Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

USIP/FP PeaceGame: Peacemaking in an era of violent extremism (5 December 2014)

peace-games-banner-no-logosThe United States Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy magazine will be convening their third “peacegame” on the subject of Peacemaking in an era of violent extremism at USIP in Washington DC on 5 December 2014, from 8:00am to 5:30pm ET:

This third biannual PeaceGame will examine peace keeping and peace making issues as they relate to the rise in global violent extremism. All attendees are invited to contribute to the conversation throughout the day with live, interactive polling and open mic questioning.

Employing PeaceGame’s innovative, scenario-based, multi-media model, the event is built around two scenarios that explore both the economic and political causes of radicalization and support for violent extremism in the context of the current situation in Nigeria.

Please join us for an in-depth look at several vital and little understood dimensions of extremism and an exploration of ideas for coping and defusing extremism worldwide. Participate on Twitter with #PeaceGame.


Framing Panel I: The Economic Roots of Extremism

The morning panel will feature two experts on the economic roots of extremism and two experts on Nigeria. The Nigeria experts will discuss the rise of extremism and Boko Haram and the economic roots of extremism in Nigeria, including poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality. Drawing from the example of Nigeria, the extremism panelists will discuss how economic drivers of support for Boko Haram are similar (or different) to those that gave rise to radicalized groups in other countries (e.g. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia). The economic issues identified in the panel will be the centerpieces of the scenario to follow.

Scenario I: Exploring the Economic Drivers of Radicalization and Extremism in Nigeria

The first scenario will focus on the economic roots of extremism in northern Nigeria. It will bring together experts playing the role of Nigerian and international actors who can play an active role in quelling the rise of Boko Haram via programs that focus on economic issues, such as job creation, entrepreneurship, or engaging the international and local private sector.

Framing Panel II: The second panel will be a discussion on how political factors, including political marginalization, ethnic and tribal dynamics, or human rights abuses by the security forces are fueling the rise of extremism.

Scenario II: Exploring Political Drivers of Extremism and Radicalization in Nigeria

The afternoon scenario will explore the political discord underlying the situation in Nigeria, examining issues around inclusion, marginalization, and security in the context of the 2015 election. At play is the tension between the democratic process and Boko Haram’s basic premise that democracy is a tool of western oppression and that an Islamic caliphate is the only system that will genuinely address their grievances.

Closing Panel: “Lessons for the World: Opening New Fronts for Peacemakers”

In this last session, the Nigerian and extremism expert observers will identify the most important lessons of both scenarios, not just for Nigeria but for other specific situations in which they may be expert, including but not limited to, elsewhere in Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

During the PeaceGame, participants will assume the roles of various actors party to the Nigerian conflict. Their statements should not be construed as representing their own personal views or the views of their respective organizations.

The event will be followed by a reception.


ISAGA2015The Japan Association of Simulation and Gaming will host the 46th annual conference of the International Simulation and Gaming Association on 17-21 July 2015 in Kyoto, Japan. The theme of the conference will be “hybridizing simulation and gaming in the network society.”

While the conference website seems incomplete at the moment, you’ll find some additional details here.

International Conference on Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations for Intelligence and National Security

intelconflogoRegistration has opened for the International Conference on Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations for Intelligence and National Security to be held at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. on 24-25 March 2015: 

The goal of this international conference, between the Center for Intelligence Services and Democratic Systems at Rey Juan Carlos University and the School of  Continuing Studies at Georgetown University is to enhance the role of experiential learning methods and techniques showcasing original simulations, exercises, and games applied to national security intelligence, competitive intelligence, and foreign affairs. The conference will bring together ideas, concepts and demonstrations that can further train and educate military, law enforcement and national security professionals.

