Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: May 2012

Software priorities for classroom roleplay

Skip Cole of Sea Change Simulations is currently running an online poll that asks “What are the features of the software we need to get teachers to run role plays in their classrooms?

So far, the top four answers (based on more than 400 replies from educators) are:

  1. Simple enough overview tutorial that newbies can understand and follow from A – Z, then implement with minimal assistance.
  2. Ability for teachers to be able to modify simulations to their needs.
  3. Add discovery learning open environments.
  4. Ability to track the actions of the students so they can be ‘played back’ during a debrief

At the moment the poll is still open, so you can contribute your own thoughts on the matter here.

The many wars of Orangeland

In the wake of the United National Security Council resolution authorizing humanitarian intervention in Orangeland, the war there is hotting up.

Over at Carol Prine’s Line of Departure, Stephanie R. Chenault (Chief Operating Officer of Venio, Inc.) contributed an article that examines, by way of the fictional scenario of intervention in Orangeland, how an airfield seizure by US forces might take place in the future.

The point of the article is to explore how future technologies might reshape US military operations of this sort. The subsequent source of the virtual war, however, also reflects the broader debate over US counter-insurgency strategy.

The war gets more difficult when Carl Prine offers up a detailed counter-scenario that images a possible asymmetrical response by irregular Orangeland forces that would to exploit US weaknesses and circumvent US technologies. A quagmire in the making?

Next, in the comments section of Carl’s piece, “Move Forward” offers yet another scenario which counter’s Carl’s campaign plan. The Orangeland “surge”?

The whole exercise is an interesting demonstration of how very basic web technologies—the support of blog-and-comment functionality that is easy to set up and we all take for community—can be used to create iterative and collaborative wargame-ish thinkspaces. In some way it is an update of the sceanrio-oriented BOGSAT approach, or perhaps a BOGTAVT (a Bunch of Guys/Gals Typing at a Virtual Table). It is perhaps less easy to facilitate the discussion than in a  seminar-type setting. On the other hand, it generates a written record of contributions that may encourage greater precision in the formulation of ideas. The crowd that it actively sources is much smaller than MMOWGLI. On the other hand, the ideas it develops seems much more fleshed out than most of those in the MMOWGLI play tests I’ve seen. It is fairly easy to think of ways that such an effort could be further enriched and deepened.

In the meantime, we the people of Orangeland sit on the fence, reluctant to commit to any of them until motivated to do so by ethnic solidarity, economic self-interest, moral outrage, or a clear sense of who is likely to win. This isn’t the first war we’ve seen. We’re survivors.

(Or, Carl, perhaps I should start posting snarky but informed comments on the war on military blogs, under the nickname “Soldier No Longer In Orangeland…”)

US wargame development and conflict in the Levant

On Friday, Barbara Slavin had a piece at al-Monitor on recent US wargame planning that focuses on contemporary political developments in Syria, Lebanon, and the broader Levant:

When is a war game not a war game? When it is a “competitive influence” game.

For three days earlier this month (May 15-17), more than 100 people met in Annapolis, Md. to brainstorm about devising such an exercise. The actual game is to be played this summer at an air base in Florida.

If current trends hold, the focus will be on the crisis unfolding around the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Experts will represent the players, who will include Syria’s neighbors, the United States, NATO and other interested parties such as Russia and Iran that might impact Syrian events and be affected by them in return.

Surprised all too often by nominally less well-equipped adversaries in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military wants to know more about what it is getting into before it has to fight another war. It especially wants to know if there are non-military ways of dealing with crises.

In 2006, the US Army established an Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) to deal with such contingencies. The AWG then developed the Asymmetric Operations Working Group (AOWG) with support from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.[i] The latter group has published six studies on so-called “complex threats” ranging from al-Qaeda to piracy and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

The groups include civilian analysts as well as on-the-ground “practitioners” — judging from the number of barrel-chested men at this month’s “immersion seminar” who had biceps the circumference of normal people’s thighs.

Those invited also included less imposing academics, historians, retired diplomats and analysts from organizations ranging from think tanks to the New York City Police Department.

At least 10,000 people have died in Syria in the past 15 months but the death toll has come in increments of a few dozen a day. No one at the conference said how many Syrians would have to die at one time — or be threatened with death — to qualify as a “mass atrocity” prompting US action.

