Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: July 2009

NDU on Gaming the 21st Century

JFQ54x700The latest issue of Joint Force Quarterly 54, 3 (3rd Quarter 2009) has a short but interesting piece on “Gaming the 21st Century: What to Game?” by the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University:

As we brainstorm topics, we should be asking, “What’s going on here?” and write games that explore the answer to this question.

Indeed, we are overfocused on games that elicit policy recommendations and on crisis simulations. For better insight, however, we should pay more attention to the work of mainstream social science research, which has devoted more serious attention than the policy analytic community to how to do good qualitative research. A greater engagement with rigorous social science could be useful in identifying specific topics as well as new ways to examine old ones. Basic concepts as diverse as public goods theory, the two-level game, and social capital could tell us interesting things about contemporary problems such as the challenges of crafting international agreements to counter transnational terrorism, what domestic factors help democracy succeed in some places and not others, and the implications of variations in different institutional arrangements.

Among the topics suggested by the piece are transnational terrorism, international law and the internationalization of norms, and “stability, security, transition, and reconstruction (SSTR) issues.”

…an interesting topic because among Iraq, Afghanistan, and teetering governments elsewhere in the world, how to (re)build or shore up governments and civic institutions and the impact of their success on U.S. national security interests is set to be one of the top issues for the foreseeable future. Most nationbuilding now occurs at what game theorists have called a two-level game—that is, there is both a domestic process through which agreements must be reached as well as an international level of negotiations. An interesting thing about SSTR issues is that the same actors are usually simultaneously playing both games. Whether supporters or obstacles to the process, they are negotiating (or challenging) international agreements and roles for a nascent state at the same time as they build domestic institutions, trying to advance their preferred vision at both levels simultaneously. External actors, whether partners or spoilers, frequently intervene in both domestic and international processes, providing security support to the government and procuring international funding for it, or providing assistance to an insurgency or the opposition.

Indeed, participants, especially local participants, are often playing three-level games—with the international community, with rival groups, and within their own often-fractious organizations or ministries.

By the way, while we’re always impressed NDU’s simulation skills, we’re a little less sure of the folks who post JFQ to the web. The first page of the article (linked to from the table of contents) is here. The second page—hidden from all but those webgeeks who like to guess at URLs—is here. Someone at CASL/NDU also owes us a short PaxSims post, in exchange for all that witty conversation over Chinese food. You know who you are!

simulation news

Over at the Partnership for a Secure America blog, Joel Meyer offers some thoughts on USIP’s SENSE simulation:

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in the SENSE simulation(Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise) at the U.S. Institute of Peace over the last three days. SENSE is a simulation exercise meant to train leaders in reconstruction in a post-conflict country, in this case the made-up country of Akrona. Originally created to help implement the Dayton Peace Accords, it has been updated since then and used to train Iraqi leaders, among other places. The values of experiential learning are immeasurable, and in the Congressional Fellowship Program here at PSA, we have the Fellows participate in a two-hour NSC Deputies Committee simulation exercise.

In Beirut, the Daily Star reports on the launch of Lebanon’s first model UN simulation:

The Lebanon International Model United Nations (LEBIMUN) Conference opened for the first time in the Middle East on Monday. Model United Nations (MUNs) are simulations of the UN system with the aim of educating the participants on UN structure, multilateralism, and foreign affairs. Many of the UN bodies are represented at MUNs, with the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, and the Economic and Social Council, being the most common.

We’ve also dug up a link for the organizers, the Lebanon International Model United Nations.

SwissInfo reports on ICRC’s simulation-based training methods:

How do you train someone to negotiate a military checkpoint, assist thousands of conflict victims, teach the rules of war to rebels and handle the media?

To find out more followed 18 new delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who were learning the ropes in Geneva before heading out to the field.

It’s Tuesday morning. After a week of theory at the Ecogia training centre just outside Geneva, four teams of new delegates were preparing to put into practice what they had learned during a day of intensive simulation exercises.

“Today’s their day of truth,” explained my guide, ICRC delegate Marçal Izard. “They are very scared of making a mistake, so we try not to add too much pressure.”

Posing as a local TV journalist, Izard’s job was to interview the young delegates as they rushed around the lush green countryside in their 4x4s visiting a camp of displaced people and a bombed hospital, and trying to talk their way through a military checkpoint.

The also have some pictures of ICRC’s Ecogia training centre, outside Geneva. Is that a white Toyota land cruiser that I see?


The value of simHumility

One of our blog visitors, Nate Wright, posted an interesting response to my recent review of Sherry Turkle’s Book, Simulation and its Discontents. I’ll quote it at length, since it really bears thinking about:

It seems to me that you’ve left out the most important problem with “social simulation”: the relationship between those who construct the simulation and those who are represented within it. You’ve pointed out some of the general problems of simulation: that the abstraction hides complexity, that it can produce a reliance on simulation-based expectations, that it reflects the assumptions of the creator. But this last problem — the assumptions of the creator – is much more serious in the case of “social simulation”, and it can not be mediated by debriefing or pointing out the failures of the simulation.

It’s the problem of the invisible subject, which is what the simulation is intended to make visible all along. It is precisely the problem that simulation never encounters which undermines it, because to do so would be to undermine its very raison d’être. But establishing knowledge always seeks a certain compliance as well, an ordering. Of course, I’m not suggesting we forgo knowledge. The now ubiquitous maxim that knowledge is power is not, in the end, a call to abandon knowledge. But it is a call to examine those assumptions which underpin our knowledge.

I realize that you’re a fan of simulation (I am at your blog, after all). I’m not suggesting that simulation is all bad. But I don’t think there’s any getting around the core component of mastery that any simulation entails. To run the simulation — whether “human-moderated” or not (computer programs are still human-designed) — necessarily requires the position of a master who can set the rules and determine the outcomes. And this is what frightens me.

If we take this sense of mastery and place it into the relationships between those constructing the simulation and those being represented in the simulation, I think we end up relying on the existence of some kind of complete, internally coherent system. Conflict situations, however, usually involve the collapse of this kind of common or public institutional consistency. Lacking that central component of our form of knowledge, will we go about trying to impose it upon the situation, seeking order where we only see disorder, stable coherent actors where there are only porous networks?

And given that simulation is primarily a practice of the wealthy — whether militaries or NGOs — shouldn’t we be more concerned about developing a sense of mastery over the relationships we develop with those we’re trying to help? I guess I’m asking whether simulation risks turning “peace-building” into an objective-driven system of pacification.

I think Nate is correctly pointing to two potential (and interrelated) dangers of simulation in the peacebuilding and development world. First, might not such a training mechanism engender a false sense of confidence, a belief that one understands the (post-conflict) system well enough to engage in effective social engineering? Second, might not that belief encourage outsiders—states, aid agencies, multilaterals, NGOs—from assuming a hegemonic position, a donor-knows-best attitude that overpowers the wishes, hopes, and local knowledge of the actual citizens and government of the country concerned?

I’m not sure that simulation-based training is ever such a large part of training and education for current or potential professionals in this field that it is ever a major contributing factor to this. However, it might exacerbate such tendencies to the extent that they are already built in to our theories, standard operating procedures, and conventional wisdoms. Universities have been justly accused of ivory towerism, while donors, the IFIs, the UN specialized agencies, and others have often been rightly criticized for a somewhat imperial attitude they sometimes bring to their work. The iconic image for this, of course, is that shiny fleet of new white Toyota land cruisers that always descends on a disaster- or conflicted-affected country when the international community decides to get engaged.


That having been said, I think there is a potentially very valuable role for simulation-based training to play not as an inculcator of false pride, confidence, and certainty, but rather in providing an appreciation for how damn complicated and messy all of this is. I know in my own classroom, I use simulations precisely to break down the sense (so easily acquired from readings and course texts) that we really deeply understand how to resolve conflicts and achieve sustainable development in fragile and conflicted-affected states. A simulation provides an opportunity to highlight the incomplete information, the difficult moral and technical choices, the many (sometimes hidden) agendas, and the fog-of-war (and peace). To borrow Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s famous comment on war, no development plan plan survives first contact with reality—which doesn’t obviate the need for good planning, but also requires a healthy skepticism about how much you can actually plan for. I would much prefer that students come away with a sense that the process is much more akin to white-water kayaking down an unknown river a dysfunctional canoe (that is, badly equipped and with colleagues sometimes rowing in different directions) than it is to, say, chess.

Or, to go back to the iconic image, an international aid system that is often rather more like this:


Thoughts from others, perhaps?

I/ITSEC 2009

IITSECBy far the greatest use of simulations (virtual, human-moderated, or otherwise) for training purposes occurs within the military, of course. The main inter-service, private sector, and academic get-together on such things is the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference.

The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) promotes cooperation among the Armed Services, Industry, Academia and various Government agencies in pursuit of improved training and education programs, identification of common training issues and development of multiservice programs. Initiated in 1966 as the Naval Training Device Center/Industry Conference, the conference has evolved and expanded through increased participation by the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Industry. In 1979 it became known as the Interservice/Industry Training Equipment Conference.

The 2008 conference involved approximately 18,450 total registrants, including some 4,000 conference delegates, 7,500 exhibit personnel, approximately 5,600 exhibit visitors. There were also 539 exhibiting companies in 423 exhibits. Approximately half of the registrants were from government. There were also also over 2,100 international registrants from 50 countries.

The 2009 conference will be held in Orlando from November 30 to December 3. Registration information is here.

Somali pirate simulator

Far be it for me to distract for Gary’s useful summary of the recent USIP simulation conference, but I just couldn’t resist pointing out Wired magazine’s online Somali pirate simulation, Cuthroat Capitalism: The Game.

You are a pirate commander staked with $50,000 from local tribal leaders and other investors. Your job is to guide your pirate crew through raids in and around the Gulf of Aden, attack and capture a ship, and successfully negotiate a ransom.

Of course, it certainly doesn’t claim to be a real simulation, much less an educational tool. However, it does highlight some of the trade-offs involved: Do you go for low-risk, low-value fishing boats, or high-risk, high-value commercial shipping? What negotiation tactics do use, and how do they affect not only the counter-offers of ship-owners, the morale of your pirates, the health of the crew, and the risk of a coalition rescue attempt?


After all, how often do you get to hijack fishing boats or oil tankers in your day job?…

more thoughts on Smart Tools

I recently had the pleasure of attending the “Smart Tools for Smart Power” event at USIP.  This was an all day event on virtual worlds and simulations used for peacebuilding.  Altogether I thought the event was really interesting and informative, touching on quite a few of the areas we try to touch on in our ongoing conversation here.  As promised in an earlier post, following are a few more reflections on the event.

Keynote: The event was opened by an invigorating speech/advertisement for the Obama administration by Beth Noveck, US Deputy Chief of Technology.  Early on, Beth invoked World of Warcraft a few times earning cred with those in attendance and demonstrating that Things in the White House had Changed.  More importantly, she brought up a few more salient points about virtual worlds and simulations that would resonate with the rest of the days conversation, making for a particularly relevant keynote speech (uncommon in DC).  In discussing virtual worlds, Beth mentioned the importance of the avatar as a learning tool – citing research that when you “see yourself reflected back, it changes behavior.”  This is definitely a topic worth exploring farther – along with other elements associated with virtual worlds and avatars raised below.  I am still a little wary of officials invoking the use of simulations for “national priorities” and the day often blurred the boundaries between military simulations and “peacebuilding”, but I definitely believe it is progress to have these conversations with administration officials and military professionals.

The rest of the day consisted of nine presentations on various platforms/innovations/simulations.  Time permitting I’ll return to the topics below, but here are some brief thoughts on each:

SENSE Simulation: Developed by IDA – this is the same simulation taught by USIP (thought the acronym stands for something different).  I’ve observed this simulation in action and this was an nice overview.  The simulation itself is a massive 40 to 60+ person economic simulation of a small economy, accomodating government, international and private sector players.  It is supposed to be a post-conflict simulation, thought it is really a macroeconomic simulation and my “sense” of it (sorry, couldn’t resist) is that the “post-conflict” element is really brought by the participants and their interactions outside of the economic model.  It is not clear how much of the grievance, post-conflict distrust and limited space for credible commitments the simulation brings in.  There is very little, if any, of the missing data/fog of post-conflict reality included – participants can click on a variety of reports for real time information on education, health and the environment.  There are some new, interesting developments – the SENSE folks are introducing hooks with corruption and some regional elements in the new version, the kind of elements that really make post-conflict development messy – this is a small step in the right direction in my opinion.

Virtual Worlds Labs: The next presentation was an introduction to Lockheed Martin’s Virtual Environments and Virtual Worlds Labs.   The presentation included a little tour of the Mall in Washington DC – nearly photorealistic and explorable with avatars.  Someone in the environment was shooting a gun of some sort, which prompted the requisite jokes about realism in a DC simulation.  Notwithstanding the missing trees (which are what really make the Mall lovely), the photorealistic environment demonstrated the difference between a mirror world and a virtual world.  A nice discussion followed on the usefulness of such environments: sure they are beautiful and they can provide interesting meeting spaces, but how can these be useful for peacebuilding policy or training?  We returned to this question throughout the day and expect we will for some time.

ICONS:  On the other end of the “tech” spectrum is a mostly text based interface called ICONS program at University of Maryland, which can accomodate multiple users taking on roles in pre-scripted simulations.  The ICONS platform is probably closest to the type of simulation that Rex and I both run – a loose framework simulations which involve a lot of role-playing and can accomodate innovative problem solving and improvisation, mostly designed to introduce participants to a particular environment, teach them about different perspectives of actors in these environments and let them get their hands dirty in an environment where real people won’t get hurt.  The ICONS platform has been around for over 20 years and they have a lot of experience in house developing and running simulations.

A Force (Even) More Powerful:  We had a very interesting presentation from the documentarian Steve York who made a Force More Powerful, the documentary and Ivan Marovic, the designer of AFMP, the game.  Most of the presentation was about their new project, a sequel with a different name, about non-violent resistance.  My review of AFMP was less than glowing and so I was looking forward to hearing what would be new in the next version.  Three new innovations are intriguing, including 1) a scenario builder; 2) an option for violent resistance through an expansion and 3) the option to play The Regime (figure out how to put down peaceful resistance – demonstrating how difficult truly peaceful opposition can be to suppress).  They are beginning beta testing right now, ( for only two months), I hope this will be an open process with lots of feedback from gamers and that the designers will be listening to their playtesters this time – I would love to see a really playable, interesting game on nonviolent resistance come out of this shop.

Second Life:  No discussion of virtual worlds and simulations would be complete without visiting Linden Labs’ Second Life.  We had an interesting, though, honestly, slightly tedious show and tell marred by slow connectivity from the government accounts manager (liason/ambassador?), Scott Sechser, who demonstrated the use of avatars, books, pictures and meeting spaces in the virtual world.  He glossed over what might have been the most useful component of Second Life – real time text translation – while describing a visit to the Yamamoto replica.  I wish we knew more about how this translation worked and is used in Second Life.

Army War Colleges Simulation:  I was green with envy when Colonel Philip Evans described his yearly schedule of simulations and training at the Army War College.  This guy has a staff of (yes, he said, “only”!) 9 people devoted to simulation development, the budget to run simulations for 350 students in 7 simulations a year – he flies in senators and aides to play parts, videoconferences when he can’t get people in role in person and has video teams making mock news shows for him in real time.   The presentation was fascinating because the Army, like ICONS, has been doing this stuff for 20 years and they are still doing role-playing simulations in real time, teaching people how to problem-solve in complex environments with other human actors.  I think this confirms my perspective on the integration of technology in teaching:  I don’t doubt that we will someday be able to create holodecks (see the discussion on USIP’s open sim platform below) – but I think they will only be useful for training if we program interesting and compelling simulations that can respond to improvisation and problem-solving. 

IBM and EBay:  There were some presentations from IBM and EBay – neither of which was really relevant to peacebuilding (EBay was about online dispute resolution – could be interesting to someone working on developing governance and rule of law interfaces in cyberspace…  the IBM site and game is pretty).    During the ebay session I learned about an interesting forum for online dispute resolution – probably the best thing to come out of either session.

Open Sim Platform:  A thoughtful presentation by Skip Cole at USIP concluded the day (or should’ve) by introducing the Open Sim Platform and summing up where we are and where we are going in developing simulations for learning, especially for peacebuilding.  The Open Sim Platform (OSP) is kind of like ICONS, allowing users to take part in simulations designed mostly around text, prompts and decision trees, although it is open source, so anyone can design a simulation on the platform and invite anyone to come and use it (or run a simulation from a library).  Skip described how the OSP is a step toward integrating interfaces like virtual and mirror worlds, avatars with the frameworks of simulations like scenario design and development.  It was a compelling presentation and a good challenge to end the day – reminding us all of where we are and how far we have to go.  

This presentation combined with thoughtful moderating by Sheldon Himmelfarb of USIP and Lisa Schirch of the 3D Security Initiative made for a very interesting and insightful day.  The conversation on these topics is just beginning, inspired by the prospect of more events like this at USIP, I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us next.

Review: Turkle et al, Simulation and its Discontents

Book review: Sherry Turkle et al, Simulation and its Discontents (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2009).

TurkleIn what promises to be an important book, Sherry Turkle examines the growth of computer-aided simulation in education and practice—and the possible limitations, shortcomings, and costs of that ascendency. Her focus is almost entirely the fields of design and natural science, with architecture, biology, chemistry, and physics accounting for the bulk of her cases. In discussions with scholars in the field, Turkle finds a disquietening sense among many that something has been lost. Simulation and virtual modeling, while an enormous boon to design and scientific research, may also be corrosive of indepndent and original thought, conceal built-in biases and distortions, and risk confusing the virtual realities with the real thing.