A sample of conference topics include:

  • Scenario-based approach for developing the links between analysis and reporting
  • Computational Simulation In Intelligence Analysis
  • The Induction Game and Intelligence Education
  • Gaming and Modeling Before a Crisis
  • Use of Gaming and Exercise as Part of an Engagement Strategy
  • Gaming the Nexus between Intelligence and Policy
  • Concrete Tabletop Exercises for Cognitive Skill Development in Analysts
  • Serious gaming & how to create visionary practitioners and policy makers
  • Balancing Realism and Playability in the Intelligence Classroom
  • Structured Analytic Techniques for Cyber Security through Role Playing
  • Cyber-Attack and Ethics Simulations
  • Virtual Training Systems and Survival Humanistic Factors

Further details and online registration can be found at the link above. Any questions should be directed to Dr. Jan Goldman or Dr. Ruben Arcos  Martin  (outside North America).

Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend, since the dates clash with my own annual Brynania civil war simulation. However we hope to have someone there to report on the conference.

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 3

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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Last Thursday, we held the first playtest of my game, provisionally titled Road To Damascus. While the game needs changes, the core game system seems to work well, and it was a ton of fun to play. Some rules needed major tweaks, and the diplomacy system needs an overhaul. As well, a new map would make gameplay much easier. However, the combat system worked nearly perfectly.

The Board

For the board, I used a standard roadmap of Syria, with lines drawn onto it to demarcate provincial boundaries in black and Lines of Communication (LoCs) highlighted in red. Units are placed in ‘stacks’, with the government, each rebel player and the independent rebels each having their own stack. LoCs were separate map spaces, with only one unit total allowed there.

Using a modified commercial map for the initial game board. The large red disks are Syrian airfields and divisional bases; the smaller red risks are regular Syrian army units (elite units denoted by a star); the red aircraft indicate airstrikes; and the orange disks denote shabiha, National Defence Force, and other pro-regime militias. The black, green and white disks denote FSA, Islamist, and Kurdish militias, while the avatars represent key opposition commanders. The remaining disks (yellow, blue) represent unaffiliated guerillas. Each province is a separate zone for movement and combat, with each of the major cities (Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo) also comprising a zone unto itself. The red lines mark key lines of communication, and the Syrian desert is a separate zone with restrictions on movement.

Using a modified commercial map for the initial game board. The large red disks are Syrian airfields and divisional bases; the smaller red risks are regular Syrian army units (elite units denoted by a star); the red aircraft indicate airstrikes; and the orange disks denote shabiha, National Defence Force, and other pro-regime militias. The black, green and white disks denote FSA, Islamist, and Kurdish militias, while the avatars represent key opposition commanders. The remaining disks (yellow, blue) represent unaffiliated guerillas. Each province is a separate zone for movement and combat, with each of the major cities (Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo) also comprising a zone unto itself. The red lines mark key lines of communication, and the Syrian desert is a separate zone with restrictions on movement.

The board made the game somewhat confusing: (LoCs) were sometimes difficult to distinguish from the surrounding provinces, and it was difficult to fit all of the necessary units into the smaller southern provinces of Daraa and As-Suwayda. For future playtests, we will be using a different game board.

Provinces/zones and lines of communication on the new map.

Provinces/zones and lines of communication on the new map.

The Setup

The game was set up to follow a historical scenario beginning in May 2012, with the collapse of a limited ceasefire between the Assad regime and rebels. Government forces are concentrated in Damascus, Aleppo and the cities of southern and central Syria, where they maintain relatively firm control. Meanwhile, rebels increasingly control rural areas and northeastern Syria, with regime forces restricted to protecting their military base infrastructure. The three rebel players represent the FSA (Military Defectors), the Islamic Front (Islamists) and the PYD (Kurdish Nationalists).

The Gameplay

Generally, the game went well. While there was some rules confusion on the first turn, people picked up the basic structure –as described in previous posts– pretty quickly. Players’ actions began to mirror the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War: the rebel players consistently failed to cooperate with each other, while the government player rapidly began to abandon eastern Syria to the rebels in favour of holding onto major population centers. After an early rule change drastically increased the effectiveness of airstrike operations, rebel players –particularly the FSA player– openly began to voice dread at the government player’s placement of airstrike markers.

