Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 27/05/2011

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.

%d bloggers like this: