Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: April 2012

A digital “banana republic” and teaching the political economy of development

For many years now, one of the assignments in my introductory course in political development at McGill has been to write a book review. Students are usually allowed to choose which book to review from among four or five possibilities. This year the choices were the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report on conflict security and development; journalist Doug Saunders’ book Arrival City, on the dynamics of contemporary urban migration;  Roger Riddell’s examination of Does Foreign Aid Really Work?—and, last but least, Kalypso Media’s 2011 computer game Tropico 4, in which players assume the role of El Presidente of a fictional island “banana republic.”

Tropico makes no claim to be a realistic simulation of economic and political development. However, the modelling of domestic political dynamics is fairly complex: the population is divided into various factions (each with particular demands), and the degree of popular support El Presidente enjoys is also shaped by the general standard of living (food, housing, health care, wages, and so forth). As the leader you can buy off individuals, use repressive means to stay in power, and even try your hand at electoral fraud. If El Presidente isn’t careful, he might lose an election, be  overthrown by rebels, toppled in a military coup, or even deposed by a hostile superpower.

The economic system of Tropico runs much like most resource management/construction games, with the player choosing what to invest in and what supporting infrastructure to purchase, based on both natural resource endowments (agricultural potential, mineral resources, tourism potential) and the global market. In this sense, the island of Tropico looks far more like a centrally planned Cuba than it does most developing countries. Although a capitalist faction is included, they don’t seem to have any actual capital—rather, with the sole exception of the shanties erected by inadequately-housed workers, pretty much everything on the island is built and owned by the state. Periodically natural disasters can affect the island, destroying some of the assets you have constructed.

The whole thing is highly playable, witty, nicely rendered, and pretty engaging. Tropico 4 has received some good reviews, including a8.5 /10 at IGN, 7.5 /10 at Gamespot, and 72% at PC Gamer. This is the second time I’ve assigned a version of Tropico to this class, having assigned the earlier Mucho Macho (2002) version back in 2006. This year it was much simpler to assign, however, since the game can be easily downloaded via Steam.

But why assign a decidedly non-serious entertainment game that offers an often cartoonish portrayal of the “third world” to a serious class on political and economics development?

In many ways, that’s the point. Students are being challenged to think about the extent to which the Tropico “model” accords with real-world political processes, and the extent to which it departs from these. Typically this involves not only playing the game, but also thinking about it with some analytical sophistication. Do revolutions and coups really happen that way? (Yes, to some extent they do—in Tropico rebels appear when segments of the population become deeply dissatisfied, while coups tend to occur when the military is poorly paid or differs substantially with government policy.) Is the election model credible? (Actually, it isn’t bad—and election outcomes are even affected by the issues you highlight in your campaign speech.) What about foreign political and economic relations? (The game does an OK job of simulating the tug-of-war of the superpowers, but is less effective at representing multinational corporations. These never invest directly in the economy, for example, or own particular assets.) What about the economy in general? (As noted above, this is by far the least “realistic” part of the game, with the economy driven by state investment decisions, and no private sector that actually owns, invests, or divests.) Like SimCity, the game poses some interesting land use challenges: Should you farm or mine in a given area? What environmental degradation might be caused by certain industries? (It pays to keep parts of the island beautiful if you want to attract tourists, free of both pollution and unsightly shanties. Some hotels, tourist sites, and bars help too.) Do you focus on a limited import substitution strategy, or aim for export-orientated industrialization? (The game design pushes the player towards the latter, but in any case Tropico is too small of an economy to make ISI feasible even in the real world). Spend too much and you’ll find yourself increasingly in debt, although the game doesn’t really present you with the possibility for IMF-style structural adjustment.

Quite a few students manage to link the game to issues raised in the various course readings and lectures. Some even use it to offer some comment on Western images and stereotypes of the developing world—something that the game obviously caters to (or panders to, depending on your perspective) for entertainment purposes.

