Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: October 2009

Review: Kumar, ed., Negotiating Peace in Deeply Divided Societies

Review of: Radha Kumar, ed., Negotiating Peace in Deeply Divided Societies: A Set of Simulations (New Delhi: Sage Publications India, 2009).


This book contains a series of six ready-made simulations, each of which addresses issues of peacemaking in politically of ethnically-divided societies.  Four of these address current or recent conflicts: the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, a hypothetical constitutional renegotiation in Bosnia-Herzogovina; hypothetical civil society negotiations surrounding the ethno-tribal conflict in the Nagaland region of India; and prenegotiations related to the Kashmir conflict. Two others deal with fictional settings: peace negotiations amid a stalemated secssionist civil war in  the Asian country of “Aboltabol,” and a meeting of the international community to discuss possible humanitarian intervention in  the war- and famine plagued African country of “Samia.” In each case, the book provides an overview of the conflict, information on the key actors represented and their respective interests and positions, a timeline, and relevant background documents (including, where appropriate maps).

While most of the simulations presume open-round-table discussion, many also suggest staging the simulation in particular ways so as to mirror the dynamics of the conflict or particular negotiations. The Northern Ireland simulation, for example, calls for both plenary and working group meetings, and makes concrete suggestions as to the seating and relative size of delegations. The Aboltabol simulation, on the other hand proposes that actors be assigned to one of five separate physical locations (such as the federal capital or the outskirts of the regional capital), with a negotiator shuttling between these. These procedural issues are much more than mere atmospherics: in the real world, as in a simulation setting, they are often themselves the subject of intense bargaining precisely because they can shape both negotiating dynamics and outcomes.

According to the Radha Kumar’s introduction to Negotiating Peace in Deeply Divided Societies, some 42 trial runs of the simulations were undertaken across several Indian universities. Certainly the chapters are well-written and clear, and the background materials would serve very well as the core briefing documents for participants (ideally, supplemented by some additional research).  Most of the simulations are written by regional experts with a rich understanding of local history, actors, and the conflict itself.

What is missing from this interesting collection, however, is solid guidance for neophyte simulation moderators. The editor’s introduction does little more than summarize the simulations that follow. The appendix “Note for Simulation Setters” is a disappointing half page long. It emphasizes the importance of briefs and debriefs (but says nothing about how to do this), suggests that students should undertake a minimum of four simulations (although one can easily imagine instructional settings in which a single simulation would be a more optimal use of scarce instructional time), and (wisely) suggests that instructors show flexibility in adapting the simulations to their particular needs. The book certainly would have been strengthened by a full-length chapter discussing the various ways in which the simulations could be staged, and the participant, staff, time, and resource demands of these; approaches to briefing and debriefing; modes of communication (including in person and electronic means); potential challenges or difficulties, and how to overcome these; approaches to course integration; and other useful issues.

In all six cases the simulations take the form of role-play exercises, in which participants are largely constrained only by their understanding of their briefing notes. There are, therefore, no material resources to be allocated, and no opportunity costs arising from such decisions. While this is not likely to be a problem in the more historical, political negotiations (such as the Good Friday Agreement or Bosnian constitutional renegotiations), it might well lead to problems in the abstract Samia humanitarian intervention simulation (How many troops do I have? How much money? Can I spend a billion dollars?). Indeed, this latter simulation seemed the one problematic chapter in the book, since it seems to be asking students questions (for example, how many troops will be needed to stabilize humanitarian conditions) that will not be answerable on the basis of either the information in the text or their own research and background knowledge. Overall, the military/security and especially development/economic dimensions of peacebuilding are less well covered than the political/diplomatic/constitutional aspects in all of the cases, although one could perhaps supplement these simulations with additional materials to more fully address these dimensions.

Despite this shortcoming, this book is nonetheless a valuable contribution. It will be especially useful to instructors seeking ready-made conflict resolution simulations for the classroom. Negotiating Peace in Deeply Divided Societies also provides a useful model for how simulations can be presented, with the models offered in the volume providing useful templates that could be applied to writing up simulation materials for other cases.

