Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: February 2009

forthcoming “Reacting to the Past” conferences

reactingReacting to the Past” is a growing series of historical education simulations intended for college-level courses, produced by Barnard College. While none of these yet cover current or recent conflicts, several new simulations are in development, and the approach certainly could be adapted.

The project includes a regular series of regional conferences for both experienced and would-be users of the series. The latest conference announcements are below.



REGISTER NOW!  Regional conference featuring two games: “Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791” and “The Struggle for Civil Rights: Birmingham to Memphis, 1963-66” (developmental track). Conference details and registration forms are available at


REGISTER NOW!  Regional conference featuring two games: “Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman” and “Red Clay, 1835: Cherokee Removal” (developmental track) Conference details and registration rates are available at


SAVE THE DATE!  Updated information on the featured games and conference schedule is available at Registration rates and procedures will be announced in early March.

If you have any questions, please contact:

Dana M. Johnson
Program Coordinator, Reacting to the Past
Office of the Provost
Barnard College

Tel: 212.854.6627

peacebuilding ethics and the Kobayashi Maru

I was in New York yesterday for a panel discussion that accompanied the launch of PRIO’s new Forum for Peacebuilding Ethics. During the afternoon, one issue that came up time and time again was the need for practitioners to constantly weigh a complex set of priorities when programming in conflict-affected countries, many which involve thorny sets of moral trade-offs and difficult ethical choices. Indeed the problems that we grapple with are often what social planners sometimes refer to as wicked problems—issues where you never have all the required information, never understand all the causal relationships, where efforts to achieve changes in one area can lead to deterioration in other areas, and where to a large extent each problem is unique. There is no solution, in a mathematical/engineering sense—just a good faith effort to maximize gains and minimize harms.

One of the questions that came up was the training and human resource management implications of all this. Do we do an adequate job of preparing staff for these issues? How does one prepare for the ethical minefield that is peacebuilding? How does one prepare them for the almost-inevitable misjudgments?

Much of the time we train around best practices. There are good reasons for this—after all, we want agencies and their staffs to learn from what has (and has not) worked in the past. But the very language of “best practices” implies that there is an appropriate solution, rather than rather a number of potentially problematic approaches each involving costs and benefits.

Which, in turn, brings me to the Kobayashi Maru.

Science fiction fans will immediately recognize this as a reference to a Starfleet training simulation featured in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the Kobyashi Maru scenario, trainees were faced with impossible choices in an unwinnable situation: did they answer a distress call from a damaged frieghter, only to find their ship destroyed? Or did they ignore the call, only to see the freighter destroyed? It was meant to be a test of character, and an evaluation of how would-be officers confronted such dilemmas.

Now, readers who haven’t the slightest interest in Star Trek needn’t worry that this blog post will slip into excessive Trekkism. Rather, it occurs to me that there may be some value in designing peacebuilding/humanitarian assistance operations in which participants are confronted with situations that truly have no good answers. I mean this, moreover, not simply in that they face resource shortages and hence opportunity costs associated with actions (something that the Carana simulation does very well), but rather that no matter what they do, they are forced to confront gut-wrenching moral choices.

  • Does one—for example—pull humanitarian workers out of a dangerous area, knowing locals will die? Or does one keep them there, knowing that no matter what security precautions are taken there is a significant risk of staff being killed?
  • Do you authorize an airstrike against a high-value insurgent leader, knowing that there is a near-certainty of significant civilian casualties?
  • Do you pay “taxes” to a local militia to enable access to a needy population—knowing that the doing so strengthens their capacity to engage in such predatory activities?
  • Do peacekeepers fight in to protect civilians from massacre, even if they believe they lack the capability to win and might thereby be slaughtered as well? (Yes, I’m thinking here of Srebrenica, although it could equally be applied to some of the choices that MONUC has made in DR Congo.)