Revolution! Cards, the game’s way of generating new independent rebels and representing historical events, needed some changes. After some discussion, we decided that in future games, the number of rebels generated by each card would be decreased. However, rather than the government player drawing one card per game turn, each player would draw a card at the beginning of their player turn. A lot of card tweaking happened over the course of the game as well. Notably, a reserve-play card meant to simulate rebel fighters hiding among the population was miswritten to allow all players to use its effects, allowing a large regime garrison in Aleppo to hide amongst the city’s Christian population to avoid a rebel assault. When FSA units arrived, they were apparently unable to find the Syrian military among crowds of nuns and ringing church bells.

Another feature that needs work was the diplomacy system. While the Islamists courted foreign actors for income, eventually managing to build a broad coalition of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Salafist donor networks, other players neglected foreign actors and ignored Syria’s domestic communities. The expensive tradeoff (an operations point), uncertainty (a 5+ die roll to shift opinion) and the lack of short-term rewards of diplomatic action were cited as reasons for why the diplomatic track was largely overlooked. The next version of the rules will make Influence operations easier.

However, some recent additions to the game worked out well. IDPs and the steady disintegration of Syria are represented in a simple way, through Death and Destruction markers. These appear both through card play and when triples are rolled during Assault operations, to represent the effects of heavy fighting. Death and Destruction markers reduce the population value of a province, including for recruitment, taxation and victory points. While I am considering adding a Refugee marker, I am worried that this could be a finicky mechanism. Meanwhile, income is now gained through a Tax operation, which proved quite effective.

Victory Conditions

The win/loss system was the last part of my game I needed to develop. Victory points are calculated based on the population value of the provinces under player Control or Influence, as well as through some reserve-play cards and captured Government Bases. The Government player only wins if their victory point score is greater than the three rebel players combined. Otherwise, the rebel player with the highest score wins the game. There are no overriding conditions for victory, although some players, particularly Kurdish Nationalists, receive substantial bonuses for holding certain territories.

Plans for the Future

I am currently modifying cards and the rules as well as constructing a better game board for the next playtest. After that, testing, testing and more testing will be necessary, something which I’m looking forward to!

Alex Langer

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Having played the game as the Kurdish player, let me add a few thoughts of my own.

As a first playtest of a rough design, Road to Damascus was excellent. A similar view expressed by all of the other playtesters too. Indeed, it is shaping up to be my favourite insurgency/counter-insurgency games of all time—no small accomplishment, given how many COIN games I’ve played.

In our own game, a joint rebel offensive succeeded in largely pushing the regime out of city of Aleppo. A sustained fight then erupted for control of the rest of the province, with the opposition seeking to sever north-south lines of communication. My own Kurdish troops were generally active only in the north and east of the country, seizing control of al-Hasakah province. This led to a short-lived conflict with the Islamists, who had lured several unaffiliated guerrilla units there to their jihadist banner. In al-Haskah, Dar-az-Zawr, Raqqa, and Aleppo major government military installations were overrun. From time to time there was also fighting in Hama and Rif Damascus, although the regime was able to keep the capital generally rebel-free. Dar’a was relatively quiet until near the end of the game. The game ended with a narrow regime victory.

The change to the airstrikes rule involved an interesting trade-off. On the one hand, the revised rules make them somewhat ore powerful and predictable than in the real world. On the other hand, it does generate exactly the right sort of psychological tension in the game, with the rebels soon becoming desperate for MANPADS or a no-fly zone. On balance, the latter effect is worth the minor distortion of operational effectiveness.

The game very much captures the fluid nature of rebel cohesion, alliances, and organization. Many of the rebel units in the game are unaffiliated, and effort must be made to bring them under your command–and keep them there. Local commanders are essential to both military and political activities. Guerrilla players only partially cooperate, making a coherent opposition strategy difficult.

Because a rebel player usually only plays one card per turn, and because most opposition units are incapable of anything beyond harassment operations unless stiffened with veteran troops, much of the conflict consists of grinding war of slow attrition. However it is possible to bank certain cards and play them later, leading to episodic (but short-lived) campaigns. This too is very much in keeping with the nature of the fighting.

Aleppo. There's a serious educational purpose to this game design--but it is worth also remembering the real death and destruction in Syria.

Aleppo. There’s a serious educational purpose to this game design–but it is worth also remembering the real death and destruction in Syria.


