PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College

MindsonFireReview: Mark C. Carnes, Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). 371pp + index. $27.95.

This volume is partly about the shortcomings of traditional university pedagogy. It is partly about the value of educational games. For the most part, however, it is about the Reacting to the Past series of historical educational role-play games first developed by Carnes and now by a growing number of other educators associated with the Reacting Consortium. The Reacting series includes classroom-ready role-play material for historical and philosophical debates ranging from the restoration of Athenian democracy through to the French revolution, religious debates in Puritan New England, to the independence of India—and much more. Although Carnes’ book devotes only very limited attention to other educational game use, and says equally little about their use outside of history and general humanities courses, it is nonetheless a very lively, deeply thoughtful, and powerful argument for the use of such games in the classroom.

Carnes asserts that role-playing games like the Reacting series sharpen critical thinking; develop writing, presentation, and other skills; and engage students in a way that lectures and readings are often unable to do. Central to his argument is the notion of “subversive play”—that is, playful activities which offer the possibility of upsetting the familiar order. Much of student life, Carnes suggests, has long revolved around joyful engagement in such subversive play, whether through sports competition, video games that immerse the player in fictional and unfamiliar worlds, satirical and “disrespectful” attitudes to authority, or norm-defying social activities (such as parties, drugs, and drinking). Role-immersion games, he suggests, tap into this quite natural human fondness for competition and challenging the established order by enabling students to adopt new personae, struggle to convince others, and thereby seek to change the course of a re-imagined history-in-the-classroom.

The author is able to cite significant research that shows the benefits of the Reacting approach. At times, however, the book’s unapologetic enthusiasm for immersive role-playing means that some potential drawbacks of serious games are glossed over. Most research on educational gaming more broadly shows its benefits are often highly variable or relatively limited. Indeed, because of this, some dispute resolution scholars have even questioned whether  role-play negotiations are really an effective pedagogical tool. Much depends on the game being used, the skills of the instructor/facilitator, and the manner in which it is integrated into broader curriculum. There are substantial opportunity costs to consider: time spent role-playing is time taken away from delivering material through lectures or other techniques. There are also practical constraints—for example, those presented by large classes. Many Reacting-type immersive role-plays take place in medium or smaller classes over several weeks, a luxury not all instructors may have.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book a great deal. Carnes manages to anchor his discussion in a considered critique of traditional educational approach, while making effective use of vignettes, interviews with former participants, and scholarly research to make his points. His enthusiasm is infectious. Even if this book is largely arises from the author’s particular experiences with Reacting to the Past, its value extends well past this to make a substantial  contribution to broader debates on contemporary university education.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 19 October 2014

Ex-IRON-RESOLVE-RCAT-Turn-2-compressed

Using the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset at HQ 3 UK Div Exercise IRON RESOLVE 14. Picture credit: LBS Consultancy.

Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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At his LBS Consultancy blog Graham Longley-Brown has posted a very valuable account of the successful integration manual and computer simulations, in this case as part of the 3 (UK) Division headquarters exercise IRON RESOLVE, using the manual Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset (RCAT) in conjunction with a computer simulation (ABACUS) and automated exercise management system (EXONAUT).

RCAT is an operational-level manual simulation designed for rapid set-up and execution that incorporates best practice from Course of Action (COA) Wargaming, Red Teaming and commercial off the shelf wargames. Mechanisms include options for stochastic and deterministic outcome resolution, but RCAT was primarily used during Ex IR 14 to provide a framework for, and prompts to, SME discussion. All RCAT mechanisms and results are transparent and can be moderated or adjudicated. The primary remit for the RCAT team was to provide the ‘soft’ and non-kinetic effects ‘wrap-around’ to the ABACUS computer simulation that would model movement and kinetic outcomes. However, RCAT went beyond that remit and became central to the exercise control process. References to ‘RCAT’ below can be taken as meaning any (good) manual simulation.

Integration of RCAT with ABACUS and EXONAUT

image002The broad processes required to integrate RCAT into Ex IR 14 are at Figure 1. The detailed processes specific to RCAT integration are broken out at Figure 2 and explained below. Note that the principle underpinning the entire process was that all kinetic combat outcomes and non-kinetic soft events were to be pre-considered at least 24 hours before they actually occurred, allowing the Game Controller (HQ 3 Div SO2 CT6) to shape the exercise to ensure Training Objectives (TOs) were met. The agreed outline events were then coordinated and enacted in real time the following day using the ABACUS computer simulation and EXONAUT events and injects management system….

He concludes his analysis to say:

Manual sims could be used to support future exercises in a number of ways:

1. MEL/MIL EXONAUT scripting week. A two- to three-hour facilitated play-through of the likely scenario(s) would enable MEL/MIL scripters to gain rapid situational awareness of the geography, ORBATs and likely ‘shape’ of the overall exercise. Armed with this understanding of the exercise context they could better prepare EXONAUT injects.

2. Exercise design. A good manual simulation enables consideration during exercise design of aspects such as balance of forces and the identification of key factors, factions and actors to be played into the exercise.

3. Execution. Little preparation is required to use manual sims to support brigade- and divisional-level exercises. The processes described above provide the starting point for future events.

For the full post, see Graham’s blog (linked above).

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The Strategy Page has an interview with veteran wargamer, wargame historian, and Connections conference organizer Matt Caffrey, Wargame Coordinator at the US Air Force Research Laboratory. Matt is currently finishing up a book, On Wargaming, for the Naval War College Press.

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Recently added to the PAXsims links sidebar: Gameology, a blog by Paul Franz devoted to “exploring game design, games as information, and games as art.”

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PAXsims has so far resisted commenting on the so-called #GamerGate controversy that recently engulfed the digital games world, in part because so much of it is so very stupid. Whatever serious issues #gamergate raised about games journalism have by now been lost amid vicious trolling of female game designers/analysts and so-called “social justice warriors” (that is, those arguing for greater diversity and inclusion in the gaming industry, or anyone almost anyone undertaking serious analysis of the social and cultural meaning of gaming).

For coverage of the controversy in the mainstream press, see:

CFP: Canadian Game Studies Association annual conference (June 2015)

uottawa3The 2015 Canadian Game Studies Association (CGSA/ACÉV) annual conference will be held on 3-5 June in Ottawa, in conjunction with the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Congress will be hosted by the University of Ottawa.

This year’s theme is “Capital Ideas”:

CGSA-logo-340For this year’s CGSA conference we invite proposals for ‘capital ideas’ in all caps or small caps, in bold and in italics, and most importantly in consideration of and for those individuals, groups, communities, and locales that are far from holding or being in possession of ‘capital’. Suggested topics include:

  • Ideology in games and gaming culture
  • Ideals and values in games
  • Riffs on ‘capital’ and games;
  • Social, cultural, political and economic capital and games
  • Intersectional approaches to studying games and their surrounding player cultures
  • Methods and study designs for investigating underexplored games and gaming communities

We invite submissions from all disciplines from researchers working on or around games including digital and non-digital games.   Graduate student submissions are welcome and encouraged!

New for 2015:

CGSA is growing! We have expanded the conference to add a third day to the official Congress schedule.

CGSA has joined EasyChair! All conference submissions should be made through the conference management portal.

Submissions:

This year we will be accepting proposals for three kinds of submissions:

Individual Paper Submissions

Please submit an abstract no longer than 500 words (excluding references).

Panel Submission

In the spirit of this call for papers, we particularly encourage participants to submit proposals for interdisciplinary panels, as well as to consider the possibility of organizing joint sessions with other scholarly associations. CGSA welcomes proposals for joint panels with FSAC and Digital Humanities, and we encourage individual presenters to note if they are open to being scheduled on a joint panel. Submit your pre-constituted panel proposal or individual paper proposal to either association. You and your panellists need to be members of one of these three associations, but not necessarily all.

Please indicate clearly if your panel submission is intended to be a joint session with another scholarly association.

Panel submissions must include a 500-word panel overview and 250 words describing each individual presentation. The panel organizer/chair should assemble all materials and submit as a single submission to Easy Chair. When submitting the panel to EasyChair, the organizer/chair should be listed as corresponding author, and all other panel participants should be listed as co-authors.

Creative Work/Workshops/Other Formats

CGSA welcomes other types of submissions including workshops, gameplay demonstrations, fishbowls, etc. Please contact the 2015 CGSA chairs in advance of the deadline with a brief summary of your proposed submission, anticipated equipment needs, and an estimated length of time requested.

Deadline is January 31, 2015.

 Please submit all proposals here.

The 2015 CGSA co-chairs are Kelly Bergstrom, Felan Parker and Jennifer Jenson.

Women and (professional) wargaming

we-can-do-it

PAXsims has commented a number of times (most recently here and here) on the small number of women among professional gamers in the national security community. To discuss why that is, whether it matters, and what might be done about it, we convened a panel of experts for a virtual discussion.

Participants have been provided with pseudonyms. The views they express are personal ones, and in no way should be taken as representing the official position of the governments, agencies, companies, corps, or secretive cabals for which they may (or may not) work.

Welcome everyone to the PAXsims symposium on women and professional wargaming! Before we start, I would like to introduce our guests. Three of them are experienced analysts and gamers in national security, with “inside” perspectives: South Seas Sally, Malapropos Molly and Svalbard Sue. The fourth is looking from the outside in, as a hobby gamer and student of international security with a research interest in professional wargaming: Harriet Hex.

Welcome everyone!

Everyone: It’s great to be here!

I would like to start by asking everyone if this is a topic that should even concern us. Does it matter that women are so underrepresented in wargaming? Why? Or, perhaps, why not?

Svalbard Sue: That’s an interesting question especially because I’m not sure that the women writing in this forum don’t have more in common (or look more distinctive from the rest of the field) because of their training and outlook in the social sciences and partial affinity to academia as because of gender. A lot of wargaming is figuring out how to break down a problem to represent it in a tractable and yet empirically reasonable way and much of my professional frustration is the difficulty of getting the fairly action oriented personalities that land in defence ministries and on major staffs to consider issues in a more considered and less knee-jerk light. (I have privately cursed more about the impact of regional studies and lazy low end constructivist approaches on getting people in defence to think about problems then on those people’s approach to women.)Grumbles about ambivalence to positivism aside, I’m not sure the number of women in wargaming is remarkably disproportionate to the proportion of women in defence, as a whole. And I think this tends to be reinforced by the fact that people often get into gaming as an auxiliary to another specialty, which I think is generally a good thing. People who have done other things and spent time thinking about defense problems in other contexts can bring really useful tools to the table. I think having another set of expertise is personally useful, too, as gaming as a career could end you up in an odd professional cul de sac, with some potential for lateral movement but not a lot of advancement. And while you’re doing gaming, you can develop some broad experience on a range of topics, but that can come at the expense of developing subject matter expertise in anything but methodology (which is a subject of, ahem, uneven interest amongst gamers and defence analysts).

