Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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

Devin Ellis of the ICONS Project has contributed this piece for 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


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


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.


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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.


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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.


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.”


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.


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.


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 

Tropico 3 free today via Humble Bundle

Tropico3Today only Humble Bundle is giving away free copies of the “banana republic” simulator Tropico 3 (2009). Upon providing your email, you’ll be provided with a link and a Steam activation key.

Tropico 3 is a an amusingly cartoonish construction/resource management/politics simulator set on an Cold War-era Caribbean island republic. The player, in the role of “El Presidente,” seeks to develop the economy, increase their own wealth, achieve other objectives—and above all, stay in power. While doing so, he or she faces competing demands from the various factions on the island (communists, capitalists, militarists, environmentalists, nationalists, religious, and intellectuals), and can lose power through elections, coups, and even revolution. The underlying political model is actually quite interesting, and I’ve assigned different versions of the Tropico series as a class “game review” assignment in the past to my introductory course in political development.

I certainly recommend it.

h/t Alex Langer 

Toward serious matrix games

In recent weeks PAXsims has reviewed a new book on Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, and also offered an after action review of a recent matrix game in the UK that examined the current political and military situation in northern Iraq. Today we’re pleased to feature a guest blog post by Ben Taylor in which he further explores the value of such games for policy analysis and decision support.

Ben Taylor is Team Leader for Strategic Planning Operations Research at the Centre for Operational Research and Analysis, Defence Research and Development Canada. The views expressed below are those of the author and not necessarily those of DRDC.

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Matrix games exist in a space between conventional rules-based wargames and role-playing games. Rather than have complex rules to cover all the possible actions players can undertake matrix games tend to be very light on rules and instead allow players to make structured arguments as to what actions are undertaken and what results occur. The players, guided by an umpire as to what is plausible or probable, collectively built a narrative. Since players can make arguments as to why another player’s proposed course of action will, or will not, succeed the game has elements of both cooperation and competition.

Matrix games can be liberating in that they avoid the need for lots of charts and tables and complex calculations to resolve actions. If the players and umpire agree that something is plausible and likely to work, then it is likely that it will work and the umpire can rule on whether it turns out as planned by a single roll of the dice. This construct allows players who understand the context of a game very well to explore the situation very quickly without cumbersome game mechanics. On the other hand, as Hollywood action movies teach us, historical accuracy and the laws of physics can be set aside in favour of a good story line. If too much violence is done to reality then a matrix game, however much fun to play, will provide the players with few useful insights into the subject of the game. How then do we design a matrix game that is useful as a serious tool?

Games for experts

Real experts in a subject may not need the artificial construct of a matrix game to have a meaningful and useful discussion on the subject. They may find however that the competitive structure of the game does force them to think through strategies and their strengths and weaknesses. For such a group the role of the umpire is simply to translate the interaction between the players into the matrix argument format and to let the players drive the game.

Games without experts

When setting up a game with a group of players who are not experts in the subject of the game, or who have a mix of levels of expertise, then the designer has other issues to consider. Do non-expert players need more or less discussion around the game? On the one hand they are less familiar with the scenario and the actors and so would benefit from building more shared understanding. On the other hand non-experts talking to one another could just lead to groupthink and building a consensus around false assumptions.

It is likely that more thought need be given to keeping the players grounded in the subject without them feeling overly constrained.

Providing players with a rich ‘primer’ of background information will make it easier to role-play. Time spent creating the ‘back story’ for even actors in fictitious conflicts will likely be time well spent. The primer should provide a rich context from which to role-play rather than just the key elements of the current situation and objectives.

Non-player roles

Three distinct non-player roles can be identified in matrix games. Each of which is critical in ensuring a useful outcome from a serious game:

  • Game owner – the individual for whom the game is being run. This could be the boss if it is being used for a training application or a study director if the game forms part of an analysis exercise.
  • Game controller (or umpire) – the individual charged with making the game work, to administer the rules and to make assessments on the resolution of actions.
  • White Cell – one or more individual subject matter experts (SMEs) who provide injects into the game to maintain realism.

The game controller is critical to the success of any matrix game. The skills required include those of a facilitator – to ensure that everyone gets to speak at the appropriate time and nobody dominates –as well as the arbiter of all of the arguments proposed by players. It is essential that the game controller is even-handed and consistent in his or her rulings and application of the rules so that they do not skew the flow of the game. A good game controller can coach less experienced players without guiding their play, which will help the game achieve its intended purpose. The controller may allow a practice round of arguments to help players settle in before starting the game proper. This would help avoid any poor first turn choices by inexperienced players.

The game owner should resist the temptation to inject new events into the game (e.g. “the bridge being used by the aid convoys has collapsed”)? This may be useful in forcing players to investigate specific problems, but on the other hand the owner can be accused of forcing a preferred result or conclusion. The former issue may be a positive in a training or education context, but the latter is troublesome in an analytical game.

The white cell (which could be one or more people depending upon the scale of the game) should be able to inject events, or even introduce new arguments and/or reasons into the game. This would be less problematic than allowing the owner to intervene as the white cell’s role is to make sure the game has the right ‘look and feel’, not that it achieves a preconceived result. Nudging the game toward realistic course of events may be necessary from time to time.

The game controller should not be able to inject events or argument as his/her role is to run the game mechanics. The only exceptions would be:

  • If it is made clear that the umpire is also the white cell and is so permitted to add reasons for or against player actions.
  • The scenario has scripted actions (e.g. if the capital falls then new rebel units immediately appear, or on turn 4 a flood washes away the bridge to the northern province).

Pregame actions

In some cases players could be allowed one or more pregame actions. These would be limited to setting precedents for later and could not be used to change the physical start state of the scenario or to counter any special bonuses or penalties described in the scenario briefing materials. In many cases these could be interpreted as clarifying the start state where the scenario briefing materials are silent. For example the following arguments could be made:

  • Action: NATO has deployed a naval task group to the area. Result: +1 on future actions supported by air strikes or amphibious forces
  • Action: Insurgency has infiltrated Army command. Result: -1 on future army actions to target insurgency units.

The reason for doing this would be to allow players to refine the starting situation before anyone starts making actions to move or attack anywhere. Once this happens other players may feel forced to respond with their own moves. Some players may be in a position where they could gain advantage by forcing the game to quickly escalate on turn one.

There should be limits on the number of such actions and a number of them may be secret actions (i.e. known only to the player and the controller). The umpire, white cell and game owner might need to have the ability to veto pre-game arguments.

Scenario Design

The design of the scenario, that is the description of the starting situation and any maps and playing pieces used to depict the situation, is clearly critical in providing the context through which the players interact. Very careful thought needs to be given to what information is provided as it may shape player perceptions and lead them to certain courses of action. For example, if one described a failed state intervention scenario and put lots of refugee markers on the map that may guide players into treating it as primarily a humanitarian mission. But if the same scenario was described but players shown no refugee markers but lots of hidden weapon cache markers then that may cause players to treat it as a counter-insurgency mission?

Is there a type of scenario that a matrix game is particularly well-suited (or poorly suited) to? Strictly one-sided (government vs. nature in a domestic disaster relief operation), two-sided, multi sided, straight forward shooting war, complex hybrid failed state environment? The opportunity for direct interactions between players to cut deals would suggest that this game type is well suited to multi-sided complex operating environments. Conversely using them for two-sided combat scenarios may be a weaker application (although examples of these have been played in the recreational gaming community). Note that it is always possible to convert a one-sided or two-sided scenario into a multi-sided scenario by splitting sides up into factions that are competing at some level and which may have slightly different objectives (e.g. different allied nations of a coalition, different services, different government agencies or political leaders within the same nation).


A matrix game may be a powerful tool in exploring the dynamics of a scenario through forcing them to articulate arguments as to what would happen and thus build a narrative. If the intention is to draw observations for serious purposes or to use the game to teach an understanding of the scenario then there are steps that can be taken to make the game more robust. Game designers must always keep in mind why the game is being run in the first place.

Ben Taylor 

Review: Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming

matrixgamesReview of: John Curry and Tim Price, Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, Developments in Professional and Educational Wargames (History of Wargaming Project, 2014). 56pp. £12.95 pb.

“Matrix games” were first invented by Chris Engle in the early 1990s as a free-form, umpired alternative to more rigid, rules-based games. In a matrix game players typically take turns making an argument about what they wish to do, why they believe they would be successful, and what effects they expect this to have. Other players may be invited to identify counter-arguments. The outcome is then adjudicated by the umpire, with or without the use of dice.

PAXsims was recently involved in running a matrix game on the situation in northern Iraq, accounts of which you’ll find here and (via John Curry) here. You’ll also find some published games available at Hamster Press, and a large collection put together by Tom Mouat here.

Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming is a slim volume by John Curry and Tim Price that outlines how to play such a game. It introduces the topic, including a brief history of the approach and examples of how it has been used within the UK defence sector and elsewhere. The booklet includes a concise discussion of the rules and procedures used, different options for resolving player arguments, as well as a simple system for determining the outcome of battles between military forces. In addition,  the authors have useful suggestions for how to deal with arguments that players wish to keep secret from others, when outcomes should require multiple sequential successful arguments, dealing with ongoing effects, and how to finish and review such games. More than half the booklet consists of five ready-to-play games, complete with scenarios, briefings, objectives, maps, and (for most of these) copy-and-cut game counters too: The Falklands  War (1982); Chaoslavia (set in the Bosnia c1993); Lasgah-Pol (a fictional tactical scenario set in Afghanistan c2008); Red Line: Civil War in Syria (chemical weapons use in Syria, 2013); and Crisis in Crimea (March 2014, but easily modified and updated for subsequent or future developments). A version of the latter is also available via an earlier PAXsims article on contemporary Ukraine-themed wargames).


Map for Crisis in Crimea

Certainly the volume contains everything one needs to design, facilitate, and play such a game. I would have liked to have seen a somewhat longer discussion of game techniques, strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, as well as possible modifications and alternative approaches. It would have been useful to examine how matrix games can be linked to other gaming methods (for example, providing the strategic backdrop for a series of operational- or tactical-level games), and how such games could be run by email or otherwise used in a “distributed” approach with players in different locations or playing asynchronously. Indeed, as I write this review I’m struck how easily and effectively an online role-playing game platform like Roll20 (which allows multiple players to share and manipulate an online game board while linked by video, voice and text communications) could be used to host a matrix game.

Not surprisingly for a guide published by the History of Wargaming Project, the volume places most of its emphasis on the gaming of war and warfare. However, as the authors note, matrix games can be used to game pretty much anything in which there are multiple actors with differing or overlapping objectives. It would be very easy to imagine running a matrix game of the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa, for example.

Finally, while I found the booklet clear and straight-forward in its presentation, I do think it would have been useful to have extended at least one of the brief examples to a longer narrative of a few rounds of play in order to give neophyte players or umpires a better sense of how a game might unfold.