Paul Vebber on analytical narrative gaming


Slide01As part of its regular “brown bag” discussion sessions, the MORS (Military Operations Research Society) Wargame Community of Practice hosted a talk today by Paul Vebber (US Naval Undersea Warfare Centre) on “analytic narrative gaming.” In it he focused on long term “story arc” development as an extension/application of the Engle matrix game technique to supplement COA development and analysis in the deliberate planning process. For those who couldn’t attend in person in Alexandra VA a phone-in facility was available for remote participation.

You’ll find Paul’s slides from the presentation here. In the presentation he argued that matrix games are increasingly being examined as a serious analytic tool (an issue we’ve discussed before at PAXsims, notably here, here and here). Such games had the advantage, he suggested, that they were relatively easy to organize and play—thus allowing for repeated play (potentially by the same group of players to enable learned strategy) in a way that helped to map out a problem space and identify frequent or convergent issues. His presentation also very much stressed the importance of narrative analysis in a way that allowed us to identify alternative trajectories, the reasons why choices were made (and not made), and why particular plots and paths emerged from game play.


His discussion included identification of some of the frequent problems of both narrative and analytical gaming, and they ways in which these might be addressed. Particular emphasis was placed on a “story arc” metaphor to help tease out key elements, actions, and interactions. Interestingly, he suggested players could be primed as to what aspects of an issue or problem were of particular interest, so as to encourage them to focus on these. While this approach advantages (by reducing the risk of distractions), it did seem to me it risked distorting game play in a variety of ways too.


It was a very rich discussion—hopefully MORS will consider archiving audio recordings of some future brown bag sessions to further increase their accessibility to the professional gaming community.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 9 November 2014


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

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A newly-released video game, Liberation of Palestine, challenges players to organize political and military resistance to Israel. Game play includes establishing refugee camps, building homes, buying weapons, preparing camp residents, forming alliances, scoring attacks, and conducting prisoners swaps. It is clearly designed to emphasize the greater value of paramilitary action over diplomatic negotiation.

As Ha’aretz notes:

A new computer game developed in Gaza, “The Liberation of Palestine,” invites players to liberate Palestine by all means at their disposal, including force.

In a promotional Arabic-language video trailer that was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the game is depicted as teaching players that force is preferable to negotiations. Players are also required, however, to forge diplomatic alliances within the region and arrange prisoner swaps.

The game’s broader aim, the developers say, is to develop “a spirit of resistance among Palestinian children.”

Games dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have aroused a great deal of controversy. During last summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza, Google removed from its Play Store several downloadable computer games featuring the bombing of the Gaza Strip. Among them were “Bomb Gaza” and “Gaza Assault: Code Red.”

The controversy over these games initially surfaced in the late 1980s. In one intifada game, players had to disperse demonstrations in the West Bank or Gaza Strip without killing any protesters, so that an overly left-wing government would not be elected in Israel. The game prompted objections in Israel and abroad.

In the 1990s game “Conflict: Middle East Political Similator,” participants played the role of Israeli prime minister and had to stay the course until all the surrounding countries collapsed.

A number of other games followed, some taking a more serious approach than others. “Peacemaker,” for example, in which participants were also placed in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister (or the head of the Palestinian Authority), was more oriented toward achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Games reflecting the Palestinian or Arab point of view have also made headlines. Among them were “Under Ash,” a shooting game that opens in Syria in which the player is a Palestinian fighting the Israel Defense Forces; and “Special Force,” which was developed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite militia.

The website for the game is here, although at the time of writing requires log-in credentials.

For additional discussion on “video game wars,” see my 2012 report for World Politics Review (via CNN).

h/t Julie Norman

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The Guardian has a sympathetic profile of, and interview with with Call of Duty game designer Dave Anthony, whose appointment to Atlantic Council to explore the future of war has been previously discussed at PAXsims and elsewhere.

To some, a writer of video game fictions may seem an unlikely candidate for a role that exists to “help to provide ideas to protect the United States from future attack.” Anthony, who has been writing and programming games for twenty years, deals in the realm of jingoistic military fiction, which, in the case of the Call of Duty series, features a protagonist who single-handedly conquers unending waves of anonymous terrorist enemies. In this way it has as much in common with the rhythm and spectacle of a Rambo movie as it does with the docudrama verisimilitude of a Zero Dark Thirty.

