Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Milgames: Encouraging repeated play—and learning

Some weeks ago, the MILGAMES Yahoo group had an interesting discussion about player motivation and the repeated play of serious games. With the permission of everyone quoted below, I’ve compiled that thread for PAXsims. (In those cases where participants didn’t get back to me, I’ve instead summarized and anonymized their comments.)

It all started when Bill Speer (Senior Training Developer, JANUS Research Group) posted a deceptively simple question:

“Serious” question here.  In a serious game used for training what intrinsic and extrinsic motivations could encourage a student to play a lesson/game again?  That is besides an SGL saying, “Play it again!”

We are currently struggling how to encourage soldiers to retake a lesson or training in a serious game that they have already “passed.”

Simulation/game designer Ezra Sidran (RiverviewAI) replied:

 The classic line, often attributed to Sid Meier, is that, “a game is a series of interesting decisions.” Keep the decisions interesting (and frequent).

Having written a number of ‘beer and skittles games’ the key is to draw the user in to making decisions that make visible changes.

Another contributor noted that in many DoD BOGSAT wargames, the connection between actions and outcomes was not always clear—participants made briefing slides as to their desired course of action, and the outcome of these was then decided by a “mysterious cell of experts.” the result could be a very uninteresting game, which failed to engage the participants. Another commenter noted that reward within the game was important, and the satisfaction of resolving a problem.

Regarding the issue of player motivation, someone pointed to an excellent animated video, based on Dan Pink’s presentation at the RSA on Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.

Swen Stoop suggested that all of the factors thus far identified could be important in encouraging students to play a game repeatedly:

All of the above. I just wanted to add  that different kind of games attract different kind of students. Just as it is with books or other learning forms.

- On the “hobby” side of things I often noticed a genuine interest in the game topic as an important motivator for play. For exploration and the ability to act in a given context.
- Also, within a given topic area there are differences in type of games players dig: some like boardgames, others passionately dislike them but are completely hooked on tabletop or PC-based games.  Further, within each game different people enjoy different aspects of it: some like the social aspects, others the technical (game of topic hardware) or the knowledge aspect (comparing game results with history).

However, in the end it still comes down to the ability to make meaningful decisions in a meaningful context with clear feedback on the result of actions.

Another participant noted that peer pressure could be an important incentive to perform well. He also noted that games that allowed alterations to be made to scenarios could keep a training game fresh by making each game different.

Generational factors pointed to as well. While older military personnel with operational experience might see little point in “gaming,” younger personnel more readily take to it since video gaming was more embedded in their culture.

Another important observation was that the use of serious games needs to be anchored within curriculum rather than simply standing alone. Serious games therefore need to be linked to clear educational objectives.

Curt Pangracs commented:

The simplest way is to tweak the difficulty level and say “Now try it”. This is the exact principle behind “Prestige Levels” in games like Call of Duty. You start out as a “Private” with limited choices on weapons loadouts. It’s then up to you to fight to level 50 again. The only REAL reward is fighting against all of the people who are much more powerful than you, and you have to rely on basic skills in the game to earn your weapons choices and loadouts again.

You can also ramp-up the pressure with a time constraint, less resources, etc.

Brian Vogt added:

First – This question is very fascinating (and personally very timely as I am developing a very similar thesis topic).

Second – I would say that there are essentially two different motivation factors to consider.  1) Making a certain performance in a serious game required to pass a course or be eligible for promotion, and 2) the serious game provides enough intrinsic motivation to cause the students to explore/play on their own.  The first motivation speaks for itself, but is admittedly rather coercive in nature.

However, the second motivation is worthy of more exploration as it promotes more of a life-long learning model.  I would argue that games remain interesting if (no particular order):

  • there is still something to learn (stolen thought from Dr. James Sterrett)
  • good decisions result in rewards and bad decisions result in ‘punishment’
  • performance improves with repetition and by incorporating lessons learned
  • there is some entertainment value to keep things fascinating ( I guess this is where cool graphics, sound effects, etc are justified)
  • trainees are convinced that they are becoming better at associated real world tasks DUE TO the interaction/learning from a serious game
  • folks in leadership provide positive encouragement to reward students for ‘playing’ serious games

I know this is rather simplistic.

To which Dave O’Conner (Panther Games) replied:

Good discussion.

Brian—re: your  second point. For a game/sim to remain interesting I would also add it needs to offer the user a different challenge with each replay. This is very difficult to achieve where the AI is based on scenario specific scripting as the scenario designer has to try and program in all the possible combinations and permutations. But if you have an AI that “generically” analysis the situation it confronts, is situationally aware and is smart enough to develop its own plan to achieve the objectives set by the designer, then you will find that the same scenario rarely plays out the same way each time. This is the approach we have taken with our Command ops engine and it is one of the reasons why our users get so much replay-ability out of our scenarios.

Mike Robel added:

I forget if this has been discussed, but the desire to improve ones performance against some norm, like to win faster, suffer fewer casualties, use less ammunition, with fewer forces, without air support, without artillery support, and so on.

It might be phrased as trying to become a better practitioner of the tactical art.

Ralph Trickey suggested other possible incentives:

I would look at things like leaderboards and other obvious things like that to keep the competition level going. Take a look at what the World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Racing and other highly competitive communities do.

Another possibility I haven’t seen is asking for AARs, that is detailed breakdowns of what they did any why they did it, a real analysis of the situation. I find you have to think more about what you’re doing if you have to explain it, and you may be able to get some good discussions going and more involvement, making it more people learning from each other, not just from the instructors.

I would also suggest looking at what social games do, things like forums, twitter and facebook or other integration if they’re appropriate.

Gary Morgan (Simulation Engineer Curriculum Support, Squadron Officer College, USAF) added:

I think the “level of enjoyment” and “entertainment value” are essentially an identical point. But this can stimulate hours of independent exploration and experimentation because the experience is pleasing to some level. Hard to say that about any other education or training resource. We are trying to set up our students for lifetime learning and professional development so drudgery would be counterproductive. Fun, challenge, and collaboration are very important considerations in getting students to play (and wanting them to keep playing).

The “something to learn” and “better at real world tasks” are somewhat similar points. Students or trainees begin to internalize knowledge through application in a challenging environment where they are required to make countless decisions per hour. Well-designed simulation exercises are great preparation for real world circumstances when they present themselves; and learning of this type tends to be more persistent than learning/regurgitating low-level facts (multiple choice test assessment instruments) and more universally applicable (particularly when used in a problem solving situation). Persistence data on how long students retain and recall knowledge presented in different formats is fascinating. It’s the “tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand” corollary. We’ve minimized passive lectures and boosted interactive activities, particularly ones where students have more control over the learning process. Often, students don’t even realize what they’ve internalized and may not recognize their knowledge increase when this wisdom appears in real life (more true for education than training which is usually easy to see). Learning at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy is very hard to measure or “teach”, but serious games are one of the best mediums (possibly the only medium short of real life) where these high levels can be cultivated and measured.

A well-designed interactive simulation rewards intelligent activity and penalizes stupidity or carelessness performance, so it takes some of the load off the instructor and can become a Subject Matter Expert for the student’s exploration. Failure-based learning is probably the most effective individual learning tool: FBL mirrors nature and foundational human development styles (pain is an effective teacher)–I believe this is one of the points emphasized in the cool artist video. Multiple attempts to solve a problem or confront a situation (“performance improves with repetition”) help the student discard bad options, refine techniques, analyze why failed attempts didn’t work, and explore viable alternatives. Success rarely breeds wisdom like failure can (at least for the persistent). Often students succeed but may not really understand why, unless they’ve failed on the way up and countered with smarter strategies on the reattack.

Serious Games should contain an acceptable level of fidelity in representation of real-world functionality to impart some level of the simulation’s credibility to the student (minimize the suspension of disbelief and “gameisms”). If the database and game engine are properly structured in a system, objects should function in the simulation as they do in real life (comply with the laws of physics). Dave’s comment about scenario replayability and AI agility also applies: we have superb AI in John Tiller’s TAV that responds situationally but not identically. As an educator I don’t have to design exercises with a planned “school solution” (and prefer not to): students are free to achieve the tasked objectives in whatever way they devise given the resources they are provided, and that stimulates creativity and innovation to the Synthesis level of critical thinking. Given the last 20 years of conflict, we’ve seen that our leaders need the mental agility to vision innovatively, think critically, plan creatively, operate autonomously, and collaborate effectively. I haven’t seen any educational or training resource that does that more cost-effectively than a well designed simulation exercise.

Brian Vogt:

I certainly do not want to hijack the discussion, but maybe we could focus in an area of concern for the Army:

What can be done to motivate young Soldiers and officers to continue professional development via serious games?

Remember, these young folks are in their early 20’s, probably have deployed already, are working hard each day (9 plus hours in the heat or cold), probably either are actively trying to find a spouse, or managing a young family in their off time.

What does a serious game have to provide to convince him to fire up the computer and try their hand at a serious game?

This thread has addressed many of these issues and provided very good/appropriate solutions.  But I think it is too easy to answer the question from the perspective of what would motivate us (experienced folks interested in serious games that aren’t 20 years old chasing things 20 year olds chase).

Gary Morgan followed up on the generational issue that Brian and others had raised:

You’ve essentially described my students…about 22 years old, recent college graduates and just commissioned, ~80% single/20% married with a new family.

I’ve been either teaching or working with Lieutenants nonstop for the past 30 years so I know these kids very well. Everything I wrote in the last email applies to this demographic. They are NetGens with dramatically different learning styles, and lifestyles than Boomers. They don’t like to be spoonfed in an 8-5pm schoolhouse where they need to read thick books and listen to lectures. You might find some of the more motivated ones who seem to be “leaning forward in the straps” (nascent senior leaders) and ask them what approaches would resonate with their peers.

Rob Carpenter (Army Simulation Wing, Land Warfare Development Centre, Australia):

Quick comment, we tried this a few years ago (Todd alluded to it in a different email) and the feed back really was your second point below, they are too busy. They thought it good, they thought it should be done, and a small number kept on doing it, but most switched fires to “life”.

The concept of “professional studies” through reading books failed in the 80’s and 90’s as well for exactly the same reason. Even today only a minority of my peers, who are now unit commanders and senior staff officers, have much of a military library, and fewer have read it :) In a recent presentation this year a peer used a historical study to describe how the Japanese Carriers used naval airpower to sink Repulse and Prince Of Wales… he couldn’t/wouldn’t understand that while yes they were IJN aircraft, the nearest Japanese carrier was operating off the other side of the Philippines…

I don’t see the problem as new or unique, it is just a different format :)

Top down direction for example: “all officers are to read this book, write a paper and it will be marked by your OC” failed when I was a Capt 15 years ago.

Embedding it in formal courses, as we do now, more often that not is based on plagiarism if the guys are smart enough to get a previous paper… most are smart enough! That’s why they are officers :)

I think the reality is that you are going to ever engage in a minority of people regardless of the medium.

Having said that the feedback we did get from the multimedia/simulation game approach was that it was better than reading a book, and that knowledge appeared to “stick” more. But we were unable to do any scientific studies at the time.

Over the last few years we have used Steel Beasts on CAPT and MAJ staff courses, and handed out copies of the product afterwards. feedback from the instructors has been positive, students I’ve spoken to in the messes general rate the activities as at least useful, but few have then gone on to use the product.

Maybe there isn’t much more that we can do. Sorry for being so pessimistic

Todd Mason remarked:

 Hmmm, I think the question might hold its own answer.

Firstly, I know these sort of discussions often start of with simplified explanations etc, so I do not mean to suggest that you are NOT doing what I will propose. You may well be.

The obvious question is “why do they not want to have another go?”

Remember, we are talking about adult learners here. As you all probably know, adult learners are: self-motivated, goal oriented, relevancy oriented, practical, bring their own life experience and expect respect.

Remember also, that the sort of learning that goes with simulation-games occurs in a context. There are other learning approaches occurring within a framework and the simulation experience must complement that context. There is usually some background reading, some presented material and many other complimentary activities going on that contribute to the learning.

I have heard it said many times that most of the learning occurs in the AAR. Whether this is true or not can depend on the activity, but it is certainly my experience that the AAR/ debrief is an important part of the process where the learner is able to reflect on what they have seen/experienced in the simulation and can try to generalise the lesson and apply it to their specific circumstances. It is also an opportunity for other to contribute their observations and life experience to the discussion.

This is why I prefer the view that of the seven learning activities described by Ellington et al, the sorts of things we call war games should be classed as “simulation-games used as a case study”. Some learning certainly occurs during the game, but it is the reflection on the activity as a case study of one possible sequence of events for a given scenario, that holds much of the learning value.

For all of the above reasons, I am pretty skeptical (dare I say hostile) to cries that entertainment should be used as a motivator to encourage learners to play a specific game. I think that this approach (and the whole notion of “serious games”) actually trivializes the process.

Frequency of play is not really a measure of effectiveness. The only people for whom such a measure is rightly important are product vendors trying to flog their latest gadget.

A more appropriate question (and I do not mean to suggest this is not behind the original question) is “how can I improve the effectiveness of the training facility/ sessions I deliver to my learners?” The answers lie in looking at how the training is relevant to the particular students. If they do not see is as valuable, then it has probably not been explained to them. Or, of course, it is possible that it in fact is not actually relevant. You do need to be prepared for that to be the answer.

The simulation activity needs to occur in a context and the students need to understand how it relates to their job etc.

Consider the case where some sort of expert/ veteran etc first delivers a presentation on some aspect of the job. This is then followed by a simulation exercise where the students are told they will be placed in a similar (simulated) situation and given the opportunity to experience the situation or practice some particular techniques or demonstrate particular skills etc. They then participate in some sort of debrief where their experience can be generalised and related to their job/ role. etc. They might then be given another opportunity with the simulation to put into practice what they felt they learned from the debrief.

I have seen some very powerful learning experiences occur in this way. I have also seen a great deal of time be wasted trying to encourage students to “play” a particular “serious game” without any coherent framework to underpin it.

One of the advantages of the evolution of software is that it is becoming more and more adaptable. Use this to customise scenarios to reflect the knowledge, experience and expectations that adult learners bring to the situation. Allow them to influence the design of the scenario.

Bottom line: make it relevant and they will probably see the value in it.

He then continued:

I would like to add, regarding my comments on wargames as “simulation-games used as a case study”, that this perspective has the potential to be a motivating factor for three related reasons:

Instruction led motivation

The case study was only one ‘possible’ outcome of the scenario and there may be value in exploring alternative paths or making slight alterations to the scenario to look for points of similarity or divergence and to help generalise the learning points;

Analysis led motivation

During the debrief/ AAR, critical decision points may be discovered and can be explored using the simulation. One advantage a simulation has
over a paper-based case study is that counter-factual propositions (reversing/ altering the outcome of a key event and speculating on the flow on effect) can often actually be played out;

Application led motivation

Having ‘learned’ something during the case study (game and debrief – not necessarily as a ‘player’), the learner may be motivated to try the game (again?) to apply that learning and see if they can do better or simply demonstrate/ practise the learning.

My conclusion remains my primary point: MAKE IT RELEVANT.

Have thoughts of your own? Feel free to contribute in the Comments section!

Yarrrr, MMOWGLI Turn 2

This past week, the Naval Postgraduate School ran a prelaunch playtest of Turn 2 of the MMOWGLI crowd-sourcing platform. Building on the earlier Turn 1 anti-piracy scenario, this time they advanced the clock to 2014 when a “Yemeni-Somali Union” had emerged to sponsor piracy in the area.

But now, in 2014, the situation has changed. The Yemen-Somalia-Union (YSU) is a powerful, ambiguous new alliance in the Gulf of Aden–needed economic revenue say some; to others, an amplified form of illegal piracy. The YSU militia has leapt beyond skiffs: fast vessels, geo-mapping tech, even automatic IDs to collect their tolls.

Unlike the quick 120 character tweets that characterized Turn 1, in Turn 2 participants could collaboratively author longer and more sophisticated “action plans,” which others could then rate.

While my own participation was limited by intermittent internet access, I did have a few quick impressions to offer.

  1. I’m not sure how the relationship between Idea Cards and Action Plans is supposed to work. Why (other than generating a higher score) would one post an action card, when it often seems easier and more useful to comment on a plan directly? Moreover, as the discussion becomes more detailed and sophisticated, the character restrictions of the Idea Cards seems ever more limiting. As old Idea Cards are pushed to the bottom of stacks and forgotten, many of the new ones seem repetitive.
  2. I’m not sure the gamification/scoring system contributes anything—indeed, I think it may actually be counterproductive at a couple of levels. First, it may encourage gaming-the-game, rather than placing emphasis on quality inputs and discussion. Second, confusion as to how scores are generated might actually demobilize participants. As we’ve noted before, there is some scientific literature that suggests that extrinsic in-game rewards might actually be inversely related to the quality of participation. For professional purposes of the sorts that MMOWGLI is directed towards, I would have thought that creativity and substance would be sufficient rewards in and of themselves.
  3. In terms of the pirate scenario, there was inadequate information available upon which to base any serious action. This was especially true with regard to the political character of the YSU, which was merely described as “ambiguous.” Was it an alliance of non-state groups—and if so, what was the domestic political situation in the two countries that allowed this? Was the YSU an interstate group? Was it a credible claimant to state authority, or have ambitions to secure international recognition? Did it have any ideological goals or character? What are its relationships with key regional actors? If it is “powerful,” what is the source of its power? Who might oppose it within Somalia and Yemen? How had the Middle East, the Horn, and East Africa changed by 2014? Etc, etc. Too many participants seemed willing to propose a military-based solution without any clear information on who they were fighting.

The first and second of these points are fairly substantial conceptual challenges to MMOWGLI as it is currently designed. The third, by contrast, is a content issue that would easily vary from game to game. In a current, real-life scenario players can do outside research to inform their game ideas and proposed actions. In a future scenario, however, it is often necessary to provide substantial detail. In the case of non-state armed groups, failed states, and piracy such background material is absolutely essential, since context is everything. (In the fictional Carana simulation I have just finished observing, which also included a small piracy dimension, participants are provided with between 19 and 42 pages of background material depending on their role—plus an initial video.)

That having been said, the whole point of MMOWGLI is to explore crowd-sourcing in a structured way. It continues to be a very interesting experiment, with considerable potential.


Postcard from Carana

This past week I’ve been in Nairobi taking part in the World Bank’s core course on fragility and conflict, and observing their Carana training simulation in action. Originally borrowed from the United Nations and then modified for World Bank purposes, this Carana is designed to explore the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction and continued fragility. It therefore differs from the original UN Carana, as well as the one developed for the African Union’s AMANI AFRICA EURORECAMP exercises by the Pearson Peacekeeping Training Centre.

This year the World Bank has been adapting its core course to integrate the many lessons and insights generated by the 2011 World Development Report on conflict, security, and development (full text available at the link).

Overall I thought it went very well. While I’m reluctant to give away too much on the details lest I spoil Carana for future participants, I did think that the simulation highlighted several key issues for the development community.

Politics is not a dirty word.

At times there is a tendency among development specialists to treat processes of development as technical economic puzzles to be resolved with technocratic solutions—and to therefore treat any interjection of politics as an unwanted external distraction and source of inefficeincy. Politics, however, is the process whereby social groups signal and pursue their hopes, dreams, fears, insecurity, and aspirations. Certainly it can interfere with good economic policy-making, narrowly understood. Certainly it can generate dysfunctional levels of tension and policy immobilism. The real art, however, is to work to align economic and political interests. Ignoring or trying to marginalize the latter is often a recipe for failure.

WDR 2011 could address this issue more fully, although perhaps it does so indirectly in its emphasis on “inclusive-enough” coalitions:

Inclusion is important to restore confidence, but coalitions need not be “all- inclusive.” Inclusive-enough coalitions work in two ways. At a broad level, they build national support for change and by bringing in the relevant international stakeholders whose support is needed. At a local level, they work with community leaders and structures to identify priorities and deliver programs.

What is “inclusive-enough” is, of course, fundamentally a political judgment based on a keen sense of the dynamics of local politics. Similarly, WDR 2011 places emphasis on the importance of building confidence:

Some early results are needed to build citizen confidence and create momentum for longer-term institutional transformation. When trust is low, people do not believe grand plans for reform will work. Some early results that demonstrate the potential for success can generate trust, restore confidence in the prospects of collective action, and build momentum for deeper institutional transformation. Transforming institutions takes a generation, but political cycles are short—early results can both meet political imperatives and generate the incentives for the longer- term project of institution-building.

Most of the Carana participants understood this, and worked to include elements in their national development plans that delivered tangible benefits quickly to key constituencies.

Institutions are meant to be constraining.

Aid donors and outside development agencies inherently understand institutions in terms of capacity and capability, seeing them as mechanism and channels that increase the ability to “do things.” They are on less comfortable ground, however, when institutions stand in the way of the sort of development initiatives that donors wish to pursue.

WDR 2011, however, highlights another fundamental aspect of institutions, placing fundamental emphasis on building a cycle of restoring confidence and transforming institutions so as to overcome conflict and fragility and meet the three fundamental challenges of citizen security, justice and jobs. In doing so, it defines institutions thusly:

The formal and informal “rules of the game.” They include formal rules, written laws, organizations, informal norms of behavior and shared beliefs—and the organizational forms that exist to implement and enforce these norms (both state and nonstate organizations). Institutions shape the interests, incentives, and behaviors that can facilitate violence. Unlike elite pacts, institutions are impersonal—they continue to function irrespective of the presence of particular leaders, and thus provide greater guarantees of sustained resilience to violence. Institutions operate at all levels of society—local, national, regional, and global.

Inherent in this definition of “rules” is that institutions are constraining, and ought to sometimes prevent certain type of actions. During some of the Carana simulations, however, it seemed as if some external actors found the emerging institution of Caranian democracy to be inconvenient, especially when the natural give-and-take politics of cabinet decision-making acted as an obstacle to pursuing donor preferences. That, however, is the way it is supposed to work, especially in a political setting where domestic tensions and policy debates were previously pursued through the barrel of a gun.

Carana wouldn’t be the first place, of course, where donors have prioritized their own interests over domestic institution-building. In Palestine donors put enormous effort into strengthening rule of law, constitutionalism, separation of powers, and constraining the presidency in the late 1990s, and even more so 2001-2006. The Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections, and which point donors supported efforts to ignore or override constitutional, legislative, and legal constraints.

Leadership matters.

I’ve often argued that for all the plethora of research on peacebuilding, we’ve devoted insufficient attention to issues of leadership and staffing. For all the attention to “best practices,” when you ask people why such-and-such programme worked well they’ll often identify the role of a few key personnel, whether from external agencies or host country institutions.

The importance of idiosyncratic factors was certainly underscored in the Carana simulation, where three groups of participants started with identical Caranas, but went in quite different directions. Of course, as with all simulations this may reflect a lack of anchoring in real-life institutional constraints. Roleplaying does tend to overemphasize idiosyncratic factors. However, who would doubt that war-to-peace transition in Mozambique could have gone terribly wrong with different key figures in place? Surely the post-apartheid history of South Africa and Zimbabwe might have been very different if Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe had switched places?

