Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: August 2010

Jerusalem Post simulates Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (sort of)

While it doesn’t seem to have been much of a simulation—only a few were involved, all from a similar background, and judging from the comment that “the simulation could have carried on for hours” it sounds like it didn’t go on very long indeed. After all, in the Middle East even normal conversations on the peace process can go on for hours.

Nonetheless, on Sunday the Jerusalem Post organized a “simulation” of the impending Israeli-Palestinian direct peace negotiations:

Simulators attempt to gauge peace talks

Role-playing ex-generals convened by ‘Post’ agree Obama is key.


Jerusalem Post, 30 August 2010

How will the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, slated to kick off at a festive summit in Washington on Wednesday, end?

If a simulation game played on Sunday by a group of former IDF brass is any guide, the chances for success are not great and the key ultimately rests in the hands of one man – US President Barack Obama.

The Jerusalem Post convened on Sunday a group of former top IDF officers currently affiliated with the Council for Security and Peace, an association of national security experts, to play the roles of key players in the peace process and examine what the chances are for success or failure.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom, a former deputy head of the National Security Council, played the role of Obama; the council president, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Nati Sharoni, played Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; retired Col. Shaul Arieli, head of the peace administration (its mandate was to produce working papers on permanent-status issues and act as something of a database for the negotiators) under Ehud Barak during the Camp David talks in 2000, played the role of PA President Mahmoud Abbas; and Brig.- Gen. (res.) Gadi Zohar, former head of the IDF’s civil administration in the West Bank, played the Arab world, primarily Egypt and Jordan, whose leaders will be present at Wednesday’s summit.

The two main conclusions from the simulation were first, that the level of mistrust between Israel and the PA is deep and profound, serving as an obstacle in and of itself without even considering the domestic political challenges each side faces….

As for me, I’m profoundly pessimistic about the prospects for the talks too, not necessarily for all of the same reasons—but that’s another issue.

On being the bad guys

As many PaxSims readers may know, there has been considerable controversy in the electronic gaming world over the forthcoming release in October of Medal of Honor, a first-person-shooter that allows players to assume the role of US Special Forces—or Taliban insurgents. UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox has called for the game to be banned. Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay has blasted the game too, saying that “I find it wrong to have anyone, children in particular, playing the role of the Taliban. I’m sure most Canadians are uncomfortable and angry about this.” Electronic Arts, maker of the game, has not surprisingly, stood by its decision to produce it.

This isn’t the first time these issues have come up with regard to video games. Commenting on the debate, Richard Poplak (who has written a book on Western popular culture in the Muslim world) offers some interesting thoughts on “Why It’s OK to Wage Joystick Jihad,” today in the Globe and Mail, setting it all in the broader context of gaming violence for entertainment purposes. How does one balance free speech, censorship, the rights of game players, concern over the effects of violence on the impressionable, sensitivity to war victims, realism, and other concerns? (In this regard, it may also a good time to go back and reread Frida Castillo’s paper Playing by the Rules: Applying International Humanitarian Law to Video and Computer Games, which we mentioned last year on the blog.)

In the case of simulating violence for educational purposes, it is easier to make the argument that some participants should be playing the “bad guys.” Doing so—in a well designed simulation—can help to breakdown stereotypes, generate greater understanding, and help to predict future challenges and responses. Indeed, many of the reasons for doing so parallel the general arguments in favour of red teaming, whether in simulations, analytic settings, policy development, or otherwise.

That being said, realistically simulating violence can have its risks even in an educational or professional setting. For example:

  • Simulating something as horrific as genocide might be seen to be disrespectful, or to trivialize it. Most instructors would think twice before designing a WWII simulation in which some participants played the role of SS Einsatzgruppen or concentration camp commanders. Would it then be more acceptable to simulate mass killings in the Balkans, Asia, or Africa, or assign participants to roles in which they might be inclined to commit fictionalized mass atrocities?
  • The more accurate the representation, the more unpleasant it might make the simulation process—a challenge where players are required to self-motivate themselves to a significant degree. I well remember one civil war simulation where an insurgent players kidnapped aid workers, and then began issuing graphic descriptions of their executions as part of an psychological effort to undermine humanitarian initiatives. His logic for doing so was impeccable, but I was worried that it would ruin the experience for the students playing aid agencies. Consequently, after complimenting him on his gruesome writing skills, I asked him to tone things down a little.
  • Graphic simulated violence—even in prose—might well trigger psychological responses from students who have experiences of it in either civil conflicts or otherwise. In another simulation at McGill, one of the students playing the role of a human rights NGO drafted an excellent “report “on gender-based violence in our fictional setting, including detailed accounts of rape as a weapon of war. I was concerned that there could be students in the class who had experienced sexual assaults in other settings, and again asked them to tone it down a little before they released to report to the other participants.

