Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: June 2010

Simulating Environmental Diplomacy

The Global Policy Innovations Program has a new online article by Saleem H. Ali and Markus M. Mueller on Simulating Environmental Diplomacy, which examines how environmental cooperation can help bridges in otherwise conflictual relations—and suggests that simulation can be used as a way to highlight this:

Environmental policy issues are often framed in terms of resource scarcity, spurring a scramble for that last blade of grass or last drop of water in a “tragedy of the commons.” Yet human perceptions of access to resources can be shifted from a mindset of competitive conflict to one of cooperative relationships. The psychological aspects of such a transformation are often best illustrated through simulations.

For example, a distributive conflict premised on resource quantity can be reframed to highlight cooperation in maintaining resource quality. Lakes present a classic example where it is easy to show how a common resource will be degraded for all users. A similar case is harder to make in river simulations where upstream parties have far greater power and much less to lose as a result of pollution or scarcity downstream.

Lessons from these simulation techniques are under-utilized in international diplomacy. Not only can simulations be useful in changing the narrative of environmental conflicts, but environmental issues can be useful in changing the tone of political conflicts. For example, if two countries distrust each other over religious or ethnic differences, environmental cooperation may present a neutral means of building bridges.

There is a broader approach in international relations and conflict resolution theory that holds that functional cooperation in a variety sectors—and not just with regard to environmental issues—can help reduce tensions and lay the groundwork to shifting the broader relationship to a more cooperative basis. As Ali and Mueller suggest in their article above, the process can help the parties to identify common interests. It can also result in a growing web of interdependencies that raises the cost of violent confrontation. Finally, it can influence the attitudes of participants with regard to each other, creating greater empathy and improving lines of communication. One can certainly imagine many ways in which simulations might try to capture and illustrate this theme.

One word of caution, though: I do think  there is an under-appreciated risk of an excessively functionalist approach having counter-productive effects. Certainly there is evidence of this in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where functional cooperation on environmental issues and other has had positive effects in terms of identifying non-zero-sum gains and moderating views of the “other,” but has also become a way whereby well-meaning donors and others can avoid the “big” issues that divide the two sides. Indeed, rightly or wrongly, the growing opposition on the Palestinian side to collaboration with Israeli counterparts stems from a view that such cooperation has only served to wrap Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories in more acceptable garb, and hence perpetuate it.

From a simulation point of view, it would be an interesting challenge to try to represent both the positives and the possible negatives of functional cooperation in a simulation in such a way as to explore how the former can be maximized and the latter minimized.

InfoChess, and permutations of classic games

Classic games sometimes offer interesting possibilities for both teaching and modification. On the one hand, they’re easy to play and the rules are well-known. On the other hand, reflection on the rules or rule variation can illuminate some really interesting issues. The multiplayer boardgame Risk is one such example—I have one colleague, Prof. David Romano, who has had undergraduate students play through a game and desconstruct the rules and game outcome from the perspective of international relations theory. (I also developed a somewhat satirical version of Risk based on Iraqi politics that I play with graduate students and colleagues at McGill, although for entertainment rather than education.)

One particularly interesting case of modifying a classic game for educational purposes is InfoChess, “a chess variant designed to simulate the relationship between what is known and what remains unknown in conflict, and to stimulate a deeper appreciation of the interaction between the informational domain and more traditional military affairs.” One version of the game—described in this ruleset here—allows players to obscure the identities of pieces, eliminate pieces at a distance (via “psyops”), or make an opponent skip a move (via ‘electronic warfare”). More complex versions are possible, and the game can be played both face-to-face with a (modified) conventional chess set, or is also available as computer software (see picture at right). The InfoChess approach also allows the game to be tweaked to address different types of problems. Bryan Karabaich, for example, passed on a variant that tries to capture some of the dilemmas of contemporary asymmetric warfare (such as contemporary counterinsurgency operations):

  • White has a  full roster of pieces.  Rules of engagement are that he cannot take Black Bishops.  Checkmate constitutes winning.
  • Black is given King, 8 (or 13) pawns and two bishops.  ROE are to capture any four White pieces and request negotiations.  If White accepts negotiations, Black wins.

(If one wanted the game to even more closely match recent events regarding Afghanistan, I suppose one could even allow for a Knight to be replaced when he makes unflattering comments to Rolling Stone about the King and Queen.) In his paper “So a Wargamer and a Black Swan Walk into a Bar…“, Peter Perla—who knows a thing or two about wargames—describes one game of InfoChess as “the best representation of the cognitive aspects of asymmetric warfare and information operations that I have ever seen. It was all about understanding the mental models of the key decisionmakers, and how to exploit them to win.”