One focus at the AOWG event was the “seams” between various US commands, departments and agencies that need to be stitched more closely together for maximum effectiveness.

For example, US European Command (EUCOM) would likely be drawn into a NEO or a MARO even though Syria and Lebanon are in the area of responsibility of US Central Command, whose bases are located around the Persian Gulf and in Afghanistan. (EUCOM’s area includes Turkey and Israel as well as the Mediterranean Sea.)

A number of US combatant commands and agencies would also be engaged if the Barack Obama administration decides to create a no-fly zone or humanitarian corridor in Syria for refugees. And there is the possibility of wider US military involvement in support of the Syrian opposition.

Throughout the seminar, the organizers stressed that while one aim is to be ready for military challenges, an equally if not more important goal is to identify other elements of US and allied influence.

AWG — which is based at Fort Meade, Md. and includes about 200 active-duty military and about 100 civilian Defense Department employees and contractors — uses the AOWG to understand the vulnerabilities of adversaries. It also wants a better grasp of US vulnerabilities and of the consequences of US actions — or as Pentagon types put it, the “second and third-order effects” — resulting from various steps.

“The purpose of the game is less about finding solutions and more about gaining a deeper understanding of the problem set and the second and third-order effects that occur when certain actions are taken,” said Mastin Robeson, a retired US Marine Corps Major General who is advising the AOWG study of the Levant.

Or as the group’s literature says, AWG seeks to “increase situational knowledge, foster a collaborative approach and challenge assumptions” regarding “complex challenges.”

Asked how the region encompassing Syria and its neighbors was chosen for this year’s exercise, Lt. Col. Scott Crino of the AWG outlined the methodology used for choosing focus areas but said this decision was easy. “You can tie every threat group around the world to the Levant,” he said.

What is surprising about this is not so much the wargaming—which seems quite routine given current developments and possible future contingencies in the Middle East—but the willingness of the US military to have it reported. Some signalling, perhaps?

h/t Liz Colton

simulations miscellany, 27 May 2012

I’ve been a bit slow posting in recent weeks, in part because I was away hanging around in Alabama bars while trying to overthrow the corrupt and dictatorial regime of “Florabama.” Under the wise leadership of opposition leader David Ortega—and with a little help from our friends—I’m pleased to say that we succeeded.

As might be expected, I role-played the brutally efficient but politically dubious ex-Colonel Rey Borge in the exercise.

Meanwhile, in other simulation-related news…

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The US Navy’s Energy and Environmental Readiness Division (OPNAV N45), together with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Naval Postgraduate School, recently convened another run of its MMOWGLI (Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet) crowd sourcing platform on 22-24 May, this time focusing on the issue of energy and naval operations.

You’ll find media coverage of the experiment here, herehere, here, and here (among others).

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At Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Peck interviews military futurist Peter Singer about how the next iteration of the popular Call of Duty video game series will depict and incorporate future technologies.

The Internet has been abuzz over details — and several intriguing YouTube videos — of the upcoming “Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” scheduled to hit shelves in November. A sequel to the 2010 blockbuster “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” the latest iteration of the video game continues the saga of American and Russian operatives immersed in a complex 1960s Cold War plot. But much of the sequel takes place in 2025, when the United States is confronting China and when America’s high-tech arsenal of robotic vehicles is hacked, hijacked, and turned against its makers. Although the dark plot sounds like science fiction, it is actually based on solid real-world analysis provided by defense futurist Peter Singer, author of the bestselling Wired for WarForeign Policy spoke with Singer about his work on the game…

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University of Waterloo professor Neil Randall will lead a major new SSHRC-funded research project on immersive digital games, the  The Interactive and Multi-Modal Experience Research Syndicate:

Randall said the research will focus on three areas of gaming — the immersion experience, the relationship among gamers and addiction.

Randall, who heads the university’s research centre called The Games Institute, said the biggest part of the research will be on immersion.

“What does immersion mean? How do people get immersed in games? How do you study it? How do you quantify it?” Randall said. “Immersion is what all game companies are trying for to make sure people really want to play their game.”

For more on the initiative, see the article here.

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Over at the wargaming site Grogheads, Christopher David has started a “developer’s diary” that documents his efforts to develop a card-driven game that examines insurgency and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. According to Christopher, the focus of the game will be “how does the policy/strategy context shape tactics and the outcome of conflict?”

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Back in February, Brenda Brathwaite gave a TED talk on “Gaming for Understanding.”

It’s never easy to get across the magnitude of complex tragedies — so when Brenda Brathwaite’s daughter came home from school asking about slavery, she did what she does for a living — she designed a game. At TEDxPhoenix she describes the surprising effectiveness of this game, and others, in helping the player really understand the story.

Brenda Brathwaite designs games that turn some of history’s most tragic lessons into interactive, emotional experiences.

For decades, Brenda Brathwaite has been a major figure in the field of game design. Famous for her work on the role-playing series Wizardry, she’s also known for her work on Def Jam: IconPlayboy: The Mansion, and Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes. Inspired by her daughter in 2008, she began work on her non-digital series, The Mechanic Is the Message, dedicated to expressing difficult subjects through interactive media. Train, a game derived from the events of the Holocaust, won the Vanguard Award at Indiecade in October 2009.

You’ll find her blog on applied game design here.

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There is always interesting stuff to read at Wargaming Connection, but I thought I would flag in particular a recent post by Paul Vebber on a talk by Peter Perla at the Naval War College on “next generation wargaming.” It’s well worth a read.

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If you missed the presentation earlier this month by Phil Sabin at National Defense University on “The Continuing Merits of Manual Wargaming,” you’ll find the video of the event at the NDU Center for Applied Strategic Learning website. There was also a liveblog of the event at GrogNews at the time, and a lively discussion afterwards at BoardGameGeek.

2012 Games for Change Awards nominees

The nominees for the 2012 Games for Change Awards have been announced, in the four categories of most impact, most innovative, best gameplay, and the Knights News Game (games that feature current events, documentary subject matter or infographic news data, or that exist as a news platform to engage individuals and communities). The nominees are:

The End: A game of self-discovery that integrates strategy, puzzles and questions into a world which explores a range of commonly, or less commonly, held views about death.  Developer:  Preloaded, funded by Channel 4 Education (

Family of Heroes: A role-playing training game where families of returning veterans learn skills to manage common challenges in adjusting to post-deployment life including how to connect a veteran experiencing PTSD with support services at the VA.  Developer: Kognito Interactive, funded by Kognito and Veterans Affairs of NY/NJ (

Fibber – A Game About Political Deception: Players engage in a “political strip guessing game” where they are asked to determine whether things said by Obama or Romney are fact or fib, and share their findings.  Developer: (

Nanu Planet: The story of two space explorers who get separated on a planet split in two that serves as an allegory for Korea’s DMZ, de-militarized zone. (“Nanu” is Korean for “divided”).  Developer: JCE, funded by Gyeonggi-do, Gyeonggi Digital Contents Agency, Samsung, JCE (

SPENT: Challenges players to make it through a month with little money and tough decisions.  Developer: McKinney, funded by Urban Ministries of Durham and McKinney (

Unmanned: Play the newest kind of soldier: one who remotely drops bombs on foreign soil during the day, and at night goes home to his family.  Developer: Molleindustria + No Media Kings (

WAY: A two-player, online collaborative game in which anonymous strangers around the world learn to communicate through puppetry.  Developer: CoCo & Co. (

Zamzee: An online rewards platform powered by physical activity. Developer: Zamzee, funded by HopeLab and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (

The winners will be announced at the 2012 Games for Change Festival in New York on June 20.

Zombie Preparedness Week in British Columbia

Like the Center for Disease Control and some others before them, the province of British Columbia is using the threat of zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for communicating real information about emergency preparedness. Grrrr, arghhhh!

Games, simulations, and teaching IR

A workshop on “The Use of Simulations, Board Games and Virtual games in the teaching of politics, international relations and related fields” will be held from 10:30 to  to 17:00 on 8 June 2012 at The Pavilion, University of Westminster, 115 New Cavendish Street, London (UK), W1W 6UW.

The Department of Politics and International Relations (incorporating the Centre for the Study of Democracy), University of Westminster, will be hosting an all-day workshop on simulation and gaming as a teaching tool in Politics and International Relations.

The overall theme and focus of the workshop will be: how can simulations and games most effectively be employed to enhance the student learning experience?

The keynote speaker will be Professor Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth College whose Critical Play (MIT Press 2009) has received widespread acclaim. There will also be sessions looking at the different ways that role-playing exercises, board games and computer simulations can be used in the Politics and IR classroom.

The workshop, co-organised by Dr Frands Pedersen and Dr Richard Barbrook, forms part of a series of Higher Education Academy Workshops aimed at sharing good practice in the teaching of Politics and International Relations. It will offer Politics and International Relations academics an opportunity to come together to discuss and explore how to make the most effective use of role-play simulations, board-games and virtual simulations as educational tools. The workshop will draw on insights from the literature on simulations and games (see PSA’s IPED database), and on practical examples of the use of simulations and games, to enhance the learning and teaching experience. Participants will be discussing the educational benefits of using simulations and games, and exploring issues, such as module design and assessment.

Space is limited. For further information (and if you wish to attend) contact  Frands Pedersen.

h/t Phil Sabin

The evolution of the analyst: turning tactical analysts into strategic thinkers

The post below is courtesy of Tom Fisher of Imagenetic simulations, who writes about his recent work developing a simulation for use in training financial intelligence units in strategic analysis.—RB

I knew we were on to someone when, mid-course, a student approached me with a problem.

Tom, we’ve got a problem.  We can’t deal with all these requests for information from the other teams.  We simply don’t have enough time.  There’s so much information we’re having a hard time tracking it all, and some of it is incomplete.  And some members of our team aren’t pulling their own weight.  It’s really frustrating. What should…

That’s when I stopped the analyst-student and said simply: “How is this any different from your real life job?”

With a smile I got the response I was looking for:

Got it.

Last year I was approached by the World Bank to help develop a Strategic Intelligence Analysis Course for the Egmont Group of FIUs (Financial Intelligence Units). My task was to create an interactive, engaging learning experience building on anti-money laundering simulations and training I had created the year before.

The task was daunting, in that the volume of information we’d need had to be large enough in scale to represent a real strategic challenge, yet manageable enough to be meshed into a 5-day course. The training also needed to be country and region neutral since the Egmont Group of FIUs is an international organization with member countries of every ethnicity, creed, religion and political viewpoint.

Pressing forward, I developed a live-action simulation using over 100 real world financial crime cases as inspiration and folded them into a compelling story arc involving 6 fictionalized countries, a number of fully fleshed-out criminal organizations as well as an Eco-terrorist group.

Students were divided into 5 teams each representing a different fictional country with its own particular issues, and full background. The teams were then tasked with presenting, to their FIUs CEO, a 10 minute National Security Threat Analysis, in preparation for an upcoming meeting with their country’s leadership.  The sixth country was used as a sample for our group exercises and training,  but those cases were germane to the overall national security of each country as there were myriad crossover points between the cases as monies, proceeds of crime, influence and resources flowed from country to country.

The students had to develop their analyses using specific structured analytic techniques taught throughout the course (such as those presented in Heuer and Pherson’s Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis), drawing on information from their country’s cases, other countries’ cases (via requests through the simulated-Egmont group secure web), simulated news items and Internet reports (which included false information and red herrings).

Additionally, we introduced a module on critical thinking processes to structure and evolve the analysts’ logic and creative thinking skills.

The greatest challenge in developing the course was assembling the information to be used in the analytic process and balancing that with the allotted class time. There had to be enough of a challenge without completely overwhelming the process.  Fortunately, I was able to draw upon 100+ existing sanitized cases, and adapt them to the world I had created. If I was forced to create these cases from scratch, the process would have taken months of full-time work. As it was, adapting the existing cases, transcribing them and adding the cross-references between the cases was weeks of work, alone. The cases themselves, being real-world examples, we’re inherently believable. They portrayed actual events that had occurred over the past few years. In cross-referencing them, and making the cases coexist in the fictional world, I had to ensure that the connections remained plausible, and reflected the realities of contemporary financial crimes. This, of course, called for research beyond the 100+ cases that were used, and then the creation of an overarching simulation plot to tie everything together.  The plot had to cover not only what the cases had directly covered, but also, where the cases came from, and where the cases were leading.