* * *

(While on the subject, another useful source of similar negotiation exercises is available online from the Public and International Law Group.)

civic engagement, in-game and out-game

PaxSims isn’t really a gaming blog, despite the overlaps between gaming and simulation, and despite the game geek backgrounds of its primary authors. Nonetheless, some of the findings from a recent study of The Civic Potential of Video Games by Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Chris Evans may have implications for some of our prior discussion of human-moderated versus computer-moderated simulation, as well as the conversation we’ve been having on using MMOs as a model for multi-player, distributed simulation.

The study as a whole focuses on a range of research questions:

The Quantity of Game Play Do teens who play games every day or for many hours at a time demonstrate less or more commitment and engagement in civic and political activity? Do they spend less or more time volunteering, following politics, protesting?

The Civic Characteristics of Game Play Do teens who have civic experiences while gaming—such as playing games that simulate civic activities, helping or guiding other players, organizing or managing guilds (an opportunity to develop social networks), learning about social issues, and grappling with ethical issues— demonstrate greater commitment to and engagement in civic and political activity than those with limited exposure to civic gaming experiences?

The Social Context of Game Play Do teens who play games with others in person have higher levels of civic and political engagement than those who play alone? Does playing games with others online have the same relationship to civic engagement as playing games with others in person? How often do youth have social interactions around the games they play, for example participating in online discussions about a game? How do these interactions relate to civic and political engagement?

The Demographic Distribution of Civic Gaming Experiences Do factors such as gender, family income, race, and ethnicity influence the frequency of civic gaming experiences that members of these groups have? Do certain games provide more of these experiences than others?

The finding that I found most interesting, and which relates to the issues that I mentioned above, was this one:

Teens who play games socially (a majority of teens) are more likely to be civically and politically engaged than teens who play games primarily alone. Among teens who play alongside others in the same room….

Interestingly, this relationship only holds when teens play alongside others in the same room [emphasis added]. Teens who play games with others online are not statistically different in their civic and political engagement from teens who play games alone

We were curious as to whether the lack of relationship between civic engagement and playing with others online was due to the depth of interactions that occur online. Playing with others online can be a fairly weak form of social interaction, where two players never speak or interact and play only for a short time. It may also include longer and more sustained networks where players join a guild and play games in an ongoing and coordinated fashion. Researchers suggest that the more intensive form of online socializing, for example, in a guild can offer many of the benefits of offline civic spaces that less-intensive online social play may not. To shed light on this issue, we compared those who participate in guilds with those who play alone only. We find no difference between the two groups’ level of civic and political engagement. The relationship between guild membership and two civic outcomes (volunteering and raising money for charity) are marginally significant (p < .10).

Now, there are all sorts of ways in which the relationship between playing together in person and civic engagement could be a spurious relationship. Both, for example, could be a function of a particular personality type. At the same time, however, they might also suggest that the socialization experience is in some ways fundamentally different if it occurs online or in person. If so, it has obvious implications for efforts to design educational and training simulations which attempt to use online communication as a proxy for face-to-face interaction.

It should also be noted that certain types of cooperative online play were associated with greater civil engagement, in particular “organizing and managing game groups and guilds.” Again, the causality here is difficult to entangle, but there could be interesting implications for the way online experiences are constructed (in MMOs, for example), and the socialization that results from this.

Hat-tip: Megan Fitzgibbons, McGill University’s frighteningly-efficient political science liaison librarian.

David Earnest on “unknown knowns” and MMO-based similation

I recently posted some thoughts (“The Internet is for COIN?“) on an article by David Earnest on “Growing a Virtual Insurgency: Using Massively Parallel Gaming to Simulate Insurgent Behavior” in the most recent issue of The Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulations (October 2009). David was kind enough to reply to my thoughts with some additional thoughts of his own, which I’ve moved from the comments section so that they are less likely to get missed:

* * *

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.

