intuition within the combined arms context. Hence, in the absence of ‘real’ experience, the recommendation that you play realistic war games to improve your tactical leadership is solid. However (there is always a caveat) context is important. This type of intuition is perfect for tactical decision making in a combined arms setting however completely useless in the development of strategic thinking.

Developing strategic decision making

I have previously established that intuition is one of the four significant characteristics of a strategic thinker. So how can I claim that developing intuition will not develop strategic thinking? It is because there are at least three types of intuition – affective, inferential and holistic (big-picture and abstract). Affective intuition refers to emotional reactions regardless of explicit or rational thought. This is generally your first reaction to meeting someone. Inferential intuition refers to judgement based on automated analysis. It is this type of intuition that is improved through practice and often called ‘expert judgement’. It is also this type of intuition that the tactical war games are trying to improve. Here practice makes perfect.

Strategic thinking, however, relies on holistic intuition to contextualise the situation and extrapolate potential novel outcomes. Holistic intuition specifically looks to enable you to make judgements that are based on a qualitatively non-analytical process made by integrating multiple, diverse informational cues into a whole. The key to developing holistic intuition is not practice; rather it is the gathering of diverse mind maps. Here, unlike inferential intuition, quantity (as opposed to quality) of available mind maps is directly correlated to your strategic thinking capacity.

As well as intuition, it is readily accepted that the other three significant strategic thinking characteristics are systems thinking, visionary thinking and creative thinking (why these are important is the topic of another post). So, if we are to improve strategic thinking through gaming, these four characteristics would be a useful metric to determine success.

Using games to develop strategic thinking 

The above set of metrics, illustrated against a small set of strategy games, is premised on the idea that improving the four cognitive characteristics of strategic thinking will create a natural improvement in your strategic thinking concept. I have chosen four games that are each unique and beneficial in their own way. These games (Civilization VI, Empire: Total War, Democracy 3 and Eve Online) are very different in the way they are played and are not normally compared.  Take a look below:

Civilization VI. Built on a strong foundation of over 25 years (think about that for a moment) of past performance and loyal followers, this game encourages world domination by as many means as possible. Touted as one of the best strategy games ever made, Civ 6 allows you take one of a huge range of societies (including Australia) from the pre-Stone Age through to space colonisation. The loss of the ‘Giant Death Robots’ from the previous edition was an emotional loss however this game still tests your systems thinking, creativity and vision. Unfortunately it can be fairly linear and the game mechanics are relatively easy to work out. Despite the magnitude and breadth of the game I would contend that, while it does develop your creativity, vision and systems thinking, it only develops inferential intuition.

 

 

Empire: Total War. Empire is one of the greats in the Total War series. The whiff of grape shot and sniff of total domination is alluring and addictive. This game is fun. It feels more complex that Civ 6, has greater authenticity and even allows the tactician in you to do stuff! While your ability to develop visionary thinking is hobbled through fairly strict winning conditions, how you go about it and the impact little decisions make can really develop your creativity and systems thinking. Again, this is a game for inferential intuition. But it?’s fun! Fill in the leave app, grab a cold one, kiss the social life goodbye and immerse yourself in 18th Century mayhem.

 

Democracy 3. This is, quite frankly, a horrendously entangled game that allows you to lead a country where everyone is stoned, prostitutes line the streets, and environmentalists are rioting outside power stations. Good times. This game is not for the casual gamer. It takes dynamic interacting systems to the nth degree and requires the player to comprehend orders of effect well beyond what is normal. Of all the games, this requires systems thinking and to, some degree, holistic intuition. This is a game of subtlety and deep understanding of holistic effects. Unfortunately there is little space for creative thinking as this game appears to only allow a set number of levers and promptly breaks under any visionary changes.

 

Click on the image to watch the Eve Online trailer via YouTube

Eve Online. Wow. Where do I start? Called the most thrilling boring ever, this game actively requires you to create your own vision of where you want to be. This is not a game for solo tacticians – though, with well over 20k player online at a time, it offers huge tactical play through immersive, interactive multi-player clashes – this is a space game where there is no end, success is defined by you, and the ways to destroy your space ship are countless. The three games outlined above are all about winning. They use extremely complicated mechanics to create realistic dilemmas and develop your thinking. However they don?t consider what happens after you win. Tactics is about winning, strategy is about continued advantage. Eve Online doesn’t stop. Ever. It doesn’t even have rules. Of all the games, this one requires you to understand the systems (game mechanics and human social systems), build a vision, stick to that vision and create innovative and creative solutions. Unfortunately – it will suck you in. You will realise that you are studying spreadsheets, using out-of- game apps, communicating plans with other team members in real time and, when you force yourself to look around, wonder where your family went.

 

Conclusion

I believe that gaming makes a difference from tactics to strategy. Games allow you to experience failure and success in many ways. They can develop both your tactical nous and your strategic thinking. The useful games are the ones that are able to develop specific cognitive characteristics – intuition (inferential or holistic); creative thinking, systems thinking and visionary thinking. Unfortunately there is not enough space here to start discussing other, perhaps more formal ways, of developing your strategic thinking. Perhaps next time. After this turn…


About the author:

Leon Young has over 20 years of military experience in operations and strategic policy development. He is a Chief of Defence Force Fellow and a Fellow of the World Future Society. Leon’s PhD dissertation is on the development of strategic thinking and his professional interests include quantifying risk through scenario development, futures education and strategic decision making.

One thought on “Become a Strategic Thinker by Playing Computer Games

  1. Great article. I spend way too many hours “honing” my strategic skills on these and similar war games. Other than EVE I agree that these games are fun, but linear and somewhat constricted. For my choice of best strategy games I suggest to everyone to check out the developer Paradox. For my money they produce the best strategic simulators and are far less linear than other AAA titles can afford to be. The learning curve for their games can be steep, but the rewards are worth it. No scenario ever plays out the same.

    Crusader Kings 2,http://www.crusaderkings.com/, tests your abilities to navigate a dynasty through the end of the dark ages to the dawn of firearms.
    Europa Universalis IV,http://www.europauniversalis4.com/, puts you in control of the beginnings the nation-state at the dawn of colonialism.
    Victoria 2,http://www.victoria2.com/, let’s you guide a nation through the scramble for Africa and industrial revolution.
    Hearts of Iron 4,https://www.paradoxplaza.com/hearts-of-iron-iv, puts you in the supreme commander’s chair of any country in WW2.
    And when Earth seems to small, Stellaris,http://www.stellarisgame.com/, let’s you take to the stars and manage your space empire.
    You can also play from the beginning of CK2 through each progressive title up to and including Stellaris leading your dynasty from a dark age county to a galactic empire.

    They all use the same engine so if the time is spent learning one, a player can navigate the controls of any other title. That said, however similar the gameplay is, that being strategic view and real time, that is where the similarities end. Running a dynasty and ensuring you have a legitimate heir in CK2 has completely different strategic considerations to the issue of staving off the German invasion of Poland in 1939 that you could face in Hearts of Iron 4. Though the means, method and outcomes may differ the thinking processes, the ability to plan and understand the consequences of your and your opponents actions and the reward of success or more likely heartache of failure (especially in the example I used of Poland) mean that these “games” provide more than simple mindless enjoyment.

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