That said, the issue of gender and gaming is important, if you think this outside experience matters because gender certainly impacts the experience that arrives in the gaming community in the defense world. While the staff building and supporting strategic level games tend to be more gender integrated, those writing games on topics that touch on more operational questions or planning related ones, less so and this is, I think, largely due to prior experience. I assume women are underrepresented where gaming touches on more operational issues because of bias in hiring towards those with a military career with operational experience. So, that may change with time as military career options for women expand. Then again, one recent report noted the hiring of women in the U.S. Federal Government has fallen off quite a bit in recent years, due to veteran’s preference in hiring (something like 80% of preference-eligibles are men) and is anticipated to continue to do so.

Malapropos Molly: I’m of the mind that not every gender gap needs to be closed. Some gender gaps are significant but some are not. For example, the press is currently debating whether it matters that more men than women ride bikes. I’m with the side that says it doesn’t matter. It does matter that women find it nearly impossible to raise venture capital in Silicon Valley, but not that they ride bikes less. There are also gender gaps that I wouldn’t want to close, such as the lower rate of pedestrian deaths caused by women when driving as opposed to men. There are also many gaps that fill in over time, such as overall employment rates, educational attainment, math scores, etc.

Should we worry about a gender gap in wargaming? On one hand, I’m not entirely sure that being on this short list of women in wargaming is a sign of success as much as it is an indication of random events combined with poor life decisions. Peter Perla, who we would all identify as someone highly successful in the field, welcomed me by saying he was tired of rolling the stone up the hill and having it roll back, rolling the stone up and having it roll back, etc. Now, he said, it was my turn. Given that the man who literally wrote the book on wargaming was comparing a wargamer’s lot to a special hell devised by the gods, it did give me pause. A wargamer’s life is an unglamorous and unappreciated one. Is it really one I can wish on more women? On the other hand, women have always fought for the right to make bad decisions for themselves if they want, and I certainly honor the spirit.

I believe that it is crucial for the field of wargaming to have more women. That is, while I would not think that wargaming is good for women (or men), I think that women are good for wargaming. Why?

One is that the current U.S. population of wargamers is a small demographic pool that is getting closer every year to retirement. Growth in any direction is good at this point, guys. But it would also be good for wargaming because there are differences in the academic backgrounds that women in national security and other areas bring to the table that are currently missing in the conversation about wargaming. The present population of male wargamers tends to have backgrounds in math, physical sciences, engineering, or are self-taught by having spent a childhood playing board games. While these backgrounds definitely have value add, this leaves the community overall with weaknesses in formal knowledge about social processes. Social sciences and social science methods are highly, highly applicable to wargaming and which have the potential to improve rigor in wargaming, and women are now the majority of social scientists.

There are other fields where women are also more dominant, such as education and professional facilitation, which I feel should also be brought in more systematically to wargaming. So if you take women as a proxy for greater diversification in backgrounds, I think this is why it would be important to have more.

South Seas Sally: While women are nothing like 50% of the field, I think it’s a very open question just how underrepresented they are. Women are a very small portion of the individuals presenting at professional conferences and publishing about professional wargaming. However, I suspect that if you tally up all the people who actually create professional games, rather than only those presenting and publishing, women would be a much more sizable portion of the field.

Quite a lot of gaming is done at large contractors, where junior staff members are moved from project to project. Because gaming is unlikely to be a particular focus for these individuals, and because they are often fairly junior, they are not very likely to engage in the major conferences, roundtables, and publications, and thus they aren’t counted.

This “silent majority” of gamers represents a big problem for the field. The longer gaming is seen as something that doesn’t require specialized skills and training, the more bad games will be run which discredit the field and are an expensive drain on critical national-security resources. That so many practitioners don’t reach out for resources, either because they don’t know they exist or because they can’t find them, also implies that those of us who are doing work in the field need to be trying harder to make our work accessible.

It is troubling that it seems like women are less likely to move from the “silent majority” to the core professional community, but it is also not very clear how anyone makes that transition. I think once we have a better handle on those barriers, it would be easier to understand what, if any, role gender has to play in who makes it through.

Harriet Hex: I tend to agree with what others have said. I think that having a more diverse set of participants encourages a more diverse range of perspectives. Since wargames are utilized as a tool for the discovery of “unknown unknowns,” having a Bunch of Guys with Similar Life and Professional Experience Sitting Around a Table seems like the way to uncover exactly one type of unknown unknown.

For a more personal perspective, I do believe that the underrepresentation of women in all types of gaming is absolutely problematic because surely there are plenty of women out there in the world that would love to be involved and yet would never imagine it as a possibility for fear that their a) involvement in such a community would not be fruitful to them as women or b) they might be alienated from other communities by breaking from the norm so drastically. All of this would become a nonissue if the presence of women were more common. In that way, I would think closing the gender gap would involve a sort of snowball effect. Then again, change will be more a consequence of broader societal shifts, and perhaps nothing “needs to be done” by those specifically within the wargaming profession.

As a side note, I think this is also true for women in the military. Many people still seem to think that you have to be a “certain kind of woman” to want to be in the military and especially to want to be in a combat role, which remains controversial in the US. I think that is simply because the women who do join these days tend to be more open to challenging gender roles. As something becomes normalized, perhaps more young women will be interested in doing it.

Several of you have mentioned some possible barriers to professional entry for women gamers. How might these be addressed?

Malapropos Molly: “Barriers” suggest roads or paths, and I’m not sure that there are very many direct paths into wargaming. I think that finding your way into wargaming is more like finding your way into Narnia— good luck trying to get there on purpose or on your own timetable. I agree with my colleague Archapelago Annie who noted a few weeks ago on PAXsims that you have to find your way into the national security community first. So this is where you have to build your credentials and expertise. Once you’re in, you might be able to make it into wargaming. But I don’t know that anyone hires for wargaming skills or knowledge – they appear to hire based on an entirely different set of criteria. But this is true for men as well as for women.

The problem is that those who are skilled in wargaming usually aren’t the ones in a position to hire other wargamers. I know that seems odd, but that’s the impression I have. So even to work with wargamers who want you, you might have to pass a set of criteria created with something entirely different in mind – often it’s a narrow, technical skill set where the people who are really good at that skill set sometimes don’t make eye contact. I’m not exaggerating or trying to be funny. This is actually true. The entire system is broken, because it systematically misallocates people in wargaming. I’m not sure how to solve this problem. Wargaming is not a path that leads to upper management.

Harriet Hex: I think that a major barrier to entry into professional wargaming remains the inherent residual sexism of some of the hobby gaming community, as well in related other hobbies like video games and card games. Historically girls have faced discrimination from society writ large as well as from inside the “geek” community itself for participating in said community. However, a lot of this has changed recently. Anecdotally, I notice just about as many women as men playing board games with me these days. Especially in the eurogame genre—think Settlers of Catan.

Additionally, being a nerd is no longer a nail in the social coffin, it is now even COOL to be so passionate about your gaming hobbies. Moreover, there has also been a great deal of pushback against sexism in geek culture—remember the “fake gamer girl” debacle?

I certainly have experienced these barriers in hobby games and other geeky things. In fact, during my two years working my local comics and cards store, many of my guy friends said I only got the job because they were looking for a token female employee. Never mind that my pull list was a foot long. In the past 5 years of so, I have seen that perspective change. That may be in part because of the discussion that is now taking place but I also think it a consequence of normalization of other groups (ages, genders, nationalities) participating in a subculture that was once compromised almost entirely of suburban American kids in their parents’ basements.

Why does this matter? I think interest in hobby games tends to contribute the eventual pursuit of wargaming as a profession.

How comfortable are you working as a women in a male dominate field? Is there an “old boy network” or “locker room” problem?

Malapropos Molly: I’ve been in traditionally male-dominated areas since high school, so this is the only life I’ve ever known. Who knows, maybe I would have trouble in a female-dominated industry at this point! As for the idea that there might be a “locker room” problem in wargaming, remember that the community is mostly geeks, not jocks. These are the guys who had trouble hitting on women.

I’ve had a positive experience where many men have acted as mentors and have gone out of their way to encourage me professionally. One of them pointed out that being a younger woman in a field of middle-aged white men made you more memorable to everyone, and that that was an advantage. I recently spoke to a young guy at a major defense contractor, who told me that most of the upper management in his company chose to hire and develop attractive young women to grow in business development, but that his boss had seen enough in him to buck the trend and bring on a white male. So I think the world has changed a lot in recent years.

Svalbard Sue: I’m very comfortable, although it’s not to say that I don’t every once in a blue moon end up on a project with more women than usual and really enjoy it! On the relatively infrequent occasions that I’ve worked with senior women, in particular, I’ve usually learned a great deal. I have certainly encountered unhelpful assumptions or inappropriate behaviour because I’m a woman…but I have not found it difficult to dispatch. It’s worth noting that the most persistent inappropriate behaviour stems, in my experience from inept or toxic leadership and those are offices that it’s just worth leaving.

South Seas Sally: I have found being a woman gamer much less difficult than I have found being a woman working in national security and defense.

As a gamer, I have been really grateful for the amazing mentorship and opportunities to interact with very senior members of the field as a peer very early in my career, in a way that I haven’t seen in many other national-security disciplines. Male and female peers have gone out of their way to encourage me and make sure I felt safe at conference and other professional events. Like Molly, I also think being distinctive because of my gender has been a professional help —people are more likely to remember me (and thus my work) between events than they would the typical white, middle-aged man named Chris, John, or Paul.

However, gaming is a very small field, and there was a lot of luck in how I got in the door. Because I made it in the door, it’s hard for me to say that gender (or age) has not been a factor that prevented others entering the field. Because there are so few gamers, and even fewer women, it’s hard to get a big enough sample size to say that the fact I haven’t had a problem means much for the experience of others.

It is also true that national security outside of gaming is not easy to navigate as women, and that a career in gaming requires interacting with this broader community. When facilitating games and working with clients, I am very conscious of my gender and how it can impact my ability to do my job. While I’ve never had a specific problem, others I know have and that knowledge does impact how I act.

Harriet Hex: I must admit that at times I have been uncomfortable witnessing some very sexist comments.

Sometimes, simply being different can be uncomfortable and make one self-conscious.

I do think the old boys club will die slowly. The question, as always, will be how far and in what manner newcomers wish to continue old traditions.

That being said, the vast majority of my experiences have been very positive for me. And like the others here, I have had many male supporters of my work and interests. I usually do not feel that I am treated any differently because of my age or sex, especially in a negative way or in a manner that would suggest I am less capable.

Many professional gamers are hobby gamers too—and the hobby is overwhelmingly white, male, and middle-aged. Why aren’t there more women hobby gamers?

Harriet Hex: I think part of this has more to do with generational adoption of gaming. Wargaming with a million little chits and technical combat systems may be fun for some gamers today, but it certainly is not the trend. I think in this case this is simply a question of experience and exposure. I love D&D as well, but I never would have been able to wander into it alone (obviously, since it’s a social game), I had to be brought into the fold by others that already knew the rules and what was so amazingly fun about it.

I do my best to show everyone around me all the cool stuff I find and that’s exactly how I was exposed to wargaming, both as a hobby and as a profession. There is a lot to be said about sharing your cool stories with others.

South Seas Sally: The fact that women do not feel welcome as hobby gamers is an obvious problem for hobby gaming, but should not be a problem for wargaming. That’s because I don’t think the skills needed to be a good professional gamer are necessarily well-taught by hobby gaming. While hobby games can be a good source of mechanisms that can help model national-security issues, there are lots of other places to learn the modeling skills needed. What’s more, when the majority of games run are seminar-style games that use very few formal mechanisms, there are many other skill sets that can be much more helpful to someone entering the field, like social science and facilitation, which get neglected in our reliance on hobby gaming.

Presenting our work as something we would be doing anyway, for our own happiness, may also set us up not to be as well recognized and compensated for our work as we should be. I’ve seen a lot of professional gamers fund themselves at conferences and work nights and weekends on “side projects” that contribute incredible value to the field. I wonder if that would happen as often if we made it clearer that the work was our job, not our hobby.

I also think that some of the problems of “geek culture” attitudes that have been mentioned by Harriet Hex and in recent articles about women and gaming culture—problems that are not directly about gender—may also be problematic for professional gaming. Because for many gamers, their job is also a passion, it can breed the same distaste for folks that work on a different problem set within gaming as between geek subcultures. As someone who tends to work on operational and strategic level issues, I’ve found my lack of interest in tactical level problems is sometimes treated as a “wrong” rather than “different” focus. This need to defend the our niche of games not just as a professional focus, but as part of our identities, contributes to the “islands” of the field that prevent sharing of tools and techniques, leading to a fractured field constantly defending a small piece of turf.

That said, hobby gaming is a strong signal of belonging to professional wargamers, and our dependence on gaming undoubtedly does serve as a barrier to women. Many of the best female professional gamers I know do not enjoy hobby gaming. For some it’s too competitive, for others too time-consuming or expensive, and for others it’s just not their cup of tea. Some have devoted considerable time and money outside of work to learning enough to signal correctly, but that is a costly gesture that we shouldn’t be asking for as a field.

Also, while women may be less likely to find hobby gaming welcoming than men, the demand that to be a professional gamer you need to be a hobby gamer is a problem for men in the field who don’t like gaming too. Making the reason we should stop demanding hobby gaming about gender, rather than about the fact that fields need to be thinking more carefully about what skills you need to succeed in our occupation, shortchanges great gamers of both genders.

All that said, I will say that there is one thing that the dominance of gaming in the field helps with—making connections at conferences. Rather than having to engage in awkward chitchat over drinks (which can feel uncomfortable both as a socially awkward individual and a woman), many conference sessions I’ve been at have ended with someone pulling out a small board game from their bags. This provides a really lovely social cushion and icebreaker.

Malapropos Molly: Yes, it is a problem because at a minimum, you don’t want your hobby gaming community to be like mankind in the movie, Age of Men. That was a dystopian future where mankind suddenly stopped having children, and the entire whole of humanity was aging and dying off, headed for extinction.

But cruel humor aside, hobby gaming is an informal path into wargaming, and one question is how to grow wargaming skills in people who simply did not spend their childhood as hobby gamers. As for why there aren’t more women hobby gamers, again, I don’t know if this is a gap that needs to be closed.

Svalbard Sue: You know, I don’t find the connection all that compelling. I hate to admit it but I don’t love hobby games and never played them as a kid. I’ve gone to games nights because Malapropos Molly hosted them, I like Molly and it was a fun reason to hang out with her and her friends, who are way fun—but I’m kind of hopeless at the games, mostly because I don’t think they’re that interesting.

As a final question, what advice would you have for women who want to develop their skills or pursue a career in this area?

Harriet Hex: In terms of being a woman in a male dominated field, my advice would be to not overthink it. Just because you look different or think differently doesn’t mean you don’t belong there and it is very likely that your contributions will be welcome. Wargaming is essentially creative and is about critical thinking, so new ideas seem like they would find a natural home with the community.

Then again, there are most likely some challenges that your male counterparts won’t foresee or face, so I think open dialogue about these things—much like this forum—can be useful.

South Seas Sally: If you are working as a gamer, I would encourage you to try to attend gaming forums, like the CASL roundtables, MORS annual symposium, or a Connections conference. Try to talk to folks, and ask them to recommend other people to talk to. Be proactive—it’s a small field so it is easier to get people’s attention and interest than in more overcrowded disciplines.

These interactions also tend to build on each other. I got my start in the field by staying to ask a question at the end of a conference, which got me invited to support a game, which got me an internship. I’ve gotten invited to speak at conference based on questions I asked in Q and A sessions, and invited to write papers based on presentations. If you have the luxuries of time and financial stability, there is a lot of space to contribute to the field outside of direct employment as a gamer.

Still, it’s important to recognize that gamers are generally not in a position to make hiring decisions, and that the networking you do with gamers may not be enough. That means that job searches will often be long and involved. Make sure you understand how long you can afford to look for a job, and have a strategy about what other jobs you will apply for, and how these positions can help you build other analytical skills that could complement gaming.

Svalbard Sue: It’s a great set of experience to have—it often lets you touch on a really wide range of topics (and, for that reason, network pretty widely). But, I’d think proactively about how it fits in with your whole c.v., the set of experience and career trajectory you want to demonstrate and make sure you have a plan for how it’s going to take you where you want to go next. (And if you find that it’s the senior most position in your field or where you want to settle in for the rest of your career, more power to you! But, I think the jobs are usually mid-career ones.)

Malapropos Molly: I would say to develop yourself professionally first in the domain where you want to be—national security, development, etc. Once you are established to an extent, the quickest path into wargaming is then to simply begin attending or putting on your own wargames. If you’re actually paid to do such activities, then you’re a professional wargamer. It’s as easy as that. From this perspective, where wargaming is simply an outgrowth of other activities you are doing in your domain, the barriers into wargaming are not that high. I think that a person with initiative and creativity could have luck convincing their boss that a wargame or similar activity could be interesting. They would also be expanding wargaming into newer areas. So the possibilities are numerous in this respect.

If you want to be part of a dedicated wargaming organization from the get go, I think it is much harder. But I would still rate this dream as less crazy and uncertain then trying to get a tenure track position in say, political science. So don’t let my comments above discourage you. Just have a back-up plan so you can repay your student loans.

Like Sally has said, I would encourage neophytes to network with other wargamers and get involved in a community such as Connections. Professional societies always want volunteers, so that is an excellent way to meet people and get the lay of the land. Brief your gaming experience. Volunteer to help organize panels or game lab. Propose ideas and events, and then volunteer to do them. Don’t be shy.

American Red Cross: Targeting the Laws of War with Video Games

51The American Red Cross is holding a symposium today in Washington DC on “Targeting the Laws of War with Video Games.” You can follow it live (12h00-13h45) online.

The $93 billion video game industry reaches massive audiences across every political and geographic boundary. Improvements in technology allow dozens of gamers to play hyper-realistic first-person shooters and other wartime simulations online. Young gamers routinely confront virtual situations in their living rooms previously only experienced by soldiers on the frontlines.

Yet, as the video game industry has grown, so too has its social consciousness. The Red Cross has been at the global forefront in the promotion of games for social good. Now, as new technologies emerge and gamers are confronted with new challenges, how can humanitarians partner with the gaming industry to promote awareness of the rules that govern the conduct of hostilities in armed conflicts?

Join the American Red Cross and its partners for an exploration of everyday gameplay, and a conversation about how video games can educate players about the laws of war. Experience hands-on demonstrations and hear from leading industry experts. Panelists will address the integration of humanitarian rules into games simulating historical and contemporary armed conflicts, how socially conscious games can inspire change in attitude and behaviors, as well as censorship issues and freedom of speech protections for video games.

  • Lunch and event are free with registration but due to limited seating an  RSVP is necessary. 
  • Join the conversation on Twitter by using #roleplayingIHL 
  • Can’t attend in person?  Join the event online.

The latest discussions reflect a widespread recognition that when the International Committee of the Red Cross first raised this issue a few years ago it did so in a way that antagonized many gamers, confused the media, and didn’t effectively communicate the ICRC’s hopes and concerns about videogames and IHL.

You’ll find previous discussion of these issues at PAXsims here and here. See also the ICRC webpage on video games and law of war.

UPDATE: If you missed the presentations, you can still watch it here:

In addition, click the image below for a selection of tweets made during the workshop.

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Simulation and gaming miscellany, 13 October 2014

0813toonwassermanSome recent items on conflict simulation and serious gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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At War on the Rocks, Ellie Bartels weighs into recent discussion of Call of Duty: Black Ops’ writer Dave Anthony’s appointment as a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council with some thoughts of her own:

It seems everyone is up in arms (virtual arms, of course) about Call of Duty: Black Ops’ writer Dave Anthony’s appointment as a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. His aim to help build a more creative vision of the future of war and his first public event as a fellow on October 1 were greeted with skepticism. Critical comments have focused on the morals embodied in his games and the value and originality of his predictions.

However, listening to Anthony’s remarks as a wargame designer, I was struck by how much descriptions of his “non-traditional” creative process mirrored methods for envisioning the future already in use by wargamers to help the national security community think about future challenges. However, the critical response to his ideas illustrated the essential nature of making claims about the future in defensible ways, which Anthony did not do to the national security community’s satisfaction. In my work as a wargamer, I have been trained that for “out of the box” ideas to be influential, they need to be made understandable, compelling, and defensible. Anthony’s presentation achieved the first and second of those principles, citing touchstones of current wargaming practice including the need to synthesize diverse perspectives, consider potential crises as if they were currently happening, and seek solutions that work under many possible future conditions….

Her piece contains many useful insights into contemporary national security gaming, what commercial game design might bring to that process, and what Anthony might learn from professional wargamers too. Go read it.

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ISPThe latest issue of International Studies Perspectives 15, 3 (August 2014) has an article by Victor Asal, Steve S. Sin, Nolan P. Fahrenkopf and Xiaoye She on “The Comparative Politics Game Show: Using Games to Teach Comparative Politics Theories”:

Undergraduates often struggle with theoretical perspectives in political science. Often students can get a better handle on theories if they are able to relate them to something tangible in their experience. Lichbach and Zuckerman lay out cultural, rational actor, and structural perspectives as a way to think more systematically about comparative politics but often students struggle with these meta-theories and the different ways they encourage us to think theoretically about comparative politics. In this paper, we discuss a set of exercises that enable students to get a better handle on cultural, rational actor, and structural perspectives on comparative politics by making them “lab rats in their own experiments.” We group these exercises together and treat them as a Comparative Politics Game Show. In this paper, we describe the different exercises and how they were used and our view of the utility of this approach for teaching comparative politics theory.

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Among the recent news from Reacting to the Past:

The Reacting Consortium will hold its first regional conference in the Pacific Northwest this fall. Hosted by the University of Oregon in Eugene on November 8-9, 2014, the conference will feature  Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945, facilitated by Professor Ian McNeely, and Greenwich Village 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman, facilitated by Professor Mark C. Carnes. In addition to the games, the program will include general sessions on teaching using Reacting to the Past. The priority registration deadline is October 15.Click here for further information on the games and registration.

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The Digital Games Research Association will be holding its annual conference (DiGRA2015) at the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University in Lüneburg/ Germany on 14-17 May 2015. They’ve issued a call for papers on the conference theme of “diversity of play.”

CALL FOR PAPERS
Diversity of play: Games – Cultures – Identities

Video game culture has had a self-image of being a distinct cultural form united by participants identifying themselves as “gamers” for many years. Variations in this identity have been perceived either in relation to preferred platform or level of commitment and skill (newbie, casual, core, pro, etc.). Today the popularity of games has increased dramatically, games have become more specialized and gaming is taking place in a number of divergent practices, from e-sport to gamification. In addition, the gamer position includes a number of roles and identities such as: players, learners, time-fillers, users, fans, roleplayers, theory crafters, speed runners, etc. Furthermore,, techniques like gamification and game-based learning, as well as the playful use of computer simulation for training purposes, is making it difficult to distinguish games from non-games.

Additionally, video game culture is merging with other forms of popular culture and new mobile technologies are making distinctions between digital and non-digital gaming blurred. Yet, whilst the forms of play seem to have become more diverse, the content of games is often only challenged by independent titles. This is the case despite a maturing audience, some of whom now seem to urge for more diverse themes and representations within games. In the light of increasing criticism of the representations and practices that have dominated much of games culture, it seems that the relationship between the identity of the “gamer” and the content of games is undergoing a change.

Traditionally, game studies has tried to find common ground, seeking shared definitions and epistemologies. DiGRA 2015 seeks to encourage questions about the ‘Diversity of play’, with a focus on the multiple different forms, practices and identities labeled as games and/or game culture. The conference aims to address the challenge of studying and documenting games, gaming and gamers, in a time when these categories are becoming so general and/or contested, that they might risk losing all meaning. Given this, what concepts do we need to develop in order for our research to be cumulative and how do we give justice to the diverse forms of play found in different games and game cultures?

The conference welcomes papers on a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Game cultures
  • Games and intersections with other cultural forms
  • Online gaming and communication in game worlds
  • Gender and gaming
  • Games as representation
  • Minority groups and gaming
  • Childhood and gaming
  • The gaming industry and independent games
  • Game journalism
  • Gaming in non-leisure settings
  • Applications of game studies in other domains
  • Gamification
  • System perspectives and mathematical game theory
  • Hybrid games and non-digital games
  • Game design characteristics
  • Technological systems
  • Simulations

Deadlines

  • Submission deadlines                            22 January (hard deadline
  • Acceptance/rejection notification           16 March
  • Rebuttals                                               19 March
  • Camera ready                                        14 April

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wpj-thumbOn a similar topic, Well Played Journal has also issued a call for papers examining diversity in gaming:

As games have become a more important and influential part of the creative industries and our culture as a whole, we face a wide range of issues and opportunities. Diversity and inclusion are a continual challenge, whether it is implicit workplace bias, the representation of characters in games, or the valuing of diversity in the cultures in and around games.

ETC Press and the Well Played Journal are committed to a culture where everyone—regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socio-economics, religion, age or disability—who makes, enjoys and critiques games and other creative media deserves an inclusive experience free from harassment, discrimination and threats.

The recent disheartening online discourse around women in games only underscores how this is a both a historical, and on-going issue for the creative industries in general and the game industry in particular. Well Played was founded on the assumption that playing games is a valuable experience, and we explore and analyze games through their gameplay experiences. Similarly, we take it as given that diversity and inclusion are valuable to the culture and creative community.

We are requesting submissions that explore and analyze examples of diversity and inclusion in games, particularly of women and other under-represented groups, in terms of representation within gameplay experiences with unusual or unique protagonists, or games created by women and diverse development teams.

Well Played has always explored the value and meaning of games by close analysis of the actual experience of what it means to play games.  We believe this focus helps surface what games do well, and how they can do even better. It’s through our actions and words that we establish our values and develop our culture and community. The inclusion of a diversity of people in our profession and our games will only help improve the game industry and the games we make and play.

ETC Press is accepting submissions for this special issue of the Well Played journal.

All submissions are due 31 January 2015 (5pm (EST).

And for a following special issue, we will put out a call for submissions exploring and analyzing diversity in games.

All submissions and questions should be sent to:

well-played (at) lists (dot) andrew (dot) cmu (dot) edu

For more information and formatting guidelines, visit:

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The Centre for Water Systems at the University Exeter will be advertising for a position in serious game design:
The successful applicant will investigate a serious game approach as the basis for developing more effective and timely infrastructure policy and decisions for the Water-Food-Energy Nexus at a number of spatial scales. The aim of the work is to develop a computational framework that will be used to implement a number of serious games and devise gaming exercises to better explore relationships and synergistic policies leading to more sustainable Water-Food-Energy systems.

Further details to follow. If you are interested please contact us directly for more information.

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We haven’t mentioned several excellent blogs recently, and its about time that we did!

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At Play the Past, you’ll find recent articles on “Being Historical: How Strategy Games are Changing Popular History,” “Colonialism in Kings Quest III,” and many other things.

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At Red Team Journal they’ve been reposting the laws of successful Red Teaming, in card form.

At Active Learning in Political Science there are frequent posts on serious gaming in political science. Recent topics include “Combining Classes for a Simulation,” “A Simulation for the Flipped IR Classroom,” and “Evaluating the IRiA (International Relations in Action) Simulation.”

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 2

Alex Langer is a McGill University political science undergraduate student who designing a wargame of the current Syrian civil war as a course project. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access all of the parts of the series here.

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maxresdefaultFollowing up on my first post, defining the actors, time period and general purpose of the game, Professor Brynen and I moved on to discussions about the combat system. At the core of the game, combat in the Syrian Civil War need to be modeled with enough complexity to be realistic, while also maintaining a level of simplicity to prevent the game from becoming unplayable. This post will cover basic game mechanics, with a particular focus on combat and the dynamics of domestic and foreign support.

Basic Game Mechanics

Un-syriaThe Syrian Civil War’s map covers the whole of the country, broken down approximately into Syria’s 13 provinces. Major disputed cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs will be represented with their own game-regions; particularly during the beginning of the game period (mid-2012), the Syrian regime often held control over key urban areas, with the countryside under the effective control of rebel forces. In addition, Lines of Communication (LoCs, major arterial roads and highways) will be represented as their own special regions, with particular rules governing their control and bonuses for control over contiguous regions

Each region will be coded for two primary characteristics: terrain type and dominant ethno-sectarian identity. Rough terrain, like mountains or dense forest, give rebel fighters advantages in certain types of combat. Ethno-sectarian identity plays a greater role, governing who can recruit there, providing shelter to friendly rebels, giving combat bonuses to factions favoured by the ethno-sectarian group, and restricting what cards can be played where. The game’s identities will be elaborated on in the Domestic and Foreign Actors section.

After defining the players and the board, what tools each player has to work with was the next challenge. Players in the game perform actions mostly through the use of Operations Points (OPs). OPs allow the player to perform a wide variety of actions. These include: diplomacy, recruitment, training and equipment, movement between regions, covert operations and attacks.

OPs are accrued by playing cards. I decided that a largely card-driven game was the best way to move forward. Cards allow a higher degree of detail and nuance without needing a long, complicated rulebook, and will add flavor and fun to gameplay. Each player will hold a hand of five cards at a time, and are allow to play up to two per turn. Each card has both a special action and a numeric value: by playing a card, the player is either given that number of OPs to spend on that turn (OPs do not carry over from turn to turn), or may instead use the special action on the card. More powerful special actions will have a higher number of points, to incentivize use of both features.

The game will include three types of card: single-play, hidden-play, and permanent play. Single-play cards allow the player to perform a particular action, for example recruiting foreign fighters or launching a diplomatic offensive to change another player’s foreign relations, rather than their own. Hidden-play cards may be played “in reserve”, slipped under the side of the board for instant play later on, including as an instant-interrupt. For example, a rebel player may place a “MANPADS” card on one turn, then reveal it during a government air attack in order to cause casualties among air units. Some of these cards will counter one another. This introduces ‘the fog of war’ and deeper strategic play into the game without major complication. Finally, permanent-play cards, once played, remain active unless another card or special rule reverses their effects. These cards will be rare, powerful and require a set of pre-conditions to use. For example, a jihadist player will have the option, if they control a certain number of contiguous provinces, to play the ‘Declare the Caliphate Restored’, severely damaging their relations with foreign actors while providing a major buff to their troops.

Warfare

Finding a balance between realism and complexity for the game’s military system took much discussion and the exploration of a variety of options. The first major choice was between counters and blocks. While counters would allow a greater degree of complexity, a game including multitude of troop types on each side and lifelike combat formations was too complex for the educational purposes or casual gamers. With blocks, each side has a highly limited number of troop types, with complexity depending on other factors and rules.

4736350-3x4-700x933The government player has three main types of military unit: elite, regular, and irregular. Elite units represent regime-protection forces such as the Republican Guard and 4th Armoured Division; regulars represent the mainstay units of the Syrian military; and irregulars represent police, pro-government militias and remnant cadres of other units used by the Syrian regime for defense and patrol but not offensive operations. In addition, the government player controls Division HQ units, representing Syrian military bases and the command structure. These immobile units allow recruitment and reinforcement of government forces, but if destroyed are a major loss. Finally, the government player also has air units. Operating in provinces with HQs only, air units provide (usually) untouchable firepower to government attacks with the tradeoff of being expensive to move around and irreplaceable if destroyed.

Opposition factions have only two unit types: rebels and veterans. Rebels represent the wide variety of rebel brigades operating in Syria, while veterans represent more experienced forces and those brigades that have captured or purchased heavier equipment such as anti-tank missiles and MANPADS. Weapons can be purchased on the international market, captured from the battlefield or overrunning government bases, or supplied by international partners. Rebel players also have Commanders, who do not fight on their own but are necessary for most rebel operations, from recruitment to assaults to the movement of non-aligned units.

Combat

The combat system itself works as follows. Each province and city may have units from multiple players contesting it. The player with the most units in the province controls that province. Players may only move through provinces they control, although they may move units in and out. Movement of troops from one province to another requires the expenditure of an OP, and, in the case of rebel forces, a Commander. Movement along a LoC is much faster, but requires the expenditure of more points. The government may use Strategic Airlift from any province with a Division HQ to another other with the same, but may only move one unit at a time.

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In these contested provinces, with the expenditure of an OP, players may launch one of two types of attack: Harassment and Assault. Harassment represents the frequent low-level attacks and raids by rebel forces against government positions and checkpoints, as well as government sorties and artillery strikes against rebel positions. Harassment causes no risk of damage to your own forces, although it requires the roll of 6 to score a hit. Assaults are more risky, with the chance of damage to your forces, but are more likely to cause damage to the enemy. The dice rolls required to do damage during an assault are dependent on the ratio between attacking and defending forces, with bonuses for heavily outnumbering your opponent and severe penalties for foolhardy assaults against superior numbers. Assaults require an elite or veteran unit among the troops in the attack, as well as a Commander in the case of rebel factions.

When attacking, players must choose their target. Rebel players may come to another player’s defense, contributing both their own and unaligned rebel units to that combat; this can stiffen up an otherwise weak player, but allows the defender to remove another player’s forces from the board.

Unlike normal provinces, only one player at a time may occupy a LoC. This means that Harassment of troops on a LoC is impossible, requiring a risky Assault to push them off. This means that the government player, who starts with control over the LoCs at the beginning of the game, will likely continue to control them well into the game, even as provinces around the roads fall. However, as control over LoCs allows for rapid movement, reinforcement and economic strength, control over these vital roads will be hotly contested.

When hit, government forces and rebel factions react differently. Rebel forces are simply destroyed when hit, going back into the available recruitment pool. If the government side sustains hits, the player has one of three choices. The player may destroy an irregular, downgrade an elite or regular unit to the next step down, or, in the presence of an HQ, remove them from the board temporarily. Downgrading units (i.e., replacing an elite unit with a regular) represents the steady degradation and fragmentation of Syria’s armed forces, particularly among elite units. Removal from the board represents placing these units in bunkers or in reserve, awaiting reinforcement, and costs OPs to bring them back into the game. This allows the government player to replenish their scarce elite forces. However, if the Division HQ is captured while the forces are off-board, they are automatically destroyed, making this a risky proposition.

Domestic and Foreign Support

Fought in a vacuum without ideology, identity or foreign influence, the Syrian civil war would likely have ended in the victory of one side or another by this point. However, international intervention and the complex ethno-sectarian web of Syria’s population have had major effects on the dynamics of the war. While discussions about this issue were extensive, including talk of whether or not to include a discrete domestic opinion tracker at all, we finally settled on the following, reasonably simple, system.

International opinion, influenced by a range of games including Liberia: Descent into Hell, is played out on a tracking card. There are five positions that can be held by each foreign actor: Hostile, Opposed, Neutral, Friendly and Supporting. Moving an actor’s opinion requires the expenditure of one or more OPs and a successful die roll. A player can only attempt to influence a particular actor once per turn, although the player may attempt to influence multiple actors. More points are needed to move support to more extreme positions: for example, moving from Neutral to Friendly costs only one OP to make an attempt, while moving from Friendly to Supporting costs two. As well, the government and each rebel faction will have advantages in gaining support from some actors and disadvantages at gaining support from others: for example, jihadists will suffer a penalty (-1 to their die roll) when engaging with the Western Powers or Russia, while gaining +1 when engaging Salafist Donors in the Gulf

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Gaining the support of a foreign actor has major benefits. Friendly actors provide some income every turn, and if they border Syria will allow you to recruit units in their territory. Supporting actors provide more income, may provide arms and more opportunities. As well, the special actions on some cards may only be used with a Supporting foreign actor. The foreign actors represented in the game will likely include: The Western Powers (the United States and NATO allies), Russia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government and Salafist Donors.

Domestic actors use a similar system, with the same degrees of support and same method of moving support. However, domestic support gives different effects. As mentioned above, each region is coded for one of several ethno-sectarian groups: Rural/Poor Sunni, Urban/Wealthy Sunni, Alawi, Druze, Christian, and Kurdish. Rural and Urban Sunnis are coded separately due to their differing allegiances during the war and distinctive political behavior. Players may only recruit troops in regions with a Supporting dominant ethno-sectarian group. Groups may support or be friendly to more than one player at a time, representing communal division. Meanwhile, Opposed or Hostile groups may generate unaffiliated rebel brigades to fight against the dastardly regime, and influence whether or not these groups side with one rebel faction or another in intra-rebel fighting.

Next Steps

My next steps involve firmly defining win conditions for each player, working out the economic system, figuring out a way to represent refugee and IDP movements, and finalizing a system of intelligence, covert operations and terrorism. After that, on the writing a first draft of the rules, writing the myriad cards needed for play, and finally on to play-testing.

Alex Langer 

Review: Fire in the Lake

 Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam. GMT Games, 2014. Game designers: Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke. $85.00.

pic2083738_mdLast night the PAXsims review crew got together to play Fire in the Lake, the fourth and latest in GMT Games’ COIN series. The game covers the Vietnam war from 1964 through to 1972, with players representing the United States (US), North Vietnamese forces (NVA), the Republic of Vietnam forces (ARVN), or the Viet Cong (VC). Rules for play with less than four players (including solitaire play) are included. It plays more easily with two players than others in the series.

The card- and map-based game system is very similar to that used in the previous games in the series, Andean Abyss (insurgency in Colombia), Cuba Libre, and A Distant Plain (contemporary Afghanistan). Given that we’ve already discussed that system extensively in past reviews I won’t say much more about it here, other than to highlight some of the ways in which it has been customized for the Vietnamese case:

  • Some players have access to more troops types. In Andean Abyss there were five (government troops and police, and FARC, AUC, and cartel guerrillas) plus bases, whereas in Fire in the Lake that number increases to eight (ARVN troops, police, and rangers; US troops and irregulars; NVA troops and guerrillas; VC guerrillas), plus two types of bases (regular and tunnelled).
  • The cards are periodized, for more historic play.
  • The Ho Chi Minh Trail and operations in Cambodia and Laos play a key role, especially for the NVA.
  • The player actions differ slightly in this game (as they do for all games in the series). The US “advise” special operation role is quite different from anything in A Distant Plain. US air strikes are powerful, and can degrade the Ho Chi Minh Trail—but also can damage local popular support if used in South Vietnam. Some of the operations seemed to be slightly more complex than in previous games.
  • The US has much less flexibility in adding or removing troops from the theatre compared to A Distant Plain.
  • The map has slightly more areas (30 provinces or cities, plus lines of communication) than does Andean Abyss (27+LOCs) or A Distant Plain (25+LOCs), and significantly more options than Cuba Libre (13).
  • Scoring takes place when a coup card becomes active, similar to the propaganda card in the other games in the series. This may change the current leader of South Vietnam, with ongoing effects, or weaken ARVN forces through infighting.
  • Each player has a special “pivotal event” card that they may play, essentially replacing the current event card. These can be quite powerful.
  • Accurately reflecting its subject matter, this is the first game in which you can’t play criminal cartels or warlords. No more drug smuggling or casinos for you!

pic1959464_lgAs with all of the games in the series, I had some relatively minor quibbles with how some of the operations are constructed. Air strikes seemed somewhat overpowered, especially in urban and jungle terrain. Our NVA player was not a fan of how his “infiltrate” operation worked. I’ve never liked the way in which pacification and the building of domestic support is a derivative of the “training” operation, both in this game and other in the series. I did, however, very much like the idea of pivotal events, allowing players to both “bury” an unwanted event card and launch a major, possibly game-changing, initiative.

Game Play

We played the medium-length, 1968-72 scenario. The first coup card came early before many operations had been undertaken, allowing the ARVN to set aside quite a large war-chest of resources and pacify much of the country.

The NVA built up large forces in Cambodia in preparation for a cross-border incursion, but ARVN forces slipped across the border to identify their locations for a series of devastating US air strikes. Given our habit of always playing games to a thematically-appropriate soundtrack, such raids were accompanied by either Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride (1968) or, of course, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

Meanwhile the Viet Cong struggled to expand their underground guerrilla network. They had some success in subverting government troops and police and weakening the local patronage system, although they heavily suffered from periodic ARVN sweeps and raids. ARVN and US pacification made the regime surprisingly popular in large parts of the country. Despite differing victory conditions (and the fact that only one player can ultimately win), NVA-VC and US-ARVN cooperation was very good. This was especially true of the latter, with ARVN sweeps often setting the stage for US air strikes, and some US capabilities enhancing ARVN forces too.

Later in the game the NVA again built up large forces in Cambodia, taking advantage of a US Bombing Pause (event card). When the US then followed a failed coup attempt (coup card) with a substantial draw-down of American forces, the NVA unleashed its Easter Offensive (pivotal event). North Vietnamese troops poured across the border from Cambodia, advancing upon and ultimately capturing Saigon. The Viet Cong followed up with the Tet Offensive (pivotal event). This was rather less successful at inflicting serious damage, although it did augment VC guerrilla strength.

Stretched on the ground and having taken significant casualties, the US unleashed another series of air raids against the NVA, devastating their forces in many areas. ARVN troops and rangers poured into Saigon, attempting to regain control of the capital amid bitter street fighting.

At this point, the game came to an end. Despite the heavy fighting still underway in Saigon, the US managed to secure a narrow victory, largely due it its earlier withdrawal of forces and the significant pro-regime support that still remained in much of the country. The NVA and ARVN were close behind in their points total, however.

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Impressions

This game has a lot to commend it. I very much liked the way in which geography made itself felt in the game, something I felt rather less in Andean Abyss and A Distant Plain. In our game the Mekong Delta was very much its own sub-theatre, compared to the central highlands. The threat of NVA covert and overt intervention from along the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail also has enormous strategic effect on game play.

On the other hand, our game suffered from significantly more “analysis paralysis” than any of our previous experiences with the GMT COIN series. There is no single obvious reason for this—the rules, operations, and events are only a tiny bit more complex, the types of forces available are somewhat more diverse, and the map has only slightly more playable areas. Three of our players had played several games in the COIN series before too.

Nevertheless, things slowed down considerably, to the point that we introduced an informal Stairway to Heaven rule whereby players were asked to finish their turn before the iconic 1971 Led Zepplin song was finished playing.

Perhaps we were tired, or too full of pizza. After all, war is hell.

At the time of writing Fire in the Lake is currently the highest rated of the four games in the COIN series on Board Game Geek, ranked an impressive 74th best wargame of all time. Among our group we all still preferred A Distant Plain, with two ranking Fire in the Lake in the middle of the series and the third ranking it his least favourite of the four. (In fairness it should probably be noted that I was the only person old enough to remember the Vietnam War, whereas the majority of the group work on contemporary conflict issues.)

Although our game ran more slowly than I would have hoped, I am certainly looking forward to a rematch!

Augmented reality sand tables

Sand tables have been used by military planners since—well, pretty much as long as there has been both sand and military planners. They provide a cheap and simple way to model terrain and display enemy deployments, a proposed course of action, or whatever else needs to be depicted.

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2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Exercise Yudh Abhyas 09.

As we noted at PAXsims a couple of years ago, even Syrian rebels sometimes prepare for an attack with the visual aid of a sand table.

Kita’ib Ahrar al-Sham planning an attack upon a Syrian government S-75 (SA-2) SAM battery near Aleppo.

Kita’ib Ahrar al-Sham planning an attack upon a Syrian government S-75 (SA-2) SAM battery near Aleppo.

Now the US military is experimenting with “Augmented Reality Sand” using a Microsoft Kinect video game motion sensor and a data projector.

The Augmented REality Sand table (ARES).

The Augmented REality Sandtable (ARES).

According to the Marine Corps Times:

Called the Augmented Reality Sand Table, the concept is under development by the Army Research Laboratory and on display at this year’s Modern Day Marine on Marine Corps Base Quantico. The set-up is simple: a small sand box is rigged with a Microsoft Kinect video game motion sensor and an off-the-shelf projector. Using existing software, the sensor can detect features in the sand and project a realistic topographical map that corresponds to the layout — one that can change at a moment’s notice when observers move the sand around in the box.

And that’s just a start.

The set-up can also project real maps from Google Earth or similar technologies, enabling units to visualize the exact terrain they’ll be covering for exercises or operations. While the capability isn’t yet built in, the lab is working on developing visual cues, like arrows, that would appear to help troops shape the sandbox to match the topography of specified map.

All of these things save the warfighter time, said Charles Amburn, senior instructional systems specialist for the lab’s Simulation and Training Technology Center.

“With a traditional sand table, you’ve got to create the grid and then somebody’s got to go take that map and say, ‘in this grid, there’s a hole here,’” Amburn said. “By the time it’s done, you’ve spent an hour setting up for an exercise or a scenario.”

Down the road, the concept could allow troops from distant bases or even international partners to conduct joint training and operations via 3-D maps they can upload and project. And maps can be easily reset and scenarios “rewound” in a way that just isn’t possible on traditional static sand tables, Amburn said.

Amburn said the lab has also begun studying whether interacting with the 3-D sand table map improves cognition compared to typical 2-D maps.

Future possibilities include large-scale models that could project over a gymnasium floor for a battalion briefing, and a smartphone version that could use a pocket-sized projector to turn any patch of dirt into an operational 3-D map. The concept can be developed to allow users to move structures or map features in the projection with just a hand gesture, said Amburn….

The military is far from the first to do this—researchers in the earth sciences have been experimenting with such techniques for sometime now to help teach “geographic, geologic, and hydrologic concepts such as how to read a topography map, the meaning of contour lines, watersheds, catchment areas, levees, etc.” You’ll find a video demonstrating a non-military application of the technology below from the UC Davis’ W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES), which also provides instructions on how to build one.

 

Review: Barbrook, Class Wargames: Ludic Subversion against Spectacular Capitalism

Richard Barbrook, Class Wargames: Ludic Subversion against Spectacular Capitalism (New York: Minor Compositions, 2014). 442pp. Digital version available for free under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

Review by Philip Sabin, King’s College London  

ClasswargamesRichard Barbrook is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Westminster.  For many years, his group ‘Class Wargames’ has been playing and developing games including ‘The Game of War’ designed by the French Situationist Guy Debord. Richard (in his characteristic hat) has been a lively presence at our Connections UK conferences, and in 2011 he started a BA module involving wargame design, similar to my own long-running MA module.

The book details and builds upon the Class Wargames experience, and explores the background of Situationist thinking and radical perspectives on military strategy since Napoleonic times. Where most previous commentators on Debord’s radical writings have ignored his wargame as a bizarre aberration (as tends to happen to scholars like me to this day!), Richard Barbrook argues for the centrality of the game to Debord’s vision, and he suggests on p.334 that ‘If the modern Left wanted to challenge the dominant order, its activists would have to know how to beat the bourgeoisie at their own game’.

The book is eclectic, erudite and infectiously enthusiastic, ranging as it does from avant garde art to strategic theory.  I do not know what Richard’s radical readers will make of the scenario diagrams for battles including Marengo and Austerlitz, but the book is a refreshing counter to the widespread suspicion that wargamers are right wing militarists oblivious to the horrors of war.  Do have a look to learn more about this intriguingly left field approach.  You can find more info online at: http://www.classwargames.net/

The Doomsday ‘He Said, She Said’: Recently Declassified Recommendations from DNI Nuclear Attribution Gaming

Devin Ellis of the ICONS Project has contributed this piece to PAXsims.

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My professional focus is on using simulation and gaming to support policy planning and crisis management. Obviously a lot of work is done internally in the US government on these issues, but it rarely reaches public view when it concerns national security. So I was doubly excited this week when a 2009 study report from the DNI’s SHARP (Summer Hard Problems) program was declassified: both because of the opportunity to share and discuss it, and because of the quality of the work. (The document, Transforming Nuclear Attribution: Culture, Community, and Change, was released as part of a FOIA request to the inimitable Steven Aftergood at the FAS Project on Government Secrecy).

The document is a collections of articles with findings and recommendations based on a SHARP exercise described as follows:

A group of 50 experts from the government and private sector met in Tempe, Arizona in August 2009 to study the topic of nuclear attribution… Participants included intelligence analysts, members of law enforcement, scientists, academics, and subject matter experts in national security policy, proliferation, terrorism, law, crime, behavioral psychology, and other specialties… The study focused on communication challenges confronting three distinct communities involved in preparing nuclear attribution assessments for executive branch leadership… technical nuclear forensics (TNF), law enforcement (LE) and Non-Title 50 organizations, and the Intelligence Community (IC)… At SHARP the participants role-played several nuclear attribution scenarios while immersed in microcosms that combined law enforcement, intelligence and technical communities… the participants were tasked with creating their best all-source attribution assessments. These experiences of identifying, developing, working with best practices for attribution in the SHARP microcosm enabled the participants to scale up their findings to assist in maximizing success of deploying a new national attribution capability.

Now, what the ‘capability’ is… is still redacted. As is about half the report. But it’s worth a read to anyone who is interested in how much a little honest gaming of sticky, inter-agency, inter-disciplinary problems can contribute to a way forward. I won’t spoil all the insights from the papers – there’s some old and some new – but I’ll point out a few things I like about the study:

  1. It’s a genuine attempt to address a hard problem: Read the introductory material alone and you will see how honestly the group grappled with the cross-community and technical problems in this thorny issue. Also, the assessments of weaknesses are honest and based on both experience gained through careers and the scenarios.
  1. They draw the connection to similar problems which have nothing to do with nuclear security. “The findings of this SHARP are applicable to any operation where disparate communities must work together to be successful in solving difficult complex tasks” is repeated throughout the document (I also happen to think it rings true).
  1. APPENDIX C: DYNAMIC ANALYSIS PROCESS, p. 138, is not only a great description of a mission-tailored BOGSAT routine for the IC, it’s also a decent two-page guide on how to do scenario planning for anyone, anywhere.
  1. If you’re going to do it, do it right! Tempe? The average temperature in Tempe, AZ in August is 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, it’s both inconvenient to the downtown Phoenix area AND the natural beauty of the countryside. Those factors help keep your experts focused on the exercise, not the tourism. And, the SHARP program was a month long. That’s right – a month…
  1. The oxford comma. They are all for it: Culture, Community, and Change.

In all seriousness though, just check out the report.

Devin Ellis 

Videogames and future conflict

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The writer/director of the very popular first person shooter video game series Call of Duty, Dave Anthony, was recently named Nonresident Fellow at Atlantic Council:

Anthony is best known for his pioneering work on the blockbuster Call of Duty video game franchise. In 2010, he wrote and directed Call of Duty: Black Ops, which remains the best-selling video game of all time, grossing almost $2 billion in sales as of 2014. In 2014, Anthony formed Prisoner Six Productions, a Los Angeles-based production company developing both TV and movie projects.

At the Scowcroft Center, he will draw on his experience as a writer to contribute to the “Art of Future Warfare” project, which mines narrative fiction and interactive media for real-world insights into the future of conflict.

“We at the Scowcroft Center are pleased to welcome a creative, entrepreneurial talent like Dave Anthony to the team,” said Barry Pavel, Atlantic Council vice president and Scowcroft Center director. “His forward thinking on emerging threats will better position the Scowcroft Center to provide cutting-edge analysis on how the United States must adapt for the future.”

At Foreign Policy, Justine Drenna highlights the reasons for the appointment:

The Atlantic Council hopes Anthony can draw on his experience waging fictional war to bring a new, creative approach to predicting global threats. Having made “enough to retire at age 40 and never have to work again” or “the equivalent to an A-list Hollywood Director” — in other words, millions per year — Anthony now can afford to pursue what he calls a “passion project.” His unpaid, part-time work at the Council will aim to convince policymakers to do a better job preparing against the dangers that new technologies and forms of attack pose to national security.

…and some of the problems:

…one could question the wisdom of giving a prominent public platform to a director of a game some have seen as promoting an us-vs.-them mentality and celebrating violence by white American males against non-white foreigners, leftists, and other Others of the world. That Call of Duty is incredibly popular within the U.S. military may be a sign of both the game’s realism and the concerns that Anthony’s hiring raises about blurring distinctions between actual and imagined war.

You’ll find an even fuller and very thoughtful discussion of the appointment by Adam Elkus at War is Boring. There he points to the rather different requirements of successful videogame design and the forecasting of possible future security threats:

Anthony’s comments and his job description in the Atlantic Council press release suggest that he and the institution view his role as mining fiction to better inform reality. But the misleading qualities of immersive fictional worlds are well known by their creators. Like a computer wargame that merely reifies the assumptions of top generals, fictional worlds (especially science fiction) are often reflections of the underlying biases of their creators.

Black Ops 2’s future war elements are a case in point. A declining West and a rising East? Check. Cyber catastrophe? Check. Power diffusing to non-state actors with an Occupy/Anonymous-like dynamic? Got that too. Drones gone wild? You get the idea. Good or bad, in 2014 these visions of future war are not challenging or innovative. They are the collective imagination of today’s national security community, distilled into an addictive video game. This makes sense given that national security experts extensively informed the design of the game!

Why do national security thinkers somehow believe a game that they themselves influenced will provide bold new insights about the future of war? This is not a recipe to actually challenge assumptions. Instead, it depressingly reproduces them with fancier graphics and a nice first person shooter engine.

He adds:

The great thing about fiction of any sort is that suspension of disbelief is the goal. We sit in a movie theater and for a few hours turn off our analytical minds. Where this can be a problem for defense futurism is that prediction is not just a matter of the possible. It is also a matter of the probable. This is another area in which mining fiction to better inform reality can be problematic for policy decision-making.

…real-world allocations of resources and policy decisions – especially concerning security – cannot ignore questions of probability. Creative threat scenarios aren’t the same thing as likely defense scenarios. Security experts derisively refer to “movie plot” threat scenarios that do not incorporate real-world probability, costs and practicality. So much of tech-driven analysis of drones, military robotics futures and cybersecurity are essentially Hollywood plots that policymakers somehow take seriously. We’ve had a lot of “creative” threat analysis in the last few years and little substance. As Dan Trombly gripes, the last thing a defense tech conversation already laden with Hollywood scenarios (see: the recurring use of Terminator to talk about military robotics) needs is another dive into fantasy.

Elkus concludes by suggesting that the value of such an appointment might not lie in its contribution conflict forecasting or technological futurology, but rather in the immersive ways that games can engage players while challenging their core assumptions.

Real value for videogames or any kind of fiction-informed defense analysis comes not necessarily from “out of the box” thinking or having expertise in a dramatically different field. Drawing from games to inform national security is of little use unless the effort really makes the most of both game knowledge and the real world of conflict, security and strategy. But it doesn’t seem that defense futurism efforts that draw on games really do both.

However, I’d be a hypocrite and intellectually dishonest to say that Anthony has nothing to contribute. Griping about unrealistic or flawed defense futurism is also not as valuable as proposing constructive (and fun) alternatives. And given how beloved both the regular Call of Duty and Black Ops spinoffs are, I’d rather not be the Vladimir Makarov or the General Shepherd of defense commentary in throwing shade on the idea that the same talent might help win real-world wars.

There’s a lot that Anthony could teach DC’s stuffed shirts about how to populate a dramatic and compelling vision of the future. What I liked most about Anthony’s compelling (and historically appropriate) vision of Cold War black ops were characters like Viktor Reznov (“Dragovich. Steiner. Kravchenko. All must die”). Whatever vision of past or future war you have, you need your Reznovs to flesh it out. Otherwise it is just abstraction.

Anthony, like his fellow video game auteur Hideo Kojima, could also use the game form to ask deep questions about defense-relevant topics. Kojima, like Brecht, forced gamers to confront inconvenient ideas about their own cultural assumptions and identities. Kojima forces the gamer to confront the brutality of war head-on. His vision of the future is also founded in many fascinating ideas, including artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, meme theory and other well-known scientific fields. Kojima is honest (he insists on it through repeated breaking of the Fourth Wall) about the games being an artificial experience and a stylized and sometimes comically surreal vision of the future. They are useful and inspiring to me as a defense analyst not because I think that any of it predicts the future of warfare. I play them because Solid Snake, Raiden, the Patriot AIs, etc make me re-examine not just my ideas about warfare, but also my underlying beliefs about the nature of human life and society.

And this is precisely why someone like Anthony could have the potential to revolutionize the world of defense and security think-tankery. Games have the power, if taken seriously, to move us and force us to re-examine our beliefs. Judging by the sorry record of defense analysts in the last decade of war, such an innovation cannot come soon enough.

I think he’s absolutely right here. Games can push us out of comfort zones, encourage the adoption of new perspectives, and lead us to exercise a different set of cognitive and emotional “muscles” in different ways. Elkus’ piece is a great piece of analysis, of value far beyond the issue of the Anthony appointment—go read it.

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UPDATE: Kelsey Atherton watched and live-tweeted Dave Anthony’s presentation on “the future of unknown conflict” at the Atlantic Council today and found it lacking. You can see the presentation below, and follow comments by Atherton and others here (via Storify).

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 29 September 2014

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Some recent simulation and serious gaming items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers.

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The latest issue of the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s semiannual publication  Building Peace includes a piece by  Helena Puig Larrauri on “Technology and the Moral Imagination in Local Peacebuilding” that briefly addresses the possible contribution of digital games to peacebuilding:

One of the hardest things for communities living in conflict is to imagine a common future. Community work shops, peace festivals, and conferences are important forums for encouraging this vision, but often hard to scale. Could digital games be a viable alternative for connection?

A group of Arab and Jewish Israeli teenagers recently built a peace village together — in the virtual realm of the Minecraft game world. It was an initiative of Games for Peace, a nonprofit organization that believes “online games represent a radical new way of bridging the gap between young people in conflict zones.” The initiative has not yet been evaluated, but the pilot was popular enough that a broader game is being planned.

Games for Peace demonstrates the potential for existing popular games to enable collaborative game-play situations where a peaceful future can be imagined.

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One current example of using gamification to encourage cross-community dialogue in an area of conflict can be seen in Georgia, as the United Nations Development Programme has recently noted:

What do online gaming and peacebuilding have in common?

One simple answer is they both need people to do the job together. To succeed in both building peace and network gaming, you have to be willing to communicate openly.

It’s the only way to achieve any meaningful progress.

Tech specialists from Elva Community Engagement, an online platform based in Tbilisi, believe that tech-driven initiatives have strong potential to be a gateway for peace with Abkhaz and Georgian youth.

They are currently developing an online game that will connect peers from across the dividing lines, with the goal of transforming them into peace brokers of their own. For Elva’s advocacy director, Mark van Embden Andres this makes perfect sense:

“Youth worldwide have similar interests, hobbies, and pursuits – and online games are one of the most popular. Our game will nurture teamwork towards shared, concrete, peace-related goals. This is how Georgian and Abkhaz youngsters become peacebuildersthemselves. Teamwork and joint efforts are the ultimate blueprints for success.”

In Georgia, peer-to-peer contact between Abkhaz and Georgian youth is rare, if non-existent. They live in separate worlds; their communities, until recently, wracked by conflict and infighting.

Lack of information nourishes stereotypes and continues to play into prejudices about the other.

All too often, communities end up knowing precious little about their neighbours. It is precisely this fear of the unknown, as Build Up‘s Helena Puig Laurrari writes in a recent blog post, that gaming has the potential to break through.

“For many Georgian and Abkhaz youngsters, a virtual world is the only place they can meet and communicate. This is where damaging stereotypes can be broken and personal features of each other become more important,” says van Emden Andres.

The new game is being developed within a joint confidence building mechanism commissioned by both the European Union and UNDP in Georgia.

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Another example of using gamification to try to break down social tensions can be seen in the Shared Words project in Cyprus, in which interconnections between Greek and Turkish Cypriots are discovered through the relationships between the two languages. You’ll find more about it at the The Peace Exchange blog.

shared-words

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Defense Video and Imagery Distribution News (we at PAXsims read just about everything) has an article on what is ahead for the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI), the Naval Postgraduate School’s gamified crowdsourcing and discussion platform:

[Garth Jensen] continues to lead the MMOWGLI effort, but he and [Don] Brutzman are working to guide the enterprise toward a user-developed, community-based, self-sustaining business model.

“The transition is succeeding. We are sharing capabilities and addressing new challenges that will ensure the success of a self-sustaining model that is repeatable and broadly innovative while maintaining player privacy and anonymity,” said Brutzman.

“We want to get to where anyone can run their own MMOWGLI … where anyone can download the MMOWGLI source code and user manual and literally run their own game,” added Jensen.

Brutzman and his colleagues are also exploring techniques and technologies with the potential to, amongst other things, open up MMOWGLI to foreign participants.

“We are working to figure out how to run a multilingual game where people can type in their own language and an automatic translation can be provided,” said Brutzman.

But first, the MMOWGLI team will be challenged by prescheduled forays into the worlds of naval air power and perhaps their most challenging wargame to date – the Black Swan Event, a catastrophe like 9/11 whose inevitability is predictable, but only if the best minds in the business, are able to read the tea leaves pointing to a disaster of international proportions.

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Need UN peacekeeping berets, helmets, and vests for your next mod of the popular tactical combat simulation Arma 3? Click the image below to download them.

@iaf_un

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At e-International Relations, Margot Susca discusses “Violent Virtual Games and the Consequences for Real War.”

When it comes to violent video games, war and conflict, and the creation, maintenance, and cultivation of adolescent entertainment space and war ideologies by military powers, the academic community across disciplines must start taking greater notice. For this piece, I will use America’s Army as a case study to help outline the need to include more investigation of war video games on the agendas of multiple academic disciplines. It would be too easy and without methodological merit to say that playing violent video games makes people violent or more prone to military service. However, it must be noted that the U.S. Army uses and studies its own game as a way to improve marksmanship and build teamwork as service members prepare for battlefields. I focus here on the growth of the video game industry and explain the U.S. military’s use of video games to train soldiers to explain the growing significance of military video games and their links to real war.

She concludes (emphasis added):

More research on the effects of war video games on players is clearly needed. But what we know should trouble scholars from across disciplines: The U.S. Army already is using virtual violent video games to recruit and train soldiers for real war. Games can help shape narratives about foreign policy, service, recruitment and nationalism. As mediated storytellers, video games have powerful relationships to adolescent culture. Just look at young people claiming they want to kill Czervenians because the government game directs them to. Another player named PapaBear=VX9= wrote of the fictional country: “Why NOT have a backstory as to why our American soldiers are in this place? Every other game out there has a storyline. And as the US Army, we should have a legitimate reason for being there.” When the U.S. Army is the storyteller, any chance to “soldier” is legitimate. And that’s not some commercial fantasy.

Her critique largely focuses on the the fact that 1) the US military recruits people, and 2) the US military sometimes kills people. Of course, that is what it is supposed to do—indeed, what it is directed to do by the people’s elected representatives. If one doesn’t think countries should have militaries (#1) or that those militaries shouldn’t be trained to kill (#2) the critique might have some resonance–otherwise it seems to largely rest on a political objection, rather than any particular analytical insight. Although one could also make some sort of argument about such games having broader social effects, the paper really doesn’t do that.

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At his game design blog, Bruno Faidutti has a very good discussion (in both French and English) of “Postcolonial Catan,” in which he explores the issue of orientalist exoticism in contemporary boardgames:

There might be technical reasons, but I think there’s also something if not reactionary, at least romantic or backward looking in board games themes – much more than in video games themes.

The novel form has now been assimilated and transformed in the formerly colonized world, by postcolonial authors such as Salman Rushdie – but we’re still waiting for a postcolonial board or card game designer. Boardgame and card game design is not necessarily adverse to critics and subversion.  The authors of Cards against Humanity might be the William Burroughs of game design – but there’s no Salman Rushdie, and boardgames are probably still one of the most typically western cultural forms – more about how Japanese card games fit into this later.

There is something old-fashioned, charming and romantic, not only in the themes and settings of boardgames, but also in their graphic style. See the covers of Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan, probably the two most influential typical board game designs of these last twenty years. Playing games has become a powerful anxiolytic in a western society which probably feels less secure than it did a few decades ago. This might explain why board game sales are countercyclical, why game designers are mostly old white males (I’m one), and why game themes and looks sound so old-fashioned.

In Orientalism, Edward Said showed how the orientalist discourse, which he studied mostly in XIXth century novels but can be found in other cultural domains, created its own object, how a fantasy Orient became a part of the real Orient, and how this was embedded in the colonization ideology and process.

As I said earlier, world literature has largely become postcolonial, and the same could probably be said of music (rap is something like postcolonial rock) and movies. There’s nothing like this in games, and the image they show of the Orient is plain orientalist exoticism….

h/t Ellie Bartels 

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The 12th annual Games for Change Festival will be held  in April 2015 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.The professional conference will be held on April 21-23, while April 25 will be devoted to a day-long public arcade.

You’ll find more information here.

Games4Change

This War of Mine now available for preorder

This War of Mine—an innovative role-playing game by 11bit Studios in which a small group of civilians attempts to survive in a war-torn city—is now available for preorder. As a recent review and partial play-through at Rock, Paper, Shotgun notes:

This War Of Mine is a game set in the ruins of a wartorn city. Rather than playing a soldier on either side of the conflict, as is traditional in the world of games, players control a group of civilians who are trying to survive in a place where the essentials of life are thin on the ground. The game doesn’t match its mechanics to its theme as smoothly and powerfully as Papers, Please, instead opting to tread unfamiliar ground in familiar shoes. It’s a resource management game, in which survivors craft, explore and scavenge to survive. I played through the first few days and discovered the irony of it all.

A group of survivors shelter in the ruins of a stranger’s home. They are refugees within their own city, scavenging for food and medicine. One of them, a celebrated football player in a past life, has a fever. He doesn’t sleep well at night, shivering and sweating by the makeshift heater as it consumes the last of the wood. Tomorrow, they’ll resort to burning their books as the cold and the dark close in.

This War Of Mine is bleak but, to its credit, it’s also pragmatic. At the beginning of each playthrough, you’re in control of three people who have found themselves living under the same bomb-scarred roof in a wartorn city. Clicking on either a person or his/her portrait selects that individual, and clicking on icons scattered around the building sets the chosen survivor to work. Activities include clearing debris, crafting, cooking and searching for supplies in a specific area.

You’ll also find the official  trailer and a video review by 4 Player Network below. The preorder version costs $17.99, and can be purchased via Games Republic.

h/t James Sterrett 

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 1

Last term one of my political science undergraduate students, Cori Goldberger, tried her hand at designing a game about the “Arab Spring.” The result was very successful, capturing the domino effect of regime overthrow, the uneasy relations between Islamist and secularist forces, the use of patronage and repression, and the possibilities of both counterrevolution and descent into civil war.

This term, another McGill University student is working on a game design project with me. Alex Langer hopes to design a game that examines the current Syrian civil war. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access the other parts in the series here.

GNSYRIAMARKET

Introduction and Initial Thoughts

Over the past three years, I have been introduced to the world of gaming and simulation in political science through courses taught by Professor Brynen, from an hour-long colonization game to the infamous Brynanian civil war. While my own personal interest in wargaming goes back to my adolescent Warhammer 40K career playing as the faceless hordes of the Imperial Guard, classes at McGill have shown me how engaging, fun and useful games can be in teaching and modeling complex concepts and systems. After my friend and colleague Corinne Goldberger successfully produced a game of the Arab Spring last year, I approached Professor Brynen to see if I could do something similar.

My name is Alexander Langer, and I am a fourth-year student at McGill University. I am in my last year in a Joint Honours Political Science and History program, with a focus on the sociopolitical dynamics of nationalism, ethno-sectarian conflict and civil war in the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. My academic interests and love of gaming intersect nicely in the subject of the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Purpose

The board game will attempt to simulate the Syrian civil war from mid-2012 onwards, with the resumption of combat following the collapse of an UN-brokered ceasefire in May of that year. The conflict in Syria is complicated and constantly shifting, particularly with the emergence of a new front in Iraq and the swift rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so I anticipate that many of my current thoughts will shift. I hope to create a game that is entertaining and educational, appropriate for both hobby gamers looking for a realistic depiction of the civil war and students looking to learn about the dynamics of the conflict in a fun, unconventional way. The game should be playable in the span of an evening, and accessible to people without a huge amount of knowledge of the Syrian conflict.

Players

The first major necessary choice in designing this game is how many players to have and how to successfully model both the ‘regime vs. opposition’ and intra-opposition conflict dynamics of the Syrian civil war. In conversations with Professor Brynen, we quickly ruled out a two-player game with opposition and the regime on each side. We discussed a number of other options, from a three-player game (regime, opposition and ISIS) to a five-player game including a discrete Kurdish player.

We finally decided on a four-player game, with one regime player and three general opposition players, each following a discrete ‘ideology’. These factions will definitely include secular democrats, Islamists (‘moderate Islamists’ such as the Muslim Brotherhood) and jihadists (Jahbat al-Nusra and ISIS). Additional ideological factions may include Kurdish nationalists, military defectors, non-ideological regional warlords or even Arab nationalists. Opposition players will select their ideology at the start of the game, with the potential to change their ideological track mid-game, albeit at a real cost.

With this formulation, I hope to be able to show the shifting ideologies and internal conflicts of the opposition without overwhelming the players with unnecessary complexity. The ways that these differences will be represented is not fully developed, but will involve different characteristics and victory conditions for the regime and each rebel faction; for example, the secular democrats may have an easier time of working with Western actors, but may struggle to gain the absolute loyalty of its fighters. The game could be easily expanded to include additional players on each team.

Rebel Brigades

A key feature of the Syrian civil war thus far has been the fragmentation of the opposition’s military forces into thousands of individual rebel ‘brigades’, often based on ideological, communal or regional loyalties. Brigades have fluidly traded allegiances between umbrella organizations, and are rarely willing to sign on to large-scale campaigns that take them far away from their homes. Simulating this is key to developing a realistic depiction of the Syrian civil war. Professor Brynen and I discussed this in detail, eventually settling on a creative way of representing this pattern.

In the game, rebel units are divided into two types: loyalist and independent. Loyalist units are flexible: they can be moved at will, require some maintenance and often fight better than their counterparts. Conversely, independent rebel units begin the game under the control of no single rebel faction, with each region containing a number of rebel units already in place. The loyalty of these units can be purchased with money, weapons, or diplomatic maneuvering, which must be continually paid or else they will revert to their unaligned status or switch allegiance to another faction. Doing so, or recruiting new units, requires the presence of a faction ‘commander’, something that will be discussed further in a post about the combat system. Independent rebel forces also might incur additional costs to move outside their home province. However, independent rebel units will fight with rebel factions under attack by government troops, and can be ‘converted’ into loyalist forces by some ideological factions through further expenditures.

Aspects of the Game

Thus far, few of the game mechanics have been fully developed. However, there are a number of important aspects of the Syrian civil war that I hope to model and simulate in the game. These include:

  • The involvement of foreign actors
  • Ideology, particularly Islamism
  • Regime repression and overstretched forces
  • The Kurdish question
  • Asymmetric Warfare
  • IDP and refugee movement
  • Assassination, terrorism and covert operations
  • The political economy of the Syrian civil war
  • Internal regime dynamics

Future Plans

The next step is figuring out exactly how to simulate the brutal, grinding conflict of the Syrian civil war, while including as many of the above issues in the game without making it overly complicated.

Alex Langer 

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