…and so forth. The point would be not so much which particular choice was made, but how it was made—providing an opportunity for participants to reflect on the the moral and practical calculus involved.

psychological characteristics and simulation role selection

Last year, Michael King—a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at McGill University—undertook a series of surveys of students involved in my Brynania civil war simulation. While the main purpose of his work was to look at the psychology of violence, he also found a number of interesting things related to the sorts of roles that participants select (most roles are self-selected in my simulation, rather than assigned), and the psychological profiles of those players. He’s kindly written up a short summary of some of his findings, which I’ve posted below.

* * *

Are people born violent, or are they bred? Is it the person, or the situation? These are the questions that guided our research during Professor Brynen’s Brynania peacebuilding simulation, which took place from March 31st to April 7th 2008.

Two weeks before the simulation started, 78 undergraduate students who were to take part in the simulation were asked to complete a questionnaire containing measures of their attitudes and beliefs concerning justice, fairness, and violence. This data was collected to explore (1) if these psychological measures could predict role selection in the simulation, and (2) if these psychological measures could predict which participants would engage in violence during the simulation.

In the questionnaires, participants completed six psychological scales. First was the Arnett inventory of sensation seeking. Second was the global belief in a just world scale, which measures the extent to which an individual believes that the world is a fair place where people get what they deserve. Third was the social dominance orientation scale, which is a measure of an individual’s preference for hierarchy within any given social system. Fourth was the system justification scale, which measures general beliefs about the legitimacy of the overarching social order. Fifth is the Velicer attitudes toward violence scale, which assesses the favorableness of individuals’ evaluations of violence. Sixth was the moral disengagement scale, which determines how easily people can relinquish moral self-control in order to perpetrate cruel behaviors.

Figure 1. Standardized scores of psychological scales for insurgents and non-insurgents.

Figure 1. Standardized scores of psychological scales for insurgents and non-insurgents.

Counter to my own expectations, none of the psychological measure predicted participants’ involvement in violence. In other words, participants who attacked during the simulation scored no differently on the psychological scales than participants who did not attack. These results suggest that pre-existing attitudes concerning justice and violence might have less of an impact on violent behavior than do situational factors. Of course, more research is needed to verify this claim.  

On the other hand, the psychological measures did predict participants’ choice of simulation role. Compared to other roles, people who chose to be insurgents scored significantly higher on the social dominance orientation scale, and on the attitudes towards violence scale (see the Figure 1 for standardized scores on all scales). Here, results suggest that people self-select for the roles they undertake. Although additional research must be conducted, knowing what type of person is drawn to what type of role might have pedagogical implications for simulations (and potential security implications in the real world!).

Our future research will involve adding the same psychological questionnaire after the simulation. With pre-simulation and post-simulation measures, we might be able to calculate changes in attitudes and beliefs produced by experiencing the simulation.

If anyone would like to discuss having psychological measures included in their simulation, I’d be glad to help!

Michael King

michael.king (at)

simulation news

For kids: A board game with a peaceful resolution

Students solve conflicts and learn how to cooperate as world leaders.

Christian Science Monitor, 10 February 2009 

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – Twenty-six fourth-graders walk into their classroom in Charlottesville, Va., to play the World Peace Game. When they enter, they know their own neighborhood, their school, and certain places in their hometown. By the time they walk out, they are on their way to becoming citizens of the world.

The game begins quietly, with the ring of a silver bell. Students take their seats around a 3-D structure – four layers of clear Plexiglas stacked four feet high to represent water, land, sky, and space. Each layer is divided into four parts and dotted with movable miniature ships, submarines, troops, planes, satellites, and energy reserves.

Teams of leaders from four nations – Verde, Tiger’s Eye, Ushia, and Magnopolis – take their seats around the board. Their teacher, John Hunter, hands out crisis reports on the state of the world. Over the next few weeks, a group of 25 to 30 players will handle problems that include war, a shaky economy, natural disasters, poverty, and climate change…


‘Middle East Peace begins in the Midwest’

UM-St. Louis professor creates the Mind of Peace Experiment

The Current, 2 February 2009

Sunday night, while most Americans were getting ready for the Superbowl, Palestinian and Israeli participants of the Mind of Peace Experiment, or M.O.P.E., gathered at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in Rm. 331 SSB for a signing ceremony.

