Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

The Internet is for COIN?

JDMSA forthcoming issue of  the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulations is devoted to modeling and simulation in counter-insurgency and irregular warfare. Among the items slated to be published there (and preposted on JDSM’s website) is an interesting piece by David Earnest on “Growing a Virtual Insurgency: Using Massively Parallel Gaming to Simulate Insurgent Behavior.”

Models and simulations of counter-insurgency warfare and irregular (COIN) operations are only as effective as their underlying models of insurgent behavior. Existing simulations of insurgencies rely upon strong assumptions that may limit their validity, and thus their use in training for COIN operations. This paper suggests an alternative approach to modeling insurgencies: using a massively parallel game architecture. Massively parallel systems exhibit surprising capacities for learning, adapting and solving complex problems, while games may stimulate individual learning. By harnessing these adaptive capabilities, the proposed massive multiplayer online first-person shooter (MMOFPS) game holds promise for a more realistic and valid simulation of the behavior of insurgencies by incorporating actual human players. Furthermore, by constructing a persistent virtual world in which human players simulate insurgents, the MMOFPS game allows researchers anddecision-makers to observe and measure the behavior of ‘meta-insurgents’, allowing for model validation. Data collection and post-game interviews of players also allow for both quantitative and ethnographic experimentation. This paper proposes a gaming architecture and evaluates the technical risks.

The article nicely highlights an issue that has been often discussed here at PaxSims, namely the embedded assumptions of simulations. The bases for these assumptions and social models are not always clear, validation is difficult (if it is even attempted), and the increasing technological sophistication of simulation makes them simultaneously more alluring and their underlying (theoretical, ideological, and even normative) presumptions perhaps even less apparent to the user.

The solution that is suggested in the article is to use massively parallel gaming—or, in the language of gamers, a counter-insurgency Massively Multiplayer Online game. In such an environment, in which large numbers of players are communicating and cooperating in smaller or larger groups to achieve goals, one finds social innovation and learning, adaptive approaches (and responses), and generally a much more fluid and dynamic social and operational environment. Indeed, one might argue that the value of such an approach even goes beyond this, to issues of group leadership, dynamics of recruitment and group loyality, virtual social norms, even identity politics—something that anyone who has ever been a member of a Warcraft guild (or other game equivalent) will readily understand.

Moreover, while Earnest’s article is aimed at the military/COIN community, there is no reason why such an approach couldn’t work—in theory at least—in the aid and development community too, with a variety of live players and AI-driven autonomous agents (“non player characters”) interacting in ways that simulate the myriad web of complex social,  economic, and political dynamics that intertwine local stakeholders. In practice, however, there may be more practical obstacles: the lack of appropriately large R&D and training budgets in aid agencies, NGO, and international organizations; the much smaller number of personnel that need to be trained; the much greater ease of training through more conventional human-moderated role-play techniques; and the desirability of maximizing the human dimension of direct communication, negotiation, and diplomacy through interactions that aren’t mediated through a computer interface.

stenstoutarmMoreover, several other issues arise. The first is the tendency of many MMO environments to encourage meta-gaming rather than realistic behaviour among players (to use a game analogy, “stand outside that cave, and the creature you need to slay will respawn in 13 minutes…”). Cooperation among players often involves shared knowledge as to how to use a a variety of in-game techniques intended to make best use of the quirks and processes of the simulation programming.

A second issue is the danger that if a COIN (or peacebuilding or development or humanitarian assistance) MMO is entirely staffed by participants from the same organization, it may replicate organizational conventional wisdom about how the “other” (insurgent, warlords, local villagers, refugees) operates rather than reproducing realistic behaviour—thereby perhaps reinforcing and perpetuating the very stereotypes it ought to be challenging. Ironically, one of the examples that the article cites as highlighting the value of technologically-facilitated collective wisdoms (“massively parallel systems of distributed knowledge”) also highlights the potential problems:

Wikipedia invites readers to correct errors – a form of selection that allows the population of Wikipedia readers to filter out inaccuracies. Today it is nearly as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannia.

In many of the physical science and other entries, yes (and I’m a dedicated wiki-surfer and sometimes editor myself).  However, in my own area of work— Middle East politics—Wikipedia is notoriously unreliable, with waves of edits often reflecting the ideological preferences of contributors and even a degree of organized propagandizing rather than any sort of analytically-grounded set of views. Earnest does partially recognize the dangers of massively distributed groupthink, noting that “An audacious game would distribute the client widely to civilians and military personnel alike. School teachers, accountants, teenagers, and service station attendants may not make the best insurgents, but they think like civilians and probably are free of the cultures and doctrinal training of the armed services.”

It is all very interesting stuff, and it will be fascinating to see how it develops in the coming years.

And yes, for those who were wondering, the title of the post is indeed an allusion to the Avenue Q song. For those who haven’t heard it or seen the Warcraft version, you’ll find it here—with the caveat that its not entirely SFW.

3 responses to “The Internet is for COIN?

  1. Rex Brynen 19/10/2009 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, David–I’ve copied them into a full blog post so that no one misses them.

  2. David C. Earnest 19/10/2009 at 3:14 pm

    Thanks for the review of my article, Rex. I share your sense that an MMO simulation could help the aid and development community. Indeed, the genesis of my article is the finding of complex systems researchers that massively parallel systems–whether simulated or real-world–exhibit surprising abilities to adapt and solve problems. While this adaptability is characteristic of a range of physical and ecological systems, my interest is in human organizations (I’m a political scientist by training).

    One thing that interests me is that human organizations, while often very large, are not always “massively parallel” either in the gaming sense (e.g. the architecture of the social network) or even in terms of organization theory. Because human organizations often are bureaucratic and hierarchical–and political scientists typically focus on the most bureaucratic and hierarchical organization there is, the nation-state–they are not very good at tapping into the latent expertise and knowledge of individuals. This is a feature of many fields of human endeavors, not simply COIN operations. While I have no personal experience with aid and development organizations, I wouldn’t be surprised if these organizations also have lots of latent experience and knowledge that needs to be drawn out. How to do so is an interesting question; gaming is but one possible approach.

    This interest in latent knowledge highlights a paradox that intrigues me: Organizations exhibit higher-level learning even when no one individual learns. That is, organizations “know” things that even individuals in the organization do know realize they know. A few years back, a colleague at a conference suggested an addendum to Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote about “known” versus “unknown unknowns”. To Rumsfeld’s list we should add “unknown knowns”–that is, organizations have expertise and knowledge somewhere in their ranks, but we don’t really recognize it or know how to tap into that expertise.

    Your point about the inaccuracies in Wikipedia is an important one. Massively parallel human organizations may be prone to all sorts of pathologies, from groupthink to cycling majorities and other problems of collective action . But I think (or perhaps hope) that the Wikipedia example illustrates how massively parallel systems cope with bad information. Over time, mechanisms of positive and negative feedback, plus selection pressures, weed out the “bad” information while promoting the “good” information. Thus, while at any given moment in time a massively parallel system may be “inefficient” (in the sense of a signals to noise ratio), over the long run efficiency and the quality of information improves. This can only happen, however, if organizations (or gamers) design appropriate mechanisms of reward, censure, and feedback (or as I say in the article, conservation, selection and innovation). In ecological systems, these mechanism arise endogenously. The challenge of human systems is to endogenize them without either eliminating the massively parallel adaptive architecture or creating too much noise.

    On a related note, Mitchel Waldrop wrote an article in 1996 about how Dee Hock, the founder and CEO of Visa (the credit card organization), solved these organization problems. It’s a fascinating read: see the magazine Fast Company, October 1996.

  3. Gary Milante 25/09/2009 at 1:48 pm

    Heh, great title and post, Rex.

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