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The RAND Corporation’s wargame history led to a series of educational games


In school computer labs in the 1970s, games asked a lot of questions. More specifically, they ask for large numbers. Typed-in numbers were the fuel needed to run the games – usually short programs written in BASIC – that filled the storage space of the minicomputers. There were no screens – just teletype machines, which worked like typewriters except that computers could also type words on the page. If you are playing a turn-based strategy game like Hammurabithe computer prints the important information, line by line:

HAMURABI: I REQUEST TO REPORT TO YOU,

IN YEAR 1, 0 PEOPLE WERE HUNGRY, 5 CAME TO THE CITY.

THE POPULATION IS 100 NOW.

THE CITY NOW HAS 1000 ACRES.

YOU HARVEST 3 BUSHELS PER ACRE.

THE MICE ate 200 BUSHELS.

THERE ARE 2800 BUSHELS IN THE STORE.

After this came the questions, one by one:

LAND TRADING AT 26 BUSHELS PER EXTRA.

HOW MANY ACRES DO YOU WANT TO BUY? _

HOW MANY BUSHELS DO YOU WANT YOUR PEOPLE TO FEED? _

HOW MANY HECTARES DO YOU WANT TO PLANT SEED? _

Once answered, the simulator part of the game comes into play, processing your inputs into a series of complex equations. don’t fail so hard that your people can defeat you.

Despite the seemingly primitive nature of the tech, as well as the games, it was cutting-edge stuff in the 1970s school computer lab. And as it turns out, the origins of these games, and the systems used to program and play them, can be traced back to one of the most important institutions of the post-World War II military-industrial complex: the RAND Corporation, based in. in Santa Monica, California. In addition, question-and-answer games were originally designed to simulate nuclear war.

Sponsored primarily by the newly formed Air Force, RAND’s mandate was almost unbelievably broad: “To promote and advance the purposes of science, education, and charity, all for the welfare and security of public of the United States of America.”

The RAND Corporation, originally called Project RAND, was one of the main think tanks created by the United States government and military in the run-up to the Cold War. Because of the importance of science and engineering in winning World War II, governments everywhere recognized the need to continue such work as new battle lines were drawn. Despite its name, RAND was, and still is, a nonprofit organization. Its main product is research reports, drawn from all kinds of scientific and social scientific studies. RAND officially reports to the Air Force, but it is also encouraged to publish and share its work for the “public good.”

Despite its almost unbelievably broad mandate, RAND is perhaps best known for its wargames. Coincidentally, wargaming first emerged as a popular pastime in the early years of the Cold War, and the similarities between these professional and amateur pursuits likely played a role in their eventual fusion in the digital age. However, there is a big difference in the beginning. Instead of reenacting historical battles like Midway or Gettysburg, which hobbyists like to do, RAND focuses entirely on potential future conflicts. Which means that many, but not all, of its games include one of the latest innovations in conventional warfare: the atomic bomb.

RAND received, and still receives, much criticism for its apparent indifference to this nature of nuclear war during these years. One of its chief strategists, Herman Kahn, would continue to serve as Dr.’s inspiration. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film of the same name. It could be argued that RAND simply absorbed the thinking of many military leaders in the post-World War II era, with popular heroes such as Douglas MacArthur openly suggesting that atomic bombs be dropped on China to promote American interest in the Korean peninsula. Regardless, the antiwar movement of the late 1960s had not yet emerged in RAND’s early years, and Kahn and others saw no obvious reason to imagine what a nuclear conflict would be like.

RAND’s wargames are often very different from our general understanding of the genre. Rather than asking players to move pieces on a board, RAND games often take the form of complex logistics simulations run by a central computer. Consider the example of STROP, short for strategic operations. Despite its ominous name, STROP is a nuclear war simulation. According to its manual, it’s up to players to “make decisions about R&D expenditures, weapons purchases, and targeting offensive and defensive weapons,” all of which support the ongoing nuclear exchange.

There are no maps inside STROP, nor any moving pieces around. Instead, there are questions to be answered, and these answers are taken in the form of numbers such as dollar amounts and force commitments. All these are called “decisions,” a term that will continue in the medium. The questions are asked in the same way as in the Hammurabiminus the flavor text:

STROP EXERCISE: BLUE

R and D ALLOCATION

R and D for Multiple = _

R and D for AMSA = _

R and D for ABM = _

Purchase: Fighters = _

Procurement: Local Defense = _

Shopping: ABMs = _

Shopping: Shelters = _

A computer – usually an IBM variant, although RAND once made its own machine – would process these decisions, run these numbers through a complex game engine and output the result. Players then re-enter most of the information they provided on the first turn, and play continues.

Computers are an essential tool to operate games such as STROP, and as the machines began to move into professional and educational institutions, the RAND model of mathematical gaming spread with them. RAND, fulfilling the mandate of the public good, is of course the cause. In the late 1950s, it connected with a management training organization called the American Management Association to develop a game that could be used by its work group — essentially, a business version of a wargame.

The AMA manual clearly states these objectives. While extolling the virtues of military wargaming, it asks, “So, why shouldn’t businessmen have the same opportunity? […] Why not a ‘war game’ in business […] ?” The wargame they had in mind was not the back-and-forth board type. Instead, according to STROP model, they create a very well-targeted logistics simulation.

Each value the players decide on is called a “decision” – hence the name of the game: Top Management Decision Simulation. These decisions relate to budgeting for the production and marketing of a product. The money is allocated for research, production, and marketing for the duration of one business quarter. The price of the product is also fixed.

The key to making all this work, of course, is a computer to receive and process the results, in this case an IBM 650 mainframe. The data is sent to a keypunch operator, who creates the required punched card and feeds it into the machine. The simulation runs, and the results are printed and sent to the players. The game time will increase in the next quarter, and the players will adapt and adjust their inputs.

TMDS was the main cause of a mania in the management of the game that spread throughout the United States. By 1961 there were 100 games in operation, and by the 1980s thousands of American businesses were incorporating games into their training. A sign of a good business game, especially in the early days, is the number of decisions one can make. Carnegie Tech Management Game, designed in part by William Dill, a luminary in the field, one of the most famous of the genre, with about 300 decisions. All of these games used the increasing power of mainframes and later minicomputers.

From business, the gospel of computerized decision games migrated to education, starting with an ambitious experiment conducted jointly by IBM and the school board of Westchester County, New York. Citing Dill and others in the field as influences, three “computer-based economics games” were developed for sixth-grade students. One of them, known as The Sumerian Gamesis the inspiration for Hammurabi. What is done Hammurabi different because the context is fictional, as well as historical. It also has a more limited set of decisions, because the game is for kids, not executives.

It took several years for these interactive games to fully penetrate public schools, mostly because the necessary computers were initially a rarity. One of the major players changing this is Digital Equipment Corporation, which sells some of its PDP minicomputers directly to schools. The programming language chosen initially was the obscure in-house FOCAL, which was actually based on a RAND product. The change to BASIC was made when that language started.

In the 1970s, when such BASIC games were common currency in school computer laboratories, fortunes changed for the RAND Corporation. The Vietnam War and the antiwar movement that followed turned much of the public against military-funded outfits like RAND. The Mansfield Amendment, passed in 1969, largely ended the military’s role in cutting-edge computer science research. The future of computing is personal, but this PC revolution will carry RAND’s work forward, fueling future refinements in the turn-based strategy genre. Whether playing or perfecting these games, the kids in the computer lab can inherit the efforts of serious military and business minds, and add more fun to the mix.

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