Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: August 2011

Preparing for an era of uncertainty: military training and simulation

In the latest issue of Training & Simulation Journal, I offer a few thoughts on how US and NATO military training and simulation requirements might change in eventual future post-Iraq/Afghanistan era—arguing that “the development of analytical skills, critical thinking and coping with unpredictability ought to be increasingly important design considerations in the current era of strategic uncertainty.”

Preparing for an era of uncertainty

As the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan and places less emphasis on COIN operations, how will it prepare for the next unpredictable conflict?

The reduction of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan certainly does not mark the end of the counterinsurgency (COIN) mission there. However, it does signal a need to think about how military training and simulation requirements might change in the coming decade. With U.S. and NATO forces likely to face unexpected opponents operating in unexpected ways in unfamiliar settings, simulation-based training needs to emphasize creativity and adaptability, as well as hone more conventional skills.

After 9/11, a heavy emphasis emerged on training for COIN, stabilization and counterterrorism missions. Doctrine was duly developed. Simulation packages followed suit. COIN-themed add-ons were created for existing software. Interactive cultural awareness and language packages, such as the Tactical Iraqi and Virtual Cultural Awareness Trainer series, were developed. So, too, were COIN-themed serious games such as “UrbanSim” and “Elusive Victory.”

Visitors to the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference could find companies willing to sell everything from armed drone simulators (complete with simulated jihadist training camps to target) and Humvee turret mock-ups (with simulated insurgent ambushes), to companies specializing in prepackaged Iraqi or Afghan villages for field exercises, or offering a roster of Arabic-, Dari- or Pashto-speaking actors.

With thousands of U.S. troops likely to be in Afghanistan for several more years, such training needs will continue. But what about preparing forces for the next conflict, in one or five or 10 years? If there is one thing that has been predictable about U.S. and NATO military engagement in the post-Cold War era, it is that it is largely unpredictable. When the Berlin Wall fell, no one imagined that NATO forces would conduct stabilization missions in Bosnia or Kosovo. Intervention in Afghanistan or Iraq seemed implausible before 9/11, and few anticipated the years of COIN that followed. Certainly no one predicted that U.S. and NATO forces would today provide air, naval and other support to rebel efforts to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.

Given the dynamics of contemporary global politics — the economic rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China, the ongoing Arab Spring, the challenge of nuclear proliferation, terrorist threats that constantly metamorphose and metastasize — the next major deployment of U.S. military forces will likely be equally unanticipated. Potential state and nonstate opponents have increasing access to a broad range of military technologies, may be embedded in complex political environments or draw on global diasporas, and leverage the Internet for C3I, mobilization, and even offensive cyber purposes. They will likely utilize adaptive and asymmetric means of attack, both kinetic and nonkinetic. How does one train for such a nebulous collection of threats?

Part of the answer is to shift training from its current mission-determined preoccupations with COIN to more generic, full-spectrum war-fighting skills that are likely to be useful in a variety of settings. A second requirement, however, is to also develop training and simulation assets that encourage the kind of critical thinking and flexibility that will allow military personnel to adapt quickly to a range of inherently unpredictable mission requirements….






(Picture credit: Ukrainian military exercise, via the MSNBC photo blog.)

Humanitarian Studies Initiative and Applied Technologies

Each year, Harvard University’s Harvard Humanitarian Initiative team up with the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University to offer the Humanitarian Studies Initiative. This includes a weekend-long field exercise/simulation:

After spending two weeks in the classroom learning the nuts and bolts of humanitarian work from conducting a rapid health assessment and managing the logistics of a field operation, to understanding human rights law and the drivers of gender-based violence, students discovered how difficult it can be to transfer classroom learning into practice in the field.

For the simulation, students were assigned to a non-governmental organization such as Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders and given responsibility for a task such as shelter or medical services. While spending the damp weekend camping and dining on field rations, the students worked in teams and in partnership with competing agencies to develop a service delivery plan for the refugees, who were played by volunteers.

McGill University is also affiliated with the HSI, having incorporated the exercise into the McGill Humanitarian Studies Initiative.

We’ve blogged about the HSI before at PAXsims, but in this particular case I wanted to flag an interesting paper written by Jennifer Chan in November 2010 (which I’ve only just seen) that examined the integration of ICT and crowdsourcing methods into the simulation:

Information communication technology (ICT) and mapping have revolutionized the way humanitarian actors understand crises and the changes in the environment. Current fieldworkers are beginning to learn the importance of these applied technologies and humanitarian training programs are now, in advance, preparing future humanitarian responders by incorporating ICT, termed here as “applied technology” into the curriculum. In 2010, the Humanitarian Studies Course incorporated applied technologies into the coursework for the second consecutive year. During a three‐day simulation of the humanitarian emergency in Chad/Darfur, ninety students and a team of nine volunteers were able to practice and experience applied technologies. Specifically, students, acting as humanitarian workers, 1) acquired geo coordinates for select locations 2) viewed GIS maps during mock UN headquarter meetings and 3) became end‐users feeding crisis information to the Ushahidi‐HSI platform. Students participated in crowdsourcing crisis information and in GIS activities during the simulated emergency, while learning the traditional skills needed of humanitarian responders.

