Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: May 2010

Tron meets COIN

According to a current small business innovation research solicitation posted by the US Department of Defense, DoD is looking for a virtual-environment small unit counter-insurgency trainer that would address cultural awareness skills and incorporate bio-feedback in game play:

VE simulations that allow warfighters to practice both language and cultural skills could benefit from incorporating social network, cultural, and geospatial models in order to show how interactions with local populations affect societal changes and shifts in local opinion, perception, movement, and so forth. Currently, language/cultural trainers teach language and cultural skills without population scenarios and first person shooter trainers do little to teach language or cultural skills. For example, if a player makes a poor decision say by insisting on speaking directly to a young single female when her older uncle is there, instead of speaking through her uncle to her, the program does not model how that interaction affects the local population’s opinion, perception, movement, and so forth. By creating simulations where warfighters can learn cultural negotiation skills, cultural aptitude, and language a new cultural trainer that incorporates all the behaviors and types of interactions a warfighter will be called on to perform, as well as incorporating adaptive models, warfighters will be better able to see how their actions and reactions to events impact not only the person they are interacting with but the population as a whole. The proposed solution will leverage an existing cultural and language trainer and incorporate social network, cultural, and geospatial models effects on population parameters. Trainees will be able to speak to and interact at any level with indigenous non-player characters (NPC), complete with voice recognition, speech, and facial gestures. The characters will react according to how the trainee interacts with them. Further the game will track how the local population reacts to these interactions. The game will adapt to changes in local population response. For example, if a player comes in and insults the local tribal leader the game scenario will change and the trainee will find that future interactions with the local population are more difficult and more hostile. In addition, the trainee will be monitored for neural/physiological markers (e.g. EEG, eye tracking, pupil diameter, heart rate, respiration, and so forth) of workload and the game will adjust in difficulty based in part on these neural/physiological metrics; this is designed to keep players motivated, interested, and at an optimal learning level. To assess users’ performance, trainees’ behavioral responses in the game will also be monitored.

I’m sure there’s much more that could be added to make it realistic: immensely heavy pack loads and sweltering heat, for a start. One could even use 1960’s smell-o-vision technology to create a realistic pushing past bored donkeys into a crowded suq after hours on patrol in the hot sun sensation.

You’ll find the full and official description of the project here.

Iran nuke simulation of the month

OK, they’re not quite coming one a month, but following the various Iran simulations held earlier this year at Harvard, Brookings, and Tel Aviv University, there is news of another one–this time held at the Interdisciplinary Center at  Herzliya.

According to detailed report in the Jerusalem Report (17 May 2010):

The threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon would force Israel to agree to a measured response and diplomacy in the wake of a long-range missile attack in Tel Aviv, and prevent Israel from unleashing a disproportionate response, according to the conclusions of a simulation at the IDC, Herzliya, on Sunday.

With Iran’s nuclear program on a path that would see the Islamic Republic achieving nuclear capabilities in the coming years, the simulation was meant to gauge how such a game-changing event would be met by regional and world players.

Titled “Iran – The Day After,” the simulation was based on a similar exercise held last December at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, which ended with Russia and China backing Iran as a sharp rift developed between Washington and Israel. On Sunday at the IDC, organizers hoped for a more promising result.

The simulation contained two rounds. In the first round, the participants, who included a wide range of Israel’s leading experts and academics, were required to devise a response from their team to Iran’s nuclear capabilities. This was be followed by a “trigger” event that was kept secret from the participants beforehand. The next stage dealt with the advancement of the event following the trigger, and so on in the following stages.

The teams represented 20 nation-states, international bodies, or terror organizations in which the experts and academics specialize. In the first round of the exercise, the teams were told that shortly after the announcement that Iran had gone nuclear, Hizbullah had launched long-range missiles at Tel Aviv, striking the Defense Ministry and causing large-scale casualties and destruction….

