Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: September 2010

Kids invade Grenada

As part of our commitment to bringing you cutting-edge simulation news (albeit a month late), how could we pass up on this one:

At Reagan’s Presidential Library, the Kids Are in Control

They Try to Learn From History by Repeating It; No Eating Jelly Beans, ‘You’ll Break a Tooth’


Wall Street Journal, 21 August 2010

SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—Locked in a war room with military officials shouting at each other about the impending invasion of Grenada, Gen. John Vessey, President Ronald Reagan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rose from his chair.

“People! People!” he shouted. “Gen. Vessey has a request: I am super thirsty.”

His military commanders rolled their eyes and resumed the debate. Gen. Vessey—who outside this room was 13-year-old Christian Graves—slumped in his swivel chair, sighing deeply. He then ordered Army Rangers into Grenada.

In a corner of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, beyond stately White House portraits and a sizable chunk of the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan’s legacy is playing out in an unexpected way.

On multimillion dollar sets replicating the Reagan White House, children play the parts of key officials and reporters to reenact the invasion of Grenada. The U.S. invaded the Caribbean island nation in 1983, fearing a communist takeover after a coup.

Making a 27-year-old invasion relevant for today’s children isn’t always easy. Kids have to be told what communists are, and why Grenada becoming a communist country would have been a big deal….

Simulation & Gaming (October 2010)

The October 2010 issue of Simulation & Gaming (41, 5) is now available online:

  • A Blend of Planning and Learning: Simplifying a Simulation Model of National Development, Birgit Kopainsky, Matteo Pedercini, Pål I. Davidsen, and Stephen M. Alessi
  • A Systemic-Constructivist Approach to the Facilitation and Debriefing of Simulations and Games, Willy Christian Kriz
  • Facilitator, Researcher, Politician, Magician, Anne Herbert
  • How We Think and Talk About Facilitation, Fumitoshi Kato
  • Educational Validity of Business Gaming Simulation: A Research Methodology Framework. Andrew J. Stainton, Johnnie E. Johnson, and Edward P. Borodzicz
  • Effects of Third Person Perspective on Affective Appraisal and Engagement: Findings From SECOND LIFE, Ellen L. Schuurink and Alexander Toet
  • Assimilation of Public Policy Concepts Through Role-Play: Distinguishing Rational Design and Political Negotiation, Pieter W. G. Bots, F. Pieter Wagenaar, and Rolf Willemse
  • Programmatic and Participatory: Two Frameworks for Classifying Experiential Change Implementation Methods, Travis L. Russ
  • Association News & Notes, Songsri Soranastaporn

NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University will hold its fourth of its regular “Roundtables on Strategic Gaming” on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 28.

The Roundtable is by invitation only. However, if you are in the Washington DC area and are professionally involved in simulation of peace and conflict issues, you can email Tim Wilkie and request an invitation.

The National Intelligence Council imagines gaming chaos

The US National Intelligence Council, in conjunction with the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies, has just issued Global Governance 2025: At a Critical Juncture, a report on possible global futures. As with the NIC’s 2008 Global Trends 2025 study, the report isn’t meant to be a series of firm predictions, but rather an alternative futures scenario exercise that provokes discussion and debate.

And what does that have to do with PaxSims? Well, these NIC reports often have little fictional human interest vignettes designed to illustrate broader possibilities. The most negative scenario in the report is entitled “Conflict Trumps Cooperation:”

The international system becomes threatening owing to domestic disruptions, particularly in emerging powers such as China. China stumbles and the global economy lapses. Nationalistic pressures build as middle-class aspirations for the “good life” are stymied. Tensions build between the United States and China, but also among some of the BRICs as competition grows for secure resources and clients. Such suspicions and tensions make reforming global institutions impossible; budding regional efforts, particularly in Asia, also are undermined.

..and the vignette for this is built around reflections inspired by a future “Peace Hero” computer game:

In summer 2021, I—admittedly a bored diplomat—find myself sequestered for several weeks in Perth (Australia). A new outbreak of bird flu, despite the rapid quarantines put in place, has spread and closed down most major airports. I am trying to get back to Europe for my annual leave, but most connections have been cut. To while away the time, I am thinking back on world events.

The current international scene holds an uncanny resemblance to a computer game called “Peace Hero” I used to play with my son years ago. Unlike most games, this one was constructed so you earned points for finding ways to cooperate with fellow contestants, all of whom assumed roles of major countries or international organizations. The world was confronted, for example, with a pandemic— not unlike the present—and the challenge was to find which countries could provide emergency vaccines. The game actually prompted you to construct a UN Security Council resolution that would quickly be voted into action. The game was probably never a best seller, but it had intrigued me, particularly how the players perverted its intended objective.

It was as if human nature was doomed: the competitive spirit took over even though the rewards were greatest for cooperation. In one energy scenario, the contestants ended up competing over access to oil. This was despite the fact that they could opt for technological breakthroughs on alternatives and reap many more rewards. My son—who was a bit of a rebellious teenager at the time—was particularly competitive. He went out of his way not to cooperate with me.

Once the competitive juices flowed, confrontation was sure to follow. Even I had to admit that my blood would boil at times. Why couldn’t my son just accept the rules laid down in the game? They were for everyone’s good. A couple times, when he was playing the role of the BRIC, I thought I had him over a barrel. China’s economy took a hit while the West’s had finally recovered. Lo and behold, though, my son became more hostile. He said China was of no mind to be deferent given past wrongs.

I suppose he had a good case looking back on it. Nationalism has made a big comeback in

the past decade. What was all that stuff we used to talk about—multilateralism, doctors without borders, the new Internet society that would bring us all together? A lot had been swept aside in the ten years since the Great Recession. The West resented the new powers as their economies continued to grow while even the US has struggled. We saw in Afghanistan where China actually reaped major economic benefits from the Allies’ efforts to stabilize the country. Much of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was exploited by the Chinese, not Western firms. Such economic feats became a contentious political issue in America and led to growing US- China frictions. I am reminded a little of how the British and French felt as German power rose in the years before the First World War. Perception is a lot in these situations. It was not as if China was at all equal to the US, but Americans grew increasingly resentful of an ungrateful China not mindful of all the “public goods” which the US had provided in the world, including to help China rise.

For their part, the new powers were dismissive of what they saw as an antiquated international system no longer possessing any legitimacy—a system that did not protect them from the increasing environmental and resource problems. Food prices have soared, way beyond the 2008 “spikes.” Governments—including the new rising powers—have struggled to keep supplies adequate and prices reasonable for their publics. A string of extreme weather events has added to their woes. Asian cities are particularly vulnerable to the huge tidal surges which have accompanied some of the recent cyclones. No Kyoto follow- on climate change agreement was reached in 2012. The charges and countercharges proliferated with groups hardening around the US on one side and China-India-Brazil and most of the developing world on the other. The small island states whose very existence is really threatened were left out and ignored. This alone was probably enough to sour the international atmosphere. It is no exaggeration to say we are almost at the point of daggers drawn; it would only take a minor incident to trigger a major conflict. I wonder how the game will go . . .

Perhaps we should throw out a PaxSims challenge…. what current electronic (or other) game is likely to capture the world of 2025? An anarchistic World of Warcraft struggle for scarce natural resources? A heavily institutionalized Dance Dance Revolution (which already resembles, after all, EU bureaucratic regulation)? A world of central defensive planning in the face of global chaos, Plants versus Zombies style? Civilizational conflict, in the spirit of Samuel Huntington and StarCraft II, with China the new Zerg? We welcome suggestions!

Model UN-ing

Ryan Villanueva wrote to let us know about a new blog on being the-very-model-of-a-modern model UN delegate, Best Delegate. In it, Ryan and his colleagues share their experiences and insights, with articles on everything from research to framing topics to delegate strategies, conference organization, and lots more beside. Both neophyte and experienced delegates will likely find it of use.

While on the topic, it would be remiss of me not to mention McMUN, McGill University’s own annual model United Nations. McMun 2011 will be held on 27-30 January 2011 in Montreal, and registration is now open.

All of which, of course, invariably reminds me in turn of The Decemberists video, Sixteen Military Wives:

Strategic Analysis of Irregular Warfare

One of the presentations made at the last NDU roundtable on Innovations in Strategic Gaming addressed the work done by the (US) Office of the Secretary of Defense on modelling/simulation of irregular warfare. I’ll admit to having voiced doubts at the time that any computational model could adequately capture the complex relationships between social variables involved in counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, or that any model that attempted to do so would be robust enough to serve as a guide for planning and policy decisions.

Apparently, the OSD thought so too, according to a recent Master’s thesis by Colonel Mark W. Lukens at the US Army War College. According to Lukens’ account:

The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) states: “Irregular warfare has emerged as the dominant form of warfare confronting the United States.” Terrorism and insurgency, and counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, are all subsets of irregular warfare. Conventional warfare models are often used at the strategic level to inform programmatic decisions. The modeling and dynamics of irregular warfare are not well established. An attempt to model an irregular warfare scenario took place in 2007 to 2009 within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This process, however, failed to produce insights that could inform program decisions. As a result, the Secretary of Defense is making programmatic decisions without a cogent modeling paradigm for terrorism and insurgency.

The purpose of  Lukens thesis is to propose “a new computational model to replicate the dynamics of irregular warfare.” I remain unconvinced that this is either possible or desirable, however. My skepticism rests of two grounds.

First, I suspect that the relationships between key social and political variables in fragile and war-affected countries themselves vary widely across cases. Take, for example, the relationship between unemployment and support for armed violence. In some countries, the relationship is clearly positive. In others, it may be negative—indeed, higher employment might actually facilitate insurgent fund-rasining. In still others, there may be little or no relationship between socio-economic variables and militancy.

Second, I think it is enormously difficult to quantify some of the key variables. Take for example good governance—a key focus of contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine. What is this? Is it the same across societies and time periods? Certainly we know “bad governance” when we see it. However, there is often little correlation between governance as outsiders define it, and the popularity, legitimacy, or stability of local governments.

In short, context matters enormously. A quantitative one-size-fits-all model of failing states based on a few recent experiences seems unlikely to describe many other future situations, let alone constituting a firm foundation upon which to plan future defense programs.

World Bank assessment of EVOKE

A couple of pieces have been posted on the World Bank’s EduTech blog assessing its experience earlier this year with the EVOKE social networking and education project. The verdict from Rovert Hawkins is very positive:

By the time the EVOKE adventure ended 19,324 people from over 150 countries registered to play, far exceeding expectations.  Players submitted over 23,500 blog posts (about 335 each day), 4,700 photos and over 1,500 videos. The site received over 178,000 unique visitors and 2,345,000 page views with time per visit averaging over eight minutes.  For the month of March EVOKE generated just under 10% of what the World Bank’s entire external website generated with regard to page views (1.1 million versus 12.1 million).  Phenomenal numbers…  Across the board EVOKE exceeded our expectations.

Over the course of the 10 weeks, players posted ideas, found friends, commented on projects, shared information, rated the quality of the information shared, discussed, argued, created and acted.

Librarians donated time to do research. Someone developed a wiki for the game. Teachers created their own online community within the game. Some players developed an online conference for sharing the best ideas. One player wrote a song about EVOKE. Others planted gardens.

Players went into their communities to learn about challenges on the ground and shared potential solutions to what they saw and heard.  One player collected all of these ideas into a single blog post.

EVOKE I think has created space for dialogue around serious issues that may not be discussed in other social networking forums.

Based on the results of an external survey and evaluation, the World Bank also reports that the project’s goals were met:

Based on the survey, EVOKE had a strong effect on:

  • Developing new ideas about global challenges
  • Developing new ideas about local challenges
  • Learning about potential solutions to….
  • Learning about people in other countries
  • Learning about sustainability

EVOKE had less effect on building a network of colleagues and friends and gaining self confidence.

You’ll also find a South African media report on the positive effect of EVOKE in one Cape Town school here.

The survey results look impressive, although it isn’t clear how sampling was done. If it was done from in-game participants (and especially those who then responded) there would be some fairly obvious problems of potential response bias. There is also the medium vs the message problem that I raised before in my own reflections on EVOKE: while large numbers of people did participate, what were they actually learning? Much of the content of EVOKE, whether in the form of the central storyline or a large percentage of the blogposts, simply didn’t really reflect development best practices. Some of it was flat wrong. Many participants might think they learned about, say, sustainable development–but did they? How do we know?

This is always a problem with evaluating experiential learning techniques, as educational psychologists have long recognized. If you ask students whether they’ve learned something, they tend to say yes—especially if they’ve had fun. If you test this objectively (by, for example, comparing them with a control group that didn’t use such methods) the effects sometimes appear much more modest. If you measure the benefits against the opportunity cost–in other words, spending the same amount of money and time in other forms of educational engagement–you might even get another picture altogether.

Perhaps EVOKE’s final report will address these issues. Certainly I would be pleased to see that it has had positive, objective effects, as well as the subjective ones reported by those who participated.

According to World Bank:

At the end of the game, 74 project ideas (known as ‘evokations’) were submitted and the following rewards were made:

  • 10 projects were given seed funding of US$1,000
  • 22 projects were provided with a post-game mentor
  • 15 projects were invited to the EVOKE summit in September
  • 25 projects are competing in the EVOKE Global Giving Challenge.

The EVOKE challenge on Global Giving is happening now!  The challenge provides players with an opportunity to put their ideas to the test – raising funds on-line and expanding their networks of supporters.  Please visit the EVOKE challenge on Global Giving at http:// and support one of the EVOKE innovators in their quest to get their ideas off the ground!

Also, there will be an “EVOKE summit” later this month to celebrate and reflect on the project’s accomplishments:

The EVOKE summit will be taking place at the end of September in Washington, DC.  At this summit we will bring together a number of the players, mentors and development team to celebrate the incredible work of the EVOKE community and reflect on how to build on the lessons learned for future iterations.  Please share any ideas you have!

Let’s hope that in doing so they also seek to learn from the constructive criticism offered of the project from the outside.

NYT on modern military videogames

A few posts ago, we mentioned the controversy over the forthcoming first-person-shooter video game Medal of Honor, which is set in contemporary Afghanistan. You’ll find further thoughtful discussion of the topic in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine, which asks whether such games are exploitation or whether they somehow bring the reality of the war closer to the American public:

Medal of Honor does not aspire to capture the war in Afghanistan in a documentary sense, but like other shooters, it creates a visceral sensation of combat. In essence, it forgoes one kind of realism while embracing another. Are video games like this mere frivolities that dishonor the real soldiers who have fought in the wars depicted — as critics, including military families, have recently charged? Or does their popularity indicate that they are successfully conveying an experience of war to audiences in a way that is at least as effective and affecting as the war stories told in literature or film?

I’m doubtful that this game, and certainly not most others before it, accurately reflect the realities of war in any way. Then again, it’s rare that cinema does either. Like film, such games are cultural artifacts that embed self-understandings (and self-imposed blindspots) about the Afghan war. Anthropologists and future historians will use such game cultures and depictions as windows into American society. Perhaps political scientists ought to wonder too what effects such game representations of war, insurgency, counterinsurgency, and foreign societies might have on gaming publics who themselves are participants—as voters, and perhaps as soldiers—in shaping future US foreign policy. Dies it make war seem easy, and somehow more of an option? Does it make war seem like hell, and something to be avoided? Does it paint COIN operations as simply killing-the-enemy, and thereby mislead? Or is the effect marginal at best?

I suspect the effects are marginal at best among the general public, given that video games are but one of many ways in which messages and representations about war are carried in contemporary society. The effect on war-fighters may be more significant, however. Since 9/11, insurgency and counter-terrorism themes have grown in popularity, evidenced by such popular games as the Tom Clancy Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell series (over 52 million games sold worldwide), Call of Duty 4 (13 million), the SOCOM series (7 million), and Counterstrike (4.2 million). These sorts of games appear to be especially popular among teens and older males (that is, the primary potential recruitment demographic for the military).

There is some precedent for concerns as to how popular cultural depictions of war and terrorism may affect those who are professionally involved. In 2007 Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, then Dean of the US Military Academy at West Point, flew to California accompanied by US military and FBI interrogators, to meet the creators of the popular counter-terrorism TV series 24. Their purpose was to complain about the show’s frequent depiction of brutal interrogation techniques by its fictional hero, Jack Bauer. Such depictions, Finnegan argued, were having adverse effects on military recruits, suggesting to them that such methods were effective and appropriate and making them resistant to comments from military instructors that they were illegal, unethical, and counterproductive.

Of course, not everyone is convinced that popular culture representations via TV (or, by inference, video games) influence professional behaviour. To date, however, there has been little or no research into the issue of which I’m aware.

PhD students, a topic awaits you!

USIP Interagency SENSE Simulation

From the United States Institute of Peace:

Interagency SENSE Simulation

September 28-30, 2010, 9:00am-5:00pm

U.S. Institute of Peace
2nd floor
1200 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036

Apply Now

September 28th-30th, USIP, in partnership with George Mason University (GMU) and the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), will conduct the Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise (SENSE) simulation at USIP headquarters in Washington D.C.   The primary target audience is the U.S. government interagency community, but other interested parties are also welcome. Participation is free, but space will be limited. The instructor is Dr. Allison Frendak-Blume, gamemaster, USIP.

About the Simulation

Over the course of three days, SENSE models the conditions in an imaginary country (“Akrona”) that is emerging from a destructive internal conflict. Players representing government officials, private firms, civil society, and international actors must identify, coordinate, and integrate economic, social, political, and military policies to foster recovery and reconstruction. SENSE participants must integrate all of these challenges; develop and decide on options; and deal with the consequences (both intended and unintended) of those decisions.Breakfast and lunch will be provided; participants must commit to the full three-day simulation.


SENSE, developed by IDA, is used to strengthen capabilities of decision-makers to prevent conflict in fragile states and manage post-conflict transitions successfully.  SENSE is a computer-facilitated simulation that focuses on negotiations and decision-making, including resource-allocation challenges and cross-sectoral coordination, for the full range of national and international actors.  Sophisticated computer support provides participants with rapid feedback on the interactions of all the decisions in terms of political stability, social well-being, and a foundation for sustainable economic progress. Learn more about SENSE.

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