Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 03/03/2010

virtual cultures, virtual wars (or: how I plan to spend my summer holidays)

A hat-tip to PaxSims reader Carolin Kaltofen for pointing out two recent articles of interest on the military’s use of computer-based simulation for training. (Keep the suggestions coming please!)

The first is a short piece by Katie Drummond in Wired’s Danger Room blog on the Pentagon’s use of video games to teach cultural sensitivity and awareness:

New Pentagon Sim Teaches Troops to Play Nice

By Katie Drummond, 26 February 2010

The Pentagon’s added yet another video game to their growing collection. This time, they’re investing in a “First Person Cultural Trainer” designed to teach one-on-one cultural sensitivity to American troops.

The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is backing University of Texas researchers to create the game, which is a 3D sim with scenarios in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops play themselves, and interact with Iraqi and Afghan civilians in replications of local villages.

It’s a project that’s been in the works for three years, and uses cultural data provided by the military. The goal of the game is to enter a village, learn about the social structures and relevant issues, and then “work with the community” to successfully finish assigned missions.

There’s more information on the First Person Cultural Trainer here, on the UT Dallas website.

Meanwhile, Peter Singer has published a longer piece entitled “Meet the Sims… and Shoot Them” on the Brookings Institution website, examining the use of  video games for military training:

The country of Ghanzia is embroiled in a civil war. As a soldier in America’s Army, your job is to do everything from protect U.S. military convoys against AK-47-wielding attackers to sneak up on a mountain observatory where arms dealers are hiding out. It is a tough and dangerous tour of duty that requires dedication, focus, and a bit of luck. Fortunately, if you get hit by a bullet and bleed to death, you can reboot your computer and sign on under a new name.

America’s Army is a video game — a “tactical multiplayer first-person shooter” in gaming lingo — that was originally developed by the U.S. military to aid in its recruiting and training, but is now available for anyone to play. Among the most downloaded Internet games of all time, it is perhaps the best known of a vast array of video game-based military training programs and combat simulations whose scope and importance are rapidly changing not just the video-game marketplace, but also the way the U.S. military finds and trains its future warriors and even how the American public interfaces with the wars carried out in its name. For all the attention to the strategic debates of the post-9/11 era, a different sort of transformation has taken place over the last decade — largely escaping public scrutiny, at modest cost relative to the enormous sums spent elsewhere in the Pentagon budget, and with little planning but enormous consequences.

Singer also has an earlier piece on the same topic (“War Games“) at Foreign Policy Magazine which briefly described and offered screenshots of  several of the software packages involved.

Singer, of course, is the author of Wired for War, an excellent book examining the rise of robotics and other technologies in modern warfare. (For a fuller discussion of that book and the issues it raised, see last year’s online  symposia at Complex Terrain Laboratory.)

Both articles raise a number of important points. Drummond notes the difficulty of capturing the complexities of interpersonal and intercultural interaction in a computer simulation, as well as the danger that players will game the game (that is, achieve more through their innate understanding of game mechanics and cues than develop actual cross-cultural expertise):

The Pentagon have already invested in simulation games to train for war-zone combat, improve recruitment and help treat post-traumatic stress. But cultural sensitivity might be one of the most important, and most difficult, tasks to master through virtual reality. Trying to effectively replicate a nuanced, genuinely human, interaction seems nothing short of impossible. Characters in the University of Texas game can express four “emotions”: anger, fear, gladness and neutrality.

As one game expert tells Danger Room, “even moderately intelligent people will end up being able to exploit the game in order to pass. It’s one thing to know which line of dialogue will make virtual villagers like you. It’s another to say that in real life.”

Singer highlights an even broader set of operational, practical, and even social issues, ranging from the perspectives that simulation-based training may impart, to the impact of first-person-shooters and other military entertainment software on public attitudes to warfare and killing:

But there are many concerns about what these dramatic changes mean for war’s future. With only so many hours in the day, some in the military worry that video games are beginning to edge out real-world training. Navy Capt. Stephen David complained in the service’s in-house journal that the virtual vets arriving aboard his ship lacked “the requisite familiarity with even the most basic shiphandling skills.” Others raise what is called the “O’Brien Effect,” referring to the time talk-show host Conan O’Brien challenged tennis champion Serena Williams to a match, only to defeat her on the Nintendo Wii. At some point, piloting a plane in combat is different from piloting a computer workstation, just as hitting a real tennis ball is not the same as hitting the Wii version.

The real danger of militainment, though, might be in how it risks changing the perceptions of war. “You lose an avatar; just reboot the game,” is how Ken Robinson, the Special Forces veteran who produced Army 360, put it in Training & Simulation Journal. “In real life, you lose your guy; you’ve lost your guy. And then you’ve got to bury him, and then you’ve got to call his wife.”

This is not just an issue for the military, but also for a broader public that has less and less to do with actual war. As Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, a mother who lost her son in Iraq, told Salon, “I’ve always believed when people participate in virtual violence, it makes the victims of violence become less empathetic and less real, and people become immune to the real pain people suffer.” But for most parents, having to send their children to war is not something they worry about, even as it becomes something that more of them play at.

It is a topic I’ll be looking at in a few months, since I’ll be soon starting an SSHRC-supported research project on the “Simulating Strife.” I’ll probably post the full project description to PaxSims in the summer, when I have my other current projects out of the way. In the meantime, however, here’s the short version as a foretaste:

This research project is about the political implications of simulation—or, more specifically, the increasing use of peacebuilding simulations in education, the military, and international organizations. “Peacebuilding” is understood broadly in this case to include processes of civil conflict and peace negotiations, humanitarian and development assistance in fragile and conflict-affected countries, insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN), peacekeeping and stabilization operations, and war-to-peace transitions. The kinds of simulations addressed by the research will be those that involve one or more human “players,” regardless of whether outcomes are machine- or human-moderated. As a result, the project will not examine the use of wholly autonomous agent-based modeling, although it certainly will examine simulations in which artificial intelligence (AI) determines the behaviour of some of the actors involved.

The research project will seek to answer several sets of questions:

  • How are such simulations used, and with what educational, training, or planning goals in mind? How are requirements determined within organizations, and in what ways has the growth of computer-based simulation and instruction changed the training doctrines of organizations involved in peacebuilding?
  • Upon what theoretical models (if any) do the simulations build, implicitly or explicitly? To what extent, and in what ways, do they embody particular ideologies or world-views? How have these been derived, and embedded? To what extent are users of the simulation (teachers, trainers, planners) aware and sensitive to them?
  • How are these assumptions and views imparted to the participants? Does the nature of the simulation have effects on the way in which participants absorb lessons from the process, and the degree of confidence they place in the simulation’s intrinsic assumptions?
  • How is this shaped or reshaped by the growing capabilities of technology (in terms of graphic realism, interface, and AI), as well as the functional need of the simulation to maintain a degree of “playability”?
  • To what extent have participants’ expectations of professional simulation been affected by the rapid growth of entertainment simulation, including in particular those computer and video games that address conflict issues?
  • Most important of all, what impact might all of this have on either policy or practice? How might the simulation experience inculcate particular views of the world and the way it operates, and how might these reshape individual and organizational behaviour in fragile and conflict-affected countries?

A secondary focus of the research project will be the simulated depiction of counter-insurgency and stabilization operations in popular culture through video and computer games. Here, the research project will probe the extent to which attitudes and perspectives encouraged through “virtual” COIN may shape the policy-orientations of gamers as citizens, voters, activists, or soldiers.

Within political science, the literature has almost entirely focused on describing and evaluating classroom use of simulations, with some attention to its potential use as a research tool. An even larger literature can be found in educational psychology and other social science literature. Again, however, there is little if any attention to the social and political implications of the simulation as process that embeds and imparts a range of theoretical and even ideological assumptions to its participants.

This disconnect is particularly striking when one considers the sheer scale of resources being devoted to simulation, especially within Western militaries. The modeling and simulations division of just a one US defence contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, employs some 700 specialists in this area—equivalent to almost half of the entire membership of the Canadian Political Science Association. A quick search of the US military’s Defense Technical Information Center database find more that two hundred unclassified reports on wargaming insurgency alone, all outside the mainstream political science literature. The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, devoted to military training and simulation, draws some 18,000 delegates to its annual meeting. Yet, as an academic field political science has almost entirely failed to examine this phenomenon.

Needless to say, I very much welcome contact with other researchers interested in this area—feel free to drop me a note: rex.brynen (at)

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