For those of you are interested in reading more, you find additional information on InfoChess here, here,  here, and here. And no, the picture at the very top isn’t InfoChess, it’s just plain old chess—but seemed appropriate!

Ici, c’est la France follow-up

Game designer Kim Kanger has some excellent observations on the challenges of designing a counter-insurgency simulation in the comments section of our recent review of his game, Ici, c’est La France. If you haven’t read them yet, I suggest you do (and contribute your own thoughts too).

teaching strategic intelligence (and conflict) through games

Prof. Kristan Wheaton, who teaches intelligence studies at Mercyhurst College, has just started what promises to be an interesting series of blog posts on his experience teaching strategic intelligence through games:

This series of posts reports the initial results and lessons learned from teaching three full courses (2 undergraduate and one graduate) in strategic intelligence using games as a teaching tool.  This series of posts will begin by examining the unique challenges in teaching strategy, strategic decisionmaking and the types of intelligence that supports those efforts.  This will be followed by a short discussion concerning games-based learning generally before examining in detail the specific approaches used in these three courses….

You’ll find more at his blog, Sources and Methods.

While I’m at it, I might also mention the work that Prof. Philip Sabin does at the Department of War Studies at Kings College London. Prof. Sabin teaches an entire course on conflict simulation (which requires that students design games as a way of learning about the dynamics of military conflict) as part of KCL’s MA programme. Very cool stuff indeed–and you can even download and play some of the student games!

Review: Ici, c’est la France!

Ici, c’est la France! The Algerian War of Independence, 1954-1962. Legion Wargames, 2009. Designer: Kim Kanger. $50.00

The Algerian war of independence was, in many ways, an apparent paradox that highlighted the political fundamentals of colonial counterinsurgency. On the one hand, from a narrow military standpoint, France achieved something of a bloody victory over the forces of the Front de Libération Nationale. On the other hand, they did so at a such political cost (among both the native Algerian population and French citizens back home) that Paris was ultimately forced to end its control over the territory and grant independence. Today, there are many parallels (as well as quite a few differences) with contemporary COIN and stabilization operations, which makes Ici, c’est la France an obvious choice for our review series here in PaxSims.

My playtest partner this time around, appropriately enough, was a doctoral student specializing in French-Algerian relations, about to leave for several months of fieldwork in Algeria. While she certainly can claim to be a subject matter expert on the topic, she’s not a regular hobby gamer, which provided an opportunity to see whether the complexity of a standard wargame might prove too much for a very knowledgeable novice.

Game Contents and Play

The game covers the entire period of the Algerian war, with each turn corresponding to three months. The attractive mapboard depicts all of the major towns, cities, and administrative regions of Algeria. Do be warned, however, that the population track (used to display the political leanings of each region) does get rather overcrowded with counters, which can slow gameplay and result in pile-toppling mishaps. The publishers provide an alternative off-map sheet on their website, and we’ve also designed one here.

Players receive a certain number of operations points each turn, influenced in part by political conditions (such as the degree of government crisis in France, or the number of regions under FLN control). These are then used to recruit or upgrade FLN units, deploy French reinforcements, engage in various guerilla activities (attacking the structures of French governance and intimidating the locals, propagandizing, organizing covert cells, assassinating pro-French figures) or  counterinsurgency operations (purging FLN cells, promoting pro-French elements, infiltrating and engaging in disinformation, even forcibly resettling the local population). French units may also search for FLN guerillas, and attack them if they can be located. The combat system is straight-forward, as are most other procedures.

Many of these actions have effects on the political leanings of the local population, which are tracked for each region. The game also measures the attitudes of European settlers in Algeria (the pieds-noir), the attitude of the French population, and the degree of government crisis in Paris. Historical events are generated by event chits, with a variety of political and military effects. France wins the game if it can win military control over all of Algeria or by winning a final referendum on independence. The FLN can also win via referendum, or by spurring complete  political collapse in France.

Overall, the game works very well indeed. The rules are clear (although in a few cases I might have renamed certain categories for clarity), and the map and graphics are very good. The combat system is straight forward, and enhanced by a system of tactical choices that while little more than a rock-paper-scissors process that modifies basic combat die-rolls, nonetheless adds to the sense of immersion. I loved the system the designer adopted for breaking up the FLN’s political cells, which uses a little pyramidal display of the cell in question and a series of die-roll interrogations. While this could have been reduced to a single die roll, we found that the sequence used in the game gave a much better feel for the real-world process. My opponent, I must say, was very General Massu in her routine use of torture during interrogations!