There is also a briefer report on the Israel Defense Forces website.

Simulation & Gaming (April 2010)

The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 41, 2 (April 2010) is now out, and contains several articles that might be of interest to PaxSims readers:

  • Per Backlund, Henrik Engström, Mikael Johannesson, and Mikael Lebram, “Games for traffic education: An experimental study of a game-based driving simulator.”
  • Timo Lainema, “Theorizing on the Treatment of Time in Simulation Gaming.”
  • Robert Howard Williams and Alexander Jonathan Williams, “One for All and All for One: Using Multiple Identification Theory Simulations to Build Cooperative Attitudes and Behaviors in a Middle Eastern Conflict Scenario”
  • Precha Thavikulwat and Sharma Pillutla, “A constructivist approach to designing business simulations for strategic management.”
  • Joris Drayer and Dan Rascher, “Simulation in Sport Finance.”
  • Bradley S. Greenberg, John Sherry, Kenneth Lachlan, Kristen Lucas, and Amanda Holmstrom, “Orientations to Video Games Among Gender and Age Groups.”
  • Diana Reckien and Klaus Eisenack, “Urban Sprawl: Using a Game to Sensitize Stakeholders to the Interdependencies Among Actors’ Preferences.”
  • Association News & Notes

Welcome to Squat! — a development minisim

I had the pleasure of coteaching my peacebuilding course at McGill University this past term with Ora Szekely, one of our senior PhD students. Ora developed a short (one hour) minisimulation to examine issues of needs assessment and stakeholder consultation, which worked very well in class. She’s written a description of it below, and provided links to the instructor and students notes as well as the initial classroom powerpoint briefing. Should anyone wish to borrow or adapt it, feel free!


Because the practice of conducting post-conflict needs assessments and stakeholder consultation is often far trickier than the theory, I developed this simulation to help students understand some of the barriers development workers can face to the collection of accurate and comprehensive information, and the difficulties communities can have in making their needs and priorities understood to international NGOs. I borrowed some of the ideas from an existing mini-simulation posted here, but modified it to address post conflict issues more directly (and also to allow me to make up ridiculous place names, which is always a good time. Apologies to anyone who’s actually from a city called Bupkiss.)

The simulation takes place in the Democratic Republic of Squat, a small country recovering from a devastating civil war between the urban Blechistani minority (supported by the neighboring Kingdom of Blechistan) and the more rural Squattish majority. NGO worker Chris James, chief of party for a large international development organization called NGOs Without Borders, is conducting a needs assessment to determine how a $150,000 grant will be spent. Those s/he is meeting with include Squattish and Blechistani men and women from both urban and rural areas; some are community or political leaders, others are farmers or medical workers. Each has information specific to their own experience which can help Ms./Mr. James make an effective decision, but each also has blind spots, and some have particular barriers to sharing their expertise.

Students are divided into groups of seven, and each receives a sheet of briefing notes on their character. The students playing the NGO workers then have a set amount of time to talk with the other members of their group and try to formulate a plan to spend the funding most effectively. At the end of the exercise, the whole class comes back together to share the decisions they made, and talk about the particular experiences of the different characters. While I’ve only gotten to run this simulation once, students seemed to find it useful – I’d love to hear how it works out in other classes.

Ora Szekely

Review: Liberia, Descent into Hell

Liberia: Descent into Hell (The Liberian Civil War, 1989-1996). Fiery Dragon Productions, 2008. Designers: R. Ben Madison and Wes Erni. $22.95.

Over the next few months, PaxSims will feature reviews of several commercial boardgames that seek to simulate insurgency, counter-insurgency, and civil war. In doing so, we’ll discuss some of the usual issues of game play that you would find, for example, at BoardGameGeek. However, our primary focus will be on the potential educational value of these games for students of (and practitioners in) fragile and conflict-affected countries. We’ll also try to highlight game approaches, mechanics, and philosophies that might be adapted for other simulations in this field.

