Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: July 2011

Mercenaries and Rebels

I’m not quite sure how I missed this recent game-related piece in the The Economist—other than that I was headed off to Benghazi myself when it appeared. It would seem that inventive kids in the rebel-held Libyan city have invented a “Mercenaries and Rebels” boardgame in which players try to overthrow the Libyan dictator:

WAITING for the grownups—both the rebels and NATO—to break the stalemate in Libya and enter Tripoli, a group in Benghazi called “Creative kids”, whose members are children and teenagers, have come up with their own way of toppling Colonel Muammar Qaddafi; a giant board game. In “Mercenaries and Rebels” players throw dice to move from prison in Bab Alazizia, Colonel Qaddafi’s home where he delivered his  rant from beneath an umbrella, via Misrata and the Nafusa mountains to Tripoli. The game starts at a square in Benghazi marked February 17th, Libya’s first “day of rage”. It ends at a square in Tripoli marked Freedom. That one, thus far, has no date.

Creative Kids have a Facebook page here, which includes a picture of kids playing a full-sized version of the game.

Simulation & Gaming (June 2011)

John Dentico: There Are Still Things Computers Can’t Do!

John Dentico of LeadSimm LLC contributed the following piece for PAXsims. John’s reflections on simulations and leadership development can also be found on his website.

As usual, comments are encouraged.

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A computer has never won a Medal of Honor, nor a Distinguished Service, Air Force, or Navy Cross.  If this introduction seems a bit factious, it is designed to make a point—There are still things computers can’t do!

In a recent blog post on PAXsims, Mike Peck provided an overview of the current state of military war gaming as it exists today.  He laments (that is what I get out of it) the brushing aside of paper/table top games and venues for the ultimate power of the wafer, gigabits of RAM and the all important mega colors of HD graphics.

Mike writes: “Gaming today is perceived as computer games, and shooter games for the most part. That’s too bad. For all the clunkiness of cardboard, a paper game can incorporate sophisticated concepts in two paragraphs of rules where software would need a million lines of code. You can also change the rules with a pen instead of an army of contractors.”

As someone who has spent 33 years in gaming and simulation work, let me remind you—There are still things computers can’t do!

As someone who embraces all the capability, efficiency and capacity computers and electronics media affords us, there are five factors (probably more) that paper/table-top/interpersonal simulations hold over computer based simulations, at least as far as my research and experience has shown.

 Stories as the Meaning Makers

The most important factor associated with any simulation be it paper or computer based is the narrative or story that forms the basic scenario.  Cognitive Psychologist Jerome Bruner of NYU tells us that the narrative mode of thinking engages people in a “gripping drama” where meaning emerges from one’s interaction with the story.

Think of it, if we had no stories, we would have no culture because stories are the repository of culture, they are the meaning carriers.  Military organizations are steeped in stories of conflict from the time history was first recorded and those narratives form the foundation of what and who they are.

So methodology aside, it is the stories or scenarios that are the meaning carriers that provides the real “go” power of simulation methodologies especially in an environment where as Mike points out, the goal of the immersive experience allows the player to suspend disbelief so he actually “learns something that keeps him alive on a real battlefield” i.e. you can have a really great computer based system and a hard to believe or ridiculous scenario and guess what?  Bad simulation.

Computers Can Mislead—Convincingly!

All war is fought on the basis of probability.  The name of the game is to get the odds in one’s favor.  More specifically, the idea is to “load the dice” so that they roll out for the good guys—Everytime. I often refer to the simulator’s creed when speaking about simulations, as “The Best Surprise is No Surprise!”

Computer based simulation do offer a wide array of advantages in terms of providing training, that is of course, if the fidelity of the internal structure of the simulation itself is sound and verified.  Computer based simulations are a “blended soup” of ingredients that include look up tables, data bases, algorithms, user interfaces (considered critical), graphic representations, speed et. al all with one goal in mind; creating a realistic contextual practice field where an authentic decisional environment is represented.

The question for many who understand the goal is: Where do the numbers come from?  Are the numbers real and verified using operational data or are they fabricated based on best guess?  The problem here is that no matter what the numbers are, they remain transparent to the participants because they lie hidden in the soup.  More importantly, unverified simulations could subtlety be reinforcing bad data and thereby creating bad habits and bad beliefs.  Which would you rather have, no training or bad training?

Even commercial gaming has seen a quiet but resolute rebellion in the development of some of the most popular PC based games.  This rebellion is known as the “Modding Community”, a group of ad hoc gamers who have taken it upon themselves to develop game mods that by many accounts are more realistic, more difficult to play, with more realistic probabilities of detection and engagement than their commercially developed parents.

Paper/Table Top games more times than not have a built in warning system that alerts participants to unrealistic events or elements.  It is known as the person or persons who while playing the simulation, stands up and says “Hey, there is something wrong here, this is not how it is done or not how it really is.”  Funny thing, it seems to work well.

Process vs. Content.

Some years ago I was preparing to direct a computer based simulation as a member of a Naval Reserve unit in San Diego.  That morning, the computers decided they didn’t want to play and went down hard.  We didn’t want to waste training time so in an hour or so we switched to a seminar format and conducted a very similar scenario.  I noticed something. In the seminar format people became much more involved in the process of actions and decisions made. They wanted to know the why and how of the actions taken.

This was a bold difference from the computer-based games where people waited for an input or stimuli and then pressed a button in response waiting to see what happened.  It occurred to me that there were two predominate activities going on within the confines of each simulation method, process and content.

Yes, good content is important to any simulation exercise because it comprises the scenario, which as mentioned above, is the driver of the total experience. But, as people we are a “WHY” driven specie, we like to know why we are doing something.  In my opinion, process dominant simulations should precede content driven simulations because it is important to know the how and why of something before the what.

Paper/Table-top simulations afford participants the opportunity to communicate, collaborate, question and discuss the motives and ideas associated with particular actions.  Moreover, they provide a natural antidote to something I refer to as “computer camping.”

Computer Camping.

There is a term used in commercial online FPS (first person shooter) or RTS (real time strategy) games known as camping.  Camping occurs when one side chooses to pick a location on the map to defend and then sets up a defense to protect that part of the map and of course, their forces.  In commercial games camping is frowned upon.

There is another type of camping (computer camping) where a player sits behind his or her computer screen and as long as no stimuli or input is provided to them they sit and wait.  In fact, during this time their training and or learning experience is minimal at best because they are not required to think or do anything.  After all nothing is appearing on their screen.

Face-to-face Communications

There appears to be an emerging hole in our cultural norms most notably in our ability to communicate face-to-face.  Oh yes, technology is great and it has allowed us to link up with people from around the planet. We know more people today than we ever thought possible. The question is, do we really “KNOW THEM.”

As one who has conducted numerous leadership development and table-top simulations for Law Enforcement across the US, where the goal is to create an interlocking network of relationships to fight crime some of the comments I have heard from law enforcement officers have become disconcerting.  It seems that the closer together we become in an electronically mediated socially networked world, the more we may very well be growing apart.

The texting/email culture most represented by the younger generations is masking a growing lack in their ability and savvy to conduct one-on-one, face-to-face interviews with perhaps, witnesses at a scene.  Wait a minute; I think I hear Joe Friday turning over in his grave!

They somehow seem to be unable to connect to others face-to-face because this is not how they are used to communicating. I assure you this is not a slam against the younger generations at all it simply is a case of what IS.  Paper/table-top/interpersonal games provide the natural impetus for one on one interaction. In fact, people powered simulations truly enhance the power of people to do a myriad of things.

Yes I know, I am an “old schooler” but I still believe that if you put a group of well meaning, well intentioned people around a table and give them the opportunity to use their imaginations—Magic Happens!  Why? Because there are still things computers can’t do!

John Dentico

Peaceconferencing 2011

We’ve mentioned before at PAXsims the work that Kristen Druker at the Bishop’s School is doing using USIP’s Open Simulation Platform in the classroom. A new video on YouTube provides further insight into her efforts:

An online interactive program for schools, colleges, and the adult community that provides a gaming simulation based on world conflict resolved at a peace conference.

Through three phases of Peaceconferencing, students, teachers, librarians and adult educational communities interface online to support face to face and virtual mediation- negotiation simulations. The use of computer assisted learning, specifically a technology platform that is designed for community networking, as well as, the acquisition of a specific knowledge base relevant to international conflicts, brings the most promising aspects of the digital age directly to the classroom. Students utilize their medium, the internet, in a constructive and powerful way to better understand the complexities of the global world that they will inherit.

Training to take down Qaddafi

The Washington Post has a piece today that examines how rebels in western Libya lack weapons and training, and are improvising in their struggle to overthrow the Qaddafi dictatorship. There’s a simulation dimension to all this too, as one group of rebel fighters noted with some self-depreciating humour:

Asked about their military training, a group of Berber rebels from the coastal town of Zuwarah answered, “Medal of Honor.” They explained it’s a first-person shooter video game popular on PlayStation.

Of course, in real combat the hits hurt more, you heal way slower, and you don’t respawn.

On the subject of Arab Spring “simulations” there is also Russian blogger Egor Zhgun’s brilliant “Three Big Bigs” video on the overthrow of the Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi regimes:

NATO airstrikes haven’t been quite so effective as Zhgun suggested they would be, however—which is why, four months later, the Libyan rebels are still improvising.

More thoughts on G4C 2011

Skip Cole, who provided PAXsims with a field report on the Games for Change Festival in New York late June, has kindly sent on some additional thoughts on the event.

