PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: March 2012

Government Executive on games in the government

As mentioned earlier, I’m busy at the moment running the annual “Brynania” civil war simulation for 100+ undergraduate and graduate students at McGill University. We’re just about to start Day Four, and already we’ve had faltering ceasefire negotiations, a short-lived government military offensive, attacks on humanitarian operations, terrorism, refugee flows, labour unrest, mass arrests, missing aid workers, evacuation of a wounded UK national (“Amelia Pond”), coordination problems, ethnic tensions, and politically-charged football matches. I’ve also had to read 5,129 emails to date. (You can follow a tiny part of the action on Twitter by following the #Brynania hashtag, but it isless than 1% of what is going on).

In the meantime, I thought I would quickly flag an article that appears in the 1 April 2012 edition of Government Executive magazine on the growing use of games in government, focussing on their use as a mechanism for crowdsourcing ideas:

Military boardrooms and government laboratories aren’t always the most conducive spaces for flashes of insight and creative thought. Nor do they attract Silicon Valley types. But by mining the crowd for answers agencies can’t find on their own—with games that reward ingenuity and play—they are accessing a wealth of ingenuity beyond the civil servants, military personnel and contractors who comprise the federal workforce. Freed from the constraints of reality, gamers are able to conjure ideas that an expert in a cubicle might never think of. If these games and puzzles feed bright ideas to government leaders, they could upend the perceptions many people hold about computer games, from black holes that suck resources from society to tools with real-world impact.

Citizen “crowdsourcing and scientific discovery really challenge notions of expertise that are fine for some, but uncomfortable for others,” says Constance Steinkuehler, a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Steinkuehler, a game researcher on an 18-month stint from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, aims to steer the Obama administration to get serious about games.

If government leaders can overcome  biases against games and crowdsourcing, there’s untapped brainpower at stake: In the United States alone, 72 percent of households play computer or video games, according to a 2011 report by the Entertainment Software Association. Government could boost a growing game industry that’s already racking up more than $25 billion in annual sales, according to the ESA report “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.” In the United States there are an estimated 145 million active gamers and 215 million hours a day are spent on game play, according to market research group Newzoo. The question remains, however, is the government ready to take advantage of these trends?

Read the full article for discussion of MMOWGLI and several other examples. As for me, I’m back to the civil war…

NDU: Peter Perla on “The Way of the Wargamer” (April 4)

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University  is launching a series of bimonthly lectures on strategic gaming. Unlike their quarterly roundtables (which are largely aimed at established pol-mil gamers), the new lecture series is especially intended for the “journeyman” (or “journeywoman”) gamer who is relatively new to this area. the first such lecture will take place on 4 April 42012 via teleconference:

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) is pleased to invite you to participate in our new series Lectures on Strategic Gaming. These lectures are designed to provide gamers in the early and middle stages of their career with an understanding of key concepts, methodologies and introduce them to leading thinkers in the field. Regular lectures will be held in a live teleconference format where participants will have the opportunity to listen to a presentation by experienced members of the field and ask questions. The presentation and associated resources will be maintained on the CASL website, and over time will form a resource library for the gaming community.

This endeavor seeks to preserve the field’s historic and cross-institutional memory in order to enable gamers to break into the field outside of the dominant “mentorship” training methodology. The library will help to bring gaming expertise and lessons-learned out of isolation and ensure they are accessible to a wider community.

The first lecture of the series will feature Dr. Peter Perla of the Center for Naval Analysis, and author of The Art of Wargaming. We invite you to participate in our opening lecture via teleconference, or to visit our website (http://www.ndu.edu/CASL/index.cfm?secID=46&pageID=8&type=section) at a later date to access the lecture and supporting materials.

What: Lectures on Strategic Gaming: “The Way of the Wargamer” by Dr. Peter Perla

When: Wednesday, April 4th from 1100-1200

RSVP: Please email CASLLecturesRSVP@gmail.com to receive instructions on accessing the teleconference line as well supporting materials for the lecture.

For more information about this program, please contact Ellie Bartels (Elizabeth.Bartels@ndu.edu) or Katrina Dusek (Katrina.Dusek@ndu.edu).

It is difficult to think of anyone who could provide a better introduction to wargaming than Peter, so we strongly urge those interested in serious gaming to (virtually) attend. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with a link to the piece that Peter and Ed McGrady published last year in the Naval War College Review (Summer 2001), Why Wargaming Works.

simulations miscellany, 26 March 2012

PAXsims may be a bit quiet for the next week or two, since Gary is off on mission for a couple of weeks doing something fragile-and-conflict-affected-states related, while I will be hidden in my secret jungle hideout* masterminding a civil war** in a distant land.***

In the meantime, we leave you with a few pieces of recent simulation-related news:

* * *

Over at Kotaku, Michael “that man is everywhere writing about simulations” Peck offers his thoughts about the pleasure of huge wargames. It certainly brought back happy memories teen years spent playing Next War (SPI, 1978—with 2400 counters) or War in Europe (SPI, 1976—with 3600 counters).

* * *

NATO will be holding a  workshop on Commercial Technologies and Games for Use in NATO in Genoa on 16-18 April 2012.

* * *

The Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation (March 2012) has an article by David Chris Arney and Kristin Arney on “Modeling insurgency, counter-insurgency, and coalition strategies and operations.” I’m unclear, however, where the underlying COIN model derives from—it seems to be built on a series of hypothesized relationships that may or may not derive from the social science literature on insurgency (very little of which is cited in the article or the prior work upon which the article is based), but in most cases seem to have been built into the model because they sound about right.

* * *

World Politics Review (12 March 2012) had an article by Thomas Barnett on “The New Rules: In Gaming the Future, Don’t Bet Against the Millennial Generation” in which he argues that the current generation of digital game-playing youth will have a substantive advantage in future problem-solving because of their videogame experiences:

We’re not just talking about rewiring the brain here, a serious enough scientific matter in itself, but rather the Millennial generation’s mental expectation of being able to re-engineer solutions from the inside out. Critics often rightfully accuse today’s political leaders’ tendency to keep trying the same sad solutions over and over again, despite their track record of consistent failures. Clearly, the Millennials will not suffer that decision-making deficiency. Raised on videogames, they have no problem trying 47 possible approaches before finding the solution. They don’t consider that path failure, but a rather enjoyable search — a “game,” if you will.

As someone who teaches 18-20 somethings, I am constantly impressed by the skills and dedication of the latest generation, and more than a little annoyed when they are denigrated. However, by the same token, I’m not at all convinced that there is somehow a massive videogame-inspired generational shift that marks a new era of inventive problem solving. Beware the gaming hype…

* * *

The peaceconferencing simulation played at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California (using the Open Simulation Platform first developed by USIP, and further developed by Skip Cole and Sea Change Simulations) is currently featured on the US Department of Education’s Open Innovation Portal.

* * *

 

* More accurately, my basement.

** Well, a simulated civil war.

*** Brynania.

Review: Sabin, Simulating War

Review of: Philip Sabin, Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games (London: Continuum, 2012). 363pp. USD$34.95 hc.

Professor Philip Sabin is a highly regarded military historian, well-known for his MA course on conflict simulation at King’s College London. His 2009 book Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World was an innovative examination of warfare in classical antiquity that combined scholarly analysis with a set of wargaming rules that allowed a reader to refight the battles studied in the volume. His most recent book, Simulating War, examines the art, science, and practice of military simulation more broadly. The result is both an excellent read and a very important contribution to the study of contemporary wargaming.

Part I of the volume briefly surveys the historical evolution of the field, discusses the theoretical challenges of modelling warfare, and highlights the educational utility of wargaming in the classroom. It also explores the research requirements of game design and the use of wargames as a tool of research itself. The treatment of these topics is both judicious and thoughtful: experienced gamers and game designers will find much to agree with, while those new to wargaming will benefit considerably from the insights that Sabin offers. In Part II the focus shifts to the mechanics of game design, with chapters devoted to components, game mechanics, and the playtesting and refinement of game designs. Part III provides examples drawn from Sabin’s own game designs, with the reader able to follow through why game systems were designed in particular ways to render particular relationships. Additional information is provided in five appendices. The book and website provide rules and components for no less than eight playable games. Ongoing discussion is also possible via an associated Yahoo group.

