Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: January 2010

classroom simulation of Afghan reconstruction

Although it was published a year ago, I’ve only just come across an article by David Mendelhof and Carolyn Shaw on “Connecting Students Internationally to Explore Postconflict Peacebuilding: An American-Canadian Collaboration,” Journal of Political Science Education 5, 1 (January 2009). PaxSims readers, especially those working in educational settings, will likely find it of interest:

This paper presents the design and assesses the results of an international collaborative course of American and Canadian undergraduates on the topic of postconflict peacebuilding. Using online discussions, a web-based role-play simulation, and videoconferencing this collaborative course sought to enhance student engagement with the material by exposing them to views from different countries and encouraging broader thinking about the complex set of activities and challenges involved in peacebuilding. The challenges and benefits of such collaboration are discussed.

Specifically, the article describes an ongoing simulation, lasting most of one university term, involving students from two separate institions each role-playing reconstruction actors in Afghanistan. Technically, it was supported by use of the Blackboard course support software (found at many institutions), as well as the SimPlay online role play simulation platform created by Fablusi.

The simulation consisted of two phases: the preparatory phase and the conference phase. The preparatory phase, which ran approximately seven weeks, consisted primarily of individual tasks designed to prepare students for working collaboratively with fellow players in phase two, in which they produced a collective “Final Plan of Action.” Students began the preparatory phase by reading general descriptions of all (fictional) characters, which were posted on the simulation Web page, and submitted their actor preferences to the instructors. The simulation included six main types of actors, each with different roles and responsibilities (and graded components and deadlines). These included Afghan Ministers, regional governors, Afghan Presidential Advisors, international diplomatic representatives (ambassadors, NATO and UN representatives, etc.), intergovernmental and NGO representatives, and Afghan and foreign media.6 Once assigned to their role, students were tasked with creating a general profile for their character, indicating, for example, the character’s educational, personal, professional, and political background and expertise, their primary policy objectives in the conference (which was available for all to see), and a “private agenda” (which was visible only to the Moderators/Instructors). Students were encouraged to research real-life individuals and institutions and to use imagination and creativity in generating their character’s profile and defining their objectives.

During the preparatory phase most players also prepared two individual memos. In the first memo, they were asked to identify the major barriers to peacebuilding in Afghanistan from the perspective of their actors. In the second, they were asked to advance the most viable policy options for overcoming those barriers. Ministers and governors submitted their memos to designated Presidential Advisors, who read them and, based on their own research and responsibilities for more than one ministry/issue area, provided critical analyses of the memos. Members of the international diplomatic community and local and international NGOs submitted reports to the media and to relevant ministers. Though the substantive work carried out during this phase was largely individual, students were nonetheless encouraged to keep abreast of latest developments by checking the postings of the international and local media (as well as real-world events) and to begin to interact with other actors in the simulation who might share similar interests and expertise. We believed that this would assist them in the preparation of their individual written work and in the more collaborative portion of the simulation later in the course.

Another major player in the simulation was the local and international media. Assembled into collective editorial teams of three to four students with a designated editor, media members were tasked during the preparatory phase with writing news articles and editorials on issues related to peacebuilding in Afghanistan. This included interviews and profiles of key players, in-depth analyses of social and political issues, and reports on the analytical and policy memos. Each editorial team was responsible for producing three pieces per week. Students coordinated among themselves how they would divide up the labor and produce the required material. News items were submitted to the editor who posted them to the International Tribune and the Kabul Times pages, respectively, of the SimPlay Web site, for all to read.

Conference Phase

The last four weeks of the simulation were devoted to the “conference phase,” where players worked collaboratively, first in smaller Working Groups, and then in a plenary session, to draft a collective Final Plan of Action (POA) for peacebuilding in Afghanistan. Students were told that the POA was intended to help major donor countries, international financial institutions, United Nations agencies, individual states, and nongovernmental organizations guide their policies vis–vis Afghanistan in the years ahead. The document was not intended to be a binding international agreement or to secure any international aid commitments. It was merely supposed to be a succinct policy document that clearly states the policy priorities for long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan arrived at through consensus among a wide-range of Afghan and international stakeholders.