The first wargame to be reviewed in this series is Fiery Dragon’s Liberia: Descent into Hell. The game fully highlights many of the more brutal, sordid, and outrageous aspects of the Liberian civil war: players variously recruit child soldiers; intoxicate their troops with drugs; take hostages;  ransom, execute and even cannibalize prisoners; woo external patrons and organized crime; and employ witch doctors. American evangelicals, African peacekeepers, and even transvestite fighters make their appearance. Because of this, some gamers expressed discomfort with the game when it first appeared. Certainly Liberia plays up these dimensions as part of its appeal, which might be seen as rather exploitive of human suffering. Then again, wargaming as a hobby–much like paintball, video games, or Hollywood war movies–simulates death and destruction for entertainment purposes, and far bloodier conflicts (notably WWII) are routinely the subject of games. As a longtime historical wargamer I’m not particularly disturbed by any of that, but anyone thinking of using this conflict simulation for teaching purposes would do well to consider that others might have rather different reactions.

Game Play

Players control “War Parties” (stacks) composed of combat units and leaders. Tribal and factional affiliations matter: combat units have ethnic affiliations, which limit where they can be recruited, and what factions they will fight for. The complexity of the Liberian civil war is simplified by essentially assigning all armed factions to the ultimate control of either the government (Samuel Doe) or rebel (Charles Taylor) player, although it wouldn’t be hard to modify this into a multi-player game. Units deployed on a relatively simple map of the counties of Liberia and major districts of Monrovia. Key economic and other strategic sites are depicted, and some movement between areas is restricted by terrain. (For detailed photos, see here.)

Two key resources drive the simulation: money (largely derived from control and looting of the capital and major economic sites), and “juju”—an amalgam measure of reputation, political prestige and influence, and local magic, derived from controlling districts and won and lost in the outcome of battles. Money is primarily used to recruit units (and purchase drugs and hostages). Juju is used to recruit zoes (magicians, ritualists, or “witch doctors”) and lobby outside actors (ranging from great and regional powers to local economic and criminal groups) who in turn can provide ongoing financing and juju.

The game progresses along a turn track, but the pace of political developments is more random. These mark the intervention of ECOMOG peacekeepers, the formation of new splinter groups, and various peace talks. If any player is reduced to zero juju, they immediately lose (as I did!). Otherwise, the game progresses until it reaches the Abuja peace agreement and subsequent elections, at which point players receive a number of votes depending on their control of districts, money, and juju—with the highest total winning the elections, and the game.

The game also contains a large number of optional rules which add more complexity and historical detail, and is probably best played with all or most of these. While the layout of the rules could be better in a few places, and inexperienced gamers will likely find it much of a challenge, moderate and experienced players will encounter little difficulty. In our review game we did find that the board, movement restrictions, and terrain effects did create some natural choke-points, which may or may not reflect the actual course of fighting in Liberia. Game play can also be highly sensitive to random events and the pace of political developments. Nonetheless, it all makes for a very good game.

Instructional Potential

Liberia: Descent into Hell certainly illustrates the complexity of the Liberian civil war, although it necessarily simplifies much of the politics of the country into order to make it work as a two player game. There is little attention to economic or aid issues, other than as a target for looters. However, “naive Scandinavians,” Médecins sans frontières, US evangelicals, Freemasons, and the Moonies also make an appearance as a possible unwitting source of resources for the combatants. This is nothing if not a cynical game, and it falls very much at the “greed” end of the “greed versus grievance” debate regarding the underlying imperatives in civil wars. Peacemaking efforts in the simulation appear as random external events, and no insight is offered to their causes or dynamics, only their effects.

Because of this, and because the game does rather emphasis the sensational and outrageous, there would be several problems using it in the classroom. Some students would likely be upset or insulted by the stereotypes and casual references to horrific events. Others might fail to appreciate the nuances and complexity of actors and processes depicted in the simulation. The depiction of juju and ritual cannibalism—despite the rather important impact of ritualistic beliefs in the war—would likely prove particularly controversial, both in terms of anthropological accuracy and potential for misunderstanding.

One could, perhaps, assign the simulation as one might a book review—asking students to both play the game and research the conflict, and thereafter offer a critical evaluation of the game as a conflict simulation. However, in such a case one would still need a substantial debrief by the instructor in order to assure that the right lessons, and not the wrong ones, were being learned. I also suspect that many students would struggle with the complexity of the game itself.

Game Mechanics and Adaptation Potential

The simulation’s treatment of the interrelationship between tribal recruitment, political factions, and political leaders is one of the more innovative design features of the game, forcing players to consider issues of ethnic support in their military strategy. The system of lobbying external actors (itself modified from Brian Train’s Spanish Civil War simulation Arriba España) is straightforward and could easily be adapted to other simulations. The random pacing of actual historical events is another quite useful mechanism: it roots the simulation in the actual developments of the time, but does not bind players into reproducing the exact same outcome.

Concluding Thoughts

Unless you’re prepared to put a great deal of effort and sensitivity into teaching about and around it, I wouldn’t use Liberia: Descent into Hell in an instructional setting. If you’re looking for inspiration as you consider designing your own civil war simulation, it is well worth obtaining. If you’re looking for a good game—and especially if you’re interested in issues of insurgency and civil war, have a slightly twisted sense of humour, and aren’t easily offended—it’s well worth the purchase price. I certainly enjoyed it.


Follow-up: Brian Train makes some thoughtful comments on the use of commercial wargames for education purposes in the comments section–be sure to read them.

innovative game mechanics: discussion

We’ve had a few of good replies to my earlier musings on the issue of  innovative game mechanics and conflict/development simulation—notably, one by Eric Walters at ConsimWorld, and the other by game designer Brian Train in the comments section here at PaxSims. In the interests of facilitating a continuing the conversation (and to make both of them easier to find in one place), I’ve reposted them below, along with some more of my own thoughts.

Eric Walters comments:

To me there have been four major innovations in wargaming over the past 30 years regarding board games–and I’m not talking about physical components, necessarily. Or internet play in either synchronous (VASSAL) or non-synchronous modes. Here’s what I’ve observed, for what it’s worth:

1) Card Driven Games. This genre has caused a small revolution, particularly in strategic games. And while there were card driven games in tactical games before (UP FRONT comes to mind), it wasn’t until COMBAT COMMANDER came out that they seem to be growing in popularity. The uncertainty and chaos these games engender has been readily embraced.

2) Euro-Games. For better or for worse, these games are influencing board wargames. I expect this trend to continue. CONFLICT OF HEROES is perhaps the best example and more “hardcore” wargames are at least embracing the physical component treatments of Euros. Games like WHERE THERE IS DISCORD and Valley Games’ REPUBLIC OF ROME and HANNIBAL reprints are very remiscient of Eurogames, physically. But I’m more interested in systems approaches, and this is where CONFLICT OF HEROES shines. I expect to see a lot more efforts embrace Euro-game systems approaches. On a lesser theme, “lite” games such asMEMOIR ’44COMMAND AND COLORS ANCIENTS, etc., also seem to run parallel to Eurogames in terms of their elegance.

3) The Simmons Block Games. No, I’m not talking about the usual block games that Columbia Games puts out. I’m talking about the two Napoleonic wargames that use no luck for combat resolution–with incredible physical components that really seem to send you back to the period–the game board looks like it’s lifted right out of a history or tactics text. Two games came out, one on Marengo (BONAPARTE AT MARENGO) and one on Austerlitz (NAPOLEON’S TRIUMPH), and there is even a Civil War game you can find online called BAPTISM AT BULL RUN that uses a similar system. Simmons Games is coming out with a title on the Battle of Gettysburg using the same style mechanics. The gaming experience is unlike anything else.

4) But perhaps the greatest innovation is one of philosophy in board wargame design. Players are getting less and less control and having to improvise in the midst of more and more fog and friction. There are a number of devices to achieve this, but as the wargaming community has greyed, it wants games that are less like chess. Where, exactly when, and with what title did this begin? I might argue it really started with SQUAD LEADER (1977)–it seems amazing to us now, but we thought there was a lot of fog and friction in the game at the time. Other games–particularly the block games–had fog, but the friction in SQUAD LEADER was something of a novelty. Today, such notions are quaint–even ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER, with all the additional friction that the system introduces–still has many chesslike elements in playing it. Tactical squad-level board games now are far more chaotic, for the most part. We see much the same thing in strategic simulations as of late, although this is often due to the influence of Card Driven Games. But not always. On the operational level, many games still retain chess-like qualities but even this is changing–the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series being perhaps the best known example.

Brian Train comments:

I think Eric Walters hit it on the head in his reply to your post on the CSW social site (can’t be bothered to log in and write this there). He identified four very important developments, the most iportant IMO being the advent of chaos and loss of control issues being worked into board wargames – where, as you note, they have lived comfortably in years in miniatures wargames, for good or ill effect. (I am awaiting delivery of “AK47 Republic”, a set of miniatures rules from Peter Pig that eschews a lot of the detail on weapons and focuses on troop quality and introduces a fair bit of chaos.)

I think the Internet saved board wargaming from complete collapse, and the desktop computer with all its publishing technology kept it looking good. I’m not sure all the games being produced are that great – too many of them are derivative of other not especially good designs, are not well tested and veer too far to one side or the other in terms of complexity. Owning a paintbox doesn’t make you Monet.

I dont’ want to comment on computer wargames. I don’t play them, never have, and I think the current fascination with putting everything onto a screen is a mistake. Again, people are mistaking the pretty flashy moving pictures for anything else of substance. I know that you can pile a lot of data into a computer game and have it run automatically so that a live player/umpire doesn’t have to deal with a level of detail that would swamp him. But jamming a lot of numbers into inside a “black box”, with suspicious algorithms that are not transparent to the players, will give you the wrong answers. And computer AI should be completely out of the picture – I think people may start out responding to computer AIs as if they were human adversaries, but sooner or later they end up playing to the AI’s flaws (one of these flaws being that AIs exhibit their own flaws, not human flaws).

One good thing that modern technology has brought us is the ability of humans to play together remotely. The logistics of getting enough people physically together for a worthwhile multi-player game often prevents them from happening.  With instant messaging, videoconferencing and free software that allows real-time play over the Net like VASSAL, you can have a satisfying BOGSAT game when the table is not really there in the first place.

What kind of game mechanics can we use for conflict/development situations? Interesting question. There’s a lot we shouldn’t use, certainly. I would say any mechanism that reduces a player’s control over game elements and agents, increases imponderables, and introduces the unexpected, would be most helpful – though this works only up to a point, after which the players are reacting to the system and not each other.

Some form of role-playing like exercise (preferably umpired and double-blind) with players agonizing over the allocation of pitifully meagre resources or decision abilities to nearly limitless ranges of action (like a card-driven game), and an emphasis in its execution on the unintended and secondary effects of player’s actions… that’s a start.

How might this affect professional simulation design, especially regarding conflict and development issues? A lot depends, of course, on the audience.

With students one can quite easily imagine CDG mechanics and Eurogame look-and-feel being used quite effectively to design educational games on the sorts of issues we deal with here at PaxSims, especially for a student audience that may be familiar with both (in the form of CCGs/collectable card games like Magic, for example). Of course, it would remain important to have effective debrief sessions to address where the game departs from reality if one wants to make sure participants are learning the “right” lessons.

