Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 20/05/2011

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

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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.

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