In architecture, for example, computer-aided design has facilitated the production of building plans, but with a tendency to use the default options provided by software packages and a consequent risk of loss of imagination. Some younger designers and architects, her respondents warn, may also have lost touch (literally) with the very materials out of which their creations are built, erroneously assuming that the virtual version is a full and faithful representation of how the material functions, looks, and feels in the real world.  Similarly, scientists interviewed by Turkle warn that students may become so dependent on software to construct virtual proteins, molecules, or other models of reality that they fail to question the assumptions built into the modeling software, and the implications for this for the validity of what they are doing.

Unfortunately, while full of fascinating reflections, the book never fully delivers on its promise. While its points are important, they are made repeatedly, and often with the same repetitive examples. There is little effort to branch out beyond her primary case studies, or to explore the broader social (as opposed to technical and scientific) implications of the issues raised. Moreover, Turkle’s primary contribution is remarkably short, a mere 101 pages. It is followed by four case studies by other authors. Two of these—on computer-aided design in an architectural firm (Yanni Loukissas), and on computerized modeling of protein folds (Natasha Myers)—hew a closer to the theme of the book. The other two cases, however, really examine remote sensing more than they do with the issue of simulation. Of course, there are some connections. A robotic rover on Mars (William Clancey), or a remotely-controlled submersible in the ocean (Stefan Helmreich) are rendering representations of reality to their operators through cameras and sensors , which only approximate their actual environment. In general, however, this seems to be an interesting but rather different set of issues. All human perception, after all, is representation, with our own senses transmitting their own biologically-limited perception of the environment around us.

Can one extrapolate from the issues raised in this volume to the field of social simulation, especially as it relates to questions of development, crisis management, and conflict resolution/peacebuilding? There are, of course, some important differences. Much of the simulation done in this field, such as the World Bank’s Carana simulation, or UNHCR staff training exercises, are human-moderated. This may alter the participants’ experiences in important ways. Social realities are complex and the relationship between variables are poorly understood, which—to the extent this is understood a priori by participants—perhaps provides a degree of inoculation against overconfidence in simulation output or findings. (Of course, the reverse is also true: those running simulations may have difficulty convincing experienced participants that such an gross abstraction from reality is a useful learning tool.)

Nonetheless, much of what Turkle points to does have its echoes in the social sciences too. Computerized simulations may be especially problematic, in that they “hide behind the hood” critical assumptions and simplifications about the way the world works, while usually requiring players to select from a preset menu of policy responses. As they grow in audiovisual sophistication, moreover, computer-based simulations might also grow more alluring without a corresponding improvment in the human-designed theoretical presuppositions that underpin them. Even absent the sophistication of computer-mediation simulation, however, one needs to be careful about “lessons” that are derived more as an artifact of simulation dynamics than of the real world that they are meant to approximate. Many international relations simulations, for example, seem to implicitly privilege realist models of politics and high politics/military interaction because of the competitive frame of participants, the absence of real world constratints and socialization, and the difficulties of including the many complex process of low politics within a playable, time-limited game. Practicality and “realism” therefore run at cross purposes, and in ways that may teach unintended and inappropriate lessons.

Because of this, post-simulation debriefs become essential, since they allow an opportunity to discuss where the simulation exercise and real life might differ, and why that is so. Indeed, such episodes can become a teaching lesson in and of themselves, encouraging students to sharpen their critical thinking skills as they reflect on their simulated experiences.

smart moves by USIP!

I’ve just returned from this great event hosted by USIP on the future of simulations for peacebuilding.

There were over 100 in attendance and many more virtually attending through a live feed.  Online questions were expertly moderated by Joel Whitaker who was able to collect them into sensible and insightful intercessions that followed the conversation and really brought those attending virtually into the room (which was necessary, because the room was full).  We knew we were approaching Sim 2.0 when one of the virtual questions for a presenter was sent from a 2nd Life avatar via twitter… it hurts the brain.

Thanks to Skip Cole for an inspiring presentation on the future of simulations for peacebuilding.  There were lots of other great presentations on the whole breadth of simulations from cutting edge virtual environments to good old text based and in person roleplaying.  Will post more later, but we are running our simulation at the Bank here tomorrow and Monday (a special delivery for Executive Director Advisors) and there are many virtual miles to go before I sleep.

Kudos to Sheldon Himmelfarb and USIP for a really great event!

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