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Saturday, 13 July 2013

Why the UK Conference of Wargamers is the best model for a conference and the worst

In July in the UK each year, there is a unique wargaming event, The Conference of Wargamers (COW). It is a weekend conference set in a sprawling country house that explores developing wargames for the hobby, professional use and academic research. Started by Paddy Griffith, the well-known military historian, it has outlasted several other attempts. Saying that, there is now the American Connections Conference which focusses on the use of professional use of military wargames and the UK equivalent.  There is also the UK London based Chestnut Lodge conference that is non-residential, but it also looks at the subject of developing wargames. Before discussing why COW is the best and worst model for a conference, it is necessary to briefly outline how academic conferences have developed over time.

Academics have gathered for conferences to develop their learning for centuries. The traditional model, until the last 20 years or so, was for conferences to consist of a series of lectures, punctuated by key note speakers. Everyone attended every lecture as it was based on the foolish notion of learning cascading down by listening to established experts in the subject. The radical departure from this was for two or more tracks to be running concurrently, with the audience deciding who to go to listen to. Key note lectures were kept (where everyone attended), as it was too risky to allow the potential risk of the audience the choice of not hearing ‘the great and the good’ of their subject. It would be really embarrassing if a significant proportion of the attendees did not choose the ‘important’ speakers. These speakers might never come again.

More recent innovations have seen 4 or 5 parallel tracks; poster sessions that consist of people putting up a poster summarizing their research and people talk to them in the coffee break; short sessions of 20 minutes (for those who feel they can make their point more effectively in less time), practical sessions (with presenters showing people how to actually do something); and panel question and answer sessions. The latter are opportunities for specialists to be interrogated by the masses, but they can lead to embarrassing moments where existing understanding is overturned by the simplest of questions. While old school academics challenge these new-fangled developments over the last 20 years, most people agree they make conferences a lot more interesting and useful.
COW went through all of these innovations a long time ago and is an example of a new, far more effective and somewhat scary conference model.

The conference commences with a plenary session, this may consist of some great speaker or it may simply be an icebreaker. From then on it is parallel tracks. COW is actually multiple conferences in one; there are sessions for those who believe wargames are tools as aid understanding military history (Griffith school), others for commercial games developers who are testing their ideas/ games (Wallace and Peter Pig school), serious games development (Young School) and for those who are on the elusive hunt of how to make money out of wargaming. Attendees casually move between these sessions seamlessly as the mood or whim takes them.
COW has a timetable, but the attendees dynamically change the timetable as soon as the conference starts. If there is a gap in a room, anyone can fill it with a session. Prior to running a session (a game, lecture, demo, seminar etc.) the session leader puts up a short briefing sheet to describe what the session is about. No longer do people have to guess from the leader’s name and session title what is being covered, they can read a short summary. People usually sign up prior to a session to help the leader organise things in advance.

Even more disconcerting is the lack of respect for people’s job titles. One may have published half a dozen books on the subject (so have many other people at the conference), but that will not stop someone engaging one in lively conversation if they are inspired. This good natured testing of concepts, ideas, game mechanisms, understanding of military history, is like the very finest of undergraduate teaching seminars. However, this rigorous discourse is simply not done at any of the other hundreds of conferences I have been at over the last twenty years.
Some of the wargaming output of the conference has been at the active edge of wargaming and military. The conference has seen some small part in the development of DBA, DBM, DBR, Matrix games, Peter Pig rules, Martin Wallace’s board games, the History of Wargaming Project, Mega Games and countless other wargaming products.

The COW conference is what I term a post-modernist conference. It has not been designed that way, but has evolved into an attendee led conference. What the attendees want more of gets more time, the less popular receives less attention. The downside to the conference is the lively and energetic engagement of the participants can be bewildering and challenges the normal academic ‘pecking order’ that some might be used to. The conference is no respecter of rank. Ideas, concepts, game designs will be dissected, applauded and/ or shot down in flames; often all of these within a 10 minute discussion.  My own view, for what it is worth, is the conference is wildly successful as a tool to develop the attendees as wargamers.
Each conference is a fascinating and unique experience for those taking the time to attend. However, as a more general model for conferences, it is will not catch on. Yet…

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