The next challenge was the creation of believable countries and organizations who were the players upon the simulated world stage. Drawing from existing regional realities, the countries created reflected similarly structured countries without being able to be identified with any one country in particular. This was important because, as stated earlier, the Egmont Group represents FIUs from all over the world, and using real-world countries may have created political discomfort.  This step should not be underestimated. Any successful simulation requires a suspension of disbelief.  That is, the simulation’s “actors” must be able to put themselves in the shoes of the fictional roles they are playing, in this case FIU analysts from a created country. The countries, therefore, had to be completely believable or the simulation would not have worked.  The same must be said for the fictional criminal organizations and terrorist group created as outside actors in the simulation. I had to create completely believable, functional organizations or the sim would have taken on the flavor of a fictionalized story that somehow just isn’t right.

Once all these pieces were put in place, filling out the simulation with news items and some white noise/red herrings was significantly easier. Using the plot structure and outline developed, filling in the pieces was a purely creative process that was able to flow smoothly.

The resulting simulation ran extremely well with near 100% buy-in from the participants (those who were able to suspend disbelief). Presentations were quite good, and we could see a number of analysts embracing the techniques taught and, being able to put them into practice through simulation, improve their analytic processes. The evolution of the analysts was virtually immediate because they were able to put into practice their newly acquired knowledge in the sim environment.

Future improvements will include the creation of selected intel reports based on the sim-countries’ cases. Providing the analysts with more advanced information, and reference intel will raise the bar on expectations, but further reflect the “reality” of the sim by making other materials available. The simulation is a living entity, and just as real-world realities change it, too, must evolve with every iteration,  providing a constant challenge, and creating an even more engaging experience to develop better and better analytic capacity.

(On a side-note, buy-in was so high that each team actually developed, on their own time, national anthems for their fictional countries. When you can achieve that level of dedication, and, frankly, fun, the learning experience and prospects for success are much enhanced.)

Tom Fisher

Simulation & Gaming (April 2012)

The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 43, 2 (April 2012) has just been published:



Book review

9th International Summer School in Gaming Simulation

The Intenational Simulation and Gaming Association will be holding its 9th International Summer School in Gaming Simulation from 28 July to 4 August 2012 at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Summer School gives 20-35 participants per year the opportunity to learn about the use of different gaming simulation methods and to learn how to design and/or facilitate and/or debrief gaming simulation. Lectures, discussions, game play and design teamwork are always part of the program (4-6 teams, 4-7 participants per team). Morning sessions: lectures and discussions lead by teachers about their perspectives on gaming simulation design, demonstration/play of simulation games that were designed by the teachers and sharing of their experience about the design and facilitation process. Afternoon and evening sessions: Work in project teams. Coached by teachers, they will design, test and discuss their own prototype simulation games. The results (prototype games including concept of debriefing structure) of the summer school will be presented in the whole group of participants. The copyright of the designed prototype games will belong to the students and teachers of the summer school and ISAGA. Participants receive a certificate of participation. Summer School language is English. Members of ISAGA and affiliated Associations have reduced fees. There are special lower fees for students and for participants from developing nations. The Summer School is a non-profit program.

The theme of the 2012 Summer School will be “Designing Simulation Games for Sustainability.”

Update from the History of Wargaming Project

John Curry, editor of the History of Wargaming Project, has sent around an update, which I’ve posted below. The videos above and below aren’t new, but are well worth watching as an introduction to the project.

The project has gone digital and about 20 of the books/ rules are now available as e-books from ibookstore, the Nook or from The rest of the back catalogue will be converted in due course.

Peter Perla’s Art of Wargaming, a book about the professional use of wargaming (as well as much interesting material about the history of wargaming) is now out in paperback.

Donald Featherstone has seen his novel Redcoats for the Raj, back into print and he has completed a new novel, The Badgered Men. See my site for further information.

Donald Featherstone’s classic book Air War Games has now been updated and is now in print.

Innovations in Wargaming Volume 1—A new book about the many different styles of wargaming.

In addition to documenting the history of wargaming, I play games professionally. In about two weeks, a new book Dark Guest, Training games for cyberwarfare will be in print. I co-authored it with Tim Price MBE.

Played in a mega-game at the Defence Academy of the UK about Vietnam. Radio, maps, 20 tables, it was a most interesting game. Also at the Defence Academy, I recently played in a serious game about the Iran nuclear weapons development program with all sorts of strange people.