But push aside Call of Duty’s bluster and the appointment isn’t so incongruous. Modern combat games compete on authenticity; their creators must gather props and detail from the realm of fact and arrange them into believable fiction.

During his recent talk Anthony showed videos depicting a US drone that had been hacked by Iran to attack Americans, an idea that first featured in Black Ops 2’s storyline. “In Washington, there is a tangible fear of suggesting controversial ideas, rocking the boat or moving outside of the established system,” he says. The fear is perhaps understandable for the career-minded Washington-ite. In the business of military prophecy, one doesn’t want to be marked out as an eccentric.

But Anthony believes that his entertainment background frees him from the incentive to limit his imagination. “As a director and writer, my job is to break expectations and established thinking without fear of failure in order to create new and fresh ideas,” he says. “It’s timely as the threats we face today don’t play by established rules. Our enemies are starting to use our own technologies and systems faster and more efficiently than we are.”

There are similarities to the stultifying rhetoric of the Cold War era: the race to master technology before the other guy, the fear of the unheralded catastrophe, a disaster from an unknown source, foes under our noses. But one thing is different this time: in video games the military is able to try out its theories, to simulate its strategies, to set a devastating domino run in motion and see where the pieces land, without consequence. Anthony believes that, for all their historical ties, perhaps games and war aren’t close enough after all. “I would like to see more collaboration with the military and game developers,” he says.

War is Boring also feature an interview with Anthony, in which again emphasizes his role as an outsider challenging comfortable Washington orthodoxies:

Anthony was not well-received. Critics took to Twitter to chastise the game director. Blogs pointed out the creepy implications of his ideas about proactive defense.

But Anthony wasn’t fazed. He knew that Beltway types would be loathe to listen to “a video-game guy.”

“When you’re working on something like Call of Duty, you’re at the top of your field,” he admits. “Everybody wants to bring you down.”

The criticism of his talk didn’t bother him. He’s heard far worse from gamers.

Anthony’s hope is that people will openly discuss his ideas—no matter how wild they may seem at first. He says fear and media spin are the main obstacles to the free exchange of ideas.

“All [the media and politicians] are looking for is sensationalism,” he says. “You can see that with the Ebola thing right now. Yes, we have to be cautious, but the way it’s presented is fear-based. It’s extremely frustrating.”

“Everything in the media is 90-percent fear-based,” he continues. “The government needs to find a better way to communicate with people, to try and educate people to the nature of threats and even consider ways in which people can help overcome those threats.”

However, among those that I’ve discussed the issue with criticism of Anthony hasn’t been that he’s a “video-game guy” at all, but that he doesn’t have a very good grasp of modern conflict and warfare and that he himself tends to focus on the sensationalist. I also think the notion of a Beltway community unwilling to address new security challenges is somewhat misleading. On the contrary, security punditry is full of (and probably oversupplied with) those who emphasize all manner of emerging threats, from drones to EMP, transnational terrorism, WMD proliferation, access denial weapons, cyberattacks, and robot swarms—not to mention buzz phrases like asymmetric conflict, hybrid threats, and 3rd/4th/5th/whatever generation warfare. Finally, strategy is about balancing costs, risks, and benefits—something that so far has been absent from Anthony’s presentations and interviews.

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The Active Learning in Political Science blog has a piece by Simon Usherwood exploring cultural specificities in simulations:

The question that occurred to me was what impact does [cultural experience] have on one’s general understanding of the kind of simulations we run, re-creating political interactions?

Precisely because participants are bringing their personal experiences to a simulation, it can sometimes be hard for them to bring the experiences of the roles that they are playing. This can cause any number of problems when trying to recreate a real-world scenario.

To that just one example, when I ran a game that asked students to play different agencies of the US federal government in putting together a foreign-policy document for an in-coming president, they all worked on the basis that all Americans want the same things, and so didn’t really get into the differences that obviously (to us) exist.

A couple of solutions to this present themselves, one inward-facing, the other outward.

When we want to make sure that participants are representing external cultures within our games, then we need to ensure that they have sufficient opportunity to internalise that culture. This is easy in larger games, where you can ask them to produce essays/papers or negotiating briefs that reflect the real-world actor’s dispositions, on which you can provide feedback. In smaller exercises, it’s more difficult, but you could either provide some key points on attitude (rather than policy per se), or else mark out red lines that effectively require a particular approach.

At the other end of the process, we can work with participants to draw out their personal reflection on the impact of their culture on their approach to a simulation. The obvious place to do this is in the debrief and feedback after the game, where we can build on their comments to strengthen their self-reflection.

Again, cultural elements are always going to be part of simulations, both because our participants have culture and because we want them to recreate cultural objects: the key thing is to be alive to this and to help them see how this works.

In by own comment at the blog, I noted the need to understand “culture” in a broad way:

The question of (war)gaming cultures was the primary focus of the Connections conference this year. In my own presentation I argued against the danger of seeing “culture” as a homogenous thing based on ethnic or religious identity–there is substantial evidence to show, for example, that the differences between (say) military officers and students or economists and everyone else are at least as substantial as those between (for example) Turks and Americans. In other words, Turkish and American military officers may behave more like each other than they do Turkish and American diplomats.

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Zombie-Apocalypse1We’ve discussed zombies quite a lot at PAXsims, both because of our commitment to preparing the world for the impending apocalypse, and because the zombie genre has increasingly been used in disaster simulations and classroom teaching. In a forthcoming article in Politics, however, Erin Hannah and Rorden Wilkinson warn of the possible pitfalls of such an approach:

The zombie genre is quickly becoming a feature of International Relations (IR) classrooms and pedagogical toolkits as scholars enthusiastically embrace the undead as a vehicle for teaching the discipline. This article offers a cautionary note on a generally positive move to embrace the use of zombieism in IR. It shows how an uncritical use of a zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for teaching IR can reinforce existing divisions in the field, essentialise country positions, crowd out heterodox approaches, reinforce gender stereotypes and dehumanise people. To guard against these problems, the article shows how Zombie IR can be better used to think critically and normatively about world politics.

Specifically, they raise several sets of concerns:

Our worry is that zombies are being used merely as a means of teaching students about existing theories of IR rather than as a vehicle for developing critical and normative thinking. If this is the case, not only are we letting slip an engaging way of teaching students about the contours and problems of world politics, we risk underscoring existing divergences in the IR canon that obfuscate our capacity to engage with each other. A second, and related problem, is that by limiting our use of zombies to teaching students how existing approaches would respond to an outbreak of the undead we avoid getting them to push forward thinking about how to solve the most pressing global problems and to come up with alternative ways of organising the world. We see a third danger in the use of an IR of the undead that essentialises country positions, reinforces gender stereotypes and dehumanises people in ways that limit the possibilities for cooperation and legitimises certain forms of violence and attitudes towards adversaries in conflict. Ultimately, we believe that zombieism – particularly if engaged with ‘actively’ (i.e. through role-play, scenario and problem-solving exercises) – is an important tool in our pedagogical armoury. Yet, it is not one that we are utilising fully. Thus, we explain why we believe the answers to the questions we set out above are currently insufficient, present the potential dangers of this insufficiency and offer a way forward that may be more fruitful in making better use of this popular cultural resource.

A few of these concerns were also raised by David Romano in a recent piece at PAXsims.

While their focus is on zombies, some of what Hannah and Wilkinson have to say applies to other scenario-based teaching too. It is a thoughtful article, and very much worth reading.

INSS simulation on the aftermath of a “bad deal” with Iran

INSS The Institute for National Security Studies recently conducted a simulation of the diplomatic and other consequences of a “bad deal” between the P5+1 and Iran on the nuclear issue—or, more accurately, what Israel might consider a “bad deal.”

As the talks between Iran and the P5+1 continue, the INSS Arms Control and Regional Security Program held a simulation exercise on September 29, 2014 to explore possible developments following a “bad nuclear deal” – one that effectively enables Iran to maintain a nuclear breakout capability. The assumption of the game’s opening scenario was that an agreement that might look reasonable could actually contain many interpretation loopholes that render it “bad.” In the simulation, following Israel’s initial reaction to the deal, Israeli, US, Russian, European, Iranian, and Gulf teams grappled with the implications of the new reality. The objective of the game was to spur a dynamic thought process regarding the possible implications if such an agreement is signed with Iran.

The opening scenario was as follows:

On the morning of November 25, 2014, following a marathon session of negotiations in Geneva, Iran and the P5+1 reached a last minute agreement on a comprehensive deal. The agreement removes sanctions against Iran in return for the partial dismantlement of its nuclear program. US President Barack Obama described the deal as a “landmark agreement that distances Iran from a nuclear weapon and sends a message to determined proliferators everywhere.”
Israel is alarmed that the agreement does not deal with Iran’s current stockpile of low enriched uranium, does not dismantle centrifuges, and approves a reconfiguration of Arak that would enable limited amounts of plutonium to be extracted from the heavy water reactor. The agreement acknowledges Iran’s right to continue enrichment, though limiting the amount of 3.5 percent enriched uranium readily available for further enrichment, and provides for the phased removal of sanctions, even though the P5+1 have exposed Iran’s clear violation of the NPT in the weaponization work it has carried out. Israel’s dismay and anger over the deal was reinforced by the reaction of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who declared that the “agreement was a demonstration of Iran’s resolve and its refusal to buckle in the face of pressure.” An Israeli official stated that as a result of the deal, Iran could acquire a nuclear weapon within four months of a decision to do so.
According to the INSS, the main insights of the simulation were:
a. The deal that appears to meet the needs of all the parties could actually constitute a bad agreement, because of a lack of attention to the technical details. The deal in essence enables Iran to remain a nuclear threshold state and grants legitimacy to this status.
b. The assessment of any agreement with Iran requires an extensive evaluation of technical considerations and terminology.
c. In order to obtain international support for Israel’s position, it is recommended that Israel focus its diplomatic activity on no more than the aforementioned five key problems that it identifies in the deal.
d. The opening scenario in which the US President signs an agreement before the prior approval of the US Congress is a distinct possibility.
e. In the event that the agreement requires the approval of the UN Security Council, there may be an opportunity for Israel to take diplomatic action to try to influence the content of the agreement. Nevertheless, once it is signed, there is little likelihood that Israel will succeed in this regard.
f. The simulation demonstrated that US fears of an Israeli attack against Iran’s facilities have diminished. It appears that the concerns over an Israeli strike are no longer a significant factor among United States calculations. This could well lead to strategic surprise should Israel attack after facing a “bad deal.”

You’ll find the full simulation report at the link above. See also the updated Israel vs Iran wargame compendium at Wargaming Connections.

Simulation & Gaming, June 2014

“Gaming the non-kinetic” at KCL

On Thursday I had the very great pleasure of lecturing to Prof. Philip Sabin’s conflict simulation course in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. The lecture drew upon material from a chapter on “Gaming the Non-Kinetic” that I have contributed to a forthcoming volume edited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum, Zones of Control: Wargaming in Analog and Digital Worlds (MIT Press).


In the lecture I addressed various so-called “non-kinetic” aspects of modern (and not-so-modern) warfare, and highlighted some of the ways that wargame designers have addressed these. Those who might be interested will find the powerpoint slides for the presentation here (although they aren’t entirely self-explanatory without me lecturing alongside them). Those who attended the lecture might also be interested in the following links to PAXsims games I mentioned during the talk:

See also my general post on gaming political science. For details of the commercial games mentioned in the presentation, see BoardGameGeek as well as the various publishers’ websites—in many cases rules are available online.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 29 October 2014


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

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Rock, Paper, Shotgun has an interview with Pawel Miechowski at 11 Bit Studios on the forthcoming release of This War of Mine:

RPS: What do you want people to get out of playing This War Of Mine?