The goal of this evaluation report is to reflect upon and determine the next steps for the Applied Technology Learning Module and to better understand its impact on participant learning during the 2010 Humanitarian Studies Course. This evaluation concludes that improvements in 1) didactics and preparation 2) integration of crowdsourcing and GIS technology 3) satellite communications and 4) volunteer capacity resulted in a successful educational experience for future humanitarian responders.

The report (which you can download here) is a solid application of evaluation methods to an educational and training program, something that isn’t done often enough with simulation-based training.

Interestingly, the study also says something implicitly about the utility of basic communications modes compared to more sophisticated capabilities, with students ranking simple mobile phones as much more useful than GPS, GIS mapping, or Ushahadi crowd-sourcing. While some of this was probably a function of familiarity and field implementation—goodness knows in real life operations GIS and GPS can be invaluable— it might also sound a cautionary note about an uncritical embrace of new enabling technologies in the field.

CFP: International Journal of Game-Based Learning

Researchers are welcome to submit manuscripts to be considered for inclusion in the second issue of the second volume of the International Journal of Game-Based Learning to be published in April 2012. All submissions should be sent to the IJGBL, Dr. Patrick Felicia, at, no later than 30th September 2011.

Mission of IJGBL

The mission of the International Journal of Game-Based Learning (IJGBL) is to promote knowledge pertinent to the design of Game-Based Learning environments, and to provide relevant theoretical frameworks and the latest empirical research findings in the field of Game-Based Learning. The main goals of IJGBL are to identify, explain, and improve the interaction between learning outcomes and motivation in video games, and to promote best practices for the integration of video games in instructional settings. The journal is multidisciplinary and addresses cognitive, psychological and emotional aspects of Game-Based Learning. It discusses innovative and cost-effective Game-BasedLearning solutions. It also provides students, researchers, instructors, and policymakers with valuable information inGame-Based Learning, and increases their understanding of the process of designing, developing and deploying successful educational video games. IJGBL also identifies future directions in this new educational medium.

Does the field need a professional wargaming journal?

…Matt Kirschenbaum obliquely raises the issue at Play the Past. Brant Guillory seems to like the idea. I’m not so sure—and see why, over at Wargaming Connection.


Ellie Bartels and Jon Compton weigh in too.

Who needs to invent a fictional country?

When we’ve already got so many?

Will Potter's transition government choose justice or reintegration for surviving Death Eaters?

This very clever article at Foreign Policy scratches a lot of the same itches that a thoughtful simulation of post-conflict reconciliation would.

Rowling’s world has depth, is well known and provides numerous applications of post-conflict principles – I looked past a few of the stretches in favor of the clever and thorough literature references.

Dual hat tips to Laura Bailey and Shanti Kalathil (both fellow Bankers!) for pointing me to a very cool read.

Learning from wargaming

Over at the always-excellent Play the Past blog, Matt Kirschenbaum asks what is wargaming—and what can we learn from it?

…By any measure, wargaming is in an interesting place right now. On the one hand there is a documentable design tradition that goes back at least decades (to Charles S. Roberts and the founding of Avalon Hill in the early 1950s) or centuries (to von Reisswitz), or, if you like, even further back than that, to the clay figurines discovered in Egyptian tombs. But as wargaming seeks to expand the purview of its design space beyond only martial topics and themes, its relationship to other areas of game design becomes more nebulous.  What does a “war” game about the water supply in Yemen or influenza teach us that a newsgame on the same subject might miss? If wargaming is indeed applicable to any contemporary situation that seeks to examine decision-making amid an atmosphere of crisis, uncertainty, and conflict or competition, then it seems important to be able to discriminate its capabilities vis-à-vis other game design movements.

So what can we learn from wargames? Where Costikyan sees realism and historical fidelity and validity in simulation, I see a contemporary player and design community (both hobbyist and professional) that values attention to process in the procedural or quantitative representation of complex, often literally contested phenomena. Where Costikyan sees a focus on outcomes, I see a focus on the in-game experience, and the after the fact analysis and discussion of what happened and why.

Perhaps most importantly I see a game design tradition with a remarkable amount of open source material (collected in magazines, some books (like SPI’s 1983 Wargame Design), and today on the internet) that engages with its own practice and craft, one which is the scene of often sharp disagreements and ongoing critical self-reflection. Designer’s notes are commonplace in wargame rulebooks, rare in computer game manuals and Eurostyle rulebooks. The impulse that’s at work here seems fundamentally pedagogical to me, and perhaps that’s also why I respond to it so deeply.

Wargaming must do a better job of outreach to neighboring design communities, and to vetting and evaluating its own contributions. There is, at present, no peer-reviewed journal to serve the professional wargame design community; the closest is a SAGE publication, Simulation and Gaming. Connections, as a well-established conference (its been meeting for almost twenty years now) would do well to make deeper inroads into both the serious games movement and academic ludology—there was precious little awareness in the discussions I heard of the outpouring of game scholarship in the last fifteen years or so…. Most of all, though, we need to engage wargaming as a living tradition of game design, one has responded to changes in the games industry and the world around it, one that is no longer simply about hexes and zones of control, and one that has preserved a space for critical, independent game design addressing a broad spectrum of contemporary issues and topics. War, it turns out, is good for lots of things—just so long as no one is actually fighting one.

Its a thoughtful piece, and the excerpts don’t do it justice—so click the link at the top and go read the whole thing. (I must admit, I’ve obviously been an academic far too long—within minutes of reading of reading it I was thinking “now that would make a great subject for an edited volume…”)

Earthquake strikes Carana!

According to the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), a major earthquake struck near the country of Carana last month

…causing extensive damage to coastal cities, especially the capital Galasi. The incident further exacerbates an already existing humanitarian emergency situation where up to 12,000 refugees are struggling after nearly 20 years of internal strife, tribal conflict and armed clashes between the military and rebels. Aggravating the situation, there exists no strong communications network outside metropolitan areas. Despite basic foodstuffs being available in markets, a majority of the population is incapable of providing the necessary food to meet subsistence level nutritional needs for their families.

Poor Carana—which already sees more than its fair share of political turmoil, ethnic tensions,  economic crisis, insurgency, and civil wars—now seems to be suffering from natural disasters too.

Carana, of course, is the fictional country used (in various different forms) by the UN, African Union, World Bank, and others for simulations and exercises. The recent Africa Endeavor 2011 exercise sponsored by AFRICOM was intended to promote greater interoperability of communications equipments and protocols among African states.

AFRICOM commander General Carter Ham explained the importance of regional exercises like AE 2011 to build African capacity to deal with natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies, noting that “The same violent extremists that threaten Americans threaten Africans as well.”

Ahh well, there’s always that too.

Global Oil Supply Disruption Simulation 2011

We’ve reported before on the Oil Shockwave simulation organized by the “Securing America’s Future Energy” think-tank/NGO/energy policy advocacy group. Another of the series was held on July 13, featuring several former high-level US government officials:

Oil ShockWave Executive Crisis Simulation: Oil ShockWave, a fast-paced wargame simulation featuring a cutting-edge graphics delivered in a life-like environment, awed Summit attendees. As former government officials and Cabinet members grappled with spiraling oil prices and geopolitical turmoil, they confronted crucial lessons about the fragile nature of the global energy economy. Participants included:

  • Admiral Dennis C. Blair, USN (Ret.), former Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command
  • Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury
  • Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary
  • Stephen Hadley, former National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush
  • John Hannah, former National Security Advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney
  • John Hofmeister, former President and CEO of Shell Oil Co.
  • Ambassador John Negroponte, former Deputy Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence
  • Ambassador Susan C. Schwab, former United States Trade Representative
  • General Charles F. Wald, USAF (Ret.), former Deputy Commander, U.S. European Command

As we noted last time, this isn’t really a wargame at all in the sense that the actors take decisions at T1 that then affect the situation at T2. Instead, participants given a scenario (and a few subsequent “injects” of news to keep it lively), and within this context discuss policy options in a semi-roleplaying approach. Not surprisingly, the scenario reflects the sorts of issues and concerns that SAFE is attempting to press onto the public and political agenda.

A 2.5 hour video of the simulation can be seen via C-Span, together with a full transcript. There is also coverage from National Geographic News.

Downes-Martin: Adjudication: the diabolus in machina of wargaming

In our after action review of the recent Connections 2011 professional wargaming conference, we mentioned the excellent presentation by Stephen Downes-Martin (Naval War College) on “Adjudication: the diabolus in machina of wargaming.” In it, he highlighted the challenges of adjudicating wargaming on novel topics that, by their very nature, involve a large number of political, social, or technological unknowns:

Traditional adjudication methods break down when wargaming operational or strategic problems, especially in novel situations for which we have little experience; for example information war in a regional nuclear conflict. The primary causes of this breakdown are the myth that player decisions during a wargame are useful and the failure to recognize the role of adjudicators as dominant players in the game.

Newtonian physics and the statistics of small unit actions provide rules for determining the possible outcomes of interacting player decisions when wargaming tactical level attrition warfare. The adjudicators either “roll dice” to pick one of those possible outcomes randomly as the one that actually occurred, or decide themselves which one occurred to force the players into a situation that best addresses the sponsor’s objectives for the game. However, we do not have the equivalent adjudication rules for wargaming novel operational and strategic problems. In these cases the adjudicators (who are no better informed than the players about how “the world works”) first have to decide the possible outcomes of interacting player decisions and then decide which one occurred. However, psychology research demonstrates that people cannot predict the decisions they would make under different information circumstances, and so decisions made during a game by players are unreliable predictors of decisions that would be made in the real world situation the game is attempting to reproduce.

