Guest Post: LARPing for Leader Development

By Mike Denny

You don’t have to be a Level 20 dungeon master to enjoy dressing up on Halloween and getting into character. For non-nerds, LARPing is Live Action Role Playing, which typically describes people getting into character to create fantasyland environments (e.g. Lord of the Rings), but it can encompass the whole realm of re-enacting. It’s make believe for adults with a fair amount of simulated combat and cultural immersion. It’s basically a fun version of a deployment against the forces of Atropia.


Re-enacting gone wrong….

If you’ve ever had an opposing forces (OPFOR) assignment in the military where you play the bad guys you know it can be a lot of fun, even under the guise of training. The military has long valued exercising the leadership skills and doctrine of our operational forces against either ad hoc or institutional teams of individuals that play (operate, etc.) a variety of characters from allied security forces to the boogeyman that hunts in the night. From the Louisiana Maneuvers to our current operations in Atropia at various CTCs, the Army was an early adapter of LARPing by another name – OPFOR.

Recently, I’ve read a lot about talent management and organizational development in the tech and software industries. As the military tries to integrate cyber professionals who look and act less like Generation Kill and more like the cast of Silicon Valley, government and military professionals can learn a lot about how organizations attract, retain, and develop these types of professionals. The learning environment for integrating OPFOR or LARPing goes both ways, and the tech industry has some areas where the military can assist.

One area where these organizations seem to excel is the management of ad-hoc teams of diverse professionals without the ingrained professional lore of a military-type leadership model. The heroic/spartan style is not apparent. Customer driven attitudes and success through experimentation and rapid problem solving are both hallmarks of the tech industry, which were once valued trends of military professionals in combat operations as well. Whether it was battlefield innovation or operational improvisation and seizing initiative, some of these thoughts are now “outside the box” and alien to the current military culture. As the military seeks the great ideas of Silicon valley and DIUx, let’s look less at platforms and more at people.

I enjoy following the company Riot Software. Most may not have heard of them, but they are a videogame company that is responsible for one of the largest massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called League of Legends (LoL).  I knew a little about MMORPGs because I had Soldiers who spent all evening playing World of Warcraft (WoW) and of course Leroy Jenkins as a lead in to numerous powerpoint slides. It was a briefing by Martin “Ol Blue Eyes” Dempsey at my Career Course Class in 2010 that I found out he was a big fan of MMORPGs. His comments were eye-opening, since the military had already created the most boring and terrifying MMORPG, with real life consequences. These games provide an ability to train and host a distributed community through a low cost platform.  Believe he challenged ARCIC and other entities to come up with some viable solutions which later created VBS3 and some other simulation suites.  Games like WoW, LoL and Eve Online are perfect examples of disconnect/networked teams operating from all over the world to achieve a unified outcome.

In the case of Riot, LoL is a huge video game community and monetized distributed network that generates billions in revenue. It even hosts a professional video game league within its own stadium in Santa Monica, CA. How could this company possibly be similar to the Military? They focus their leadership style on the team level and provide rewards and incentives to successful small teams (SOF style). They have compressed planning sessions with actionable deliverables that can get operationalized into their organization (MDMP style). Where these organizations suffer and where the military will be challenged as we attempt to bring in world class cyber talent is getting the engineer or tech operator to assume the mantle of leadership. This is one reason I believe you will see these companies scrambling to create leader development programs to grow talent within. They can develop an organization that thrives on a disconnected network, but leadership inherently requires connection between the organization and members. There is not an existing path to take a world class programmer and develop them to be a leader within the organization. Luckily for tech companies, they can learn a lot from the military. We’ve developed civilians into leaders for hundreds of years. When you have a unique culture and esprit de corps that you want to maintain, it’s easier to develop that talent from within than hire outsiders at a senior level. Compatibility in the teamroom is more important than their stats or resume.

Back to LARPing:

The Army has done LARPing by another name for nearly 100 years (maybe longer). Even the CIA has used RPG style games to train agents. It may seem silly, but the skills required of a business leader, intelligence agent, or software engineer can be deconstructed and replicated at the micro or macro level. Intel agents need to meet with sources, gain their trust, take the information they are given, and write it into a report. That can be done in a conference room in Virginia as easily as a qalat in Afghanistan (I acknowledge the obvious oversimplification of the variables). For the military leaders, creating an ad hoc OPFOR or red team for your training event can scale from a classroom environment or a Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT) to a full company or higher field training exercise. Civilian companies can integrate this without dedicating significant at small scale to role play and work through potential leadership situations while having way more fun than a rotation at JRTC. The Australian Defence Blog Grounded Curiosity ran a post advocating a TEWT from the OPFOR mindset, helping leaders understand the situation from the adversary viewpoint.  Military and civilian professionals need to remember that the enemy gets a vote and we must replicate those scenarios to drive home the impact of our training and development efforts. For tech organizations, putting your burgeoning leaders into a situation to stress their thinking and test their resolve could be in a more game-like environment and then  lessons learned should be extracted to discuss how to interact with the organization or employees they are going to lead. For the tech organizations, particularly the video game industry, there is likely an appeal among the workforce towards immersion in an environment that doesn’t look like a leader development program.

Why does this work?

Immersive role play in military training environments such as the training center environment creates an artificially controlled stressor that attempts to closely duplicate the operational environment. It also game-ifies the combat environment which allows for individuals to focus not on potential danger but on the whole host of thought processes and leadership skills necessary to be successful. For tech companies, potential leaders can be tested and developed outside of the sphere of their current expertise. An engineer might show real ability to diffuse potential struggles between employees or a HR employee might show a real knack for complex problem-solving of theoretical relationships between SaaS platforms. Recently, companies such as Echelon Front have started running field training exercises (FTX), complete with simulated small arms battles, for business leaders to immerse themselves in the teamwork mindset of a combat team.

Dedicating time to immersive training pushes individuals outside of their comfort zone for good or evil. Whether you decide to try a crisis staff planning exercise against a fictional scenario such as the zombie apocalypse with a few adult beverages for creativity, or to take a cue from Riot Software with a full on 48 hour hackathon called the Thunderdome. It may sound far fetched, but military forces have been dropped into everything from dealing with Ebola to earthquake aid. These are standard tasks and missions we train as part of a unit Mission Essential Task List.  it’s only through offering individuals in your organization an opportunity to expand out of their current role and putting them into another scenario with a twist or two that you can get them to alter their paradigms. It provides an opportunity to develop thinkers and leaders who will be able to push outside their mental limitations when the time comes. Besides, if you are going to train hard, when you have a chance you might as well try and have some fun in the meantime.

Some resources to give this a try:

Marine Corps Gazette has some Great Tactical Decision making games : Great idea to start and integrate you operations:

Junior Tactician -Australian Focused- Tactical Decision Games: Junior Tactician – Junior Tactician – Military resource center

Disaster Resistant Communities: For a zombie/quarantine scenario:

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About the Author: Mike Denny (@_mikedenny) is an ARNG aviation officer who enjoys bad scifi movies and whiskey. Formally, he served as a Field Artillery officer on active duty with fun stops at Fort Polk and Afghanistan. As a civilian he is an program manager and occasional contributing writer for Task and Purpose, The Bridge, and Mil Leader.

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