I have started a series about developments in wargaming called Innovations in Wargaming. Vol 1 shows all sorts of different styles of wargaming- different from the standard games on the table top. This includes two anti-terrorist games. See my site for details.

The next rule book will be the MOD Desert Army Wargaming rules (1968). They were written to rehearse an invasion of Iraq in the 1970’s…

I have also got agreement to produce more classic wargaming books from more authors.

May I take this opportunity to thank you for buying books from the Project and supporting the growing library of wargaming material.

Ludologists, serious historians of professional military wargaming, and every enthusiast who (like me) started into the hobby with a set of Donald Featherstone rules borrowed from the local library owes him a debt of gratitude. Keep up the great work, John!

simulations miscellany, 4 May 2012

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

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There’s been yet another public wargame of a possible Israeli strike on Iran, this time conducted by the national-religious Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon. According to one account of the game:

The simulation was carried out with the participation of former Government Secretary Yisrael Maimon as a member of the “Octet” of trusted ministers and Home Front Minister; Iran expert Dr. Eldad Pardo as the Iranian regime; Maj. Gen. (ret.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu as a senior member of the Octet; Begin-Sadat Center Chairman Prof. Efraim Inbar as the Prime Minister; Dr. Mordechai Kedar as “the Palestinians,” Hizbullah and the Arab countries; journalist Amit Segal as Israeli and world press; journalist Ofer Shelach as Preient Barack Obama and Makor Rishon journalist Amnon Lord as game administrator.

According to the game’s premise, on October 14 and 15, four independent and reliable Mossad intelligence sources indicate that Iran has begun transferring its strategic nuclear equipment to underground sites in Qom. Military Intelligence, meanwhile, determines that Iran was ready to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lulls the press into complacency by maintaining a seemingly regular schedule in Jerusalem. In the pre-dawn hours of October 16, the IDF launches Operation Yahalom (“Diamond”). The nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak are bombed, as are several other nuclear plants and research centers. Ten IAF jets are shot down….

I’ve added this game to my ever-growing list of Israel-Iran-(US) wargames at the Wargaming Connection website.

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PAXsims gets a shout-out in a new CNA study by Will McCants on Science and Technology for Communication and Persuasion Abroad, prepared for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office, Emerging Capabilities Division. The report addresses “social interaction technology” (social media such as Facebook or Twitter), persuasive technologies (such as digital gamification), and “immersive virtual environments and simulation gaming.” In the latter case, it takes up a suggestion that we’ve made in the past about the value of extending military simulation expertise to a broader professional audience (emphasis added, for footnotes see original):

The U.S. military is in its development of immersive technology and simulation games, particularly for training purposes. Indeed, the US military is so proficient in creating immersive virtual environments it could use that proficiency and its gaming capabilities to build ties to non-military institutions. For example, the US military might offer the NGO (non-governmental organization) community assistance with training exercises, crisis simulations, and so forth. Such assistance would foster positive attitudes toward the military, better acquaint the military with NGO needs and dynamics, and prepare both parties to deal with sudden crises.

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The On Violence blog has a post entitled” “Wargaming or: Men Are Not Blocks of Wood” that draws upon Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem John Brown’s Body (1928) to contrast the difference between the antiseptic process of wargaming and operation planning and the lived, emotional, life-and-death experience of soldiers on the battlefield.

If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
To move, when they start they take too long on the way –
The General loses his stars, and the block-men die
In unstrategic defiance of martial law
Because still used to just being men, not block parts,

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A fairly new blog—Game Thesis—describes one graduate student’s efforts to develop a serious game on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers as a Masters thesis project:

I have been working on creating a rough outline for the story. My starting point was crystallising much of the research I have been conducting about asylum seekers and refugees into a set of common misconceptions about them which help to shape the goal of the game.

  • Asylum seekers are not ‘queue jumpers’: many only get the choice between losing their life or leaving their home via illegal channels. Following the protocols to become an official refugee is often not an option.
  • Asylum seekers do not ‘have it easy’ when they arrive at a host destination: some are professionals unable to work, most will have to go through years of applications and appeals the be allowed to reside at a host destination.
  • Asylum seekers are not ‘criminals’ or ‘terrorists’: some are sick, others have been through unimaginable trauma, it is not appropriate to treat them as criminals by default.

However, instead of using actual refugee stories as originally intended, I am abstracting some of the many themes I gathered from these stories to make a story that is not specific to any real culture, race or nationality. This gives me more freedom as I am not pointing fingers at any one government or system. Some of these themes are as follows: having to leave one’s home due to religious, political or ethnic persecution, leaving family behind, going on a dangerous and illegal journey, resettlement in an unfamiliar and potentially hostile environment.

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The NGO Right to Play reports on the use of children’s games to reduce ethnic tensions among Sudanese and Congolese refugees in the Rhino Refugee Settlement in northern Uganda.

Imagination, player engagement, and (war)gaming

Phil Sabin’s Simulating War Yahoo Group has seen a great deal of stimulating discussion in recent weeks of a range of issues relating to war-game (and, indeed, game) design. I hope to excerpt some of it here on PAXsims from time to time, both to broaden exposure to the discussion and to publicize the group itself.

One of the issues under discussion has been the importance of imagination in gaming. This is not a new issue, of course—a great deal has been written about promoting player engagement. Bill Haggart, however, stated (or restated) it particularly well, so I thought I would reproduce his summary:

There’s been a great deal of study in the area of players’ use of their ‘imagination’ in game play, which also references ‘immersion’, ‘pretending’, ‘suspension-of-disbelief and with many games, ‘acting as if’ the game is real, whether ‘Chutes and Ladders’, risk or Monopoly.

Part of the reason for this interest is that this ‘pretending’ and ‘imagining’ an important part of a game’s entertainment. This is true of movies and reading novels.

It is also true for simulations, in fact it is critical to participatory simulations. They don’t work if the players don’t ‘pretend’, acting as if the wargame is real. When a soldier stands up in an Urban Tactical Laser-Tag exercise to declare the simulated firefight he’s in isn’t real, and they aren’t firing real bullets, or that villages in Afghanistan don’t have umpires following squads down the street, it is true. However, the soldier has ruined the exercise, breaking that ‘fourth wall’ that renders the simulation inoperative. This happens if it is ‘unrealistic’ play or ‘gamesmenship’ in what is a game, but also a simulation.

Some of the things that have been found to enhance a wargame’s ability to support a player’s pretending, things that designers can do, are:

1. Detail

It is easier to pretend it’s reality when there are details from reality to relate to. Whether it is isolated chrome or a complex game, a player’s willingness and ability to immerse themselves in the game when they have details they can relate to the real world. The details of Advanced Squad Leader are an example, even though too much of a good thing, too many bits of chrome and detail wrecks a player’s ability to immerse themselves. Even so, specific details or ‘anchors’ are important.

A designer recently posted an experience where he was playtesting a combat process involving several dice rolls. The playtesters never questioned the process. When he found he could get the same statistical odds for the various results from a single die roll, he jettisoned the detailed combat process. Immediately, the same playtesters felt the results were ‘unrealistic’, even though the actual results of both processes were identical.

2. Representation explanations

Players find it easier to immerse themselves in a game system ‘that makes sense’ to them. This means either the new game is similar to old games, so the representations are already assumed and felt to be known, like the “Command Radius Rule.” Or if the designer has created unfamiliar systems, particularly if it’s attempting to be innovative, designer’s notes, with are important here, particularly identifying the specific reality the rules are meant to mimic. All of us have experienced being ‘popped out’ of that suspension-of-disbelief by rules, player decisions, or game results don’t ‘make sense’ within the world supposedly being represented… or at least the players assume is being represented if they don’t really know.

3. Related Graphics and words… ‘Flavor’

This means anything that is not necessary for playing the game, but enhance the ‘period’ feel of the game. Pictures and illustrations, quotes and sidebars with interesting history, not designer’s notes, as well as the graphics of the pieces fit here. The picture of the leader or soldier on a card or chit also fit here.

4. Role Play

It is easier to become immersed in a game where you ‘represent’ one real person, one decision-maker, rather than thousands as wargamers are asked to in games like GMT’s “Rising Sun.”

5. Flow

A big thing with computer games, this is the challenge level of the system. If a game offers ‘flow’, that means the challenges are not so great to seriously frustrate and discourage the player, but not so easy that the player is bored. Often being in ‘the flow’, that challenging level where a player can be successful with work, but never bored is often called ‘immersion’ though most game designers will recognize ‘Flow’ more often.

6. Control

Games are about player decisions. If the players feel their decisions are scripted, or that they are more a victim of the rules than playing them, it is very hard to become immersed in it. This player control is related to, but not the same as ‘flow.’

7. Play outside the rules

Games that keep on being played are those that provide an arena for covert play, part of that immersion draw. The classic example is Poker. The rules say nothing about bluffing, reading opponents and noting their ‘tells’, and card-counting etc., but those activities have become a major part of ‘the game.’ Diplomacy and Monopoly are games with a wide arena for ‘covert play’, or play outside the
actual rules.’

8. Variety and opportunity for improvement

All games are puzzles to some extent and once they are solved, the game loses a player’s interest AND the ability to provide that immersion. Wargames that allow players to continually find new or better solutions to tactical issues etc. Tick-Tack-Toe is the antithesis of this quality. Take That Hill doesn’t offer much in this quality either, which is why there are so many ‘add ons’.

9. Meaningful Play

This is a wider quality, which can encompass qualities #1-4, but includes what the play represents in learning. What can I learn about the Waterloo Campaign by playing Zucker’s game? What can I learn about everything from geography to tactics, and the original participants? Much of the ‘learning’ that goes on in any wargame happens here and in #10.

10. Narrative or “The Story”

When people, children or adults, pretend, they invariably do it in context, in relation to some situation or drama. For wargames, the story is ‘the battle’ or ‘the campaign.’ So, the game system has to provide actors [players and non-players, challenges and events, whether it is following what happens to that tank when the wall falls on it in Advanced Squad Leader to the Roman Army at Cannae. Players find that wargames that allow them to ‘tell the story’ afterwards more inviting when it comes to pretending.

There are more of these qualities that designers can and do design for, but none of them are ‘magic bullets’. Rather a little here and there as well as a lot of one quality can create a ‘critical mass’ of qualities that provides ‘easy access’ to player immersion and makes players more willing to suspend their disbelief for an afternoon of gaming.

This is a ‘player’ aspect of the game system/player components of successful game/simulation/wargame design. It is fun to design for these things and then see that ‘immersion’, that magic spontaneous combustion happen for players when enough of the above qualities are present.

With thanks to Bill Haggart for permission to repost. 

Picture above: an aircraft-listening horn. Such acoustic location devices were used during WWI, and into even into the 1940s.

Connections 2012 update

An update on the forthcoming Connections 2012 wargaming conference at NDU:

From London England to LA California Connections 2012 will bring together the leaders, the innovators from each community within wargaming. Hosted again this year at the National Defense University, Washington , DC, Connections will take place from Monday 23 July through Thursday 26 July.

Since 1993 the Connections interdisciplinary wargame conference has worked to advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming.  It has done so by bringing together wargame practitioners from across the elements of the field; military, recreational, academic and more recently even business. This is done so the participants can learn needs, achievements, and best practices from each other and from experts in areas typically not wargamed or not wargamed well.

Connections 2012 includes several innovations that promises to make it the best Connections to date.

The innovations start before the formal kickoff of the conference. Traditionally Monday of the conference consists of two optional tutorials in the afternoon (wargaming 101 and Defense 101) and an evening icebreaker.  This year Connections is adding a tutorial by Joseph Miranda on wargame design. As the most prolific print wargame designer worldwide and the editor of Strategy and Tactics magazine Mr. Miranda is perhaps THE most qualified instructor for this tutorial. After the icebreaker for the first time we will be conducting a 1940’s vintage wargame.   Its design permits all/any who would like to participate to quickly learn all they need to know to jump in and participate.

Innovations continue with the formal opening of our conference.  One of our keynote speakers will be Professor Philip Sabin, author of Simulating War will be speaking by streaming video from King’s College London.  In addition to our standard speaker panels, working groups, demos of wargames and associated technologies as well as mentored execution of selected wargames, for the first time we will conduct a “Game Lab” during which all can participate in wargame design.

Finally, Thursday morning we will continue and expand last year’s innovation: streaming video of our working groups – and this year our Game Lab – out briefs to organizations and individuals who could not attend Connections in person.

Further information can be found at the conference website here.

Update: NDU talk on nuclear wargaming (2/5/2012) cancelled

Unfortunately, NDU’s forthcoming talk on nuclear wargaming, scheduled for May 2, has been cancelled.


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