Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: February 2011


Tufts University will be holding their annual field exercise in peace and stability operations (FIELDEX 2011) on 8-9 April 2011. FIELDEX is a collaborative, interdisciplinary initiative led by undergraduates from the student group ALLIES (Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services) that seeks to expose participants to the difficulties of decision making during conflict, the complementary and competing interests of the stakeholders involved, and the inter- agency collaboration essential to a successful mission. FIELDEX  provides  students  with  an   experiential  learning  opportunity  that encourages  application  of  classroom  theories  to  simulated  real-­ world  crises; fosters greater understanding of the complexities of conflict; develops leadership, decision-making, and crisis-management skills; and offers insight into operational difficulties that students will likely face as future leaders in government, civilian, military, and non-governmental organizations.

Previous episodes of FIELDEX have been discussed here at PaxSims.

At the moment the FIELDEX website is still under construction. However, you can upload the latest version of the brochure by clicking the image on the left.

NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming (8/3)

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University will hold its next quarterly “Roundtable on Strategic Gaming” on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 8.

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.

insurgency boardgames on BGG

This is hardly new, but here is something I should have posted earlier to PaxSims: a list of insurgency- and terrorism-themed boardgames put together on BoardGameGeek by Tom Grant. At the moment it features 63 games (together with comments and reviews), and continues to grow.

If you are looking for games (old and new) that address this theme, it is avaluable resource.

Extra Credits

Those interested in lively, thoughtful, and sophisticated discussion of the challenges of (video) game design might be interested in the regular video series Extra Credits by James Portnow, Daniel Floyd and Allison Theus. It appears regularly at the online video game/movie/genre e-magazine The Escapist.

Some earlier editions can also be found on YouTube, such as the excellent lecture on “moral choice” in gaming presented below.

Serious games and teaching intelligence analysis

Kris Wheaton, who teaches intelligence studies at Mercyhurst College, is among those who have used serious games in the classroom—in this case, to help students develop and sharpen their analytical skills. He also writes about it on his excellent blog on intelligence matters, Sources and Methods, which is very helpful for the rest of us too.

As a recent press report on his graduate course notes:

Wheaton has embraced what’s called “game-based learning” in his graduate level strategic intelligence course for the past two years.

“I think the students expected it to be more fun than it was,” Wheaton said. “But since it began I can see an obvious increase in the quality of work.”

The course is the capstone for Mercyhurst’s applied intelligence master’s program, graduates of which go on to fields such as Homeland Security.

Students are graded on how well they learn theories behind strategy and not how well they do in games.

Second-year applied intelligence graduate student Regis Mullen said this approach to teaching allows students to take a new approach to learning.

“Students generally tailor their learning to getting a good grade,” Mullen said. “But this has to do more with reflecting on what you’ve done, and it sticks a lot better.”

Most of the games in Wheaton’s course are video games, but they aren’t all just the most popular strategy games.

You’ll find more on his classroom use of games here.

In his most recent blog post, Kris discusses “gamification, and what it means for intelligence,” including a forthcoming request for proposals for the Sirius Program of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (Office of the Director for National Intelligence). Sirius aims to produce “serious games” for analyst training:

The goal of the Sirius Program is to create Serious Games to train participants and measure their proficiency in recognizing and mitigating the cognitive biases that commonly affect all types of intelligence analysis. The research objective is to experimentally manipulate variables in Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) and to determine whether and how such variables might enable player-participant recognition and persistent mitigation of cognitive biases. The Program will provide a basis for experimental repeatability and independent validation of effects, and identify critical elements of design for effective analytic training in VLEs. The cognitive biases of interest that will be examined include: (1) Confirmation Bias, (2) Fundamental Attribution Error, (3) Bias Blind Spot, (4) Anchoring Bias, (5) Representativeness Bias, and (6) Projection Bias.

A “proposer’s day conference” for this is to be held in Washington DC on February 24, to inform potential partners of the impending request for proposals. I’m not sure if the meeting is FOUO or subject to non-disclosure agreements, but if it’s not and it isn’t, we would love to hear what was said.

h/t: INTELST listserv and Sources and Methods blog


Kris Wheaton, who attended the event, has posted some comments below. As he notes, the SIRIUS presentation can be downloaded from the IARPA website.

World Bank = gaming geeks?