During the first two weeks of the conference phase players sorted themselves into smaller thematic Working Groups: Afghanistan and the International Community, State Capacity, Security and Narcotics, Economics and Development, and Human Rights. This stage of the simulation was designed specifically with the literature on collaborative learning in mind. Students themselves were responsible for determining the focus and membership of the Working Groups and to designate rapporteurs, who would be responsible for submitting each group’s draft Plan of Action. By being able to set their own agendas rather than have them dictated to them, we hoped that students would develop their own problem-solving skills and have a larger stake in the process and outcome of the simulation. The Working Groups were asked to produce a report that (a) identified the specific problem(s)/concerns within the Working Group’s purview and explained how it was a problem for peacebuilding; (b) described specifically the range of policy options available to address the problem(s) identified, and (c) explained the policy option the group believed to be the most viable. Once submitted, the draft plans were made publicly available on SimPlay to allow all players to consult them. The intention was for the draft plans to serve as the basis of discussion in the plenary session.

The final two weeks of the conference phase were devoted to the plenary session, where all players worked together to draft a final Plan of Action (POA). Students were responsible for nominating and voting on a conference Chair and Deputy Chair and setting the agenda for the conference. The only instructions given were to produce a final Plan of Action that (a) identified the top three issues of concern for peacebuilding in Afghanistan, (b) explained why the problems in each of these three issue areas presents challenges for peacebuilding, and (c) described the policies that the consultation group believed would best address each problem area and explained why the group believed these to be the best policies.

In both the Working Groups and the plenary session, players used both asynchronous communication (“SimMail,” and “Conference Room” discussion boards) and synchronous communication (SimPlay-enabled chat sessions) to set working agendas, discuss and debate the substance of the issues, and to work out the language of the collaborative reports. Players also used the various communication tools to forge alliances with players who shared interests and policy priorities and made contact with the media, through press releases or granting of interviews, to advance their own interests in the conference.

At the completion of the conference phase all participants were required to submit a formal, written report assessing the final POA document from the perspective of the particular actor they were portraying. Players were asked to comment on the POA’s strengths and weaknesses, areas they believe might have been neglected that should have been included, and any additional comments/reactions they might have.

Two videoconference sessions were also held over the course of the simulation. In the first, carried out in advance of the Conference phase, the Afghan Ambassador to Canada addressed both classes (based at Carleton with teleconference hookup to WSU). He provided historical background to the conflict in Afghanistan, his personal experiences in the country, and his own views on the state of peacebuilding there. Most important, he answered student questions for approximately 90 minutes.

The second videoconference took place at the conclusion of the simulation, where students engaged in a collective debriefing session focusing on the substance of the Plan of Action (strengths and weakness, how it was arrived at, what they would have done differently, etc.) as well as student experience with the simulation experience. All of the students had an opportunity to identify who played which role in the simulation and to discuss their reactions to the exercise. In addition, all players were required to complete an evaluation of the simulation itself. To encourage completion of the evaluation, students were given a small amount of course credit for doing so. We made it clear that credit was given merely for submission and not on the substance of the remarks. This worked exceptionally well, as nearly all students submitted their evaluations.

It is not clear what (simulated) resource constraints or organizational imperatives that the various actors might have been acting under (often important determinants of joint action strategies). Nevertheless, it all seems to have been very effectively integrated into the learning experience in the coure(s).If you have online access to the (Routledge) journal through your library, etc. you’ll find the full article here. There is also an earlier version of the article, presented as a paper at the 2006 International Studies Association conference, available here.

latest issue of Simulation & Gaming

The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 41, 1 (January 2010) is now available. You’ll find the table of contents here.

Gametech 2010

With all the discussion of military and counterinsurgency simulations on PaxSims, readers could be forgiven for thinking we’ve gone over to the military-industrial complex. What can we say–it is a much larger market and user base than is the humanitarian and development community, and they have some pretty neat toys. Still, we’ll try to keep sight of our primary focus!

In the meantime, for those of you who might be interested, another conference to look out for: Gametech 2010 (29-31 March 2010, Orlando).

Defense GameTech User’s Conference Goals:

  • Promote the use of game technology within the Department of Defense
  • Provide a forum for DoD game technology users to exchange ideas and information Defense GameTech Users’ Conference Objectives
  • Provide tutorials for DoD personnel that maximize their ability to use game technology fielded within DoD
  • Provide DoD personnel an update on industry/academia gaming and virtual world trends
  • Provide community at large an update on DoD gaming and virtual world projects

How computer games discovered virtuous reality

The Independent has a good piece on the development of “serious games” and “games for change” within the computer and video game industry. I’ve posted a few choice quotes below–you’ll find the full article here.

How computer games discovered virtuous reality

Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, Halo III… You may think the video games industry is all about big bucks, but you’d be wrong. These days, it’s trying to make the world a better place, too. Tom Chatfield reports

The Independent, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Nobody could argue that the £30bn video gaming isn’t by definition a serious business. But can games themselves ever be put to “serious” use? Could the same medium that offers us so much fun and entertainment also be a tool for raising political and social awareness?

Discussing Darfur is Dying, Chatfield highlights the need to make educational and advocacy games engaging as well as informative (a point that Gary and I have made a number of times in our simulation reviews on PaxSims):

Still, there is more to the game than water-gathering. Or, to be more precise, there is more to this particular “narrative-based simulation” than water-gathering – the designers of Darfur is Dying were evidently sufficiently uneasy with the idea of referring to it as a “game” that the word appears nowhere on their website that I can see. As well as gathering water, I can visit the camp itself, where I’m given an isometric overview of huts, fields and tents and tasked with assisting the residents in growing crops and maintaining the buildings. It’s an attractively drawn setting, with plenty of mouse-over information about the details of life in such a camp; what it isn’t, however, is either easy to fathom or to interact with.

After eventually managing to make a successful water run, I manage to keep things going for only one day before it’s game over. At which point a message asks me to enter my name, reminds me of the 2.5 million refugees currently living in camps, and invites me to spread awareness of the game virally to my friends. It also invites me to take further action by donating to charities working in Darfur, or contacting my elected representative.

Ethically, Darfur is Dying is hard to fault. As a game, however, its limitations are painfully obvious. It’s a little confusing, and “fun” has been rather too scrupulously avoided; or, a little more generously, its idea of “engagement” is somewhat dour and limited.

Interviewing Suzanne Seggerman of Games for Change, the piece addresses the balance between trivializing and issue and educating about it:

But there also remains the question of how far “serious gaming” is a contradiction in terms. The idea that I might have been really entertained by Darfur is Dying is a somewhat uncomfortable one. Wouldn’t the fact that I really enjoyed running a virtual refugee camp be, in some ways, inherently trivialising the issues involved? Seggerman rejects this idea, pointing to rapidly expanding array of titles that her organisation is already linked to from their website, titles that model everything from Third World farming to spotting signs of addiction in others to developing sustainable energy resources for cities.

“Games have to be taken on their own terms,” she argues. “They’re not trying to replace the reality of Darfur or Rwanda. But people cannot just go and experience these places, and the simulated experiences games offer are amazing. I don’t look on games as competing with the real world and human interactions. I see them as a medium and as a path towards actions in the real world.”

But a basic tension between the idea of seriousness and the idea of entertainment rears its head. Is the triumph of America’s Army as propaganda a tacit admission that the entire point of video games is the lack of certain kinds of real-world seriousness within them? You can certainly make the military seem a thrilling and thoroughly contemporary occupation by packaging it up in a hot new medium. Exactly how ethical an activity this is, however, remains open to debate. Indeed, as is often the way with modern video games, dissident voices have begun to be heard within the game itself, with a number of members of the public choosing to make “virtual protests” against the actions of the US military by, among other things, registering accounts under the names of soldiers killed while on active duty in Iraq.

Military games are in some respects not so dissimilar to many “games for change”. What a game can do, as Suzanne Seggerman noted, is turn just about any complex and potentially overwhelming system of variables into a manageable simulation that can be played, refined and analysed as many times as you want. It’s a process that, compared to the cost and hazards of “real” training exercises, offers fantastic value for money. And most intriguingly of all, it overlaps directly with one of the most potent and rapidly developing fields not just of modern warfare, but of all kinds of human exploration, excavation and interaction with the most hazardous and challenging of environments – robotics.

The piece highlights new training applications:

One vital area of training is emergency triage: equipping healthcare professionals to assess the order in which casualties should be seen in a crisis situation. The principles apply equally to events like train crashes, treating sick people in remote areas, or even military operations; the underlying idea is that it’s vital, when time and resources are limited and needs are devastatingly urgent, to differentiate between those patients who might be saved by intervention and those who won’t be.

A prototype triage game is currently under development by the TruSim division of Blitz Games Studios, whose areas of research include serious gaming. In the triage game, everything takes place in an interactive three-dimensional world: you explore the site of, for example, an explosion in a city, and find the bodies of those who need treatment as you investigate the wreckage. With highly realistic graphics and an interface that allows users to monitor vital signs, the data presented mirrors almost everything a medic would be able to discover about these patients in a real-life situation and, crucially, forces them to take triage decisions in real time without any break in the immersion.

The game is much less mediated than the “real” scenario; and, of course, the cost of running dozens or even hundreds of such game situations is negligible. “It’s interesting,” one doctor who had watched the TruSim demonstration told me, “because how can you simulate a complex, open fracture of the leg in real life?

And it also makes an important point about how the shift to a video-game generation may make some of this unavoidable:

erhaps the most important single demonstration of the potential of games for serious applications comes from the purest of all training environments: the education system. There will inevitably come a time when no one alive remembers a time before video games existed.

Within a modern school, that time has already arrived: every single pupil was born into a world where video games were simply a fact of life, and it’s in this environment and among these pupils that the serious potential of video games suddenly starts to seem less a novel possibility than a creeping inevitability.

All-in-all, an article well worth a read,

wickedness as a simulation design objective

In a now-famous 1973 article in Policy Sciences entitled  “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber outlined the notion of “wicked problems.” In contrast to the “tame problems” that engineers and scientists typically wrestled with, the wicked problems faced by social planners had a number of intrinsic paradoxes, challenges, and complex characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

When simulating peacebuilding and development, I think that most or all of these are very useful elements to build into the experience. By doing so–and, equally importantly, by designing a teaching and debriefing system that explores the judgements that participants made, how they came to those decisions, and the foreseen and unforeseen (and first and second order) consequences of their actions—a simulation can promote the sort of self-conscious critical thinking that is so important in highly dynamic, complex, and confusing conflict and post-conflict environments. Highlighting the inherent “wickedness” of development challenges in conflict-affected countries (and indeed, more generally) also discourages the notions that there are cookie-cutter approaches of universal usefulness, or that one can somehow develop a “conflict cookbook” with unvarying recipes for stabilization, peace,  social justice, and economic growth. Context is everything, and a central part of doing a better job of international engagement (or, for that matter, local initiatives) is to understand what sorts of questions need to be asked.

While on the subject of the need to avoid “conflict cookbooks,” I should perhaps flag the World Bank’s forthcoming 2011 World Development Report, which will address the theme of “Conflict, Security, and Development” (especially since both Gary and I are involved in the process). The WDR will explicitly attempt to avoid “trap that characterizes a lot of institutional development work by external parties (i.e. that it is based on prescriptive models and is insufficiently adapted to real-life situations of fragility and conflict)”  You’ll find the project team’s blog here.

SimCity Baghdad

The latest issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2010) has an interesting article on UrbanSim, the computer-based counterinsurgency simulator being developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, and which we’ve blogged about previously:

SimCity Baghdad

by Brian Mockenhaupt

A new computer game lets army officers practice counterinsurgency off the battlefield.

LIEUTENANT COLONELS Matthew Moore and Kevin Mindak repaired the airport, the bus terminal, and the water-treatment plant. They silenced three insurgent groups and won the support of many in Al-Hamra’. But the mayor, Anwar Sadiq, still spoke out against the U.S. Army battalion stationed in his town.

Sadiq was causing similar headaches for Lieutenant Colonels Brian Payne and Isaac Peltier.

“We may have to remove him from office,” Peltier said.

“Why is he not on board?” Payne wondered. “We fixed something for him. We went to visit him. And still, governance is going down.”

“We’ve done a lot for the Sunni people, too,” Peltier said. “He’s just corrupt.”

As Payne and Peltier debated what to do about the mayor, a female suicide bomber killed 20 police recruits, and the people’s anger shifted from the insurgents to the U.S. troops.

The Americans had met men like Sadiq before, albeit under different circumstances. Peltier had been to Iraq three times; Payne spent 26 of the past 40 months there. And they would likely be going back to Iraq or to Afghanistan. As part of their training, Peltier, Payne, Moore, Mindak, and five other lieutenant colonels in the Army’s School for Command Preparation, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, were wrestling with Sadiq in a new computer game called UrbanSim. Rolled out last May, UrbanSim allows U.S. officers to practice counterinsurgency without suffering real-world consequences.

As the men hunched over their computers trying to decide how to handle Sadiq and a range of other problems, Matthew Bosack, his crisp blue shirt a sharp contrast to the officers’ combat fatigues, peered over their shoulders with a slight smile. “The cocktail-party explanation: I say I make SimCity Baghdad,” said Bosack, a project manager at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, which developed the game. “You’re basically the mayor. But instead of tornados, earthquakes, and Godzilla running around your city, it’s insurgents.”

In recent years, the military has ramped up training at places like the National Training Center, in California, and the Joint Readiness Training Center, in Louisiana, where Arabic speakers play the parts of mayors, police chiefs, and townspeople. Although effective, these exercises are hugely expensive and logistically complex; any one officer might have just a few interactions with his “counterparts.” But computer games are cheap and can be played anywhere. And because the students all run the same scenarios, they can compare the efficacy of different approaches.

The full article is at the link above. h/t  to Surferbeetle at the Small Wars Council.

(Ending) Civil War in the Classroom

A short article on my Brynania peacebuilding simulation has just been published:  “(Ending) Civil War in the Classroom: A Peacebuilding Simulation,” PS Political Science & Politics 43, 1 (January 2010):


There often exists a problematic gap between more theoretical works on war-to-peace transitions, and the practical challenges that peacebuilding operations face in the field. This article describes the use of classroom simulation to highlight the complexity of contemporary multilateral peace operations. It describes the content and mechanics of the simulation, the issues that can arise in its operation, and strategies for most effectively integrating such a simulation into overall course objectives.

As always, comments are welcomed.


Model Arab League

I thought I would pass along this announcement from the National Council on US-Arab Relations regarding their forthcoming series of Model Arab League meetings:

The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations cordially invites a delegation from your school to attend the Model Arab League (MAL), an academic, diplomatic simulation of the League of Arab States. This year, over 2,000 students will participate at the high school or university level in our fourteen models across the country. Through participation in the program, students develop leadership, speaking, critical thinking, and writing skills, while also gaining practical, applicable knowledge about a critical area, the Arab world.

The 2010 Schedule for the Model Arab League:

Atlanta High School – Atlanta, GA – Jan. 28-29
Michigan University – Grand Rapids, MI – Feb. 18-20
Rocky Mountain Uni. – Denver, CO – Feb. 18-20
Ohio University – Oxford, OH – Feb. 26-28
Southeast University – Spartanburg, SC – Mar. 12-14
National University – Washington, DC – Mar. 26-28
Northern Rockies Uni. – Missoula, MT – Apr. 8-10
West Coast Uni. – San Francisco, CA – April 9-11
Bilateral University – College Station, TX – April 9-10
Boston High School – Boston, MA – April 10-11
Boston University – Boston, MA – April 10-11
National High School – Washington, DC – April 16-17
Southwest University – Denton, TX – April 23-25

Visit to learn more. Also, please feel free to contact the National Council (call Megan at 1-202-293-6466 or email Josh at to learn more about the program.

As a scholar of the region, I’m tempted to ask whether simulated meetings of the Arab League feature the same boycotts and ineffectual rhetorical posturing as the real ones ;)

(cartoon: Mustafa Rahmeh, al-Ittihad, 4 June 2004)

Food Force 2

Many readers will know of Food Force, the very successful World Food Programme educational game released in 2005. While Food Force made humanitarian feeding programs looking a bit like James Bond missions (albeit with food convoys, aerial surveillance, and nutritional balances rather than an Aston Martin), it certainly did a remarkable job of publicizing the agency, with some 4 million players in its first year.

There is now a Food Force 2 available for download. This appears to be the work of a group of independent, volunteer developers, with only limited assistance from WFP. In this story-line, rather than playing the role of UN personnel, the player assumes the role of an aspiring village leader (son of the current village leader, no less, in a perhaps unintended commentary on neopatrimonialim, resource distribution, and community leadership).  It has been designed for use in schools, and has been configured to run on the XO laptop (intended for use by children in the developing world), as well as on full-fledged Windows and Mac OS.

Game play is very Simcity-like, with the player making decisions about investment in housing, farms, a school, “hospital” (clinic), etc., as well as what crops will be grown, and sales and purchase decisions in the marketplace. While this succeeds in highlighting many key issues of resource scarcity and allocation, it tends to do so (like many Sim-type games) in a way that implies a much greater degree of centralized planning than one would ever find in a real rural village. Of course, it could be argued that this makes game play more interesting by making outcomes more obviously a consequence of player decisions. Moreover, this is just intended for children, right? However, without appropriate framing it does rather send some confusing and unrealistic signals about the way rural political economies operate. While more of a challenge, I’m not convinced that a game couldn’t be designed in which the player can only nudge individual actors in the right direction, rather than deciding all key production and investment decisions themselves.

Still, that critique shouldn’t be allowed to distract from recognizing the hard work and dedication of the volunteer design team. Food Force 2 also highlights the very real potential of collaborative, open-source serious game development for education and advocacy purposes.

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