Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

A visiting foreigner’s perspective on MORS 83


Last week I attended the Military Operations Research Society 83rd annual symposium in Alexandria, VA. MORS has a full working group and conference track devoted to wargaming, and many other panels and tracks of interest to national security analysts.

Unfortunately, MORS also has a very uneven record with regard to the participation of non-American nationals. For many years it was NOFORNed entirely, meaning that while any American registered for the conference could attend any unclassified session, non-Americans couldn’t participate at all (even if they were from allied countries and held security clearances). Last year the procedure changed, and the majority of sessions were opened to FVEY (UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) participants—including almost all of the WG30 (wargaming) sessions. This year, however, almost all of the wargaming sessions were not held in the Hilton as in 2014, but rather at the Department of Defense’s nearby Mark Conference Center. While most of these were unclassified, non-Americans had to submit site visit requests well in advance of the conference through their embassies to even access the building. For those attending on official business this was an irritating, but achievable, process. However, FVEY embassies aren’t in the business of processing for paperwork for academics or others attending MORS in a non-government capacity (even if they do hold security clearances).

The MORS misfit Green Badge of Death, so reviled it isn't even mentioned in the conference program.

The MORS misfit Green Badge of Death, so reviled it isn’t even mentioned in the conference program.

The net result was I received a Green Badge of Death, severely limiting the panels I could attend. Indeed my own session had to be specially moved to the Hilton so that I could deliver my presentation. Equally unfortunately, the coffee and snacks were in the Mark Center too, resulting in severe caffeine withdrawal.

My own presentation summarized work that Ben Taylor and I have been doing on matrix gaming. We were severely tempted to make it Canadian Eyes Only.





You’ll find the full slide presentation here.

Ben and I also ran a shorter version of the “ISIS Crisis” matrix game. This saw the Iraqi government successfully push through legislation to establish a new (Sunni) National Guard in the face of parliamentary opposition. While this antagonized some hardline Shi’ite militias, US advisors did make progress in training Sunni tribal volunteers. ISIS conducted some probing attacks around Tikrit (where a number of sectarian atrocities occurred on both sides), an unsuccessful surprise attack on a newly-established National Guard training base, and then—in response to an overconfident YPG attack in Syria, unleashed a counteroffensive that drove the Kurds out of Kobane and seized much of the area around Hassakeh.

Little did we know that—at the very time we were gaming—ISIS had done much the same in real life, (temporarily) infiltrating Kobane and launching attacks in the Hassakeh area.

I was also able to take part in the WG30 “Drive on Metz” wargame. The game—designed by Jim Dunnigan and included in the first edition of The Complete Wargames Handbook (1980)—depicts efforts by General Patton and three divisions of the American 20th Corps to seize the city of Metz and cross the Moselle River before the retreating Germans can form an effective defence. Three games were held simultaneously, with the US and German players in separate rooms. I was happily coopted into the CNA dream team consisting of E.D. McGrady and Peter Perla, playing the German defenders.

The 106th Panzer Brigade locks down much of the US 7th Armoured Division in its ZOC while refusing to die.

The 106th Panzer Brigade locks down much of the US 7th Armoured Division in its magical ZOC while refusing to die.

The purpose of the games was not, it should be stressed, to teach participants how to play wargames. Instead the exercise was really about how to document and analyze them. Accordingly, several teams were assigned to track and assess each game, each using a different methodology. The games were also recorded in SWIFT (Standard Wargame Integration Facilitation Tool) software for subsequent playback and analysis.

Unfortunately, the computers set up in each room proved unable to talk to each other, meaning that each move had to be laboriously recorded in one room, then the magnetic map board need to be carried into another to also be recorded there. The result was that it took 5 minutes or less to make each move, and 15 minutes or more to document it.

I am also unconvinced that Drive on Metz is a very good game for this purpose. There are no supply requirements, and no step losses. It uses locking zones of control (meaning that once adjacent to an enemy unit you can no longer leave), and the combat results table only allows for retreats, never losses due to combat or attrition. As a result, the game largely involves pinning units and trying to maintain a safe line of retreat, with even foot infantry able to safely retired from massed armour assaults if they leave a path open. Ironically, since the rules permit no stacking, a defence in depth means you are more likely to die since you cannot retreat on top of a friendly unit. Because of the way locking ZOCs work, through most of the game we were better to guard the Moselle by leaving sections of the river unguarded, thus preventing the Americans from crossing it through advance after combat. Overall it is a simple, but rather gamey, system that doesn’t represent ground combat (or highlight the value-added of wargaming) particularly well.

On top of that, and despite having the players in different rooms, there was no fog-of-war. Instead we knew where every US unit was every time, thus failing to reproduce either the chaos of a rapid US advance/desperate German retreat or allied air superiority (and hence superior reconnaissance) in September 1944. We would have been far better to have wargamed using proper double-blind play. I also think something like the Battle of Midway or the hunt for the Bismarck would have worked better, with lots of uncertainty, calculated risks, interesting choices, and difficult trade-offs.

Since I couldn’t attend the later debrief in the Marks Center, I am also not sure how much the analysts could capture. In our case discussion was very quick and partially in “gamer speak” with a lot of finger pointing at hexes and retreat paths, followed by idle chatter as we waited for the move to be processed.

German Player #1: If we move here [points at hex] the ZOC will pin these units [points at units], and we can retreat here or here [points at hexes].

German Player #2: Let me check the CRT. Even at +13 the most they can force is a DR2.

German Player #3: Sounds good.

All-in-all it was a good effort into which a great deal of work had been put, and the organizers certainly couldn’t be held responsible for most of the technical hiccups. However, I think a better game design would have served the purpose better.

I had many very useful side-conversations at the conference. However, limited access meant that, overall, I found the MORS 83rd symposium disappointing. If MORS can’t find a way of making most of the unclassified programme readily accessible I won’t be attending the annual meeting again. Really folks, most of this stuff isn’t at all sensitive.

I am, however, looking forward to the MORS Special Meeting on Professional Gaming, to be held in Fairfax, VA this fall.