When wargaming novel situations using traditional approaches the adjudicators not only decide how the world works but also decide what information is given to the players. They become dominant players whose actions and beliefs drive the game –diabolus in machina – resulting in game results which are seductively compelling but ultimately unreliable.

The solution is twofold. First treat the adjudicators as players whose behavior it is critical to analyze. Second, psychology research indicates that human beliefs are robust even in the face of contradictory evidence, and so focus the game design onto the beliefs of the players and how those beliefs drive their decisions, not on the actual decisions….

Stephen has been kind enough to provide his full speaker’s notes for the presentation, which you’ll find here.

The piece even includes an after-the-fact footnote to the Jon Compton/Yuna Wong debate at Connections over the predictive value of formal social science models—although I must say it fails to capture the full colour of Yuna’s descriptive  language (she’s clearly been hanging around Marines a lot). The picture at the top right is, of course, the diabolus in machina, not Stephen.

Charles S. Roberts Award Winners

The winners of the 2010 Charles S. Roberts Awards for excellence in wargame design were announced at the recent World Boardgaming Championships. You’ll find the full list on the CSR website here, but I just wanted to note that Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror (GMT Games) won for the best post-WWII era wargame AND received a James F. Dunnigan Design Elegance Award.

You’ll find our previous reviews of Labyrinth here and here. Mabruk ya Volko!

People Power

Some time ago we reviewed A Force More Powerful here on PAXsims, a serious game developed in conjunction with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict to educate about civilian-based, non-military strategies to establish and defend democracy and human rights. Unfortunately we were less than impressed—while the game was an interesting attempt to address some interesting issues, Gary just didn’t feel it was a very engaging play experience.

While AFMP is no longer being updated or supported, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict has been working with game developers on another computer game, People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance.

People Power is about politics, about strategy and about social change. As a leader of a popular movement you fight against tough adversaries who control the police, the army and bureaucracy, even the media. The only weapon in your hand is your strategic skill and ingenuity.

People Power is more than a game. It’s an opportunity to join a community of others who want to learn about civil resistance and nonviolent strategies. Everyone can design scenarios and post them on the scenario page, available to the whole community. With this first edition, you are invited to participate in our ‘Open Beta’ phase of development. Play the game, then send us your comments, suggestions, and criticism. You will become part of the team, working to improve the game and make it more useful to more players. On our Forum, you can exchange ideas with other players and scenario writers.

While People Power retains some of the elements of the new game (researching the political context, analyzing social networks to build support, assigning activists to task, and so forth), it also differs in many respects too. Gone is the old city setting, and indeed most of the fancier graphics. The game also has a more open architecture, allowing users to more easily author their own scenarios. the game also runs on both PCs and Macs.

On this occasion, we’ve assigned the review to an in-house special reviewer (that is to say, literally in my house): undergraduate political science student and avid computer game player David Brynen.

People Power is easy to use. It has a simple interface. The tutorial is rather wordy, yet effective and covers all the important features in the game. The game itself is mainly scheduling different orders (tactics) and then checking how much momentum they generate,  as well as their effect on the general population and certain individuals whom you may be trying to influence. For more specificity the player can view demographics of different regions, to see where some tactics would be best used. Strangely I found that some tactics seemed to have the same outcome regardless, with concerts, picketing and protests usually the most successful.

A nice touch is the different personalities and various backgrounds of the characters. For example, certain characters are better at giving speeches and dealing directly with the public, while others may be better at organizing events.

Certain tactics such as concerts can be used an unlimited amount which seemed quite unrealistic (holding a concert to raise awareness over recycling, or organizing a large protest outside a garbage contractor everyday or every few days is unrealistic, yet very effective in the game). Instead, it would be better to allow only a limited number of important events to use each month.

The game’s main drawback main fault is that it also becomes very repetitive, basically issuing the same orders over and over again until you achieve victory  (which isn’t always outlined well and seems to take a VERY long time to achieve).

I started out quite impressed and motivated by People Power’s tutorial story. Unfortunately, after the first 10 turns or so, the game started to get very repetitive. It often seemed that 90% of the game was clicking between three things; ordering your volunteers and agents to do various tasks like fundraising or write letters asking for support; checking to see your actions overall impact; and finally seeing whether or not your actions have influenced any individuals or organizations to support your cause, which was in my case to pass municipal recycling legislation. In addition, the game seems to drag on an awfully long time with very few changes. Although I once had my group’s momentum’s meter at 96 (out of 100) and the regime’s viability below 50, I did not receive any kind of reward or feedback marking my process.

Overall I would not recommend this game to a class, in large part due because the repetition takes away from the game’s political and educational motives. I don’t believe that it is immersive or interesting enough to keep one engaged, and after awhile it feels robotic to just go through the scenario’s motions of clicking to give your volunteers orders, clicking the “next turn” button and checking to see the results hundreds of times.

