Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: May 2011

Resources for simulated pirate-hunters

With a MMOWGLI crowd-sourcing/simulation platform playtest currently underway, I thought I would provide a quick list of resources on Somali piracy and counter-piracy operations as a resource for participants.

And last, but by no means least (from Wired magazine)::

Gaming the durability of an Israeli-Palestinian borders and security agreement

President Obama’s recent major policy speech on the Middle East suggested that, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security.”

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

It isn’t entirely clear to me how you can talk borders without talking Jerusalem, but that wasn’t the reason I raised the speech. Rather, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution recently held a simulation intended to evaluate the durability of a borders- and security-first approach, roughly along the territorial lines suggested by David Makovsky in a report earlier this year by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. According to a summary on the Brookings website by Kenneth Pollack:

Since the collapse of the latest round of Israeli- Palestinian peace talks in the fall of 2010, numerous commentators, and even officials in the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian governments, have suggested that Israel and the Palestinians instead pursue an agreement limited only to border and security considerations as a way to overcome the many problems inherent in both final status talks and further interim agreements. Indeed, in his May 2011 speeches, President Obama himself suggested that Israelis and Palestinians concentrate first on security and borders issues, although he did not go so far as to advocate a pure borders and security agreement.

With this background in mind, the war game sought to test four key variables that would be critical to the success of a borders and security agreement:

1. The extent to which Israel would feel willing to trust the Palestinians and/or the Americans to handle issues it deems critical to its security in the face of clear threats and actual terrorist attacks.

2. The extent to which Palestinian political strife could create problems between Israel and the Palestinians or among Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States.

3. The willingness of the Palestinians to tolerate infringements on their sovereignty to ensure that Israeli security requirements are met.

4. The willingness and ability of the United States to mediate disputes between Israel and the Palestinians while simultaneously addressing the security and sovereignty issues related to both.

You’ll find the full version of the report here. I’m a little unconvinced of the fundamental starting premise that transitional arrangements in a future Palestine would necessarily involve the presence of large numbers of US combat forces to guarantee the arrangements, an element that I think both Palestinians and Israelis could find deeply problematic (the former because of the apparent affront to Palestinian “sovereignty,” the latter because it could constrain Israel’s ability to take unilateral action). However, exploring the possible risks, dynamics, and benefits of such an approach was clearly part of the purpose of the game. It makes for interesting reading.

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For Arab-Israeli simulation junkies: Some readers may remember that I was previously involved in a larger game addressing another aspect of the conflict a few years back, namely the Palestinian refugee issue. You’ll find that 2008 report here. For an account of an April 2011 simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by Track4, check out this report.

MMOWGLI almost ready to sail

An email from the MMOWGLI team went out today to those who have signed up for the forthcoming playtest, indicating that the Office of Naval Research’s experimental crowd sourcing/simulation experiment will launch next week:

Dear mmowgli player,

Thank you for your interest in mmowgli-a groundbreaking experiment in collective intelligence. You’re officially on our team of pioneers and early adopters as the first people to see mmowgli in action.

mmowgli officially launches next week with a lightning round of fast-paced gameplay.

What will YOU do to turn the tide of Somali piracy? Contribute as much as you can, but of course the more you play, the more you can change-and win-the game.

Watch your email early next week for the exclusive launch time and online invitation.

With best regards,

The mmowgli Team

Public playtesting had been delayed by the sheer number of people who had signed up to participate—more than 14,000 at last count. Indicative of the public attention all this has received, Rear Admiral Nevin Carr, the Chief of Naval Research, was on MSNBC yesterday to discuss the launch.

In fact, the Moves Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School is currently running a pre-public playtest of MMOWGLI at the moment. The game’s interface is a refreshingly clear and intuitive one, and the feedback and scoring system is designed to reward the most stimulating contributions (although whether those turn out to be the most thoughtful ones remains to be seen). The first stage of the game is all about generating short, tweet-sized micro ideas:

In later stages of the game, players will develop more detailed action plans, which other players can rate and comment upon. These too will be scored. Throughout, the game moderators have the capability of issuing rewards for particularly good ideas, which should help with quality control.

There’s also a leader board that allows you to monitor other player’s scores. There’s a risk that it might generate metagaming, however—not collaborating with a rival because you might push up his/her points total?

The biggest challenge, however, will be handling the potential traffic on the server. I don’t think any of the IT folks will be getting much sleep the day it launches publicly…

Game modification as a classroom exercise

In using a game in the classroom, one can play it through with students and highlight the appropriate lessons. You can also challenge them to redesign it in some way, as a way of getting them to research issues and think about what variables and relationships are important in shaping outcomes.

John Gastil used the latter approach in an “extra credit” assignment for a course on terrorism, using Volko Ruhnke’s game Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- . He sent us the following report:

I just finished teaching a course at the University of Washington (UW) titled, “The Dynamics of Terror Cells and Networks.” With a small class of 26 students in the UW Honors program, I had considerable flexibility in how I taught the course, and I opted to include Labyrinth as an extra-credit element. The good folks at the Honors program bought a copy of the game and put it on reserve, and the students read the following on their syllabus:

One assignment already available for double-extra credit (!) is as follows: Play through and create a pair of new and balanced event cards for the board game Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?, which the Honors Program has made available to you in the Honors Library. (You can turn in the “assignment” by way of a Word doc.) This is an assignment you should take on if you are enthused about playing strategy games. It takes a solid two-to-four hours to work through a game, assuming you’re playing with someone who knows the game and/or you read rules in advance for an hour or two. Not for the weak of heart, but well worth it. Note that this is a two-player game, but it includes a solitaire version, as well. (To see instructional videos, enter “Labyrinth Board Game terror” at YouTube.)

The students got so enthusiastic about the game that we scheduled a special evening class session to play through the game—using my own copy and the UW’s to play two simultaneous games. The students did well working in three-person teams on each side of the board, so six students were actively playing at a time on each board. One game ended relatively quickly with a deadly chain of cards leading to an unblocked WMD plot in the US. The other was called after a few hours, with the US regaining its prestige and some momentum late in the game.

