Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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!

2 responses to “simulation and micromanagement

  1. Freshly Squeezed Cynic 10/09/2010 at 2:30 am


    I came across this blog whilst looking for more info on Brock Tessman’s “International Relations in Action” simulation, which I picked up on a trolley of forlorn, unwanted books outside the Politics Department; I’m a student at the University of Glasgow with an interest both in strategy gaming, roleplaying, and international relations, so this blog is extremely fascinating for me, although part of me feels terribly sad that I can’t take part in Brynania!

    Anyway, to me, in terms of not allowing too much micromanagement (in computer games and tabletop RPGs), it seems to be that “masking” some attributes or elements of the game is the general stopgap to prevent it; either through some kind of fog of war, or restriction, hinting at the shadows in the darkness that the flickering limits of your knowledge are barely aware of. RPG mods can be almost gleefully sadistic in describing things in ways that suggest that although you might not have seen anything, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there…

    Now, that may seem a bit off topic, in terms of encouraging “good” micromanagement in the kind of simulations you’re talking about, for flavour, “on the ground” purposes, but I think that these elements are usually in place both to hinder the player from full, omniscient knowledge of the situation on the ground,(which is, of course, unrealistic) and at the same time to encourage intelligence gathering, information logging and discovery. There’s a mod/option for the Total War series the keeps the camera fixed to your general unit, so you can’t see where all your units are all the time; to make sense of the battlefield, you have to rush around with your general unit, supporting the troops and making adjustments while you’re there, then rushing off to make sure you haven’t been flanked. But you often have to fall back to get the wider picture.

    This kind of micromanagement enhances the experience, in my view, because of the limiting factor of partial information and the spur to discover your true strength (and your enemy’s) at the time, in order to exploit that effectively whilst being aware that you might miss something if you spend all your time adjusting that one spearman unit to the exclusion of all others.

    It’s rather late here; I hope I’m making sense.

  2. Gary Milante 08/09/2010 at 7:59 pm

    Great, thoughtful post, Rex. The few minutes I’ve spent on StarCraftII do involve a lot of micromanaging, but you are not really rewarded for that management, I actually aspire to be less tactical in my gameplay and stop wasting my time trying to escort one unit across the screen or fiddle with individual unit production – I’d be a better player if I spent more time on the bigger picture, building up my surveillance and developing my tech and strategy.

    On simulations, if anything, we err on the side of two strategic in our Carana simulation – we do remind people of the pressing challenges of working in a conflict-affected country with the occasional gunfire/ceasefire violation or other tactical challenge, but that actually is more useful for resetting social dynamics in the simulation than for really getting dirty in the tactical ditches.

    On a related note, from real life. I would say that most operations specialists are very good at tactics, but often don’t bother with the larger strategic picture – this is reinforced by the fact that fires are rewarding to put out and by our hierarchical culture – which is fine so long as there is any strategic vision to guide them (or at least not undermine them)…

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