So how did they do this year? I didn’t collect systematic data, but my impression would be:

  • Some students did very well, clearly understanding how the game could be used to generate an analytical discussion of politics in the developing world. Others did less well, often focusing on issues of game play and interface rather than the models of politics and economics built into the game. Compared to the more standard book review assignments, I think the usual normal bell distribution was a little more spread out, with a larger standard deviation.
  • Few students than expected opted for the assignment: out of 600 students in the class (yes, it’s a large class!) only about 90 or so opted for the game, compared to 150-200 for each of the three books. Perhaps a few didn’t have computers suitable to run it, but I think a bigger consideration was the novelty and hence uncertainty of the assignment. It simply seemed easier, or safer, to write a standard book review.
  • The assignment, on average, seemed to have been done a little less well than in 2006. I’m not sure why that is, but one possible explanation is that the latest edition of Tropico is far flashier than its predecessors, with much more detailed and immersive graphics. As Sherry Turkle has argued in Simulation and its Discontents, this may create a situation where the simulation becomes so attractive that users lose track of the extent to which it may depart from reality, or otherwise are inclined to unquestioningly accept its assumptions and dynamics.
  • The game reviews were largely plagiarism-free, in large part because no one writes and publishes political science-y reviews of fun games about island dictators. Any student who did plagiarize likely did poorly, since the game reviews available online are all about the game play experience. (Book reviews, on the other hand, are getting harder to assign in an age where you can find scores of online reviews, both in academic journals and While I am confident that the overwhelming majority of my students don’t cheat, I think I’m likely to stop assigning book reviews next year in the interests of fairness.)
  • The most obvious weakness of the game-as-a-simulation, namely its Stalinist economic model, was overlooked by a surprising number of students. That might be my fault, of course—although I did spend an entire section of the course (plus a chapter of the text) on economic development. I think it has more to do, however, with this being the norm in resource-allocation games. It may also be a sign (as I have long suspected) that many undergraduate students of international development often have a rather top-down approach to the issue, coupled with an uneven grasp of the important role of entrepreneurship and private sector growth.

Might I assign another game as a review assignment? Certainly. I’m satisfied that the assignment itself is intellectually challenging, encourages students to consider game dynamics as a theoretical model of sorts, and critique it from the knowledge they acquired. The bigger challenge is finding games that are appropriate, and relate to the subject matter I tend to teach.

The Politics of Competitive Board Gaming Amongst Friends

Documentary film-maker Jay Cheel has put together an enjoyable little video that looks at the group dynamics of multiplayer board-gaming, through the lens of his own informal gaming group and a game of Settlers of Catan. As he notes on his blog:

Here’s a new short that I filmed with some friends over the past month. It’s a 10 minute documentary called “The Politics of Competitive Board Gaming Amongst Friends”; a title that pretty much sums up the content. Over the last year, me and my group of friends have become quasi-casual board gamers. It all started with the occasional game of Dutch Blitz and Speed Scrabble, but when The Settlers of Catan was brought into the mix, we were all hooked. The others have had some fun with other similar games (Pandemic, Power Grid, Carcassonne), but I don’t think any of them come close to the fun of playing Catan.

A little while ago, our friend Gerry had a bit of an outburst during one of our matches. He blew up at us all and then went home, claiming he’d never play with us again. It was an awkward moment that I immediately thought was worthy of some discussion. Our “in game” personalities are quite different from the “real” us, so I thought it might be interesting to talk to those involved and see what sort of insight they have on each others gaming personalities. Also, the idea of handling such a trivial subject in such a serious manner was irresistible. This is a comedy, first and foremost.

It’s worth noting that I was actually present at this game and was sort of involved in the outburst. Or at least I felt some of the fallout from it. I decided to leave myself out of the story simply due to logistics and practicality. I shoot all of my own stuff, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to put myself on camera (which I’m frankly not interested in anyways). It’s also worth noting that Gerry has consistently blown up at every single game since this one.

Regular gamers will recognize many of the personalities, quirks, and group dynamics in evidence: the intensely competitive players and the more laid back ones, trash-talking, friendship, and players with thin skins. Differences in background, age, and formal education also make an appearance, as does the importance of snacks.

Oh, and yes—that annoying player who takes forever to make his or her move, even though they’ve had ages to plan it. We’ve all been there…

h/t Purple Pawn

simulations miscellany, 28 April 2012

A few recent items that might be of interest to PAXsims readers:

  • Drew Hamilton has reviewd Phil Sabin’s recent book Simulating War at Times Higher Education. It is good to see the book getting notice outside the wargaming community, since it has much to offer to both teachers and historians.
  • Robert Hossal—a student in Phil’s conflict simulation course at King’s College London—has finished his class assignment/wargame of the 2007 Baghdad security plan, Fardh al-Qanoon. You’ll find both the game and his reflections on the design process over at his Smart War blog.
  • Strategy & Tactics Press will be launching a new war-game magazine on the modern era, Modern War, in June.
  • There’s been loads of excellent discussion lately at both the Simulating War Yahoo group, and over at the Wargaming Connection website.
  • Earlier this month, Catalysts for Change—a “48-hour online game to engage people around the world to reimagine the future of poverty and global well-being”—was held. The game (which is more of a crowd-sourcing/social media tool) was produced using the Foresight Engine platform designed by Jane McGonigal and developed by Institute for the Future (it all looks very MMOWGLI-like). I’m afraid that I was rather underwhelmed by the general quality of the discussion. Measuring the impact on social engagement is a a trickier issue, though—do initiatives like this lead to social activism, or digital slacktivism?
  • NATO recently released its first serious training game app for mobile devices, an Android version of Boarders Ahoy! The game is designed to improve maritime interdiction skills, or more precisely boarding and search procedures. You can read about the game’s development on the Caspian Learning website, and the game itself can be downloaded from the Google Play marketplace.

NDU: Phil Sabin on “The Continuing Merits of Manual Wargaming” (9/5/2012)

Professor Philip Sabin (King’s College London) will be giving a talk on “The Continuing Merits of Manual Wargaming” at National Defense University in Washington DC on 9 May 2012. PAXsims recently reviewed Phil’s excellent new book, Simulating War.

For further information, contact Ellie Bartels or Tim Wilkie.

McGill: Visiting Fulbright Chair in International Development Studies

This isn’t directly games-related… but it could be.

A one semester Visiting Fulbright Chair in International Development Studies will be available at McGill University for the 2013-14 academic year. The primary focus is democracy and democratization, but that doesn’t preclude those who are interested in simulations as a mechanism for either understanding or teaching about political and economic development. Applicants must be US scholars with a PhD (or equivalent professional experience).

If you’re at all interested, feel free to drop me a line to learn more about the city and university. (Although I’m affiliated with ISID, I’m not involved in the selection process. And no, I have no idea what the red shopping cart is supposed to represent.)

World Peace Game: Classes with John Hunter

Award-winning primary school teacher John Hunter, developer of the World Peace Game, will be offering several master classes for educators through June-August 2012 in Houston, Atlanta, Charlottesville, New York, Jacksonville, Memphis. Philadelphia, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Seattle. More information is available at the the website of The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence.

The website of the World Peace Game Foundation can be found here.

The Economist: The Science of Civil War

The latest issue of The Economist (21 April 2012) includes an article on advances in computational modelling of civil war and insurgency:

FOR the past decade or so, generals commanding the world’s most advanced armies have been able to rely on accurate forecasts of the outcomes of conventional battles. Given data on weather and terrain, and the combatants’ numbers, weaponry, positions, training and level of morale, computer programs such as the Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model, designed by the Dupuy Institute in Washington, DC, can predict who will win, how quickly and with how many casualties.

Guerrilla warfare, however, is harder to model than open battle of this sort, and the civil insurrection that often precedes it is harder still. Which, from the generals’ point of view, is a pity, because such conflict is the dominant form of strife these days. The reason for the difficulty is that the fuel of popular uprisings is not hardware, but social factors of a type that computer programmers find it difficult to capture in their algorithms. Analysing the emotional temperature of postings on Facebook and Twitter, or the telephone traffic between groups of villages, is always going to be a harder task than analysing physics-based data like a tank’s firing range or an army’s stocks of ammunition and fuel.

Harder, but not impossible. For in the war-games rooms and think-tanks of the rich world’s military powers, bright minds are working on the problem of how to model insurrection and irregular warfare. Slowly but surely they are succeeding, and in the process they are helping politicians and armies to a better understanding of the nature of rebellion.

I think the article, however, overstates the state-of-the-art, however. We’re a very, very long way from having computational models that tell use very useful policy- or warfighting-things about actual civil wars. Indeed, despite the title and introduction, the piece in The Economist largely focuses on much more narrow applications of analysis and technology.

Moreover, the article rather glosses over what seems to me to be an increasingly serious problem in this field: the gap between producers of data analysis and prediction, and users. Remarkably few professional conflict analysts that I’ve met—a category into which I would put the intelligence community, diplomats, and that part of the development community that works in fragile and conflict-affected countries—finds such modelling very useful in an operational sense. On the contrary, many dismiss it out of hand, even when it raises interesting questions.

Conversely, the researchers working in the area tend to over-sell what they have actually achieved. In so doing only further alienate those who supposed to find the analysis of practical use.

In short (as I recently suggested in a comment on models that attempt to provide early warning of genocide), far more attention needs to be devoted to “interface” issues of how the insights of technical modelling and the needs of conflict analysts can better be better matched.

NDU: Nuclear Wargaming (2/5/2012)

***Unfortunately, the event below has now been cancelled.***

Duck and cover! The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University will be having a “bonus” session of its roundtable on strategic gaming on May 2, devoted to the topic of nuclear wargaming. Contact them for further information.

Center for Applied Strategic Learning

National Defense University, Ft. Lesley J. McNair

Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming

Special Session on Nuclear Wargaming

National Defense University’s strategic gaming group, the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, would like to invite you to participate in a special session of our roundtable discussions on gaming. We are departing from our quarterly schedule to take advantage of the visit of experts from AF Global Strike Command to the DC area. 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 (with exceptions made for special sessions such as this one). 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.

What: National Defense University Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming

When and Where: 2 May 2012 (email for specific information)

Organized by: Tim Wilkie and Elizabeth Bartels

Speakers:  Dr. Tim Moench, of Air Force Global Strike Command Wargaming and Strategic Studies, will present on Nuclear Wargaming.  Dr. Chris Yeaw, Air Force Global Strike Command Chief Scientist, will present on Air Force Nuclear Escalation in 21st Century Conflicts.  Mr. John Harris, of Headquarters Air Force Concepts, Strategy, and Wargaming Division (Skunk Works), will present on Unified Engagement 2012″.

RSVP – By April 30 to – Please let us know if you plan on coming! We will arrange speakers and coffee, if you bring ideas and enthusiasm. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, let one of the organizers know:

Tim Wilkie, Research Analyst, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University: (202) 433-4865,

 Elizabeth Bartels,  Research Analyst, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University: (202) 685-2634,

5th annual Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds Conference

The 5th annual Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds Conference will be held in Washington DC on 16-18 May:

5th Annual Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds Conference: Inspire the Future 

May 16, 17 & 18

National Defense University, Washington DC

Don’t forget to register for the best FCVW Conference Program ever!

Conference schedule will be on the FCVW website ( very soon.

WORKSHOPS—May 16: You will have the choice between 17 workshops offered throughout the day.

Three-hour workshops include: iHub (Stylianos Mystakidis), DoD Virtual Worlds Framework (Carl Rosengrant), and Developing Content in Unity 3D (Eric Hackathorn).

75-minute workshops include: Authentic Avatar (Brock-Richmond), Designing 3D VW Education & Training Courses (Reyer), Cognitive Ethnography (Dubbels), Immersive Intelligence and 3D Data Virtualization (Richard Hackathorn), Growing Your Organizations vTraining Presence (Perkins), PTSD (Kevin Holloway), Microsoft and VW, VWs for Analysis and Experimentations (Aguilar), Lessons from goXOgo (Kearney), NTER (Cohen), Personal Transformation in a VW (Deveneaux), Advanced Telemedicine (Dillion), MOSES Open Simulator (Maxwell), and Using Serious Games in OpenSim to Model Taxpayer Behavior (Creekmore). Schedule will be available this week.  More detailed information on each workshop will be available on our website by April 30.

SPEAKERS: We have incredible speakers this year.  Check out the schedule and bios of the speakers on the website.

Randy Hinrichs, CEO 2b3d and editor of “Transforming Virtual World Learning” and “Engaging the Avatar” will be the opening keynote!

James Blascovich, Director and co-founder of the Research Center for Virtual Environments at UC Santa Barbara and co-author of “Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of our Virtual Lives will discuss the reality of the avatar.

Michelle Fox, Chief Strategist for Education and Worksforce Development at the Department of Energy will show us the NTER project and its virtual world capabilities.

Jesse Schell, game designer  at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center will challenge us to think outside of the box with games and 3D environments.

PANELS: Charles Wankel, author and editor of more than 30 books, including a co-Author of Transforming Virtual World Learning (Cutting-Edge Technologies in Higher Education) (2011) and Higher Education in Virtual Worlds: Teaching and Learning in Second Life (International Perspectives on Education and Society) (2009) is putting together a great education panel.   Other panels include: a telemedicine panel led by Kevin Holloway, Army psychologist from T2 and award winner for his PTSD island; DoD panel that will address the use of OpenSim MOSES Project a virtual world space for groups in DoD and led by Douglas Maxwell, Science and Technology Manager Virtual World Strategic Applications created by Army Research Labs.  The final panel will address the important topic of Cyber Security in Virtual Worlds.  The Panel will be led by Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, the Director for the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecuity and the Academic Director, Master of Infrastructure Planning and Management at the University of Washington.   More details with panel membership will be posted on the website no later than April 30.

GOVERNMENT POSTER SESSIONS: We still have room for a few more government project poster sessions.  Awards will be given for the best poster sessions voted by conference participants.  If you have a virtual world or 3D collaborative game project with the government, please send your name and contact information in an email to   Complete list of government poster sessions will be posted by April 30, 2012 on the website.

VENDOR FAIR: We still have some vendor spaces available for the conference vendor fair.   Please send your inquiries ASAP and we will send you the information you will need to be part of this conference.

RECEPTION (May 17) 3:30-7:30—Come and network with a great group of people, see government projects, and interact with vendors.

Paulette Robinson, PhD
Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning &Technology
National Defense University, iCollege
Washington DC

Agent-based modelling and the US troop surge in Afghanistan

The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation 9, 2 (April 2012) is now out. Most of it is devoted to technical discussions of “Resuability, Interoperability and Composability in Air Warfare Simulations,” but it does also feature an interesting and well-written piece by John Sokolowski, Catherine Banks, and Brent Morrow on “Using an agent-based model to explore troop surge strategy.”

In October of 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and replaced the Taliban government. Since its overthrow, the Taliban has pieced together and waged an insurgency to retake Afghanistan, and that insurgency has gained momentum and grown in strength while the United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) effort shrank in size to about 55,000 troops in 2007. A wide range of factors contributed to the insurgency, ranging from socio-cultural to economic to political. This research applied an in-depth study of Afghanistan to an agent-based model to determine if a military troop surge emphasizing a focused security effort could be successful in battling the growing insurgency within Afghanistan. An agent-based model was created and validated against the strategy and situation on the ground in Afghanistan that existed in 2007. Three experiments were conducted representing surges of 50%, 200%, and 400%. The results indicated that a surge of 200% or greater of the existing size force would be necessary to reduce the size of the insurgency, but that a surge of only 50% (50,000 more troops) would not bring about any significant changes as compared to the existing strategy. These model results provide insight into the potential success of various sized troop surges in Afghanistan that implement a focused security effort.

The piece is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, so you’ll need a subscription to JDMS to access the while thing. The core political-military dynamics of their model, however, are captured in the diagram on the right (click to enlarge). These in turn provide the context for the pseudo-tactical model, in which the insurgent and coalition agents fight it out, with detection ranges, a version of the usual Ph and Pk (probability of hits and kills), and probabilities of collateral damage (which in turn affect local attitudes) all modelled. Unlike some of the work done in the technical M&S field, the piece is written in language that is likely to be clear and accessible to those working in very different, non-quantitative areas.

A number of questions might be raised about the model that the authors have developed. One could endlessly quibble about the key variables they have identified, and in some cases whether the relationships always have the directional values they impute to them (for example, deployment of the Afghan National Army—and even more the highly corrupt Afghan National Police, which they don’t model—can sometimes have negative effects on local attitudes, in cases where they are either seen as abusive and predatory, or because they attract Taliban attacks in areas that might otherwise be quiet). However, those criticisms hold true for any game design, and in general my own general reading of conflict dynamics in Afghanistan suggests that quite a bit of it sounds intuitively right.

The authors do validate their model, using open source reporting of changes in Taliban numbers and adjusting the model until it fits the historical record. I’m not sure that their estimates of insurgent “density” are robust enough to provide much validation, however. Moreover, to increase calibration they manipulate only a few of the variables and relationships in the model in order to provide a match against this single indicator. To my mind, that doesn’t provide very strong validation of the underlying model itself.

The simulation attempts to draw conclusions about the relationship between an increase in coalition troop strength in Afghanistan (“the surge”) and the strength of the insurgency. In this, the authors are refreshingly realistic about the limits of agent-based modelling in illuminating policy questions (emphasis added):

The purpose of this study was to provide a means of assessing if the implementation of a military troop surge designated toward a focused security effort strategy might reverse the trend of the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. The strategy using the United States/coalition/Afghan National Army troop strength of about 101,000 soldiers has failed to defeat or even stop the growth of the Neo-Taliban insurgency. This research sought to add some insight into whether or not a surge with a specific role could work within Afghanistan.

…The results of these experiments indicated that a surge of 400,000 or 200,000 troops will reduce the size and strength of the insurgency, but a surge of 150,000 troops would not. These results are not definitive or absolute, but give insight into the possible outcomes of a surge of the given size based on a model built using careful research. This research represents a tool for analysis in the decision process to determine if a surge should occur. It is not the answer to the question of whether a surge would be effective.

In my view, however, they’ve both overstated and understated the value of their analysis. Given the great many assumptions built into the model, I’m even more doubtful than they appear to be that the outcome of the experiment provides useful policy guidance. On the other hand, I think they could do far more to highlight the potential contribution of the experiment as a heuristic device—that is, as a way of helping decision-makers think about a large, complex, wicked problem. As Gary once put it, the article would be even more interesting for a broader audience interested in insurgency and counterinsurgency  if there was less seer and more sage in its approach to the material. The model might offer some insight, for example, in why a limited surge might not work; what key indicators and metrics might be useful in assessing the effectiveness of increased coalition troop strength; or even what variables or nodes seems to have an especially important effect on outcomes. In other words, I think the article would be all the more interesting if rather than simply reporting experimental results, it also highlighted what the construction of the model itself may suggest about conflict dynamics (or our understanding of conflict dynamics) in Afghanistan. It would have also have been useful to report some of the more detailed simulation findings about how particular variables changed under different coalition troop strengths, or which relationships other than troop strength seemed to be most important to outcome.

Still, for the many readers of PAXsims who are interested in such issues but are rarely exposed to either agnet-based modelling or work in the M&S community on political-military issues, it is certainly worth a read.

NDU CASL roundtable and talk (with thoughts from a virtual lurker)

The Centre for Applied Strategic Learning had its quarterly roundtable today at National Defense University, with audio streaming of the event for those of us not in Washington DC. Mike Markowitz (Center for Naval Analyses) talked about CNA’s work for Army TRADOC on wargaming irregular operations, while Joe Saur of the Georgia Tech Research Institute presented “Thoughts on DIME and PMESII Modeling: the DARPA Integrated Battle Command Experiment.”

The slides and audio may or not be available later, as CASL sorts out attribution issues. In the meantime, however, you’ll find a live-blog of the event by Brant Guillory at Grog News.

In his presentation, Mike drew a distinction at one point between simulation “modeling” and “representation,” the former more appropriate for the physics of kinetic operations, while the latter highlights the importance of narrative (as well as the inherent “fuzziness” of diplomatic, social, and economic factors—especially in irregular warfare). A large part of Joe’s presentation also touched upon the challenge of validating simulations of insurgency with their substantial DIME (Dime/Information/Military/Economic) or PMESII (Political/Military/Economic/Social/Infrastructure/Information) elements.

The picture is complicated still further, I think, by the tension between doctrinal fidelity versus critical thinking. US and Western militaries have developed extensive population-centric doctrinal approaches (exemplified by FM 3-24) that emphasize the importance of securing local populations, building host country legitimacy, and winning “hearts and minds.” These are, however, essentially a set of hypothesized relationships, based on a particular inductive, largely qualitative reading of contemporary modern history. Others have argued that this particular view of insurgency, advanced by the so-called “COINdinistas,” is wrong, or at least misleading. The “COINtras” argue that the FM 3-24 approach is based on a misreading of past campaigns, and underestimates the role of kinetic force (see, for example, here and here). While US COIN doctrine is currently undergoing a rewrite, I’m not at all convinced that the new version will fully resolve these tensions.

With regard to gaming COIN, then, one is faced with a challenge. Does one build dynamics into the game that reflect doctrinal assumptions about the way the world works? Or does one build a model of the world and then see how doctrine (or alternative doctrinal approaches) work, thereby encouraging original, critical thinking? In the former case, how does one avoid building a simulation that confirms existing approaches because it is, in essence, biased from the outset to do so? In the latter case, where does one derive that alternative model from?

It was, as always, another excellent CASL roundtable, with two great presentations and some stimulating discussion—although I must admit that I missed the excellent snacks that NDU usually provides!

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Last week, CASL also hosted a talk by Peter Perla on April 4. They’ve now uploaded both the audio and the slides here.

Defense GameTech 2012 and Army Games for Training AAR

(video via GameTech)

James Sterrett kindly has provided an after action review for PAXsims on the recent Army Games for Training and Defense GameTech conferences in Orlando. With many thanks to James, we present it below.

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An Idiosyncratic Report on the Army Games for Training and GameTech Conferences

James Sterrett

Disclaimer: This article reflects the personal views of the author, not the official views of the US Army or its components.

My apologies to anybody wanting a complete report on everything that took place.  These are not huge conventions like E3 or GDC, but they were plenty large enough to ensure I didn’t see more than a slice of the convention.