David C. Earnest
Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies
Old Dominion University

ISAGA 2010

The annual conference of the International Simulation and Gaming Association will be held 5-9 July 2010 in Spokane, Washington.

ISAGA is an international organization for scientists and practitioners developing and using simulation, gaming and related methodologies. They include: simulation, gaming, role-play, structured experiences, policy exercises, computerized simulation, play, virtual reality, game theory, debriefing, experiential learning, and active learning. They are used in a broad range of professional areas, including: university, industry, government and business. Note: ISAGA is not concerned with gambling. The term “gaming” refers to learning games.

The main goals of ISAGA are:

  • to enhance the development and application of simulation and gaming methodologies;
  • to encourage a wider use of simulation and gaming methodologies, particularly in the social, human and technological domains;
  • to facilitate communication among specialists of simulation and gaming throughout the world;
  • to exchange information about and experience of simulation and gaming methodologies;
  • to encourage interchange between the profession of simulation and gaming and other professional areas and disciplines.

ISAGA has members in all parts of the world. ISAGA runs an international conference every year in a different country. ISAGA is involved with several resources, including an international journal, an Internet search engine and conference proceedings.

You’ll find details on the conference website here.

USIP course on conflict analysis

The United States Institute of Peace regularly offers a range of courses on conflict and peacebuilding issues. I thought I would flag this one, however, because of its explicit use of “scenario gaming exercises.”

October 13, 2009 – October 16, 2009

Foundations of Conflict Analysis

An introduction to the subject of conflict analysis, illustrating analytical tools used by practitioners through case studies and scenario gaming exercises. The course provides analytical tools for assessing local and regional causes of conflict, potential triggers for escalation, and opportunities for productive engagement by third parties.

More information is available at the link above.

refugee simulations

(UPDATED to include discussion of the Reach Out training modules)

We’ve posted a few items on PaxSims before on refugee simulations, such as the training used by UNHCR for its own staff, refugee simulations that form part of courses at universities such as Harvard and Tufts (here and here), as well as the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) use of simulation methods to explore issues that would arise in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the refugee issue.

For readers who might be interested in trying something like this (whether in the classroom or the field), I’ve posted a few additional links below. Most of these fall into the category of educational or advocacy simulations, rather than those designed to train substantial skills or knowledge related to professional work in this field. Nonetheless, those that involve a roleplaying component might include elements that could be adapted to such purposes.

  • Against All Odds. A web-based game developed by UNHCR in 2005, and aimed at youth. You’ll find a background report on its development here.
  • Refugee Game for Change. A web or mobile phone-based game on the situation of refugees, aimed at teens. Featured on Oxfam Australia’s Refugee Realities website, which also contains a variety of other educational and advocacy resources on refugee issues.
  • Darfur is Dying. A web-based game, in which players struggle to survive in a Darfuri refugee camp. The game was developed as part of the Darfur Digital Activist contest,organized by mtvU in cooperation with the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group. A screen shot from the game is featured below.


  • In Exile For a While (organizer’s kit). A roleplaying simulation developed by the Canadian Red Cross, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and Canadian Lutheran World Relief “to provide young people with a life-changing experience that will transform their thinking and inspire action.” The simulation takes between one and 24 hours (depending on the scenarios used), and is suitable for teens and adults.
  • Sumitra’s Story. A role-playing simulation of the flight of Ugandan Asians from the regime of Idi Amin, designed for students. Another version can be found here, rewritten to address the situation of Cuban refugees fleeing to the US.

For those looking for professional training materials on refugees, you may find the Reach Out Refugee Protection Training Project useful. This collection of materials and lesson plans was developed NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement in collaboration with UNHCR in order to train humanitarian staff in the basics of refugee protection, and addresses such issues as the basics of refugee protection, the dynamics of forced displacement, actors and roles, programming, individual and mass arrival, vulnerable groups, durable solutions, IDPs, and sexual and gender-based violence. Two of the modules also include role-play exercises based on the hypothetical case of Boringia:

There has been an escalation of the armed conflict in Chakamaka, and many thousands of Chakamakans are attempting to flee into neighbouring Boringia.

However, the Boringian government recently closed all border crossings and stationed several battalions of combat troops alongside the frontier. Increasing international pressure has since led the Boringian authorities to reopen the border for a few hours every other day.

BoringiaAccording to the Boringian Ministry of the Interior, some 37,144 people have arrived in Boringia over the last two weeks. In addition, almost 240,000 people are said to have been forced to leave their homes as a result of ongoing fighting and are scattered throughout the eastern provinces of Chakamaka. According to reports, most of these uprooted populations are trying by whatever means possible to head towards the border.

In Chakamaka, rebel troops have almost total control over the eastern provinces, and state troops defending the remaining government-held areas are losing ground daily.

The government has declared a state of emergency and has suspended the parliament, the judiciary, and national legislature. Males from the age of 15 and up are being conscripted into the armed forces. Draft evasion and desertion are subject to severe penalties, including life imprisonment.

International media continue to provide dramatic pictures of desperate people stranded at the Chakamakan side of the border.

At the same time, there are unconfirmed reports of armed rebel groups that have infiltrated Boringia. It appears that cross-border raids by Chakamakan rebels have been launched from makeshift military bases in Boringia near the Chakamaka/Boringia border.

In the exercise, participants play the roles of the host government, UNHCR, the local Red Cross, and other NGOs.

simulating patron-client politics

I was sitting recently in a rather productive meeting of a project on conflict and fragility, and as the group at the table grappled with the many complex aspects of the topic one increasingly stood out to me: the omnipresent, ambiguous, and often problematic role of patronage and informal politics in countries emerging from conflict. I’ve posted a version of my meeting notes below–and, after that, some thoughts on the challenges that this poses for peacebuilding simulation.

In focusing—quite appropriately—on the key role of effective institutional development and state-building approaches, the development and peacebuilding community needs to be careful that it pays adequate attention to the key role that informal institutions (including patron-client relations and neopatrimonial patterns of political management) play in governance in fragile and war-affected countries. In the long term, there is little doubt that effective political institutions operating under the rule of law and enjoying broad legitimacy in the eyes of citizens are a fundamental contributor to both political stability and social and economic development. In the short-term (and sometimes beyond this), however, local leaders may see patronage-based politics not only as a key method of pursuing their own narrow personal, political, or economic interests, but also as a key—and often the single most important—mechanism of political stabilization. Specifically, informal allocation of resources may be used to win the support or acquiescence of key social constituencies, knit together political coalitions, and generate and distribute tangible benefits associated with peace so as to secure the cooperation of potential spoilers. In many cases, this involves creating alternate channels of resource distribution that circumvent, and even erode, the formal institutions of the state. In other cases, it may involve toleration of corruption or organized crime (itself a distributable benefit), or even the use of these to generate off-the-books resources for political leaders.

Donors have dealt this in a variety of ways. Aid agencies have typically stressed the importance of creating structures, upholding the rule of law, and fighting corruption. The international community has also, at other times, turned a blind eye to patronage-based policies when these are seen as strengthening whatever actors the international community sees as essential to peacebuilding. The international community has also been actively involved in such fostering activities, notably in military-lead local development efforts in the context of stabilization and counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find all three orientations present at once, depending on the conflict, the donor, and the donor counter institution involved (aid agencies, foreign ministries, the military/security/intelligence community). Evidence of this can also be found in the frequent disconnect between the assumptions of the development community those engaged in the theory and the practice of population-centric COIN.

Similar complexity is evident in public attitudes within fragile and conflict-affected countries themselves. Perceptions of corruption may be deeply corrosive of the popular legitimacy of institutions and political structures, ultimately contributing to political instability and violence. However, not all patronage (and, indeed, not all corruption) may be seen as “corrupt.” On the contrary, constituents may see such informal politics as evidence of social engagement, service delivery, and political attention. It may also be seen as an essential coping mechanism for ordinary citizens seeking to deal with the alien bureaucratic complexities of possibly (socially, geographically) emerging or reemerging state. Within conflict-affected governments, there may be a similar range of attitudes, with technocrats sharing the globalized notions of modern statebuilding and institution-building, while more “political” leaders, ministers, and functionaries viewing these same issues much more through the prism of local politics and immediate political interests. Moreover, local parties are certainly capable of shaping their message depending on the audience, playing to themes of institutional capacity-building while engaged with donors, while practicing the calculus of neopatrimonialism in practice.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has ever been involved in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Nor is any of this intended to argue the merits of corruption or patronage politics as an alternative approach to conflict resolution and statebuilding. This is particularly true given the perils of path-dependency: consolidation and entrenchment of neopatrimonialism as a response to the imperatives of stabilization risks locking countries into a dangerous and downward spiral of distributive inequalities, rising and/or unmet expectation, fiscal over-extension, increasing corruption, deteriorating efficacy, growing obstacles to reform, and declining legitimacy as a consequence of all of this.

However, it is to suggest that, conceptually, the peacebuilding and reconstruction community has largely failed to deal with this, and that as a consequence there is a current and potentially growing disconnect in both theory and practice. How is it that patronage politics can be limited, contained, channeled, or attenuated in ways that create maximum benefits in terms of stability and legitimization, and the least damage in terms of corruption, inefficiency, inequality, and delegitimization? How is it that we encourage countries emerging from conflict to look more like Jordan and less like Yemen—both places where neopatrimonialism has played a key role in domestic politics, but with strikingly different developmental and institutional outcomes?

PatronageIf we accept that this is an important underlying dynamic on fragile and conflict-affected countries, how can we adequately capture it in educational training simulations?

One way, of course, would be to include a flow of material incentives, whereby patrons attempt to divert aid and fiscal resources to client constituencies, and clients attempt to maximize their earnings. The problem with this approach is that it fails to adequately capture the normative, cultural, and ideological aspects of this—reducing political loyalty to little more than apolitical rent-seeking. Yet we know that in many cases, however, that clients regard the flow of patronage as a form of political engagement and concern, and that the neopatrimonial allocation or diversion of resources may not been seen by recipients as corruption but as a form of wholly appropriate constituency service.

This normative/cultural/ideological component is important, too. It helps to shape whether informal politics is seen as legitimate and hence legitimizing, or is seen as corrupt, venal, and hence delegitimizing of the state and political elites.

Another simulation approach would be to design the briefing notes in such a way as to stress the social links (whether ethnic, regional, or otherwise) between patrons and clients in an effort to generate some sense of attachment above-and-beyond simple resource maximization. The problem with this approach, it seems to me, is that it might risk portraying neopatrimonialism as simply some sort of embedded and relatively unchangeable primordial politics, thereby understating the potential dynamism of it all.

A third simulation approach would be to assign participants who are close friends to the same patron-client groupings, so as to underpin the resource politics with intangible attachments too. This could be hard to do in many simulation settings, however.

I suppose the best way of doing this might be a combination of all three, to the extent this is possible. Do any of the Paxsims readership have other ideas? If so, feel free to post them as comments!

Don’t Hold Your Breath for ‘Sim Afghanistan’

Michael Peck has an informative piece on the simulation and modeling of COIN and irregular warfare over at Wired’s Danger Room blog:

The Pentagon is pouring tens of millions of dollars into mathematical models that might one day help America’s armed forces win a counterinsurgency. Too bad the U.S. military is almost totally unprepared to model irregular warfare.

The Pentagon is interested in modeling because it’s a cheap, fast way to calculate whether your equipment and tactics will be effective against whatever the enemy is throwing against you. The problem is that, for years, modeling and simulation focused on conventional war with the Soviets. And it hasn’t quite adapted to today’s guerrilla conflicts, as I discovered when I wrote this article for Training & Simulation Journal. Which means a “Sim Afghanistan” won’t be ready for a long, long time — if it’s ever ready at all.

He echoes many of the observations we’ve made here (and provides much more information beside). Worth a read.

%d bloggers like this: