Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: September 2011

Michael Peck’s (simulated) Small War

We’ve discussed Urbansim—the US Army’s “serious game” intended to hone counterinsurgency skills of military officers—several times in the past on PAXsims (such as here and here). Now Michael Peck of the Training & Simulation Journal has had a chance to play it through a few times. He reports on his impressions at Foreign Policy Magazine:

I’m no strategist. I might beat a paper bag at chess if somebody Tasered the bag first. But fighting the Taliban? America would end up speaking Pashto.Yet I write frequently about the U.S. military and video games. And when I had a chance to play an Army game on counterinsurgency — COIN, to the cognoscenti — I couldn’t resist. What happens when the world’s dumbest armchair strategist tries his hand at quelling an insurgency?

UrbanSim is a U.S. Army game that teaches COIN to battalion commanders. Where most Pentagon computer simulations look like spreadsheets and are just as fun to play, UrbanSim, which came out in 2009, resembles the kind of strategy game that many of us enjoy at home. That’s probably because it was developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies, an innovative University of Southern California center funded by the Army and with deep ties to Hollywood and the video-game industry. But though it looks like a militarized version of SimCity, UrbanSim is actually a sophisticated simulation that incorporates factors such as economic conditions and social networking ties, and analyzes how these factors sway the population to back the government or the insurgents….

He concludes:

You can learn a lot about people from the games they play. Twenty years ago, the military might have dismissed a game like UrbanSim as wussy social science. That the Army now uses it to train its next generation of leaders says volumes about how far the military has come toward embracing “soft” concepts like social networking.

So how did this armchair strategist fare at COIN? Probably better than the U.S. military in the first years of the Iraq occupation, but possibly not as good as in the years following the “surge.” I’m still not sure what I learned from UrbanSim. Like many an army commander before me, I never had a firm sense of how my decisions created consequences. Many hidden assumptions lie underneath UrbanSim’s hood, and a simulation can only be as accurate as those assumptions.But accurately simulating the dynamics of an insurgency wasn’t the goal. The point was to begin to understand them. What staggered me was the almost infinite number of possible decisions and consequences in UrbanSim. I could kick down doors, bribe local leaders, smash insurgent cells, and fix sewer lines. But I didn’t have enough resources to do everything, nor could I foresee how each action would help or hinder the other actions.

Tomorrow I will probably read about a battalion commander struggling to simultaneously fight the Taliban, build schools, and establish a rapport with villagers. I can’t fully sympathize with his plight because I have never walked in his shoes (a fortunate thing for all concerned). But I can now understand his dilemma a little better.

If the Army were smart, it would make a game like UrbanSim available to the general public. It won’t change anyone’s mind about the war. But it will give them a greater appreciation for the challenges of counterinsurgency. Believe me: Colonel Noob can use all the help he can get.

Go read the whole thing at the link above.

Virtual Humanity: The Anthropology of Online Worlds

The New York Academy of Sciences is hosting an evening lecture/discussion on the anthropology of online worlds at November 9 (in New York, obviously):

Online games offer immersive, three-dimensional worlds populated by thousands of characters who form intense relationships, functional economies, complex societies, and rich cultures. Often these virtual connections not only mimic real-world interactions but sometimes even supplant them. But just how far can virtual worlds take us?

For this third installment of our fall series, Science & the City is bringing together an anthropologist and an online game designer to discuss how our humanity shapes, and is shaped by, our virtual experiences.

Join Thomas M. Malaby of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and Lee T. Guzofski of G2G Enterprises on November 9 for this timely discussion about the ways in which natural reality blends and blurs with the virtual reality of online games.


The Serious Game Expo will be held on 21-22 November 2011 in Lyon, France:

Serious Game Expo is the place to be for Serious Game developers in France and in Europe. 2010 Editions hosted more than 800 visitors and 30 exhibitors.

Developers of serious games, games for learning and advergames will show you their expertise. Come and meet the best specialized experts of the sector: they will present and analyze the trend of the industry.

Unveil the success behind serious games. Meet your future customers and test all possibilities of this revolutionary tool for training and communication.

You’ll find further information here.

Warco: A war correspondent videogame

This looks very clever indeed—a contemporary first-person shooter game that isn’t about killing, but rather about reporting on a conflict. Quite apart from providing a very different player experience, Warco could well illuminate the difficult practical, moral, security, political and other dilemmas faced by journalists in the field. According to a new article at Wired and Ars Techina:

Warco is a first-person game where players shoot footage instead of a gun. A work in progress at Brisbane-based studio Defiant Development, the game is a collaboration of sorts; Defiant is working with both a journalist and a filmmaker to create a game that puts you in the role of a journalist embedded in a warzone. Ars spoke with Defiant’s Morgan Jaffit to learn more about this political game disguised as an FPS.

The game itself—the title of which is actually short for “war correspondent”—follows the story of journalist Jesse DeMarco. Players will experience the process of filming conflicts, going into dangerous situations armed with nothing but a camera. They will then edit the footage into a compelling news story. The scenarios range from intense bursts of action to quieter moments as you discuss the events of the day with fellow journalists in a hotel. Though the main mechanic will be filming the action, Warco is also very much about choice.

“It’s also about navigating through a morally gray world and making decisions that have human impact,” he explained. “It’s about finding the story you want to tell, as each of our environments is filled with different story elements you can film and combine in your own ways. It’s both a story telling engine and an action adventure with a new perspective.”

The scenarios are designed to mirror the recent tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa, in situations cribbed from Maniaty’s real-world experiences in the field.

Warco has been in development for four months and Defiant is currently in talks with several publishers to try and bring the game to a wide audience. When that will actually happen, and on what platforms, hasn’t yet been determined….

There is also more coverage at Gamasutra:

But Warco‘s not all about dodging incoming fire while filming, either. Jaffit described potential missions could involve driving around town and watching how troops interact with civilians, talking with fellow journalists while trapped in a hotel, or being escorted into a rebel camp for an interview with a leader that might not be too happy with your previous reports.

Jaffit said players will be encouraged to explore the game’s series of “linked sandboxes” to find secondary and hidden objectives as well. For example, stealthier players may find themselves sneaking around to film a handoff with an arms dealer, uncovering secret NATO support for one side of the conflict.

“We’re all about light and shade,” Jaffit said. “There’s definitely a place for action and the threat of death from troops on the field, but we’re also very much about those narrative moments when the threat is less immediate and you’re focused on the narrative and the people involved.”

“We would love to catch the quiet moments,” he continued. “If you watch news footage, if you watch a war documentary, if you watch a war movie, the parts where people are shooting at each other are smaller part of the narrative, an in a lot of ways they’re not the most interesting parts,” he continued.

It sounds like the kind of serious game that a university might put out as a free training simulation, but Jaffit is adamant that this new kind of war game experience can find an audience in the retail market.

Screen shots and other information can be found at the website of the game developer, Defiant Development. When it is released, perhaps we can even round up a few journalists to write a PAXsims review.

h/t @tahnok

Journal of Virtual Worlds Research

The latest (September 2011) issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research is all about government and military applications of virtual worlds:

Research Papers

  •  Applied Virtual Environments: Applications of Virtual Environments to Government, Military and Business Organizations
    • Patrick D. Allen, Chris C. Demchak
  • Virtual nation branding: the Swedish embassy in Second Life
    • Stina Bengtsson
  • MuniGov 2.0, A New Residency Requirement: Local Government Professionals in Second Life
    • Ines A Mergel, Michelle Gardner, Pamela Broviak, William Greeves
  • Virtual Reality and the Criminal Justice System: New Possibilities for Research, Training, and Rehabilitation
    • Bobbie Ticknor, Sherry Tillinghast

Research-in-brief Papers

  • Avatars and Security Clearances: How can we reconcile the two?
    • Michael P Cummins
  • Two Navy Virtual World Collaboration Applications: Rapid Prototyping and Concept of Operations Experimentation
    • Douglas Maxwell, Steven Aguiar, Philip Monte, Diana Nolan

“Think pieces”

  • Avatars as the first manifestation of geo-politically unconstrained global citizens
    • Randy J. Hinrichs

You’ll find the full articles (as pdfs) at the journal link above.

Serious gaming miscellany

A few recent items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

The First International World Peace Game–Bergen
Following the World Peace Game Academy at the Darden Business School in Charlottesville, Virginia, I flew to Bergen, Norway for the first International World Peace Game. 27 adults and teenagers gathered for the 5-day event where, once again, world peace was achieved.

The sponsors, including the European Youth Initiative, built the 4-level game board according to my specifications and I supplied the game pieces and crisis algorithm. National television and newspapers covered the event and gaming analysts were present to observe the process. Here are some sites and highlights, from our Norwegian experience:

CFP: APSA Teaching & Learning Conference 2012

The American Political Science Association is currently calling for paper and panel proposals for its annual Teaching & Learning Conference, to be held  17-19 February 2012 in Washington DC. As always, the TLC includes a track on simulations and roleplay:

Simulations and Role Play
Simulations and role play exercises help political scientists and students model the decision making processes of real-world political actors. Examples of these teaching techniques and strategies include Model United Nations, Model European Union, in-class self designed simulations, and on-line role playing exercises. Papers in this track will address such topics as: in what way can simulations and role-play expand student learning opportunities in political science? Which formats are most effective? and How do we measure the effectiveness of simulations?

Proposals are due on or before September 23—you will find more information at the first link above.


Review: Fate of the World

Fate of the World. Red Redemption, 2011. $9.99. Available for MS Windows and Mac OS.

* * *

I  had been intending for some time to do a review of the environmental management computer game Fate of the World, which was released earlier this year by the serious game developers at Red Redemption. Red Redemption had also been responsible for the BBC’s earlier browser-based global warming game, Climate Change (2006).

Further prompting me to have a look was the recent news that the game had won a Silver Medal at the 2011 International Serious Play Awards, and that FOX News had attacked the game (and other environmentally-themed games) for pushing an alarmist liberal environmental agenda onto defenceless children. What’s not to love?

In this particular case, three of us actually did the reviewing: myself, political science student (and avid video/computer game player) David Brynen, and liberal arts student (and equally avid game player) Chloe Brynen. Although we all played through the game separately and deliberately didn’t discuss our impressions until after we had finished, we came to generally similar conclusions.

Chloe—as usual—didn’t mince words in offering her assessment Fate of the World:

It’s commonplace to see current tends, worries and crises reflected within today’s games as the medium continues to enter the mainstream. However, if educational gaming is the way of the future, Fate of the World is not the herald of this new wave. With some clunky interface issues, frustrating game play and a vertical learning curve, this educational game has a long way to go.

Presentation & Interface

Fate of the World definitely falls short in the interface department, although the bulk of the issues seem like they would be relatively quick fixes (which makes them all the more puzzling). There is an in-game encyclopedia, where curious players can look up the plethora of environmental and political terminology used within the game.  However, this encyclopedia is oddly inaccessible. Instead of linking it to the cards where these terms appear, one has to go back to the global menu and access it there; it’s not even directly accessible when the player is “zoomed” into a region. While this difference may only seem to take up a couple of clicks, it’s frustrating and discourages the player from looking up terms they don’t understand. Furthermore, there is no search function for the encyclopedia.

Some of the art direction in the game is a little bizarre; the logo – which features bird wings, rain (or tear?) drops and slashes of blood – is anything but attractive. Everything in Fate of the World seems designed to keep you at an arm’s length – the entire mechanic of reducing political, environmental and technological decisions into playing card further abstracts the experience. Nothing draws you in, and the whole situation feels fake and uninviting.


There is a stark difference between a game with difficult gameplay and a poorly explained game; Fate of the World falls into the latter camp.

Fate of the World doesn’t have a tutorial. Instead, it has an opening mission, with a more manageable goal and access to two regions (north and south Africa). The game offers a few pointers during this introduction, and then abruptly stops. There are no instructions or help beyond where to enlist agents, and a couple suggestions of cards to play. The difficulty curve becomes apparent during the second mission, when you’re given access to the entire world without any direction or help. It would have been helpful to either implement difficulty settings, or an “advisor” who could provide players with tips. Icons would pop on my global screen, and I still don’t know what their purpose is. In the tutorial department, Fate of the World could have learned a lot from the Civilization series. Difficulty shouldn’t involve poor game mechanics or no in-game help; difficulty should be a reflection of deep game scenarios and smart AI or mechanics.

In addition to the game’s difficulty, the links between world events (as presented in the “news” tab of the game) and your policies are not always apparent. This makes it difficult to gage the success and usefulness of your laws.

In Fate of the World you are given a selection of missions to complete. Each mission has a primary objective (lower emissions to x, etc), which you much achieve within certain parameters (HDI cannot fall below 0.7, etc). A sort of sandbox mode would have been an excellent way to encourage experimentation with policies, and would have helped mitigate the damage of no tutorial by encouraging experimentation in a free scenario. However, there is no such mode, which again stifles the player’s curiosity. By only allowing the player to operate within concrete parameters, Fate of the World punishes experimentation.

The politics of Fate of the World also seem bizarre and artificial. You play as an imaginary organization called the GEO (Global Environmental organization), which has an absurd amount of power. I was able to ban oil on a global scale, forcibly and secretly sterilize regions, declare martial law and unseat regimes. The game balances your power somewhat by implementing an “approval rating” scale per region: if you become too unpopular in a region, you can be ousted for a few decades. However, some of the policies you have at your disposal have strange approval ratings attached to them, and I was surprised to see that my liberal use of the “martial law” card had a positive impact on my approval ratings.

Due in part to the learning curve, the game is also boring. With its sterile “playing card” system and lack of concrete feedback, it’s easy to fall into the rut of simply spamming policies and crossing your fingers.


Fate of the World is a valiant effort, but at the end of the day, it’s just that: an effort. It falls short in several departments, and classroom or personal time would be better spent watching a documentary on the subject. Muddled visuals, counter-intuitive interface and shoddy gameplay all leave Fate of the World feeling flat and unsuccessful.

David was also disappointed by the poor in-game tutorial, but was somewhat more positive in his overall assessment:

Fate of the World puts the player in the future year 2020, in control of an omnipotent organization called the Global Environmental Organization (GEO) . In various regions of the world, the GEO has  the ability to set important policies such as technology development, environmental regulations, economic measures, and health and education programs.

Fate of the World offers player missions of varying length, each of which sets specific goals such as advancing Africa’s Human Development Index and mitigating the effects global warming. The game revolves around numerous actions that are triggered each turn (five years) by playing cards in each of the twelve regions of the world. The cards are effectively orders that you, as leader of GEO, issue to your agents in each of these areas. The action cards are broken down into six groups: political, society, technology, environment, resources, and projects.  Each card costs money and personnel (agents), both of which are quite limited in the game, and become quite hard to manage when all areas of the world are set to playable and upwards of 20 actions must be ordered each turn. Certain actions may make a region friendlier towards GEO, or have the opposite effect by decreasing that region’s favorability rating towards you. It is important to choose your actions wisely, as GEO can be temporarily banned from an area if it ignores an its needs or issues orders which anger the local population or lead to adverse consequences.

Ascetically the game looks very good. Menus and windows are vibrantly colored, while the world map is detailed. The player has the opportunity to view pollution and population hotspots as an overlay on the globe, which not only looks nice, but can also be very handy when seeing where to distribute your resources.

One of the best things about Fate of the World is that there is such a wide variety of actions which can be performed. Each of the six groups have numerous cards with varying costs, some of which will be low risk-low reward, or high risk but high reward. One thing with the card system I found a little strange, however, was the overwhelming power of some of them. For instance, GEO was able to often quell an unstable region by simply issuing a “martial law” card. Most of the time issuing this particular card had little or no other negative consequences. The cards also could have done with more description instead of just one or two sentences

Probably the main negative about this game is its length as well and difficulty—or rather the lack of player engagement and motivation that makes game play seem rather tedious and repetitive to play. Similar to the previously-reviewed People Power, after a few turns the game becomes somewhat boring as ones issues orders and then sees (or tries to see) their effects. In regards to the difficulty, even the “tutorial” mission was very difficult and took me numerous tries. For example, in another mission, once I was able to develop or stabilize one region, another one became destabilized very quickly for no apparent reason. It was not uncommon to see armed conflicts break out in numerous continents in one turn sometimes in regions with the highest HDI, which would prevent me from achieving my victory conditions.

In addition, the game has a very poor tutorial and awkward interface which will confuse many players at first. Apart from a few pop-ups in the first turn in the tutorial (which direct you where to click and give a brief introduction to the game’s main features) you are left on your own for the rest of your missions. You will likely have to proceed via trial and error for your first play-through of the initial mission to get a better understand of how the game actually works.

Despite the negatives, I think that Fate of the World could be a useful teaching tool. This is in large part because, despite being set in the future, the game deals with numerous contemporary problems, such as environmental degredation, economic imbalances, and political instability. Although the game’s premise is highly unrealistic in the sense that one organization can manipulate the world as they please, Fate of the World does give the player numerous potential approaches to address a wide variety of challenges, something which might force users to think critically about how to proceed while minimizing negative ramifications—thus resolving some of the problems faced by the leaders of today.

My own impression was that as a serious game, Fate of the World rather fell between two stools—of, perhaps, somewhat missed them both entirely. As a game it is not particularly engaging, and I don’t think it will hold the attention of youth or adults who have rather more interesting computer games available for the electronic entertainment. At the same time, I don’t think the game does a very good job of communicating cause-and-effect, linkages, or the substance of various possible policy options (information on which is buried in a place most students won’t bother to check). As both Chloe and David noted, the in-game tutorial is very poor, an especially serious deficiency for a game that is intended to serve a serious educational purpose.

As I post this, Fate of the World has a 72% rating on Metacritic, from 10 reviews. As is probably clear from the discussion above, we think that is a little high.

I’m in two minds about the way politics is dealt with in the game. On the one hand, the existence of a fictional, all-powerful Global Environmental Organization allows players to try out a broad range of policy instruments that, in real life, are impeded by the morass of local, national, and multilateral politics and resource constraints. After all, playing an accurate simulation of the stultifying incrementalisms and frustrating compromises of the 2009 UN (Copenhagen) Climate Change Conference would likely drive most gamers into committing mass self-extinction. On the other hand, players can well learn the wrong lessons about global environmental politics from Fate of the World while failing to appreciate the complexities of international cooperation upon which effective action against global warming and other challenges must be based.

For educators considering use of this game in the classroom, I would think that you could probably achieve more learning through 3-4 hours of conventional lectures than you could through having students undertake 3-4 hours of game play. It would work, however, as a “book review” assignment in which students are expected to use classroom knowledge and background research to inform a critical assessment of the games strengths and weaknesses.

Simulation & Gaming (August 2011)

The latest issue of Simulation& Gaming 42, 4 (August 2011) is now available online. The issue focuses history, teaching history, and simulation/gaming, and  has much that will be of interest to PAXsims readers:

War Games: A Short History

Foreign Policy magazine this month features an article on War Games: A Short History. Oddly, it seems to entirely miss the emergence and evolution of commercial, hobby wargaming—although it does talk about videogames:

 Ever since the first warrior picked up a wooden stick in imitation of a sword, the line between war and entertainment has been decidedly blurry. Military training in ancient Greece and chivalric Europe gave rise to the Olympics and medieval jousting tournaments; paintball guns and video games have become tools for honing the skills of today’s soldiers. The realm of strategy, however, is where games have exerted the most remarkable impact on the conduct of war, serving as a tool for, as one U.S. Army general put it, “writing history in advance.”

Over at Wargaming Connection, Brant Guillory comments that the article “manages to miss so many things that we would’ve considered “major” developments in the history of wargaming.” He’s right, too–among other things, the Foreign Policy piece pretty much omits the entire history of commercial, hobby wargaming (other than a few video game  references).

If you want a much more informed and useful account, go pick up a copy of Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming instead.

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