Among professional audiences, however, those very game mechanics might be a double-edged sword in cases where there is already some resistance to simulations as a training or research tool. I once had a case where senior academic participant felt that a policy simulation was too game-like and somehow beneath him —he bolted the workshop, muttering something about “summer camp”, rather to the amusement of several much more senior and more enthusiastic policy participants who stayed.  I suspect that problem would be even more substantial if the game mechanics and materials looked too much like Pokeman or Settlers of Catan. Gary does use cards as a playing aide in the World Bank’s Carana simulation, but they’re more there to identify policy options and summarize resource costs than as a hard-and-fast definition of allowable actions CDG-style.

Within NGOs, where hierarchy issues are rather different, it might be less of a problem, and I can see Eurogame designs in particular as potentially appealing.

Brian also raises the issue of computer simulations. While I think these can be quite useful, I remain (as is probably evident from some past postings here) about their potential negatives. In particular, a boardgame or role-playing game is self-evidently a game, and its mechanics are usually quite open. This facilitates the very useful questioning of assumptions, and can sustain a quite productive dialogue about the social realities that the game is meant to model. With computer-aided simulation, by contrast, assumptions are invisibly buried in software, while the increasing visual appeal of graphics and interfaces could seduce one away from asking important questions about what is being supposedly simulated. This, of course, is Sherry Turkle’s important critique of simulation use in the physical and design sciences, and I think it applies even more in the peace, conflict, and development field (and broader social sciences) even more.

Finally, Eric—in the context of wargames—raises the issue of increasing inclusion of uncertainty, friction, and “fog of war” in game design. This is a really important development that transplants well to potential simulations of peacebuilding and development issues. As anyone knows, the “fog of peacebuilding” is a omnipresent and powerful factor in real-life peace and stabilization operations, complicated too by the sheer multiplicity of actors and the consequent difficulties of stakeholder consultation, coordination, and information flow. In my own Brynania peacebuilding simulation it is a central part of the whole purpose and design of the simulation: to simultaneously flood participants with knowledge, yet often leave them missing key details or dealing with incomplete or contradictory accounts.

Let’s keep the discussion going… other thoughts?

ALLIES FIELDEX 2010 report

A few weeks ago, we posted an announcement on behalf of the Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES) at Tufts University on their 2nd Annual Field Exercise in Stability Operations (FIELDEX). That exercise took place on April 16-17th, and you’ll find an after action report on it in the Tufts Daily:

Students learn the basics of counterinsurgency on a paintball range

By Carter Rogers

Published: Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Photo courtesy Ben Ross: FIELDEX participants playing coalition forces had to remain vigilant for mock improvised explosive devices.

This weekend, the election of a corrupt official, narrowly avoided food riots and improvised explosive devices (IED) that killed several coalition force members did not occur in a foreign war zone, but on the PnL Paintball field in Bridgewater, Mass. as part of the Field Exercise in Stability Operations, or FIELDEX.

This year’s FIELDEX was a follow−up to an exercise conducted last year as part of the Experimental College course Counterinsurgency Seminar. The Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES), a program within the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), played a large part in organizing this year’s event.

ALLIES is a student−led group devoted to improving communication and relations between future military and civilian leaders.

Sophomore Eileen Guo, the main organizer of this year’s FIELDEX, described last year’s exercise as more focused on counterinsurgency. “[Last year] it was slightly more kinetic and more about the fighting and paintball,” Guo said.

Guo took the counterinsurgency course last year and participated in the predecessor to FIELDEX.

“I thought that we learned so much last year,” Guo said. “It was this really great way of putting what we were talking about in class, or in the dorms, and actually getting some practical experience [in that field].

“I decided that we really needed to do this again, and I didn’t think that anyone else was going to do it, so I made it my little project,” Guo continued.

FIELDEX was set in the fictional country of Mazalastan, which was modeled heavily after Afghanistan. The fictional town Roshan was based off of Now Zad in Afghanistan’s Helmand province….

More at the title link above.

artificialities in simulation-based learning

The April 2020 run of the Brynania civil war simulation was as productive as ever: students negotiated, violated, then renegotiated ceasefires; a shaky UN mission was deployed (with a Security Council mandate rather more ambitious than the resources available to implement it); an agreement in principle on the political future of the country was negotiated between the government and the main rebel group, but with several potential spoilers condemning it; human rights abuses were publicized, and a prominent dissident released; and aid organizations worked together to address critical humanitarian needs.

Now that it is over (and I’ve had a chance to read through all 100+ student debriefs) I thought I would reflect not so much on what happened over seven days (representing seven simulated months) in Equatorial Cyberspace, but rather on the ways in which reality can be distorted through the simulation process, and how that can potentially distort the learning process. The observations I’m making here very much relate to the (large, intense, multi-participant) Brynanian SIM, but many would apply in other contexts too.

Imported preconceptions. Players will inevitably bring their own preconceptions to the simulation. This risks creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where initial misperceptions are reinforced rather than eroded. In the Brynania SIM, I find that some students tend to actually be even more competitive, self-interested, “realist,” and mercantile than are their real-world counterparts because they act upon such preexisting stereotypes.

You can reduce some of this in the briefing notes and in pre-SIM research by the participants, helping them to more fully understand how and why their actor behaves the way it does. However, at times I find it also requires a little bit of a nudge during the simulation, usually in the form of helpful notes from their junior staff (namely me), or in articles in the SIM media that send corrective signals. However, some of it is unavoidable too–after all, if everyone in the class knew perfectly how to build peace (as if such a knowledge was even possible!), there would be no point in having the simulation in the first place. Consequently, the most important way of dealing with this is in my own post-SIM debriefing lecture, where I can highlight what did and did not seem “realistic,” and why—thus helping to assure students learn the right lessons, and not the wrong ones.

Winning. If a simulation looks like a game—and most do—participants want to win. Moreover, they will want to win within the time frame available to them in the simulation, and their risk tolerance tends to grow as the simulation approaches the end because there are no clear consequences “after the game” of reckless behaviour.

In theory, one could deal with this by using the simulation participation grade as a form of incentive/disincentive to shape appropriate behaviour. This is hard to do in a larger classroom simulation, however, where the volume of interaction makes it difficult to monitor and assess everything that goes on. I tend to explicitly warn against the temptation to “game” the simulation in the pre-SIM orientation, and again use staff notes and the media to signal participants when they’re starting to drift out of appropriate role behaviour. Acting unrealistically also has appropriate costs. Aid agencies that are careless or reckless in their spending, for example, have been known to have had to spend much of their SIM time preparing comments for simulated parliamentary or Congressional inquiries. As a last resort, I do have another punishment: the dreaded Cyberian Simsim, a mythical bird that has been known to inflict traffic accidents, become ingested in jet engines, and once caused a cabinet meeting room to suffer a gas explosion. The simulated effect in the latter case was to knock several participants out of the simulation for an hour to reflect on their behaviour while they were “dug” out of the rubble. They got the message.

Closely related to the desire to “win” is the desire to have influence beyond a the realistic capabilities of the role. Not everyone can be a powerful state or a major rebel group. Someone also has to be the smaller actors too, and it is important that students understand that you understand that not all participants will have the same scope to make a difference in peacebuilding. Interestingly, however, while some of the student debriefs bemoaned their lack of political weight, aid money, or potential peacekeepers, two of the most “successful” actors in Brynania 2010 were the small democratic developing fictional country of Concordia (which undertook much of the mediation) and the tiny “Eastern Icasia Freedom Movement” (who managed to win a seat in the Brynanian cabinet and a degree of regional autonomy). In both cases, strategic vision, skill, and effective diplomacy were key.