That being said, Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming is the most useful publication yet available on how to use such games for serious analytical purposes. I certainly recommend it for anyone wanting to learn about the method, and how to use it for serious and not-so-serious wargaming alike.

Playing a matrix game (picture via History of Wargaming Project).

Playing a matrix game (picture via History of Wargaming Project).

CFP: 2015 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference


The deadline for submitting paper prooposals to the 2015 American Political Science Association Teaching & Learning Conference is October 20. The conference itself will be held in Washington DC on 16-18 January 2015.

The theme for the 12th Annual APSA Teaching and Learning Conference is, “Innovations and Expectations for Teaching in the Digital Era,” which focuses on the challenges and opportunities of teaching in the digital age when information literacy is a critical skill and we are all “plugged in.” Panels and workshops will present research on pedagogy in the digital age; and, discuss best practices for integrating digital techniques and traditional methods to engage students and train them to think critically, write effectively, and evaluate, consume and generate knowledge of political science successfully.

The paper proposal themes include simulations and role-play:

Simulations and role play exercises help political scientists and students model the decision making processes of real-world political actors. Examples of these teaching techniques and strategies include Model United Nations, Model European Union, in-class self designed simulations, and on-line role playing exercises. Papers in this track will address such topics as: in what way can simulations and role-play expand student learning opportunities in political science? Which formats are most effective? and How do we measure the effectiveness of simulations?

You’ll find the online proposal submission form here.

In the latest issue of JDMS (October 2014)…

JDMS header

The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology 11, 4 (October 2014) has now been published. I’ve included abstracts for those articles most likely to be of interest to PAXsims readers.

A review of the effectiveness of game-based training for dismounted soldiers
Susannah J. Whitney, Philip Temby, and Ashley Stephens

Computer games are increasingly being used by armed forces to supplement conventional training methods. However, despite considerable anecdotal claims about their training effectiveness, empirical evidence is lacking. This paper critically reviews major studies conducted in the past decade that have examined game-based training with dismounted soldiers. The findings indicate that these studies are characterized by methodological limitations and that the evidence regarding the effectiveness of game-based training for this military population is not compelling. Furthermore, due to methodological limitations with the studies, the possibility of negative training effects cannot be discounted. The paper concludes with implications for the scientific and military communities, as well as recommendations for the conduct of future studies in this area.

In video war games, are military personnel’s fixation patterns different compared with those of civilians?
Håkan Söderberg, Junaid Khalid, Mohammed Rayees, Joakim Dahlman, and Torbjörn Falkmer

For combat personnel in urban operations, situational awareness is critical and of major importance for a safe and efficient performance. One way to train situational awareness is to adopt video games. Twenty military and 20 civilian subjects played the game “Close Combat: First to Fight” on two different platforms, Xbox and PC, wearing an eye tracker. The purpose was to investigate if the visual search strategies used in a game correspond to live training, and how military-trained personnel search for visual information in a game environment. A total of 27,081 fixations were generated through a centroid mode algorithm and analyzed frame-by-frame, 48% of them from military personnel. Military personnel’s visual search strategies were different from those of civilians. Fixation durations were, however, equally short, that is, about 170 ms, for both groups. Surprisingly, the military-trained personnel’s fixation patterns were less orientated towards tactical objects and areas of interest than the civilians’; the underlying mechanisms remaining unclear. Military training was apparently not advantageous with respect to playing “Close Combat: First to Fight”. Further research within the area of gaming, military training and visual search strategies is warranted.

Modes of immersion and stress induced by commercial (off-the-shelf) 3D games
Stéphane Bouchard, François Bernier, Éric Boivin, Tanya Guitard, Mylène Laforest, Stéphanie Dumoulin, and Geneviève Robillard

Developing a stress-management training (SMT) system and protocol for soldiers can help them cope better with stress experienced in theatre operations. Using 3D horror games in virtual reality (VR) can present an attractive simulation method for soldiers. This study was conducted to find out whether it is possible to stress soldiers moderately using VR and which technology is more efficient to do so. A total of 47 soldiers returning from Afghanistan played two 3D first-person shooter (FPS)/horror games (Killing Floor and Left 4 Dead) on three different types of immersive technologies (a 22-inch stereoscopic monitor, a 73-inch stereoscopic TV and a CAVE™). As a control and reference comparison of induced stress, participants were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a standardized stress-inducing procedure. Results were supporting of our work, devising an effective low-cost and high-buy-in approach to assist in teaching and practicing stress-management skills. Repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVAs) revealed statistically significant increases in the soldiers’ respiration rates and heart rates while playing the 3D games and during the TSSTs. No significant interactions were found. Increases in physiological arousal among the soldiers were significant when comparing the baseline to the immersion and to the TSST, but not when comparing both stressors. Immersion in 3D games is proposed as a practical and cost-effective option to create a context that allows practicing SMT.

Applying reinforcement learning to an insurgency Agent-based Simulation
Andrew Collins, John Sokolowski, and Catherine Banks

A requirement of an Agent-based Simulation (ABS) is that the agents must be able to adapt to their environment. Many ABSs achieve this adaption through simple threshold equations due to the complexity of incorporating more sophisticated approaches. Threshold equations are when an agent behavior changes because a numeric property of the agent goes above or below a certain threshold value. Threshold equations do not guarantee that the agents will learn what is best for them. Reinforcement learning is an artificial intelligence approach that has been extensively applied to multi-agent systems but there is very little in the literature on its application to ABS. Reinforcement learning has previously been applied to discrete-event simulations with promising results; thus, reinforcement learning is a good candidate for use within an Agent-based Modeling and Simulation (ABMS) environment. This paper uses an established insurgency case study to show some of the consequences of applying reinforcement learning to ABMS, for example, determining whether any actual learning has occurred. The case study was developed using the Repast Simphony software package.

