Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

The Need for Nightmares in Wargame Design

“If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.” Seneca

When the unthinkable happens.

In February 1942 Singapore fell to the japanese, In the months leading up to the fall what appeared to be basic precautions were not taken. The fall of the soviet union caused monumental shifts in the priorities of defence and intelligence communities. What both of these events have in common is that experts thought them to be impossible or at least so improbable that they did not warrant consideration.

Both of these events could be labeled as black swans so unpredictable that it is impossible to prepare for them. Wargaming tends to focus on gaming out the most likely occurrences. Given the costs of developing a large scale game can run in excess of 250 million dollars they tend to be focused on the perceived reality of those creating them. However Wargames offer an ideal opportunity to explore low probability events and to build resilience into the organisations that use them.  This article will look at how the use of small scale nightmare scenario wargames may overcome institutional resistance to the lessons learned, and thereby improve the decision making capabilities of the players.

Confronting the perceived impossible

There is a fundamental difference between a thing that is impossible (can not occur because it appears to violate our understanding of universal laws) and those that are considered to be so improbable that they are dismissed. The problem is that these Improbable events do occur and if they are not prepared for in a meaningful way disasters like Singapore can and will happen again. 

The chances of a horde of brain dead monsters wandering down the street as presented in media like The Walking Dead or Word War Z are so divorced from probability to make their actual occurrence akin to discovering a black pterodactyl rather than swan. However there are actual Zombie Plans. To quote from one of the plans openings “this was not designed as a joke” “the hyperbole in writing a ‘zombie survival plan’ actually provided a very useful and effective training tool. 

In the game the world without oil (McGonigal) set out to confront another scenario with a low probability, waking up to find that the world has completely run out of oil. The game asked participants to examine the impacts on them of this nightmare scenario and suggest how they could survive.

There are other low probability but high impact events. Consider the realm of cyber warfare: What would be the impact of the development of a functional quantum computer on RSA encryption? Or in the field of energy the potential impact of the perfection of cold fusion on a scalable level? Or the impact of home bioprinting on the drug manufacturing market?

 Why does the consideration of improbable occurrences produce effective training tools?

  1. The games provide a context to reexamine the players mental models of the world.

Both the removal of a common assumption or the introduction of a new variable are techniques used in surrealist games to promote creativity. This helps players to explore alternative answers that may be applicable in more likely scenarios.

  1. The player is forced to confront a new reality and adjust to it in a controlled place.

The player can practice getting over the shock of this can’t be happening, while not being placed in danger. Hopefully when they are confronted with a similar situation this will help them to be better prepared.

  1. By considering incredibly low probability events there are less likely to be entrenched positions.

One of the problems many wargame facilitators will face is challenging the dominant ideology of the institution in which the game is being run. Subordinates may be less willing to challenge superiors. In addition, because superiors have not had a chance to consider this scenario in depth they are more likely to be open to alternative ideas.

  1. It’s just a game

The players of an alien invasion or zombie based wargame are less likely to feel self conscious of their decisions (after all this is never going to happen really). This increases what Ericcson labels the Psychosocial moratorium the willingness to make mistakes because of the reduced social consequences of failure.


I have shown how wargaming nightmares can help to increase resilience and creativity in target participants. But how the games are designed and deployed will help to increase the value of these games still further. As such here are some key recommendations for nightmare wargaming.

  1. Keep the game small scale

Clients want large scale wargames to look at high probability events and to focus on fidelity of the model used. There will be much more institutional resistance to a large scale nightmare game than a smaller scale.In addition a smaller scale game has the advantages of repeatability, a lower barrier for engagement and a reduced cost. All of which can help to overcome resistance to their deployment. 

  1. Get people into the game as quickly as possible

When beginning play people suffer from initial inertia. Caused by difficulty in understanding the rules, resistance to the conceit that is being presented or an overload of information causing decision paralysis. Designing the first round of play to ease them into the situation will get deeper engagement. If you are designing a smaller scale game this is even more important to make sure all the time is being used effectively.

  1. Internal consistency of narrative

While the scenario can be completely off the wall as soon as the players are in the game it must remain internally consistent to support the players suspension of disbelief. 

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