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Visualising Strategy through Wargames and Crisis Simulations

By Katarina Birkedal and Felipe Cruvinel

In 1995, Baudrillard wrote The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Contrary to the book’s controversial title, he did not claim that no military action took place. Rather, what Baudrillard was merely suggesting was that what we perceive as the first Gulf War was a copy of a copy of a war, a simulacrum borne of military simulation exercises and media portrayals.[1] Since then, the blurring of war and wargames, whether, inter alia, in the case of drone warfare, first person shooter-games, cinematic predictions and recreations of battlefields, or variations of costumed play, has only become clearer. Wargames are the means by which the military envisions its actions; they are also how civilians play at soldiery.

Wargames and crisis simulation exercises speak directly to the aims of strategy, defined here as the harmonisation of dialogue, however unequal, between the politician and the soldier.[2] In military terms, strategy relates military power to political purpose.[3] Strategy is not to be confused with policy. That is to say, a policy cannot itself be a strategy, but represents the set of objectives with which a strategy is then made and implemented. Strategy in practice therefore needs to embrace constant change and unpredictability.[4] While an understanding of strategic theory provides the intellectual framework for decision makers, wargames and simulations can help strengthen their capacity to visualise their strategy and train to adapt it to the evolving circumstances.

The history of wargaming dates back millennia. In professional military training, wargames first appeared in 19th century Prussia, and then in the United States military in the US Naval War College where officers engaged in tactical and operational naval wargames in the 1920s and 1930s.[5] The present-day renaissance in the use of wargames within governments, the military, and academia reflects a growing consensus about their effectiveness as well as the broadening interest in the study and practice of strategy. Of course, simulation exercises are not restricted to military purposes alone. 

Crisis simulations are used in business and finance, both for the development of crisis response strategies, and as entertainment and job application screening.[6] Recreating existing systems (and their human components) within a controlled setting, and then subjecting them to various unexpected and potential events, allows managers to visualize strategies that they can deploy if and when such events actually occur. Such simulations, whatever purpose they are put to, share a committed belief in their power to train the human body’s responses and emotions. Put differently, the simulated reality is sufficiently ‘real’ to shape actual action. In a survey of players who participated in wargames at MIT between 1958 and 1964, 56% of people holding policy positions agreed that the experience of such simulations had practical value in their work.[7]

In the context of global health, leaders and professionals have also found value in such exercises. Their popularity rose in the 2000s when biosecurity and public-health specialists sought to stress-test health systems, and on the back of these exercises urged policymakers to address systemic shortcomings.[8] For example, the simulation exercise ‘Event 201’, named after studies that had indicated that nearly 200 epidemic events occurred each year was held only two months prior to the start of the current pandemic.[9] While wargaming experts such as Margaret McCown at the Pentagon have admitted that no simulation could prevent deadly viruses from growing into pandemics, they nonetheless argue for the benefits of creating spaces for people to think through such problems.[10] Iterative wargaming can thus be an important part of a continuing process of policy planning and implementation.[11]

The use of ‘play’ and ‘gaming’ in discussions of wargaming requires some caution. In particular, it entails a discussion of how these inform design choices and the intentions of players or participants. Wargames are intended to prepare or build skills for use in the event of war and combat while gaming is not necessarily about conflict. This distinction cannot be understated, for even videogames or tabletop games purposefully built with warfare as a setting or background for the gameplay, are most often intended as an opportunity to engage in socialising activities within an interactive environment rather than as a form of accurate reproduction of warfare.

That said, beyond being a tool for strategy and training, wargaming is also a cultural phenomenon. Here, we are talking about wargames as games that revolve around the form and consequences of players’ decisions and responses in the martial contexts. In other words, we are interested in both the sorts of wargames used in the military and those enjoyed outside of the military. Links between the military and entertainment industries are well-known: from ties between Hollywood and the Pentagon[12] to the game America’s Army, the official game of the US Army, also used in recruitment, and which claims to provide an ‘authentic’ experience of war.[13] The experience of using drones in combat has also persistently been compared to video games, from the pixelated forms of people on-screen to the distance of the drone operators from their targets.

