Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 03/12/2010

I/ITSEC 2010 reflections

Well, I/ITSEC 2010 (“the world’s largest modelling, simulation, and training conference”) has now come to an end. As a novice participant, it has been an interesting and useful experience.

As you might expect from a giant defence industry conference (last year they had 19,000 registrants), much of it is focused on showcasing products for potential government clients. Need a flight simulator? A ready-made Afghan village for military exercises? Pashto-speaking actors to populate the village? Immersive video displays? Medical trauma simulators? High-end joysticks? Virtual reality? Serious (electronic) games? Pyrotechnics for field exercises? Counter-IED multimedia? A drone simulator (complete with a simulated terrorist training camp with little animated jihadists doing their morning exercises to blow up)? Faux RPGs? You’ll find them here, along with lots of eager booth staff trying to sell you some. You’ll also find three days worth of panels and technical papers on military training, education, and simulation.

My interest in being here had to do with examining the evolution of social and political simulations, particularly for cultural awareness training and regarding insurgency/counterinsurgency/stabilization operations. How, in developing these, does one identify, model, depict, and validate the complex (and often poorly understood) underlying social dynamics at play? What effects do technologies have on the process, both in a positive sense (improved user interfaces, graphic representation, artificial intelligence, and raw processor power) and in potentially negative ways too?

One particularly interesting part of the trip was a chance to chat with some of the folks from US Army RDECOM-STTC who have been associated with the development and refinement of UrbanSim, the COIN training software that we’ve discussed a few times on PaxSims (such as here and here and here). It is a very impressive piece of work, combining both a clear interface with considerable rich complexity in the modelling of social, political, and economic processes. While it was developed for the purposes of training battalion commanders in COIN, it also could be quite useful outside the military as a “cultural awareness” trainer of a sort for people in the relief and development community who might benefit from understanding how conflict and fragility are seen through the lenses of US/NATO military doctrine. Many UN agency, aid and NGO folks won’t recognize the perspective—yet need to, if complex interagency and multinational peace support operations are to be undertaken most effectively.

Another highlight was a really useful chat with Jim Lunsford at Decisive-Point about the development of serious games in this area, and the design philosophies he uses in his own projects. Among these products is Elusive Victory, a stabilization operations game.

Overall, I came away from I/ITSEC with a number of observations—some obvious or trivial perhaps, and others less so.

  • A serious game is only as good as the educational environment and methodology it is situated in. No one should expect a game to do all the teaching. On the contrary, considerable thought needs to be devoted to how it is to be used, and what it can (and cannot) illustrate.  Post-simulation debriefs and discussions are essential, not only to drive home the right lessons, but also to make sure that the wrong ones aren’t learned.
  • The development of training simulation in the military seems to be, at times, more a function of bureaucratic process than it is of needs-based design. This point was particularly driven home by a presentation on a project whereby an existing voice-and-console-based naval warfare simulation was integrated into the Second Life virtual world. As far as I could tell, the original version of the simulation was far more effective and sensible than the experimental one, where Second Life avatars just stood there and text-chatted with you about incoming targets. When the presenter was asked “why Second Life” the answer was pretty much “I don’t know… that’s what we were asked to do.”
  • Virtual cultural awareness training was big business, and there are several software packages available that let a user interact with simulated Iraqis or Afghanis, perform basic negotiation or information-gathering missions, and in the process learn the local cultural dos and don’t. This can be useful, but it did seem to risk essentializing cultures that can vary significantly with social class, levels of education, urban/rural settings, and so forth. I’m not sure whether those virtual avatars that speak to you make the learning seem more real, or make the cultural “other” seem rather less human. Finally, successful cross-cultural communication is not just about knowing the local cultural code. It is also about empathy, understanding local needs and context, and not being an idiot. No matter how successfully you’ve learned to eat with tribal leaders without using your “unclean” left hand, if you can’t get a very human feel for where they’re coming from and want they want, no amount of culturally-correct eating habits will save you. (Having said that, I have a sneaking hunch some defence contractor will soon bring out a sophisticated virtual reality simulator to teach you to eat mansaf without dropping rice and yoghurt everywhere).
  • Boardgames and conventional role-playing games are all but invisible in the military training market (although roleplaying is certainly used in courses). If it isn’t computer-based it doesn’t count—which is a shame, since I think there is a great deal that could be of use here.
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