The group attended to sign the final of three agreements on which they had previously concurred. Called the “Agreement on Borders and Jerusalem,” the document was signed at around 5:00 p.m….

USIP’s Open Simulation Platform

Today, PaxSims is pleased to feature a guest post from our colleague Skip Cole at the United States Institute of Peace.

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OSP screenshot—click to enlarge.

OSP screenshot—click to enlarge.

The USIP continues to develop software, the Open Simulation Platform, that will allow multi-player online interagency simulations to be created inexpensively. They consider this to be an important step in allowing the joint creation of interagency simulations, since getting multiple organizations to sign up for a shared expensive project (as many traditional simulation projects have been) can be problematic. When all the cost has been drained out of the technological aspects of creating these simulations, many more of them will be created and the best features of these will eventually combine to allow people to truly prepare for peacebuilding operations in a safe and virtual worlds.

While the USIP Open Simulation Platform (OSP) project is still in its infancy, it is growing nicely. They have taken steps to allow community participation in this software. Anyone wanting to ‘program productively for peace’ should send an email to scole(at)

An alpha version of the software is available on their demo site at . Login usernames and passwords are available upon request to scole(at) Additionally, online documentation for the project is available at

New releases of the software are scheduled for around the 7’s and 21sts of each month. The USIP OSP will be officially put through its paces at George Washington University on May 4th.

Skip Cole

What Do NDU Gamers Do All Day?

Ever wondered what the National Strategic Gaming Center at National Defense University does? Now you know:

Gaming the 21st Century: National Strategic Gaming Center

Joint Force Quarterly 52 (1st Quarter, 2009).

The discipline has long lacked an energized professional discourse about how games are best put together and what consumers can (and cannot) learn from them. This lack of substantive activity is costly to the wider policy and analytical community, whose members are left with few reference points for evaluating how seriously they should take the findings from games and how useful participation in them might be, and with little awareness of the interesting topics and exercises being run throughout the national security community. Despite some admirable attempts to stimulate debate and research, even Defense Department university-based wargaming groups have avoided publishing, lecturing, and generally competitively comparing ideas about why and how we do what we do.

A research initiative launched in 2008 seeks to fill this void and to invite colleagues in other gaming shops and the wider policy community to engage with us by participating in events, criticizing, contesting, elaborating, or extending research ideas. We want to challenge practitioners to reexamine how they write games and draw conclusions. We similarly wish to encourage and enable consumers of games to critically assess them. Our overarching focus is on gaming 21st-century challenges-both identifying issues and trends that could be well served by gaming and weighing whether and where exercise design needs to adapt in order to reflect these new issues.

You’ll also find an earlier and more detailed piece on Strategic Gaming for the National Security Community in Joint Force Quarterly 39 (4th Quarter 2005).

Hat-tip to NDU’s Margaret McCown for passing on what promises to be the first of a regular series of articles on their activities—and apologies to the late Richard Scarry for the blog post title.

roleplaying a refugee camp

Although this report is from last year, I thought it was worth posting:

NORTH ANDOVER – This weekend, Jamille Bigio is pretending that the ponds and woods of Harold Parker State Forest are the arid countryside on the Chad-Sudan border. When she hears gunshots fired by turkey hunters, she will pretend that it is the sound of clashing militias in the war-torn Darfur region.

The Harvard graduate student is planning to go abroad to do humanitarian work when she graduates this spring, even if the thought of gunfire in a foreign country gives her a twist “in her gut.”

“For me the struggle is to get an appreciation of what’s going on on the ground,” the 26-year-old said yesterday. “I don’t want to be a policy wonk.”

Many college students have protested the humanitarian crisis and the killings in Darfur. But about 50 medical residents and graduate students from Harvard and Tufts are getting a taste of what the conflict might look and feel like up close.

Campers in the tick-infested forest will eat only military rations and pretend that they work for organizations like Oxfam, CARE, and Doctors Without Borders. As part of training to become the next generation of leaders of such relief organizations, they must learn how to manage a refugee camp.

Peter Walker, a Tufts professor and one of the organizers, said the program is designed to help students see whether they are cut out for humanitarian work and the sacrifices it requires. As part of the exercise, the students are responsible for helping 5,000 refugees survive in makeshift camps.

It certainly looks like a very interesting case of experiential learning.

A hat tip to  Toby Bonthrone at Tufts for bring this to my attention. Toby is  teaching a course on counter-insurgency, and who will be taking his own class out to the woods for some sim-COIN in March (and no, I won’t tip off his students to what will be happening to them!)

TLC final thoughts

logo2clargeThe APSA Teaching and Learning Conference was an enjoyable experience, both for the substantive discussions and new ideas, and for the personal contacts and networking. It is surprising how little time academics spend thinking about teaching methods, even though teaching is such a fundamental part of our professional responsibilities.

In the course of our discussions in the simulation and role-playing track, several other issues arouse that I thought I would mention or otherwise flag for discussion here.


How does one assign simulation participants to particular roles? If realism is an aim, it makes sense to match participants to roles by virtue of background knowledge and temperment. On the other hand, if substantive learning and developing empathy for the viewpoints of others are goals, it might be better to force participants to represent actors with whom they might personally disagree, or about which they have a great deal to learn.

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this. On the face of it, the learning-through-doing-something-different approach has much to commend it. However, one can also wreck a simulation by assigning a weak participant to a key role who then fails to deliver, or by assigning participants with a weak understanding of their actor who then act in unrealistic ways. Moreover, it may well be that part of the learning process are the “sandbox” opportunities that Gary mentioned in a  previous post on the Carana sim: namely, using the simulation to try out different approaches and identify potential pitfalls and challenges. In this case, participants may want to be in something approximating their normal real-life positions. Finally, in a sim that extends outside the classroom one needs to recognize that not all participants can participate equally (given the competing demands of work, family, commuting, etc.), and assign them roles with this in mind.

In my own Brynania sim, there’s a certain amount of quasi-Darwinian selection involved in role assignments. Graduate students get first dibs. After that, it is largely first-come, first served, which means that enthusiastic students tend to snap up the most active roles quickly. Students will sometimes lobby for certain positions, presenting cogent reasons for securing a particular assignment (“I’m interning with UNHCR this summer, and I would love to be part of the UNHCR team in the sim…”). Much of the time I’ll agree.

The one area of the sim where I’ve especially had to match students to simulation roles concerns the military. I’ve found that many (political science and international development studies) students simply don’t have a strong grasp of key military terms, concepts, strategy, and tactics and consequently can find it a bit of a struggle being a key defence minister or rebel field commander. There is also another advantage of assigning soldiers/reservists/avid hobby wargamers and military historians to military roles: they can typically converse and report in milspeak, that language of acronyms, situation reports and op plans that is often so impenetrable to the aid community. Since reproducing organizational miscommunication is part of what I would like the sim to do, there’s real value in generating this through particular role assignments.


Thinking about your target audience. This really is a no-brainer that ought to come first when reflecting on simulation design and implementation: Who are your intended audience? What are they capable (and not capable) of in terms of knowledge, time, and engagement? What are your learning objectives? There is a danger, perhaps, of simulation-led simulation, in which the idea of running a sim overwhelms critical thought as to whether it truly is the best way of using scarce time and resources, or communicating particular ideas. While the lecture format is oft maligned as an old-fashioned teaching technique, I wouldn’t underestimate how much can be achieved (at much less investment of preparation time) by lecturing instead of simulating. In short, one needs to reflect on the opportunity costs of a simulation versus another approach.

As a mentioned earlier in a post on the Chatham House refugee sim, and as Gary certainly knows even better than I from his use of the Carana simulation at the World Bank, a related aspect of knowing your audience is knowing how you can, and cannot, interact with them. Students (and, presumably, junior military officers) are great sim participants: they typically do what you tell them to do, and if they don’t the instructor has all kinds of incentive and disincentive mechanisms that can be called upon to encourage appropriate participation. More senior participants may feel (and rightly so, I hasten to add) that they already know a very, very great deal, and that the simulation can’t teach them anything (which may, or may not, be true). They may even feel that “game-playing” is beneath them. One needs to strategize in advance about how to create real value-added for these sorts of participants in advance of the simulation—and to accept that their concerns are quite legitimate. Full disclosure: one participant left the Chatham House simulation because it felt like “summer camp.” However, I think the vast majority of other “campers” found the process very useful, and we were certainly extremely pleased with the findings and outputs.


Related to this, is how does one balance realism with opportunities to participate? Let’s face it, in the real world not everyone has the same amount to do, and some actors may spend a lot of time on the sidelines watching and waiting for opportunities that may never come. If you want a realistic simulation, you’ll have some participants overloaded, and others bored to tears. If you want a satisfying simulation, you want everyone to feel comfortably busy and engaged.

I suppose there are several ways of dealing with this. One can use media actors to ask questions and keep folks busy. One can insert demands for briefings and strategy papers to keep underutilized teams doing something. One can create miniscenarios that engage the otherwise less busy. Finally—and getting back to the original point about assigning participants—one can try to slot the type-A personalities in the type-A roles, and assign the more laid-back participants in the less demanding positions. 


Finally, some brief thoughts on a few terms that often ran through my head during the discussions this weekend: coolness, geeks, and looking stupid.

Measuring megafonzies of coolness with a coolometer...

Professor Hubert Farnesworth measures megafonzies of coolness with a coolometer...

How important is it that a simulation be cool (or fun, or enjoyable, or whatever term a participant is likely to use)? Obviously if it is cool but delivers little content, or even teaches the wrong things or motivates the wrong behaviour, coolness is a problem. However, as one TLC participant noted, its important not to underestimate the importance of coolness as both a  student motivator, and as a factor which will help them retain the ideas and lessons long after the simulation is over. (Oh, and for whoever mentioned it in the session, there is an empirical measure of “coolness”: the megafonzie.)

Second, many of us who run simulations are—lets face it—game geeks. Some refight Waterloo and WWII or slay orcs (or slay space marines) in their spare time, others even have full sets of epic armour on WoW (I certainly can’t claim the latter). This generates both advantages and disadvantages in our educational simming: while we may bring a great deal of game design/philosophy and role-playing experience to the process, we may have a little more trouble seeing the sim from a newbie perspective (apparently, there are some non-gamers out there too). A robust system for collecting post-sim feedback data from participants is perhaps even more important for us geeks than for others. Think of it as yet another form of cross-cultural learning.

Finally, there is the issue of fear of looking stupid. It can be, if we’re honest, a powerful motivator in getting students to devote appropriate time, energy, and preparation for a simulation (or, for that matter, a seminar presentation or any other “public” classroom performance). On the other hand, we certainly don’t want to publicly humiliate anyone. Other than recognizing the dilemma, I’m not sure I have definitive views on balancing the two. Thoughts?

(semi-) liveblogging from the TLC

This isn’t exactly liveblogging from the APSA Teaching and Learning conference—I’m not entirely sure how people synthesize their thoughts, type, and pay attention all at the same time—but I did think that I would offer a few semi-live, semi-random reflections arising from the ongoing discussions in the “simulations and role-play” track at the TLC. A few might even get expanded into fuller blog posts or discussions after the conference, and conference participants are certainly invited to add their own thoughts and comments below.


Simulations and losing control over course content. One participant has noted that, unlike a traditional lecture format, an instructor risks giving up control over course content to the sometimes unpredictable course of the simulation. What do you do if the simulation heads in the wrong direction, and the players then draw the wrong lessons from that?

I’ve seen this happen, at times, in my own Brynania simulation. If anything, some students plot and backstab even more than real-life political actors. Moreover, the highly personal nature of interaction in the sim, coupled with the absence of large bureaucracies, means that students can draw exaggerated lessons about the role of personal contact in diplomacy. This isn’t to say that such things aren’t important—diplomatic skills and idiosyncratic factors do make a difference, particularly at the level of key envoys, ministers, commanders, and coordinators—but it is somewhat less determinative of the broad sweep of foreign policies.

I tend to deal with this, or other gaps and misfits between my virtual sim world and the real one, by raising these issues explicitly in the end-of-simulation debrief, and explaining why things might be different in the real world than in Equatorial Cyberspace. Still, its an issue that I continue to grapple with.

UPDATE:  Lukas Neville raises an excellent point in the comments about an inherent problem of short-term bargaining games, namely that the lack of iteration/repetition tends to degrade the real-life importance of credibility and reputation. In other words, there is far more incentive to lie and cheat in a sim that lasts a day or week than there is in a real-life relationship that may last for years. There’s no shortage of work on bargaining that shows that reputation matters, so this is presumably a count time to point it out. Also, one could probably design in-game mechanisms and disincentives that discourage this sort of unrealistic behaviour, and to be frank I probably haven’t done enough of that in Brynania.


Informing students of learning objectives. How fully should you inform participants in advance about what you want them to get out of the simulation? Identifying learning objectives may facilitate learning by allowing students to match what they are simulating with broader issues and questions. On the other hand, there are times when you don’t want to pre-warn people about the dilemmas and issues that will arise, or the mistakes they are likely to make.

I’m a big fan of learning-through-messing-up, especially in a context where no actual people die from civil conflict and humanitarian crisis. One of the things that I do in the Brynania simulation is warn students of their likely shortcomings in advance—”your donor coordination meetings will be more time-consuming and less productive than you hope, and most of you will information-share after the fact than truly coordinate projects before they are implemented”—then watch them repeat those dysfunctions despite their efforts to avoid them. This often leads into a useful post-simulation discussion on why it happened: stove-piping, donor pathologies, bureaucratic politics, national and local rivalries, time-constraints, local politics, and so forth.

 I think it is all very context-dependent, depending on the group, the course, and the particular learning objectives and simulation concerned.


Assessing the impact of simulations. There are several papers at the TLC that seek to offer some assessment of the impact of simulations, typically by looking at the effects on student grades. While this is very valuable—and we certainly don’t want to see no, or negative, impact of simulation participation (!)—I would argue that it would probably be a mistake to use this as the sole proxy for simulation effectiveness.

This is because course exams typically test substantive knowledge (of theories, approaches, issues, actors, and relationships), and not more intangible qualities (negotiation and diplomatic skills, verbal and written communication, coalition-building, and generally a feel for the “art” of politics, peacemaking, and development programming). Soapbox warning: I think this is a major deficiency of academic political science in general, which is so focused on the existing corpus of theoretical literature that it provides relatively little sense of how politics operates on the ground. Others may disagree.


To grade, or not to grade? In academic settings, should students be evaluated on simulation participation, on simulation accomplishments, or on some form of post-simulation hot-wash/after-action/lessons-learned/self-reflection project?

The arguments in favour of evaluation include encouraging participation, rewarding hard work, and integrating learning objectives into the simulation. Administrators may also want to see some evidence that those noisy hours spent simulating in the classroom are producing measurable learning outputs. The disadvantages of simulation grading include fairness, and whether grading a simulation encourage the wrong types of competition and participation.

I don’t place a great deal of evaluation weight on the Brynania sim. Only 10% of the course grade is assigned for participation, and another 10-15% for a short post-simulation written debrief. The participation weight is low because it is difficult for me to monitor everything that 100+ students are doing over the week, and because I can’t guarantee that everyone has an equal chance to participate. If there is no peacekeeping operation in a given year, for example, UN DPKO has much less to do than a year when they are mandated to organize one. Similarly, the World Bank team may have little to do beyond generating “watching briefs” if a lasting ceasefire isn’t achieved. I typically have no problem motivating simulation participation, so there is no need to use grade rewards to do this. At times, in course evaluations, however, students  have suggested a larger weight be assigned.

With regard to the debrief, I would assign it greater length and weight in POLI 450 if it weren’t the fact that the simulation is at the end of term, my class has just spent a week enthusiastically simulating civil war, and that as a result half of them are likely behind on assignments for other classes. There are limits to my cruelty…

Carana in Tunis 2

Three new universes were spun off of Carana this week in Tunis for our regional training course.  Once the participants were assigned and prepared for their roles, they got into the simulation quite quickly.   I was really happily surprised by how well the simulation was received – we had essentially no resistance to using the simulation as a training tool and final responses were quite positive.

Indeed, all three simulations went very smoothly, a little too smoothly, observers suggested that more pressing time constraints, urgent matters that require resolution from principal actors (did someone say mini-games/plot twists?) and some deadlines for resolving crises would contribute to more of a post-conflict environment.  I agree, the performance has been pretty good, we’ll need to start ratcheting up the difficulty and the pressure on participants – I don’t need sound effects, explosions in the hallway and I don’t expect to be ordering bulk fake blood any time soon, but these suggestions are good ones to really start delivering the experience.

A nod to Rex and our conversations about his simulations as well for inspiring a new innovation in Carana.   We asked two experts that were observing the course to take the role of “Press” – preparing some difficult questions for the teams to push them on their action plans and presentations and otherwise being meddlesome.  By the end of the simulation they were in the storyline – the journalists were kidnapped in one Carana and one of the journalists was arrested in the other.  More evidence of the power of the press in simulations.

Carana in Tunis 1

Should you worry when you are assigning a participant to a role and he loudly proclaims, “Yes!” – snapping up the binder and quickly flipping through the background docs?

Normally, you’d think that kind of enthusiasm would be good, the kind of participation you’d want to encourage in a course.  You do have to worry a bit, though, when the role is Minister of Defense in a country recovering from civil war.

Yesterday we assigned the roles and today was mostly preparatory.   Still, the press reports that threats of a “coups d’etat” were heard earlier from one of our three Caranas – a veiled threat something along the lines of “Well, I have the soldiers…” … updates to follow tomorrow.

A Sim at Davos

Simulations are all the rage.  Our course participants taking up the challenge of Carana this week felt very Davos when they were told that even CEOs are getting into the game with this article from the WSJ on an event last week:

CEOs play Refugees…


Gucci Group Chief Executive Robert Polet switched off his BlackBerry, wrapped his head in a bandage and became Mustafa, a 40-year-old refugee in desperate search of his six lost children. As a war raged outside his barbed-wire-encased refugee camp, Mustafa slept on the muddy floor of a canvas tent and drank water out of a tin bowl.

“Please, please, help me find my children,” he begged as an armed guard pinned him down to the ground, a rifle to his neck.

The simulation of a refugee camp — a one-hour exercise co-sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees — is one of the more earnest manifestations of the please-forgive-me spirit at Davos this year.

Rex, we’re going to need to start hiring casting agents to be able to compete with some of these sims.  I haven’t a clue where to look for costuming for simulated soldiers….

hat tip: Laura Bailey, Secretary Emeritus of Carana

A Force More Powerful

One example of a simulation development platform that attempts to model politics, social structures, economics, and physical environment is offered by the Modeling and Simulation Builder for Everyone by BreakAway. One application of this is “A Force More Powerful,” the player’s manual and resource guide for which can be found here.

A screenshot from "A Force More Powerful."A Force More Powerful – the Game of Nonviolent Strategy is the first and only interactive teaching tool in the field of nonviolent conflict. Developed by The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), media firm York Zimmerman Inc. and game designers at BreakAway Ltd., the game is built on nonviolent strategies and tactics used successfully in conflicts around the world.

Featuring ten scenarios inspired by history, A Force More Powerful simulates nonviolent struggles to win freedom and secure human rights against dictators, occupiers, colonizers, and corrupt regimes, as well as campaigns for political and human rights for minorities and women. The game models real-world experience, allowing players to devise strategies, apply tactics and see the results.

Another effort to simulate regime overthrow was the 2004 Mac game Republic: the Revolution, which I have played after picking it up this Christmas from a bargain bin. Republic: the Revolution has some interesting gameplay features (players recruit supporters, form cells, propagandize, intimidate, bribe, rally, and generally attempt to overthrow a post-Soviet dictator), but I found both the game and simulation value rather limited, in part because of rather poor AI directing the government and other opposition factions. The awkward interface and apparent stability problems didn’t help either.