Despite its title, Simulating War does somewhat limit its treatment of the subject in three respects. First, it primarily focuses on military boardgames, reflecting the author’s long experience using such games (and the design of such games) as an educational and research tool. Digital wargames, Sabin notes, tend to hide most of their assumptions about conflict dynamics “under the hood,” making them inaccessible to most users and difficult to modify. Miniature wargaming rarely goes beyond the tactical and grand tactical, and while visually more appealing also tends to be less useful in highlighting operational and strategic issues, or otherwise illuminating the key lessons of historical battles. Because his interest is generally focused on  historical and contemporary conflict, there is little attention to role-playing games (although an element of this dynamic potentially enters into his multiplayer political-military simulation of the Second Punic War). There is some reference to the rapidly growing academic literature with regard to digital gaming and game studies/ludology more broadly, although it tends to be rather incidental to the discussion.

Second, the sort of conflict being discussed and modelled in most of book is traditional force-on-force warfare. Much more attention is therefore devoted to issues of attrition, terrain, dispersion, and tactics than to the broader social and political processes that conflicts might also involve. Readers interested in civil war or contemporary peace, stabilization, and counterinsurgency operations, for example, may find themselves wanting more on how one might model such non-kinetic aspects of warfare, especially in cases where the political dynamics at play are more important but even less well understood than the military ones.

A third characteristic of the book is the extent to which it is very much written from the author’s personal experiences as a military historian. Much of the discussion refers to particular examples from his classroom experience at KCL, design issues in his games, or lectures to (and gaming with) military staff. In this respects the book offers a somewhat narrower scope than Peter Perla’s seminal work The Art of Wargaming (1990).

In my view, the benefits that flow from these self-imposed constraints far outweigh any disadvantages. They allow the various elements of the book to be grounded in personal experience. The approach also facilitates a very effective linking of design, research, and pedagogical issues, which in turn are further highlighted through the author’s discussions of  the design decisions and philosophy represented in the games included in the book. The author’s repeated attention to the trade-offs between simplicity/parsimony and realism/explanatory power in conflict modelling is especially illuminating, and cuts to the very core of what historical and social scientific theorizing is all about. While it is rare to find an academic work that is so heavily written in the first person, the approach offers an engaging way of highlighting the effectiveness of serious wargaming as an experiential teaching technique.

Simulating War deserves to be widely read, not only by hobbyists, but also by game designers, other wargame professionals, military historians, and others called upon to teach about warfare and conflict (whether in university, military, or other professional settings). It may be a marketing challenge, however, to get non-gamers to pick up a copy. As nice as a discussion at PAXsims, Boardgamegeek, Consimworld, or various wargaming blogs might be, one hopes that this work will also find equally positive reviews in academic and professional journals too. I, for one, would heartedly recommend it to both grognards and academic colleagues alike.

ISN: Digital games and international relations

The International Relations and Security Network has a series of features this week on “the potential of strategic and digital games to shape international relations, either for better or worse.”

First, we hear from Jane McGonigal on the power of games and gaming in general to shape political and social behavior. Seth Priebatsch then introduces some of the basics of game mechanics – as well his ideas about the emergence of a new ‘game layer’ on top of the ‘real’ social and political world. Finally, Jesse Schell reports on the extent to which significant aspects of modern social life already resemble virtual games.

On Tuesday and Wednesday we consider the importance of virtual gaming to military training. First, Peter Buxbaum writes about the applications of virtual gaming in the construction of so-called cyber-ranges where possible cyber-attacks are virtually simulated in order to understand how better to defend against them. Jody Ray Bennet then writes about the latest developments – and some interesting implications – in the use of virtual games by the US, Russian and Chinese militaries to simulate real combat environments. On Thursday, we explore some of the implications of virtual games and ‘gaming’ for how we understand international relations. We close on Friday by contrasting virtual gaming and simulations with the all-too-familiar ‘games’ that foreign policy establishments continue to play.

I look forward to reading the rest of the series as it is published in the coming days.

h/t Wargaming Conncetions

US Central Command wargames war with Iran

According to today’s New York Times, US Central Command recently conducted a wargame to explore the effects of an Israeli strike against Iran that escalates to involve the United States:

The two-week war game, called “Internal Look,” played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by launching its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

(“Internal Look” is actually an annual CENTCOM wargame, held since the 1980s. The topic changes from year to year.)

The initial Israeli attack was assessed to have set back the Iranian nuclear program by roughly a year, and the subsequent American strikes did not slow the Iranian nuclear program by more than an additional two years. However, other Pentagon planners have said that America’s arsenal of long-range bombers, refueling aircraft and precision missiles could do far more damage to the Iranian nuclear program — if President Obama were to decide on a full-scale retaliation.

By “other Pentagon planners” I suspect that they mean “US Air Force planners.” After all, who wants to admit that with an annual air force budget of $170 billion doesn’t buy you certainty?

According to the New York Times account, “In the end, the war game reinforced to military officials the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of a strike by Israel, and a counterstrike by Iran, the officials said.”

The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first-strike would likely have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.

I’ll added this to the ever-growing Israel vs Iran wargame compendium over at the Wargaming Connection blog.

h/t Brian Train

Games and simulations at ISA 2012

The 2012 annual conference of the International Studies Association will be held on 1-4 April in San Diego. As usual, it features a small number of papers and panels on simulation-related topics.

SC45: Sunday 1:45 PM – 3:30 PM
Roundtable: Re-Enacting Climate Change Talks: Insights from a Simulation Experiment for the Study of International Negotiations

Sebastien Treyer, Paris Institute of Political Science

Francois Gemenne, Paris Institute of Political Science

Grégory Quenet, University of Versailles- Saint-Quentin

Gayané Adourian, Knowtex

Joffrey Becker, SPEAP – Sciences Po

 

MC45: Monday 1:45 PM – 3:30 PM
Simulation and Teaching International Relations

Sponsor(s): Active Learning in International Affairs

Chair Gulriz Gigi Gokcek, Dominican University of California

Disc. Marcelo Mello Valenca, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ)

Crisis Management in Action: Using Threat Assessments to Teach Foreign Policy Decision-Making in the Classroom

Matthew Clary, Univeristy of Georgia

National Security Council: Simulating Decisionmaking Dilemmas in Real Time

Jonathan M. DiCicco, Canisius College

Motivating Civic Engagement: Simulating Congressional Staff

B. Welling Hall, Earlham College

Immersive UN Security Council Role-Play in a Virtual World: An Exploratory Case Study

Naomi Malone, University of Central Florida

Houman A. Sadri, University of Central Florida

Simulating a Foreign Policy Dilemma: The Case of Humanitarian Intervention in “Belagua”

Bob Switky, Sonoma State University

 

TA22: Tuesday 8:15 AM – 10:00 AM
The Middle East Public Sphere After the Arab Revolts

Quraish”: An Alternative Approach to Video Games from Syria?

Pierre-Alain Clément, University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM)

 

TD59: Tuesday 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM
Research Methods in the Internet Era

 …

Changing Perspectives on Structural Violence: Some Experimental Findings from the GlobalEd2 Simulation Program

Scott Brown, University of Connecticut

Kimberly Lawless, University of Illinois at Chicago

Nicole Powell, University of Connecticut

 

WB59: Wednesday 10:30 AM – 12:15 PM
From Physical to Virtual? The 21st Century Battleground

Conflict in the Virtual Battleground: Military Videogames and American Foreign Policy
Nick Robinson, University of Leeds

10th NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming (9/4/2012)

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University will be holding its 10th quarterly roundtable on strategic gaming in Washington DC on Monday, April 9:

National Defense University’s strategic gaming group, the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, would like to invite you to participate in the tenth 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. We will also stream audio from this event live over the internet, which we hope will make it easier for colleagues outside the Washington, DC area to participate. (Please contact one of the organizers for more information about the audio streaming.)

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 Markowitz of the Center for Naval Analyses will present on CNA’s work for Army TRADOC on wargaming irregular operations. Joe Saur of the Georgia Tech Research Institute will present “Thoughts on DIME on PMESII Modeling: the DARPA Integrated Battle Command Experiment”.

For full information and an invitation, contact Tim Wilkie at NDU.

MMOWGLI update

Don Bruzman (MOVES Institute, Naval Postgraduate School) recently delivered a presentation on the current status of the MMOWGLI crowdsourcing/wargame project to the CENIC 2012 conference (“Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California”). You can access it here.

On a side note, I must say that I’m pleased to see that Don’s presentations still feature idea cards from the almost-immortal Finius T. Stormfroth. When he’s not leveraging the internet to discuss the serious policy and operational challenges of Somali piracy in MMOWGLI playtests, the redoubtable ship’s captain is also my somewhat deranged character in our local D&D campaign.

USIP SENSE simulation, 27-29 March 2012

The United States Institute of Peace will be debuting the newest version of their “Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise” at George Mason University on 27-29 March 2012. Participation is free, but requires preregistration and a commitment to fully participate.

All the details are below. My sources tell me that in the latest version includes insurgent and criminal bad guys bedevilling the fictional country Sokorna…

h/t David Becker 

Songs of Cyberia (the sounds of simulation)

I’ve spent much of the weekend gearing up for the annual Brynania civil war simulation at McGill University, which will be held this year from March 28 until April 4. Since I launched it in 1997, the fictional universe of Equatorial Cyberspace (“Cyberia”) has come to be furnished with all sort of student-generated cultural backdrop—including artwork, poetry (lots and lots of poetry), and even a Harry Potter novel. None of this is a required part of the course. Instead, it is an expression of energetic McGill students immersing themselves in the fictional simulation universe. It is also a humorous way of letting of steam during a intensive simulation that runs 12 hours a day for a full week, during the busiest part of the term.

Of particular note is the music that has been written and recorded for the simulation over the years by various campus musicians, as well as the not-always-so-musical. With Cyberian music undoubtedly poised to sweep the entertainment world one day soon, I’m pleased to give you The Songs of Cyberia:


Qual Rexton
Qual Rexton’s Greatest Hits 

Known as the “Bard of the Revolution,” the haunting, lyrical ballads of Uqami folksinger Qual Rexton have inspired revolutionaries across Equatorial Cyberspace for more than two decades.

  • Berri-Degoba (2.2mb mp3 format). Whilst travelling on Uqamistan’s single rail line from the capital to the city of Degoba, the artist reflects on the Zaharian struggle for freedom in southern Brynania.
  • Uqamistan (2mb mp3 format). A patriotic song of the revolution, often sung by Uqami football fans at matches of the Cyberian Premier League.
  • If I Forget Thee oh Rexingrad (2.2mb mp3 format). A bitter reminder of Uqamistan’s historical struggle to maintain its independence against the forces of British colonial encroachment.
  • Burn Those Western Pigs (550kb mp3 format). A more contemporary anti-imperialist song.

Big E & Northside Crew (featuring French E)
Rebelz


The ZPF militants of Camp #6
VIVA VIVA Zaharia

  • The Movement (4.8mb mp3 format). The militant musicians of refugee camp #6 praise the struggle of the radical vanguard of the Zaharian nationalist movement.

Stephanie Butcher
Radio Unity’s Golden Hits

  • Rebels Won’t Succeed (3.8mb mp3 format). The mournful melodies of Butcher’s song reminds of us of the terrible human toll exacted by Zaharian rebel attacks. Years after its release, it continues to occupy #1 position on the charts at pro-regime Radio Unity.

Brendan Clarke
Release Me!

  • Zahra al-Zahra (4.7mb, mp3 format). Clarke reminds us that imprisoned human rights activist and poet Zahra al-Zahra is out of sight, but never out of mind.

Cyberian Frost
Zaharian Mortem


Jenny Woo
Revolution

  • Uqami Freedom Song (3.1mb, mp3 format). Part of the “people’s music” campaign that swept Uqamistan, Woo proves to us that anyone can sing to further the cause of the toiling masses in the face of the oppressive structures of twilight capitalism.

Russia Today
Songs of a Brynanian Nomad (YouTube)

In this rare documentary footage, Brynanian nomads sing about their life, hopes, and dreams.

simulations miscellany, 6 March 2012

Some recent gaming news that caught our eye here at PAXsims…

* * *

At Foreign Policy Magazine, Michael Peck offers five reasons why video games are lousy propaganda. His piece spins off from the ongoing saga of American ex-Marine/ex-game designer Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, whose espionage conviction (and death sentence) in Iran has now been sent for judicial review, but the issues he raises are much broader:

Who could blame a CIA spymaster for pondering whether games could be used to demonize Iran or vilify Venezuela? And who says that only governments could do this? One can imagine interest groups surreptitiously funding a game in which environmentalists are portrayed as lunatics or ecoterrorists, or where characters casually mention that America needs to drill for oil. With product placement already a feature of video games, political messaging is inevitable.

Yet before gamers see men in black lurking behind every virtual shadow, let’s put down the Mountain Dew and take a deep breath. Video games have significant drawbacks as purveyors of propaganda.

I’m not entirely sure I agree. Leaving aside the Hekmati issue (which we’ve discussed before at PAXsims), I do think that digital games can play a potential role in politically influencing a player in ways intended by a designer. I don’t necessarily think, however, that the way to do this is through major software releases with high development costs, but rather through something rather less expensive and ambitious.

A case in point might be the online “budget simulator” that the government of British Columbia has released in order to inform citizens about the challenges of balancing the provincial budget. That simulation has subsequently been criticized by some for its presumptions and the editorial comments it offers on player choices, with political opponents labelling it as a “propaganda exercise” intended to build public support for the government’s preferred fiscal approach. (h/t to Brian Train for pointing out both the simulation and the subsequent criticism for us.) I rather liked the simulation, but it does seem unlikely that the BC government would have sponsored it if they didn’t feel it would work to their political advantage. Total cost of the simulation: $18,630.

* * *

While on a Michael Peck-related theme, I should mention that Michael had a piece back in January at the Training & Simulation Journal on military simulations in an era of budget cutbacks that we forgot to link to, as well as (another) review of the boardgame Persian Incursion in February. We just can’t keep up with him.

* * *

A GrogNews, Brant Guillory offers some thoughts on the perennial debate over games versus simulations, and their contribution(s) to education and training—complete with diagrams, no less! It is all very sensible too.

* * *

Paul Vebber asks the question “how long does it take to put on a wargame?” at Wargaming Connection. Jon Compton then nails it with the right answer in the comments section: “it takes as much time as you have….”

* * *

Electronic Arts has made it official: SimCity will be back. The trailer for the forthcoming version was announced at the 2012 Games Developers Conference this week. You absolutely should never judge a game by the pre-release cinematics, of course—but if they are anything like the eventual game play, it looks great. The game is slated for release in 2013.

ISAGA 2012

The annual conference of the International Simulation and Gaming Association will be held on 2-6 July 2012 in Cluj, Romania:

Dear participants and friends,

We are glad to announce that the road to the 43rd International Simulation and Gaming AssociationAnnual Conference “The Journey of Change: Mapping the Process” that will take place between the 2nd and the 6th of July 2012 in Cluj-Napoca, Romania is now finally open.

In July 1993 ISAGA members convened in Bucharest, Romania for the 24th Annual Conference. Almost 20 years later the ISAGA conference comes back to Romania, this time in Cluj-Napoca for the 43rd edition, three years after another great ISAGA event that we were honored to host: the 6thISAGA International Summer School in Gaming Simulation, in August 2009. Cluj-Napoca is a dynamic and multicultural city, considered to be the heart of Transylvania since it has been its political, cultural and economic center for more than 2000 years.Its diversity, youthfulness and intellectual effervescence make it the perfect setting for such an event.

The conference is open to everyone who likes, plays, designs, writes about or does research and practice in the field of gaming and simulation, and even to those who do none of that, but simply enjoy learning more about it. We welcome contributions that report on research, design, and practice in simulation and gaming. The focus of this year’s conference is on Change and we mean to look at it through the usual lenses of gaming and simulation: learning-by-doing and reflection-in-action. We hope this will be a great opportunity to present research findings and to share working experience with colleagues from countries all around the world, to strengthen current friendships and build new ones.

We are looking forward to seeing you in Cluj.

Cătălina Oţoiu
Conference President

The deadline for submitting abstracts for possible  paper presentations, poster presentations and symposia is March 31. More information on the conference, paper proposals, and registration can be found on the conference website here.

Simulations & Gaming (February 2012)

Simulations & Gaming 43, 1 (February 2012) is now available online:

The Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game

Today a group of volunteer students from my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course at McGill University helped me playtest the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game produced by LEC Management. The game was designed by Roger Mason (LECMgt) and Joe Miranda, with input from Eric Patterson at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and COL Eric Wester at National Defense University.

A full description of the game by Mason and Patterson will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of Simulation and Gaming, but the basics are fairly straightforward. The 12 players each in the game belong to three different groups: the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRA), NATO, and the fictional “World Church Union.” While the WCU is meant to represent faith-based humanitarian NGOs—the game originally grew out of a symposium on religion and military affairs—in practice they pretty much function in the game as a generic NGO or collection of NGOs.

