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Wargaming Contested Narratives in an Age of Bewilderment

This article was originally published in the Strategy Bridge

In his latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Harari warns of a world where old stories have collapsed and new ones have yet to take their place. He describes an Age of Bewilderment and argues persuasively that societies are in the throes of an increasingly connected, crowded, and confused world where people no longer know what to believe. While this might be true in many places, Harari should make a trip to the Baltics. It is here we recently discovered that, in fact, old stories are still alive and well.

In a first of its kind, American military strategists hosted a Contested Narratives Wargame with Baltic allies and Nordic partners at the National Defense Academy in Riga, Latvia. The wargame explored the formation, projection, and reception of strategic narratives aimed at building resilience against malign influence.

The Contested Narratives Wargame builds on the assertions from Peter Perla and Ed McGrady that wargames “embod[y] two types of narrative: the presented narrative, which is what we call the written or given narrative, created by the game’s designers; and the constructed narrative, which is developed through the actions, statements, and decisions of the game’s participants.”[1] Over the course of the game, select participants shared presented narratives (pre-scripted stories) to amplify or dampen adversary and friendly narratives. Participants then moved between tables developing constructed narratives (revised scripts) amidst the various contested narratives. Using the World Café method, a professionally and nationally diverse group of participants took turns sharing stories of national resilience against malign influence wherein the pre-scripted presented narratives contest for resonance.

The World Café is an exploratory method, designed by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, that elicits communication patterns.[2] Set in a café-like environment with multiple tables, participants are invited to sit in small groups with participants from other nations. A facilitator initiates the conversation with a narrative prompt to the entire room—“share a story about national resilience,” for example. Then the participants engage in multiple rounds of storytelling. Paper tablecloths and colored pens allow participants to scribble and take notes creating artifacts for later review. As participants move around the room, narratives begin to circulate. Contestation emerges as designated players introduce stories scripted prior to the wargame from an adversary’s perspective. At the end of several rounds, Dr. John DeRosa—game designer, lead facilitator, and one of the authors—led discussions with the participants to find the l’entre deux, the between place, of presented and constructed narratives circulating within the room. In this sense, the process seeks to reveal if elements of the pre-scripted narratives (like those representing the adversary) appear in the revised scripts developed within the wargame.

Two key insights emerged. First, stories coupled with symbols construct powerfully resonant narratives. Second, unlike the linear action-counteraction-reaction model of traditional wargames, methods like the World Café can effectively mimic the complexity of the human dimension, where multiple actors converge simultaneously in a constellation of conversations.


“The narrative forms an image in the reader’s mind of the thing being described.” —Perla and McGrady, “Why Wargaming Works.”

During the course of the wargame, a graphic illustrator circulated among the conversations to pair characters and symbols with the stories circulating within the game. Participants also scribbled doodles on paper tablecloths, capturing narrative elements and connecting them to symbols.


Images of epic heroes of folklore, historic flags, and emblems of underground resistance movements emerged, along with stories of past struggles and glories. Epic heroes battling ancient invaders and mythic beasts represent symbols that “inspire our citizens” and are “symbols of our national consciousness,” recalled one Baltic special operations officer. Participants drew historic battle flags dating back several centuries depicting knights moving westward in pursuit. Another special operator noted, “Sometimes to make a point,” and to strengthen resolve against aggression, “the knight is shown facing east.” Others recalled emblems of historic resistance movements adopted as insignia of elite units to commemorate national struggles for independence. These symbols accompanying stories of liberty and freedom intend to invoke greater meaning.

Other images, perhaps harder to depict visually, stoked strong emotions among participants. For example, a Baltic officer asked the group to “raise your hand if you have a grandparent buried somewhere below the permafrost in Siberia.” With hands raised across the room, he continued, “We cannot go to their graves. You see...this is why we will fight and die.”


“Visualizing the narrative landscape as a constellation of conversations reveals the weight and breadth of dominant narratives, the existence of complementary and counter-narratives, and the points of intersection between these conversations.”[3]

Constellations of Conversations (DeRosa and Cobb)

Traditional wargames rely on linear action-counteraction-reaction sequences to depict contests of opposing sides. Narratives however, are contested within the dynamics of complex human interaction. Therefore, the Contested Narratives Wargame uses theories of non-linear dynamics and complex adaptive systems to promote a fluid interaction of pre-scripted and player- constructed narratives. Facilitated dialogue and narrative script writing sessions, allow participants to adjudicate “what messages the players intended to send and what messages were received.”[4]

Throughout gameplay, participants from similar professions and geographic regions exchange stories about national resilience. “Moving among tables, talking to new people, contributing your thinking, and linking the essence of your discoveries to ever-widening circles,” according to Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, “are hallmarks of the World Café.”[5] Mimicking complexity reveals patterns of narratives based on the collective interaction with other narratives. Though the collective dialogue between the individual wargamers, patterns emerge, like the vivid connection to images, in the formation, projection, and reception of narratives.

Nonlinear Pattern Formation (Brown and Isaacs, World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations that Matter)

After the World Café sessions, players reconvened into national teams to participate in narrative scriptwriting. Led by wargame facilitators, the participants wrote narrative scripts relating to the themes discussed in earlier sessions. This format offers opportunities for participants to adjudicate the contestation of narratives by communicating which narratives matter to them and assess their resonance. For example, participants drew on the stories and symbols of epic heroes and historic battle flags circulating in the World Café as elements of their constructed narrative scripts. In this manner, resolution of the wargame appears in the emergent properties of the constructed narrative scripts and through the interaction and at the discretion of the participants.


Despite an ongoing debate on the utility of wargaming, lessons continue to emerge through this innovative approach.

The game director, Lieutenant Colonel Jed Medlin, found that “the prototyping of this wargame helped illuminate a rich information landscape which not only helps communicate narratives of national resilience but more importantly, reveals a strong will to fight.”

Since the wargame’s conclusion, narrative experts from George Mason University and Arizona State University continue to analyze the narrative data collected from the wargame. Wargamers are exploring ways to integrate modeling and simulation to test constructed narrative scripts in virtual social media ecosystems. Strategists from the U.S. and U.K. also are investigating how wargame insights could inform campaign decisions.

In our hyper-connected world, it is not only great powers but also a wide range of activists, extremists, and many others manipulating the information environment and employing powerful narratives to achieve strategic ends. There is a new premium on influence and, as Harari eloquently points out, it is this “mysterious glue” of stories that has enabled mass cooperation networks since the beginning of our human species. As vividly on display in Riga, this could not be truer. We all should take more time to listen to the rich collection of stories told by our allies and partners.


Arnel P. David is an officer in the U.S. Army serving as the U.S. Special Assistant to the Chief of the General Staff of the British Army. He is a coauthor of Military Strategy in the 21st Century. John DeRosa is a strategist at a Theater Special Operations Command. He is also an Affiliated Faculty at the Center for the Study of Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.

The views expressed are the authors' alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the British Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

NOTES: [1] Peter Perla and Ed McGrady, “Why Wargaming Works,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 64: No. 3, (2011), Article 8. [2] Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations that Matter. (Oakland, California, Berrett-Koehler, 2005). [3] John DeRosa, “Revising the Battle of the Narrative.” Small Wars Journal, (July 16, 2015), Accessed at [4] Stephen Downes-Martin, “Adjudication: The Diabolus in Machina of Wargaming,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2013, Vol 66, No 3, 75. [5] Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations that Matter. (Oakland, California, Berrett-Koehler, 2005), 169.



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