One might be excused these days from thinking that the World Bank is becoming the Games Workshop or Electronic Arts of international financial institutions. They have the Carana simulation on fragile and conflict-affected countries (which my PaxSims co-conspirator Gary Milante moderates). They have the award-winning Evoke game that Jane McGonigal designed, intended to “encourage [African] students to engage in local communities and develop innovative solutions to local development challenges.” There is SimSIP, a “set of user-friendly simulation tools that make it easier to conduct policy-oriented empirical work on a wide range of social indicators and poverty.” The World Bank is also using a role-playing simulation to help build national capacities to address problems of money laundering and corruption (designed, in this case, by another good friend and gaming buddy Tommy Fisher —which helps to explain why we haven’t been able to play D&D, 40k, Labyrinth, or steampunk Victorian zombie adventures in weeks, since he’s off travelling the world).

Now the World Bank Institute has issues a request for proposals for two new (computer) games to address processes of political coalition-building (with an initial focus on the issue of procurement reform) and urban development:

Both products are intended to enhance existing multi-national training programs and activities that emphasize the key role of coalition building in leadership. These digital games would be added to traditional materials WBI is utilizing in its leadership workshops. Preference will be given to a vendor who has already developed similar game simulations and can re-purpose an existing technology and game structure to serve this project. Each game is conceived of as a single player strategy game. Relevant examples include Executive Command and Peacemaker. The interface is expected to be simple and accessible, with easy to use game mechanics, targeted at non-gamers.

If anyone is interested, they’ll find the full RFP here. The closing date is 28 February 2011.


You’ll notice that the World Bank’s RFP suggests that game designers “re-purpose an existing technology and game structure to serve this project.” Well, in that case, what better lesson could there be in the importance of coalition-building stakeholder consultation—or, more accurately, the costs of failing to do those things—than World of Warcraft’s legendary Leeroy Jenkins?

It’s all there. Shared interests. Teamwork. Coordination. Dragon eggs. Chicken. They just need to somehow integrate that part about “Procurement Reforms – from legislation (passing the law) to law implementation and acceptance.” How hard can that be?


Yes, that’s right: Michael Peck at the Training & Simulation Journal has just published a piece on the United States Institute of Peace’s Open Simulation Platform:

Reinventing the roundtable
New platform takes strategic role-playing to the next level

By Michael Peck
February 10, 2011

Grunts and pilots train with video games and flight simulators. But generals and bureaucrats train with a hunk of wood. Hence the plain ole BOGSAT. The venerable “bunch of guys sitting around a table” is the classic way of running strategic-level national security simulations. Low-tech and cheap, it’s serious role-playing that doesn’t require much more than warm bodies, a big table and a coffeepot.

Ronald “Skip” Cole wants to bring the BOGSAT into the digital age. Nothing fancy. No 3-D video graphics. Just add computers, e-mail and text chat on an open-source platform that anyone can use to build and run simulations.

The Open Simulation Platform (OSP) is a “simulation for the masses,” said Cole, a senior program officer at the federally funded United States Institute for Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not only the masses who can benefit from this approach. Let’s say top decision-makers are conducting an exercise on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program. Instead of merely conversing around a table, each player might have a laptop. They could still talk to one another over the table, but they could also communicate through e-mail or texting, as they might in real life. Players don’t even need to be in the same room. A general in Kabul can join — virtually — his counterparts around a conference table in Washington.

OSP is open-source, free of charge and not very complicated. “All a player needs is a Web browser,” Cole said. OSP is more of a simulation builder and infrastructure than an actual simulation with avatars and algorithms. It enables users to design and run a seminar-style simulation. “They see a very modest immersive environment,” Cole said. “They log in, they have a tab with e-mail, a tab where they can chat with each other, a tab where they can work on shared documents.” …

You’ll find the rest of the article here. I rather like the take Michael has on this, because he highlights that technology can augment the old-fashioned BOGSAT approach and needn’t necessarily try to completely transform and replace it. Skip Cole refers to this as “technology-enhanced role-playing,” which captures the relationship nicely—although eBOGSAT might do too!

Review: Wills, Leigh, and Ip, The Power of Role-based e-Learning

Book review: Sandra Wills, Elyssebeth Leigh, and Albert Ip, The Power of Role-based e-Learning (New York: Routledge, 2011).

While this volume is focused on the use of electronically-facilitated educational role-playing, its value is significantly greater than this. In ten highly informative chapters, the authors address the educational value of games and role-play, discuss their design (including rules and roles), explore the challenges of acting as moderator, examine how to assess learning, and suggest future trends. They also provide a brief summary of possible electronic platforms and an overview of sample online roleplays, with a heavy emphasis towards the Fabulsi simulation platform (with which Ip is professionally involved). Consequently, the book has value not only for its intended audience in the e-learning community, but also for those interested in the educational use of all serious games and roleplaying—whether electronically facilitated or otherwise.

Stylistically, the book draws upon a rich array of research in the field, often presented through summaries, bullet points, and graphics. Personally I found this very helpful, making it possible to dip in and out of the text for insights that were relevant to my own teaching and research. Among the things I particularly liked were:

  • The discussion of design considerations (chapters 4-5), although I do think the authors give inadequate attention to both the role of resource constraints and the degree to which design considerations may shape the sorts of strategic choices available to participants.
  • The discussion of participant learning types (pp. 140-143).
  • The six roles of the moderator: as administratorguardian angelresident resourcemanipulative devilimprovising storyteller, and institutional representative (p. 147).

Others, however, might find that the narrative flow in the book a little choppy at times. Also, because the book has been written in part as a contribution to scholarship on e-learning, it hasn’t always been optimized for role-play neophytes looking for clear, brief, and concise practical advice.

Those caveats aside, however, I do very much recommend this book. Both education researchers and simulation practitioners will find it of value

CFP: Red Teaming, Red Cells and Analytical Decision Support

This may be of interest to some PaxSims readers:

Call for Abstracts

As part of a government funded research project on Red Teaming, Red Cells and Analytical Decision Support, the Centre for Security, Armed Forces and Society (CSAS) of the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) will contract for a number of papers of 1500 to 5000 words. Authors of selected abstracts will receive 1000$ (Canadian) upon delivery of an acceptable paper. Papers will subsequently be edited for publication in journals. Abstracts must be received by February 23, 2011. Papers must be submitted by March 23, 2011.

Papers may address any of the following:

  • Red Teaming experiences
  • Red Teaming tools
  • Red Teaming best practices
  • Red Teaming in International Relations
  • Red Teaming in security policy
  • Challenge function in security decision making
  • Alternative Analysis
  • Alternative Perspectives
  • Red Cell operations
  • Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for employment of Red Cells and Red Teams
  • Interdisciplinary Red Teams
  • Coordination of Red Team activities across department or agency boundaries
  • Recruitment, selection, training and development of Red Teams
  • Mimetic and Digetic Red Teaming
  • Adapting private sector practices to security sector Red Teaming
  • Questioning assumptions: limits and constraints of Red Teaming
  • Necessity for Red Teams
  • Devil’s Advocacy and contrarian techniques in Red Teaming
  • Structured analytical techniques for Red Teaming
  • Developing imaginative thinking in Red Teams and Red Cells
  • Thinking techniques for Red Teaming

For further information please contact Will Chalmers at 613-541-6000 extension 6494 at the Centre for Security, Armed Forces and Society. Please submit abstracts to

Simulation & Gaming (February 2011)

book club: Reality is Broken, Chapter 1

I’m back! We’re wrapping up the World Development Report and it is game on for me.

To get myself gaming again, I am reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal.  Having fallen behind in my gaming, I didn’t know anything about it until I saw McGonigal on Colbert.  I was intrigued by the idea of the book, it promises some of the visionary motivation for what games can be that have driven this blog into existence and keep the field moving (and exciting!).  As I read it, I’ll post here and if any of you out there are reading it, you can weigh in on comments.

I’m only 5% in, but I was struck by McGonigal’s definition of a game and thought it might interest our readers here.  She argues that all games share four defining traits:  The Goal, The Rules, A Feedback System and Voluntary Participation.  In the first chapter she looks at golf, Scrabble and Tetris to compare these traits.

The Goal and Feedback System are fairly self-explanatory – a player needs to know what she is working toward and whether she is making progress.  McGonigal notes that we need not have complete information on goals and voluntary participation at the outset of the game, demonstrating with Portal how players learn goals and feedback through play of the game (and GlaDOS encourages voluntary participation, with promises of cake).   Nor does the goal always have to be “win” – she cites Tetris as a game with brilliant feedback systems and the seemingly Sisyphean goal of playing until you lose.

Rules and Voluntary Participation are also fairly obvious to the reader here – but what intrigued me was her combination of the two.  McGonigal argues that fairly arbitrary rules are often what make games, games – the most efficient way to put the ball in the hole in golf would be to walk up to the hole and drop the ball in – but we’ve collectively decided that what makes it a game, is the challenge of hitting the ball great distances with very skinny bats and counting the number of hits we use with a bunch of other rules.  It is that voluntary participation, committing to the rules (no matter how arbitrary they may be), collectively, that creates the “game”.  Even solitaire play is only meaningful if it follows the rules that have been set.  Likewise, she argues that this is a lot of what separates “games” from “work” – if you want to free spell words, you should just type, Scrabble is the experience of drawing limited, random letters and trying to spell in a lattice governed by rules.

McGonigal argues that together these four traits minimally define a “game” and is going on in the first chapter to argue that many of these features are what is missing from reality.  On my kindle, I also have Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers so I flipped and searched in that to find what he defined as three qualities of rewarding work:  autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward.  Certainly feedback systems are responsible for aligning efforts and reward and rewards are themselves goals.  Obviously, for most of us, games aren’t work (though, happily, our work is often games), but the overlap is interesting.  I would argue that autonomy includes some features of voluntary participation (I am not actually playing a game if I am on a team with no authority or independent action).  McGonigal and Gladwell don’t overlap on complexity, but that may be subjective (some experiences may not be games to me if they are not complex – or may be too complex to be considered games) .  I find these minimal definitions intriguing, but I still remain skeptical that they are sufficient.

Interestingly, McGonigal was also involved in Evoke, which we’ve reviewed here and here.  While we weren’t impressed by Evoke, going back and reading the reviews I see that we were most disappointed by missing goals (it was really a freeform experience and the point wasn’t really clear), the rules were good but difficult to learn and the feedback system was largely user driven (which isn’t inherently bad, but highly dependent on herding and group think).   Thus far I’m enjoying the book, it is a nice, light read, well written, by someone that clearly loves games and the promise they have for positive change. Having traveled a bit and seen how games are variously received in different cultures, I am a bit skeptical of how much her messages will spread beyond gaming cultures, but I am intrigued enough to keep reading – look for book club on following chapters soon.

Games + Learning + Society 7.0

The annual Games + Learning + Society conference will be held at the University of Wisconsin—Madison on 15-17 June 2011:

The GLS Conference is the premier event in the field of videogames and learning. Now in its seventh year, this grass roots “indie” event is evolving to include innovative content formats and new programming. And after waiting lists for registration in past years, we’re now finally expanding our registration to reach an even larger and more diverse audience. The GLS conference is one of the few destinations where the people who create high-quality digital learning media can gather for a serious think about what is happening in the field and how the field can serve the public interest. Our event is well known for its exceptionally high quality of content yet “community event” feel. Each year, we foster in-depth conversation and social networking across diverse disciplines including game studies, education research, learning sciences, industry, government, educational practice, media design, and business. Our continued commitment is to reinvent learning both in and out of formal schools through the promise of games and simulations. And this year’s conference promises to be the most diverse, dynamic and biggest GLS event yet.

You’ll find more information on the conference website here.


At The Bishop’s School, students and teachers have been using USIP Open Simulation Platform software to conduct virtual peace processes.

You’ll find more on the website:

PEACECONFERENCING.ORG originated at the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California as the direct result of a visionary donor who wished to stimulate new curriculum across the disciplines to deal with anticipated changes to society for the new millennium. His financial help made it possible to work directly with a mediation and conflict resolution institute in Washington D.C. to compile a workbook for students that fast-tracked elements of the negotiation process for the classroom.

Student teams with online support studied current real-world conflicts to target one flashpoint area that held particular urgency for the group. A student mediator was selected to bring students, each representing an opposition group, to the negotiation table.

A library support page for each conflict area was designed by the school librarian that emphasized scholarly research sites on the internet and assisted students in writing a research paper that represented their perspective in the negotiations. Students then arrived at the negotiation table with a background in conflict-resolution skills and their research paper in-hand. Their collaborative efforts produced peace agreements based on consensus that were sensitive to the needs and fears of the parties in conflict and offered hope for resolution through diplomacy.

Labyrinth discussion at Play the Past

The Labyrinth debate continues. In addition our previous efforts (here and here), and the ongoing forum discussions at BoardGameGeek, Matthew Kirschenbaum has weighed in at Play the Past. It’s well worth a read.

What does the neophyte simulation user need to know?

In the coming months, Margaret McCown (NDU),  Tim Wilkie (NDU), Skip Cole (USIP) and I will start work on a new simulation and gaming project. Specifically, we’re planning to collectively coedit a guidebook containing practical advice on the design, implementation, and instructional use of peacebuilding simulations. The target audience would be instructors in higher education, the NGO community, and international organizations who wish to use a simulation as an experiential learning tool, but lack a background in gaming or familiarity with simulation methods. Think of it as a sort of “gaming for dummies” handbook, a resource that you might point newbies to if they’re thinking of developing simulations and integrating them into their instructional or training curriculum.

The question I would like to throw out to PaxSims readers is this: What should go into such a volume? If you were writing up such a guide, what are the key topics that you think ought to be covered? If you are an experienced user of games and simulations, what do you wish you had known earlier? If you are a gaming/simulation neophyte, what do you most want to know?

Feel free to post ideas in the comments section below—or, if you’re a member of NDU’s Strategic Gaming Roundtable forum on APAN, you can join the discussion there too.

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