Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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.

5 responses to “Connections 2011 AAR

  1. Rex Brynen 10/08/2011 at 8:04 pm

    I should have brought all my Russian microarmour, Brian ;)

  2. Brian Train 10/08/2011 at 7:31 pm

    Thanks for the excellent AAR Rex. What a great week that was! It was great to see you in person again, after thirty years.

  3. Swen 06/08/2011 at 12:07 pm

    Simply Awesome ! The energy from the convention can be felt right across the Atlantic.

    Not only have a bunch of eminent geeks been brought together, the highlights mentioned in this blog show that the gathering has already been very fruitful.

    Thank you for sharing this with us who have been, foolishly or otherwise, unable to attend.

  4. Brant 05/08/2011 at 2:56 pm

    “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.”

    Agreed, at this juncture. I wish we could just erase that discussion from everyone’s minds, because that’s all anyone wants to focus on… I mean, it’s not like we didn’t talk about anything else!

  5. Brant 05/08/2011 at 2:42 pm

    “at PAXsims I think we’re going to continue the Connections tradition of getting his name and/or affliation wrong at every possible opportunity”

    Line forms to the left. Seems to be getting longer every day :)

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