This will consist of a three day workshop (29 September – 1 October), plus an optional one day course (28 September) on professional gaming as an analytic practice. The meeting will produce initial content for a Professional Gaming Practioner’s Handbook and bring together members of the community of practice to consider best practices, design, existing applications, and appropriate analytical methodologies in an effort to codify the fundamentals of game design and analysis. The meeting is intended for information exchange and participant exposure to professional practice—there is no intention to conduct a game or for attendees to participate in game play. I will be cochairing (with Rober Leonhard) WG8 of the meeting, which will augment the introductory course with practical, hands-on exposure to professional gaming practice. Participants in this group will design a professional game by applying the skills and best practices associated with other working groups.

I’ll post more information to PAXsims when the meeting opens for registration.

Simulations and gaming miscellany, US marriage equality edition


PAXsims is proud to present its readers with an inclusive rainbow of recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming.


Inside the Box: Using Integrative Simulations to Teach Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation
, a book by Natasha Gill of Track4, has recently been published by the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. As Simon Mason notes in a blog post about the book:

Inside_the_Box-GillCritics of role plays and simulations have argued that while participants have fun and get enthusiastic about negotiations, the actual learning is superficial, as the process is too far removed from reality. Another common criticism is that simulations lead to the stereotyping of actors in conflict, rather than a deeper understanding of the various players and dynamics. It is also said that emotional tensions between participants at times spill over into the real world, as participants find it difficult to shed the perspectives they adopted and the feelings they experienced during the simulation. Many of these criticisms, however, do not necessarily reflect on the approach per se, but rather point to the low quality of some role plays and simulations, particularly in how they are designed and run. Furthermore, most supporters of simulations do not argue that these modules are magic bullets that should replace other forms of learning. Well-designed role plays may miss their target if they are not well embedded in the overall training program and complemented with other forms of learning.

In her new book “Inside The Box: Using Integrative Simulations to Teach Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation” Natasha Gill helps negotiation and mediation trainers design and run simulations that avoid many of these pitfalls. Based on more than a decade of experience, her method is tested through practice in both the academic environment as well as in professional negotiation and mediation courses. Negotiation simulations can professionalize mediation if the way they are designed and run is also professionalized. Natasha Gill’s book is a useful guide for achieving this goal.

The book is available for free download here. We’ll be reviewing it soon at PAXsims—and, having read a preproduction copy, I can already attest that it is well worth reading.


In the bah humbug department, comes this piece from the Daily Telegraph telling us that children’s “card games and board games are dying out, and it’s no great loss.” Most are “deeply dull” and”an exercise in killing time.” Many, the author suggests, are “badly designed, with too many pieces, rules, and faff.” Consequently, “so many of the games are tortuously complicated or ridiculously simple and not conducive to family bonding.”

Certainly most kids find video games more engaging. And there are also some badly-designed children’s games out there too. However, there are many, many excellent ones. Moreover, sales statistics show robust growth in the sale of both children’s games and (teen and adult) hobby games.

Making the point, the Guardian—which has run several recent articles on the renaissance of board gaming—has another piece on that theme this week, this time highlighting how such games can bring families together:

[Games] teach useful lessons about taking turns and handling defeat. They provide an outlet for tension and rivalry. They require family members to sit down and interact with each other – increasingly important in a world where we spend much of our time in separate rooms, triple-screening and arguing over Skype about whose turn it is to change the toilet roll. But perhaps best of all, they remind us how to play.

The Times of India reports on the growing number of boardgaming devotees in India too, within the growing middle class—including new games clubs, a gaming pub, and the rising popularity of boardgaming among Bollywood stars.



Speaking of children’s games, a prototype of a Osama bin Laden-themed snakes-and-ladders designed by Donald Levine for the CIA for potential information operations in the Muslim world was recently auctioned, selling for a mere $625:

Prototype of board game featuring prominent terror leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, intended for use in Arab countries in order to persuade children from idolizing terrorist world leaders. This prototype was covertly designed for the CIA by Donald Levine (the creator of the iconic G.I. Joe doll) in 2005 for an ”influence operation”, intended to strategically distribute scary or perhaps comical depictions of Bin Laden and Hussein to children, ideally to dissuade them from joining a terrorist group such as Al Qaeda. The project was discontinued after the prototypes were developed. Board game has blue cardboard playing surface with numbered grid and small photographs of Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda printed. Includes two white and black die and white cup with blue, red and yellow game pieces. Game board Measures 16” x 16”. Fine condition. With an LOA from Neil Levine.

h/t: ludic geopolitics


The Providence Journal reports on a recent disaster simulation exercise held at Brown University:

A Category 5 hurricane has hit the island nation of Pwong, somewhere in the Pacific, and four days later the imaginary nation’s disaster management director has opened a single runway at the airport, allowing 40 international aid workers to arrive.

“When you all arrived from the airport,” the man playing the disaster management director told the students playing the aid workers, “I was the first person standing there, and you all walked right by me.”

The students, posing as representatives of aid groups Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Oxfam, the Islamic Relief Organization, World Vision and Care International, fanned out across the stricken nation, actually just the bamboo-lined Starr Plaza behind the Watson Institute at Thayer and Benevolent streets, interviewing about 20 volunteers from the Brown community who pretended to be Pwongians.

The students had a mission in this simulated disaster: to assess needs so their agencies could provide relief. But their mission in real life was to gain experience from the chaos, pressure and conflicting priorities after a disaster.


According to the Military Times, the Us Department of Defense recently wargamed the future of military recruitment and retention challenges.

[A cadre of tech experts] joined in a first-of-its-kind “war game” focused on military personnel issues. The two-day event held in late June in the Washington suburb of Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, brought a team of Silicon Valley pioneers and computer-science experts together with current and former Pentagon officials and military experts from think tanks across Washington.

The rare brainstorming session, sponsored by the Defense Department, was designed to tackle some of the military’s most vexing long-term challenges in building a force for the 21st century and recruiting and retaining the talent it will need in the years ahead.