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Sorry all for not getting to you sooner these final notes on the Game for Change Festival. The past couple weeks I’ve been in transition, but I really wanted to mention here a few interesting items, and one truly excellent talk, and a way you can access it.

The Games For Change Festival is really something to experience. Fortunately much it is now online.

What you can’t do online is play all of the games that were displayed, but trailers for most of them can be found here.

Tuesday night was the reception. It was a great event (see photo at righ), and I got to meet some really great people. Notably, I met the guy who created the game Gift-Trap. It looks like a great game to play.

This year the second day was shared with G4LI (Games for Learning Institute.) Some of the academicians are doing some really cool and ground-breaking research. But to be honest, I sometimes get turned off by them. For example, during one of the presentations, a fellow in the audience mentioned that his son used to play a lot of video games, and when doing so his son wanted to be a hero and make the world better. But then after 3 years of college, his son just wanted to ‘not make the world any worse.’ Of course the crowd cheered loudly, since the story seemed to point to the power of video games and the weakness of our higher educational system. But my reaction was completely different. I have learned of too many of the pernicious side-effects of unbridled ‘do gooderism.’ I agreed more with the man’s son: this world is complicated! ‘Do no harm’ is actually really hard to pull off. I’m not convinced our current Games for Change are conveying all of that.

Some people are now making a living doing Games for Change, and they added a lot to the conversation. I was very glad to learn of the 90-9-1 business model for online games. In this business model, 90% of the people play for free. 9% pay a little, and 1% pay a little more. I’m incorporating that into some proposals I’m working on right now.

One thing I did heartily agree with was a quote from someone’s talk, “We need to provide our teachers the tools to allow each one of our teachers to be as excellent as our most excellent teachers.” I thought that was great, and strikes close to the mission of my own organizations, Sea Change Simulations. I just wish I had wrote down Who said it! (I’ll send a prize to the first person who let’s me know who it was.)

Finally, THE very BEST thing I experienced in the final two days was Jesse Schell’s closing keynote. It dealt with video games and war and peace – an excellent analysis. Fortunately it is online now!

Hope you get a chance to watch the video. I found it highly entertaining and edifying, and I’m now reading his book The Art of Game Design.

 Skip Cole

report from Fjordland I

Fortunately, Raleigh (and Fjordland in the South) has oil and lithium, so people care…

First round in Fjordland (see statement of mission objective, below)…

Everyone was given background materials before the event (electronically) and hard copies on the first academic day of the course (yesterday).  This was a 30 page write-up describing the scenario, with a very nicely done “recent time-line” for the past X days. 

For example, on a day nearly three weeks ago (E-20):

E-20 (a particularly bad day)

  • In relation to last week’s discovery of Lithium, Chinese and Nigerian authorities immediately express interest in contributing to the extraction of the mineral. Moroccan contractors also express interest in Lithium resources, especially as a source of export to northern Africa. (FDI)
  • A prominent Moroccan investment broker is murdered in Raleigh. The government releases a statement, denouncing the murder and pledging to commit resources to bring the culprit to justice. The Moroccan Foreign Minister, in a statement, condemns the murder and urges the government to apprehend the suspects and safeguard the security of Greek nationals living in Raleigh.
  • The Moroccan Ambassador in Raleigh holds a meeting with the Minister of Interior Zamour to discuss the investigation of the murder.  Prior to her European trip Minister Marta Zamour received threats to her life unless she ceases her campaign against terrorism and organised crime.
  • Four hundred kilos of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosives are stolen during the night from a quarry in PUKAKI, Raleigh. All the newspapers ask a same question: terrorism or violent crime purpose? The Greek newspaper openly accuses GLAD for the incident.
  • World Food organization announces record deficit in agricultural production for Fjordland projected for next year.

Sadly Minister Zamour’s airplane crashed this morning under suspicious circumstances…. 

After reviewing this material, we were asked to act as the Special Advisory Group to NATO, and tasked with delivering strategic guidance to NATO on a comprehensive approach.  To begin the process, we were asked to start by brainstorming through the problems – identifying all of the challenges facing Raleigh/Fjordland and the sequencing/priorities of these challenges – which took us all of this morning.

I wasn’t entirely convinced that this is a good starting point, but it was a good, basic exercise, engaging the group in producing an early output and clarifying some early discrepancies in understandings in the group of the task we’d been assigned and how it could be done collaboratively.  Indeed, in light of the success of the exercise, I am considering an edit to one of the first stages of the Carana exercise – usually we have folks playing the same role discuss their assessment of the challenges and their goals – it is fairly unstructured – based on this exercise, I might expect a deliverable out of that session with a list of challenges and goals – perhaps something that could be typed up and distributed at the end of the simulation. 

