Adam Elkus at the Rethinking Security blog recently had an interesting post on Starcraft II and the management of large militaries, highlighting issues of command and control problems in large complex military forces, delegation of authority, and micromanagement. (His point on Starcraft II is right on, too—I like the game, but the need to control every single decision makes it difficult to focus on strategy.) This issue of micromanagement was then taken by by Crispin Burke at Wings Over Iraq, who highlights how developments in technology may tempt senior command staff to become far too involved in tactical decision-making.
I want to have another stab at this from a simulation design point-of-view. If you’re developing a simulation of, say, peace operations or development assistance in fragile and conflict-affected countries, how “micro” or “macro” ought to be the perspective that you provide?
The easy and obvious answer to that, of course, is “as macro or micro as your client group needs.” If you are training students or personnel for field deployment or small projects, they’ll need to develop “tactical” engagement skills like conflict resolution and deescalation, cross-cultural communications, small group leadership, project design and management, and so forth. If you’re training managers and decision-makers who deal with bigger issues of resource allocation and national policy, then you focus on the strategic stuff.
While that holds true if you have a clearly defined client group with clear professional needs, however, it is less useful as a guide to designing classroom simulations where students would really benefit from both sets of insights. This is particularly true in the era of the “strategic corporal” (or “strategic aid worker”), where local mistakes can have broad implications (Abu Ghuraib, anyone?). Ideally, a simulation ought to highlight those dynamics, as well as the big-politics of aid conferences and UN Security Council resolutions.
Indeed, some of the most teachable moments from my own classroom simulation came from precisely this sort of interaction:
- A (simulated) MSF needs assessment mission that failed to notify the rebel commanders that it was operating in its area, and was seized by nervous militia at a rebel checkpoint. The micro event had macro effects, as the issue of the missing aid worker (a Belgian named Hercule Poirot, no less) had a chilling effect on the risk tolerance of other aid actors.
- A (simulated) UN peacekeeping mission where the UN became aware of an impending rebel ceasefire violation but had no mandate or military means to stop it. The answer was both tactical and strategic: the UN force commander ordered very obvious UN helicopter overflights in the rebel assembly area, to signal to the rebels (who had no wish to attack the UN) that they had lost the element of surprise.
- A (simulated) UNICEF infant and maternal health program, launched in the areas of our fictional country with the highest infant mortality rates. The program had been very thoughtfully designed by the student concerned, building on real-life best practices. However, it 1) contained a family planning component, and 2) the areas of highest need were those areas in which a rebellious ethnic minority was concentrated. The rebels, wanting leverage over the UN mediator, seized upon the UNICEF family planning program as a “UN eugenics program” aimed at their ethnic minority, and walked away from negotiations until they were offered unrelated political concessions.
In all three cases (and I could cite countless other examples), the connection between local, small-scale actions and the strategic bigger picture—a relationship that is so important in politically sensitive, conflict-prone areas—was brought home to students very effectively. Had the simulation been exclusively focused at the macro or micro ends of peacebuilding, those interactions might have been lost.
Yet—and here is the connundrum— if you do allow students to roleplay the small stuff, they, or the simulation, can easily get overwhelmed. You don’t want to drown in detail. Nor do you want to give students the idea that micromanagement is a good idea, or that defence ministers or New York really decide what routes peacekeepers will take from village A to village B.
How might a simulation deal with this? In many cases I’ve tried assigning multiple students to a role, and giving them different responsibilities as “HQ” or “field.” This helps a little, but not as much as one might expect—because my course simulation runs 12 hours a day for a week, in practice HQ and field staff need to cover for each other frequently (because of courses, work, etc), and the division-of-labour isn’t quite what I intended.
You can also try to manage it as simulation moderator by waving students off most tactical decisions (“Don’t worry what spare tires cost or the cheapest type of maize.. your local staff take care of those things” or “You have a third world military.. they don’t follow detailed tactical orders.”) while occasionally throwing the odd tactical vignette their way (“You see UN deminers removing the minefield you’ve laid around your positions.. apparently they’ve launched a demining program without consulting the combatants–what do you want to do?”). In my own experience, this has worked best, and has an added bonus above and beyond highlighting the role of “strategic corporals”—it also makes the simulation more immersive and “real” to the participants.
I’m sure there are other suggestions out there too. In cases where you want simulation participants to get a sense of both strategic/big picture and tactical/local dynamics in a simulation, what tricks are there for doing this that don’t encourage dysfunctional micromanagement? I’m particularly interested in how this can be done in role playing simulations and boardgames, but if there are any particularly useful examples from computer simulation and gaming, feel free to cite them!