The event was the latest sign of soul searching inside the Pentagon’s personnel directorate, sparked in part by the advent of cyber warfare and widespread concerns that building an effective cyber force will require skills, management styles and institutional structures that are rare in today’s military.

That anxiety is fueling a broader push inside DoD to modernize the entire military personnel system. The newly appointed undersecretary for personnel and readiness, Brad Carson, has vowed to seek “revolutionary change” in the way the military manages its people.

Carson wants to modernize the Pentagon’s antiquated, paper-based personnel system and its promotion rules that prioritize seniority and stability over performance and innovation. He has promised to draw up a slate of reforms by August that will include far-reaching policy changes and proposed laws for Capitol Hill to consider.

Carson spoke to the war game’s nearly 100 participants and urged them to “pursue disruptive innovations.”

“Don’t settle for incremental reforms that are politically feasible,” he implored.

It isn’t clear from the description how much of an actual wargame this was, and how much of it was an extended scenario-driven discussion and brainstorming event. From the description it looks more like the latter than the former.


Devils+Den+Battle+3The nationwide American backlash that followed the June 15 shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina led many US retailers to stop selling Confederate flags—and for Apple to temporarily withdraw some American Civil War games from its iTunes app store.

Most, however, have now been reinstated:

Though Apple originally said it would only remove apps from the store that used the Confederate flag in an offensive ways, even games about the Civil War that included it to be historically accurate were removed.

“We accept Apple’s decision and understand that this is a sensitive issue for the American Nation,” Games-Lab said after its game was removed. “We wanted our game to be the most accurate, historical, playable reference of the Battle of Gettysburg.”

An Apple spokesperson later said that the company would reinstate some games that were wrongly removed, and given the news about Ultimate General: Gettysburg, it seems like it is.


Yesterday Gary Milante and I ran a couple of demonstration games of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University in Washington DC. David Becker—who had served as the Stabilization Coordinator at the US Embassy in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake, and who was one of the original resource people for the project—was in attendance too. It was nice to bring the game back to NDU, since AFTERSHOCK has its origins in the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference “game lab” held there in 2012.   They had even set up a nice display poster to welcome us!

Gary and the welcome poster—I think we were both jealous they had a large format colour printer to hand.

Gary and the welcome poster—I think we were both jealous they had a large format colour printer so readily to hand.

After a short orientation to the design philosophy of the game, and an equally short overview of how game play works, we then threw everyone into the deep end with two games of eight players each. In general we find that confusion and even a bit of chaos at the start of game play helps generate an appropriate atmosphere. After all, a catastrophic earthquake has just struck!

In the game I facilitated the group was initially overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, but soon began to get a handle on things. The international military “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force” focused on opening up the port and airport, thereby allowing an adequate number of relief supplies to flow into the country. The NGO team proved especially good at planning ahead, while the UN played a major role in supporting a relief-to-development transition through infrastructure repairs in the latter part of the game. Cluster meetings were used to coordinate humanitarian response. The local government often took a lead in suggesting collective priorities.

My group discusses how best to allocate scarce human and material resources.

The group discusses how best to allocate scarce human and material resources.

The players were rather slower to recognize the importance of buttressing the already shaky government of Carana, however. Towards the end, some social unrest had even begun to appear.

President Becker and Vice-President Fox of Carana review conditions in their earthquake-ravaged country.

President Becker and Vice-President Fox of Carana review conditions in their earthquake-ravaged country.

Fortunately, effective relief operations—coupled my a last-minute public information campaign by the government—helped to stabilize the situation, and the players all achieved a victory.

The players in the other game were less fortunate. They had an incredibly unlikely draw of cards in the initial turns, and ultimately triggered the -30 relief points “instant lose” condition. They continued to play, however, so that they could explore the game mechanics.

Conditions were especially severe in Gary's game. Of course, natural disasters aren't fair, and some are much worse than others.

Conditions were especially severe in Gary’s game. Of course, natural disasters aren’t fair, and some are much worse than others.

I hope the participants found the experience useful and enjoyable—we certainly had a great time running the games.

(For more information on AFTERSHOCK, click the tab at the top of the page.)

PS: Political Science & Politics: Summary of TLC 2015 simulation and role play track


The latest issue of PS: Political Science and Politics 48, 3 (July 2015) contains a summary of the simulation and role play track of the American Political Science Association’s 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference. We’ve reproduced it below at length. Each year the TLC includes a number of papers presentations and discussions on the use of simulations in teaching political science.

Simulation and Roleplay

Michelle Allendoerfer, George Washington University

Casey Delehanty, Florida State University

As in previous years, the 2015 Simulations and Role Play track served as an ideal arena for the presentation and discussion of active learning exercises for a variety of classroom environments. Track participants took care to integrate the lessons of previous years into the discussion, so as to build upon previous insights and identify recurring themes.One of the main themes of the track was the evaluation and implementation of simulations and games. Andrew Schlewitz and Joan Andorfer explored the degree to which substantive learning took hold within a Model OAS simulation and how these outcomes differed based on individual student characteristics. Chad Raymond compared the effectiveness of two different simulations in terms of their ability to cultivate empathy in students. Robbin Smith presented a fantastic US government simulation as well as pre- and post-test assessments of student learning outcomes. Michelle Allendoerfer used follow-up surveys to test the degree to which simulations were more-or-less effective than lecture in terms of increasing student retention.

Generally the results of these attempts at assessment were muddled. Studies of simulation effectiveness are continually plagued by “small-n” problems as well as the lack of true control groups, which poses problems for instructors who seek to “justify” the implementation of simulations and other active learning exercises in the classroom. While empirical analysis has yet to conclusively demonstrate the superiority of active learning techniques, it is generally the case that simulations are not worse for student learning than traditional techniques. Despite this muddled empirical record, track participants generally concluded that the increase in student enjoyment and engagement provoked by simulations is valuable in and of itself. While it may be difficult to empirically demonstrate the inherent value of active learning, the process in itself can generate positive student outcomes across a range of activities.