Out list of “symptoms” (types of conflict and challenges in Fjordland)  had 32 items on it (at least there is no cholera).  We’re identifying stakeholders and goals this afternoon…

SMO: Raleigh/Fjordland, July 12-15, 2011

I will be travelling to the mid(north-)Atlantic country of Raleigh to discuss the ongoing troubles in Fjordland, the BIFA rebels and terrorism by the nefarious GLAD as part of the NATO Special Advisory Group this week.

(The NATO Defense College has invited me to their course on Comprehensive Approach this week in Brussels and have generously permitted live blogging on their Raleigh/Fjordland simulation – not sure how live I can be, but will try to post a few lively observations)

Palestinians simulate UN recognition

As those who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will know, the Palestinian Authority/PLO is considering going to the United Nations General Assembly in September to obtain a resolution recognizing Palestine as an independent state based on the 1967 borders. While the move would not in itself end the Israeli occupation, nor necessarily result in recognition by UN member states, nor even win Palestine a full seat at the UN (only the Security Council can grant admission), it would be a major political boost. For that reason, Israel strongly opposes the move. The US is trying to discourage the Palestinians too. European attitudes are more mixed.

And what does this have to do with PAXsims? Recently the highly-regarded Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research convened a simulation to help Palestinian decisonmakers think through the possible options and implications. Some Israelis also participated, which led to a report on the exercise in today’s Ha’aretz:

The participants, past and present senior figures from the PA and Fatah, assumed the roles of representatives of the PA and the U.S. administration, and other key international figures. Three Israelis were also invited (including one of this column’s co-authors ), who, alongside a Palestinian academic, played the Israeli government. Senior Hamas figures in the West Bank were invited to participate but refused because of the Israeli presence. The proceedings were held in Arabic.

In the first scenario, on the day of the UN vote, the United States and the European Union present separate initiatives to have the matter struck from the General Assembly agenda. Washington suggests recognizing a Palestinian state without setting its borders or capital; the EU suggests postponing the vote by a year, recognizing that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will be based on the 1949 armistice lines, and stipulating that if the parties do not reach an agreement within a year, the EU will recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries, with Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinian team rejects both initiatives. The Israeli team accepts the U.S. proposal and rejects the EU proposal.

The second scenario predicts an outburst of violence the day after the UN vote: The Israeli army kills seven Palestinians at a demonstration at Qalandiyah, north of Jerusalem. In response young, albeit unarmed Palestinians hold another demonstration there, and block the road to the Beit El settlement. Simultaneously, Islamic Jihad launches Grad rockets from Gaza into Be’er Sheva.

The second scenario seemed a bit far-fetched at first. However, a poll Shikaki released 10 days ago casts things in a different light: It showed that 65 percent of respondents support the UN initiative. Moreover, 52 percent say they will take part in “peaceful” demonstrations and processions to Israeli checkpoints after the vote; 76 percent want the PA to be active in Area C (which is under full Israeli control ) after the state is recognized – for example, by building airports, roads and housing, and deploying security forces – even if this means a confrontation with Israel. Fully 75 percent support the deployment of Palestinian security forces at the Allenby Bridge across the Jordan River, even if this means the West Bank’s only access to the outside world will be closed for a few months. In other words, it is hard to say who will set the tone: the public or the leadership.

The third scenario has dozens of Palestinians killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli fire in West Bank demonstrations a few weeks after the UN vote. Meanwhile, rockets are being fired at Sderot and Ashkelon, the Palestinian security services are preparing to deploy in Area C and the Allenby Bridge, and the Israel Defense Forces has begun to take action against PA forces….

You’ll find the rest of the report here. A previous Israeli simulation on similar issues was convened by the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) Herzliya back in January—you’ll find a Reuters report on their results here.


The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is best known for its regular public opinion polling of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which forms one of the richest and most detailed sources of information on any fragile and conflicted-affected area in the world. Consequently, reporting on their recent simulation exercise should probably be read in conjunction with their most recent opinion poll on attitudes to various Palestinian initiatives:

Findings show a split in public attitude regarding the Obama proposal for terms of reference for the peace process on borders and the national identity of Israel and Palestine, both supported by half of the public. But three quarters of the public oppose Obama’s suggestion that the Palestinian state should be non-militarized and about two thirds reject the US position that going to the UN in September to seek recognition of a Palestinian state would be a mistake.  Findings show that three quarters of the Palestinians support an exercise of sovereignty over the so-called area (C) including the deployment of Palestinian security forces in those areas in the context of the UN recognition of Palestinian statehood.  Similarly, three quarters support exercise of Palestinian sovereignty over the Allenby international crossing with Jordan even if such a step leads to the closure of the crossing. Findings indicate that a majority wants to participate in big popular peaceful demonstrations that would seek to breach checkpoints and to block roads used by Israeli settlers and army.

The full survey results can be found on the PSR website.

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