This is what Der Derian calls the ‘Military Industrial Media Entertainment-network’, an interconnected system of power relations and meaning making. The results of this include footage from military training simulations showing up in films, the US military training its soldiers with commercial games, and military plans being drawn up based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.[14] The military-entertainment cycle loops back on itself, so that video games train and recruit soldiers whose experiences feed back into new games; for example, the so-called ‘War on Terror’ caused a boom in the popularity of war-themed games,[15] the setting of which tended to reinforce the Orientalist stereotypes used to sharply differentiate the player self from the ‘enemy other’.[16]

Wargames are part of the popular culture through which we make sense of the world.[17] In other words, the representations of war that we engage with through wargames are ‘entangled in the production of cultural meaning’[18], and consequently become part and parcel of our emotional and physical responses to war, whether as soldiers or civilians (or both). It is important to reiterate here that wargames as a category encompass more than virtual simulations and video games. From table-top settings to large scale physical exercises, wargames take many different shapes.

Moreover, as mentioned above, they are not a new phenomenon; while wargames, as we view them today are modern exercises, people have always played at and gamed war. Cultural events, such as sports, plays, fighting displays, and so on, as well as more private events like board games and the use of training manuals, all put emphasis on desired values and attitudes towards war: honour, valour, fearlessness in the face of death (or loss), and – particularly – the compulsion to victory. As guest of episode II, Aristidis Foley notes of the tabletop wargame Warhammer, the game allows the player a particular sense of embodying the general and taking charge of their strategic thinking, in a manner that is dystopian and that, arguably, glamorises the glory of the general’s victory at all costs; although there is some leeway in the form of player design, the game on its own does not lend itself to reflections on the ethical and humane consequences of warfare. In other words, this is war as the hyper-masculine ideal of war; as something that puts emphasis on the values of cold logic and rationality, as well as, again, fearlessness and the compulsion to victory.

In all iterations, wargames are used to install an emotional and physical muscle memory that will be useful in the event of war and combat; that is, to build intuition for the future. As episode II guest Aggie Hirst writes, wargames ‘intervene in the inner world of players in promotion of military ends’.[19] As cultural and historical artefacts, then, wargames can tell us a lot about the desired values of a society. Consequently, they are of great importance both in the development of future strategy and in the understanding of the past and the present.

About the Project

‘Visualising Strategy’ is a podcast collaboration between two research programmes currently underway at the University of St Andrews (‘Visualising War’ and ‘Strategy Bridge’). It examines how wargames and crisis simulations help shape both our understanding of what strategy should or could look like, and what its deployment then becomes in practice. The initiative aims to bring together academics and practitioners to discuss the application and impact of wargames. 

Episode I, titled ‘Wargaming in a Brave New World’, explores the making, learning, and visualisation of strategy through crisis simulation exercises in the military and public sector. It looks at exciting aspects such as how the aims of wargaming and simulations affect design choices, how online platforms are influencing the field, and what the future holds. Answering these questions are Dr James “Pigeon” Fielder, Founder of Liminal Operations and Adjunct Professor at Colorado State University, Dr Yuna Huh Wong, Defense Analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses, and Paul Vebber, Assistant Director of Wargaming and Future Warfare Research in the US Navy. In the episode, our guests also discuss in-depth how the field is evolving in relation to academia and professional training while serving as a platform for experimentation. Highlights include expert insights on the challenges and benefits of online platforms for wargames and crisis simulations as well as a look at the cyclical nature of the prominence that wargames hold in academia and the military. 

Episode II, titled ‘Let’s Play War: From Rome’s Gladiators to Warhammer,’ examines the cultural impact of wargames in history and sheds light on their contemporary influence in discourses on war and strategy. This episode explores, amongst other intriguing topics, the wargames of the ancient Mediterranean world, the uses of wargames in the modern US military, and the staging of combat in the tabletop wargame Warhammer. Engaging with these issues are Dr Aggie Hirst, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Methods in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, Dr Alice König, Senior Lecturer in Classics and co-lead of the ‘Visualising War’ project at the University of St Andrews, and Aristidis Foley, PhD Candidate in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Our guests also examine the politics of play and immersion, and the role these play in the use of wargames. Highlights include discussions on the stakes of wargames for the players and the importance of the compulsion to victory, and expert insight into the way wargames make us feel about war. 

Find more information and links to the episodes below:

Wargaming in a Brave New World: Episode I

How do crisis simulations help us understand strategy and decision-making processes? Crisis simulation exercises can take many forms, from complex live wargame events to on-screen and multi-week crisis scenarios. The visualisation of the strategy-making process poses intriguing questions about what strategy is and how it is practiced in the education, business, and military environments. What is the role and utility of crisis simulations in the understanding, teaching, and making of strategy? Can wargames be used as a predictive tool, or should their utility be centred around training purposes? How are wargames and simulations adapting to an increasingly online workspace? This episode will provide a peek into the contemporary world of crisis simulations and wargames and the intriguing processes, inspiration, and decisions that underlie their creation and production.

Let’s Play War, From Rome’s Gladiators to Warhammer: Episode II

How do visualisations of strategy travel between bodies? Wargames are not a new phenomenon; whether in the form of military exercises, tactical plays tested out on maps, or entertainment spectacles, wargames have been with us from ancient times. Studying wargames allows us to better understand both the scope and fog of war, as well as giving us a more nuanced grasp on the processes by which military strategy is visualised and drilled into the martial and civilian body. How do we game war? What does it mean for war to be visualised as entertainment, and then to be enacted by soldiers? And what does the long history of war gaming have to teach us about its increasing use today?


[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Sydney: Power Publications, 1995).

[2] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 64.

[3] Colin Gray, Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17.

[4] Hew Strachan, ‘Strategy in Theory; Strategy in Practice,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 42, no. 2 (2019): 187.

[5] Reid Pauly, ‘What to Do When Predicting Pandemics,’ Foreign Policy Magazine, September 11, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/11/what-to-do-predicting-pandemics-coronavirus-wargames-pentagon/

[6] For instance, see the game ‘Portfolio in Peril’ which tests participants’ investment and asset management strategies in response to hypothetical crises and events. “Morgan Stanley: Portfolio in Peril 2010 University Challenge,” February 22, 2010, https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/85104/morgan-stanley-porfolio-peril-2010-university/

[7] Pauly, ‘Predicting Pandemics’.

[8] Amy Maxmen and Jeff Tollefson, ‘Two Decades of Pandemic War Games Failed to Account for Donald Trump,’ Nature, August 4, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02277-6

[9] Maxmen and Tollefson.

[10] Hannah Allam, ‘Years Before The Pandemic, War Games Predicted A “Global Tempest”,’ NPR, May 19, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/05/19/853816473/years-before-the-pandemic-war-games-predicted-a-global-tempest?t=1624276074779

[11] Pauly, ‘Predicting Pandemics’.

[12] c.f Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard, The Hollywood War Machine: U.S. Militarism and Popular Culture (London: Paradigm Publishers, 2007).

[13] Marcus Power, ‘Digitized Virtuosity: Video War Games and Post-9/11 Cyber-Deterrence’, Security Dialogue 38, no. 2 (2007): 271–88. For a discussion on the ramifications of such claims to authenticity, see also Roger Stahl, ‘Have You Played the War on Terror?’, Critical Studies in Media Communication 23, no. 2 (2006): 112–30.

[14] James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (Oxford: Westview Press, 2009), xxxv-xxxvi; Aggie Hirst, ‘States of Play: Evaluating the Renaissance in US Military Wargaming’, Critical Military Studies, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/23337486.2019.1707497; Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989), 53.

[15] Stahl, ‘Have You Played the War on Terror?’.

[16] Nick Robinson, ‘Militarism and Opposition in the Living Room: The Case of Military Videogames’, Critical Studies on Security 4, no. 3 (2016): 255–75.

[17] Jutta Weldes, ‘Going Cultural: Star Trek, State Action, and Popular Culture’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 28, no. 1 (1999): 117–34.

[18] Lori Crowe, ‘Masculinities, Militarism and Popular Culture: The Warrior Superhero in Hollywood’, in Gender, Agency and Political Violence, eds. Linda Åhäll and Laura J Shepherd (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 19–38.

[19] Hirst, ‘States of Play: Evaluating the Renaissance in US Military Wargaming’.


The Institute for the Study of War and Strategy and the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews regularly conduct wargames and crisis simulation events. You can reach out to Felipe Cruvinel @FCruvi to participate or find out more.

This blogpost was co-authored by Katarina Birkedal and Felipe Cruvinel, with inputs from Sneha Reddy. The podcast specials were created by Felipe Cruvinel, Katarina Birkedal, Sneha Reddy and Zofia Guertin. The ‘Visualising Strategy’ project collaboration was funded by the St Andrews Restarting Interdisciplinary Research Fund.