David Brynen

The game does a good job, it must be said, of offering the user useful description of the strengths and weaknesses of the various options in real world settings, even if the immediate impact on game play isn’t always obvious. According the the website the game is still in its “open Beta” version, which means that perhaps some of these issues of immersiveness, player engagement, and motivation will be addressed in later versions.

Connections 2011 AAR

I’m just back from having attended the Connections 2011 conference in Washington DC. Connections is a wargaming conference that brings together people across the wargaming community: professional wargamers in the military and government, hobby game designers, and academics. It is now in its 18th year, and was being hosted this year (and very well too!) by the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at the National Defense University.

This year also marks the 200th anniversary of modern wargaming, hence the conference subtitle: “The Next 200 Years of Wargaming, Expanding Our Scope.”

I had originally planned to (semi-) liveblog the event, but I didn’t have net access during the sessions. Brant Gwillalory* did, however, and once again he’s scooped PAXsims by summarizing the discussions over at Grog News. Moreover, my notes below can’t possibly do full service to the very rich discussion (although I’m fully capable of listening, typing, and thinking, I’m not always so great at doing all three at once). Other conference participants, therefore, are positively encouraged to offer corrections or to add their own thoughts to via the blog comments.

Many of the conference presentations made at Connections will eventually appear on the Connections website.

About eighty people registered for the conference, together with what sounded like a wargaming cricket in the NDU ventilation system who merrily chirped through many of the presentations on the first day.

The opening remarks by Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau emphasized the dangers of assuming that we know all of the answers to contemporary strategic and policy issues, and she highlighted the role of wargaming in illuminating what we don’t know. She certainly got off on the right foot with the audience by describing gaming geeks as “collective geniuses” who could help to explore nonconventional and emerging military and strategic challenges. (Clearly she hasn’t seen a group of wargamers trying to decide where to go for dinner.) Indeed, much of the rest of the conference would be devoted to the development of the discipline to explore new challenges.

Keynote addresses were provided by two very influential figures in modern wargaming, James Dunnigan and Peter Perla. Discussing the evolution of wargaming, Dunnigan noted that wargaming was actually very much older than 200 years, but that it had been Prussian Kriegsspiel that first captured and recorded the process and helped it to transition into a modern, scientific age. This was further advanced through the development of operations research in the 20th century. Wargaming also became a commercialized hobby. Hobby wargames/boardgames, he noted, represented simulation tool kits and testbeds, generating approaches (rules, models, approaches) that could be built upon.

He also highlighted a range of other issues. He stressed the need to keep games accessible; the importance of game validation in professional context; and the need to design games around demand. He also highlighted the challenge of gamers “speaking truth to power” and challenging preconceived notions.  Finally, he suggested that “Wargames find the truth and they organize it.”

The latter comment, pleasing as it might be to a wargaming audience, did deserve some further exploration.  Do wargames necessarily do this? It seems to me that they have all sorts of potential liabilities too. They can easily reproduce conventional wisdom. They can generate unconventional wisdoms based on artifacts of a poor game design. While one can emphasize the importance of validation, validation become increasingly difficult as we move away from known physics models (what are the probabilities of detecting, hitting, destroying the target at range X under conditions Y?”) and towards fuzzier social, political, and cultural dynamics that are less well known, especially as we project these into the future.

Peter Perla talked about “once and future kriegsspiel: whither wargaming?” He started by discussing the origins of Kriegsspiel, and the ways in which it increasingly integrated early operations research on weapon effects. The success of this, however, wasn’t necessarily rooted in the detailed game mechanics, but rather the game experience in the minds of the players.

However, kriegsspiel rapidly grew more complex, with a focus on data and models—and as such, more ponderous, imaginative, and engaging. Indeed, the subsequent development of free kriegsspiel (with umpire adjudication replacing tables) was a reaction to this.

All of this led to reflection on the “dual nature” of wargaming, namely the tension between realism and playability.

Perla also noted that despite predictions of the death of hobby wargaming, it continues to evolve. He highlighted some of the more interesting aspects of commercial game production, the use of games in the classroom, and the evolution of military boardgaming.

Further commentary was offered by NDU’s Richard Andres. He offered three valuable perspectives:

  • First, in discussing his own evolution as a hobby wargamer, he noted that playing, tweaking, and designing wargames and RPGs led him to start thinking about probabilities and dynamic interaction. He raised the issue of whether a younger generation, having grown up with computer games that are much more difficult to mod, may have lost access to some of this useful experience of the “paper wargames” age.
  • Second, he discussed the value of using games in the classroom—and the need for them to be both relatively simple and highly engaging. They also need to be fundamentally linked to learning objectives.
  • Finally, Anders also raised the issue of what wargamers can do to explore, address, and attenuate the politics of policymaking, in a context of bureaucratic rent- and –autonomy seeking. He highlighted the value of games in creating an arena for dialogue. To do this may a shuffling of the rank of participants (with mid-seniority participants potentially more willing to share information or think outside the box). It can also be useful to encourage public briefing of game discussions; to create a sense of excitement (“you have to be an entertainer”); to allow participants to address sensitive issues through hypotheticals; and to think explicitly how best to balance the demands of publicity and privacy.