For the past few years, GameTech and the Army Games for Training Conference (AGFT) have been under the same management.  For various reasons, not all known to me but partly a new DoD ban on serving food at conferences, they are now administratively separate.  This year they were held in the same location on the same week, with AGFT on Monday and Tuesday and GameTech on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. There’s apparently some discussion of holding them separately in the future, a move which would serve neither conference in my opinion.

Both conferences ran panels by leading lights of industry and/or the DoD in the morning, and papers in the afternoon.  I generally did not attend the panels, talking to people instead – for me, this proved to be a very good conference for meeting people.  My boss, LTC Chuck Allen, dutifully attended the panels and assured me I had missed nothing.

AGFT runs a mix of tutorials and papers, and has often proven to be the VBS2 Conference in the past.  VBS2 still had a very strong showing, but other official simulations got a look in as well.  The National Simulation Center provided several demonstrations of the Army Low Overhead Training Toolkit (ALOTT).  Unfortunately, the person sent to run the demo sessions needed more backup; the hands-on potion of the demonstration was a good idea but, absent material on how to operate the simulations, it fell a bit flat.  PEO-STRI’s Tim Wansbury also taught sessions on editing UrbanSim.  UrbanSim does very well at delivering a single-player stability operations exercise, and is easily learned – however, getting far enough under its hood to really alter things such as the population model or the player’s echelon requires recoding parts of the simulation.  (We’ve used UrbanSim’s generic-Iraq and generic-Afghanistan scenarios at some of the Command & General Staff College’s courses for years, but there’s mounting pressure for another scenario, which is proving difficult to deliver.)

TCM (TRADOC Capabilities Management) Gaming ran an avatar design competition to get people to try their new VBS2 avatar design tools. The tools proved relatively easy to use, and getting photos of my face mapped onto the avatar ran quickly.  Unfortunately, designing an avatar that looks good is harder than using the tools.  I felt quietly proud of my attempt at winter camo, using a white background with a sprinkling of brown leaves… until somebody standing next to me at the hallway monitor displaying them labelled it the Dalmatian outfit – and quite correctly so!  I confessed to perpetrating it.

GameTech serves a wider audience, so the range of topics suddenly broadened a great deal.  I missed a number of talks I wanted to go to. Gametech served breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and arranged for speakers during both meals.  The speakers proved a mixed blessing.

Best talks:

AGFT’s keynote speaker for Tuesday was Curtis Murphy, repeating his IITSEC talk on the Science of Learning.  It’s a great presentation with an excellent combination of wit and insight.  Readers of this blog may be familiar with the content – it’s a basic primer on why games work in educaion, and the primary point is that learning and games work for the same reasons – but it’s packaged so well that my non-gamer boss saw the light.

Michael Jones, Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, delivered a scintillating speech during breakfast on Thursday, arguing for the value and necessity of embedding understanding (as opposed to simply facts), into programs.  Apparently, the zoom out – fly over – zoom in feature of Google Earth was put in at his insistence in order to teach a bit of basic geography, because during the fly over part he hoped people would notice where various things were.

Ross Smith of Microsoft spoke about the value of using games to get projects done at work – a great talk despite a dodgy Skype connection. Apparently, in addition to Ribbon Hero, Microsoft has deployed some forms of testing into game frameworks, having people do very small tests to provide checks and feedback on software.  This was credited with performing hundreds of thousands of tests and ensuring a successful Windows 7 launch.

Captain Ed Stoltenberg (Maneuver Captain’s Career Course Instructor) – We support Ed, so this is perhaps biased, but his talk woke up a sleepy audience on Tuesday afternoon.  Ed has been a major force for integrating simulations into the MCCC classroom, working hard to include them and gather data to prove that they are working to improve student’s understanding.

John Roberts from the Naval War College (NWC) on using iPads instead of printed books.  LTC Allen and I spoke on Wednesday about the use of simulations in the classroom at CGSC.  We were paired up with John Roberts.  Apparently, NWC issues around 6,000 pages of reading through iPads, complete with a special NWC-only section of the iTunes store, and the student response has been overwhelmingly favorable, with 90%+ approval of the project on measures ranging from ease of use and superiority over paper products.  To get there, NWC had to overcome a number of administrative and Information Assurance hurdles – John Roberts didn’t really speak to these, but I’m aware of them because they appear to be insurmountable at CGSC.  Some CGSC studies suggest it would be tens of thousands of dollars cheaper to issue each student an iPad loaded with all the course reading, than it is to print, distribute, collect – and often destroy – a year’s worth of reading. John Roberts’ paper suggests it is worthwhile to continue to struggle to make the change.

Worst talks:

General Edward Rice, USAF, assisted Wednesday’s breakfast with endless repetition of “budgets will shrink, do more with less”, without any vision of how to get there. The “Blackberry/Android/iOS prayer” swept through the room.  To cap it all, he proudly did not use PowerPoint – but then spent time verbally describing charts and graphs to us.

Mike Zyga: He’s been involved in many wonderful projects, and he made sure we knew it, because that proved to be the only content of his talk.  Information on how or why some of these turned out so well would have been useful; instead, it was an “I love me” talk.  Maybe he’s a wonderful individual in person; as it was, this was the talk I had to sit through in order to hear Ross Smith.

Other Notes:

Captain Ed Stoltenberg realized that the vendor exhibit hall had empty space, and did a quick deal with GameTech to take some of it and run a Maneuver Captain’s Career Course booth.  Since we support him, I supported the booth for most of Thursday, showing off VBS2, Steel Beasts, Crucible of Command, and Decisive Action Brigade Level.  We’re hoping paid off for Ed, because the Armor School Commandant, BG James, came by and spoke to him for 5-10 minutes or so.

It proved to be a good conference for meeting people.  I’d never before spoken to Dr. Ezra Sidran, an AI researcher whose projects can reliably identify features such as open flanks and then build a plan from them.  These haven’t been put into a fully fledged ismulation, but as Ezra is the person behind the Universal Military Simulator some of you may remeber from decades past, he very likely could accomplish that.  We renewed our connections to Rob Carpenter, Deputy Director of Simulation Development for the Australian Army, with whom we’ve had some very useful collaboration over the years.  By sheer chance, we met Chris Taff, who has recently become the person in charge of simulation support for, among other things, the Canadian Army Command and Staff College — effectively our opposite number in Canada.

Dismounted Soldier is a project to enable individual soldiers to exist in a virtual environment, and move around, without a hamster ball, but without the ability to move through the real building.  I tried it out.  You wear a helmet, vest, and leg pouch, all with motion sensors, and have an M-4 with motion sensors.  The helmet carries goggles that go over your eyes (and worked well with my glasses!)  After zeroing the system, you can turn your head to change the view, turn your body to change your facing, and use a thumb-joystick on the back of the M-4’s forward pistol grip to move forward, backward, and sidestep left and right.  During my 5-10 minutes with it, this was all remarkably unintuitive.  Looking around worked fine until I got out of synch – which happened frequently – and then had to re-zero again.  Get the re-zeroing wrong and you have to look off level to see level in the virtual world – time to re-zero again.  However, the thing that I found hardest to get ued to was that you cannot put your eye to the sights of the M-4, because the goggles get in the way.  I’m told that people get used to all this after about 30 minutes with the system, but I have to wonder if the net result is that you spend a lot of money on a system that teaches bad muscle memory.

Finally a funny story:  Captain Ed Stoltenberg and I decided to hook up Steel Beasts for some co-op multiplayer on Thursday evening.  The only place we could find that had tables and outlets was an unused section of restaruant in the (very large) hotel lobby. We set up a third computer and networked it in so that LTC Allen could give it a try as well.  After he had left, that computer was left running, off to one side, while Ed and I got our asses kicked by various scenarios.  Apparently, this setup looked like the internet access point you sometimes find in a hotel lobby.  At around 930pm, a family walked over.  The kids and Dad looked at our screens, while Mom sat down at Ed’s laptop.  Apparently oblivious to the screenshot of a tank interior or the various other icons, she homed in on Internet Explorer, opened it, and was disappointed not to make a connection. We finally began to understand what was going on, and Ed explained, very politely, that it was a personal laptop and had no internet connection.  She was quite embarrased, despite our “no harm done” assurances, and  the family moved away.  Just before they moved out of earshot we heard her say, “That’s OK, we’ll come back here tomorrow morning.”   We’ve wondered if she complained to the staff, the next morning, that the internet cafe had disappeared!

James Sterrett is the Deputy Chief of the Simulations Division of the US Army Command & General Staff College’s Digital Leader Development Center, where he has worked since 2004 teaching CGSC’s courses on using games and simulations in training and education.  His academic background includes a Ph.D in Soviet military history and several published articles on the educational use of simulations.

Brian Train at BoardGameGeek

One of our favourite insurgency/counterinsurgency game designers, Brian Train, is Wargame Designer of the Month over at BoardGameGeek—go join the conversation.

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