In the end, several students opted to create new cards for extra credit, and the best of those (with some slight edits by me) are posted here (click to enlarge). The students clearly had an appetite for creating “game-changer” cards, which is not surprising in retrospect. A more challenging assignment would be to come up with cards that could be more integral to the flow of the game, one that could exist in multiple copies in the deck without upsetting game play. The only real surprise was that none of the cards submitted were about overthrowing governments. Given the appeal of a new Arab Spring expansion deck for Labyrinth, I thought they would make cards in that spirit. Instead, the most popular cards to make were variants on the death of bin Laden.

In sum, I’d say the game added considerable depth to the class for those students who engaged with it fully. As extra credit, it was something I could add without taking up too much dedicated class time. Finally, it was an especially helpful complement to a class that was about the internal dynamics of terror cells, rather than the macro-level politics and strategy of Islamic terrorism.

John Gastil

You’ll find our own review of Labyrinth, and thoughts on multiplayer use in the classroom, elsewhere on PAXsims.

Ed’s 10 lessons on game design for amateurs

Shortly after the recent NDU roundtable, the frighteningly efficient Ed McGrady sent around an email to several participants with his own thoughts on the dos and don’ts of good game design. They’re all extremely useful insights, so with his permission I’ve reposted them here.

These are based on dealing with tons of clients trying to tell me how to design games.  It never works.

1)  Playing Monopoly is easy, designing Monopoly is hard.  Thats why you don’t see lots of great games designed by amateurs.  You are an amateur, the odds are not in your favor.  So just because you can play a game does not mean that you can design one.  If this doesn’t stop you (it should), read on.
2)  Keep it simple.  If you have any hope as an amateur its doing a simple game.  Tic-tac-toe is a lot easier to pull off than Monopoly which is much easier to pull off than Word of Warcraft. And by pull off I mean design, execute, and control.  So don’t set out to design a board game, stick with simple story-line games where people talk to each other.  Stay away from electronic games, they are complex and end up being terrible money pits under the best of circumstances.   One key clue that you’ve strayed from a simple design is that you have to constantly explain it to people.  Think about the difference between War in the East (a four map, 4000 piece simulation of the German invasion of Russia) and Angry Birds.  WIE rules are about 50 pages (I think), Angry Birds:  Pull back the slingshot, stuff falls down.  Which is simpler?

3)  Keep it quick.  A common mistake is to let the game go on beyond its useful life.  Games have an expiration time, players get tired, players get bored.  Much better to leave them wanting more than wishing for less.

4)  Good designers think like cynics.  Great designers are cynics.  If you are not a cynic about human nature you are missing one of the key components to developing a good game design. People are selfish, deceitful, petty, mean spirited, and narcissistic.  You need to play off those traits in order to build an interesting game.  Set up players along naturally occurring social fault lines.  Design scenarios (stories) that accentuate people’s own self interest.  Then let them go fight it out.  Works every time.

5)  Story is everything in a good game.  So stick to stories that move you, that you know something about, and that you yourself can tell in an interesting and amusing way.  When you tell those stories, you’ll have the beginnings of a good game.  Just like writing stories:  design what you know.  (This is a big difference between amateurs and professionals, professionals can handle almost any topic and turn it into an interesting game, see #4 above).
6)  Games are shows.  Never forget that.  Games have a deadline:  you will walk into the room and everyone will expect to play in something that resembles a finished game.  You are the ringmaster.  You need to have your game ready to go when the players are ready.   (Again, professionals can pull a game out of their hat on short notice.  Do not try this).  Games also have a cast (the players).   You can cast players (if you know them) in order to make the game work.  Cast an inherently smart player in an important role, cast the lazy one in a small role.  (Again, professionals have ways of managing players).  Finally games have a script, its called the materials.  Make the materials pretty (or at least easy to read).   It looks more professional.

7)  Venue, materials, logistics:  they are very important to your success.  Someone should be in charge of the sandwiches and other important logistics.  It should not be you, you have enough to do just to design the game.  Getting players to come to the game is basic, keeping them happy requires more than just a game.

8)  Games are about the players.  Let me repeat, games are about the players.  Not you.  Not your pet theory about whatever your gaming.  The players make decisions.  Thus you should never, ever, drive the game yourself directly.  If a player can make the decision, then they should and not you.  If a player needs to talk to someone, they should be talking to another player in the game not you.  And please, never jerk the players around.  Think about any decision you make about the game as its being player:  will my decision significantly change the environment for the players in a way that will unnecessarily frustrate them?  If the answer is yes, do not do it.  Frustrated players will kill a game as fast as not having sandwiches.

9)  As an amateur you should be designing for yourself.  Not a client.  Designing for clients is like balancing two bowling balls on a stick.  You should only work with one stick and one bowling ball.

10)  It is easy to have a bad game.  Its is hard to have a good one.  Good games have clearly articulated objectives, an interesting story (scenario), and ways of operating (mechanics) that accentuate people’s nature social inclinations (good and bad).  Spend the most time getting your objectives down to where they could be understood by your grandmother.  Then spend some more time simplifying them.  Then make sure you have an interesting story.  Then choose the right players and set them free within the story to try and conquer the objectives.  Good luck with that.  You’ll need it.

Ed McGrady

Ed’s thoughts on the matter then sparked a round of emails among others. Hopefully some of the participants in the subsequent exchanges will cut-and-paste their comments here too, and share them with a broader audience.

NDU Strategic Gaming Roundtable AAR

This Wednesday saw the latest meeting of the quarterly NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming, held on this occasion in the gleaming new headquarters of the United States Institute of Peace. Over two dozen participants were in attendance, consisting of (professional) gamers from a diverse array of military and civilian backgrounds.

