Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: November 2011

Defense GameTech 2012

Registration is now open for the Defense GameTech 2012 conference, to be held in Orlando on 26-30 March 2012:

Defense GameTech User’s Conference Goals:

  • Advance game technology and its use within the Department of Defense
  • Provide a forum for DoD game technology users to exchange ideas and experience new technologies
  • Inform/Educate/Train DoD personnel on the use of game technology for military training

Defense GameTech Users’ Conference Objectives:

  • Provide tutorials for DoD personnel that maximize their ability to use game technology fielded within DoD
  • Provide DoD personnel an update on industry/academia gaming, virtual world, and mobile application trends
  • Provide community at large an update on DoD gaming, virtual world, and mobile application projects

The slogan of the conference is leveling up to improve warfighter performance, which is further evidence that we need a Comprehensive Ban on Silly Game-Related Metaphors in Serious Game-Related Conferences and Discussions. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before someone subtitles a conference dodging gorilla-propelled barrels for a better tomorrow.

If any PAXsims regular reader will be attending and would be interesting in submitting a report after the event, drop us an email. After all, you’ll be buffing the clan for epic pwnage. w00t!

Game plots and the global recession


Over at the electronic gaming website Kotaku, they ask some interesting questions about whether the current global recession will increasingly feature as a plot element in computer and video games:

Would you shoot someone responsible for America’s horrible housing market? Would you like to? What if you met his wife and kid first?

How did we get here, and where are we going? What happens when the 99% rise up, and more to the point, how happy will you be to play a video game that casts you as one of them? Or what if you’re playing as a police officer, an enforcer of the status quo?

The recent economic recession—and its fallout—looms over most everything these days, and video games are starting to reflect that. From Grand Theft Auto V to the newest Rainbow 6, it’s looking as though amid the zombies, aliens, cops and foreign soldiers we’ll be fighting, it’s the economy that will be the next big video game bad guy.

While suggesting that some game publishers might be reluctant to tread upon such political sensitive turf, they also note that others appear willing to do so:

Kaos studio’s Homefront dealt with the economy in its own twisted, interesting way. In the game’s fiction (written by Apocalypse now co-author John Milius), America has lost its world standing due to economic imbalance and a shortage of oil, and as a result has become susceptible to foreign invasion. The main character is cast as an insurgent, the very same sort of “freedom fighter” that other war games label as terrorists. The game was a bit of a flop, but it’s heartening to hear that acclaimed developer Crytek has assumed the reins of the franchise. Kaos was playing with some very compelling stuff: What makes an insurgent? What drives us to acts of terrorism? What does it mean to truly have nothing to lose? One can’t help but hope that Crytek will explore those questions further.

What will we do when pitted against an enemy with whose cause we may sympathize?

Terrorists make for effective cannon fodder in games, but as villains, they can be difficult to write. One of the easiest ways to give a character or group of characters depth is by adding backstory—you know, “why did the chicken cross the road?” But with terrorists, it’s a bit more difficult to write motivation. For various reasons, religious beliefs are generally off the table with big-budget games, so most video game terrorist groups are motivated by some sort of vague anger at America and the West for imperialistic tendencies. And most if not all modern-day military shooters are perfectly content to avoid these sorts of questions entirely, often by putting some sort of Bond-ian villain behind it all. How many games have crudely taped a megalomaniacal mastermind and an army of “Russian Ultranationalists” onto their story in an attempt to give Western gamers a more palatable enemy to kill?

Ubisoft’s just-announced Rainbow 6: Patriots also features terrorists, but with a recession-flavored twist: they’re fueled by rage at the nation’s economic elite and have risen up and begun destroying national landmarks. At the start of a new video of prototype gameplay, a man and his family are taken hostage by terrorists who tell him, “You really did cash in on everyone else getting foreclosed, didn’t you? Today you’re going to make up for that.”

In the game itself, players will be controlling law enforcers facing an armed uprising. It echoes real life in ways that may be uncomfortable to acknowledge—what will we do when pitted against an enemy with whose cause we may sympathize? As I imagine a law-enforcement or SWAT video game based on the recent Occupy Oakland protests, I have to wonder: would players be cast as beleaguered public servants trying to do their best or thejackbooted thugs who violently put down dissent?

Economic anger feels intense and relatable, and it can make games more believable, complex, and scary. It remains to be seen whether economic issues will merely be the latest window dressing for video game carnage, or whether some developers and writers will choose to go deeper.

Certainly we’ve seen this theme in a few boardgames, even before the current recession—see, for example, Joe Miranda’s Crisis 2020: America Divided (Victory Point Games) or, on a more tactical level, Brian Train’s Battle of Seattle.

Do wargames glorify war?

Our recent post about the forthcoming documentary War Games helped to spark an interesting discussion on whether wargames glorify war over at BoarGameGeek. While at times the discussion conflates cardboard boardgames and the much more visual, immersive, and seemingly “realistic” genre of first-person-shooter videogames (there seems to me to be rather a difference between the two), there’s much of value there. Look out in particular for some very thoughtful posts by Eric Walters.

We’ve posted a few pieces in the past that touch upon the subject:

The image above is from the controversial (and still unpublished) videogame Six Days in Fallujah.

h/t Gorgoneion (for starting off the BGG discussion)

“War Games” documentary

War Games is a forthcoming documentary by Paul Schilens that examines the interconnections between the military and military videogames:

War Games explores the emotional and controversial effects of war-themed game play while questioning the U.S. military’s involvement with the gaming industry’s development of war and battle simulation. It follows the desire for war simulation from early childhood to adulthood and discusses the accuracy of realism while exploring the central question, ‘Do war games glorify war?’ Veterans, gamers, developers and researchers will discuss their viewpoints on the increased popularity, impact, and future of war games.

The Facebook page for the project is here, but neither it nor the main website have (as of the time of posting) been updated for some months, so the staus of the project is a little unclear.

h/t Matt Kirschenbaum

Simulation & Gaming (October 2011)

A new issue of Simulation & Gaming (October 2011) is now available online, devoted to the theme of Design for Engaging Experience and Social Interaction.


R. Garry Shirts: Simulation Gaming Exemplar
Richard L. Dukes, Sandra M. Fowler, and Bernie DeKoven


MONOPOLY and Critical Theory: Gaming in a Class on the Sociology of Deviance
Maria Paino and Jeffrey Chin

Guest Editorial

Design for Engaging Experience and Social Interaction
Casper Harteveld, Eleonore ten Thij, and Marinka Copier

Symposium Articles

Game Engagement Theory and Adult Learning
Nicola Whitton

Beyond Iconic Simulation
Joris Dormans

Electroencephalographic Assessment of Player Experience: A Pilot Study in Affective Ludology
Lennart E. Nacke, Sophie Stellmach, and Craig A. Lindley

User Experience in Digital Games: Differences Between Laboratory and Home
Jari Takatalo, Jukka Häkkinen, Jyrki Kaistinen, and Göte Nyman

Association News & Notes

Association News & Notes
Songsri Soranastaporn

Israel vs Iran wargame compendium at Wargaming Connection

I’ve pulled together a listing of recent (public domain) wargames regarding Israel and Iran’s nuclear program over at Wargaming Connection. Most of the links have been previously featured here at PAXsims.

If anyone knows of any other reports, feel free to add them in the comments section.

Playing at the Eurozone crisis

How could we have missed this? Last month the European Central Bank has recently launched an iPhone and iPad version of its monetary policy game €conomia.

The actual game is flashy (with catchy music too), but at its core very simple indeed: you simply adjust interest rates to keep inflation under control. That’s it. You needn’t worry about the deficits of Eurozone member states, global economic recession, debt servicing, or a contagious lack of confidence among European bondholders—apparently, that’s all fine. You certainly don’t need to worry about massive bail-outs, European crisis meetings, the IMF, or Greek and Italian domestic politics. Every year, your expert group of European Central Bank officials (pictured below) stand ready to offer you advice.

From the look of them, that may explain something about the current Eurozone crisis…

Ayatollah for a Day (more Israel/Iran simulation)

I missed it when it first came out (largely because I was locked away in a SCIF that day discussing things Middle Eastern), but Karim Sajadpour had a piece in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month discussing his role as a (simulated) Ayatollah Khamenei during the Brookings Institution’s 2009 crisis game examining a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities:

Although the precise strategy Israel would employ to carry out such an operation is debatable, its objective — to avert a nuclear-armed Tehran — is crystal clear. What’s less clear is how Tehran would react and with what aim. Would the Iranian regime be strengthened or weakened internally? Would it respond with fury or restraint?

To probe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled two dozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for a daylong simulation of the political and military consequences that would result from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

The simulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranian teams, each representing their government’s top national security officials. The members of the U.S. team had all served in senior positions in the U.S. government; the Israeli team was composed of a half-dozen experts on Israel, including former senior U.S. officials with close ties to senior Israeli decision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists, including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officials with responsibility for Iran.

I had the unenviable task of trying to channel Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The simulation was premised on a surprise Israeli military strike — absent U.S. knowledge or consent — on Iran’s nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclear negotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence of secret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we have before us now.

We’ve covered other reports on the game in the past, and had some doubts as to how realistic the military scenario was. At the risk of quibbling, Sadjadpour’s account only further contributes to those doubts when it notes that the Iranian side in the wargame “unleashed Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israeli population centers.” While PIJ is certainly subject to very heavy Iranian influence, and Hizbullah might fire rockets in such as case (although perhaps not, since the political cost would be very high), Iran has no substantial operational influence over Hamas at all. Someone in the room ought to have known that.

NDU seeking Senior Research Fellows

The National Defense University is currently advertising for a couple of Senior Research Fellows, to be employed at NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning. According to the advertisement, the duties of the positions would be:

  • Responsible for leading the planning, implementation, and management of programs dealing with interagency coordination, national security crisis management, humanitarian assistance, and stability and reconstruction operations.
  • Responsible for leading in the research, design, development, and implementation of experiential learning initiatives (including national-level educational exercises/ simulations and conferences, symposia, and workshops) conducted by the Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL).
  • Supervises and conducts research and analysis focused on the development of national security exercises concerning security issues with national or international implications.
  • Oversees CASL teams that are developing and implementing national and homeland security exercises and other experiential learning activities, with a particular emphasis on subjects related to stability operations, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and emerging national security threats.
  • Directs the organization and execution of exercises, symposia, conferences, workshops, and other CASL activities in support the full range of CASL clients by serving as one of two Division Directors in CASL.
  • Provides authoritative advice to the staff, faculty, and students of NDU and other Senior Service Schools and the wargaming centers in order to develop programs, curricula and simulations to support academic goals and requirements.
  • Collaborates with other national security experts from the government and private sector to share information on a broad range of national and homeland security issues.

Only US citizens are eligible to apply, and the closing date for applications is 2 December 2011.

Incumbent must have at least five years of experience in national-level policy formulation, planning, implementation, and management of nation security-related programs (e.g., humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, or stability and reconstruction operations).  Incumbent must also have significant management and supervisory experience. Accredited master’s degree and or PhD degree preferred, but extensive relevant practical experience may be substituted for this preference.

Additional information (including application procedures) can be found at the USA Jobs website.

simulations miscellany

FP Gets Its Game On

We’re very happy to report that Michael Peck, US editor at the Training & Simulation Journal and some-time PAXsims contributor, will now be writing on games and simulations at Foreign Policy magazine too. As Michael notes:

I am now the Games Editor at Foreign Policy magazine. I’ll be doing a column – possibly a weekly column – on games as they relate (or as I relate them) to foreign and defense policy. It will a fun column with a serious purpose, which is to show that games can make a difference in this world and still be enjoyable. The fact that games will be covered by such an influential magazine is extremely significant.

Publishers and designers that think their games might be of interest can contact me. And I look forward to seeing the comments from the gaming and simulation communities on the Foreign Policy site. It’s important that you make your voices heard.

Given the very wide readership of Foreign Policy magazine, this is really great news for the simulation community. We look forward to seeing what he has to say, and certainly encourage PAXsims readers to pass on story ideas to him.

Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran

Michael’s recent pieces at Foreign Policy magazine and Wired’s Danger Room about the boardgame Persian Incursion has stimulated considerable virtual discussion (including a lively discussion on the milgames discussion list as to when wargaming may not be the best way of exploring policy options, an issue about which I’ll blog soon). Among the recent contributions is a two part series of reflections by Charles Cameron at Zenpundit on wargaming a strike against Iran. Worth a read.


MMOWGLI (the “Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet”) recently ran a couple of games, sessions “Alpha” and “Bravo”.  You can track some of the results, and keep up on other MMOWGLI news, at their game blog.

Gaming an Israeli strike against Iran

Over the past couple of years at PAXsims we’ve highlighted several crisis simulations that have explored a possible Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In recent weeks the world has seen renewed speculation about such an attack, in part because of press reports from Israel and in part because of the release of the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program.

In that context, Michael Peck has just written a couple of interesting articles examining the boardgame Persian Incursion, designed by Larry Bond (of Harpoon fame), Chris Carlson, and Jeff Dougherty. Larry and Chris did a presentation on the design of the game at the Connections 2011 conference, which I’ve uploaded here.

In his first piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Michael offers a description of the game, a little play-by-play, and some overall impressions of its value as a simulation:

So is Persian Incursion actually useful for understanding how an Israeli strike on Iran might unfold? No and yes. My first reaction is that it’s a lovely game set in an alternate universe where Turkey is still an Israeli ally and the Arab Spring is still winter. But to be fair, we are talking about the Middle East; any game would be obsolete three months after it hit the shelves.

Militarily, the game demonstrates that Iran has as much chance of stopping an Israeli strike as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does of becoming an ayatollah, but then again, Iran doesn’t need to shoot down many Israeli planes. Every F-16 burning in the desert reaps Tehran a rich political harvest. Think Gilad Shalit multiplied by nine or 10 captured Israeli airmen.

The game does allow for some surprise events, such as a “press leak” or “anti-war riots,” that influence the political tracks. And there are unpleasant surprises, like an “industrial accident” in Iran that damages a nuclear site or an “intifada” against Israel.

But there’s also the glaring omission of Iran’s proxy force, Hezbollah. Bond, the game’s creator, told me that the Lebanese organization would not have time to react to an Israeli air campaign. This seems a bizarre oversight: Clearly, Hezbollah would have military as well as political roles in the conflict. Ten minutes after the first bombs fell on Iran and well before Israel launched any follow-up strikes, southern Lebanese skies would be milky with Katyusha rocket trails, and the swarm of Israeli Air Force drones on the border would fill the air with the buzz of propellers.

Additionally, the game doesn’t allow for an Iranian military response on any country but Israel. If Saudi Arabia allows Israeli jets to transit its airspace, might not Iran respond with military action against it (which in turn could drag in the United States)? Persian Incursion cries out for some rule updates. But that’s the beauty of an old-fashioned board game versus a video game. No need to wait months for a software patch. With just a few strokes of a pen, you can add your own rules to simulate the effects of Hezbollah or the Arab Spring.

Despite its flaws, I learned a lot from this game. It managed to capture the essence of an Israeli-Iranian conflict, which is that both sides would wage war by very different means. I focused on the nuts and bolts of conducting a complex and difficult Israeli air campaign, while Colonel Noob had to be more patient and subtle, compensating for Israeli military superiority by judiciously striking at public opinion with missiles and terrorist attacks, seeking to politically isolate Israel and deny it allies.

The real question of this exercise, however, is whether an Israeli strike on Iran is a good or bad idea. Persian Incursion’s answer is an unqualified “maybe.” Israel can’t stop Iran from retaliating with missile attacks and terrorism. But it also can’t guarantee complete destruction of Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps most importantly, the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war.

So was it fun? Sure, but let’s just hope it stays a game.

In his second piece, in Wired’s Danger Room, he offers some briefer lessons drawn from the game:

1. Bombing Iran is complicated. There’s a lot of prep work that needs to done. Persian Incursionassumes that an Israeli air campaign is only feasible if one of Iran’s neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iraq — overtly or covertly agrees to Israeli passage through its airspace.

2. Iran can’t do jack about being bombed. The Persians in Persian Incursion have a snowball’s chance in hell of militarily stopping the Israeli onslaught. The Iranian player has to roll dice every turn just to see if his maintenance-starved air force can even get off the ground, while Israeli jammers and decoys keep things hopping for Iranian radars and anti-aircraft missiles. But Iran doesn’t have to shoot down every plane to win. Parading a dozen captured Israeli pilots before the cameras would be a political victory.

3. Israel can’t do jack about Iranian retaliation. The Israeli Air Force is going to be too busy bombing nuclear sites to go after Iranian missiles. The game assumes that Israel’s Arrow anti-missiles will knock down some Iranian rockets (I’m not so sure, given the less-than-sterling record of ballistic missile defense). But regardless, some Iranian weapons will get through. Israel has military superiority, but not invulnerability.

4. Iran’s nuclear hydra has many heads.Persian Incursion’s target folder lists dozens of Iranian nuclear facilities (along with their exact dimensions and defenses — the game is a reference library in a box). Some of them are hardened against all but the biggest bunker-busters. I don’t know how many would have to be destroyed to ruin Iran’s nuclear program, but the Israelis will have spread their limited resources over many targets.

5. Israel can’t do it all in one shot. Unlike the 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, Israel can’t pull this off in a single raid. Persian Incursion assumes Israel will need to conduct a one-week air campaign. Besides the diplomatic ramifications of a sustained assault, combat losses and maintenance downtime means the Israeli effort will only weaken over time.

6. Planning an air offensive is hard work. I have a lot of respect for U.S. Air Force planners after seeing what the Israeli player has to go through in Persian Incursion. Juggling the right mix of ordnance versus fuel tanks, and then calculating the right mix of bunker-busters versus air-to-air and anti-radar defensive missiles, is a brain teaser.

Leaving aside the issue of Hizbullah (unlike the game designers, I think they could retaliate very quickly—but I’m less convinced they would do so, given the costs in Lebanon of appearing to be solely Iranian proxies), the impact of the Arab Spring (where Michael is right: a boardgame allows easy modding for current circumstances), and Iranian retaliatory options (which are fairly broad, especially over a time frame of weeks and months after an attack), I’m not entirely convinced that the “the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war” as Michael suggests. Certainly part of the tangible cost to Israel is the extent to which an attack has negative political effects internationally and regionally. Domestically, however, the costs of an attack would like vary substantially over time, with an immediate rally-around-the-flag effect in Israel, coupled with possible longer term political damage to the government if an attack proves to be ineffectual, or actually spurred a substantial acceleration of Iran’s somewhat slow-motion path to some sort of nuclear capacity. In this context, a critical question is one of capability and damage inflicted—which is why the game’s victory conditions (which you can read here) do place substantial weight on how successful Israel strikes actually are at destroying their intended targets.

In any case, I’ve had a copy of Persian Incursion sitting on my game shelf for many months now, awaiting enough time to play it. When I get a chance, I’ll certainly post a review here to PAXsims.

UPDATE: Michael has also given an interview on the game on National Public Radio.




79th MORS Symposium wargame AAR

The 79th annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society, held at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey in June, featured the first-ever analytical wargame held during a MORS annual meeting—in this case a modified version of James Dunnigan’s simple WWII game Drive on Metz.

There’s an article on the game in the September 2011 issue of the MORS bulletin Phalanx. Those involved in advising, facilitating, conducting, or participating in the exercise apparently included some of the luminaries of professional wargaming in the US, including (in addition to Dunnigan) Peter Perla, and a number of friends of PAXsims.

Interesting as it is, I must admit the piece left me rather wondering what had been achieved, especially in a setting where a great many people must already be familiar with much more complex military wargames and staff exercises, even if they aren’t familiar with hobby/commercial military boardgames. Part of the reason may be that while an objective of the exercise was to “[learn] how to prepare, field, execute, and derive meaningful analytical information from military wargaming as a unique analytical tool” there’s not a lot of information on this within the article itself. Since Drive on Metz was deliberately designed as a very simple, introductory wargame to begin with (it was included as an example in Dunnigan’s Complete Wargames Handbook, and features less than 20 playing piece and a single combat resolution chart), I wonder how many new players from military or operations research backgrounds might have been disappointed with the (deliberate) lack of sophistication. Of course, the game was modified and adjudicated in the MORS setting, so perhaps this added additional layers of complexity. The adjudication, monitoring and instrumentation of wargaming can be an art and science in itself, but again the article doesn’t give much sense of how the demonstration highlighted this.

Of course, I might well be missing a big part of the picture here—I wasn’t able to attend the MORS annual symposium, since it is limited to US citizens. If you were there and have some details or insight to contribute as to how the experiment went, feel free to contribute it in the comments section below!

Free “Occupy Wall Street” simulation

Sea Change Simulations is offering a free “Occupy Wall Street” simulation (using the USIP Open Simulation Platform) to the first five qualified course instructors who contact them:

Put your students into the muddy shoes of an OWS member, or the polished wingtips of a Banker, or those President Obama, or any one of the other various players, and let them negotiate out a solution to the problems that the United States faces.

The action can be completely online, or partially online with some face to face negotiations thrown in. It is up to you, and we will provide the platform for free until

This simulation will be free to the first 5 instructors from certified educational institutions who contact us. Please note, participating in this will require that the instructor watches 3 short youtube videos so they know how to conduct the simulation using the open source simulation platform developed at the United States Institute of Peace.

You’ll find more information at their website here.

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