NATO Wants Sim Afghanistan to Test War Plans

Noah Shachtman, Wired: Danger Room, 2 February 2009

NATO commanders in Afghanistan want a virtual version of the country, to test out battle plans and forecast future unrest.

Afghanistan’s often-explosive mix of tribal, ethnic and religious power politics has been catching outsiders off-guard for the last couple-thousand years. This time around, America and her western allies are trying two controversial, competing approaches, to prepare for the surprises. One embeds in combat units social scientists, trained in making foreign cultures more understandable. The other dumps everything that’s known about the country into a software model — and then watches what develops in this Sim Afghanistan.

Last last week, NATO began its search for for the newest “simulation capability.” This one should “be able to model the Afghanistan engagement space in the Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information (PMESII)

 domains,” a call for white papers notes. With all that information in hand, war planners can then “assess and validate how specific future events or actions could impact on the current situation through the creation and simulation of a hypothetical/simulated environment.”

According to the RFI that NATO has issued, the simulation is intended to provide ISAF with “a simulation capability to assess the potential projected outcomes of possible courses of action, resulting from the planning process”:

This will allow ISAF operational planners to assess and validate how specific future events or actions could impact on the current situation through the creation and simulation of a hypothetical/simulated enironment. Because of the complexity of the Afghan environment and the interaction with people and organizations, the capability shall include aspects of Political, Military, Social, Infrastructure, and Education (PMESII) domains as well as other aspects of the environment including terrorism and insurgency.


"Minesweeper Afghanistan"—I assume they're looking for something a little more sophisticated than this...

As with Noah Shachtman at Wired and several military experts quoted in his piece, I’m rather doubtful of the ability to computer-model the “non-kinetic” parts of COIN operations with any meaningful degree of accuracy. This could be problematic, given that the most difficult part of COIN and stabilization operations are precisely how military operations affect local attitudes, local structures of power, the impact of aid, the nature of local tribal structures and coalition-building, and so forth. If one simplifies this (or fails to allow for such unintended consequences as collateral damage to civilians), it seems to me that one risks operations planning built on very dubious foundations.

hat-tip: Mike Innes at Complex Terrain Lab

using “unrealistic” simulations as a learning tool

tropico_coverartA few years back, for my introductory political development course, I set as a possible book review assignment the computer game Tropico. In the simulation, a player assumed the role of the ruler (democratic or otherwise) of a stereotypical “banana republic,” and attempted to survive and prosper. To do so, they had to make decisions about government taxation and spending, build political coalitions, compete (or commit fraud) in periodic elections, forge external alliances, avoid coups and revolution, and even imprison or liquidate opponents. Depending on the persona the player had established, success might be measured in terms of development, citizen satisfaction, or the amount of money diverted into a Swiss bank account. Many of the choices were fun (Should the old fort be used as a tourist magnet, or a prison for political dissidents? Should I pay the palace guards more to prevent a coup?), and if you failed badly you might have insurgents attacking from the jungle or see hundreds of little tiny angry citizens rioting outside the presidential palace. It ran well on both Macs and PCs, and I was able to pick up loads of cheap copies for the library from eBay.

Tropico was far from a realistic simulation. Most notably, it modeled (as many of the SimCity-type simulations do) a very statist economy. El Presidente made all the major economic choices: what kinds of crops to plant, what kind of housing to build for workers, what factories and other investments should be made (and where), and so forth. In short, it looked more like Cuba than anywhere else. 

The “unrealism” of Tropico as a simulation, however, was the very point of the assignment: students were asked to critique the game, to identify its analytical and ideological assumptions about politics and development, and generally utilize their own knowledge of these issues in reviewing the software. 

All-in-all, the whole assignment worked rather well, with some top-notch reviews among the 150 or so students who chose this option. I haven’t repeated the exercise in subsequent years, but certainly might do so if I ever run across another game/simulation that would serve as well.

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