Personalism. In the real world there is little doubt that personalities, leadership, and personal relationships can matter. Indeed, in peace operations they often matter a lot. It would be difficult to understand the very different transitions in South Africa and Zimbabwe without reference to Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe respectively. In Angola, Jonah Savimbi had a huge effect on the continuation of the civil war, and his death dramatically hastened its end. Peacemaking in, say, Mozambique had a lot to do with the personal characteristics of the UN SRSG Aldo Ajello, and indeed it is hard to think of a case where the skills and quality of the mediator or envoy wasn’t of importance. The fate of Afghanistan may well be determined by the attributes and weaknesses of Hamid Karzai.

The social sciences may be rather uncomfortable with the idiosyncratic and difficult-to-measure impact of leadership, preferring instead to attribute outcomes to more structural determinants. That, however, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter.

In simulations, however, the reverse may be true: the personalities of the participants may over-determine outcomes. The major reason for this, of course, is that the bureaucratic, organizational, political and other factors that shape and constrain collective behaviour aren’t presence in a simulation in which one person may represent an entire foreign ministry, aid agency, or NGO. Compounding this, many or most students come to the simulation with already-established social relationships with other students in the class, which shape their interaction and the flow of information between them (both deliberate and accidental). The post-SIM written debriefs prepared by the class always highlight the role that such personalism plays, and I’m always careful to set it in its appropriate context in my own debriefing lecture.

Sillyness. This is a delicate issue in my own simulation, which has a considerable amount of rather geeky and Pythonesque humour built into it, and a long-multi-year-tradition of certain standing jokes (such as the Simsim birds mentioned above, the Brynanian fondness for bagels, or a host of other items). At times it risks overwhelming the very serious lessons to be learned.

Why include it, then? In this case, it reflects the very specific context of the SIM, in which the participants are senior undergraduates and some graduate students, devoting an enormous amount of time (as much as 100 hours) over one of the busiest weeks of the term to a simulation that only counts for a small portion of their grade. The humour keeps it enjoyable, and 95% or more of the time is both generated and understood by players in ways that don’t interfere with the very serious purposes of it all. It also rather mirrors the real on-the-ground use of humour in peace operations as a coping mechanisms. I wouldn’t allow it, or even need it, in a simulation comprised of professionals, soldiers, diplomats, or others. Indeed, in that case it might only make the whole thing seem rather childish in the eyes of some participants, especially those already predisposed to be cynical about the practical value of simulations as a learning mechanism. However, for this group, in this context, it explains why many students pass up Friday and Saturday nights in the bars, clubs, and other very considerable distractions that surround our downtown Montreal campus to plan coups, peace operations, and humanitarian aid. It also leads to some substantial classroom bonding, as evidence by the frequency with which students mention that aspect of the simulation in either their debrief or subsequent course evaluations.

Still, at times–not often, in my experience–you need to rein it in during the simulation. Once again, I usually do this with staff notes and media cues. Judging from student comments, that usually seems to work.

Previous simulations. In real life, one can’t check alternative histories when decided in a course of action, but in some simulations participants may have knowledge of previous simulation runs. In Brynania, more then a decade of SIMs and a host of student blogs, student newspaper reports, YouTube videos, Facebook groups, and even word-of-mouth means that many participants have some sense of how things have happened before.

I could attempt to control this, but with something approaching a thousand students having taken part in the SIM over the years it wouldn’t likely be very effective: as I write this, Google lists some 1,680 hits on the search term “Brynania” alone. Instead, I treat it all as representing a cross between an oral history of Equatorial Cyberspace and a set of free “lessons learned” reports. Moreover, students are warned not to rely to heavily on reports of past runs, in part because they’re not always accurate, and more so because the dynamics rapidly evolve in different directions in different years due to both actions within the simulation and a changing international environment. I don’t think it really has all that much effect, and none of the student debriefs have identified it as such. On the contrary, if anything, all that data out there rewards students who do their research on the conflict—just like real peacebuilders!

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