Professional Development, selon Sabin

Connections UK, King’s College. Note, not all the hair is gray; nor are all the participants male, or American, or from the DC beltway. But shouldn’t this square with the dysfunctional images we’ve been fed about wargaming? Why doesn’t it?

Possibly reflecting the dynamics of the course he teaches, Philip Sabin talks of development less as a discrete step than as a dispersed type of attention within an iterative design process. Although he isn’t explicit, the cycle he describes seems more an aspect of group work than a traditional assembly-line style of publication:

…wargame rules will evolve throughout the process, with a profusion of different concepts being tried out, modified or discarded as the designer’s ideas develop over time. The challenge is so difficult that it is very much the exception rather than the norm even for published wargame rules to achieve the level of clarity and accuracy required.
(Sabin, 2012, p125)

Sabin’s notion of development is much closer to the iterative process of software development. A game is developed by the continued attentions of a group of players, with the designer’s participation. The would-be publisher’s presence is not in evidence. This seems sensible, even obvious, once written down. He continues, noting the vagaries of teasing out rules problems and unexpected strategies:

All these insights will be maximised in the case of “blind” playtesting where the designer is not even present to explain and correct, although this extreme approach makes it harder for the designer to see what is going wrong, and it increases the risk that a single initial mistake will go uncorrected and so devalue the whole of the subsequent playtest. For commercial wargames where the whole point is to publish something that people across the world can play with no other input from the designer blind playtesting is an essential safeguard against discovering fundamental problems only when it is too late…
(Sabin, 2012 p130)

Sabin’s sense of game development (commercial or academic) assumes close physical proximity between playtesters but not necessarily designers. Why is the absence of the designer necessary for blind testing but not the developer? Or both? I suppose in any context the answer depends on who has the final authority over a change.

The output of the course he teaches is available online and is the product of serious students of armed conflict destined to work in the decisional echelons of political and military policy making organizations. Third Lebanon War would rule the roost here. Based on my cursory survey, it is both more sophisticated in its design and its comprehension of the conflict it treats than most of Sabin’s students. Which is not at all surprising, given Brian Train’s experience. This is not a knock on King’s students but rather highlights how game design is rather more exacting than one expects it to be. Game design which flows naturally from a sophisticated understanding of what it proposes to model is rarer still.

It would be instructive, and beyond the scope of this article, to compare 3LW with Goor Tsalayachin’s Second Lebanon War. The fact that we could make such a comparison at all is testimony to the golden age we are living through: both designs are available for the time it takes to print and assemble copies. The niche that wargaming has been told it occupies (somewhere between phone books and DOS games) – a defeated attitude internalized by gamers themselves – is disintegrating as wargaming becomes a tool for professional exploration of political and military decisionmaking.

Commercial publishers have not kept pace. Indeed, some have regressed. Decision Games, content within the niche, continues turning the crank to a low standard. In our case, milling the meaningful differences off of 3LW was necessary to make it a recognizable DG product. I’ll leave the perversity of doing this in the pages of magazine called Modern Warfare for others to contemplate. As we’ve seen, Mark Walker’s explicit description of a game developer as a production editor could only be improved by calling a spade a spade. The word “developer” has been bent to so many different uses the tool loses its shape and with it, any utility. Calling for, say, a production editor might draw someone from outside of the hobby with wider experience and different practice. Publishing doesn’t really proceed by inventing the wheel for every title edited. Practice is shared throughout the industry. A copy editor at Knopf does the same thing as a copy editor at Penguin. Only wargaming seems to insist on idiosyncrasy. To its detriment!

Can development can be conducted outside of physical proximity to the designer?

Next up: admonition to designers to do their development upstream from publishers.