The military throughout history have relied on games for learning strategy and for training soldiers. This wasn’t quite apparent to me until I had read an article by Roger Smith (2014) titled “The Long History of Gaming in Military Training” in the journal Simulation & Gaming and thought about my own experiences. I grew up in a military family on both sides. My uncle was in the Army during Vietnam and has held a lifelong interest in military strategy. He can talk for hours about this topic. I remember as a young child during family holidays, he would show my brother all kind of interesting military training aids, some of which were some types of military strategy games actually used for training, with an attempt to get my brother interested in joining the military himself when he was older. My dad was a veteran of the Air Force and in his retirement years regularly enjoyed playing military-themed PC games as well as flying simulators. When I was a child, the only board game he was really interested in playing with my brother and I was Stratego. Military games would play out in real life during my childhood as well. My family’s house was located right under a major route used by the U.S. Navy’s fighter jets based out of Whidbey Island, Washington. It was also located several miles away from a training area over the Pacific Ocean for F-15 fighter jets from Klamath Falls Oregon Air National Guard base. It was a cool sight to see fighters come over my house playing war games with flares, even though they weren’t really supposed to be doing that over land.
In Smith’s article, he explains the militaries throughout time have used games for mission preparation, training, and for tactical analysis. Smith says that every generation has had the problem of balancing the “personal and public image of a game being used for something as serious as planning warfare in which people’s lives are at stake” and that the lines have been blurred between the dual-use of games found both in the military and in entertainment, such as miniatures, board games, sand tables, and computer games. Smith explains how the military has created video games as training devices, and that some branches have converted games such as Doom and Half-Life into military training items.
Military games date back at least to the Roman Empire, when military leaders would use sand tables with icons to “represent soliders and units in battle.” Later, militeries in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East created strategy board games made of either wood or paper. In fact, the predecessor to the modern game of Chess was formally used as a military training aid, which was named Chaturanga.
In modern times, games used for military training and preparation have evolved. In the late 19th century, the U.S. Naval War College used games to plan a defense against a potential British invasion of New York Harbor. In World War II, the Germans had developed games to plan their invasion of Poland, and the Japanese had also used games to prepare for their plan against Pearl Harbor. By the 1950s, the Rand Corporation was developed, which created gaming systems specifically for the United States military branches. Even soldiers were creating games on their own. Smith explains how a young soldier named Charles Roberts was awaiting his commission into the Army and wanted to improve his tactical skills, so he created a board game named TACTICS. Roberts went on to create the gaming company Avalon Hill in 1958 which today is part of the Hasbro Company. Smith says that Roberts made wargaming popular and an accepted form of entertainment, especially among well-educated players and those with first-hand experience as military leaders. Today, games used in the military mirror that of those for entertainment – they are computer-based. War-themed games are one, if not the most, popular genres in digital gaming. The military has adopted the use of computer-based games for training purposes, which are known as “serious games”.
Smith’s look into military games used throughout history is an interesting perspective on this particular type of use of gaming. Many may not realize that games have been a very significant part of military planning and warfare, and some may not be quite comfortable with the fact that games are used when lives are at stake.