The Simulation and analysis of a strapdown antenna platform in kinetic interception progress
Guo Yue, Liu Xinxue, and Pan Lefei

Limitations on the “better information system” solution to the problem of lapsed government operating funds
Jack Brimberg and WJ Hurley

Key factors that affect the performance of flares against a heat-seeking air-to-air missile
Raghav Harini Venkatesan and Nandan Kumar Sinha

A demonstration of ABM validation techniques by applying docking to the Epstein civil violence model
Jeffrey Appleget, Robert Burks, and Michael Jaye

The increased focus of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) on irregular warfare and counterinsurgency has served to identify the lack of credible models and simulations to represent the relevant civilian populations – the centers of gravity of such operations. While agent-based models (ABMs) have enjoyed widespread use in the social science community, many senior DoD officials are skeptical that agent-based models can provide useful tools to underpin DoD analysis, training, and acquisition needs mainly because of validation concerns. This paper uses docking and other forms of alignment that enable the linking of the Epstein civil violence agent-based model results to other models. These examples of model-to-model analysis could serve to assist and encourage DoD ABM human domain model validation efforts.

Location and visualization of the communication problems in a simulated Slovenian Armed Forces tactical radio network
Saša Klampfer, Matjaž Fras, Gregor Globačnik, Jože Mohorko, and Žarko Čučej

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 5)

PAXsims is pleased to present the fifth and final instalment in a series of blog posts by David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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k9388The games, simulations and popular culture discussed here are not the only ones available for teaching international relations, of course. At least three other kinds of similar pedagogic tools I know of have received a good deal of attention in the field recently. Given that zombies appear to pervade popular culture these days, many teachers have begun incorporating assignments with the walking dead. While Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies (2011) offers a very interesting, humorous read that I certainly encourage students to take a look at, zombies fail to liven up IR theory for me. The problem stems from the fact that they are unthinking – they cannot be reasoned with or deterred, one cannot invite them to join an international institution, and their identity remains static – or nonexistent really. As such, the logic of the zombie theme looks more like any natural disaster or epidemic. One might just as easily replace the zombies with Alfred Hitchcock’s birds or swarms of carnivorous frogs (from a film that traumatized me as a child and whose name I no longer recall). The only assignment relating to zombies that really worked for my “Games in IR” class, besides plenty of anecdotal comments during some lectures, is suggested by Blanton (2013:10). Students read World War Z (Brooks 2006) and wrote a short paper using Graham Allison’s (1969) Model 2 “operational roles” and Model 3 “bureaucratic behavior” to explain why the U.S. military’s initial response to the zombies was so inadequate. If I use this assignment again, I will only assign the students pages 92-104 from World War Z (“The battle of Yonkers”), as several complained that the rest of the book was not worth it to them pedagogically.

9780472051823A recent book relating J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954) to IR poses similar problems for me. While Ruane and James’ The International Relations of Middle-earth (2012) offers a lot of excellent and thoughtful material, the irredeemably evil nature of Sauron (a.k.a. “The Dark Lord”) and most of his minions (orcs, goblins and what not) in my opinion does more harm than good to IR theory. Sauron and his minions’ apparently static and uncompromisingly malevolent identity is simply not the kind of complex world I try to help my students understand. Because I want to discourage my students from demonizing “the other” in such ways, I avoid incorporating such fantasy literature and lean instead towards the more ethically complex Game of Thrones kinds of story settings. Some of the most interesting things about IR theory involve good people doing bad things, self-serving actors being cajoled or pressured into cooperating with others, unintended consequences of choices actors make, misperceptions, bureaucracies that fail to produce the results they were created for, and grey ethics. When we introduce a titanic struggle between good and evil, it becomes harder for students to see these nuances and complexities.

The final simulation or IR model that has recently received a lot of attention is the one I have the most mixed feelings about. Statecraft is a simulation developed specifically for international relations students. Students are divided into different countries in a fictional computer on-line simulation wherein they name their states, divide key government posts between themselves (such as “President,” “Secretary of State” and “Secretary of Defense”) and decide what the state’s principle attributes are (“green” or “industrial” for instance, giving bonuses to farming or factory production respectively). They then play through a pre-determined number of turns (typically on a 1-turn a week schedule) wherein they decide what structures to build in their state, what technologies to research, what trade agreements with others to pursue, what spy missions (if any) to launch, what military units to build and what military actions to take (if any). In this sense, the logic is very similar to the 4X computer games described here, but without the “explore” aspect given that there is no undiscovered territory even at the outset of the game. Students have a number of competitive goals to pursue, from being the “safest country” or the “most educated country” to the “wealthiest country” or the “most militarily powerful” country. Naturally, a student whose state is eliminated from the game by military conquest cannot achieve much in the way of these goals. A number of global goals (meaning jointly attained rather than competitive) also exist, such as “ending world hunger” and “the global peace award” (no hostile military actions occur for the duration of the simulation). Students are to be graded on both their effort and participation as well as their success in achieving these goals, as determined by a point system that the simulation awards them. Students generally need at least an hour of class time a week for the simulation, to hold U.N. meetings and organize themselves, while the rest gets done on-line.

I should start by saying that several of the students in my “Games in IR” course really appreciated this simulation. The simulation allows for a degree of complexity and interaction that is hard to get anywhere else without a huge amount of work on the professor’s part. There is ample room to work in any number of IR lessons from the simulation into course lectures and assignments, as this is the explicit intent of the model. I enjoyed watching my students’ U.N. meeting where they tried to organize each state’s per turn food contributions aimed at ending world hunger, and seeing how easy it was for more industrial players to trade their production points to more agricultural states in order to meet the quota they agreed to. The most shocking event in our class simulation occurred when a student who had not built a single conventional military unit in his state began researching nuclear weapons, in contravention of a non-proliferation agreement the class had been discussing.

Another player discovered his research intentions through a spy mission he launched, and—led by the president of a “pacifist” state (“pacifist” is one of the attributes students can choose for their state – it provides advantages in health ratings and low crime rates, but precludes the building of nuclear weapons or stealth bomber)—all the other players then proceeded to invade and conquer his territory before he could develop nuclear weapons. The student’s state was thus eliminated (it was a source of some ironic humor in the class that the now stateless student was in fact Kurdish). Just before the last turns of the game, however, the president of the “pacifist” state secretly offered to return some territory to the now stateless student if he would share with him the computer password used to control his state in the simulation. Upon getting the password, the “pacifist” student proceeded to complete the other student’s nuclear weapons program and then on the last turn use his state to nuke all the cities of the other players in the game – thereby guaranteeing for himself most of the competitive point awards in the game. The e-mail the “pacifist” student sent to the other players at this point quoted liberally from Thucydides, Hobbes and Machiavelli.

Despite all the excellent points to comment this simulation, however, a few issues make me uncertain if I will use it again in the future. Although I realize that this simulation is primarily aimed at American students, the Canadian in me was not at all fond of all the American-centric titles in the game, from “Secretary of State” (rather than the far more common “Minister of Foreign Affairs”) and the “CIA Program” technology to the “Schwartzkopf War College” building and “Harvard University” program technology. On a more serious note, students repeatedly came to me with technical glitches in the algorithms of the simulation. One example of many involved the students that had chosen the “green” country attribute.

They soon noticed that the promised multiplicative effects for farms from this attribute was actually additive and much smaller than the truly multiplicative bonus students with the “industrial” attribute got for their factories. Another student discovered that he could launch spy missions, then cancel them the same turn and get a refund for the cost of a mission he had yet to pay for. The trick allowed him an endless supply of money in the game. While the tech support I always told the students to e-mail was unfailing quick in responding, the solutions were generally ad-hoc (as in “I just added 200 food resources to your state”) rather than corrections of problematic algorithms. According to around half my students, these problems as well as what they felt were poorly designed rules for military engagements ruined the simulation.

From my own point of view, I found the simulation hard to follow and keep track of. Although from my own computer I remained able to view every message sent within the simulation and every structure built or spy mission launched, the amount of things happening quickly became overwhelming and the interface for viewing it all was not friendly. When I inquired with tech support about comparative graphs or charts to measure the relative progress of different players towards different objectives (something that exists for the 4X games described here), I was told that I should just read the turn summaries that students are supposed to write to explain what they are doing. (A new 2.0 update of Statecraft in now apparently in use, however, which supposedly addresses many of these issues. I have not had the opportunity to review the updated version.) Needless to say, my students were too sneaky or lazy to often tell me what they were really up to (if anything). In short, I felt that I did not really have sufficient knowledge of what was happening in the simulation and why, which in turn made it much harder to grade the students’ participation.

I am thus unsure if I will use Statecraft again. Instead, I will most likely rely on various combinations of the assignments described here. While simulations such as Statecraft may prove fine options for many professors, they generally require a good deal more class time and ongoing attention from the professor than the assignments described here. Simulations created specifically for IR classes also lack the advantage of demonstrating to students that IR theory really surrounds them in their everyday lives. For these reasons, I prefer one or more of the assignments I describe above for my courses.

David Romano
Missouri State University 



Allison, G. T., 1969. Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The American Political Science Review, 63(3), pp. 689-718.

Blanton, R. G., 2013. Zombies and International Relations: A Simple Guide for Bringing the Undead into Your Classroom. International Studies Perspective, 14(1), pp. 1-13.

Brooks, M., 2006. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. 1st ed. New York: Random House.

Drezner, D. W., 2011. Theories of International Politics and Zombies. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

James, P. & Ruane, A. E., 2012. The International Relations of Middle-earth: Learning from The Lord of the Rings. 1st ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Tolkein, J.R.R., 1954-1955. The Lord of the Rings. 1st ed. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Wargaming at King’s College London

Prof. Philip Sabin (Department of War Studies, King’s College London) has put together a short video that offers an overview of both the recent Connections UK 2014 professional wargaming conference and his own MA module on conflict simulation at KCL.

You’ll even see a brief glimpse of PAXsim’s own Humanitarian Crisis Game being played at 1:32!

Connections UK 2014 presentations now online

Business1If you missed the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London earlier this month, you’ll now find a very full account at the Connections UK website—including details of the “Wargaming 101″ session, biographies of all conference speakers, powerpoint slides, downloadable game materials, and recordings of some of the presentations and discussions.

Our earlier PAXsims account of the conference can be found here and here.


Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 4)

PAXsims is pleased to present the fourth of five blog posts by David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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Popular Fantasy and Science Fiction

Just as students’ attention span in the classroom is limited and requires breaks in order to refocus, so too with the assignments we tend to inflict upon them outside the classroom. Their sessions with classic IR texts, academic articles and documentaries need to be broken up with other kinds of materials. By offering some popular fantasy or science fiction books and films, we can encourage breaks that still further the IR learning process as opposed to breaks involving reality television or similar drivel. Besides activating the right side of the brain, assignments relating pop fiction to the IR literature can set students on the path of recognizing all kinds of things in the world they experience that link up with the academic theories they are studying. This in turn produces deeper learning and increases the likelihood that they will actually retain more of the lessons from their courses.

The two pop fiction assignments provided here come from the world of science fiction and fantasy, respectively. The two genres are particularly useful for getting students to focus on theory rather than descriptive detail, given that even fairly clueless students will recognize that what year Sauron reemerged to wage war on Middle Earth or which species make up the United Federation of Planets will not be on the exam. Both assignments in this section offer the pedagogic advantages described in the section discussing the Civilization and Stardrive computer games – especially in terms of encouraging students to think about systems and their most important actors. In addition to this, the two assignments discussed here offer a number of additional lessons. Like Stardrive but unlike Civilization, these two assignments have the advantage of fictional societies and cultures, which helps steer students away from explaining international relations behavior through a reliance on stereotypes and political preferences. Before going on to discuss the details of each assignment and in the interest of not receiving hate mail in my inbox, I should insert the obligatory *spoiler alert* here – some readers may wish to watch the Babylon 5 series and read the Game of Thrones books before the rest of this article.


TV Sci Fi Series: Babylon 5

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Any IR theory course with plenty of room for class discussion
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Institutions and Regimes, Systems and Units, 2-Level Games, Constructivism, Allison’s Models 1-3, Realism, Liberalism and more
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Students watch series outside of class and discuss the material in class, with potential exam questions or essay assignments

Babylon 5
ran for five seasons beginning in 1994, with almost all the episodes written by J. Michael Straczynski. Although not well known, the show won numerous awards, including two Emmy Awards and two consecutive Hugo Awards for best dramatic presentation. Assigning Babylon 5 rather than more well-known sci fi such as Star Trek offers the students a more level playing field, since few of the new generation of students are likely to already know the show well. The show is still available via Netflix DVD and Amazon instant streaming in North America, and still shown on regular television in much of Western Europe. For pedagogic purposes, the first two seasons of the show would probably be sufficient given the difficulty of assigning students more than this.

In the hope that none of my students are reading this article (lest they note my failure to follow my own essay assignment directives), I will provide the summary of the show’s premise that I found on Wikipedia:

Set between the years 2258 and 2281, it depicts a future where Earth has sovereign states, and a unifying Earthgov. Colonies within the solar system, and beyond, make up the Earth Alliance, and contact has been made with other spacefaring races. The ensemble cast portray alien ambassadorial staff and humans assigned to the five-mile-long Babylon 5 space station, a centre for trade and diplomacy. Described as “one of the most complex programs on television,” the various story arcs drew upon the prophesies, religious zealotry, racial tensions, social pressures, and political rivalries which existed within each of their cultures, to create a contextual framework for the motivations and consequences of the protagonists’ actions. With a strong emphasis on character development set against a backdrop of conflicting ideologies on multiple levels, Straczynski wanted “to take an adult approach to SF, and attempt to do for television SF what Hill Street Blues did for cop shows.”

I found it somewhat difficult to settle on a limited number of IR concepts dealt with in the show to highlight here, but nonetheless chose a few that I like to use the show to illustrate. The Babylon 5 series actually contains rich and almost limitless material that can be used to illustrate international relations theories, without the encumbrances of cultural stereotypes, political affinities or the very uneven knowledge of human history present in an average class of university students. (I am not suggesting that we remove real history from our IR teaching. An assignment based on science fiction in a class with many different assignments, however, can help engage students who otherwise feel intimidated by their relative and hopefully temporary ignorance of history.) I encourage teachers interested in using the show for concepts not discussed here, from patriarchies and humanitarian interventions to pacific unions and relativism, to consult the aforementioned Wikipedia entry for Babylon 5 – some of the show’s more ardent fans have crafted a Wikipedia entry with very extensive discussion of the series’ plot lines, many themes and parallels to real historical events.

When a class is assigned a season or two of the show, they all have the same reference points with which to discuss the IR theories at hand. The show is also appropriate for students (and professors) unfamiliar with the sci fi genre. My wife, who never betrayed an inkling for science fiction until I introduced her to the show, became enthusiastic enough about it to demand some marathon viewing sessions.

Unlike most television shows, Babylon 5 contains very ample material for a discussion of levels of analysis (Singer 1961) and two-level games (Putnam 1998). Besides the obvious inter-galactic system level typically present in the sci fi genre, Babylon 5 focuses on the domestic politics of the various species/civilizations in the show. Sometimes ambassadors of the various species on the Babylon station make agreements they find themselves unable to ratify at home, or they make deals on the station that spark unrest on their home planets. Sometimes domestic politics causes the “states” in the system to attempt to ally with external threats rather than balancing against them. When a coup d’état overthrows the leadership of the Earth Alliance, the human staff of Babylon 5 (along with the Mars Colony) declare independence and turn to alien races for protection against their own government – at which point alien races willing to assist typically demand a greater say in managing the Babylon 5 station. The species/civilizations in this inter-galactic system are thus in no way presented as unitary rational actors.

The story of Babylon 5 begins after a devastating war between the Earth Alliance and the Minbari Federation. In the first two seasons, a lot of attention is devoted to how the war originally broke out: a case of mis-communication and unintended displays of hostility, problems which the Earth Alliance later built the Babylon stations to prevent from occurring again. The initial causes of this war fit perfectly with Graham Allison’s (1969) Model 2 and the concept of standard operating procedures leading to unintended outcomes. Upon first contact between the Humans and Minbari, the Minbari ships approached the Earth Alliance fleet with their gun ports open – which is a sign of respect in Minbari culture. Seeing the gun ports open, members of the human fleet followed their standard operating procedures and began a chain of standard procedures for combat that culminated in one of their ships firing on the Minbari without higher authorization. This in turn led to a war of many years which the Minbari were poised to win, until they mysteriously ceased their offensive (we find out why they ended the war short of victory later on in the show). At different points in the series, we also see different bureaucracies in the Earth Alliance (the Psy Corps and components of the military) and the Minbari Federation (the Warrior Caste) pursuing their apparent interest in resuming the war, which fits Allison’s Model 3 account of bureaucracies’ role in producing less than rational foreign policy behavior on the part of states.

In terms of institutions, the whole premise of the show centers upon the key role that the Babylon 5 space station plays in facilitating communication, agreements, agenda setting, the creation of new inter-galactic norms and the overcoming of collective action problems. As the show progresses and its main characters (the various ambassadors and the human officials of Babylon 5) have more and more contact with each other, their identities shift. Several of the main characters go from viewing everything in terms of the interests of their respective species or governments to an inter-galactic equivalent of the cosmopolitanism. Most of their home government’s officials, however, lack the benefit of extended contact and interaction with the other civilizations and thus do not experience the same shift in identity – leading to a situation wherein the agents of Babylon 5 come to increasingly defy the directives of their home government principals as they work towards new norms they have been socialized into (Hall and Taylor 1996). Towards later seasons, the officials of the now independent Babylon 5 station – both human and non-human now – work towards nothing less than a fundamental transformation of their inter-galactic system from one of anarchy into something else.

A final overall and useful theme of the series only begins to be revealed in seasons two and three. Two “elder races” – the “Shadow” and the “Vorlon” – lurk in the background from the very beginning of the show. They are engaged in a cold war against each other, fought via proxies – the younger races (such as the humans) which Babylon 5 focuses on throughout the series. The equivalent of the U.S. and Soviet superpowers, different younger races choose (often unwittingly) to side with either the Shadow or the Vorlons at the same time as others attempt to form a non-aligned movement. Although viewers might initially think the Vorlons are the “good guys” in this account, given that they represent order and law versus the Shadow’s chaos and anarchy, the younger races quickly discover that the Vorlon pursue their own interests rather than anyone else’s. Elevating Law and order above all else can require humiliating obedience and protect the privileges of the powerful. For American students who may have difficulty viewing their own state the way some others in the system might, the parallels here can prove very useful pedagogically.

In terms of assignments using Babylon 5, any number could prove suitable, from essays to simple discussion points or class activities. Since the TV series has five seasons with a total of 110 episodes (each around 44 minutes long), professors can choose which episodes to assign on the syllabus when. In each class or tutorial session, a different student leads a discussion of how the assigned episode incorporates international relations themes or theories covered in the course. Besides the crucial pedagogic feedback such ongoing presentations provide, such an approach has the potential advantage of allowing students to point out issues and themes the professor failed to notice before.


Book Series: Game of Thrones

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Any IR theory course with room for class discussion
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Classic Realism, Systems and Units, Norms and Ethics, Anarchy
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Students read books outside of class and discuss the material in class, with potential exam questions or essay assignments

A-GAME-OF-THRONES-new-HC A Game of Thrones (Martin 1996) is set in a fantasy feudal world where seasons can last for years and power of magic waxes and wanes in different eras. The popularity of the novels and television series probably means that not is required here in the way of synopsis, and the large majority of students will be familiar with the books, the series or both. This has the advantage of using a vehicle that many students will be avid fans of for pedagogy, thereby increasing their engagement with the course material. It has the disadvantage of not leaving every student on a level playing field, however, as a few will be unfamiliar with Game of Thrones and will need to catch up quickly.

The first book or season in the series is probably sufficient to allow for ample discussion of Classic Realism, Machiavelli, the principal units/actors within the system (great houses such as the Lannisters and Starks), anarchy within the system (technically absent given the presence of a king who rules over the feudal houses, but in reality always at play) and regional systems (the Kingdom of Westeros) compared to a global system (something that does not really exist in Game of Thrones given the very limited interaction between Westeros, various island city-states and other continents).

The possibility I found most intriguing with Game of Thrones, which I used in my “Games in IR Theory” class of eight upper level students, involved norms, normative theory and ethics. Although the Game of Thrones world is vicious and cutthroat, the system in Westeros does have its norms – hospitality to guests once you have shared salt and bread with them, political leadership via patrilineal inheritance (except in southern Dorne part of Westeros, where inheritance is matrilineal), forbidding of slavery, feudal obligations of “bannermen” to their lords, and respect for the neutrality of the institution of the Nights’ Watch, for instance. (The Nights’ Watch is a monastery-like order of soldiers protecting the northern border of Westeros by manning a great ice wall there. The Nights’ Watch institution also serves as a useful pressure valve by taking in anyone, whether troublesome second-born sons or criminals, so long as they swear loyalty to the order and renounce their past affiliations.) In the novels and television series, however, all these norms face increasing strain and violations as the kingdom falls into civil war over succession to the Throne of Westeros. The resulting civil war appears also to weaken the kingdom severely, putting its ability to resist external threats into serious question.

The question that naturally arises then has to do with Westeros’ system of ethics, norms and rules for political succession and the extent to which these promote the greater good. Throughout Game of Thrones, a tension between those who follow a Realist ethic of raison d’état (translated as “whatever is necessary to safeguard one’s noble house,” or perhaps “raison de famille”) and those who harbor additional norms such as honesty, respect for the rule of law, regard for the lives of children, and the welfare of the kingdom in general, exists. Those who attempt to follow an ethical code beyond that of self-help seem to come to tragic ends in Martin’s novels.

In order to focus on these questions, the assignment I devised centered on a short essay the students had to prepare addressing ethics in Game of Thrones, followed by a debate. In the debate, students adopt the role of a maester in the book, members of an order of scientists/alchemists whose center of learning is called the Citadel and who try to influence developments in the realm for the greater good, via their positions as advisors to every lord in the realm. Students need to have it made very clear to them that they are to adopt the role of a maester who does not appear in the novels or television series, but is rather a character of their own creation. (I was not clear enough on my directives, it seems, as one student introduced himself as a “whitewalker” ice wraith and another as Daenerys Targaryen, a principal character in the story whom “…the others had better listen to in this debate because I control dragons!” Perhaps it was just late in the semester, a time when everyone’s wits suffer.)

My directives were as follows:

Archmeaster Professor Romano has convened a secret conference of maesters to discuss the political instability in Westeros. The overriding questions the maesters need to address include: “What should be the basis of the reigning political system in the realm? Is the current system of feudal, dynastic rule by inheritance serving the greater good of the realm? What alternatives exist? Which, if any, of the current claimants of the Iron Throne should receive the Citadel’s tacit support?”

Students will each play the role of one of the maesters summoned to the conference and will come prepared to make their arguments.

Each student will introduce themselves and tell the conference where they have been posted for the last several years, followed by a 5 minute summary of their views on the conference’s central questions. Maester Weston will provide a written summary of his position, as he was not able to make the journey from the Lands Beyond the Wall and participate in the conference in person, but one of his ravens arrived bearing his thoughts [Weston had a debate tournament and could not be in class that day, so I had him e-mail his views “from beyond the Wall”].

Following the presentations, all the assembled maesters will debate the issue.

The debate that took place as a result proved enjoyable and at times quite philosophical, but in need of further direction and precision in the directives provided to the students beforehand. I did not want to initially provide too specific instructions, as I wanted to give the students room to address the issues they thought were important in terms of ethics and normative theory. I then wanted them to try and draw parallels to our world, which they did by immediately pronouncing that “Hobbes and Machiavelli were right.” This assignment probably still needs refinement.

David Romano
Missouri State University



Allison, G. T., 1969. Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The American Political Science Review, 63(3), pp. 689-718.

Babylon 5. 1993-1998. [Film] Directed by J. Michael Straczynski. United States of America: Babylonian Productions & Synthetic Worlds, Ltd.

Hall, P. A. & Taylor, R. C.R., 1996. Political Science and the Three New Institutions. Political Studies, 44(5), pp. 936-957.

Martin, G. R.R., 1996. A Game of Thrones. 1st ed. New York: Random House.

Putnam, R. D., 1988. Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games. International Organization, 42(3), pp. 427-460.

Singer, J. D., 1961. The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations. World Politics, 14(1), pp. 77-92.

Wikipedia, 2014. Babylon 5. [Online]  Available at: 5

The curse of D&D


04_Right_Inline_Block_ImageFTApparently Dungeons & Dragons is cursed. No, I don’t mean the curse of the D&D business model, whereby the game is reinvented every few years in a new edition (complete with expensive new rulebooks), and players are then milked for a  series of supplemental book on top of that—most of which muddy up whatever elegance the latest game system had, until the process is repeated again. (Full disclosure: I currently have 49 volumes of D&D rules and supplements on my bookshelf stretching back to 1978, a mere fraction of the total I’ve owned at one time or another.)

No, I mean the curse whereby creators fall out with one another amid arguments and lawsuits. According to the New York Times:

For a certain sort of fan, the crowdfunding pitch was impossible to resist. Here was a chance, it announced, to support a documentary about the immortal saga of the legendary game that all but revolutionized modern life. No pressure.

Three filmmakers promised nothing less than the origin story of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, “a cautionary tale of an empire built by friends and lost through betrayal, enmity, poor management, hubris and litigation,” they wrote on their Kickstarter pagein 2012. They planned to chronicle the bitter battle waged by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s creators, over credit and royalties.

In other words, they wrote: “Imagine ‘The Social Network’  ” — the tortuous tale of Facebook’s founding — “but no one ends up rich.”

If the filmmakers saw a cautionary tale in the story of their shared passion, they failed to heed its lessons. More than $250,000 in Kickstarter pledges and two years later, there is no documentary, only broken friendships and a lawsuit.

The director of “Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary” has sued his former partners for embarking on another documentary on the same subject. Gaming conventions like GenCon (“The Best Four Days in Gaming”) andGaryCon (“a living memorial to E. Gary Gygax”) are abuzz with rumors of backstabbing and creative theft. Gathering around their tabletop games and in online forums, Dungeons & Dragons fans are distraught.

“Every story has 20 sides,” reads the tagline for the upstart second documentary, a reference to the 20-sided dice Dungeons & Dragons players use to direct their tabletop fantasy narratives. So far, this one has two.

It began, of course, with a game of Dungeons & Dragons….

You’ll find the rest of the story here. And, in the meantime, if you really want to know how the world’s most influential roleplaying game got started, you could do no better than to read Jon Peterson’s excellent history, Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role Playing Game.


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