One aspect of the game I wasn’t completely satisfied with was the use of events chits. Chits are partly pre-chosen by players, and partly random. This has the effect of making your initial “choice” of future events an important part of your game strategy—even though some of the events (such as the discovery of oil) were historically generated by forces outside the actors’ immediate strategic control. I would have preferred if most of these events had been fully randomized, perhaps reduced somewhat in effect, and possibly had some counter-factuals thrown into the potential counter mix too. Alternatively, an international dimension could be introduced whereby the orientation of external actors are affected by the diplomatic and political actions of the competing sides. This, however, is a minor quibble.

Another quibble was the treatment of towns in the game. While the major cities (which acted like regions in and of themselves) were straight-forward enough, the found the smaller urban areas seemed rather an after-thought. Again, however, this was only a minor issue,

Instructional Potential

Ici, c’est la France is a rich, detailed, and accurate portrayal of the events in Algeria between 1958 and 1962. It gives a good sense of the dynamics of insurgency, and especially of its anti-colonial variety where opinion in the colonial métropole was always an important determinant of colonial staying-power.

It is also a lengthy game (if you play the full version), and much more complex than the average non-wargamer usually experiences. While my opponent mastered it quickly, she’s a rather fast learner and I’m not at all confident the average group of students, or most professionals, could match that. Sadly, this sharply limits the potential value of the game in an educational or training setting. In full term courses with bright students one could, perhaps, assign it as a fairly major assignment, much as one would a book review—or even require that students play through it in conjunction with reading a book like Alistair Horne’s classic Savage War of Peace. Be prepared for a lot of confused rules questions from gaming newbies, however. It is also an open question whether, for the time and effort put in, they would necessarily learn more than from a regular research paper assignment.

Game Mechanics and Adaptation Potential

As noted above, the “mini-game” of purging FLN cells is clever, and almost cries out to be expanded into a much bigger game of counterterrorism/counterintelligence. While not necessarily unique or path-breaking, the systems for  political attitude tracking and most of the insurgent and counter-insurgent actions could also provide inspiration for other insurgency games. The overall game system could easily be mapped on to, say, the war in Afghanistan–indeed, I can already imagine the “General McChrystal speaks to Rolling Stone” event chit!

I would have one caution in adapting this overall game system for other conflicts, however. The Algerian war was characterized by FLN suppression (or forced integration) of most other nationalist forces—in contrast with those cases where there may be multiple semi-cooperative, semi-competitive insurgent actors, possibly vying for the support from the same constituents. This didn’t mean the FLN was always united. On the contrary, there were schisms and purges both before and after independence. Still, it certainly was less complicated in this regard than, say, the Palestinians, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or DR Congo.

Concluding Thoughts

Ici, c’est la France is both an excellent game and a very good simulation. While the level of detail, complexity, and required time commitment it involves will preclude most instructional use, those interested in the dynamics of anti-colonial insurgency will find it well worth playing.

Gaza to Ramallah

The Israeli NGO Gisha has released a new flash-based game, “Safe Passage,” which is designed to highlight some of the rather Kafkaesque residency regulations in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to their press release:

Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement today launched the first computer game of its kind in Israel: “Safe Passage” allows the user to experience interactively the restrictions on movement between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank through innovative use of animation, flash documents, video clips and a blog. The game includes an archive of dozens of legal documents that shed light on military legislation and legal rulings since the 1990s, when Israel began imposing increasing restrictions on movement between the two parts of the territory.

Users can play the role of one of three characters– a student, a businessman and a family man – trying to reach their chosen destinations. When the player enters the role of the student, she will be asked to try to convince a military mailbox to examine her request to study using a flying hat, whereas the family man finds himself sitting one moment on a bench outside his home in the West Bank and in the next being catapulted to the Gaza Strip because of a magic key. The businessman, meanwhile, contends with giant coins threatening to prevent him from manufacturing and selling ice cream, driving him to seek creative solutions on land and in the air.

According to the animator, Gilad Baker: “We faced a challenge – how to make military documents accessible to the public. Our solution was to integrate them into the personal stories of real people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, to help people understand the policy”.