The primary focus of the session concerned the contribution of gaming to education and training on issues related to conflict resolution, peacebuilding, peace and stabilization operations, and fragile and conflicted-affected states. Three presenters from USIP highlighted the broad range of simulations that the Institute uses in its work. First, Dominic Volonnino talked about the various table-top exercises and simulations used by USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. These are conducted both in Washington and in the field, and he used the example of a module on the challenges of using translators during engagement with local leaders to highlight the ways in which multimedia could be used to develop awareness and skills. Next, Noor Kirdar talked about USIP’s SENSE (Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise ) simulation. SENSE, which was originally developed  by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) to support post-Dayton economic policymaking in Bosnia, is a computer-facilitated simulation that focuses on negotiations and decision-making in a post-conflict environment.

SENSE has four interrelated objectives, which can be modified depending on the target audience and curriculum:

  • Develop the principles of negotiating, cooperative problem-solving, and decision-making, which are critical for successful democratic processes;
  • Illustrate the interrelationships among military security, economic progress, and the creation of equitable societies;
  • Demonstrate the efficacy and efficiency of free market economies; and
  • Provide a practical and informative experience with the issues of governance in “transitional” societies.

Skip Cole then talked about his work at USIP on the development of the Open Simulation Platform, highlighting both the value of technology-enhanced role-play, and the value of open source software to support this.

After the three USIP presenters, I provided a brief overview of classroom simulation of war-to-peace transitions, focusing on the Brynania simulation that I use in my peacebuilding class at McGill.

A question-and-answer period followed, after which we then moved on to the second part of the afternoon: a brainstorming session for a guidebook that Margaret McCown (NDU), Tim Wilkie (NDU), Skip Cole (USIP), and myself will be putting together on simulation.

Project Summary

The primary aim of the project is the development and publication of 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 simulations as experiential learning tool, but lack a background in gaming or familiarity with simulation methods.

Guidebook Contents

The proposed guidebook would contain two major sections. The first part would contain a series of short thematic chapters, each written by an experienced professional in the field. These would address the key considerations in designing and implementing peacebuilding simulations. The second part of the volume would contain a dozen or more brief accounts of various peacebuilding games and simulations in current use. The objective in this section would be to provide the neophyte simulator with some sense of the many ways in which simulations have been used, highlighting a variety of different approaches. Finally, a third section would contain an annotated bibliography and a list of other useful resources.

Possible Chapter Organization and Book Contents

PART I: Simulation design, implementation, and integration

  • Chapter 1: Is a simulation right for you?
    • What a simulation can—and can’t—do.
    • Time, effort, and opportunity costs in simulation use.
  • Chapter 2: Simulation approaches and format
    • The strengths and weaknesses of various simulation and gaming formats. Purpose-built simulations versus the uses of (potentially modified) commercial, off-the-shelf games.
    • Strategic versus operational simulation, as well as mixed approaches.
    • Turn-based versus ongoing/realtime simulations.
  • Chapter 3: Simulation and technology
    • The uses of technology.
    • Simulation facilitation software.
    • The use of existing free and online services.
  • Chapter 4: Authoring scenarios
    • How to author scenarios and background materials.
    • Balancing realism, learning, and playability.
    • Motivating and engaging players.
    • Integrating participant characteristics into simulation design.
  •  Chapter 5: Moderating a simulation
    • Common challenges in moderating games and simulations.
    • Dealing with social, political, and other sensitivities in conflict simulation.
  • Chapter 6: Maximizing learning value
    • Integrating simulations into courses.
    • Debriefing games.
    • Evaluating student performance.

Part II: Simulation examples (short case studies)

Part III: Further reading and additional resources

Because this is still in the early stages, we were looking for feedback from participants (or, for that matter, from PAXsims readers!) on what issues needed to be included, and whether we ought to revise the structure of the volume:

 What key topics are missing from the table of contents?

  • How could the chapters/topics in Part I be better organized?
  • What simulations should be profiled in Part 2?
  • What would be the three key pieces of advice that you would give to the neophyte user of instructional simulations?

While we had less time for discussion than we had initially planned in the roundtable itself, we received a great deal of useful advice in the session, after the session, and by email afterwards—some of which I’ll post to PAXsims next.

U.S. Department of State Hosts Tech@State: Serious Games Conference

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know this was going on today, until an alert David Becker passed it on. Had I know, I would have prolonged my recent stay in Washington a few days!

The U.S. Department of State will host a conference on the use of games for serious ends, such as education, social change, and simulation, at Tech@State: Serious Games on May 27-28, 2011.

The event will be held on the campus of the George Washington University at the Jack Morton Auditorium (Media and Public Affairs Building), located at 805 21ST Street NW, Washington, DC 20052. Sessions are scheduled from 7:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. on Friday, May 27 and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 28. The event’s first day will feature government and non-government speakers and games experts assembled from throughout the nation. The second day will be an all-day “unconference,” at which attendees will generate their own agenda based on the interests and expertise of the crowd.

Participants and conference leaders include representatives from commercial games makers, international agencies, non-profits, and academic institutions. A conference event schedule and speaker biographies can be found at Registration is free, open to the general public, and can be accessed through The event will also be streamed live online at Participants can also follow the conference live on Twitter via hashtag #TechAtState and through @eDipAtState, @StateDept, and @TechAtState.

For more information or if you have questions related to the conference, please contact Paul Swider at

If anyone is attending, perhaps they can send us a conference report?

* * *

Update: Skip Cole points out that video of the sessions is available online here.

General Dempsey on MMOGs and leadership development

It is now being widely reported that General Martin Dempsey, who was appointed as head of the US Army earlier this year, will be selected as the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s also quite the fan of massively multiplayer online games as a learning and training tool, as he noted in his Senate confirmation hearing in March:

I feel the same way today about social networking. We’ve got young men and women playing massive multiplayer online role- playing games, MMOGs as they call them, World of Warcraft and others—I mean, millions of children playing these interactive games. And they’re learning something about developing as leaders, believe it or not, because of the way these games structure, and you have to impose your own leadership into the game.

We can figure out how to leverage a game like that for leader development, linking schoolhouses across the country—I’m talking about military schoolhouses. I think we’d be onto something in helping these young men and women collaborate, meet their desire to social network, and also facilitate the kind of learning we’re going to need by introducing complex problems in that environ- ment, that we can’t replicate physically at places like Fort Hood and Fort Bragg and Fort Carson. So, I think social networking has enormous opportunities for us.

There’s no news yet on how this might affect the US military’s response to the growing hybrid threat of global Murloc proliferation.

Many thanks to USIP (while it’s still there)

We’ll have a summary of the recent NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming up on PAXsims in a day or two, as soon as we’ve had a chance to mentally digest all the rich discussion (which continued in the halls, over pizza, by email, and in other ways long after the event was officially finished). In the meantime, however, I thought I would post a quick thank-you to the United States Institute of Peace for acting as gracious host for the event, and for sharing their extensive experience with simulation as a teaching and training tool. Thanks are due too to the NDU Center for Applied Strategic Learning for organizing this and previous roundtables. It is always a pleasure to be in a room extracting wisdom from so many experienced professional gamers.

Unfortunately, it would appear that USIP’s very existence is once again under threat from continued budget politics in Washington. Sheesh.

After all, why would the US need a nonpartisan research and training institute that brings together expertise from the academic, military, diplomatic, aid, legal, NGO, media, business, and other communities so as to strength capacities to manage and resolve international conflict? It’s not like the US ever gets involved in counter-insurgency and stabilization operations; has global interests that span fragile and conflict-affected countries; is concerned about terrorism; is ever called upon to exercise global leadership in the face of war, humanitarian disasters or human rights abuses; has a $30b development assistance program that it wishes to spend wisely; or is the world’s top refugee resettlement country….

Side note to Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who sounded the warning in the piece linked above: don’t make this a Democratic versus Republican issue, because it is neither accurate nor very helpful. After all, the last misinformed attempt to cut USIP’s budget was cosponsored by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). And for those of you who didn’t follow the earlier debate on the issue some months ago, have a look back at Anthony Zinni’s take on it in the New York Times.)

Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge 2011 winners

Well, we’re a month late in reporting it, but better late than never: the winners of the 2011 Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge have been announced. Of particular interest to PAXsims readers will be NonKin Village, the winner in the “patterns of life” category:

Non-Kinetic (NonKin) Village provides training developers with a small autonomous society (like The Sims or SimCity) that is reconfigurable for a number of cross-cultural training goals. Nothing is scripted, it is all based on social science models of the society of interest. Once the models are setup, trainees can use it like the mock villages at US military forts to gain experience in foreign cultures and to learn to be sensitive to local norms, values, relationship building, and stakeholder issues prior to arriving in the country or region where they must interact with and possibly influence and assist natives in that culture. This is useful for many types of training such as, but not limited to, multinational corporations tutoring their workers, international aid organizations training their field representatives, and diplomatic advisors and military forces needing to learn how to handle counter-insurgency, stabilization and development issues.

Many specific types of training can be written with the Agents in NonKin Village. The current NonKin release holds two demo games aimed at military player(s) and at helping them to learn how to profile and befriend the population, and to begin to help stabilize their society. NonKin presents the player(s) with an artificial society that has a declining economy (formal and black market), a corrupt governance and leadership structure (clan as well as various would-be governmental groups and institutions), potential insurgents amidst families carrying out daily lives, and residents whose trust you can earn. The two demos, respectively, challenge trainees to (1) identify trends affecting the main economic activities, organizations, and networks of the village; and (2) build up relations and become familiar to the villagers in order to learn their social, kinship and political networks well enough to find and detain an insurgent. These are not completed training games, but are meant to be illustrative of what can be created with NonKin Village.

The FVWC site isn’t terribly informative, and there’s no announcement that I can find on RDECOM’s Army Technology Live website. Ironic, that.

However there is a great deal of information available on NonKin Village via the Ackoff Collaboratory for Advancement of the Systems Approach at the University of Pennsylvania, which developed the project. For those of you with Virtual Battlespace 2, you can even download the VBS2 plug-ins and mission files and give it a try yourself.

After the recent NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming a few of us had an interesting side discussion over whether avatar-centered videogames work well for cultural awareness training, or whether they might have some potential negative effects too. Certainly they allow users to potentially immerse themselves in a virtual world and learn from their simulated mistakes in a way that has no adverse real-world consequences. On the other hand, might there be a sort of reverse uncanny valley effect at work too, such that real foreigners seem so like the machine ones that trainees start to treat them as if they were programmed AI agents rather than complex human beings whose motivations both overlap with and differ from our own? Does interaction with a machine actually heighten empathy, or alter it?

This isn’t really an issue for the developers on NonKin to address—they’re much more in the business of pushing the technological envelope. However, I do think the answer is far from clear, and deserves some systematic study (if it hasn’t already been done). It is probably also an issue to be addressed in debriefs from virtual cultural awareness training, much as with any other simulation method: what are the good lessons to learn, and what might be the wrong ones (arising from limitations in the model or simulation process)?

Shiver me timbers—MMOWGLI delayed

The US Navy has announced that the pirate-themed playtest of MMOWGLI crowd-sourcing/simulation platform has been delayed, due to the large number of potential participants:

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) announced May 19 that it has delayed the launch of its internet wargame exercise due to overwhelming interest and a surge in player registrations.

The release was originally scheduled for May 16.

Since the Massive Multiplayer Online Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) website’s opening earlier this year, ONR’s partner, the Naval Postgraduate School, has seen an unexpected increase of more than 12,000 player registrations in a week’s time.

“Attracting good ideas is the lifeblood of ONR’s cutting-edge science and technology,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Nevin Carr. “I am encouraged by the enormity of interest in MMOWGLI and hope that this crowdsourcing tool will harness the power of collective thought to help drive external innovation for the Navy.”

Current and future game player registrants can expect to receive an email providing the new date for MMOWGLI’s launch following an official announcement from ONR.

“We are overwhelmed at the positive response this game has generated. We are delaying the launch to be sure to extract the very most for the Navy from this, and our future online game series,” said Dr. Larry Schuette, ONR’s director of innovation.

MMOWGLI is an online game designed to find and grow breakthrough ideas to some of the Navy’s most complex problems–those 21st-century threats that demand new forms of collaboration and truly outlying ideas, Schuette said.

A piracy scenario was chosen as a means to demonstrate the platform, but MMOWGLI itself can be applied to any scenario, officials said.


h/t: pvebber at SWJ

Michael Peck on the military and serious games

Rex asked me to write something for PAXsims. For those who don’t know, I’m U.S. Editor of Training & Simulation Journal, a wargamer since age 12, and probably the defense journalist who most focuses on games and simulations.

I thought I’d start with a few lessons I’ve learned about the military and serious games:

1. Serious games need serious reasons. When it comes to games, missiles, or any other military item, the first question I’ve learned to ask is, “What need or requirement does it fulfill?” Because that is exactly what the Pentagon will ask. The people in the military who are in charge of games frequently don’t play games for fun. The military also procures games in the same way that it procures tanks, rifles and boots. Serious games don’t have political clout; no Senator is going to throw a filibuster because a few geeks in a basement office didn’t get a $500,000 contract. I’ve met a lot of people with great ideas for games on topics like counterinsurgency. Bringing those ideas to fruition may be a little easier if it’s a specialized simulation for a select audience, like a military staff college. But a game for all the privates and sergeants and lieutenants? Not going to happen without a requirement, with all the bureaucracy therein. Gamers and bureaucracy mix as harmoniously as dogs and cats. But that’s how the system works.

2. The only thing separating the military and gamers is a common language. To gamers and the general public, “wargaming” is gunning down ninjas on a computer screen, or running around the woods with a paintball gun. To the military, wargaming is a analytical process that means exploring various alternatives. Game designers think of “immersiveness” as the player suspending disbelief enough to have fun; the military thinks of immersiveness as suspending disbelief so the player actually learns something that keeps him alive on a real battlefield.

3. The Pentagon can’t afford not to use games. Forget realism, portability, immersiveness and all the other selling points of serious games. Money is the issue. Games can never replace live training. Yet it’s extremely expensive to train with real jet fighters and tanks, or hire unemployed actors to pretend to be Afghan villagers. Games are effective training tools in some areas, and not so hot in others. But their effectiveness is almost immaterial. America and Europe are broke, defense budgets are going to shrink as the Afghan and Iraq conflicts wind down, and games are relatively cheap. The interesting question won’t be which live training will games replace, but which live training they won’t replace.

4. The military doesn’t give a damn about paper wargames.  Period. The end. I got into wargaming with paper games in the mid-1970s. Most soldiers today have never seen a paper wargame and think a grognard is a French pastry. Gaming today is perceived as computer games, and shooter games for the most part. That’s too bad. For all the clunkiness of cardboard, a paper game can incorporate sophisticated concepts in two paragraphs of rules where software would need a million lines of code. You can also change the rules with a pen instead of an army of contractors. But that’s not how the world thinks anymore. Just simply the way it is. The dodo feels your pain.

5. Games for work is work, not fun. People think I have a great gig writing about the military and games. They’re right. I’ve had the chance to play a variety of serious games, from intelligence analysis to diplomacy to logistics (amazing the topics you can turn into games). I truly enjoy the challenge of examining games from the military perspective, and examining the military from the gaming perspective. It’s much more interesting to write about games in terms of their real-world potential, rather than having to churn out yet another review on how cool the graphics, or how many zombies a game lets you kill. But at the end of the day, it is work. If I talk to an Army colonel about a video game, I ask him the same questions that I would ask about a missile or a radar system. What does it do? What requirement does it fulfill? What does it enable you to do that you couldn’t do before? In the end, we are talking about decisions with life-and-death consequences. Serious games demand serious questions.

Michael Peck

The National Security Decision Making Game

The National Security Decision Making Game has been going strong for more than two decades now, at educational institutions, game conventions, and elsewhere. PAXsims would like to thank Mark McDonagh for passing on this account of what they do, and how they do it. Those who are interested will get a chance to see them in action at Origins and GenCon later this summer.—RB

* * *

National Security Decision Making Game: A Hybrid Seminar and Role-Playing Simulation for Educational and Entertainment

Mark McDonagh, Capt./USN (ret.)

Here’s the game in a nutshell:  “You players are the Legislature.  You over there, you’re the Cabinet.  You folks in the corner are the military leadership.  This guy’s the President.  The scenario is: it’s the world as you know it today.  Fix it.  Start now.”

 NSDM Game Background

The National Security Decision Making (NSDM) Game is a hybrid seminar-live action role playing simulation that serves to instruct players in international affairs, cultures, political processes and decision criteria, geopolitical situations and challenges of other nations, and military and economic considerations.  The basic, signature game is eight hours, but a streamlined version is available that runs in four.  Contemporary (“world-as-you-know-it-today”) and Cold War (1960) variants are available, and we are currently working on a variant for the U.S. Civil War.

NSDM was initially developed at the U.S. Naval War College as a civilianized, demonstration version of games run there to explore issues.  It has evolved since then into a unique tool to explore decision-making in the international and domestic arenas.  NSDM, Inc. is a non-profit educational organization with no current, lingering affiliation with the Naval War College or any other governmental body, although members of our staff have worked in several governmental departments with national-security related missions.  While educational in nature, the NSDM staff also embrace its entertainment value as a game, and NSDM is routinely run at civilian wargaming conventions such as Origins, GenCon, DragonCon and major Historical Miniatures Gaming Society events.  This is NSDM’s 21st year in operation.

How NDSM is Played

NSDM is designed to be run with medium to large groups.  The largest recorded game had 82 players.  NSDM can run with groups as small as five, but is better with larger groups.  The theoretical upper limit is about 150, and we’ve put together contingency plans to go to 225.

The players in a game are divided into national cells, with typically between 10 and 25 players in each.  Each player is assigned a position within that cell’s decision-making structure, from which he or she can affect the formulation of national policy, laws, budget allocations, foreign affairs and decisions regarding security, law enforcement activities and the use of armed force.  A player in the U.S. cell, for example, may be the leader of a congressional faction, a Cabinet Secretary, or Chief of Staff of one of the armed services.  In the Chinese cell, the player might be commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Foreign Affairs Advisor for the Communist Party of China, or an entrepreneur running a massive business and financial conglomerate in Hong Kong.  Each player is provided with a written motivation, for that position, that describes what his/her character believes in and works toward in the development of national policy.  The player then acts within the decision making/political structure, interacting with other players in their respective roles.  In each cell’s decision-making structure (simulating the nation being played), participants try to move national funding, policies and practices in their desired direction. They also react to injected events in a manner that is true to each group’s nature, as they try to advance their agenda and work toward political ascendancy.

The set of player motivations for each nation-cell, as written, is designed to represent the body politic and describe current, important issues of that nation, but also to bring each player into alliances with other players in pursuit of common goals and to put them at odds with other groups of players.  While that is going on, the game control staff injects additional events and/or information (e.g. military, insurgency and terrorism threats, pandemics, natural disasters, substantial events in the world economy) that challenge the players’ abilities to react within the nations’ decision-making structure.  The body of players in a nation-cell, having formed into factions, with personal agendas and holding positions of personal power, decide how to respond.  Meanwhile, overlapping national interests draw the nation-cell toward cooperation with other nations in some areas and discord in others.

NSDM is more about decision-making and politicking within the nation cell than it is about the interplay between nations.  Although multiple-nation-cell games are most common, sometimes NSDM is run with only one nation-cell, the rest of the world being represented by the game control staff.  NSDM has rules to simulate over 20 nations in the Contemporary period and four in the Cold War period, each with unique military, political, economic and security issues, all based on real-world conditions and situations.  We are also exploring the use of cells representing non-state players, reflecting their increasing role in global affairs.

As a design feature, a consequence of the interaction between the staff and players, no two games are the same.

At the end of the game, a debrief is held during which the players come clean about their agendas and the techniques they used to advance them, and all players learn something about the events in the other nation-cells and why/how individuals make decisions.

In most venues, the NSDM staff selects winners and provides prizes.  Individuals win NSDM, not nations-a player who achieves his/her objectives, as provided in their motivation, can win the game even though their country might be a smoking ruin.

NSDM Value as an Educational Tool

As an educational tool, each participant will hopefully come away from an NSDM game with a better understanding of:

  • the issues of the day seen from new perspectives
  • the nature and political system of other nations
  • world geopolitical, economic and military affairs
  • the respective importance in good decision making of time and reliable information.

NSDM is also a useful tool to exercise communication, team-building and negotiating skills.  Our Cold War game variant is a good history exercise, immersing the player in a different era, and it provides insight into the superpower struggle that no number of books and lectures are likely to bestow.

How NSDM is Run

NSDM practices Dynamic Game Control.  Unlike most professional games, which are designed to go in a certain direction in order to achieve specific objectives, the NSDM game control staff will typically follow the players’ decisions and must be prepared to take the game anywhere that the players’ decisions logically transport it.  The Control Staff is prepared to adjudicate combat anywhere in the world on short notice, to assess the national, regional and worldwide implications of major trade agreements, and to simulate the reaction of the Rest of the World to significant actions taken by the players.  There is no lock-step time clock ticking away as the game progress, as facilitators and controllers collaborate to move game time forward as slowly as needed to fully develop player interactions, or to pick up the pace to keep players engaged and to cover the game events that need to be covered.

NSDM is road-mobile, running out of a set of boxes and suitcases totaling about 30 cubic feet.

Our team structure to run these events is:

  1. Game Director to coordinate the actions of staff members.
  2. Country Controllers assigned to each nation-cell, overseeing the mechanics in the cell, running elections and organizing votes on legislation, providing deadlines for budget and policy submission, and controlling the flow of information on events in the cell with the rest of the staff.  Acting as the single-source of information on what is going on in the cell, including any illicit dealings that the players have become involved in (and so, determining if and when to let Law Enforcement catch on).  The set of Country Controllers form the primary committee that determines who won the game.
  3. Facilitators to provide realistic responses for the nations of the world that are not represented by player nations, plus various non-governmental entities, such as the U.S. Secretary General, World Health Organization, International Committee of the Red Cross, Al Qaeda, or Colombian Drug Lords.  They also provide a useful mechanism to make game injects.  A Facilitator Controller makes facilitator assignments, including assigning new roles, on the fly, as requested by the players or as needed as scenarios unfold in unanticipated ways.  He also controls the sequence and timing of major threads injected into the game.
  4. Military Controller who is the central adjudicator for military actions and the clearing house for intelligence resource allocation and intelligence take-away.  He is also the advisor for players who have drawn military positions but do not have the necessary background.
  5. Economic Controller who adjudicates the effect of players’ policies and actions, such as major trade deals, on the growth of the nation’s GDP, providing the tax basis for follow-on actions.
  6. Media Controller representing all of the non-partisan international news media sources, coordinating the information flow between nations, and is also a useful resource for players to make announcements and attempt to spin events.

In small games, many of these positions may be combined.

The NSDM Game Control Staff

NSDM is a hobby for the control staff.  Run initially by two brothers, with experience from the Naval War College, NSDM has picked up a series of fellow-travelers along the way, folks who admire what the game tries to do and have chosen to devote time and energy to the endeavor.  This team includes former members of all four services, professors, retired State and Energy Department officers, lawyers, IT professionals and, inevitably, a nucleus of hard-core gamers.  NSDM, Inc. has no paid positions, everyone has a day job and uses vacation time to help run games.  The game has no budget, members donating the consumables needed and absorbing the travel costs.  NSDM has asked for honoraria to offset expenses in some venues, but usually just asks for hotel space.  NSDM survives on donations.

NSDM staff members also contribute to various venues by providing lectures and running seminars on current and historical geopolitical and military topics within their respective areas of expertise.

NSDM Legacy for Education and Training

  • NDSM has had a long association with Ashland University, running a game every Fall semester since 2006.
  • NSDM ran a demonstration game at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. in 2010, focused on displaying the techniques that we use for Dynamic Game Control.
  • NSDM ran two leadership training tabletop exercises at the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity in Quantico, Virginia.
  • NSDM also had a large, highly successful game at Ball State University.
  • NSDM has been run on the high school level, where the focus is on providing a deeper insight into current affairs and developing communications skills.

More Information

For more information, check out NSDM’s website at as well as the the NSDM Facebook page, where articles of current geopolitical and military interest are posted and discussed.

To observe NSDM in action, NSDM will be running four-hour Contemporary and Cold War games at Origins 2011, in Columbus, Ohio, from Wednesday, June 22 through Friday, June 24, with our legacy Contemporary eight-hour game on Saturday, June 25.

NSDM will also be running four-hour Contemporary and Cold War games at GenCon 2011, in Indianapolis, Indiana, from Wednesday, August 3 through 5, with our legacy eight-hour game on Saturday, August 6, and hopefully a beta test of our two-hour U.S. Civil War game on Friday, August 5.

NSDM is hoping to return to Ball State and Ashland Universities in the Fall, but specific dates are pending.

CRHT = countering Rex’ hybrid thread

Rex has once again managed to post a treatise while I’ve simply pondered a tweet.  I am, therefore, going to cheat and respond to Rex’ giant list of take aways (sampled in quotes below)  from the NATO CHT experiment last week.  Sadly, I found myself agreeing with him more than I wanted to, but hope that my reflections still counter his thread sufficiently to qualify (and score!):

1.  “I’m not convinced that “hybrid threats” works very well as a military concept…”

I agree with Rex – the NATO description of the concept presupposes a known “adversary”, whereas nearly all of the hybrid threats involve criminal activity that is best fought through law enforcement and where identities are purposely concealed.  Furthermore, hybrid threats just ended up, eventually, by the end of the week, being anything we don’t expect – I guess it wouldn’t be particularly compelling for a new doctrine to just call itself, “Responding to unexpected threats” but the acronym would be RUT, which would be hilarious, accurate and ironic…

2.  “… seems to work fine as a shorthand for “all that messy, non-conventional war stuff NATO might do.”

I agree with Rex, this concept is probably the best that the alliance could agree on.

3.  “Ideas matter… This is the unspoken “walrus in the room” …”

Rex, damnit, you won, you won, do you have to keep rubbing the walrus in my face?

4.  “… many national politicians have a more inclusive and integrated sense of national and security interests than do some senior military personnel…”

The Bank has an apolitical mandate, so I am not in any position to speak to the comprehensive approach of politicians or military personnel – clearly, though, economists have the most fully inclusive and integrated senses of national  and security interests….

5.  “Unity of command is impossible to achieve in complex peace and stabilization operations…”

This is going to be difficult for NATO and other military actors to swallow, I think – it runs counter to everything about hierarchical organizations that make them so effective at what they do.  World Bankers and the UN are comfortable with differing degrees of flat and latticed command structures (for a variety of intentional and unintentional reasons, peculiar to the organizations) which can often be useful in complex, multi-sectoral, multi-actor environments.

6.  “The “next” NATO operation is unknowable….”

Thus the delicious irony of RUT!

7.  “…Consequently, NATO needs to prepare against a very broad spectrum of things, rather than a particular thing.”

Yes, and gaming/experimenting/scenario and contingency planning can be particularly useful for preparing against such a spectrum.

8.  Afghanistan, Libya, and the Balkans can inform reflections, but they shouldn’t drive them…

This is huge and never fully internalized by our military counterparts – Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans are outliers on nearly every measure of intervention by an order of magnitude.  There are still lessons to be learned, but they must be qualified by the context, especially if NATO is going to talk about having a “lighter footprint” as I heard multiple times during the week…

9.  “… Heretics and iconoclasts can be useful people to have in a room…”

I disagree, vehemently, to the point of blog apostasy.

10.  “… It needs to strategize how it develops and sustains relationships. I think the experiment made major contributions in this respect…”

I agree, this was a solid contribution, created lasting relationships and a  network of people that had worked through a new vocabulary and difficult concepts and demonstrated a commitment to helping to solve these types of problems.  Carana often has this multiplier effect as well – it creates bonds that can contribute to later collaboration way beyond the learning from the experience.

11.  “… Indeed, occasionally the cake batter tries to kill you…”


12.  “On the subject of self-mixing cakes, never underestimate the ability of the locals to manipulate the outsiders.”

Yes, but, to their credit, many NATO participants (in my group at least) acknowledged these issues when confronted by them.

13.  “Lots of people have been doing (or trying to do) conflict prevention and stabilization a very long time, and usually doing it without any NATO presence.”

I basically agree, but I think exercises like this, other classroom experiences I’ve shared with NATO and evolving thinking on the comprehensive approach by the organization has demonstrated more humility on this topic than they are often given credit for.  The relevant comparator for them is often national militaries – and I think they will be very useful interlocutors when national militaries start developing this more.

14.  “Things can be made better, but the perfect can be the enemy of the good. A sort of cynical optimism is therefore important. Hubris is fatal (sometimes literally so). Be aware of the law of diminishing returns, and know when something is a “good enough” solution and we should move on to the next problem.”

Rex, the official term from the WDR is “best fit”, please adjust your spell check.

15. ” Perhaps because they’re locked together in small steel cylinders for long periods of time, submariners can really tell jokes wickedly well.”

Damnit, we didn’t have any submariners in our group.  We had a decent joke from a financial analyst, but none of the cyber/police types stepped up at all.  They were probably IMing jokes to each other on the secret new internet they were inventing…

16.  “Think about emerging and hybrid opportunities too, not just the threats—the “Arab Spring” being a case in point. (This was a comment actually made by Jamie Shea in his excellent speech, but I thought it was worth repeating. He said a lot of very sensible things—it was a shame he didn’t open the conference.)

There was really a lot of wisdom and expertise in the room – for a conference introducing elements of statebuilding, peacebuilding and nationbuilding in the context of 21st century violence and threats to stability for a very diverse audience, I think it was a great contribution.  I’ve already drawn on some observations in follow on work.  In many ways, the challenge for NATO will be NATO – now that these threats have been recognized, how will the institution adapt in the future?  This is not unique, much of my last week was spent working with Bank staff trying to smooth the transition away from business as usual in a fragile environment.

Are video games “precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars” ?

Well, David Sirota thinks so in a recent piece at Salon:

Of late, the video game world has been making headlines with the release of two games — “Counter Strike” and “Kuma War” — themed to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Cue the now-standard debates over the effects of such a simulation on young childrens’ minds. “Is the bin Laden kill game cathartic, educational or just ghoulish?” asks Kokatu. “Are video game re-creations of bin Laden’s compound in poor taste?” wonders U.S. News and World Report. No doubt, we may soon see a rehash of the never-ending back-and-forth over whether such video games makes kids more violent (data suggests they don’t).

These are certainly important short-term questions — but they ignore a far deeper examination of the militarization of video games in general, how the Pentagon has embedded itself into the video game industry, and whether that means video games are selling a longer-term martial political ideology to the nation’s youth. They ignore, in short, the far more important video-game story of the last few weeks — the one briefly reported on this weekend by the Washington Post

He then goes on to cite this weekend’s Washington Post piece on MMOWGLI, suggesting that “Now we get the Navy’s maritime security game looking to crowdsource the ins and outs of counter-piracy tactics. Next month, it’ll inevitably be something else.” He goes on to conclude:

But as evidenced most recently by the Post, the military sees video games as serious business in shaping the larger politics and ideology of the national security state. That means along with questioning a certain game’s graphic nature or individual violence, we must also question whether we want video games being used by the Pentagon to promote the idea that society should deify, heroize and organize itself around the military — aka. the purveyor of institutional violence.

Maybe in the era of “USA! USA!” chants, that is something we want. Then again, maybe not, considering polls on military spending and saber-rattling suggest we aren’t nearly the militarist culture the media portrays us as. Either way, the ethics, morals and implications of the Pentagon-video-game nexus deserve far more attention than they’ve received.

In other words, it’s time to finally admit and then honestly address what video games have become — as much entertainment products as precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars.

Sirota raises some important points about the ways in which popular culture (militarized video games) and public policy (war and peace) may intersect, and the role of the state in potentially influencing that intersection. However, in attempting to make that point he casts his net far too wide, pulling together a range of issues in the hopes that they’ll somehow coalesce into the argument he wants to make. They don’t.

Take the initial reference in the article to games “themed to the killing of Osama bin Laden.” While there might be some broader commentary one could make on social attitudes to violence, terrorism and revenge, the examples don’t have anything to do with the Pentagon. Moreover, the fact that game developers and modders have been quick to develop scenarios based on Operation Neptune Spear is hardly surprising. It was big news, and one of the classic Special Forces operations of the past century. It would be peculiar indeed if game publishers didn’t jump on the bandwagon given that they are in the business of selling games and making money. It would also be odd if gamers didn’t mod an existing game to “play” the operation. Modifying games to address contemporary operations is not especially American and it certainly long predates video games. (I well remember gaming the abortive US Embassy rescue mission in Iran with members of my UK wargames club more than three decades ago using converted Airfix figures, and we’ve got an Iraq-themed home-made version of RISK kicking around the office at McGill at the moment —a place that is decidedly not a hotbed of political support for American military intervention.)

Somehow Sirota then transitions from violent video games to MMOWGLI and a broader Pentagon conspiracy. MMOWGLI, however, isn’t really much of a video-game. Rather, it is a crowd-sourcing platform for policy ideas. More important still, there isn’t the slightest indication that it will attempt to promote any particular values, let alone  “the ideology of the national security state.” Indeed, it is intended to do quite the opposite: to create an online space in which a multitude of ideas can be articulated and interact, including those that might emphasize non-military solutions to piracy and other hybrid threats. As far as I can see even pirates are welcome to participate, provided they have an internet connection.

In citing the relationship between the Pentagon and the Institute for Creative Technologies Sirota is slightly closer to the mark. ICT primarily develops simulations for (military) training purposes, but also developed the video game Full Spectrum Warrior in 2004 for the Xbox, PC, and PS2. FSW was intended as an exploration of whether commercial video games and video game techniques could be used for military training purposes too. Overall, the project doesn’t appear to have been hugely successful as either a game or a training platform.

The Army Experience Center  and America’s Army (both of which Sirota mentions) would be the best example of a Pentagon-video game nexxus. Both are explicitly designed as recruiting tools. As such, they seek to shape attitudes. It is doubtful that either has enjoyed the sort of market penetration or cultural impact to have significantly altered public attitudes to the military or the use of military force on a large scale, however. America’s Army, for example, shows up on Google some 2.8 million times—which sounds impressive until you realize that SpongeBob SquarePants shows up online 21.3 million times. (Perhaps the Navy should recruit him instead. Or perhaps he was already at Abbottabad with DevGru/SEAL Team Six. Now there’s a videogame waiting to be made.)

The issue of the “military-entertainment” complex is an interesting one. It extends well beyond video games to include the decades-old tradition of the military cooperating with Hollywood in the making of military-friendly movies, the US Air Force Thunderbirds, the Army sponsoring Nascar racing teams, military bands playing at major sporting events, and a host of other examples. What militaries do to modify public perceptions is important, and ought to be studied and discussed. So too the impact of militarized videogames should be explored. In examining all this, however, it would be helpful to town down the rhetoric and increase the analytical rigour. (Heck, the next thing you know some commentators will be drawing parallels with Nazi Germany).

Caricaturing MMOWGLI’s playtest as a paragon case of  “precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars” is just plain silly. Even SpongeBob knows that.

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