Gavin Mount’s “Simulating World Politics: Teaching as Research” presented the idea that simulations themselves can be used as sites of inquiry for students. While instructors often think of active learning exercises as delivery mechanisms for knowledge, deconstructing the institutional rules and implied norms of simulations themselves can be a productive method of debriefing students and encouraging critical thinking about political systems. Discussion then centered on the importance of debriefing: whether done as an in-class discussion or through personal reflective essay, instructors should allow students to discover the underlying themes and lessons from active learning rather than “telling.”

Finally, a number of presentations addressed the notion of adapting new or existing simulations to changing learning environments or goals. Gretchen Gee presented a simulation of Chechen terrorism for use in a “blended” classroom (a mix of online as well as classroom meetings), spurring an interesting discussion on the challenges of adapting active learning to non-traditional environments as classroom dynamics change. Nina Kollars, Victor Asal, Amanda Rosen, and Simon Usherwood demonstrated the flexibility of the Hobbes Game in terms of the learning goals it can be structured to evoke, demonstrating the degree to which small changes in simulation structure can beget new learning opportunities or goals.

The Simulations and Role Play track enjoyed a conference filled with rigorous discussions about how to effectively use simulations. Discussions surrounding assessment led to the general conclusion that as long as simulations seem to engage student learning and do not negatively effect learning outcomes, that a shift in the discussion to how to successfully create and execute simulations was in order. To that end, participants discussed how to effectively use debriefing strategies to engage students. Further, participants in the track concluded with a fruitful discussion of advantages and disadvantages of existing simulations that served a very practical purpose.

Next year’s TLC will take place in Portland, Oregon on 12-14 February 2016.

Connections conferences 2015

PAXsims is pleased to present an update on the various forthcoming Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conferences to be held around the world this year.

27-30 July 2015

Connections (US)

This year’s Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference—the original version, and still the largest—will be held at National Defense University in Washington DC. The updated website (including registration) can be found here.

Held annually since 1993, the mission of Connections is to advance and preserve the art, science, and application of wargaming.  The conference works each year to facilitate a useful exchange information on achievements, best practices and needs of all elements of the field of wargaming, from military, to commercial, to academic applications.


PAXsims reports on last year’s conference can be found here, here, here, and here.

8-10 September 2015
Connections UK

The third annual Connections UK conference will be held at King’s College London. The current version of the programme is below. For updated details and registration, visit the conference website.

_Connections UK 2015 1

_Connections UK 2015 2

_Connections UK 3

PAXsims reports on last year’s conference can be found here and here.

14-15 September 2015
Connections Netherlands

The Connections Netherlands conferences issponsored by SAGANET ( Simulation And Gaming Association: The Netherlands). You’ll find full details here.



14-15 December 2015
Connections Australia

Australia’s second annual Connections wargaming conference will be held again at the University of Melbourne. Details can be found here.


Simulation and gaming miscellany, 7 June 2015


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

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FS03K01One Small Step Games has started shipping the Brian Train-designed game Kandahar. The game examines the conflict in southern Afghanistan in 2008-10:

This game began life as a redesign of a game I designed in 2010. This game was similar to other games I had designed in the past, dealing with 20th Century counterinsurgencies in Uruguay, Peru, Algeria, Greece and Cyprus. The point of central interest in these games was the notion of the Political Support Level, in short the level of support, legitimacy, commitment or patience the non-military people involved in the conflict were willing to extend to the forces commanded by the players. The level was affected by many things, and games ended when one player ran out of political wherewithal and his level reached zero, signifying some kind of forced non-military conclusion to the conflict. The notion that the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population must be wooed, or at any point not blown out of a cannon, is conventional wisdom now and the Political Support Level was my way to model it.

As I worked on the design, I also started thinking about the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan. It seemed to me that the main dynamic of the conflict was not that of fighting for the allegiance of the civilian population, with one side representing the recognized and legitimated administration of the country as a whole and the other side a guerrilla movement with an ideological, or at any rate basically political grudge. I felt that after thirty years of constant internal violence abetted by frequent foreign interventions, with the addition of great social dislocation and rampant crime, the civilian population could no longer relate to its government in the same way as it did in my game models of conflicts in South America or the Mediterranean. Not only that, traditionally the Afghan people have never accepted a central government emanating from Kabul, still less a Jeffersonian-model democratic one such as the United States has tried to cultivate. On the other hand, no more than a small fraction of Afghans are willing to return to the days when the Taliban held power in the country. Finally, my aim was to present only part of the larger conflict for Afghanistan, where the other games had been models of national-level struggles.

I therefore thought it appropriate to drop the idea of the Political Support Level, replacing the main unit of “game currency” with the Support Point (SP). To the players, who now play the role of regional commanders and not national-level decision makers, SP are an abstraction of the amount of support the higher authorities to which the players are responsible are prepared to provide, representing both material and intangible resources. Players use SP to earn Victory Points, which are granted in accordance with objectives set them by the same higher authorities that provide them with those SP. Players will frequently find themselves in the position of having, if they wish to continue to get high levels of support, to follow courses of action that are not the most effective in opposing the enemy but are more valued by their superiors. Therefore, the Objective Cards contain some seemingly perverse incentives, where engaging the enemy in kinetic operations may actually take second place (especially for the Government player).

The game can end in several ways: at a fixed point in time, or if one player has demonstrated a significant and sustained lead in Victory Points, or when either player’s SP level reaches zero. In the last case it is assumed that some crisis or decision point has been reached, play stops and players compare their respective totals of Victory Points (VP) to determine a winner. In truth, the war (and game) would go on, in the latter case with a different commander replacing the one who had exhausted the patience and resources of his superiors. It might be interesting, if players had time, not to end the game when an SP level zeroes out but instead switch roles, to see how they like it on the other side! (In this case, “reset” the zeroed-out player with an SP total rolled from the Random Game Setup Chart (14.2) but do not change his units, deployments or Objective Card.)

It may also seem very cynical to allow Government forces to conduct Expropriation missions. Documentation and examples of ANA and ANP units selling equipment, taking kickbacks and bribes, and shaking down the local populace are one quick Google search away. And what about the opium harvest? It’s no secret that both sides profit enormously from it, as do the peasants who plant and harvest the poppies, and so have at least as great an incentive to let it continue as the criminal gangs do. Consider the SP gained from this procedure as not only personal enrichment by the personnel involved, but also the tacit encouragement by higher echelons to let it continue (as they profit from it too). Yet this comes at a price, reflected in the loss of Morale by players.

You’ll find more on Brian’s design in his April article at GrogHeads.

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image4David Romano–who contributed a five part series on teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations to PAXsims last year—has been at it again. According the the Department of Political Science blog at Missouri State University, he adapted a game of RISK to examine the conflict in Syria and Iraq with students last term:

This year’s Foreign Policies of Middle Eastern States simulation, David Romano and his students focused on the Islamic State and the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Students took on the roles of the Assad regime, the Baghdad government, Iran, Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Islamic State and other actors. Using a giant “Middle East RISK board” and pieces, those who failed to secure their objectives via negotiation could try “diplomacy by other means.” To help them, “Special Action Cards” were also available — which allowed students to do things such as accusing their enemies of being Zionist spies, launching terrorist attacks, getting positive al Jazeera news coverage or hosting U.N. monitoring teams in order to secure a lull in the fighting.

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The History of Wargaming Project blog discusses two recent games on the resilience of future cities.

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Can video (or other) games teach you empathy? Cecilia D’Anastasio explores the issue at Motherboard.

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Entries to the Third International Competition on Educational Games will close on 16 June. The finals of the competition this year will be held in conjunction with the European Conference on Game-Based Learning (ECGBL), which is being held in Steinkjer, Norway on 8 -9 October. You’ll find further details here.

FP PeaceGame 2015

The US Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy magazine will be conducting another one of its PeaceGame scenario discussions today in Washington DC.

The inaugural series of PeaceGame in 2013 and the spring event in 2014 was dedicated to the conflict in Syria.

The current PeaceGame series is tackling one of the timeliest and most challenging of issues confronted by the U.S. government and stakeholders worldwide: the global rise of radical groups and violent extremism. Building on a successful first session in December exploring the political and economic roots of extremism and violence, our June event will focus on the human element: why do today’s extremist movements attract recruits worldwide, and how can the international community more effectively both counter this appeal and manage the reintegration of radicalized individuals.

The game/discussion will explore two main scenarios:

  • Scenario I: What if they gave a war and nobody came? Commanding the virtual high ground and other strategies for preventing and defeating information age insurgencies
  • Scenario II: Combatting Contagion: What’s next for the defeated or homeward bound extremist?

You can follow online via Twitter (#PeaceGame).

A PAXsims discussion of the very first PeaceGame can be found here.

Discussing political simulations and gaming at the University of Exeter

Today I spent an enjoyable afternoon discussing simulations and serious games in the classroom at the University of Exeter, in a workshop organized by Prof. Mick Dumper of the Department of Politics. Slide01 In my own talk I first situated the value from using simulations. Here my bottom line was that while simulations are not always more effective than more conventional teaching techniques, they offer an opportunity for “intellectual cross-training,” can be highly engaging, and are particularly good for exploring policy processes, coordination challenges, mixed and adversarial agendas, and decision-making with imperfect information. Slide02Slide03 I then discussed examples of several different approaches to using games and simulations:

  • quick and simple in class games/simulations
  • assigning commercial games os reading or review assignments
  • roleplay and negotiation simulations
  • “game shows” for large classes
  • matrix games
  • custom-designed boardgames
  • student-designed games
  • complex and hybrid games

I went on to offer some thoughts on “best practices” for simulation/game use in an educational setting: Slide23 Slide24 Slide25 Slide26Finally I said a few words about the use of simulations for research and policy analysis. You can find the full presentation (pdf) here. Next, myself and several Exeter faculty members (Duncan Russell, Amy McKay, Sandra Kroger, and Mick Dumper, who also use simulations to explore topics ranging from global climate change negotiations to the EU, lobbying the US Congress, and the Arab-Israeli conflict) held a broader discussion with the audience on the topic.

Finally, a group of us played a game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. I’m happy to report that, after initial setbacks—including transportation bottlenecks, a major aftershock, flooding due to heavy rains, and a severe outbreak of cholera—everyone pulled together well and won the game.

World Factory: interactive theatre/gaming as social commentary

World Factory New Wolsey Theatre... Ipswich Showing from Thu 23 — Thu 30 Apr Made in China.  Sold in Britain. Worn by you.  From the factory floor to the catwalk, from Shanghai to London, World Factory weaves together stories of people connected by the global textile industry.  Riffing on our awareness of mass production and vulture capitalism, Zoë Svendsen and Simon Daw invite you to play a provocative game. Which card will you draw? Will you be an ethical factory owner?  Or will profits always come first? In the rag trade, can anyone ever really win? Featuring stunning video and a powerful score, World Factory is a thought-provoking investigation of fast fashion. photograph by David Sandison +44 7710 576 445 +44 208 979 6745

World Factory is an interactive play/audience participation game (currently playing at the Young Vic in London until June 6) in which theatre-goers are challenged to run a textile factory in China. As they do so, they are faced with a series of challenges about pay and working conditions.

Metis' World Factory

The Guardian has an excellent review by their economics editor, Paul Mason:

The choices were stark: sack a third of our workforce or cut their wages by a third. After a short board meeting we cut their wages, assured they would survive and that, with a bit of cajoling, they would return to our sweatshop in Shenzhen after their two-week break.

But that was only the start. In Zoe Svendsen’s play World Factory at the Young Vic, the audience becomes the cast. Sixteen teams sit around factory desks playing out a carefully constructed game that requires you to run a clothing factory in China. How to deal with a troublemaker? How to dupe the buyers from ethical retail brands? What to do about the ever-present problem of clients that do not pay? Because the choices are binary they are rarely palatable. But what shocked me – and has surprised the theatre – is the capacity of perfectly decent, liberal hipsters on London’s south bank to become ruthless capitalists when seated at the boardroom table.

The classic problem presented by the game is one all managers face: short-term issues, usually involving cashflow, versus the long-term challenge of nurturing your workforce and your client base. Despite the fact that a public-address system was blaring out, in English and Chinese, that “your workforce is your vital asset” our assembled young professionals repeatedly had to be cajoled not to treat them like dirt.

And because the theatre captures data on every choice by every team, for every performance, I know we were not alone. The aggregated flowchart reveals that every audience, on every night, veers towards money and away from ethics.

Svendsen says: “Most people who were given the choice to raise wages – having cut them – did not. There is a route in the decision-tree that will only get played if people pursue a particularly ethical response, but very few people end up there. What we’ve realised is that it is not just the profit motive but also prudence, the need to survive at all costs, that pushes people in the game to go down more capitalist routes.”

In short, many people have no idea what running a business actually means in the 21st century. Yes, suppliers – from East Anglia to Shanghai – will try to break your ethical codes; but most of those giant firms’ commitment to good practice, and environmental sustainability, is real. And yes, the money is all important. But real businesses will take losses, go into debt and pay workers to stay idle in order to maintain the long-term relationships vital in a globalised economy.

Why do so many decent people, when asked to pretend they’re CEOs, become tyrants from central casting? Part of the answer is: capitalism subjects us to economic rationality. It forces us to see ourselves as cashflow generators, profit centres or interest-bearing assets. But that idea is always in conflict with something else: the non-economic priorities of human beings, and the need to sustain the environment. Though World Factory, as a play, is designed to show us the parallels between 19th-century Manchester and 21st-century China, it subtly illustrates what has changed….

Also in The Guardian, their theatre critic describes it as:

Beautifully facilitated by a cast of four, who act like croupiers, dealing each table a new card with a developing scenario and a binary choice, the show is like a speedily played boardgame. Yes, there’s a lack of nuance in the choices offered, and the breakneck speed at which the scenario unfolds doesn’t really allow for reasoned discussion. It sometimes all feels a little earnest and lacks a sense of drama. But it’s sociable, exhaustingly good fun and it would work particularly well with young people, as it clearly connects actions to consequences, and tots up the real cost of cheap clothes in the high street – both to people and the planet.

And in The Independent:

This engaging project from Company of Angels and political theatre group METIS presents uneasy facts about the global textile industry in the form of an interactive monopoly-style game.

In a breeze block-built room, the audience is divided into teams and tasked with running an imaginary factory in China for one year. Equipped only with a file of Chinese workers’ profiles, fake money and playing cards with a choice of two options per card, the teams are faced with dilemmas like whether they should pay below the living wage or cut their staff to save money.

Four digital projections on each wall show real factory footage and interviews with  textile factory workers while the ‘game’ takes place. Four actors play several roles, representing different sides of the textile debate, interacting with the teams and acting as factory managers and offering a potted history of how we became a global consumerist society, with speeches from Reagan, Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping on wealth creation and free trade, but there’s enough fun interaction to stop this from feeling like a lecture.

As each answer the teams give leads to another question, the consequences of their decisions is revealed. The cumulative effect of these decisions (265 made in total, we’re told) leads the audience to see how difficult it is to make clothes in a way that benefits consumers, workers and the planet.

The Financial Times too has positive things to say too.

John Nash, 1928-2015

1e2a622f90John Nash—one of the great intellectual figures in the development modern game theory—died today in a car crash in New Jersey. According to the New York Times:

John F. Nash Jr., a mathematician who shared a Nobel Prize in 1994 for work that greatly extended the reach and power of modern economic theory and whose decades-long descent into severe mental illness and eventual recovery were the subject of a book and a 2001 film, both titled “A Beautiful Mind,” was killed, along with his wife, in a car crash on Saturday in New Jersey. He was 86.

Dr. Nash was widely regarded as one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, known for the originality of his thinking and for his fearlessness in wrestling down problems so difficult few others dared tackle them. A one-sentence letter written in support of his application to Princeton’s doctoral program in math said simply, “This man is a genius.”

“John’s remarkable achievements inspired generations of mathematicians, economists and scientists,’’ the president of Princeton, Christopher L. Eisgruber, said, “and the story of his life with Alicia moved millions of readers and moviegoers who marveled at their courage in the face of daunting challenges.”

Russell Crowe, who portrayed Dr. Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” tweeted that he was “stunned,” by his death. “An amazing partnership,” he wrote. “Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”

Dr. Nash’s theory of noncooperative games, published in 1950 and known as Nash equilibrium, provided a conceptually simple but powerful mathematical tool for analyzing a wide range of competitive situations, from corporate rivalries to legislative decision making. Dr. Nash’s approach is now pervasive in economics and throughout the social sciences and is applied routinely in other fields, like evolutionary biology.

Harold W. Kuhn, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Princeton and a longtime friend and colleague of Dr. Nash’s who died in 2014, said, “I think honestly that there have been really not that many great ideas in the 20th century in economics and maybe, among the top 10, his equilibrium would be among them.” An economist, Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago, went further, comparing the impact of Nash equilibrium on economics “to that of the discovery of the DNA double helix in the biological sciences.”

In game theory Nash was particularly known for the Nash equilibrium, a solution in non-cooperative games in which neither player can improve their pay-off by unilaterally changing strategies. In prisoner’s dilemma, for example, an outcome wherein both parties choose to defect forms a stable Nash equilibrium because both are better off by choosing that strategy regardless of what the other party chooses. In this case, however, when parties choose to defect they also fail to obtain the maximum possible payoff (cooperate/cooperate).

video source: Khan Academy

A heavily fictionalized version of John Nash’s life (and his struggles with schizophrenia) were featured in the movie A Beautiful Mind.

PAXsims at ISCRAM 2015

ISCRAM 2015 logo

I have just arrived here in picturesque Kristiansand Norway, to attend the annual Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM). At the moment the weather is very. ahem, ‘Norwegian Seaside’ (read 50 degrees F, with cool rain blowing in off the ocean, and dense fog), but I’m excited to here. As Rex noted earlier, the association has added a new Serious Gaming track to the conference this year, and I will be delivering a paper on a training simulation ICONS developed in conjunction with some crisis communication experts and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) for the US Department of Homeland Security. I am also very much looking forward to many of the panels in the Analytical Modeling and Simulation track.

I plan to post at least once this week with updates and worthy information for the community of interest. Check out the Conference Proceedings and comment on this post or drop me an email if there’s a paper you would really like live reporting on, or an author I should approach for more information.

From ‘The Norwegian Riviera’

On choosing wargame participants


The  Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology (gated) features a forthcoming article by Nathaniel D Bastian, Louis Boguchwal, Zachary Langhans, and Daniel Evans that proposes “A multi-criteria, network analytic approach to war game participant selection.”

A critical component of the military war game planning process is selecting who should participate, as these participants heavily influence war game outcomes. These outcomes directly impact both strategic and operational decision-making and defense planning, shaping both future defense policy and budget. In this paper, we propose a novel team selection algorithm and decision-support tool combining methods from multiple criteria decision analysis and network analytics to select and visualize a group of war game participants. This method accounts for the diverse requirements of the decision-maker. The results are not only applicable to war games, but also to any team selection domain, such as employee hiring and college admissions.

More specifically:

[W]e develop and implement a multi-criteria network analytic decision-support model for war game participant selection and visualization. The potential participants and ‘‘ideal participants’’ will be included in the network, but instead of examining social relationships between participants, we consider a person’s ties to their attributes. An attribute is a characteristic of an individual that can include areas of professional expertise, academic background, military experience, and languages spoken. In our network model, each person is connected to his or her own attributes, which helps define them for the purposes of team selection. This creates a bipartite network (two- mode matrix), which has two types of nodes: people and attributes. In addition, the ‘‘ideal participants’’ are constructed using a set of attributes based on the needs of the war game. With a complete set of potential participants and ‘‘ideal participants,’’ we create a network visualization that displays both the people and their attributes.

idealpersonfig1My concern with such an approach is that it views ideal wargame participants almost entirely through their nominal expertise in knowledge domains, and with little reference to other key factors that might shape their value and behaviour in a game context (rank/influence, social and professional network, style/personality, and even competence within their identified areas of expertise). In other words, not all experts in math, history, academia, and the military will be of equal value: you may also want individuals who are in a position to carry the lessons of the game to broader audiences, who are likely to be bold (or cautious) in their play, who are in a position to challenge established wisdom, or who collaborate well. Qualitative research in small game settings certainly highlights that such social engineering of participants can have substantial effects on game outcomes, and there is every reason to believe this can be true in much larger games too.

That being said, there seems to be inadequate attention in the field to how participants ought to be selected for a game. The Naval War College’s otherwise excellent War Gamers Handbook, for example, simply says: “Based on the game’s purpose and objectives, special expertise is often required to perform player roles. Game design provides the initial concept for the numbers, types, and years of experience for each player role, but this initial idea is confirmed or modified during the development phase. Some player roles may be added or reduced based on testing results.” (p.25). Peter Perla’s seminal The Art of Wargaming discusses player behaviour and engagement, but says little about optimal player selection. Stephen Downes-Martin has examined the impact that senior players can have on wargame directors and design, but who those players are is treated as largely exogenous to the process.

All in all, it seems to be a question to which more attention could be usefully devoted.

Simulations miscellany, 21 May 2015


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

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Peter Perla’s recent article on “Work – ing” Wargaming has sparked much discussion among wargaming professionals, most notably at Phil Sabin’s Simulating War online discussion group. That in turn has spurred Paul Vebber to offer his own extensive thoughts on the subject, in a blog post at Wargaming Connection: “Wargaming – Does “better” mean more Art, or more Science?

Science is indeed a part of wargaming, but we must resist calls to scientism for our tool to prove its worth to those ready to embrace it. There is also art. Powerful art. Art that can greatly complicate efforts to use a “systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”, but is nonetheless of critical importance to “goodness”. In the various discussions of Dr. Perla’s paper, many have described how to make games “good”. There are as many definitions of “good” as people weighing in. There is good design process. There are innovative and elegant game designs. Some are historically evocative, others effective in achieving specific purposes. I offer another – value. How does a game produce value? One measure is how it changes the way we think about things. I difficult thing to measure because it is a thing we experience, but to give in the idea that if we can’t measure something, it must not be important, or useful, or valuable, is to give in the scientism.

It is must-read stuff for anyone involved in the field.

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Have you registered yet for the 2015 Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference, to be held at National Defense University in Washington DC on on 27-30 July 2015? PAXsims will be there!

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Red Team Journal will be offering a two-hour online introductory course on, well, red teaming:

We are pleased to announce that our first two-hour online mini-course in the Becoming Odysseus series is now open for registration. In the course, titled “Framing the Red Team Engagement,” we introduce our high-level red teaming process model and address the challenge of incorporating your stakeholders’ problems, goals, and metrics in your design—all with the aim of helping you maintain a systems view while promoting analytical transparency. We add frames of reference, stakeholder modeling, and objectives trees to your red teaming toolkit. The course is designed for both beginning and experienced red teamers from all domains. To register, go to our WebEx Training Center page and find the course listed on 4 June. Registration terms and conditions are listed here and again at registration. The cost per individual is $149.

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Students at the University of Portsmouth recently completed a three-day disaster relief and crisis communication simulation, wherein “participants had to respond to a scenario where there had been an earthquake in a region that has a history of political conflict and deteriorating infrastructure, with existing humanitarian concerns.” You’ll find further details here.

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In a recent article in Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy 21, 2 (April 2015), Richard E. Ericson and Lester A. Zeageroffer an analysis of strategic interaction in the Ukraine crisis through a game theoretic lens:

This paper presents an analysis of the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 through the lens of the Theory of Moves as formalized by [Willson, S.J., (1998), Long-term Behavior in the Theory of Moves, Theory and Decision, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 201–240]. It derives the equilibrium (ultimate outcome) states under various assumptions about Western and Russian preferences over outcomes. The “paths” of their generation, i.e., the sequences of strategic choices made by each side, are also explored, casting light on the structure of incentives guiding behavior in the conflict, and perhaps predicting what the actual outcome will be when the world moves beyond this crisis. Incomplete information on preferences prevents derivation of a unique prediction of the outcome of the crisis, but the analysis enables us to substantially narrow the range of possibilities.

You’ll find further discussion of their findings in an article at Bloomberg View.

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At the History of Wargaming Project blog, John Curry considers future directions for the project. Feel free to contribute to the conversation there.

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Interested in MegaGames? You may find this discussion on Reddit of interest. If you don’t know what they are, have a look at this article in The Independent.

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At the BBC News magazine, Dominic Lawson (President of the English Chess Federation) asks: “Has chess got anything to do with war?

So it seems fitting that one of my guests on the third series of Across the Board – in which I have interviewed eminent chess enthusiasts and the odd world champion while playing a game against them – is the military historian Antony Beevor.

Beevor’s books on the World War Two battles of Stalingrad and Berlin have sold in their millions across the globe, but his first career was as a British army cavalry regiment officer. And since he is also a passionately keen chess player, I was intrigued to know if he thought that great generals were like chess grandmasters – brilliant strategists of iron logic.

“Generals would love that parallel and they tend to see themselves in that way. But the truth is very far from that,” says Beevor. His point is that battle is indescribably chaotic, with luck and chance playing a large role in any outcome.

And he makes an additional point: “In modern warfare the idea of total victory is now almost irrelevant. You’ve won – and then you lose the victory in a short space of time. Look at Iraq.”

At Politico, Michael Peck discusses the hidden—and ometimes not so hidden—politics of video games:

Games and gamers inevitably reflect the values of their times. If today’s video games are laden with violence and frenetic with high-tech weapons, that is the nature of the society that created them.

But do games change their societies? Rivers of ink have been spilled over whether violence in video games leads to the real thing. Whether the link is true or not, a genre that started with harmlessly batting around a virtual ping-pong ball in the 1970s game Pong, now requires games to carry age ratings to shield children from virtual gore. Some politicians have even called for warning labels that would treat video games like tobacco and alcohol.

Games can be  criticized for being too violent, or a brain-dead waste of time. But they are not usually criticized for being political. Games are entertainment, not politics, right?

Bin Laden’s bookshelf: the gaming connection revealed!

Today the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report on some of the reading material Osama bin Laden had on his (digital) bookshelves in Abottabad when he was killed by US special forces.


One of those items will be of particular interest to gamers: a saved webpage from the geek culture business website noting that some conspiracy theorists had claimed that the “Steve Jackson Games’ Illuminati New World Order card game foretold the attacks on the World Trade Center.”



And there you have it. Doubtless there will be further releases from the US intelligence community revealing that al-Qa’ida was also interested in jihadi Munchkins and giant cybernetic tanks.

Innovation, Art, and Professional Standards in Gaming

Late last week, Peter Perla released a pre-publication copy of his most recent paper responding to the recent high level Pentagon interest in gaming as a means of innovation. Perla lays out his vision for how we can take advantage of this moment without allowing gaming at its laziest and least productive to take over. For Perla, good gaming for innovation (what I’ve called “discovery gaming” in other pieces) depends on competition between players. As a result, innovated design is far less important than design that enables strong communication and competition to result in creativity.

This isn’t the first time that the argument has been made to treat gaming more like an art than a science (The Art of Wargaming is called that just to riff on Sun Tzu after all). Art vs. science is also a standing debate between gamers that erupts at least once a year. In the past, I’ve viewed these debates primarily through the lens of what they tell us about how we teach and learn to game—too often science produces a cookie-cutter template while art produces unreliable mentoring.

However this time around, perhaps influenced by my current focus on game design, I’m noticing a different thread in the art vs. science debate: how do we evaluate if a game is good?

Perla argues “Real wargaming is about the conflict of human wills confronting each other in a dynamic decision-making and story-living environment” and “It is this process of competitive challenge and creativity that can produce insights and identify innovative solutions to both known and newly discovered problems.” He also calls on current practitioner to speak out to identify bad games to build up quality control that the field does not always have.

Taken together, these lines suggest that the quality of a game can be determined by the quality of the intellectual output, and that judgement can be rendered based on experience and expertise. But when applied to the environment in which games are created, these become very problematic very quickly.

Professional games are almost never built only to achieve the goals of the designer. Instead, the reality of national security gaming is that game designers work for game sponsors, who evaluate our work to determine both what lines of research to continue, and which of our findings to base policy decisions on.

Given that it is these sponsors who evaluate our work, how might they apply Peter’s standards? I worry that these standards place too much weight on the output of the game. I’ve seen too many “innovative” outcomes in games that are really just the result of ignoring the constraints that shape the real work. Unless the context of the game’s design, and how it replicates the real world problem set of interest is taken into full account, lots of time and energy will be expended on analyzing (or even executing) half-baked ideas.

I also worry that the reliance on the community of gamers to identify good and bad games sets up worrying dynamics. As Peter notes, not all folks currently making national security games are doing a good job. While Peter points to some strong communities that have sprung up, they are hardly monolithic in how they approach, practice, or assess games. What’s more, the field is so fractured that even the most inclusive of these groups can hardly claim to encompass all the good gamers out there. So then how are sponsor to choice which voices in the professional community to base their standard on?

All of this brings me back around to the need for standard for rigorous design. I absolutely agree that a rigid, “systematized” set of game designs cannot work. But adhering to good research design method and standards of evidence can offer us some basic standards that can be applied to all design types, and are accessible to our sponsors as well as practitioner. This may not in and of themselves be enough to guarantee a great game, but it will prevent many bad ones.


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