Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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.

2 responses to “Michael Peck’s (simulated) Small War

  1. brtrain 29/09/2011 at 1:59 pm

    There’s the takeaway line: “Many hidden assumptions lie underneath UrbanSim’s hood, and a simulation can only be as accurate as those assumptions.” Michael recovers by explaining that UrbanSim is not meant to be an accurate simulation at all, but an exploration of the consequences of decisions made. I can understand why the game’s designer would not want to impose some kind of magic bullet or “DS solution” (not sure what you would call this in the American military) on the structure of the game, but there must have been some decisions made… or is the outcome of every decision in the game purposely randomized to an extent that it doesn’t really matter what you do? I wanna look under the hood!

  2. Skip Cole 06/10/2011 at 9:07 am

    I’m sure that getting the stuff under the hood correct is nigh impossible, but making it as accurate as possible is still a worthy goal.
    What will be really interesting is when simulations like these can be used to determine if a scenario is even ‘winnable.’ COIN is, as I’m sure someone has pointed out, ‘Development at gunpoint.’ Since our experiences with just pure ‘development’ are checked, at best, thinking we have the resources to do it in some places is probably criminally optimistic.

    This was the game I wanted to see written in 2006. It has taken a while but now it is here. Hooray! And I do hope, as Michael makes in his final point, that more games like these work themselves out to the general public. Having a population that understands the costs and potential benefits of helping others (even if it does sometime have to be done at gunpoint) will help us make better decisions, and go into these things – when we decide to do so – with our eyes more open.

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