RAND Corporation’s war game history has led to a series of educational games

In school computer labs in the 1970s, games raised a lot of questions. Specifically, they asked for a lot of numbers. The numbers entered were the fuel needed to power the games – usually short programs written in BASIC – which filled the storage space on the minicomputers. There were no screens – only teleprinters, which functioned somewhat like typewriters, except that the computers could also type words on the page. When you played a turn-based strategy game like Hamurabithe computer would print the key information, line by line:

HAMURABI: Please report to you,

THE FIRST YEAR, 0 PEOPLE DIE OF HUNGRY, 5 CAME TO TOWN.

THE POPULATION IS NOW 100.

THE CITY NOW HAS 1000 ACRES.

YOU HAVE COLLECTED 3 DRINK PER ACRE.

The rats ate 200 bushels.

YOU NOW HAVE 2800 DRINK IN STORE.

Then come the questions, one at a time:

THE LAND TRADES AT 26 BEVERAGES PER ACRE.

HOW MANY ACRES DO YOU WISH TO BUY? _

HOW MUCH DRINK DO YOU WANT TO FEED YOUR PEOPLE? _

HOW MANY ACRES DO YOU WANT TO PLANT WITH SEEDS? _

Once answered, the simulator component of the game would kick in, processing your inputs through a series of complex equations.​​ Then the game would advance a year, and start all over again – provided, of course, that you don’t hurt enough for your people to knock you down.

Despite the seemingly archaic nature of the technology, as well as games, it was state-of-the-art hardware in the school computer lab of the 1970s. And it turned out that the origins of these games, and the systems used to program and play them, could be attributed to one of the most important institutions of the post-World War II military-industrial complex: the RAND Corporation, based in Santa Monica, California. Moreover, the question and answer games were originally designed to fight a simulated nuclear war.

Sponsored primarily by the new Air Force, RAND’s mandate was almost absurdly broad: “To foster and promote scientific, educational, and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare and safety of the United States of America”.

The RAND Corporation, originally called Project RAND, was one of the major think tanks created by the United States government and military as the Cold War approached. Given the importance of science and engineering in winning World War II, governments around the world recognized the need to continue this work as new battle lines were drawn. Despite its name, RAND was, and still is, a not-for-profit organization. Its main product is research reports, drawn from all kinds of scientific and social studies. RAND formally reported to the Air Force, but it was also encouraged to publish and share its work for the “public good”.

Despite its almost absurdly broad remit, RAND is perhaps best known for its wargames. Coincidentally, wargaming first emerged as a popular pastime at the start of the Cold War, and the similarities between these professional and amateur pursuits likely played a role in their eventual merging in the digital age. There was a big difference initially, however. Rather than re-enacting historical battles such as Midway or Gettysburg, as amateurs liked to do, RAND focused entirely on potential future conflicts. Which meant that many, but not all, of its games incorporated one of the newest innovations in conventional warfare: the atomic bomb.

RAND received, and still receives, much criticism for its seemingly nonchalant attitude toward nuclear war during those years. One of its chief strategists, Herman Kahn, would go on to serve as the inspiration for Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film of the same name. You could say that RAND was merely absorbing the thinking of many military leaders after WWII, with folk heroes such as Douglas MacArthur openly suggesting that atomic bombs be dropped on China to advance US interests on the Korean Peninsula. . Be that as it may, the anti-war movement of the late 1960s had yet to emerge in the early years of RAND, and Kahn and others saw no apparent reason to imagine how a nuclear conflict might unfold.

RAND wargames often differed quite significantly from our general understanding of the genre. Rather than requiring players to move pieces around a board, RAND games often took the form of complex logistics simulations run by a central computer. Take the example of STOP, short for strategic operations. Despite its bland name, STROP was largely a nuclear war simulation. According to its playbook, it was up to the players to “make decisions regarding R&D spending, weapon purchases, and offensive and defensive weapon targeting”, which supported all ongoing nuclear exchanges.

There were no cards in STOP, nor any parts to move. Rather, there were questions that needed to be answered, and those answers took the form of numbers such as dollar amounts and strength commitments. All of these were called “decisions, a term that would carry over to the medium. The questions were asked in the same way as those Hamurabiminus the flavor text:

EXERCISE STROP: BLUE

R&D ALLOCATION

R and D for Multiples = _

R and D for AMSA = _

R and D for ABM = _

Supply: Fighters = _

Supply: Local Defense = _

Supply: ATM = _

Supply: Shelter = _

A computer – usually some variant of IBM, although RAND once built its own machine – would process these decisions, processing these numbers through a complex game engine and outputting the results. Players would then re-enter most of the information they provided in the first round, and the game continued.

Computers were an essential tool for running games like STOP, and as machines began to move into professional and educational establishments, RAND’s model of mathematical gaming spread with them. RAND, fulfilling its public good mandate, was of course the catalyst. In the late 1950s, he connected with a management training organization called the American Management Association to create a game the group could use in their work – essentially, a commercial version of a wargame.

The WADA manual clearly expresses these intentions. While extolling the virtues of military wargaming, he asks, “Why, then, shouldn’t businessmen have the same opportunity? […] Why not a corporate “war game” […] ?” The war game they had in mind was not a back-and-forth board type. Rather, in keeping with the STOP model, they created a highly optimized logistics simulation.

Each value the players decided on was called a “decision” – hence the name of the game: Top management decision simulation. These decisions concerned the budgeting for the creation and commercialization of a product. Funds have been allocated for research, production and marketing for the duration of one business quarter. The price of the product was also fixed.

The key to making it all work, of course, was a computer to accept and process the results, in this case an IBM 650 mainframe computer. The data was sent to a keystroke operator, who created the necessary punch cards and introduced into the machine. The simulation has run and the results have been printed and sent to the players. Game time would roll over to the next quarter and players would adapt and adjust their entries.

TMDS was the main catalyst for a management game craze that spread across the United States. By 1961 there were 100 games in service, and by the 1980s thousands of American companies had incorporated games into their training. A hallmark of a good business game, especially early on, was the amount of decisions one could make. Carnegie technology Management game, devised in part by William Dill, an authority in the field, was one of the largest of its kind, with around 300 decisions. All of these games took advantage of the growing power of mainframe computers and later minicomputers.

From business, the gospel of computerized decision-making games has migrated to education, beginning with an ambitious experiment conducted jointly by IBM and a school board in Westchester County, New York. Citing Dill and others in the field as influences, three “computerized economic games” were produced for sixth graders. One of them, known as The Sumerian gamewas the inspiration for Hamurabi. What did Hamurabi different was that the context was purely fictional, as well as historical. It also had a more limited set of decisions, given that the game was aimed at kids, not executives.

It took several years for these interactive games to fully infiltrate public schools, mainly because the computers needed were initially a bit of a rarity. One of the main players that changed that was the Digital Equipment Corporation, which marketed some of its PDP minicomputers directly to schools. The programming language of choice was originally the obscure in-house FOCAL, which was actually based on a RAND product. The move to BASIC was made when this language started to take off.

By the 1970s, when such BASIC games were commonplace in the school’s computer lab, fortunes had changed for the RAND Corporation. The Vietnam War and subsequent anti-war movement turned much of the public against military-funded outfits like RAND. The Mansfield Amendment, passed in 1969, largely ended the military’s role in advanced computing research. The future of the computer was personal, but this PC revolution would advance RAND’s work, inspiring future refinements to what would become the turn-based strategy genre. Whether playing or perfecting these games, computer lab kids would inherit the efforts of serious military and business minds, and add a whole lot more fun to the mix.

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