The Escalation Game

Mike McShea

MI 830 - Epic Quest 4

What is "The Escalation Game?"

The game ESCALATION is a serious game designed to teach students about the limits of military power as a tool for achieving foreign policy objectives.

Some Background on the Escalation Game:

“Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.”

--Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Problem Statement

Americans believe themselves to be a peace-loving people, however in modern times the United States has found itself in conflicts more frequently than at any other time in it’s history. “That is not just because of the war in Iraq, which lasted from 2003 to 2011, and that in Afghanistan, which began two years earlier and is still unfinished. Even before that, between 1989 and 2001 the United States intervened abroad on average once every 16 months” (Economist, 2013). Perhaps, this willingness to enter conflicts is because the United States spends more on military expenditures than any other country in the world and by a substantial margin. In 2016 the United States accounted for 36% of global military spending (SIPRI, 2017). Perhaps, as in other domains, a perception of self-confidence increases the likelihood of engaging in a behavior (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2014).

Increasingly, conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are less like traditional large conflicts and increasingly characterized by their counterinsurgency or asymmetrical components. Additionally, it appears that each generation of soldiers and officers need to re-learn the techniques of counterinsurgency warfare as they are very context-specific and there is no “universally agreed-upon” approach to suppressing an insurgency (Roxborough, 2006). This may explain why there appears to be distinct trend towards asymmetrical warfare being more successful over time. During the 1800’s military strength predicted a successful outcome (defined in terms of victory by the stronger party) in 80-88% of cases. That tendency has decreased dramatically and in the post-WWII world has even reversed with the weaker party to a conflict winning in 55% of cases (Arreguín-Toft, 2001). “America’s overwhelming military strength does not automatically translate into the ability to defeat unconventional forces” (Jervis, 2010). Therefore, it is imperative that future American citizens and leadership understand the limits of military power to avoid conflicts which are increasingly costly in terms of fiscal expenditures and human lives (Economist, 2013).

It is my experience that this lesson is increasingly difficult for students to comprehend, despite the events of the past fifteen years since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Students increasingly seem to believe that military intervention can solve political problems faced by the United States. It is hoped that using this game students can have an experience, paired with historical content knowledge that will lead to a deeper understanding of the difficulties faced by military interventions.

Target Audience

The game “Escalation” is intended to be utilized during a high school United States History course during a unit on the Vietnam War. The game is also usable during the American Revolution or during a unit on the War on Terror. The central goal is for students to grasp that there are inherent advantages possessed by insurgent or guerilla forces, which despite a significant power disparity may make it difficult for more powerful countries to achieve their objectives. Given this reality, military force is often not the best solution to achieving foreign policy goals. The game should be accessible regardless of reading ability or prior knowledge.


The FREE Materials and instructions for creating your own copies of the Escalation game are available by clicking on the "Escalation Game Materials" link at the top of this page!

Game Play Example:


Arreguín-Toft, I. (2001). How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. International Security, 26(1), 93-128. doi:10.1162/016228801753212868

Economist. (2013, December 12, 2013). Special Report: The Uses of Force - Two difficult wars offer compelling lessons. The Economist.

Hockenbury, D. H., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2014). Discovering psychology.

Jervis, R. (2010). The Limits of U.S. Military Capability: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq by James H. Lebovic (Vol. 8).


SIPRI. (2017). SIPRI Yearbook 2017: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security: Oxford University Press.


Game Designer - Mike McShea

The Escalation Game was developed as part of Michigan State University Department of Media and Information course, MI830, Foundations of Serious Game Design, taught by Professor Carrie Heeter