Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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.

3 responses to “Downes-Martin: Adjudication: the diabolus in machina of wargaming

  1. Rex Brynen 09/08/2011 at 8:50 am

    I must admit, I did think there was something of an uncanny resemblance…

  2. Christopher Weuve 09/08/2011 at 8:12 am

    “The picture at the top right is, of course, the diabolus in machina, not Stephen.” True; Stephen does not have a big pot.

  3. Brant 09/08/2011 at 6:36 am

    “The picture at the top right is, of course, the diabolus in machina, not Stephen.”
    Are you sure?! :)

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