Always remember that it’s their country.

All development professionals know about the importance of host-country ownership. However, given a combination of resources, belief in superior technical knowledge, and lots of white Toyota Land Cruisers, it is far too easy for the donor community to slip into rather patronizing attitudes. Ironically, donor coordination can even exacerbate this through mutual self-reinforcement. Several of the Carana participants commented on how this happened within their own simulated countries too.

The limits of “best practices.”

The development community is full of recommendations on how to do things. While these can be extremely useful, they also hold the risk of implying that there are cookie-cutter solutions that apply across a range of political, economic, and social contexts. As the WDR 2011 stresses, “every country’s history and political context differ, and there are no one-size-fits- all solutions.” It also warns against excessive technical perfectionism:

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress—embrace pragmatic, best-fit options to address immediate challenges. In insecure situations, it is generally impossible to achieve technical perfection in approaches to security, justice, or development. There is a need to be pragmatic, to address immediate challenges within political realities, with approaches that can improve over time. Sometimes these approaches will have temporary second- best aspects associated with them.

In the Carana simulation too there are no right or perfect way of fostering the country’s transition from conflict to fragility to future stability and development, but rather many different approaches that each involves different sets of risks and trade-offs. Learning comes from identifying and discussing these. The opportunity to make mistakes and confront the second- and third- order effects of decisions is key to the process.


* * *

At the end of the day, the Carana simulation (which took up about one-third of the four day course) seems to have been a very useful way of exploring issues of conflict and fragility. It provided a basis for both exploring key issues and for generating discussion. It also served to break up the pace of lectures—especially useful in that potentially lethargic post-lunch afternoon period common to all workshops—and to encourage social interaction among participants. As an educator, I was struck by how easily elements of the simulation could be adapted for use in university and senior high school courses on international development, with other development professionals, and even as an awareness and familiarity exercise for those such as diplomats and military personnel who aren’t involved in development, but who may have to cooperate with development actors in fragile and post-conflict settings.

G4C 2011 Field Report

The 8th annual Games for Change Festival (June 20-22) is currently underway in New York City. Roving PAXsims reporter Skip Cole brings us this report:

Monday was the “Games for Change Pre-Festival.” I spent the morning at the Educational Track, and part of the evening at the International Track and then a lot of time networking. During the morning I learned of a lot of great efforts in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field using games to excite and engage children. Many of these efforts allow the children to create simulations themselves. Tools such as Game Salad, Gamestar Mechanic and Activate make this possible. I’m definitely going to try out these free tools with my boys. Maybe not the loud 3-year-old, just yet.

It was pointed out that creating games leads to holistic thinking, and also that the current set of game creation tools provide rather constrained environments. But as the children learn the basics, they will then be able to advance toward more sophisticated tools such as Java and Flash.

One effort sent out cameras to the students, and then got a lot of great footage back. They quite proudly discussed their games and their ‘play test groups’ a.k.a. cousins and friends. I find all of this really inspiring, but with one small caveat. I think that the video game industry tends to chew people up and spit them out. I don’t know we are doing these kids a favor pointing them all in that direction. But most of them will figure that out as they grow up, and a love of science will serve them all very well.

The highlight of the day was Al Gore’s presentation. He seemed very sincere in his hope that many of today’s problems will be tackled with the help of games. On behalf of USIP I asked a question regarding a course we are considering creating on conflict and environmental change. He seemed to appreciate the question and desired more time to think about it, and then went on to mention the evaporation of Lake Chad, the sinking of Maldives and the creation of ‘environmental change refugees.’ (I’m sure there is a new acronym in their somewhere.)

At the international track I learned about Evoke, which was a success based on their metrics. Then I networked a bit and finally bounced back to the educational track at the end of the day. There I found people talking about what tools they have and need. I really need to learn to use Twitter! (At my old employer, it was not really a tool that was emphasized.) People were pretty happy with their tools, but tight at the end someone said that ‘somehow this all still somehow feels kind of niche.’ I could not agree more. My own favorite tool, the USIP OSP, is meant to help get more of this into the mainstream. I do think that one unifying tool or platform is called for. (In spite of the conventional wisdom, that an ‘eco-system’ of tools will prevail.)

More later…


Design Philosophy Behind “The Great Game”

Quite a few of the folks with us in Nairobi this week work or have worked in Afghanistan, so there was something historically appropriate about getting an email today from John Gorkowski regarding the design philosophy behind his forthcoming 19th century political-military boardgame, The Great Game:

The Great Game (TGG), available for preorder from Legion Games, recreates the Anglo-Russian power struggle for control of Central Asia in the 1800s.  That conflict simmered on low for fifty years only occasionally boiling over into open warfare, usually by proxy.  Telescoping all of that intrigue and sporadic fighting into a manageable game required some interesting mechanics.  The map, time scale, diplomatic and military systems all work together to simulate the First Cold War in a memorable way.

19th Century Central Asia cried out for a point to point map.  The region’s dozen countries disputed nearly every border.  Islands of civilization spotted the otherwise vast wilderness of towering mountains, vast steppes, and dry deserts.  So, borders didn’t really matter.  And terrain, such as the Khyber Pass, often dictated avenues of approach.  This meant that boxes and connecting lines well illustrated the strategic situation with the right balance between complexity and playability.

Great Game time passes in years, but each has three impulses.  So, in those years when you chose to act a lot can happen.  At other times, you can let the years roll by in order to replenish your coffers for future action – military or diplomatic.

Diplomacy in TGG hangs on the talents of individual officers but requires a “down payment.”  Frontier diplomats of the period usually traveled with wagon loads of booty for Emirs and Sultans they expected to meet.  So you have to pay to “sway.”  Once you put your money down, a lot rides on the language skills – not so much the personality – of your diplomat.  In the game, officers who spoke more of the local languages have higher diplomacy scores.  Players use diplomacy to convert nations to their cause without fighting – which is very expensive.  But sometimes, war is the only way.

Combat and attrition are bound together inversely in a death spiral.  You need tall stacks to win battles but short stacks to survive attrition.  In combat, you inflict damage upon the enemy equal to the difference between your die roll and the number of points in your own stack.  Imperial powers Britain and Russia roll only one die in battle – so it’s easy for them to get a lower number.  Vassal states such as Afghanistan and Bokhara roll three dice putting them at a distinct disadvantage. Taken together these mechanics make imperial powers more expeditionary since they can move across the map in stacks small enough to survive attrition and large enough to win battles.  On the other hand, vassal state armies usually stay in their capital, where they are immune to attrition, to avoid withering.  But once in a while, a towering vassal stack can make a brief foray to strike a nearby target.  And, sometimes the vassals can roll low enough to surprise the imperials such as when the Turcomans fended off a Russian assault on Geok Teppe in the 1880s.

Rebels are a different breed altogether.  They pop up unexpectedly and strike with a single die in combat.  So the Afghans can overwhelm British cantonments and the Russians need to guard their rear areas against Kyrgyz raiders.  However, these rebellions lack legs.  Once they gain momentum, internal feuding cripples them with the usual three dice roll attack.

So that’s TGG in one page.  It’s not about blitzkrieg.  But, if you’re interested in old fashioned balance of power politics and frontier fighting you should try it, perhaps with a cup of tea from the samovar.

John Gorkowski

Thanks for that, John!

While we can’t post material on all recent and forthcoming games here on PAXsims, we’re always interested in both serious and hobby games that address political-military and economic/development issues, as well as those that deal with insurgency, civil war, peace and stabilization operations, international cooperation, hybrid threats, and contemporary asymmetric violence. Email us if you have something you might wish to contribute, and also see our game review policy.

Live from Nairobi, it’s… simulations miscellany!

We’ve been a bit lax on posts the past few days because both PAXsims editors are currently in Kenya. One of them is doing loads of work as part of the team delivering the World Bank’s core operations course on fragility and conflict (including the Carana simulation). The other one is watching everyone else do loads of work while in the comfortable role of observer.

Selfless global humanitarians that we both are, we also found time to save most of the world from the scourge of global Pandemic, aided by Tusker beer (pic right). Note that if you live in North America and aren’t genetically immune to the “blue virus,” you might want to consider selling up and moving.

Despite that, we do have a few bits of simulation-related news:

1. Online registration is now open for the Connections 2011 wargaming conference, to be held on 1-4 August  at the National Defense University in Washington DC. You’ll also find the provisional conference agenda online too. Both Gary and I should be there. (If folks with a .gov or .mil address are having trouble with the first link, try this one instead.)

2. MMOWGLI is now undergoing a prelaunch playtest of Turn 2, when participants are asked to develop action plans to combat Somali piracy. I’m not sure whether time and a dodgy internet connection will allow me to participate, but if so I’ll try to bring you another report. Given that I’m actually 500km from the Somali border at the moment, any action plan I do develop really ought to get bonus “thumbs up,” don’t you think?

3. The Military Operations Research Society is currently holding 79th MORS Symposium (June 20-23rd) at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California. There will certainly be lost of interesting wargaming and simulation stuff discussed there, but you have to be a US national with a SECRET clearance to attend. Hypothetical Canadians with a TS/SCI are right out, of course, either because Washington still secretly harbours ambitions to implement War Plan Red, and/or because they know that Brian Train and Brian McFarlane were asked to update our very own Defence Scheme No. 1.

MMOWGLI update

Don Brutzman at the Naval Postgraduate School has provided an update on the phased roll-out of the crowd-sourcing/simulation platform, via the mmowgli game blog:

The MMOWGLI team is hard at work preparing for the next moves in the game.

Game Move 1 was successful, thanks to everyone who played! There were many interesting results, and they will be reported soon when the initial winners and awards are announced.

Game Move 2 is planned for the initial early-adopter population. We will test new capabilities for even-deeper collaboration to Take Action.

  • Planned dates for Move 2 are Tuesday-Thursday June 21-23, invitations will be sent out when ready
  • Planned dates for Move 3 are Tuesday-Thursday June 28-30, invitations will be sent out when ready

Additional work to “scale up” and bring in many more players is progressing well.  If you have already signed up, please stand by while we continue working hard to ensure an excellent game experience. If you haven’t signed up yet, please register and stay tuned.  Thanks!

The playtest will continue to explore the challenge posed by Somali piracy, so prospective participants should remember PAXsim’s handy collection of resources for simulated pirate-hunters.


EUROSIS (the The European Multidisciplinary Society for Modelling and Simulation Technology) will be holding its annual European conference GAMEON’2011 on 22-24 August 2011 at the National University of Ireland, in Galway, Ireland.

The aim of the Game-On series of conferences on simulation and AI in Computer Games, is to bring together researchers and games people in order to exchange ideas on programming and programming techniques, and on games hardware design and applications which will be beneficial both to the gaming industry, academia and non-entertainment gaming communities. Secondly they aim to steer young people into this industry by providing how-to tutorials and giving them the opportunity to show their ideas and demos to the gaming industry. The conferences are mostly concentrated on the programming of games, with special emphasis on simulation, physics modelling, AI techniques and Methodology applied to gaming, computational intelligence, and physics related computer graphics. All these subsets are then fused into the topic of computer game design in stand-alone and networked games in the entertainment as well as in the serious games environments. Software and hardware providers are also able to show at these conferences their latest packages and give hand-on tutorials for the participants.  Last bit not least as a result of the interchange, companies are also given the opportunity to seek new talent at these events.

Conference details can be found here.

Other forthcoming GAMEON conferences include:

  • GAMEON-NA (North America), to be held on 28-30 September  2011 at Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute, NY
  • GAMEON-Asia, to be held on 28-30 January 2012 at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan

Charles S. Roberts Awards 2010 (voting)

Voting is open until July 10 for the 2010 Charles S. Roberts Awards:

The Charles S. Roberts Awards are presented annually for excellence in the historical wargaming hobby. Charles S. Roberts, in whose name this award is given, invented the modern wargame industry almost single-handedly. As a designer and the original owner-operator of The Avalon Hill Game Company. He founded Avalon Hill in 1958 and published Tactics IIGettysburg, andDispatcher. They were the first commercial board wargames and Charles Roberts was responsible for their creation, including many of the developments, such as the Combat Results Table (CRT), that were later to become commonplace. Avalon Hill became a pioneer in a new type of gaming: strategy games based on historical events and so Charles Roberts spawned the whole commercial wargaming hobby/industry we know today….

You’ll find the CSR awards website here, and the voting form here (registration required).

Reflections on the art and science of game design


As noted a few weeks ago, Ed McGrady’s email comments on “10 lessons on game design for amateurs” sparked a long email conversation among participants at the recent NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming (including two additional lessons from Ed, bringing the total to 12). With the permission of all involved, I’ve posted a slightly-edited compendium of that discussion below.

* * *

Peter Perla (Center for Naval Analyses):

I must congratulate Ed on his rapid and articulate description of these ideas, which he had ranted on before but never in such coherent terms. I can scarcely add anything useful. I will highlight one small phrase, however: “Getting players to come to the game is basic.” The reason that I do so is that I just have gone through a prime example of what happens when one forgets this. My corollary is a take-off on the old saw about strategy and logistics: ” Amateurs talk about design, professionals talk about players.” We just had to postpone a game I got called upon to design and run because the amateurs (a DoD contractor) spent a ton of time and money developing a “rigorous” process for deriving scenarios about hypothetical futures and proposing clever “design” ideas that they put the task of securing the participants on the back burner.

In addition to rule 8, “Games are about the players,” my own take on that has always been that games take place in the minds of the players; all else exists to insert the game there and turn it on. Games are the players. They are performance art, but it’s not the designer’s performance. Sometimes the designers and facilitators and controllers forget that and get caught up in the moment and their own coordinating role, mistaking it for centrality. At that point they forget rule 8 and Ed’s stricture, ” you should never, ever, drive the game yourself directly.”

In case you’re not aware of it, Stephen Downes-Martin (with whom Ed maintains  a running banter over the art and science of gaming, one which I tend to observe from an amused sideline position) has been lobbying for a handbook for Wargaming similar to what you are describing. I have, therefore, cced him on this as well, along with Rex. (Whose presentation yesterday was outstanding, by the way—thanks Rex!)

Finally, I will be happy to help your efforts in any way I can. I haven’t yet had the time to look carefully at what you handed out yesterday, but I will and I will send you any additional comments that seem useful. AS Ed, Mike, and I discussed in the car as drove back, I think for a newly interested and totally clueless prospective game designer, the key idea to begin with is that games are stories. Everyone knows what a story is. Everyone has told them and everyone has read them. Fewer have written them. Even fewer have had success at getting others to read them, much less pay for them. It’s the same with games. Finding a balance between encouraging the newbie and warning them not to try this at home is probably the biggest challenge your effort will face. I’m not sure I know how to do that (indeed, I guess I’m sure that I don’t), but I would like to help you try.

Skip Cole (United States Institute of Peace):

These lessons are great!

I learned a new phrase recently which is constantly on my mind. It is “people learn from people they love.” It comes from a really excellent TED talk from David Brooks. I combine this in my mind with something I learned recently in a course on short story fantasy and fiction. The lesson was that people in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale never tell you that they love you, they just offer you food. (Of course, they never tell you that they hate you either. They just offer a poisoned apple!) In lesson 8, Ed emphasizes the importance of food. I don’t think this is trivial. It really is all about the player’s experience and our relationship with the player.

Our players should know (on some level) that we love them, but that we want to help them become better people. Because I am a computer programmer, I have put all of this into the logical sequence below:

  1. People learn from people they love. (David Brooks)
  2. People who love you offer you food. (Lessons from The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales)
  3. We should offer our students food. (Stated by Ed, and follows from the above.)

I am cc’ing Julia Loughran on this because I think that this validates a theory she has long held on ‘coordination through eating and drinking together’.

One of the great advantages of working at a ‘peace’ institute is that we can use words like ‘love’ almost naturally. Love is important.

I thought that describing a strategic game as a piece of performance art was something I had come to all on my own. Shoot!

I have long loved and quoted the phrase “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.”  I know that I will now quote Peter’s corollary  “Amateurs talk about design, professionals talk about players” often.

Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College):

I believe the claim that “people learn from people they love” is a restricted version of a more general truth, that being “people learn from repetition or trauma”.  Love being one kind of trauma and not necessarily the best one to use when helping people learn horrible things (like the best ways to inflict lethal violence on large numbers of people trying to do the same thing to your subordinates — that’s why professionals call it a war game, not a peace game and although I don’t doubt that peace games exist I suspect their design might be different).

In the absence of repeated gaming with the same players (which the Naval War College actually did during the inter-war years) careful use of trauma is required, enough to focus the mind and make the event fresh despite the passage of time, but not so much as to make the players unwilling to play.  Willingness to play depends on trust (that the game is going to be worthwhile compared to the cost of participation), and on the stakes (the future cost in lives if one does not engage in the game).  Professional discipline by the players helps as well.

Ed McGrady (game designer, military and business consultant):

This is a strange debate.  How about “people learn from people and things they are interested in?”  Being in love certainly captures interest, so does the near presence of a raised pickaxe.  Likewise the gravity of the situation and the friendliness of the companions.  I’m not sure, however, that this helps novice game designers figure out how to design games.

I do, however, believe that one of the very unique things games bring to the issue of professional learning is emotion.  How will it feel to give the order?  What will be going through your mind when you are trying to save a million lives from a tsunami?  Do you want to feel the way you might feel if your failure to fund costs an extra 500,000 lives?

To me games are about feeling even more than intellect.  So, in that sense, love, fear, hatred, and other emotions do matter for games.  And they are very hard things to account for within the DoD (reference terrorism, Afghanistan, etc.).  Of course there is another way we deal with emotion and relationships, its called art…

Tim Wilkie (CASL, National Defense University):

Allow me to add my belated thanks for these thoughts—I am only now getting caught up on email.

I have little to add, except to cite my favorite Bernard Brodie quote, from his discussion of the U.S. decision to go to war in Korea soon after having placed Korea outside of our “defense perimeter” in the Pacific:

“President Truman and his Secretary of State had endorsed the well-known and obviously rational opposition of the military to becoming involved on mainland Asia.  When the crisis came all, including the military, immediately reversed their position.  Apparently few had asked themselves: How will we feel, and how will we in consequence respond, if there is a flagrant attack upon this state and this government that we have ourselves set up and but recently withdrawn from on the now disproved assumption that they were no longer in danger?  Will we really stand by and let them go down?

“This kind of issue arrises again and again.  What is predictable is that high government leaders will not usually ask themselves searching questions about what they will really do under a variety of circumstances, some of which will deeply engage their emotions.  They are content to accept for themselves the facile assurances they give to others.”

Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College):

Tim’s point about not knowing how one would feel under real life circumstances speaks to two things.

  1. First, no matter how well put together, no matter how compelling the war game story, it is NOT realism and even if the players after the game claim they found it “realistic and forgot it was a game”, when real life comes around they CAN then tell the difference.
  2. Second, as the research shows, even reflective people have an extremely hard time predicting what decisions they would make under different information (i.e. it’s real as opposed to a compelling story).


I discussed the implications of this on wargaming at the Dec 2009 NDU Round Table … see the speaker’s notes for that session (provided to NDU in 2009), specifically section 4.

Peter Perla (Center for Naval Analyses):

Stephen’s points are well founded and, as usual, on target scientifically. Ed’s position, of course, (though he can and will certainly speak for himself) is that science is not the issue. As usual, my position is, “It depends.”

If we are using games to “predict” what people will do under certain circumstances that we present to them in the game, the best we can hope for is a non-scientific (i.e., non-repeatable, difficult to disconfirm) set of insights. What I have in the past described as a pseudo-historical analysis rather than a scientific one. (And as my buddy Taleb points out, history is not all that it seems, being subject at the very least to the silent evidence issue.) What I have begun to think is that Ed’s focus on art provides a rounding out of this notion. Just as Shaara’s Killer Angels is not a scientific explanation of the whys and wherefores of Gettysburg, it is nevertheless an insightful artistic exploration of the factors that are at play in the human heart and psyche in the situation it depicts and (the key, I think) other similar situations. Would all “Lee players” in a Gettysburg game act as the original did in the original fight? Probably not. Would all actual decision makers in a real tsunami crisis act the way one particular one did during a tsunami game (even the same one)? Almost certainly not. But why do we care about that? We only care if we think that the game predicts that future action and we, therefore, use it slavishly, like the result of a physics-based simulation, to make now decisions on the basis of then predictions. “Truman will not intervene in Korea, therefore we can invade with impunity.”  “We will never need to defend Korea so we can safely rule out intervening in a war in its defense.” Oops.

If, on the other hand, we use the game to increase and widen our spectrum of understanding of all the elements of a future contingency, including the very human emotional ones, then it can help. Yes, the emotions are not real and are not likely to be the same as other people will feel in real situations. Yet just as novels tell us some version of the truth of human reality and feelings, so too the game can tell us some version of the potential future realities. Depending only on the game is as foolish as depending only on the Lanchester model. Or depending only on the Monte Carlo simulation. Or depending only past history of similar situations. We can always predict the future; what we cannot do is bound the inaccuracy or uncertainty or error bars (whichever terms floats your boat) of our prediction. Can we do things that make us feel like we have narrowed those error bars? Yes. Can we know whether that narrowing reduces the range of likelihood from 0.01–0.99 to 0.40–0.60? No. Can our feeling about it be mistaken? Can we simply be deluding ourselves? Yes. That’s life. All we can do is the best we can.

But what games can do for those who play them (at least when they are designed by insightful and knowledgeable and skillful designers) is give them that dull grey shadow of what a black future might look like and feel like. And getting as much practice as possible at making decisions in those sorts of environments can be very helpful to some of those decision makers (the best ones, I contend), especially if knowledgeable, talented, and skillful mentors and analysts help them understand and profit from those experiences. That seems to me to be the best we can hope for. And I think that’s a lot when compared to the sort of nonsense or intentionally self-deluding results of models and sims and pseudo-analyses and junk arithmetic that so many of them get today.

Rex Brynen (McGill University):

I think Peter is right here, but I would add something else: a major contribution of a simulation can also be to highlight our lack of understanding “of all the elements of a future contingency.” A game can generate useful doubts about doctrines, standard operating procedures, and our confidence about the knowability of the world. It can encourage critical analysis-not necessarily generating definitive “answers,” but helping participants to formulate the sorts of questions that they might need to ask of a future situation or unexpected challenge.

In short, a well-designed game can be a wonderful reminder of the complexity of the world, and antidote to the hubris of power and capabilities.

Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College):

I believe Peter and I are in violent agreement (the other kind is no fun).  We both agree that war games cannot be used to predict (with a known accuracy) future decisions.  But that introduces some design issues, such as getting at the misinterpretations of messages, beliefs and culture.  Since beliefs are remarkably robust in the face of contradictory evidence, beliefs exhibited in a game are a better predictor of beliefs that will be held in a future real life situation than are the decisions.

Peter also talks to the purpose of a war game.  Is it to learn something about a (set of) problem(s), give the participants a “feel” for the future or for themselves, training, something else?   My professional war gaming focus is on learning something about a problem, and that shapes the way I think about professional war games.

Ed’s advice to amateurs is brilliant.  A useful exercise might be to examine the implications of a game designed by an amateur following his rules.  What would it look like, for what purposes would it be useful,  and how useful would it be for the different possible purposes that we apply professional war games?

Ed McGrady (game designer, military and business consultant):

As usual Stephen and I totally agree about the two completely different approaches we take toward gaming!

In thinking about the differences I suspect I’m coming at the problem from a very different set of goals.  My primary goal is for those who sponsor and play in the games to find out something about themselves, their organizations, and the subject matter that they had not known going in.  In order to accomplish this I have to fascinate, entertain, and interest them.  Its a rather simple (but not easy) set of goals.  The reason I focus on those goals is because I believe compelling games get at the real issues, and games cannot be compelling unless the players are invested in them (entertained).

If it is a boring scrape that they simply endure, I would feel like I had not given them a good experience, and they probably would not be back.   This matters not just because happy players/clients are repeat players/clients, but also because the stuff they learn about themselves and their organizations will stay with them and effect real change.

I believe Stephen’s goals are both more scientific and focused on developing a data-based understanding of stuff.  Something which I wouldn’t even try to explain for him, but I, of course, applaud.

In answering Stephen’s question about what a simple game would look like:  the game I had in mind when I wrote that was one that involved 5-10 players, with the players divided along natural or artificial organizational fault lines, looking at a compelling scenario that required them to compromise some of their own closely held values in order to succeed.  I would want the players to self organize, and have a simple set of deliverables on a turn or end-of-game basis.  Not a bogsat, but nothing too fancy either.  So maybe I’d add a couple of rules:

11)  Identify naturally occurring fault lines between individuals, organizations, or other relationships.  Exploit these ruthlessly in your design.  Divisions, conflict, and compromise all add drama and depth to you game and give the players much harder decisions.  In many organizational settings these kind of compromises and discussions are exactly what is required to resolve the issues you are worried about.

12)  Get the players moving.  Don’t just have the players sitting around talking (bogsat = bunch of guys sitting around a table).  Have them move to different corners of the room to discuss some strategy or plan.  Put them in separate rooms and let them walk down a hall to talk to each other.   Kinetic movement is part of learning, and games provide an ideal venue for kinesthetic learners.

Of course if you view my rules as a decision tree most attractive and mentally well balanced people would stop at rule #1.  It seems like most wargamers press onward…

Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College):

Ed and I have the same goals (“find out something about themselves, their organizations and the subject matter that they had not known going in”) but very different opinions about what is important in achieving those goals.  I am deeply suspicious of the centrality that Ed places on narrative.  I do not believe narrative is synonymous with compelling or with truth finding, or that narrative is the only (or most useful) way of being compelling.  Mein Kampf was a highly compelling narrative and the Nurembutg Rallies excellent examples of players living that narrative.

How we best combine the artistic and scientific approaches is a central question, and although placing either exclusively at the center is an obvious mistake, it is also a mistake to ignore or downplay the scientific knowledge about psychology and its unavoidable effects on war game design that I referenced earlier, or to ignore the fact that compelling narrative does not carry within itself (unlike science) any indication of the truth value of its contents.

Of course, it is not unknown for both scientists and artists to abuse their skills for what they erroneously believe to be a greater truth.

Rex Brynen (McGill University):

I would suggest that there is no perfect balance between artistry and science in this process–it very much depends on who is the client group, and what it is that we’re trying to do with/for them.

If we’re wargaming naval capabilities, it quite important that we have the science right, and that the take-away that participants have bears reasonably close accord to the way we expect things would work out in the real world. In such a case, the costs of getting it wrong (“I didn’t know the Chinese had ballistic missiles that could do THAT to my carrier–they didn’t in the games…”) are potentially quite large.

Conversely, if we’re trying to stretch the imagination, develop new skills, encourage empathy for the other, highlight complexity, etc—well, in this case it is both harder to accurately model these things, and immersive “narrative” often becomes all the more important.

(Incidentally, I’m using the “scientific” category to highlight simulation approaches that strive for higher degrees of verification and validation. This is, I think, i different thing from using the scientific insights of psychology (etc) in simulation design.)

The really interesting question, perhaps is whether the “art” and “science” of gaming are at opposite ends of a spectrum, such that increasing one necessarily comes at the expense of the other. I don’t think they are (certainly we’ve all seen simulations that are both artless and unscientific!), although I suspect at a certain point pursuing one may involve trade-offs with the other.

Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College):

When I discuss science in war gaming I am not referring to the science content of the game (e.g. naval science when war gaming naval capabilities for OPNAV), I am referring to sciences such as psychology that are applicable to the design of ANY game no matter what client, objective, or content.  One can argue for whatever balance of art and science one likes, one ignores the sciences, specifically psychology, at the risk of significantly reducing the value of the game’s results.  Incorporating the science of whatever one is gaming into the game is an obvious requirement often ignored by clients who prefer pixie-dust to reality when gaming their favorite funded programs and platforms.

I also think it a mistake to confuse simulation with war gaming.  In my area of professional war gaming we use computer simulations as labor saving devices for adjudication (for example), and sometimes refer to a simulation design meaning that the players are role playing in some C2 structure that mimics to some designed degree of accuracy the C2 structure in the real world.  Again, in my area of professional war gaming, we use gaming when the narrative is mostly unknown — in an objective sense.  What is the narrative for information warfare in a 2020 world of major regional conflict between nuclear armed sectarian non-state actors?  The fact that a writer can write a compelling science fiction story around that scenario does not necessarily make that story useful or in any way assist in predicting what would, or could, or might, happen.  In my area of professional war gaming we refer to structural indeterminacy and design a war game to generate the narrative.

I do not believe the art and science of war gaming are at opposite ends of a spectrum with an associated trade-off, one chooses the levels of each and the interactions between them in a holistic way.

The McGill peacebuilding simulation

During the most recent run of my Brynania peacebuilding simulation at McGill University, a camera crew from the university followed the sim and put together a documentary report. You’ll find the result below.

Boardgaming (counter) insurgency

The latest (June-July 2011) issue of the online strategy gaming magazine Battlespace has a short article by yours truly on the challenges of designing insurgency/COIN-based boardgames. Have any comments? Feel free to post them here to the blog.

Origins War College Update

With the annual Origins Game Fair rapidly approaching (22-26 June 2011, Columbus, Ohio) rapidly approaching, we asked Brant Guillory of GrogNews to update us on the various “staff wargames” that will be available as part of the Origins War College.

* * *

What the Heck is a “Staff Wargame” Doing at a Game Convention?

So there are a bunch of Origins War College events listed in the Origins master event grid as “role-playing”. Now I know what you’re thinking – what the heck is an RPG event doing in the seminar area the Origins has set aside for military and historical lectures, panels, and seminars? In the meantime, those of us who help run the events can only shrug and point out the following:

  1. There’s no “wargame” event grid anymore, so the best natural fit isn’t there
  2. When you think about it, you really are more in a role-playing event than anything else.

Lemme ‘splain… Players take on roles in a military staff and plan and execute an operation using a wargame… you’ve gotta keep up with current situation and changes to the plan while the fight’s going on. You’ve got an assignment within the command post in a military unit and during the course of the battle you manage your appropriate functional area, as the operations guy, or the intel guy, or fire support guy, and you’re all working together against the OPFOR. It’s a cooperative experience that’s well-guided along by Dr Sterrett and the rest of the gang that’s been doing this a few years. There’s no “wasting time” because at some point the enemy comes rolling over the hill.

It’s a chance to learn what a military exercise looks like, within the context of a cooperative game, and play your way through the scenario in near-real time.

This is a tabletop exercise for the participants. We run a computer for the adjudication, though – mainly to speed things up and be able to project the current situation really, really big on the wall. We’re using a variety of computer games for the event so that we can have a scripted/AI opponent, and not worry about how we’re going to fight something head-to-head.

Complexity of the game being used is irrelevant (and in the case of Decisive Action, can be kinda high-but-still-irrelevant). We act as the filter between you and the game to ensure the plans you guys develop are put into the game properly, and the actions you choose during the play of the game get input by one of us so you can focus on your role, and not on fiddling with the game. (The only exception to the “cooperative” model might be Persian Incursion, which will be head-to-head teams if we get enough people.)

Now, do you need to know how to make the computer do stuff to come play in the event? Nope. The players are all gathered around paper maps and tables, just like a military command post. They are reacting to what’s happening in the game, but are not directly controlling the game. We’ve got someone who works the game inputs for them so they can focus on their roles. In the case of Flashpoint Germany, our puckster is the guy who wrote the code. In the case of the Strategic Counterinsurgency game, the puckster is the guy who designed the code (uh… me).

These are official events in the War College, and you either need a War College ribbon or generic tokens to participate. The schedule, with event numbers:

  • WED 1800-2200: Battles for the Bulge (event #6061) From Panther Games, with a pretty tough AI. The players are operating at the division/corps level. Tactics are a part of this one, but it also has more logistics play than any of the others.
  • THU 1100-1500: Flashpoint Germany (event #6156) Players are a BN/SQN staff. This is the most tactical of all the games, with lots of tanks, scouts, helicopters, and close action.
  • THU 1800-2200: Strategic Counterinsurgency (event #6254) We’re using a game that’s actually in use at the National Defense University, with a recently-retired NDU staffer helping out. Players must balance military ops with other “levers” in controlling the counterinsurgency (econ, governance, etc).
  • FRI 0900-1300: Naval Wargame (event #6384) The last I heard, this will be a Solomon Islands campaign, but it might’ve changed, as I’m not heavily involved in this one. Sorry I don’t have more details.
  • SAT 0900-1300: Decisive Action wargame (event #6629) This one is in use at the Army’s Command & General Staff College for training division operations. This one is a fine balance of a lot of moving parts in ground combat, as you have a lot of tactical pieces out there to manage, and yet have a tough logistical balancing act to do, too. (For more on tactical logistics, see here.)
  • SAT 1500-1900: Persian Incursion wargame (event #6715) We’re trying something new with this one, in using a board game in the middle of the room as the adjudication engine. This is the most experimental of all the games, as we’ve honestly never run one like this before. The focus is on the air campaign.

I think the best endorsement of how much fun people are having is how many unplanned repeat players we get each year. By that I mean people who bought tickets specifically for one of the events, but are back 3 hours later for the next one w/ generic tokens because they had so much fun with the first one. One quote from ConSimWorld was “I was able to participate in the Staff Wargaming (Flashpoint Germany) event at last year’s ORIGINS. It was the highlight of the CON for me.” We *love* this kind of feedback!

For those who care, the other stuff I’m doing at the OWC:

  • THU 1600-1800: Moderating the panel on Designing for Effect at the Origins War College
  • FRI 1400-1600: Moderating the panel on Games and Sims for Military Training at the Origins War College
  • SAT 1300-1400: attending the talk Eyeball to Eyeball with the Soviets: The Early Days of Arms Control at the Origins War College
Brant Guillory 

Reflections on mmowgli (Game Turn One edition)

Over the past few days I had a chance to participate in a game turn of MMOWGLI (the Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet), in a scenario that addressed the challenge posed by Somali piracy. As we’ve discussed before in PAXsims, MMOWGLI isn’t a wargame in any traditional sense, but rather a crowd-sourcing and brainstorming platform. The playtest only got as far as Turn 1, meaning that participants were limited to 140 character “tweets” in which they could suggest new ideas and approaches, or comment on those put forward by others. In later turns, however, players are asked to develop more detailed action plans, which other players can then comment on and evaluate. At the moment, the GameMaster Blog is accessible online here, with useful information on the experiment.

Some quick thoughts, based on my very limited experience:

  1. The interface is generally very clean and neat (ship-shape, even!), and certainly more intuitive than EVOKE. There are a few tweaks that could be suggested, however. It wasn’t clear to me what determined the appearance of the “innovate” and “defend” cards on the front page—at times these seem to be old ones, other times the newest. Latency is a potential problem. I suspect some users could become impatient if the response is too sluggish, especially in an era when people are used to Facebook and Twitter speed of use.
  2. The Turn One scoring system encourages players to post lots, regardless of insight and quality. Indeed, one strategy is to spam the platform with comments, in the hopes that they seed longer threads. (It might also be strategic NOT to comment on the posts of rival top scorers, which presumably is not something that the game system would want to encourage). Also, at one point in the playtest the scores all seemed to change—I’m not sure if that was a bug or a feature. Or perhaps pirates just ran off with some of the loot. Arr!
  3. The playtest involved a few hundred. I’m not sure mmowgli works well with a crew larger than 100 or so, as ideas rapidly get buried under other ideas and an inevitable degree of repetition results. I can’t imagine it working with the 14,000 or so who signed up online.
  4. I understand they want to encourage brief brainstorms in the first phase of the game, but really: only 140 characters? Shiver me timbers! In a complex situation that is all about nuance, this risks prioritizing simplistic “sound bite” solutions. Indeed, there’s a danger of suggesting that complex problems have short, innovative solutions. Some times they only have complicated, messy, partial mitigations—Somali piracy being a probable case in point.
  5. Part of the appeal of a platform like mmowgli is its value in generating innovative out-of-the-box policy ideas from folks other than the “usual suspects.” This needs to be balanced against the complexity of the problem and the value of relevant knowledge, however. Some of the discussion seemed to hinge on inaccurate caricatures of Somali or regional politics; a poor understanding of pirate tactics and techniques; little familiarity with current best practices, shipping patterns, or maritime law; or fascination with (expensive, impractical) technological fixes. The Turn One scoring system doesn’t necessarily encourage deep thinking or research.
  6. It would be very helpful if the system automatically shrunk and embedded urls in posts, so that participants could more easily cite supporting evidence and data.
  7. Apparently, a lot of people haven’t yet met a problem that they didn’t want to resolve kinetically. Make them walk the plank, or kiss the gunner’s daughter! That’ll fix it.
  8. I hereby propose to ban the word “epic” from game-related discussions.
  9. For the gaming geeks out there, it was perhaps also a little amusing that one of the major threads in the playtest on the need to shut down pirate “ports” seemed to be a variation on “All your base are belong to us.” (Incidentally, pirate “ports” are often little more than beach camps like the one at right.)
  10.  I don’t think the mmowgli Turn One game play necessarily generated more useful and innovative ideas than could be achieved in a three-hour BOGSAT with a dozen bright Naval Postgraduate School students. On the other hand, it did allow a substantial number of people to be involved despite geography, time zones, and work schedules.
  11. Overall, I thought it was a very interesting experiment with some intriguing potential. I’m particularly interested to see how the transition to Turn Two would work, since I suspect that’s where the real analytical and innovative pay-off is to be had.
In reading all of the points above, it is important to keep in mind that this was a short, preliminary playtest of a platform that is still in development. Moreover, the piratey playtest in which I participated only extended (so far?) to Turn 1, and not to later stages of the game when participants are called upon to develop more detailed action plans. It is far too easy for a scurvy bilge rat like meself to nitpick an experiment. Given that I thought it all has some intriguing potential, therefore, I hope the comments above will be taken in the spirit intended: as constructive input into further development.
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Yes, I’m well aware that Somali pirates don’t talk at all like 17-18th century privateers. However, with International Talk Like a Pirate Day (an annual event in my classes) only a few months away, it seemed as good as opportunity as any to get some practice.
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