Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: May 2009

simulation, and simulation

halPaxSims is devoted, of course, to simulations involving human participants. However, as Drew Conway from Zero Intelligence Agents reminds us in a recent comment here, researchers also make use of agent-based modeling to try to better understand conflict processes such as insurgency and counterinsurgency. In these sorts of simulations, there are no human “players,” only a set of computational-models/actors that interact, and react to the changes that these interactions create. As computational power has grown (and become much cheaper and more accessible), moreover, such modeling can become increasingly sophisticated.

Such models can be very useful in understanding how, for example, changes in hypothesized relationships between variables at the agent level might change aggregate outcomes. I must admit, however, to a certain degree of cynicism about how robust their findings are, given the inherent difficulties of quantifying (and specifying quantitative relationships between) elements of human behavior. I would be especially concerned, in a training and educational setting, about the extent to which such simulations hide potentially dubious assumptions about that behavior “under the hood” so to speak, beyond the view of more casual observers.

The same potentially applies to “artificial intelligence” in human-computer simulations. While having some simulation responses driven by AI (rather than human) players has many advantages, it is important that participants understand the limits of AI behaviour, and avoid the temptation to “game the game” and exploit AI vulnerabilities (something that anyone who regularly plays first-person-shooter computer games will readily understand).

Nonetheless, I strongly recommend Drew’s website for those interest in quantitative approaches to conflict issues (and not simply ABM simulation of them). There’s much of interest there.

simulated counterinsurgency at Tufts

Hat-tip to Toby Bonethrone for pointing out the following article from the Tuft’s University website. It discusses a counter-insurgency field simulation that he recently conducted as part of a seminar on the subject.

Toby has promised PaxSims a full after-action report later, but in the meantime there’s much more (including an audio slideshow) at the link.

Understanding Conflict

Tufts students simulate a counterinsurgency scenario in an exercise designed to explore the complex civil-military dynamic.

Counterinsurgency-Humanitarian Exercise

An improvised explosive device detonates in the village. While the insurgents do not directly claim responsibility, the attack is timed with their assault on border patrol guards in the refugee camp. The events could be part of a coordinated effort to persuade both the villagers and refugees to trust the insurgents with their safety. The big question now is, how will the counterinsurgent forces respond to the escalating crisis?

The above series of events is not ripped from the headlines of an international conflict. Rather, it is a scenario posed to a group of nearly four dozen Tufts students who conducted a simulated counterinsurgency-humanitarian exercise on March 8.

The exercise was part of the Experimental College course “Counterinsurgency Seminar,” taught by international relations majors Toby Bonthrone (A’09) and Chas Morrison (A’11). Forty-five organizers and volunteers headed to a paintball complex in Bridgewater, Mass., to act out scenarios designed to help them understand the complexity of civil-military relations in a conflict environment.


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