Advances in Wargaming

The second panel of the conference examined “advances in wargaming,” featuring Brant Guiloriii*, Joe Miranda, Roger Mason, Volke Ruhnke, and Brian Train.

Joe Miranda (who has now passed Jim Dunnigan as the most published wargame designer) discussed his experience in modeling insurgency in game design. Doing so, he drew upon his experience as a designer with games like Nicaragua (which heavily focused on the “subsystems” of insurgency), Holy War: Afghanistan (with random chit draw being used to emphasize chaos), Battle for Baghdad (which stresses multiple players and asymmetrical win conditions) and the forthcoming BCT Kandahar (which emphasizes military staff management of COIN operations).

Roger Mason talked about how to develop and sell game ideas. To do this, he suggested, you need to:

  • Find new clients—which can include organizations outside the usual military domain that need to develop critical decision-making skills. This doesn’t mean going head-to-head against the Booz Allen Hamiltons of the world, but rather by partnering with local groups that offer public training (and keep it simple—meaning learnable in 5 minutes, and playable in a 2 hour session).
  • Engaging games include a competitive factor, a social factor, and suspense/uncertainty factor.
  • Games can be sold to clients by emphasizing how they improve the quality of training; offer the ability to evaluate a proposed course of action; and offer an opportunity to assess the knowledge of personnel.

Volko Ruhnke discussed how games address politics in unconventional warfare, and especially the use of terrorism by non-state actors. He started by emphasizing the importance of inviting students/participants “into” the game design to critique the assumptions of the game model. Computerized gaming, he noted, risks opacity by hiding the assumptions from the player. He also showed how relatively simple games could be used to encourage critical thinking skills. Turning to the issue of terrorism specifically, he discussed the use in current intelligence community training of three (modified) commercial games: Brian Train’s Algeria, his own Labyrinth, and the forthcoming game Andean Abyss. In each game, the rationale and purposes of terrorism are treated rather differently. This in turn provides the foundation for a discussion among students as to the roots of terror—intimidation, fund-raising, denial of control, etc.—and also a discussion and critique of how the various games have chosen to address this.

Brian Train talked about the evolution of his insurgency/COIN boardgame designs (all of which use a somewhat similar core system), and the rationales that have underpinned these. In Tupamaro he choose not to allocate a clearly-defined period of time to each turn, and used a non-representational map of key social/economic sectors. Central to the game is the cascade effect of kinetic and non-kinetic actions. Space doesn’t allow a full discussion of all the game design points that Brian made about this and subsequent games such as Shining Path, SomaliaAlgeria, and his unpublished Kandahar (including how and why the game system was modified to appropriately address different conflicts), but it is well worth reading through his detailed slides when they’re available.

In subsequent discussion, Brian raised the idea (in the context of insurgency/COIN games) of games in which not only are the opponent’s (or opponents’) victory conditions vague, but the various victory conditions themselves might change mid-game. Great idea!

Anticipating the Future

Bob Barker (formerly of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research) discussed educational wargaming, including the use of commercial (computer) strategy wargames. He emphasized the improvement in strategic and combat simulation AI, and how this increased the potential utility of such games.

Chris Weave (formerly CNA and the Naval War College, now elsewhere at DoD) offered a “idiosyncratic view” of wargaming at the Naval War College and the development of a new maritime strategy. The “strategic foundations game” looked out to a timeframe of 5/10/15/20 years, and involved six events and a two-move wargame over two months, plus follow-ons. Not all of the participants were fully aware that they were in a game, but rather some sessions were framed as workshops. The first events and Move One generated scenario vignettes for Move Two for five “red strategic entities” (China, Pakistan, Iran, Salafists, North Korea). A series of Blue grand strategies were also identified to help frame Blue’s responses. Analysis of all this fed into a NWC maritime strategy options paper, and a series of maritime strategy options that provided a menu for senior policymakers to consider in their own deliberations.

Rocky Rochford (USN) talked about a proposed Global Engagement system for supporting slow-motion distributed wargames (one move per month) that would attempt to balance between “game time” and participants’ “day jobs.”

Expanding the Application of  Wargaming

Garth Jensen (Naval Surface Warfare Center) provided a presentation on MMOWGLI, which we’ve previously covered extensively on PAXsims (here and here and here).

Larry Bond (author and developer of the well-known Harpoon series of miniatures rules and computer game) talked about the development of his recent Persian Incursion boardgame, which explores a possible Israeli strike against Iran’s emerging nuclear capacity. It is a very interesting-looking game (and has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few months now, awaiting play), with a political/diplomatic dimension coupled with quite detailed modeling of the actual airstrikes. One significant aspect of his presentation is how much open source information is now available for commercial and hobby game designers, including imagery from Google Earth.

Steve Weber (USAF) offered an overview of the Air Force Future Capabilities wargame. This “fights” both the current projected US force and an alternative force structure against a Red opponent to draw lessons for future force development and acquisition. He argued that the Air Force didn’t have strong wargaming tradition, nor did it necessary have a strong, unified sense of mission—both of which further complicated future-oriented wargaming. He also highlighted the continuing challenges of wargame adjudication.

Skip Cole (formerly with USIP, now Sea Change Simulations) delivered an excellent presentation on the Open Simulation Platform.

Towards More Comprehensive Wargame Adjudication

The ever-amusing Stephen Downes-Martin talked about the “Adjudication: The Diabolus in Machina of Wargaming.” It was an enormously rich presentation, and my summary really doesn’t do it justice. He highlighted the particular challenge of adjudication forward-looking wargames that address complex political, social, and military issues, such as counter-insurgency in Afghanistan (famously portrayed in the powerpoint slide at the right).

This is not “deductive” gaming, in which performance can be determined from physics models and known weapons capabilities. Rather, adjudicators are being asked to predict and adjudicate outcomes of highly complex (and possibly poorly understood) social dynamics—a potential problem of the blind leading the blind. Moreover, adjudicators have essentially joined the game while retaining their role as umpires.

He suggested that game design in these areas should more systematically collect and analyze data on adjudicator actions.

Rich Phares (Booz Allen Hamilton) talked about variations in adjudication, asking “why we adjudicate”:

  • players want to know “how they did”
  • clients want answers to their questions
  • someone (clients/players/sponsors) wants to know if anything important happened, and whether further gaming or other activities might generate additional insight
  • to achieve closure

Mike Markowitz (CNA) examined “wargaming the future and the future of wargaming.” He started by noting that while wargamers often get things right, they even more often get things wrong. He suggested several major reasons for game failure:

  • Flawed combat models. Combat isn’t just about physics, engineering, and proving ground data, however—it is also a human event, in which psychology and perceptions matter.
  • The “edge of map” and framing errors that constrain thinking. The critical dynamics may not be in the space that we expected, and may even be non-spatial.
  • Mirror-imaging. The opponent may not think like us.
  • Asymmetries.
  • Wishful thinking (especially “techno-triumphalism”). (“Leaders are optimists. Planners are pessimists. Operators are paranoid. Analysts are paranoid pessimists.”)
  • Premature closure. Conflict may drag on, even be intractable. The wargame needs to be over by 4:30.
  • He also highlighted what he thought were four excellent commercial wargames: Persian Incursion, Next War: KoreaRed Dragon Rising, and  Battle for Baghdad.

In discussion, I noted two concerns. First, we need to push the envelope more on encouraging professional diversity in designers, adjudicators, and players. This means not simply inviting a token NGO person along for the game, but more fundamentally involving development, diplomatic, civil society actors, and others in the process. Second, we also need to be wary of the equally dangerous opposite of mirror-imaging: cultural stereotyping, whereby we assume that the “other” uniformly behaves according to a preprogrammed cultural script.

Future of Armed Conflicts

Over lunch on Wednesday John Greshem provided an overview of the strategic situation in 2010-11. With regard to the Middle East we were told that: 1) the Arab Spring was little more than a figment of exaggerated media coverage, 2) Hizbullah might take over the Syrian government, 3) US air strikes and drone attacks in Yemen have become a “daily” affair, and 4) Iron Dome and Trophy have had a dramatic impact on Israel’s strategic position, aborting a planned Hizbullah military attack. My own professional call on those would be: 1) no, you’ve missed something important 2) now that’s really silly, 3) no, that’s wildly exaggerated, and 4) not really, no.

Breakout Groups and Brief-Backs

I took part in the break-out group on expanding the application of wargaming. We were tasked with exploring “gaming evangelism”—that is, how wargaming could grow by addressing the needs of new users and issues.

In order to do that, however, it became clear that participants needed to identify what it is they actually did and hence had to offer—and how this differed from everyone else in the serious games community. What was our value-added?

The answer, I think, that wargaming is much more policy- and planning- oriented than most other gaming. It also has much more rigorous traditions of design, validation, adjudication, instrumentation/reporting, and analysis.

On a side note, it was recognized that the “war” part of “wargaming” might be a semantic barrier to broader adoption. As Mark Herman and others have noted, of course, wargaming does not need to address war, or even adversarial situations.

In our discussions we also noted that the contributions of the wargaming community need to be more available and accessible to others. In the media, wargaming is almost always only mentioned in the context of failures/mistakes or dark conspiracies. Part of the problem here, in my view, is that the military rarely discusses wargaming in a non-technical way, and military security and public relations policy acts as a major barrier to easy publication, especially within the large US national security community. One participant referred to this as the problem of the “lumbering beast that prefers to stay within its cave.” Certainly we’ve had PAXsims readers who have declined requests to contribute to the blog on the grounds that the clearance permissions involved within their agency would be too onerous.

In our breakout group and others there was discussion of establishing a professional organization, and/or expanding Connections’ presence between conferences. Personally, I’m not sure one needs formal institutions but rather more effective (facilitated) networking that would help to further build the community of interest and experience.

Another panel discussed towards a more comprehensive adjudication. They split into two subgroups, one of which looked at wargaming PMESII problems (political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information), and the other of which examined the challenges of wargaming future technologies.

With regard to the former, several possible adjudication approaches were identified. One can use available social science models. One can adjudicate on the basis of the worst possible outcome as a way of possible contingencies and future challenges. One can also hyper-game by using multiple Red Cells to try to “break” Blue’s courses of action.

These approaches might force a more holistic, all-of-government approach that addresses the dynamic nature of these sorts of conflicts. Critics (myself included) would argue that the reliance on mathematical social models is problematic, because they are too soft, inaccurate, and have low confidence. The adjudication approaches identified can also be more expensive, and there may be a limited number of qualified personnel.

The issue of how much value social science models, and especially mathematical models, have to offer was hotly debated. Jon Compton argued passionately that their contribution was important but misunderstood: they didn’t offer detailed, point predictions but rather a range of more likely outcomes that could inform adjudication decisions. He had a good point.

With regard to new technologies, the group identified a number of serious challenges in predicting the impact of future technologies (and our often rather poor record in doing so). In terms of adjudication, it might be useful to link this to PMESII considerations, since technology doesn’t emerge or operate in a social and economic vacuum. Repetitive gaming can help reduce uncertainty, and sensitivity analysis can be included. It is also important to recognize that Red is likely to be tracking technology development and deployment and preparing accordingly.

The third breakout group discussed building a wargame profession. A key issue was how one identifies the emerging generation of wargamers (and wargamer users), and brings them into the community of interest. There was also considerable discussion of professionalization, certification, institutionalization, and related issues.

As noted earlier, I’m doubtful of the value of doing too much of this since I think there are easier (and cheaper) ways of promoting more effective networking. Certification, I think, would actually be counter-productive by erecting professional boundaries that would actually make it more difficult to draw upon a broad range of expertise and experience that stretches far outside military wargaming. Professional development opportunities, on the other hand, would be useful. Networking, information-sharing, and opportunities for ongoing “conversation” is essential.

Wargame Demonstrations

During the conference there was an opportunity to view several game/simulation demonstrations, ranging from Brian Train’s simple yet challenging guerilla checkers (which nicely illustrates the concept of asymmetrical warfare in a few minutes), through to much more complex simulations such as NDU’s GEMSTONE counter-insurgency simulation (about which Ellie Bartels was scarily effective at addressing all of my questions).

Several hours were devoted to gaming one evening. There were many tempting opportunities, but in the end I opted to play Volko Ruhnke’s forthcoming boardgame of insurgency and counter-insurgency in Colombia, Andean Abyss. While I’m still not a fan of the title he’s given it, it is an awesome game, especially when playing with the full four players (government, FARC, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels). I’ve stolen the picture of our game from Grog News, since not only does it show the cunning FARC player stockpiling “contributions” from the cartels while awaiting his moment to respond to a recent government offensive, but it also shows Skip Cole’s Columbian drug lord hat in the right foreground.

Overall Thoughts

This was my first Connections conference, and I enjoyed it immensely. The presentations were stimulating, and the participants even more so. Like the NDU roundtables on strategic gaming, it provided a very useful opportunity for professionals to share insights and perspectives.

The conference was also flawlessly organized. Many kudos are deserved by Matt Caffrey, the various panel organizers, and the folks at NDU.

The participants at Connections tend to be weighted heavily towards old school wargaming, which is to say a lot of people who do BOGSATs, table-top and scenario exercises, military wargaming, operations research, and hobby boardgames. It is also heavily military/ex-military and male.

Electronic hobby and serious gaming, on the other hand, tends to be rather underrepresented.  So too does military “simulation and modeling.” In this latter regard, think of it as the anti-I/ITSEC. Even though I’ve often warned about the unintended consequences of the unthinking “technologizing” of simulation and serious gaming, it was a shame that we didn’t have some of the developers on the cutting edge of this in attendance (such as folks from the Institute for Creative Technologies and US Army RDECOM who developed UrbanSim) to highlight some of the value-added of advances in AI, graphics, and interface. Equally, research and practice in the field of “serious games” has taken off exponentially in the past decade, and it would have been interesting to see a few of the scholars and practitioners in the (electronic) serious games community there to offer their own perspectives. Constant cross-fertilization is important, I think,if we’re to avoid what Michael Peck (TSJ) has called the dodo problem. Or perhaps someone could develop a wargames-themed version of Dominant Species.

Since a significant part of our discussions at Connections focussed on how to wargame non-kinetic actions, it would also be interesting to have gaming folks from the humanitarian assistance/development community, diplomats, and others on a panel (preferably those with some gaming experience) to discuss how the professional wargame community can more effectively address their needs and integrate their perspectives into game design.

I certainly hope to be at Connections 2012 next year. Perhaps I’ll see some of you there too.

*Yes, I know how to really spell Brant’s name. However, at PAXsims I think we’re going to continue the Connections tradition of getting his name and/or affliation wrong at every possible opportunity.

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