On the other hand, these things can be difficult to call, and potential effects can be difficult to predict. In one case where I asked a student to be a little less graphic in their simulation materials, they informed me that they had been a personal victim of precisely the sort of violence described—and thought it was important that its real horror be brought home to their classmates. Certainly there is a cost in excessively sanitizing the horrors of war for simulation purposes, or to ignore the fact that there people in conflict-affected countries that engage in instrumental mass abuses of human rights.

My conclusions? I don’t really have any, other than to suggest that the issue may deserve some reflection and thought when designing educational and training simulations around these issues. As with peacebuilding itself, there are rarely perfect answers to such dilemmas—only thoughtful ones that pay due attention to the risks, benefits, and potential complications involved.

looking for a simulated country?

Well, look no further: as part of the AMANI AFRICA EURORECAMP process of building African Union capacity in the areas of crisis management, peacebuilding, and Chapter VI peace operations, a full website has been developed detailing the countries of a fictional subcontinent of Kisiwa located off the coast of Somalia. The Factbook includes:

  • historical, political, and  topographical maps for the region
  • a detailed history of the area
  • individual profiles of the five countries of Kisawa: Carana, Katasi, Mosana, Namuna, Rimosa, and Sumora.

It is an outstanding resource for anyone who wants a ready-made setting in which to conduct a simulation on fragile and conflict-prone countries.

UPDATE: Much of the materials for Amani Africa are now offline. However, I have archived the Carana scenario on PAXsims.


Harvard humanitarian studies course/field exercise

The Humanitarian Studies Course (HSC) is a collaborative educational program designed to train medical residents, fellows, nurses, public health and policy graduate students along with other professionals with a vested interest in humanitarian relief operations to carry out effective international health and humanitarian work.  HSC will train participants in current humanitarian issues as well as the methodologies and  essential skills that best prepare humanitarian workers to operate in the field.

The Humanitarian Studies Course is offered to the public and is currently run twice a year. The ‘HSIR’ or ‘Humanitarian Studies Initiatitive for Residents’ program which is open to public, is run separately from the Humanitarian Studies in the Field program which is a Harvard School of Public Health course run by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Participants from both programs take part in a joint training simulation exercise which is held in the spring near Boston, Massachusetts.

The next course will be held in April 2011. For details, see the websites of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the Humanitarian Studies Course.

graduate education on conflict and peacemaking

The United States Institute of Peace recently published a report by Nike Carstarphen, Craig Zelizer, Robert Harris, and David J. Smith on graduate education and professional practice in international peace and conflict. It is quite critical of the way most graduate programs prepare students for future careers in this area:

  • Graduate-level academic institutions are not adequately preparing students for careers in international peace and conflict management. Curricula need to incorporate more applied skills, cross-sectoral coursework, and field-experience opportunities.
  • Unlike most faculty, students, and alumni, employers see substantial room for improvement in preparing students for the field.
  • Overseas experience is, for employers, the most valuable asset.
  • General project management skills—program planning and design, monitoring and evaluation, computer literacy, report writing skills, budgeting, staff management, research skills, grant writing, and knowledge of the funding and policy world—and cross-cultural competencies and language skills are critical.
  • International peace and conflict management practices increasingly overlap with more traditional work, such as human rights, humanitarian issues, and development programming.
  • Employers want candidates who have a holistic understanding of international conflict work, specialized knowledge and skills, practical know-how, and political savvy, yet often fail to grasp what academic programs are in fact teaching students to prepare them for the field.
  • Academic programs need to strengthen their outreach and interaction with employers and to market the value of their programs.
  • To better prepare themselves for the field, recent graduates and alumni are seeking to increase their applied education, field experience, project management skills, mentoring, and career guidance.

As a university-based educator, I could reply that universities aren’t necessarily about teaching job-related skills, but also about broadening minds, encouraging critical and analytical thought, honing research and writing skills, and so forth. However, while that is undoubtedly true, I also tend to agree with much of the thrust of the report, especially its emphasis on acquiring field and other outside-the-classroom experience. I always encourage students to pursue internship and similar opportunities. Indeed, to slip in a plug for my own institution, the lower cost of Canadian tuition fees compared to comparable US or UK schools (for non-Brits) means that what you save on tuition would pretty much enable you to go anywhere in the world for a year as a volunteer during or after your academic program.

While simulation can in no way substitute for field experience, it does provide a form of experiential-based learning that potentially addresses some of the shortcoming that the USIP report identifies. In particular, it can be a good way of addressing what the authors refer to as the “theory vs practice” problem:

Several employers felt that students came out of graduate programs filled with theories about the sources and dynamics of conflicts, but not knowing how to translate their knowledge to real-world practice. One practitioner remarked that recent graduates often don’t realize that in the field in choosing how to respond to conflict situations, that there is often no ideal response, only the need to choose “the least worst option.”

I don’t think that theory and practice are polar opposites—on the contrary, theory that does a poor job describing, explaining, and predicting actual behaviour is bad theory to begin with. However, simulation exercises coupled with effective debrief sessions can be a very useful way of exploring these tensions, and how broad generalizations embedded in theory necessarily interact with specific contextual realities.

The report also highlights the value of “political savvy” as a skill, and notes the useful role of case-study based teaching as a way to develop this:

Academic programs that use case studies, that familiarize students with government policies and strategies, and that focus on the role of power and personal, organizational, and national interests better prepare students to understand both “what is” and strategies for “what can/should be.” An increasing emphasis on conflict advocacy and knowledge of the field and key players is essential in this area.

That being said, I have some doubts as to how much political savvy can be learned at school. If it could, political scientists would be especially skilled at politics too—and anyone who knows us knows that certainly isn’t the case!

simulation and micromanagement

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!

new review for an old book

Rex’ recent post on InfoChess reminded me of a great book in my library, New Rules for Classic Games by R. Wayne Schmittberger.  For those of us withering away in the heat of the northern hemisphere, there is still a month left in this oppressive summer, so I figured a short review of this classic book might be helpful to those of you looking for an interesting read to get your creative juices flowing on those game designs you’re working on.

I’ve read this book a few times and now have half a dozen copies in my library to gift my friends who are aspiring game designers.  It can be picked up cheap – I bought a handful of used copies for less than $5 each.  The great thing about this book is the thoughtful care that Schmittberger gives to each of his subjects.  He takes a great many classic games, from Risk to Backgammon to Chess, Go, Poker, Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit to the very classic Tablut and Shogi, he dusts them off, gives a short explanation of the rules, in cases where there is something wrong with the design, he explains what that is and then he suggests a few variants.

I am particularly partial to Schmittberger’s philosophy for two reasons:  1) We both agree with the classic adage that games are “kits”, he notes in the preface “Players should not view the rules that come in a game box as inviolate…”, and 2) We both follow game play by philosophical introspection – was this a good game?  Why?  How did the game model the world?  Were there dominant strategies?  Was it fair?  What would I do differently?  Schmittberger clearly has asked these questions a lot and the book is filled with thoughtful reflections on a very wide spectrum of games.  These two qualities are what make gaming so rewarding to me (my regular gaming group, the DC Gamers, experiments with variants and spends a lot of time deconstructing games that we’ve played).  The philosophical introspection combined with the wickedly corrupting and liberating awareness that rules exist only because we agree to them makes gaming a much more Bohemian exercise.  To pique your interest, I’ll give you a few tastes here… for free… you’ll be back.

Chapter 1 is the gateway for those just “experimenting” with changing the rules in some of the more classic games – here you’ll find simple twists for Monopoly, Scrabble and Chess – these are nice, little tweaks that you’ve probably thought of yourself – Schmittberger tells you what works and what doesn’t with some of these variations.

In Chapter 2, we go down the rabbit hole with two case studies – Schmittberger deconstructs two old Nordic games Tablut and Hnefatafl, shows how they are flawed and then shows some fixes.  Here he introduces two concepts for equalizing unfair games – bidding and the “pie rule”.  Bidding for a preferred side (in numbers of rounds to a win or handicapping) can balance an unbalanced game.  Splitting the pie before the game starts is a really smart solution – one player takes an opening move for both sides (in a two person game) and then the other chooses which side to play – this simple tweak can push a lot of unbalanced games where one player necessarily has to go first and therefore has an advantage (or disadvantage) into balance.

In later chapters, we really start hitting the hard stuff – from scrabble anagrams, checkers on hex boards, exotic chess (including missile chess, teleportation chess, wildebeest chess…), to diceless dice games and open scrabble (which is a fantastic variant for those of us who can’t stand the wide variance in luck of the letter draws in Scrabble).  The reading is light and fast and the variants are presented concisely but thoughtfully.  You’re hooked on variants by this point and you’ll be “fixing” those old, dusty classics in no time.

In these chapters Schmittberger also serves as game historian, recording rules for quite a few games that have been passed down but not necessarily recorded.  Among these, you’ll find rules for Eleusius, Ozymandia, Haggle and Super Babel (both of these great for a party), some brief histories of Chu Shogi, the Kadoban Concept, and Go along with nods to designs by Sid Sackson, Robert Abbott and John Conway.

Lastly, Schmittberger has a chapter with general suggestions on where to start with tweaking of rules.  These 12 suggestions are just there as starting points for the now converted to explore their own rules changes.  To bring this back to the blog – these suggestions might also help game designers that have hit a block – every once in a while it helps to pause and think through where you are with a design and whether it is too complicated, not engaging enough, whether you are using game mechanics or they are using you – these little prompts might help nudge you out of a box that you’ve made for yourself.  Whether you are designing a table top game, a roleplaying experience or a massive computer simulation, suggestions like increasing player interaction, changing the geometry or changing the powers pieces, players or participants have are always welcome and, in this, Schmittberger delivers a thoughtful starting place for those of us that think a lot about games.

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