Pawel Miechowski: We want to raise awareness about how civilians suffer when war is breaking out. We want to show the other side. We’re partnering with War Child so we’re going to raise money for [kids in war]. From the perspective of being creators we use a parallel to movies because it works well in this case. Sometimes you’re in the mood to watch an action movie or a comedy. Sometimes you watch drama – The Pianist or Saving Private Ryan with that brutal opening. We decided we see games as ready to speak about important things. We’re not pioneers – we already have amazing games which do that really well – Gone Home, Papers Please….

See the full interview at the link above.

(h/t James Sterrett)

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Positech Games have announced the release of Democracy 3: Clones & Drones, an expansion for their political strategy game Democracy 3. It adds a range of new policies to consider (from the use of armed drones to human cloning to driverless cars) and events (shortages of “rare earths”, anti-technoloy rebellions,  antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and many more).

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In an article in the Huffington Post, Mary Flanagan (Dartmouth College and has called for using games to examine and resolve otherwise intractable conflicts and public problems:

…unusual strategies — and the gall to enact them — are desperately needed as we increasingly face complicated conflicts that seem to have no way out. Police and citizens distrust one another in places like Ferguson, Missouri. Bullies taunt kids from rich neighborhoods to poor. Old ways of fetishizing power, such as nationalism, and winner-takes-all need to be replaced with new models in which complicated people in global, complex societies can not only get along but prosper. It’s not impossible. We need resilient communities that not only survive, but thrive.

And as law scholar Yochai Benkler noted in his bookThe Penguin and the Leviathan: Triumph of Cooperation Over Self-Interest (2011), systems built wholly on self-interest end up as disasters. Parts of society that serve everyone – from public parks to Wikipedia — last longer and make people happier.

It’s time to recast the molds. Let’s find new ways to model unusual forms of cooperation. Games like Pandemic or Pox: Save the People, two board games where teams of people fight against spreading viruses, are a first step. Let’s tell stories that replace the “bad guy” with the challenges we face together.

We must reinvent rusty old conflict models, or we will never escape the vicious cycle of war countering war. Violence isn’t the answer to seemingly intractable problems. And yet, we’re only as brilliant as the tools we’ve learned to use.

I have certainly used games as a way of exploring challenging issues and helping to players to jointly identify possible solutions to deep-rooted conflicts (see, for example, here, here, and here). However, I think we also have to be careful that we don’t oversell what games can do.

(h/t Matt Kirschenbaum)

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In a forthcoming issue of Politics, Erin Hannah and Rorden Wilkinson reflect on Zombies and IR: A Critical Reading:

The zombie genre is quickly becoming a feature of International Relations (IR) classrooms and pedagogical toolkits as scholars enthusiastically embrace the undead as a vehicle for teaching the discipline. This article offers a cautionary note on a generally positive move to embrace the use of zombieism in IR. It shows how an uncritical use of a zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for teaching IR can reinforce existing divisions in the field, essentialise country positions, crowd out heterodox approaches, reinforce gender stereotypes and dehumanise people. To guard against these problems, the article shows how Zombie IR can be better used to think critically and normatively about world politics.

(h/t Lisa Lynch)

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York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design is seeking a tenure-track junior researcher in the area of games, gaming and gamification:

This position seeks a strong junior researcher whose creative practice and theoretical interests span games, gaming, and organized play as cultural phenomena, as a platform for art-making, and who explores gaming as it manifests in a wide range of contemporary practices. Possible areas of interest include the following: art games, serious games, experimental game mechanics, alternate reality games, game related art or installation, interactive narrative, critical game studies, world making, visualization, alt-games, notgames and gamification. The candidate will be a practicing artist and creative coder, with strong theoretical framework, who has expertise with a variety of tools found in professional game development and whose technology-based art practice incorporates interdisciplinary approaches to art and science. The candidate will have capacity to teach practicum courses in Digital Media and Design.

You’ll find additional details here. The deadline for applications is 5 December 2014.

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Worcester Polytechnic Institute is advertising a tenure-track faculty position in serious games. You’ll find details here. Applications should be received by 15 December 2014.

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Earlier this year, George Phillies (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) posted a series of videos on wargame design to YouTube, based on a class he taught on the subject. You’ll find the first of them below, and links to the others here.

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


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.


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


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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