Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Peacekeeping the Game

Peacekeeping the Game is  a relatively simple 3-4 player boardgame developed by Michael Goon (Yeshiva University) that explores the challenge of long-term peace building in fragile and conflict-affected countries:

Political science students face the difficult challenge of understanding the obstacles to resolving intrastate conflict. Often, instructors will use negotiation-based role-playing simulations to model arduous discussions between the warring groups and intervening parties. However, the long-term challenges of directing peacebuilding and ensuring security are equally important parts of intrastate conflict resolution that remain unaddressed in current simulations. The design of simulations with board-game-like rules for teaching about intrastate conflict has also been unexplored. This paper lays out a new type of simulation with board-game-like rules that present realistic obstacles to students as they try to balance the various needs of their assigned state. A detailed discussion of the significance of each of the game rules and potential applications of the simulation is included.

The abstract above is from his article on the game published last year in International Studies Perspective—and, while the journal itself is behind a paywall, there’s a text version of the piece on his website. Moreover, you’ll also find a full version of the game rules there, together with various game aids. On the website he notes the following learning objectives:

  • Understanding strategic planning and risk taking faced by leaders in post-conflict societies
  • Evaluating the role of peacebuilding and reconstruction in conflict resolution
  • Understanding insecurity and uncertainty in conflict resolution
  • Exploring the importance of a long-term peacekeeper presence in the gradual reduction of militarism
  • Understanding vulnerabilities in peacebuilding
  • Understanding uncertainty in elections, including the potential for extremism
  • Considering the difficulty of transitioning from a welfare state to market economy
  • Exploring the role of external actors in conflict resolution, including the potential for third parties to sabotage peace

In its conceptualization and approach, Peacekeeping the Game explicitly draws from from Roland Paris’ excellent book At War’s End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict. This is especially true in the way that it views the relationship between economic and political transition,  in the focus on the importance of sectoral institution-building, and in the view that a rush to premature elections can be dangerously destabilizing.

It is a clever game design, and worth looking at for several reasons.

First, it is impressive how much the designer has packed into a few play sheets and a couple of pages of rules, with a game that only needs a few tokens (pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters) to play. The website also supplies a useful debriefing sheet to maximize  learning outcomes from the game. As a “cardboard” (or paper) game, it is also easily modified by instructors for their own purposes.

Second, the game also illustrates how games can embody a theoretical model of social, economic, and political process—in this case, a particular perspective on the dynamics and challenges of liberal peace building. While I don’t entirely agree with some of that analysis, Paris’ work is both thoughtful and thought-provoking, and required reading in my own graduate seminar.

Finally, as Goon correctly notes in his article, most peacebuilding simulations focus on the immediate dynamics of negotiation and conflict settlement rather than the longer-term processes of reconstruction and institution-building addressed in his game. Consequently, it fills an important niche.

“Reacting to the Past” 2012 Institute

Barnard College has announced details for its 2012 “Reacting to the Past” Institute, which will be held in New York on 7-10 June 2012:

Registration is now open for the 12th Annual “Reacting to the Past” Institute at Barnard College. We look forward to reconnecting with colleagues and to welcoming new faculty and administrators to the RTTP network. | Click here to register now.

As is our custom, the program will feature two cycles of game workshops that allow participants to experience two different games over the course of the institute. In addition to six titles from the published series, offerings include five games in development and two new chapter-length science games. |  Learn more about the Featured Games.

We also invite proposals for concurrent sessions that explore a wide range of issues related to role-playing pedagogy, course design, game management, and faculty recruitment. The deadline for proposals is March 15, 2012. | View the Call for Proposals.

For further information on registration rates, travel, and lodging on campus, please visit the institute page.

“Reacting to the Past” is a series of historical role-playing simulations, published by Pearson in the form of student resource books that provide detailed background for the historical case and the various actors, as well the rules and issues to be debated. The instructor’s manual for each game is available directly from RTTP.

“Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills.

Pioneered in the late 1990s by Mark C. Carnes, Professor of History at Barnard College, RTTP has undergone considerable development and expansion.  In addition to the eight games currently published by Pearson Education, another twelve games are being developed by teams of faculty from across the nation.

All of the games are set in the past, and thus might be regarded as history, but each game also explores multiple additional disciplines. Part of the intellectual appeal of RTTP is that it transcends disciplinary structures…

The published games currently address:

While a number of other games are currently in development:


The North American Simulation and Gaming Association will be holding its 50th anniversary conference in Columbus, Ohio on 7-10 November 2012. You will find more information in this leaflet, or on the NASAGA website.

They are also still accepting applications for sessions until March 15. Proposals may be for either of two types of sessions.

Concurrent sessions are 90 minutes, interactive, energetic, lively and original – typically PowerPoint-free. Game night sessions are two hours, held concurrently one evening, and allow time for playing and debriefing a complete game or simulation.

For further information on submitting a proposal, see here.



Gaming urban counterinsurgency in Iraq: Fardh al-Qanoon update

Over at his Smart War Blog, graduate student Robert Hossal recently released the draft map, counter set and rules for his simulation of 2007 Baghdad Security Plan—all part of his class assignment  in Professor Philip Sabin’s well-known course on conflict simulation at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His progress on the project is well worth following for the insight it offers into a range of issues, ranging from the innovative use of game design as an instructional technique to how a designer might model complex stabilization and counter-insurgency operations. Plus, I like the white-on-black Jaysh al-Mahdi markers, Robert!

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For a less serious take on insurgency and counter-insurgency in Iraq, there is also the (in)famous Iraq-themed version of RISK we’ve been known to play at McGill from time-to-time…

simulations miscellany, 21 February 2012

Some recent items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

Sharing critical judgments is an essential part of learning in simulation and debriefing. Instructors often avoid giving voice to critical thoughts and feelings because they do not want to appear confrontational and they worry that criticism might lead to hurt feelings or defensiveness on the part of the trainee. Voicing critical judgment poses a dilemma for many instructors: “How can I deliver a critical message and share my expertise while avoiding negative emotions, preserving social ‘face’ and maintaining my relationship with the trainee?” This paper offers an approach to debriefing that addresses this dilemma.

The existing debriefing literature provides little guidance on how to create an environment in which trainees feel simultaneously challenged and psychologically safe enough to engage in rigorous reflection. By “rigorous reflection,” we mean a process that brings to the surface and helps resolve the clinical and behavioral dilemmas and areas of confusion raised by the simulation experience. Drawing on a 35-year research program on improving professional effectiveness in the business world through “reflective practice,” this article articulates a model of debriefing for medical simulation exercises.

Amnesty International + Call of Duty MW3?

A couple of weeks ago, the blogosphere and Twitter were full of news of an innovative partnership that pointed to new ways in which digital games and social causes could work together to raise funds and build awareness. According to reports and the video below, for $1 players of the popular tactical shooter game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 could purchase a special map and game mod. This would allow access to a hostage-rescue scenario, while the money would go Amnesty International’s global human rights campaigns.

…except it isn’t true. The video is simply a conceptual experiment by a small group of advertising students. It doubtful that AI had anything to do with it at all. It is certainly clear to anyone that has the slightest knowledge of AI’s work that they weren’t likely to partner with a game that is all about killing, and often in ways that are not compliant with international humanitarian law.

What is striking in all this is not that someone suggested it. As student work, it is rather interesting, and the advertising world is certainly full of edgy videos intended to demonstrate creative cleverness (as illustrated by this classic example—which had nothing to do with VW, who were rather annoyed by the negative publicity it generated when the video went viral).

Rather, what is revealing the extent to which so many websites picked up on the story without expressing doubts or bothering to check, once more highlighting the thin line between “gamification” and simple unquestioning fad-ism.

The giant fake escaping rhino simulation

As part of PAXsim’s continuing commitment to bring you the very latest in cutting-edge simulation-related news and innovation, we present the giant fake escaping rhino simulation in Tokyo:

As Sky News reports:

Japanese police and zoo keepers have been filmed fending off a papier mache rhinoceros as part of an emergency drill.

More than a hundred staff and Japanese police and paramedics took part in the practice as the rhino – controlled by two people – lumbered through the park.

One worker at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoological Gardens was even attacked by the life-sized creature, prompting other keepers to rescue their colleague while pushing the animal away with sticks.

Although visitors were rushed away from the rhino’s path, many stuck around to watch the spectacle – designed to prepare workers for a real-life rampage.

Zoo director Toshimitsu Doi said less elaborate costumes were sometimes used for the annual drills, but that the papier mache rhino was used on this occasion for its impact.

After keepers surrounded the rhino with a net, they pretended to tranquilise and capture it, at which point the two staff inside the rhino were allowed to shed the costume and return to their normal duties.

The drill may never need to be put into practice, however – Ueno Zoological Garden has only had four instances of animals escaping in the last 50 years.

simulations miscellany, 8 February 2012

Some recent items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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Kotaku Australia (16 January 2012) has an interesting piece on “The Fun and Games of the FBI.” The article focuses almost exclusively on avatar-type tactical and RPG serious digital games to teach procedure, however, and says very little about the myriad other possible uses of serious games (not all of them digital) to teach analyst skills, investigative techniques, etc. I would suspect that law enforcement training can involve quite a bit of old-fashioned role-playing and BOGSAT-type scenario exercises, so in many ways the article also implicitly points to the problem of treating new/technological approaches to simulation and game-based training as something wholly different from earlier (non-technological approaches). To me it seems rather like treating new-fangled pens and old-fashioned pencils as if they were wholly different items with wholly different approaches and purposes.

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One of the points made in the FBI piece is that “serious learning” should not be “seriously boring.” This issue is examined in greater detail by John Ferrara in an article on “Why Games Should Be Designed to Be Games First” at UX Magazine (7 February 2012). Discussing the rise of serious games, he notes:

All of a sudden, products labeled as being “games” have started to appear everywhere. Unfortunately, many of these products have shown an insufficient regard for the quality of the player experience. They’re too often designed first and foremost to serve their designers’ objectives, and not to be enjoyed for their gameplay. They contain none of the joy, fascination, and complexity that make games the beautiful interactions they are. In the worst cases, they demonstrate an impoverished, cynical, and exploitative view of games and of the innate human drive to play.

He’s right, of course—one of our biggest criticisms of many so-called serious games here at PAXsims is that while they address interesting and important issues, they are sometimes really, really dull to play. If enjoyment is supposed to be a key hook to engage the player with a particular social or educational message, this is a real problem.

Ferrara also suggests that at present we’re moving into the “trough of disillusionment” in serious game design (following Gartner’s famous technological hype cycle), and that soon we’ll be progressing on to the “slope of enlightenment”.)

Key to this, he suggests, will be the realization that “designers who are creating games must be centrally concerned with the quality of the player experience.” Given the point I’ve made above, its hard to disagree with this. However, I would also add that this needs to occur with very close attention to the serious purpose of the game itself, otherwise one can end up with a popular product that badly teaches its lessons, or teaches the wrong ones entirely. Rizk, for example, was a beautiful, charming game on climate change that was fun to play—but it was a real challenge to derive lessons on climate change from the game itself, and I doubt that 90% of ordinary players did so. The World Bank’s Evoke social platform was regarded as trendy and widely praised in the serious game community, but did as much to confuse as illuminate key development issues. In short, if a game claims to be serious, it needs to seriously address the issue of communicating its subject matter.

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Finally, Michael Peck—who has apparently been cloned by alien beings as part of a nefarious scheme to populate the world with serious game commentators—is now also writing a column for Kotaku, in addition to his gaming columns for the Training & Simulation Journal and Foreign Policy Magazine. His first contribution, entitled “Fun is Good, Useful is Better,” explores the simulation and gaming requirements of military training.


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