Passages falls into the category of web-based advocacy games, of the sort we’ve highlighted before on PaxSims. It’s not much of a game, of course, since no matter what options you select you won’t be able to leave Gaza—much like the real situation, which is the entire point. The idea of a “game” is being used here as a baited conceptual hook to draw attention to an issue, in the hopes that the player/reader will then be motivated to learn more, and ultimately be mobilized around the featured cause. In this regard, the site is quite well done, with links to actual military orders and legal texts, as well as profiles of the real people behind the animated characters. I did wonder whether some of the abstraction and metaphor in the graphics might confuse those who aren’t already familiar with the situation, but since the project is aimed in large part at an Israeli audience this presumably will be less of a problem.

Picture at above right: Erez Crossing, from my last trip to Gaza in January. h/t to Nigel Roberts for passing on the game link.

The Social Sciences and Innovations in Gaming

There’s a great piece in the latest issue of Joint Force Quarterly 58 (July 2010) by Margaret McCown on how to avoid giving PaxSims the blogpost you once promised us. Wait, no that’s not it—it’s actually on the interrelationship between social science theory and game design:

This is a fascinating time to be a gamer, particularly one developing policy games. The types of problems to be gamed, the technical support available to do so, and the importance of exercises’ findings all seem imbued with unusual potential and urgency. The security challenges that we capture and present in strategic games are increasingly characterized by transnational, networked, and multilevel domestic, national, and international factors, all of which require new or, at least, sharpened tools to represent and assess. At the same time, a range of new tools, from distributed computer gaming systems to virtual reality, has become available. This article argues, however, that for practitioners writing virtually any game, the social sciences—economics, political science, and sociology—constitute the single most important source of both substantive theory and methodological insight.

The simple explanation behind this assertion is that almost all strategic level policy problems are also social science problems; they concern how actors, whether individuals, groups, bureaucracies, social movements, or nations, make calculated decisions with respect to their interests and environment, construct social institutions and rules to further those goals, and compete for goods allocated in ways influenced by all of the above. This article briefly highlights some ways in which social scientists have theorized and tested hypotheses about how and why actors make and break rules, and the relevance of these efforts to gaming.

She highlights a number of key theoretical issues from economics, experimental psychology, and political science that can both the explored in games (as a possible research methodology), and reflected in games (as embedded hypotheses, design philosophies, heuristic devices, or even an inspirations). There’s a great many that could be added beside, including many drawn from game theory (reputation issues in iterative games, for example).

As for the MIA blog-post, we’ll forgive Margaret for that. After all, she does serve sushi at her gaming roundtables.

Simulation & Gaming (June 2010)

The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 41, 3 (June 2010) is now available online:

  • Analyzing Conflict Dynamics With the Aid of an Interactive Microworld Simulator of a Fishing Dispute
    • Ranan D. Kuperman
  • Balancing Play, Meaning and Reality: The Design Philosophy of LEVEE PATROLLER
    • Casper Harteveld, Rui Guimarães, Igor S. Mayer, and Rafael Bidarra
  • Incorporating Customer Lifetime Value Into Marketing Simulation Games
    • Hugh M. Cannon, James N. Cannon, and Manfred Schwaiger
  • Video Game-Based Methodology for Business Research
    • Larry L. Lawson and Catherine L. Lawson
  • Debriefing in Moodle: Written feedback on trust and knowledge sharing in a social dilemma game
    • Margaret Oertig
  • Debriefing a Health-Related Educational Game: A Case Study
    • Jeffrey L. Lennon
  • Using Gaming Literacies to Cultivate New Literacies
    • Hui-Yin Hsu and Shiang-Kwei Wang
  • Database Manager
    • Andrew Martin
  • Operations Strategy with Paper Boats
    • Narendar Sumukadas
  • Association News & Notes
    • Songsri Soranastaporn

While abstracts are available through the link to SAGE journals above, you’ll need a subscription to access the full text.

more on Battle for Baghdad

The folks at MCS Group had some comments on my recent review of Battle for Baghdad. Rather than risk them being missed, I thought I would flag them here:

Thank you for the review of our new Battle for Baghdad game, and the kind comments regarding the Nicaragua game design. We would like to clarify Battle for Baghdad’s design and purpose. The game is not intended to be a military simulation of operations in the Iraqi capital, nor is it intended to reflect historical realities of the specific military aspects of the campaign. Rather, the game is more political than military, and the design intent was to place players in a situation of modern political conflict using the situation in Baghdad as a backdrop…

Readers should go to the comments section of the original review to read the rest. We welcome everyone’s thoughts.

military gaming secret of the week: the D7

This week, your intrepid PaxSims editors attended a very interesting and enjoyable session of National Defense University’s regular Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming, organized by Margaret McCown and Tim Wilkie. Quite apart from the great presentations and discussions, the refreshments were great too! Gary will have a report on the highlights soon.

