I Run War Games. Too Often, I Am the Only Woman in the Room.

I looked over the green plastic soldiers I held in the palm of my hand as my colleagues debated whether one figure should represent a battalion or a brigade. As I placed a single figure on the board, I was conscious of the fact that it wasn’t just a piece of plastic and that the discussion over what it represented wasn’t mere talk. Instead, what we were debating was whether we would put 400 or 4,000 men and women along the border of the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula to potentially face combat. The outcome of that debate would in turn determine how people playing the game — whether they were uniformed military or high-school-age girls — would think about how a potential future conflict between North Korea and the Republic of Korea and the United States could play out.

When I tell people that I’m a war gamer, I’m either met with blank stares or overly enthusiastic questions about what it is like to play Call of Duty or Risk for a living. In reality, war gaming for the Department of Defense is more than a board game or a computer model. A war game is an analytic or educational game that simulates war and creates a synthetic experience for players to consider different responses to a crisis and to see the consequences of those choices. The goal is to fight wars in a “safe” environment without real weapons or people, often to gain insight into a specific policy question.

As a game designer and facilitator, I have to create a believable environment and tell a compelling story that makes the players — usually United States military and government officials — take the game seriously, believe that their decisions have repercussions and play hard so that the results simulate the real world. I need to take a problem, boil it down to the basics and identify the details that really matter while still leaving enough color to make it interesting. For instance, while a future war between two major powers like Russia and the United States could be fought in Estonia and farther afield, in a peripheral arena like Syria, scaling it down to a single geographic area may be critical to addressing the singular question that the game seeks to inform. Finding the sweet spot that fits with my players’ knowledge is important, so designing a game for military officers is different from designing a game for young women without a military background, like the one my female colleagues and I recently designed in partnership with Girl Security, an American nonprofit that encourages young women to pursue national-security careers. Too many options make the game ponderously slow, with players never getting a chance to see the results of their decisions; too few choices mean that I have potentially predetermined the game’s outcomes.

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But there is something else dictating the available choices in war gaming, and that is a lack of gender diversity. War gaming — as with war more generally — has long been a male domain and has significant barriers to entry, retention and advancement. You can’t learn by reading; you have to learn by doing. Many women — myself included — find themselves doing managerial or administrative work for games in a bid to break into the field and learn about war game design and execution, but they often find themselves stuck in that track. I didn’t grow up playing Axis & Allies or memorizing all the fighter aircraft flown by the United States Air Force, like some of my male colleagues did. These are the sorts of things that started me at a disadvantage. Everything about war gaming and military operations more broadly I have learned as an adult, from scratch, whereas most of my male counterparts have been inadvertently training for this job since they were children. Even now, 10 years into my career, I am still playing catch up. This sense of disadvantage tends to discourage women from joining war gaming teams — let alone the national-security field — because many feel that there is not a clear substantive role for them to play or a path to advancement.

I stumbled into war gaming when a male colleague needed player-management and game-administration support. He thought I could be useful, as gaming married my social skills with my previous experience managing large-scale conferences and events. Over time, I’ve been able to break away from the administrative responsibilities that war gaming all too often places on women — sending out game invitations, ordering catering, clipping counters and game pieces to lay on the maps and the invisible emotional labor of supporting my mostly male colleagues. I now design, run and manage games. I’ve been lucky in that I have a small cohort of female war gamers — the “dames of war games,” as we call ourselves — that I work alongside at the RAND Corporation, a research organization that works closely with the United States military. Together, we’re an anomaly in the field. We each have a different story of how we got here and why we got here, and after years of work we have our own specialties in war gaming. But still, there is a constant in our stories: We exist in spite of the system, not because of it. While that is a point of pride, it’s an even bigger problem.

The unspoken gender divide that exists in the war gaming field comes out in funny ways. I know that when people arrive at most of my games, they don’t expect me to stand up and run the game, or to play judge, jury and executioner in deciding combat outcomes. I’m expected to be the note taker or the event coordinator. The number of times I have been asked where coffee is and whether I could fetch it is staggering. I will admit that there is something empowering about being able to command a room and prove my audience wrong. But the thing is, I’m tired of being a rarity. I don’t want to be the only woman in the room running a war game.

I’ve seen subtle but important differences emerge from games led by women or involving women in the design process. For a game exploring future technology, my male colleagues created a list of military capabilities — the order of battle — that focused heavily on systems that could be used to attack and destroy targets. In contrast, an order of battle created by women included more systems — like reconnaissance platforms — that provided better tools to more quickly alert war fighters of adversary activities and locations. This eye toward inclusivity can also be seen when women run games, as female facilitators are more inclined to encourage different voices to contribute to discussion and in turn gain a greater range of insights into the particular problem at hand. It is not so much that female war gamers approach the critical problems differently or focus a game on “soft” security issues like gender and humanitarian affairs. Rather, they are likely to have different perspectives, based in part on their experiences navigating a man’s world. By not having female game designers, facilitators or players, opportunities to uncover new and innovative strategies are falling by the wayside.

There is a movement to increase women’s participation in and amplify women’s voices on national security through organizations like Girl Security, the Leadership Council for Women in National Security and NatSec Girl Squad. The war game my team designed and ran for 14 high school and college-aged young women from across the country in July was an example of this, as we sought to familiarize young women with military concepts and capabilities to lower their barriers to entering the field of national security, and maybe even pique their interest in war gaming. On a smaller scale, when I have the flexibility to do so, I aim for half the players in the games that I run to be women. It takes work to find such players because women with the requisite background in military operations are fewer and less readily available than their male counterparts.

One of the biggest takeaways for the high school students who participated in the war game was that they realized for the first time that they weren’t alone, that there were other young women equally interested in national security. I too had that moment, but it occurred much later in my career, after I had spent years trying to demonstrate my worth by taking on additional administrative tasks in order to get a crack at the “real” work, struggling to add my perspective over a din of male voices that didn’t take me seriously in part because of my gender. Breaking down some of these barriers to advancement was extremely difficult, but it became easier when I found other women who were also chipping away at the brick wall in front of us.

As I placed the green plastic soldier on the game board, I cleared my throat and said, “Battalion.” My fellow game designers — the other dames of games — nodded in agreement. We understood how this decision would affect the rest of the game — the number of units that the player had to manipulate, the strength of these formations and the different schemes of maneuver that they could execute — and what this represented in real life. As the soldier figure stood near the Demilitarized Zone on the game’s map, I thought about how many women soldiers might be represented by this figure. If women have a place on the battlefield and the game board, then I have a place in war gaming.

Becca Wasser is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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