The game is played in front of four display maps. Three of these represent Afghan provinces, while one represents the national situation. One player each from GIRA, NATO, and the WCU sit at the national map, receiving resources at the start of each turn and allocating these and other assets to their counterparts in the provinces. Each provincial map, in turn, will also have a player each from the GIRA, NATO, and the WCU. The players utilize the resources the receive to try to complete various development projects.

The objective of the game is to stabilize Afghanistan by gaining influence and completing projects. If Afghanistan’s “National Stability Index” rises above a certain point, everyone wins. However, group players can also win if their group completes all their assigned projects (for example, all WCU projects are completed), while provincial players can win if all GIRA, NATO, and WCU projects in a particular province are completed.

Sound simple? Well, there are complications. The allocation of resources by the national players to the provinces can be the subject of considerable bargaining, especially as players try to allocate scarce resources in ways that create synergies and optimize effects. The provincial players need to build influence with local powerbrokers before projects can go ahead—in the game this is represented by a triad of a local government official (malik), a local religious leader (mullah), and a local council of elders (shura). There are random event cards at both the national and provincial level that can create all manner of complications for the various players’ plans, ranging from suicide bombings to religious backlash to cholera outbreaks. The Taliban and hostile warlords make an appearance, damaging reconstruction efforts. al-Qa’ida might even take hostages. The various bad guys can be dealt with, but that usually requires a combination of local influence and military assets provided by the national-level decision-makers. Of course there are never enough resources to go around. Intelligence matters too, sometimes giving players an opportunity to look ahead to the next event, and prepare accordingly.

As is evident from the summary, the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game is not meant to be a detailed simulation of actual Afghan combat and development operations. Indeed the province “maps” aren’t really maps at all, but rather identical displays with different names on them. The possible random events and game dynamics and project costs are the same for each province too. Anthropologists could endlessly quibble about the abstract model of local power dynamics. However, this isn’t what the game is about. Rather, it is trying to capture some of the difficulties of stabilization and development efforts in nonpermissive environments, with a particular focus on the challenges of resource allocation and coordination. So how does it fare in this?

Judging from student reaction, it was a considerable success. Resource allocation discussions soon became noisy, even heated. In some provinces actors worked together well, while in others there was a little more tension and a little less sharing of information and resources. Successful programs were rapidly undone by adverse events, and the tension was quite palpable when it came time to flip the event cards each turn. In one notable case, some miscommunication resulted in a failed SAS hostage rescue mission in Khost, creating a crisis of confidence among local power-brokers. In Kandahar, an aid convoy was ambushed. All manner of things complicated the lives of the Kunar provincial team, with the increasingly stressed NATO official there suffering from what seemed to be a simulation-induced case of PTSD.

In the end, however, the players manage to achieve an impressive “Total Victory,” pushing the National Stabilization Index up over 100 for two successive turns. Hurrah! Whether this was due to innate skill, good luck, the insights generated by my POLI 450 lectures, or the security-and-development facilitating powers of Angela’s Pizza we were unable to determine.

Although the facilitator manual suggests that a game can be played in two hours, ours ran significantly longer than this even though we didn’t need to play through the full eight turns. This included some time for briefing the rules at the outset, however, as well as pizza distribution. I’m not sure I would have wanted to hurry it along any faster, however, since the player discussion and strategizing were the most important part of the process.

We also ran into a few cases where the rules seemed unclear, or where the rules seem to say one thing but the event cards suggested another. This was quickly resolved by divine intervention, however.

Finally, the game also generated a number of ideas for tweaks and add-ons. Far from being a weakness,  I view this very much as a strength: unlike a digital game, a “cardboard” boardgame is easily modified. Next year, therefore, we are likely to roll out our own version 2.0 with an active Taliban player, rather than having all opposition activity generated by the event cards. Doing this will allow us to explore adaptive-counteradaptive cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency. It will also generate even more tension into the classroom setting, thereby further encouraging student engagement.

I’ve invited student participants to add comments below, which some may choose to do. I certainly would like to thank them for all participating—I was impressed at the turn-out on a slushy, wet Saturday morning! Thanks are due as well to my co-facilitator Tommy Fisher, who took a break from designing anti-corruption and financial intelligence simulations (and surviving our gaming group’s ongoing zombie apocalypse) to help us out.

For further information on the game, contact LECMgt at info@lecmgt.com.

%d bloggers like this: