Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: December 2011

Call for Speakers: Serious Play 2012

The Serious Play Conference is calling for speakers to present at the conference in August 2012:

SEATTLE – Dec. 28, 2011 – Serious Play Conference has issued a call for speakers for its second annual “boot camp” for serious games professionals. The 2012 conference will again be held at DigiPen Institute of Technology, Tuesday – Thursday, August 21 – 23 in Redmond, Wash., just outside Seattle.

The three day conference will feature sessions by publishers, developers, game design consultants, market analysts and other professionals already leveraging game mechanics in education, health care, corporations, government and for military training as well as vendors providing serious games hardware and software and faculty teaching serious game development.

Speakers will outline critical success factors in game design, share case histories, offer recommendations on setting up as well as measuring learning outcomes and give advice on how to take advantage of current development technology. Market research consultants will discuss industry trends.

Developers can also vie for recognition in the International Serious Play Awards Competition and certification.  A student winner is also awarded.

Clark Aldrich, author of five industry text books and a serious games consultant, is conference director.  Game industry veteran Sue Bohle, president, The Bohle Company, Los Angeles, whose agency helped build attendance for the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and currently supports Penny Arcade Expos, produces the event. 

9th NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming (18/1)

The next National Defense University Roundtable on Innovation in Strategic Gaming will be held at NDU on the afternoon of Wednesday, 18 January 2012, in Washington DC:

National Defense University’s strategic gaming group, the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, would like to invite you to participate in the ninth session of our roundtable discussions on gaming. Our intent is to continue to build a regular forum for practitioners and scholars to exchange ideas and compare notes about issues relating to game design, the use of games for analytical and teaching purposes, and interesting projects in the field. This will be the first of our roundtable events to be streamed live over the internet, which we hope will make it easier for colleagues outside the Washington, DC area to participate.

Each roundtable invites a few speakers to present short, informal, talks on some aspect of strategic-level games to spark discussion among the group. The meetings last two hours and are held quarterly. Please feel free to circulate this invitation to interested colleagues – we’re hoping this will be a means of getting to know and building lasting professional connections between gamers.

Speakers: Mike Ottenberg an on-site contractor for OSD/CAPE, will present on the development of an irregular warfare wargame.  Bill Simpson of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab will present on Multi-Sided Gaming (or “Getting a Handle on Chaos”).

Please note that attendance is by invitation only, and limited to those with professional interest in strategic gaming. For further information, contact Tim Wilkie at NDU.

Holiday games for policy wonks

Over at his regular column at Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Peck plays Santa and recommends 7 Holiday Games for Wonks.

But what about the wonks? What holiday treats await those who enjoy subtler games — those that illustrate the currents of history, illuminate the intricacies of politics, and explain why the world is and what it might be? Games that require thought and guile, and not just a quick wrist and a big bottle of caffeinated Mountain Dew.

Fear not, wonkdom. We at Foreign Policy believe that the holidays should be a celebration of the cerebral. So we offer seven games that will stimulate the mind, scratch that policymaking itch, and incidentally are pretty damn fun to play. Yes, we know that real wonks aren’t supposed to have fun. But we won’t tell anyone if you don’t.

Those games are:

  • Twilight Struggle—One of my favourite games too, covering the Cold War, 1945-89. It is a game of moderate complexity and an excellent introduction into how card-driven strategy games can deal with historical political-military conflicts.
  • Pandemic—This cooperative game that is also a favourite among the PAXsims editors, and easier to play than most for gaming newbies. It is also a good game to play if you are thinking of designing your own cooperative game, and want to get a sense of possible mechanics.
  • Persian Incursion—I still have this sitting on my bookshelf eagerly awaiting an opportunity to play. Not for gaming newbies, however.
  • War on Terror —This fairly simple game doesn’t really model anything realistic, but is a hoot to play—and is now available as an iPhone/iPad app too!
  • Civilization V—The latest version of the classic Sid Meier PC game. Be prepared to lose large portions of your life if you become addicted.
  • Victoria II—A PC game of the industrial revolution, and one that I haven’t played yet.
  • War in the East—A complex PC based hex-based wargame of the Eastern Front during WWII involving thousands of simulated combat units. For those of you who want to move thousands of cardboard unit counters by hand the old-fashioned way, there is always SPI’s classic War in the East (1976).

One could quibble endlessly about what should be on this list—they are all very good games, although they exist in a large and rapidly expanding universe of boardgames and computer games that address political-military and social issues. BoardGameGeek currently lists a stunning total of 55,833 boardgames in its database, and while not all of these address serious topics, a great many do (click the link to see).

One that I would have lobbied for inclusion on Michael’s list is Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- ?, which won this year’s Charles S. Roberts Award for the best post-WWI wargame, and which we’ve previously reviewed at PAXsims.

Have your own favourite policy wonk game? Feel free to mention it in the comments section.

Picture: No, Hello Kitty Monopoly was not one of Michael’s recommended games, but how could I resist?

Virtual economies and development

Over at GlobalPost today, Jeb Boone has an interesting article on how developing countries have benefited from converting “virtual economies” within massive multiplayer online games into real sources of revenue:

Shouting in strange, digital languages at baleful, hyper-intelligent dragons is fun. So is clawing for a tactical edge in real-time, chess-like strategic melees. But it doesn’t make you money.

It is the one thing that has always eluded the underpaid nerds around the world, who suffer stoically at tedious jobs while dreaming of their computers at home — how to make a living on their obsession with gaming.

In parts of Asia, though, creative businessmen have begun to figure it out. In China and Vietnam, for instance, companies known as “gold farms” to Western gamers are employing real-life laborers in ever-growing numbers. They sit at computers and mine for digital gold in popular multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft (or WoW to those in the know), which the companies then sell to, mainly, Western players.

These transactions are done over Paypal and once a player has handed over the real money, someone approaches the character in-game and hands over the fake gold.

While paying actual dollars for digital currency may seem absurd, many serious gamers find paying for gold to be much less costly than spending the substantial number of hours it requires to accumulate the digital currency in the way the game’s developers intended, like, say, by vanquishing an endless parade of foes.

For countries like Vietnam, these digital economies are yielding substantial real-world rewards. According to a World Bank report released in April, selling digital goods for real dollars is proving so lucrative in some developing countries that it could pay for much-needed infrastructure projects.

The third-party gaming services industry, as it is known, accounts for $3 billion in revenue worldwide, most of which remained inside the countries where the services were rendered. To put that in perspective, coffee production in the entire developing world accounts for about $70 billion in revenues, but only $5.5 billion of that remained in the domestic economies…

Moreover, he notes, some gaming companies have decided to stop fighting “gold farming” and instead provide an in-game mechanism for it:

So now, instead of trying to police millions of gamers, the Blizzard Corporation is trying a new strategy, one that would embrace the digital free market and help it make some extra cash in return.

For their blockbuster 2012 release of the third installment of the wildly popular Diablo series, Blizzard will include a venue for selling in-game weapons and gear for real money, a move that could significantly expand the market for digital gold farmers in the developing world, and even in the West. The gaming community is abuzz with fantasies of moving out of their cubicles to sell digital demon-slaying equipment full-time from wherever they please.

In exchange, Blizzard will take a “nominal” commission for the sale of these items.

The World Bank report mentioned above examines the “third-party gaming services” in some detail, as part of an broader examination of converting virtual economies into development potential. It concludes:

Third-party gaming services may seem like a good target for interventions, given that it is a large and successful industry. Gaming service production could be introduced to least-developed countries. Ways to expand the market to social games, mobile games, and other platforms could be explored as a means to further increase its economic development impact. However, the problem with services for overcoming artificial scarcities is that it can be very difficult to say when their net social value is positive and when it is negative. Whilst providing value for their customers, in some cases they are causing negative externalities to other players and publishers. This is reflected in the industry’s legal status. Sanctioned markets for game assets are limited.

At the same time, one clearly positive thing about the gaming services industry is that it has activated thousands of young people from very modest backgrounds to create employment for themselves as digital entrepreneurs. Some of them have subse- quently branched out to other fields of ecommerce. A more typical career path for these youth would likely have been much less entrepreneurial and ambitious. If the circumstances and motivations that lead to this remarkable mobilization were under- stood better, it could prove a powerful tool in efforts to bring about similar activation elsewhere. Informants suggest that reasons for why Chinese youth—as opposed to, for example, Indian youth— rose to become gaming services entrepreneurs should be sought in the strong online gaming subculture in China. Indeed, cultural factors and subcultures in particular have been implicated in studies on high-tech entrepreneurship before (Florida 2002). The instrumental role of cultural products such as games in forming this culture is a worthwhile research question.

Among many other places, you’ll find more information on this topic at the Virtual Economy Research Network, and also in a special issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds on economies, virtual goods, and service delivery in virtual worlds.

Prine does zombies!

Over at his website Line of Departure, investigative reporter, mil-blogger, and fashion aficionado Carl Prine has an interview with James Ian Burns (of the Dragons and Dragoons game shop in Colorado Springs) on “the growing popularity in board games amongst the troops and defense intellectuals.”

The piece is entitled “Brain-eating Xmas Zombies Attack!” because it contains some discussion of the game Zombie Dice. However, it also has the very considerable advantage that it also allows me to use “Prine does zombies” as a title for a blog post. How could anyone who knows Carl could possibly pass up that opportunity?

H.G. Well’s Little Wars (for free)

H.G. Well’s Little Wars (1913)—with its rules for using toy soldiers to fight battles for entertainment—is regarded by many as the birth of the modern hobby of miniature wargaming. Quite by accident I came across the free e-copies of the book made available by Project Gutenberg, so I thought I would post the link here in case any PAXsims readers are interested.

Women wargamers beware: the book—which was subtitled “A Game for Boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books”—fully reflects the gender attitudes of the time:

Primitive attempts to [fashion wargaming terrain]… were interrupted by a great rustle and chattering of lady visitors. They regarded the objects on the floor with the empty disdain of their sex for all imaginative things.

You can also find a free copy of Well’s Floor Games (1911) available online. In this case, alert readers will get a sense Well’s somewhat complicated views on imperialism, race, and colonialism in the section on “The Game of the Wonderful Islands,” with its overtones of racism (“negroid savages” and “fierce and well-armed ” Indians) coupled with rather sarcastic commentary on the dynamics of colonial conquest:

This is how the game would be set out. Then we build ships and explore these islands, but in these pictures the ships are represented as already arriving. The ships are built out of our wooden bricks on flat keels made of two wooden pieces of 9 x 4-1/2; inches, which are very convenient to push about over the floor. Captain G. P. W. is steaming into the bay between the eastern and western islands. He carries heavy guns, his ship bristles with an extremely aggressive soldiery, who appear to be blazing away for the mere love of the thing. (I suspect him of Imperialist intentions.) Captain F. R. W. is apparently at anchor between his northern and southern islands. His ship is of a slightly more pacific type. I note on his deck a lady and a gentleman (of German origin) with a bag, two of our all too rare civilians. No doubt the bag contains samples and a small conversation dictionary in the negroid dialects. (I think F. R. W. may turn out to be a Liberal.) Perhaps he will sail on and rescue the raided huts, perhaps he will land and build a jetty, and begin mining among the rocks to fill his hold with silver. Perhaps the natives will kill and eat the gentleman with the bag. All that is for Captain F. R. W. to decide.

You see how the game goes on. We land and alter things, and build and rearrange, and hoist paper flags on pins, and subjugate populations, and confer all the blessings of civilization upon these lands. We keep them going for days. And at last, as we begin to tire of them, comes the scrubbing brush, and we must burn our trees and dismantle our islands, and put our soldiers in the little nests of drawers, and stand the island boards up against the wall, and put everything away.

Call for papers: 6th European Conference on Games Based Learning (October 2012)

A call for papers has been issued for the 6th European Conference on Games Based Learning (ECGBL-2012) being held at The River Lee Hotel, Cork, Ireland on the 4-5 October 2012. Details can be found here, and the call is open until 16 March 2012).

Over the last ten years, the way in which education and training is delivered has changed considerably with the advent of new technologies. One such new technology that holds considerable promise for helping to engage learners is Games-Based Learning (GBL). The Conference offers an opportunity for scholars and practitioners interested in the issues related to GBL to share their thinking and research findings. Papers can cover various issues and aspects of GBL in education and training: technology and implementation issues associated with the development of GBL; use of mobile and MMOGs for learning; pedagogical issues associated with GBL; social and ethical issues in GBL; GBL best cases and practices, and other related aspects. We are particularly interested in empirical research that addresses whether GBL enhances learning. This Conference provides a forum for discussion, collaboration and intellectual exchange for all those interested in any of these fields of research or practice.

The conference committee welcomes contributions on a wide range of topics using a range of scholarly approaches including theoretical and empirical papers employing qualitative, quantitative and critical methods. Action research, case studies and work-in-progress/posters are welcomed approaches. PhD Research, proposals for roundtable discussions, non-academic contributions and product demonstrations based on the main themes are also invited.

Publication opportunity

Papers accepted for the conference will be published in the conference proceedings, subject to author registration and payment. Selected papers will also be considered for publication in a special issue of the Electronic Journal of e-Learning and to the International Journal of Game-Based Learning. The latest issue of the Electronic Journal of e-Learning is available to read online.

Gaming military coups

PAXsims is pleased to feature a contribution from game designer Brian Train on a political-military issue that has received relatively little attention to date from published boardgames: the military coup d’état.

* * *

When I was a boy, there were certain books on my father’s shelf that I found interesting, first for their covers and then (once I’d opened the book, for that is what a catchy cover is intended for you to do) for their content. One of these was Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook, written in 1968 by Edward Luttwak.

The image of a tank bursting through paper was an arresting one, and is one I still associate not only with military revolt but with wargaming in general for some reason. I tried to read the book several times, but it wasn’t until I had broadened my reading and understanding of politics, as well as starting to play wargames, that I began to appreciate this at once very pragmatic and very cynical book.

About twenty years ago I was living in Japan, doing the teach-English bit. I went to the local video store a lot, and found a 1978 movie called Power Play, about army officers in an unidentified country plotting to overthrow their corrupt government in a coup d’etat. It starred Peter O’Toole, David Hemmings and Donald Pleasence, and its basis was, you guessed it, Luttwak’s book.

My game collection was on the other side of the ocean, and so I was inspired to design my very first wargame, about the mechanics of plotting and executing a coup d’etat  in an unidentified country. I called it Power Play, in homage to this quite unknown movie (obviously I was not inspired enough to give it a different name!). And a few years later, when I returned home and was starting to use the Internet to broaden my collection and knowledge of the hobby, I found it remarkable to see just how few games touched on this topic.

Luttwak defines a coup as: “… the infiltration of a small, but critical, segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder”. Not all coups are led by the military or paramilitary forces of a country, but inevitably they become involved, or their non-involvement has been arranged beforehand.

Thus, I feel it is a legitimate topic for a wargame, considering that in the last 60 years armies have been involved in many more coups than in actual wars – and in certain regions of the world coups have changed more governments than elections.


What follows are brief descriptions of various civilian wargames which are concerned with the planning or execution of a coup d’etat, or both, in the order of their publication.

1970 – COUP D’ETAT

There once was a British hobby magazine called Miniature Warfare, and for some reason my university library had a magazine file box full of copies on the shelf. In reading an issue from 1970, I found an ad for this game with tantalizing copy, but never heard anything about it again. Through the magic of the Internet, I recently found the game’s designer. This was the only wargame he ever designed, and after 40 years he did not own even a complete copy, but he was kind enough to take some pictures and supply me with some recollections of how the game worked.

The game was a rarity even then, and by the standards of what would come after it, rather rudimentary in its approach. It deals only with the execution phase of a coup, in the generic capital city of an imaginary country, but the play of the game poses some interesting choices for the players. Control of certain installations yields control of certain troops, who have advantages and disadvantages of their own, and so on. Its value lies in its being the first attempt to model a coup d’etat.


Plot to Assassinate Hitler (PTAH) was the second of three Power Politics Series games to be released by Simulations Publications International (SPI) in 1976-77. The subject of the game is the various attempts on the part of anti-Hitler elements in the German government to assassinate Hitler and seize power. The play of the game sees the Abwehr player (nominally Admiral Canaris, head of the German intelligence service) trying to ‘recruit’ individuals in the Army, civilian government, or even the upper echelons of the Nazi Party to act against the day when he launches his coup d’etat (which he must do, or forfeit the game). The SS player (Heinrich Himmler), for his part, tries to ensure the loyalty of Nazi Party leaders and inconvenience the Abwehr player by investigating and interrogating persons who are in on the plot. All this time, Hitler himself shuttles randomly back and forth between Berlin and his headquarters in East Prussia, like a tin duck in a shooting gallery. The game is climaxed by the Abwehr player declaring a coup, which triggers a different sequence of play as both sides try to decisively eliminate the other as an effective force.

The game was not popular with players for a number of reasons. For example, the game map: while it exhibits the old, familiar hexes, it is divided into a large number of areas representing the hinterlands of the German Reich (Russian, Southern France, the Vatican, etc.) on the borders of a single large area representing Berlin. Berlin contains several HQ areas within it which serve as defended localities for the different parties in the game. Thus, having two counters adjacent on the map does not necessarily meant they are physically close to each other, only that they are “organizationally” in contact and able to influence each other. This kind of representation has never gone over well with the majority of gamers – perhaps it is difficult for many people to visualize, accustomed as they are to seeing pieces of Virginian or French real estate tessellated into little honeycombs.

Next, the game counters: the units represent highly placed individuals in the complex and fractured hierarchy that was the government of totalitarian Germany. Each unit has an Effectiveness Rating, a Defence Strength, and a Movement Allowance. These three qualities mean different things in different situation: the ER functions like an attack strength, but represents an individual’s ability to organize, coerce or convince other people; the DS is a combination of resistance to coercion, cajoling or just plain slipperiness,; and the MA is the measure of ability to move around in the circles of power and “attack” other individuals, either to sideline them or get them on-side.

Almost half the counters in the game are randomizer chits. Players are constantly drawing and tossing these around to bollix up the other player’s plans or advance their own. A nice twist is “loyalty chits”: having one of these for a particular character means you are sure of his loyalty (since the other guy obviously doesn’t have it), or it presents an opportunity to recruit him, or it can be used to divert an enemy character who is bothering one of “your” people. I do not think this interesting mechanic was ever used again in an SPI game, though the concept was suggested several times in proposals for other revolution/ spy-themed games.

Finally, time is heavily abstracted in this game. There are only eight turns before the Abwehr player must declare a coup, but the period simulated is up to five years long. The outer areas of the Reich start falling under Allied control in turn 6 (D-Day and the Destruction of Army Group Center); apart from that, one turn can represent anywhere from two weeks to two years. The game is climaxed by up to six coup turns, each of which represents only 8-12 hours of action and reaction. Again, this elastic time-sense was something the gamers of 1976 could not readily identify with, although the concept is familiar now.

1978 – JUNTA

The first game to play up a coup for laughs – by this time enough of them had taken place in Third World countries, deposing one corrupt dictator for another, that even a Woody Allen movie (Bananas) had been made on the topic.

In the game, the goal is to stash the greatest wealth in your  Swiss bank account. 3-7 players representing different officials in the current government depend on “El Presidente” for money, just as the player playing him depends on the other players to stay bribed and support him while he pushes through his budget (and robs the treasury). Players can try to assassinate the other players, taking some of their money by guessing where they will be from among five locations.

Players can also stage a coup, whereupon units representing different armed groups are placed on the board and an uncomplicated little wargame is played out to see who gains control over a majority of the power centers. There can often be several coups in a game, and as a result games can be quite lengthy.

This game is by far the most popular and available on the topic, and has stayed in print for most of the last 30 years.


Another game that plays the coup for laughs, this effort by Task Force Games relies on bad puns and simple graphics to show some of the aspects of power politics in an imaginary country. Players receive and play cards throughout a series of turns, trying to establish control over Areas (i.e. sectors of society) by playing Leaders (with punny names, e.g. Mayor K. R. Upshun) from their hands, and rolling the die to take control. Score equal to or less than the amount of Leader influence you have over an Area and it’s yours. When one player feels strong enough, he calls for a Power Play and rolls the die: if he scores equal to or less than the sum of the number of Areas under his control and any “Foreign Aid” cards he has played, then he wins the game. If he fails, then he is out of the game, together will all his cards and any Areas he controlled. Another player will call for another Power Play, same process, and it continues until one player succeeds or all players have lost (one would guess the country then descends into civil war). There is no incentive to strike alliances or make deals, or even plan ahead – essentially, it’s just a simple card game.

1991 – COUP

In an early 1978 issue of The Space Gamer, Metagaming Concepts’ house organ, designer Steve Jackson mentioned that he was working on a Microgame (remember those?) on a coup in an imaginary developing country. It would have made an interesting variation on the science fiction and fantasy titles Metagaming was publishing at the time, but it was not until 1991 that it came out under the imprimatur of Steve Jackson Games.

The game concentrates only on the physical aspects of the execution phase of a coup, as military units and mobs duke it out for control of power centres on a map. There is little substance to it, and the game was released long after the market for simple minigames like these had peaked.


The author’s first wargame design, inspired by the obscure movie of the same name. (Honestly, I did not discover the existence of the earlier Task Force Games game of the same title until five years later! As I said, I really should have been a bit more inspired.)

This game was notable for its small size and speed of play- 50 counters and under an hour, to cover both the planning and execution phases of a coup in an imaginary country. Play in the pre-coup phase is governed by running through a deck of ordinary playing cards (inspired by a scene in the movie where Peter O’Toole and David Hemmings play card tricks on each other while Hemmings sounds him out about joining the plotters). Both sides recruit units to their side and try to interfere with the other’s plans, until the coup is launched and a simple wargame is played out in the capital city. I also devised a “seminar” version of the game for nine players, and recently revised it to make the pre-coup phase a more hidden-information, cloak-and-dagger exercise.

1998 – PUTSCH

Originally released by Queen Games of Germany. Here the generic banana republic is used as a backdrop for an involved negotiating and card-drawing game for 3-6 players. Bidding, income and budgets get most of the attention in the game, which is won by acquiring victory points derived from controlling groups.

A coup may or may not occur in the game, but no matter – the term is used only to describe an automatic takeover of the government by a military groups.


This has been described as a “lite” version of the earlier Junta, and so it is, taking normally less than an hour to play. Players represent generals and corrupt officials who ambush and assassinate each other while trying to siphon off as much development aid money for themselves as possible. The “wargame” aspect of executing a coup has been completely replaced by militia attacks, represented by matching up dice.


Yes, that’s all I‘ve been able to find that was ever on the civilian market that focused primarily on the coup d’etat. Of eight titles, in my view only three treat the subject seriously, and none of them are in print. Only one attempts to be a study of an actual historical event, a failed one at that.

I am unaware of any computer game that deals with the plotting or execution of a coup in more than a tangential way, or as some kind of external event. The Tropico series of games probably comes closest – a player can select to come to power through a coup when starting the game, which sets certain initial parameters, but more often the game system will pull a coup on the player if he alienates enough of the population.

Similarly, examples of professional wargame studies focusing on coups could not be found (there are lots of research papers, though).  Spending one’s time modeling or pondering anti-democratic events like this would probably not be officially encouraged and, in certain countries, could even place players under suspicion.

Why the lack of interest in this perfectly acceptable pol-mil topic? A primary reason would be just that, it’s a pol-mil topic – and the civilian game market, by and large, does not go in for modeling these things. Also, there’s the nature of the event itself. Ideally the plotters of a well-planned coup would work in complete secrecy and the government would fall before it knew what had hit it. This, or at least the execution phase of the coup, would not make much of a game. The main interest of the event would and should lie in the planning phase of the action, and could make for a fairly tense hidden-information, hidden-agenda multiplayer game.

Perhaps I should design such a game. And call it something other than Power Play.

Brian Train

UPDATE: There’s now a discussion thread at BoardGameGeek on Brian’s blog post above.

Virtual military training and international humanitarian law

According to piece by Michael Peck at Wired’s Danger Room blog, the ICRC has been considering the international humanitarian implications of military simulation- and game-based training:

The International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, is pondering whether the violence in video games violates international law. Lest anyone fear that UN helicopters are going to swoop down and confiscate their PS3, ICRC spokesman Bijan Frederic Farnoudi emphasized that so far, the issue has only been a side discussion during a recent ICRC conference. Farnoudi says no formal ICRC recommendation is planned at this time, but the organization is contact with the game industry and will be publishing a Q&A on its Web site.

The ICRC discussion was spurred by the work of a couple of Swiss human rights groups: Pro Juventute and TRIAL, a legal organization that describes itself as putting “the law at the service of the victims of international crimes.” A 2009 report (.pdf) by these groups examined 21 video games, mostly first-person-shooters. They found numerous violations of international humanitarian, human rights and criminal law.

While the authors of the report say their goal is not to prohibit video games, “the message we want to send to developers and distributors of video games, particularly those portraying armed conflict scenarios, is that they should also portray the rules that apply to such conflicts in real life.”

But the more interesting question isn’t human rights violations in commercial games, but humans rights violations in Pentagon video games. As cash-strapped militaries switch from expensive live training to cheaper computer games, it is inevitable that accidentally or not, there will be a military training game that features illegal behavior (or behavior that some human rights group will complain is illegal).

When Danger Room asked about video games and war crimes, two U.S. Army spokesmen immediately reacted with laughter. And sure, the idea does sound ridiculous at first. But humor might be a just a little bit premature. Christian Rouffaer, head of the ICRC’s international humanitarian law and video games project, told Danger Room that while there is no law regulating military training methods, “a soldier trained on a computer or by any other means to shoot wounded enemy combatants would probably not be the only one to be prosecuted as it is primarily the responsibility of his commander to train, educate and to give him lawful orders.” In other words according to the ICRC, military training that violates the Geneva Conventions is still a crime — even if that training is virtual.

We’ve previously discussed the Pro Juventa/TRIAL report on PAXsims here.

Some of the comments on this at Wired are already suggesting that the ICRC is misguided (for example, “Did the IIRC hire PR folks who previously worked for PETA?,” “And Europe and the UN wonder why they are not taken seriously,” and “News flash, ICRC:  Video games are FAKE!”) However, I think it is important to underscore (as Michael does in the article) that the ICRC is only at a very preliminary stage in considering this. Moreover, the ICRC is absolutely right.

The observance of international humanitarian law is not just a question of the decisions taken by individual soldiers on the battlefield. It is even more so about command responsibility, and the obligation of military and political leaderships to make clear what is permissible and impermissible in the context of military operations. Training is a key part of this. If you want soldiers to make appropriate moral and legal decisions in warfighting situations, their obligations need to be clearly laid out to them. Moreover, it needs to be communicated that these obligations are imperatives, and are not to be forgotten when it seems convenient to do so. Integrating those lessons into regular training (rather than simply a brief humanitarian and legal obligations lecture alone) is by far the most effective way of ingraining IHL-compliant combat responses.

In my own brief experience of military service many years ago, it was clearly drilled into us that all conduct needed to be in compliance with international humanitarian law—and, what’s more, I was legally obligated to disobey an order from a superior officer if it violated IHL. There was no “I was just obeying orders” wiggle-room, or “it depends on circumstances.”

If my former drill instructor could make that point crystal clear, surely virtual, video, and game-based training ought to be able to follow a similar standard. We certainly wouldn’t tolerate law enforcement training software that implied it was OK to falsify evidence, or medical training software that encouraged medical students to violate the Hippocratic oath. Military training, real or virtual or otherwise, is the same—it is a simple matter of promoting and inculcating professional standards.

The ICRC, moreover, has a particular and generally recognized role in promoting and monitoring compliance with international humanitarian law. In flagging these issues, the organization is doing exactly what the international community expects of it.

(picture at top: the I-JTAC TRS Proof-of-Concept Dome)


Since the piece in Wired appeared, there has been some additional coverage of the issue that suggests the ICRC is interested more generally in encouraging game manufacturers to include IHL compliance in entertainment video games (see, for example, the report on Kotaku). This is a rather different issue than the use of videogames for military training purposes. However, popularizing issues of IHL by reaching out to gaming companies also makes sense, in light of the ICRC’s general role of promoting great public knowledge of the subject.

Simulating the Green Revolution

Engineers without Borders (Canada) has put together a very thoughtful educational roleplaying game about the positive and negative effects of the “green revolution,” based on an earlier online version first developed by Ricardo Salvador at Iowa State University. Designed to be played by up to 30 participants over an hour, farming households must choose between varieties of wheat, levels of fertilizer application, and investments in oxen, irrigation, land and other infrastructure—while facing the challenge of the weather, possible pest infestations, population growth, and commodity price fluctuations. High yield “green revolution” cultivars produce the highest potential harvests, but are more dependent on fertilizer inputs, are more affected by weather variation, and require seed stock purchase each year. Conversely, the native (land race) variety has lower average yields, but is more predictable under a broader range of environmental conditions and does not require the same level of annual cash expenditures for fertilizer and seed stock. participants are randomly assigned to different households with differing family sizes and land resources.

Coincidentally, I’ve used a very similar role-play game in class for almost two decades. In this case, I’m attempting to highlight the impact of shifts from subsistence agriculture to cash crop production, highlighting the role of colonial policy and global markets, as well as how effects may vary across different types of landowners. It works extremely well,  illustrating points that have been made in class lectures as well as providing an enjoyable break from regular classes. Since my POLI 227 class is very large indeed (600+ students), the format I use is that of a game show, with a half dozen students playing their roles on the lecture stage for all to see, complete with graduate student assistants, game show music, and yours truly in the role of the frenetically-ebullient microphone-wielding game show host.

EWB simulation, like my own, is a manual rather than electronic, computer-based game. One advantage of this is that any instructor can easily tweak the game for particular audiences, or to highlight additional issues. It would be relatively easy to modify the EWB game to include rapacious large landowners, foreign agribusiness, integrated rural development programs, local politics, pest resistance, climate change, and so forth with just a few rule tweaks and a few additional printed materials.

Indeed, with all the attention to electronic serious games, the “Green Revolution simulation game”  highlights how much you can do with a word processor, easily printed game materials, and participatory teaching methods.

There is also work ongoing to develop a new computer-based expansion of the game, which would facilitate came choices and calculations and also allow a much larger number of participants to play. You’ll find more information on that initiative at the Geogame blog.

h/t Games for Change Google group

Modelling the impact of military operations on host populations: the Irregular Warfare Tactical War Game


A recent article at discusses the development by the US Army of  “a new war game that will help evaluate the social impact of Army operations”—the Irregular Warfare Tactical War Game.

The Irregular Warfare Tactical War Game, being developed at TRAC WSMR, will be used to assess how Army tactical operations impact the population of a host country. The game system is designed to focus on the tactical level of a battalion sized unit conducting operations in an irregular war. Keeping the game real, the players use the backdrop of Afghanistan, with maps, objectives, operations and other elements all based on information collected from real world sources. In development since 2008, the Irregular Warfare Tactical War Game has already been used by several organizations to conduct some initial exercises with testing of the fully functional prototype that was expected to be finished in November.

The game, with its large scale simulated world and focus on the tactical unit, is currently being used to analyze if giving greater intelligence access to a company commander will help the company and battalion level units perform better and win local support faster and more effectively. To what level intelligence data needs to be disseminated has been a point of discussion across the Army because the intelligence needs of a company commander are typically specific and tactical in nature. When going against an irregular enemy like the Taliban however, some Army leaders suspect that providing better access to more intelligence could allow the company commanders to make decisions with a more positive impact on the local population.

The game includes a massive amount of play options and features that bring into account the many various elements that would play a part in a modern conflict.

“The way the war game is set up, we have a number of cells effectively competing with each other to influence the population,” Workman said. Player groups include the typical “blue” force, the players controlling the US battalion; a “red” force, with players that control Taliban forces and criminal elements like the drug trade in the game; and a “green” force, whose players control the indigenous forces like local military and police. Filling out the game world is an “operational wrap around” group that handles larger scale portions of the game like blue force brigade level operations and Taliban regional operations.

Adding more layers to the game are models and simulations that represent other aspects of the modern battlefield. Media reports are simulated and their effect on the population is factored in. Social media is also a factor with the simulation tracking the way that information on a social network passes to friends and family and not directly to the general public like traditional media.

A leadership simulation called “Nexus” is also included in the game. This complex simulation contains the different leadership characters that an Army leader in the field would have to interact with, both directly and indirectly, when conducting operations. Village elders, government officials, and other important individuals can influence a population in different ways, and the factors in these differences and how they interact with each other and the player’s choices. “It gives our players a way to interact with them, to get them to pass out messages that are supportive, or that may not be supportive if the leader doesn’t care for whoever is interacting with them,” said Workman.

Forces and personalities aren’t the only thing in the system; essential services and infrastructure are also in play.

Electricity, water, medical services, even laws and legal cues are incorporated into the game as well. These elements can play a huge role in a population’s outlook and opinions, as the availability of these services increases or decreases.

“We start our war game with services at a specific level and then players are able to interact or attack and decrease those capabilities or improve those capabilities in order to help the population get whatever it is they need,” said Workman.

Just because a player chooses to take action regarding a particular service doesn’t mean it will turn out as expected. Workman explained that, just like in the real world, in the game it’s possible that the contractor hired to improve infrastructure will take the money and run instead of doing the work.

While the current games being run use Afghanistan as the country being simulated, the game is designed to be able to import data on other regions as well, allowing the game to be used to evaluate possible operations anywhere in the world.

You’ll find some additional background on the project in an unclassified presentation made at the MORS Irregular Warfare Analysis Workshop in 2009.

Interesting stuff, although I’m a little puzzled as to why the Red force team contains both “Taliban forces and criminal elements like the drug trade in the game.” Criminal entrepreneurs have their own set of interests which may be quite distinct from those of insurgent groups (and may, in practical terms, overlap with some of the interests of host country actors), so it can be a bit misleading to place them on the same team. A rather better way of handling this, I think, is the way that Volko Ruhnke does it in the forthcoming Columbian insurgency boardgame, Andean Abyss (GMT Games)—probably my favourite insurgency boardgame to date. Brian Train also treats them as separate actors in his unpublished Afghan-themed game Kandahar.

h/t Mike Robel at milgames

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