As we made our way across Fort McNair, the two of us reflected on the resources that military gamers can call upon. How could DoD could transform traditional hobby boardgaming?

Not content to use a regular six-sided dice of the sort used by potential US opponents around the world, we suspected, the US military would instead have its own secret weapon: the D7.

  • The D7, of course, could roll one higher than the regular six-sided dice used by peer competitors like Russia or China, and considerably higher than the d4s fielded by third world militaries. It would have a very cool name—although with birds, classic ships, and famous military commanders already taken by the Air Force, Navy, and Army we’re not sure what’s left. Perhaps “The Gygax?”
  • Developed by Lockheed Martin, the D7 Gygax would involve multiple redundant controls, over-the-horizon game acquisition capability, network capability, EMP hardening, and cost $393 million per unit.
  • The D7 Gygax would have its various components produced in at least 32 different Congressional districts.Even if a cheaper d7 might be available from a consortium of European defense contractors, congressional politics would make it unlikely that DoD would purchase those instead.
  • The D7 would use next-generation stealth technology, enabling it to be rolled without anyone knowing. Unless, of course, it rains.
  • The D7 would be purchased in large numbers by oil-rich Saudi Arabia. However, due to Israeli concerns about maintaining its strategic edge, the export model would only be capable of rolling a maximum of 6.5.
  • Given fiscal constraints, as well as the fact that insurgent groups of the sort frequently faced by the US military don’t use dice at all (but rather engage in asymmetric card-driven Eurogames), the US Secretary of Defense would announce that the US might purchase fewer D7s than orginally planned. In response, Lockheed Martin would plaster the Pentagon Metro station with patriotic advertisements praising the D7s capabilities (“The D7 Gygax: Sentinel of Freedom!” or “The D7 Gygax: Rolling To Keep America Safe!”), while members of Congress from districts where D7 components are made would lobby for the purchase of even larger numbers.
  • The D7 would first prove its ability to project global gaming power when, amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, three D7s were deployed to the region via Guam. North Korea, which boasts no fewer than 1 million d2s of its own, would threaten to “burn the gameboard beneath the very  dice of the imperialist aggressors.”

I’m sure we’ve missed a few. Suggestions?

Books and Boots

This week the New York Times “At War” blog has a thoughtful piece by one of the organizers of Tufts University’s FIELDEX 2010 field exercise on how simulations can help bridge the theory-practice divide, by giving students some sense of the real-life challenges of peace, stabilization, and COIN operations:

Books and Boots

New York Times, 15 June 2010

Jamie Lynn de Coster

In classrooms, students study the war in books, reports and manuals. Although discussions analyzing policies and practices are fruitful, these debates are often limited to the experiences — or the lack of experiences –  of the students in the class. And in a war zone, the hard lessons are learned on the job.

As a graduate student and a military officer, I am all too familiar with this dilemma. Students are, inevitably, far removed from what really happens on the ground. Consequently, we are limited in our ability to truly understand what is going on in our current war zones.

In an attempt to bridge this gap between theory (books) and practice (boots), a lieutenant colonel in the Army, five undergraduate students and I took 60 students from Tufts University and all three military service academies out of the classroom and into the woods for a 24-hour conflict zone simulation. Our mission was to impart an appreciation for the challenges that civilians and military forces face in conflict zones by allowing the students to experience these simulated difficulties firsthand.

Reflections on EVOKE

On May 19, the first iteration of EVOKE—the World Bank’s pioneering online social networking project/game on social entrepreneurship—came to an end. Some top players will receive online mentorhsips, seed money for projects, and a travel scholarships to an EVOKE summit in Washington DC. Others will get certificates for participating. A second run of the project is planned for 2011.

The Numbers…

According to the World Bank Institute:

By the time the EVOKE adventure ended on May 19, 19,324 people from 150 countries registered to play. Players had submitted over 23,500 blog posts (about 335 each day), 4,700 photos and over 1,500 videos highlighting challenges and solutions to the development issues featured each week.

You’ll also find some positive reporting of the data on InfoDev. While I haven’t yet seen how those numbers broke down, earlier statistics posted on the EVOKE website on March 20 give some idea of who was participating:

  • Total number of Agents (as of March 20): 11,474
    • by gender:
      • 2990 women (26.1%)
      • 8484 men (73.9%)
    • by location
      • United States: 5656 (49.3%)
      • Canada: 944 (8.2%)
      • South Africa: 871 (7.6%)
      • United Kingdom: 436 (3.8%)
      • Other: 3567 (31.2%)

While the totals were much almost twice as high by the time the project ended it May, presumably the gender and location distributions would have been roughly similar.

What do those numbers mean? Since EVOKE was especially aimed at African youth, critics are sure to point to the fact that the vast majority of participants were in the US, UK, Canada, and likely elsewhere in the OECD countries.

I’m not sure this is a terribly useful criticism. It was clear from the start that any web-based English-language educational initiative would suffer from this bias, given the financial, technical, and linguistic barriers to internet access in Africa. The real issue is how many non-Western participants were engaged at what cost per capita, and since I haven’t seen a detailed budget for the project I’m not really in a position to comment on its cost effectiveness. However, if the project did engage significant numbers in the developing world at a reasonable cost, the participation of those outside the primary target group isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Presumably, it represents a contribution to both development education and cross-cultural dialogue, as well as contributing substantive content in terms of EVOKE blog-posts.

The reported number of blog posts per agent suggests that many participants took a tour of EVOKE but soon found their interest waning. The Edutech report suggests that 10-20% of participants could be categorized as “active,” which seems about right to me, and not at all bad for a project of this sort. According to the EVOKE Class of 2010 “graduation” data available via Googledocs, some 4,733 Agents graduated (by completing at least one of the various missions, objectives, and quests), with an average of 3.2 missions, 3.9 objectives, and 2.5 quests per agent by my calculation.

Personally, I think that EVOKE’s sometimes rather awkward interface was a barrier to fuller participation. It was one of the less intuitive and effective social networking or online discussion forums that I’ve used.


Finally, what of the content? Number crunching, site statistics, and cost-effectiveness data really doesn’t tell you what participants may—or may not—have learned from the process.

Here, I’ll admit, my initial concerns were largely sustained throughout the project. EVOKE itself consisted of several main content components:

  • The central comic-style storyboard, which told the tale of the shadowy EVOKE group that worked to alleviated global development problems in 2020 through innovative action and social entrepreneurship.
  • Initial links to outside materials.
  • The blog entries, pictures, videos, comments, and links contributed after the launch by the EVOKE mentors.
  • The “evidence,” blog entries, pictures, videos, comments, and links contributed by ordinary participants.

The storyline itself, which was intended as the spark for each week’s discussions among agents, was usually rather weak.

  • Episodes 1-2 saw a famine in Japan, due—apparently—to food shortages. The famine, however, seemed confined to Japan, which suggests that either 1) global trade had collapsed (otherwise, why not import food?), or 2) Japan had suffered a severe economic crisis which had drastically reduced household purchasing power. There was no discussion of this, however. Instead, the heroes of the story, dispatched from the secret EVOKE HQ in Senegal, were sent to Japan to construct rooftop gardens and floating greenhouses in Tokyo Harbour. Problem solved! From a development economics point-of-view, it made no sense at all, and there were few helpful links to expert websites on food security issues. Since I’m a teacher, I would have to assign it a failing grade: F.
  • Episode 3 concerned brownouts and electrical shortages in Rio de Janiero. The EVOKE heroes promoted power-generating windmills, solar balloons, and even a piezoelectric disco dance-floor as the solution. There was no discussion of the major issues in the energy sector (most of which aren’t resolvable through small scale social entrepreneurship). The only saving grace of the episode was the failure of one local community to take up the windmill initiative, which nicely highlighted the need for community and individual buy-in to development projects. Grade: C.
  • Episode 4 dealt with a future London where heavy rain had overloaded the sanitation system, resulting in severe clean water shortages. Cholera in Southwark! How could the EVOKE team warn the public where and how to get safe water? Those of you who might have said “public service announcements in the media” are apparently under the misapprehension that the Britons of 2020 still spend hours watch Big Brother, Dr. Who, or football on the telly. Instead, giant organic LED displays are required used to display images on buildings (presumably capitalizing on that quaint English custom of standing outside during torrential downpours staring at, well, the sides of office buildings). Yes, good development practice suggests that you do something complicated, expensive, and untested instead of something easy, cheap, and proven. Grade: F
  • Episode 5 saw the collapse of the post-communist banking system in Cuba, apparently spurred by  the crash of the US dollar. The answer: print an alternative local currency (apparently backed by nothing) on old printing presses! Call it the Somalia solution.  There’s also a lot of discussion in the episode of community banking and microinvestment, but not really enough for the average EVOKE reader to make much sense of. Grade: D

  • Episode 6 addressed empowering women through the story of a woman activist kidnapped by retrograde jihadists who opposed female participation in the public sphere. Fortunately, one hacker is able to identify her location and enable a military rescue (how very Special Forces of the World Bank!), while others promote a venture capital fund to assist female entrepreneurs. Sadly, gender empowerment is a little more complicated than that. Grade: C+
  • Episode 7 concerned a fire in the future Los Angeles that leaves 300,000 homeless. The team uses the Ushahidi crowdsourcing technologies to facilitate emergency communications, and helps resolve the immediate emergency housing situation with hexayurts. The lesson here is urban resilience and the remarkable capabilities of disaster-affected populations, two very important things that media coverage of disasters often obscures with its focus on external aid. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that theme was very effectively communicated. Grade: C+
  • Episode 8 highlighted the value of indigenous knowledge—again, another important development lesson. The EVOKE team discouraged slash-and-burn agriculture in favour of more sustainable agricultural practices, as well as promoting ecotourism (to reduce poaching) and highlighted the value of indigenous botanical medicines (again, all useful things). What was lost, perhaps, was the need to embed this within broader context. After all, you need transportation infrastructure and marketing expertise to expand the agricultural sector, and tourist infrastructure to support ecotourism. While perhaps I’m adding too many layers, it is precisely this sort of interplay of complexity that make development work interesting. They are certainly things that social entrepreneurs need to take into account. Grade: B-
  • Episode 9 sees an outbreak of River Flu in China. The EVOKE team helps network researchers and clinicians, and microfranchise pharmacies and clinics. With the public bombarded with inaccurate rumours that that threaten to create mass panic, they also help to broadcast more useful information via (very sensibly) TV and SMS. Grade: B+ for the SMS usage, but D for the franchise clinics and pharmacies—as a longer term initiative perhaps, but as a rapid response to an epidemic and public panic? Hardly. Plus this is China, with a massive public sector to be mobilized for localized emergencies.

Running against the backdrop of all these adventures are the activities of Citizen X, a hacker who seems to want to publicize the EVOKE team’s secrets at any costs. At the very end, a shadowy figure called Alpha appears, and threatens to destroy EVOKE. Perhaps they’re both anti-globalization protesters. Or one might be Paul Wolfowitz, bent on revenge.

The Discussion

Despite a suboptimal user interface, EVOKE did generate some 23,500 blog posts—a not inconsiderable number of reflections, dialogues, and ideas on development and social entrepreneurship. Moreover, the dialogue (or, more accurately, the “multilogue”) went beyond this in many cases, to the formation of friendships, collaboration, third-party wikis and websites, and enduring off-site contacts and networking. Much of this was undoubtedly a very positive thing. (Those interesting in the impact of all this would do well to have a look through the discussion at, a website intended to “leave a trace of EVOKE’s social experiments, fails and wins,” as well as EVOKE Forever)

Some of the blog postings on EVOKE were outstanding: thoughtful, original, contemplative, and thought-provoking. Many were good best efforts, as participants sought to engage the subject matter. Still others were innocently inaccurate, misleading, or distracting. A few had particular viewpoints that they wished to evangelize. The peer review process built into the system provided some degree of quality-check, in that Agents could “vote” approval of ideas posted by others. However, such net populism doesn’t always assure that what receives approval is all that sensible or grounded in international development experience. (Had it been, there would have been an EVOKE revolt at the silly storylines featured each week.) There were also mentors who posted ideas, or who might comment on the ideas and issues raised by others. However they were too few to guide or facilitate many of the discussions.

Any experienced teacher knows that classroom discussion is a good thing. However, they also know that if you leave a class to discuss issues without any support, they’re at significant risk of accepting trendy stereotypes or allowing inaccuracies to go unchallenged. Sadly, I saw a fair share of this in EVOKE discussions. I’m not suggesting here that EVOKE ought to promote a particular set of “truths.” I am suggesting that far more effort needs to be put into how the initiative can encourage participants to develop a critical yet well-grounded understanding of development issues.

Final Thoughts

There has been some significant discussion of EVOKE in the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, much of this has been filtered through ideological lenses: since the World Bank is behind the project, it must be a cunning PR ruse to brainwash the masses into blind acceptance of structural adjustment, privatization, and the Washington consensus. This sort of criticism is certainly evident in the satirical INVOKE site that was set up as a parody to EVOKE (see typical panel below—it’s witty, biting stuff, and often better written than the real website). Similarly, the content of EVOKE has also been criticized for promoting a sort of philanthrocapitalism that fails to challenge market systems.

I’ll leave those sorts of debates for those who prefer to see the complex challenges of development in starkly black and white terms. However, even within the context of the development community mainstream I think that EVOKE’s basic storyline is, for the most part, dysfunctional. In promoting social entrepreneurship—a worthy goal—it usually fails to highlight the real-life challenges of bring ideas to fruition and having a positive impact. Many of the sorts of fixes that the EVOKE team adopt are typically simplistic, gimicky, unsustainable, and divorced (and devoid) of broader social, economic, political, and cultural context.

It could be argued, of course, that things needed to be simplified for the target youth audience. While this is true, I’m not sure that complexity can’t be made interesting and engaging. Certainly readers can be encouraged to ask questions, consult stakeholders, and pretest ideas.

It could also be argued that the EVOKE story was simply a mechanism designed to encourage initial discussion and later activism—a prod to social networking and action, rather than educational content in itself. This, I think, is a much more substantive response to my concerns. After all, the website is built around the idea of participation and discussion. It also repeatedly emphasizes the “ten powers” needed to change the world—collaboration, courage, creativity, entrepreneurship, local insight, knowledge sharing, resourcefulness, spark, sustainability, and vision—all of which are obviously good things.

However, I think they’ve underestimated the extent to which students can absorb the wrong lessons, and overestimated the ability of many participants to separate the valuable lessons from the more misleading blog posts and comments. It also doesn’t answer the question why the World Bank—with more possibly more smart, experienced technical and aid professionals than any other development institution on the planet—couldn’t have come up with content that more accurately describes what real-world development looks like.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that the “medium is the message,” suggesting that form is more determinative of social impact than is content. In some ways, this idea seems deeply embeded into the design philosophy and visual imagery of EVOKE, which very much puts emphasis on edgy style and social networking and pays rather less attention to providing a supportive knowledge base.

However, McLuhan was at best only half right. The message is the message too, and on this critical dimension the first iteration of EVOKE fell short. Perhaps a second version will address some of these shortcomings. After all, good social entrepreneurship honestly assesses its impact and shortcomings, and tries again.

* * *

Rex – having had nothing to do with Evoke, yet working at the Bank, I have to say I think this is a fair assessment – Evoke was awful flashy and the teaching seemed undirected at best (an afterthought or nonexistent at worst).  I had signed up as a Mentor, but my instructions were to click on people’s walls and tell them what was good – it could’ve used a lot more direction and much clearer objectives.  In my opinion, simulations are best when they are designed with clear teaching objections and then the participants are tricked into learning, often without realizing it until after the fact.  I hope evaluations like this are heard by the designers as constructive criticism and are useful in their next attempts, because successful learning in environments like these would be a great step forward for development practitioners and those interested in these topics. – Gary

following PaxSims?

While I’ve added a comment to this effect in the sidebar to the right, I thought I would post a reminder here too. If you’re a regular PaxSims reader, you’ll find support for either RSS feeds or email notification at the bottom of the sidebar. That way you’ll be automatically notified when there’s new material!

build-your-own nuclear weapons

The Stimson Center has developed fascinating online education game/simulation—Cheater’s Risk—in which you play the role of a country trying to evade nuclear proliferation safeguards and monitoring. The simulation is interspersed with informative videos which examine both the various routes to the covert development of nuclear weapons capability, and the safeguards that might lead to detection.

For what it’s worth, after my play-through Canada now has a small (simulated) arsenal of 1-5 untested nuclear weapons. Watch out, Denmark—we’ll no longer tolerate all that flag-planting on Hans Island!

VS-Games 2011

The 3rd International Conference in Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications will take place at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) in Athens, Greece on 4-6 May 2011. VS-Games 2011 “aims to meet the significant challenges of the cross-disciplinary community that work around these serious application areas by bringing the community together to share case studies of practice, to present virtual world infrastructure developments, as well as new frameworks, methodologies and theories, and to begin the process of developing shared cross-disciplinary outputs.”

We are seeking contributions that advance the state of the art in the technologies available to support sustainability of serious games. The following topics in the areas of environment, military, cultural heritage, health, smart buildings, v-commerce and education are particularly encouraged:

  • Game design
  • AI applications for serious games
  • Serious games methodologies
  • User-modelling in serious games
  • Pervasive gaming
  • Interactivity issues
  • Game design
  • Alternate reality games
  • Virtual environments
  • Augmented reality
  • Visualisation techniques
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Mobile games
  • Education and learning
  • Multimedia gaming
  • Case studies in serious games and virtual worlds

You’ll find the conference website and call for proposals here.

%d bloggers like this: