Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: July 2012

Review: von Hilgers, War Games

Philipp von Hilgers, War Games: A History of War on Paper. Translated by Ross Benjamin. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012. USD$28.00 (cloth).

As with all social phenomenon, the history and evolution of wargaming is inextricably bound up with cultural, political, and scientific context. The purposes served by modern professional military gaming, the nature of the relationships and representations it seeks to embody, and the processes whereby it gained increasing acceptance through the 19th and 20th century tell us much not only about wargaming itself, but also about society itself.

It with this in mind that Philipp von Hilgers offers us an exploration of the historical evolution of professional wargaming in Europe (and, more particularly, Prussia and Germany) from the Middle Ages to World War II. In War Games: A History of War on Paper he looks at the historical precursor of the “Battle of Numbers,” a war-like mathematical game the emerged in the medieval era; the rise of abstract games of state power and warfare in the baroque period; the emergence and adoption of von Reiswitz’s famous tactical war-game (Kriegsspiel) in the early 19th century, as well as other the many other war-games of this era; and the subsequent transformation of both wargaming and its use in military education and planning during the 20th century. Throughout, he traces the linkages between this and the evolution of mathematics and philosophy, concepts of “simulation,” and other aspects of the broader political and historical context.

While all of this makes for very interesting reading, it does not, alas, make for very easy reading. This book is a heavy slog at the best of times, written in a dense and jargon-laden prose (“Just as proof figures come to the fore in mathematical discourses, the metaphorical recedes. Bringing the measurement of a natural space under control is now less urgent than sketching spaces that arise from a sign-based apparatus and that are anything but mathematically secured.” being a typical example). Very few wargamers or military historians are likely to penetrate beyond the first chapter, unless very highly motivated.

While some of this might be attributed to a combination of the book’s original German and its subsequent translation into English, I think the fault lies elsewhere. War Games is an unfortunate example of the tendency of far too much academic work to unnecessarily fetishize artificial linguistic-analytical complexity (i.e., make things sound much more complicated than they are). While political scientists do this too, it seems to me that cultural studies have a particular tendency to do so—and in so doing, ironically, establish wholly artificial barriers to broader cultural accessibility to their work.

A second (and in many ways more fundamental) problem with War Games is its methodology, or rather the frequent lack thereof. The author picks elements and anecdotes from history that seem to uphold his general conceptualization of  the topic, but only intermittently offers any systematic examination of how military gaming evolved. Themes are raised, examined, then discarded. The result often seems rather more impressionistic than historically rigorous, and the reader is left with a sense that another scholar might well arrange the puzzle pieces in a different way, to produce a quite different linkage of causes, contexts, and effects.

Given my interest in the topic, I had rather hoped to write a more glowing review of this volume. Certainly, the book offers a number of tantalizing insights, and suggests some fascinating intersections. I shall certainly go back to the volume on occasion. Overall, however, it falls somewhat short of its very considerable promise, generally for reasons that could have been quite easily fixed with greater clarity in the design and expression of von Hilger’s analysis.


Connections 2012 AAR

I’m typing this as I return to Montréal from the Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at National Defense University in Washington DC. It was an excellent conference, with more than one hundred participants in attendance (from the US, Canada, UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Korea, and Singapore), and much to listen to, do, and see. Because Connections featured simultaneous panels this year, the account below only captures part of what went on. Consequently, it should be read in conjunction with accounts by other participants, such as Brant Guillory (GrogNews) and Ty Mayfield (Kabul Cable). Apologies for not taking better pictures, too—I was usually too busy listening to remember to get my camera out.

Monday, July 23

The conference started with a series of optional events on Monday afternoon, followed by an icebreaker. David Becker and I did a quick presentation to Joe Miranda’s “Wargame Design 101” tutorial session on the Connections Game Lab Haiti earthquake scenario we would be running later during the conference.

Tuesday, July 24

The main event was opened on Tuesday with opening comments by Erik Kjonnerod of the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at NDU. He highlighted the need to develop greater community and cooperation across the discipline, especially in an era of fiscal austerity and persistent global conflict. His comments, of course, came against the unmentioned backdrop of pressures-from-above on NDU that may see the institution refocus its activities on a rather narrowly-understood vision of professional military education.

Opening remarks.
(Photo by Matt Kirschenbaum)

The keynote addresses featured Robert Rubel (Dean, Naval Warfare Studies, Naval War College), Phil Sabin (Kings’ College London, via videoconference), and William Lademan (Wargaming Division, US Marine Corps Warfighting Lab). Rubel highlighted the extent to which the wargames demanded by sponsors today often address a broad range of topics beyond the narrowly kinetic. There is also pressure to produce more gaming value with less participant time. He discussed how to capture useful insight out of a great amount of game-related data, especially with regard to player interaction. He had some interesting comments on the value, and especially limitation, of computational adjudication. Rubel also offered some insight into how the NWC has been able to maintain a degree of institutional autonomy and promote critical thinking (in part, he suggested, because the Navy doesn’t care enough about the NWC to micromanage its activities or push it in particular corporate directions). He suggested there might be real value in developing professional standards, perhaps through professional activities. The future of wargaming, he argued, won’t be driven entirely (or largely) by technological change, but will involve smart wargamers dealing with game challenges creatively on a game-by-game basis.

(Photo by Matt Kirschenbaum)

Phil Sabin then made his presentation from the UK via videoconference. He built his comments around a number of issues where he felt a number of influential wargamers—Jim Dunnigan, Robert Rubel, Peter Perla, and Phil himself—had been wrong. In the first instance, he pointed to a Dunnigan comment about the decline of manual wargaming by highlighting the extent to which this continued to be a lively and relevant form of representation, notwithstanding the rise of digital gaming. As with his argument in Simulating War, he noted the flexibility, low-cost/overheads, and accessibility of manual games. With regard to Rubel, he pushed back against the notion that we needed to develop a professional wargaming guild by arguing the opposite—that wargaming is more art than science, and that we needed to broaden our reach and draw in a broad range of designers and other inputs. (This is on an issue on which I absolutely agree—I would be concerned that “professionalization” would actually reduce the degree of both new entry into the field and cross-fertilization—an issue we would return to at the end of the conference.) On another issue, he also defended the value of stochastic processes (chance) in wargame design and process. In the case of Peter Perla, Phil argued that “black swan” events are by nature unexpected—meaning that we shouldn’t overemphasize the unpredictability of wargaming. (I’m not sure, however, that this entirely takes away from Perla’s point about the value of presenting game players with the unexpected.) With regard to his own “being wrong,” he discussed the difficulties of getting scholars to take wargaming seriously as a method of historical analysis. (I think part of the problem, however, is that scholars who do use wargames in their scholarship often do not craft their work in a way that speaks to non-wargamers.)

William Lademan talked about “wargaming as a substrate for innovation,” discussing the ways in which the Marine Corps uses wargames to help prepare for future challenges. These involve everything from the Marine Corp’s annual “Title X” wargame (“Expeditionary Warrior,” which take up to 15 months to plan, carry out, and report on), various other, smaller strategic wargames, and more limited games. He defined wargames as “an artificial vehicle made up of a field of variables that replicates conflict and allows the human intellect to consider a real problem.”

In the Q&A, questions were raised about how the uniformed services represent their interests in each other’s Title X games; how games might address the IED challenge;  and how to increase policy-maker buy-in to wargame outputs.

There followed a panel discussion on “needs-pull: defense decision support on wargaming today,” with Shawn Burns (Naval War College), Paul Vebber, and Westy Westenhoff (USAF Checkmate). Burns (in conjunction with Doug Ducharme of NWC, who was unable to attend) looked at various approaches to Title X wargaming. He suggested that games tend to focus on either the educational or analytical end of a spectrum, and on concepts or capabilities—and the services have slightly different views on where they place their emphasis. Paul explored the contribution of wargaming to science and technology (S&T) decision-making. Simulations generate insight on how new technologies might impact capabilities, whereas gaming tends to focus on embedded decision-making and the exploration of second and third order effects. Science and technology gaming is also used to generate awareness of possible technological impacts. Sometimes gaming is in support of S&T advocacy, by identifying in advance particular objections or questions about a new program. He highlighted the “flying robots carrying buckets of lava” problem, whereby games focus on what can be done (simply because it can be done), rather that focusing on how a technology ought to be employed. He also raised the danger of S&T games that are based on the presumed effect of a technology—and then, not surprisingly, produce apparent validation of this assumed effects. Among the many interesting things he said in a very rich presentation is that it may be important to narrow the complexity of a game and the number of new technologies it engages, otherwise it becomes to complicated to draw out causal relationships. Westenhoff looked at the contribution of wargaming to contingency planning. He highlighted its value of as a way to avoid failure, anticipate an active adversary, learn more about of your adversary, to apportion resources appropriately, and to think through until the later/end points of a campaign. He particularly emphasized the value of gaming to elicit creative solutions. One key question for the session included the implausibility issue—that is, how we know whether to rule out a possibility as unlikely or impossible, and when it should be included it (even if seems unlikely, counterintuitive, or unexpected). In comments from the chair, Stephen Downes-Martin (NWC) highlighted that this issue also arises when the sponsor finds the possibility as an undesirable one that they wish to exclude—in which case the quality and robustness of the game design will be an important to offset sponsor bias.

Game demonstrations.

Following this, an hour and half was devoted to wargame demonstrations, featuring everything from manual game designs to a digital sandtable.

After lunch, I attended the panel on “perspective from professional military education institutions.” The first speaker was Anders Frank (Swedish National Defence College), who discussed the practice, development of, and research on wargaming at his institution. One of the interesting things he highlighted was the need and value of introducing low-fidelity “good enough” games with low transaction costs. With such game, however, come challenges: the need to maintain the suspension of disbelief (a bigger problem with low-fidelity games), over-enthusiastic players (including an excellent video vignette of hypercompetitive “gamer mode” in action), that there may not be enough time for iterative use, and finally the critical relationship between game play and debrief. Ellie Bartels (CASL/NDU) then talked about the GEMSTONE counterinsurgency/counterterrorism game at NDU, which combines mixed methods (that is, both computational and qualitative adjudication). Stephen Downes-Martin (Naval war College) talked about the “three witches of wargaming,” namely the boss, the (senior) players, and the sponsor. A key theme of his presentation was the need for game directors to defend the integrity of the game design against attempt by the “witches” to belatedly modify things. He also highlighted the need to carefully work with game sponsors to identify what their real intent is in sponsoring a game(and, indeed, whether a wargame can really address their needs).

In the late afternoon and early evening we held the Connections Game Lab. Conference participants were divided into three teams: Team Alpha was led by PAXsims’ very own Gary Milante, with Maj Tyrell Mayfield serving as subject matter expert. Team Bravo was facilitated by Brian Train, with David Becker in the SME role. Finally, Team Charlie was headed up by Brant “Burnt Jewelry” Guillory, with CPT Joshua Riojas as the group SMEAll three groups showed considerable enthusiasm in tackling the assigned scenario—indeed, they all went over time—and began to converge on some surprisingly similar game design solutions to the task we had given them. I was impressed by the richness of the discussions, and the extent to which each group managed to work cooperatively, despite having 10-20 experienced game designers each, each with ideas of their own. They certainly managed to fill a lot of whiteboards with ideas!

Game Lab Team A wrestles with the challenge of HADR operations during the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Tuesday night was rounded out with some wargaming. Among the games that put in appearance was a playtest prototype of  Afghanistan: A Distant Plain, under development by Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train.

A demonstration of Afghanistan: A Distant Plain (GMT games, forthcoming).

Wednesday, July 25

Of the simultaneous panels on Wednesday morning, I attended that devoted to “learning from other game design communities.” Jeremy Antley started us off with a presentation on the “knowledge hand-offs” between history and boardgames. Like Phil Sabin the previous day, he highlighted the antipathy of many historians to games as either an account of the past or a methodology for examining it. He also highlighted the value of boardgames as a mechanism for highlighting causal relationships in a way that is (in contrast to digital games) accessible to the player, and even modifiable. He noted too that while historical games compress time for game play, they don’t necessarily compress the time we devote to thinking about history. One key element of his comments was the extent to which games are embedded in the context of their creation—in other words, they don’t just tell us about the era they represent, but also but the era in which they were designed. Today, we also have an interesting record (via podcasts, blogs, forums, playtest notes, etc.) of the design process, as well as an opportunity for designers to interact with players in discussion of why they developed the game in certain ways.

It occurred to me while listening to Jeremy, however, that the process of trying to discern underlying causal relationships in video games is actually far more like the methodology of history or political science than is examination of a board game where the relationships are usually limited in terms of the number of variables involved, and visible to the user. Perhaps we’ve been underestimating digital games as methodological training grounds for the social sciences? It may be a topic I blog on later.

The presentation by Anastasia Salter (University of Baltimore) looked at the embodiment of narrative in games. She highlighted the connections and disconnections between the narrative (and game rules) imposed by the designer, and the narrative generated by the players. Elizabeth Bonsignore (PhD student, University of Maryland) then spoke about alternate reality games, and the ways in which they can engage student/participant interest in a variety of different ways. The subsequent discussion was really stimulating—but I was too involved in it to take notes.

After the break, there were again simultaneous panels—one on wargaming future security challenges, and the other on archival/historical preservation of wargaming’s past. I attended the first of these, although arrived a bit late having been distracted by some interesting discussion over coffee. Robert Leonhard talked about simulating polarization of US politics in foreign policy gaming; T.X. Hammes discussed emerging changes in warfare, and Jon Compton talked about “overcoming the PolMil prediction addiction” (and issue he has raised before here). In the latter, Jon highlighted (with characteristic bluntness!) some of the methodological and theoretical weaknesses of prediction (challenges of inference, problematic assumptions about rationality, weaknesses in underlying data, model construction on the basis of prior historical data that may not be relevant to future circumstances). With regard to wargaming, he suggested that this means we need to focus more on Red (rather than Blue), that we need to be highly iterative to explore all corners of a decision/outcome space, and the we need to design so as to harness creative thinking.

Thursday, July 26

In his presentation on the final day, Tim Wilkie addressed “navigating the archipelago of (wargaming) excellence,” talking about how we might best sustain networking and engagement across myriad gaming communities and centers. He also highlighted some of the obstacles to collaboration, including problems of sponsor interest, propriety considerations, security classification, a lack of concrete outcomes from networking activities, the lack of a publishing culture, and a translation problem that arises from professional/cultural/terminological differences across the various islands of the wargaming archipelago.

The rest of the afternoon was then devoted to working group discussions of one of three topics: Connections Game Lab (and methods for tomorrow’s war-games), led by me; creating an online resource for wargamers; and building a wargame profession. These discussions helped to shape the Working Group brief-backs to the full group on Thursday morning.

I’ve uploaded the Game Lab working group brief-back below. I was very pleased with the Game Lab discussions, which I thought offered rich insight into game design approaches and issues. There was also significant interest from a number of participants to try to develop a playable prototype of a Haiti earthquake HADR game, and some interest from disaster relief and reconstruction experts on its possible use as an educational tool. The folks at MMOWGLI have expressed interest in hosting some future brain-storming and crowd-sourcing on a game design, possibly in the fall. We’ll announce future steps here and at the Wargaming Connection website when details are finalized.

Working Group 2 (led by Chris Weuve) had looked at creating online resources, both for Connections and professional wargaming more generally. There was discussion of a number of objectives regarding a possible new website/platform. Of course, what remains key is the production of interesting and/or useful information that draws in users, and hopefully also renders them from passive to active users.

Working Group 3 (led by Mike Garrambone of MORS and Erik Kjonnerod  of CASL/NDU) explored building a wargaming profession, which would serve to strengthen professional standards, identifying fundamentals, defining core knowledge, and so forth. I was very interested to see all of the gaming that is going one elsewhere. and completely agree with the value of building bridges, canoe-routes, and communications links between the various islands of the gaming archipelago. I must admit to concerns that “professionalization” is potentially problematic as it is useful, since it risks creating an inwardly-focused guild. By contrast, I think the real gains are to be had by increasing the outreach and interdisciplinarity of the wargaming field. In the subsequent discussion, both Yuna Wong and Mike Markowitz made excellent arguments against an excessive emphasis on “professionalization.” There was considerable discussion of MORS as an organization that does much good, but also ends up creating barriers to outreach and cross-fertilization (most of its meetings being classified and NOFORNed).

All-in-all, it was an excellent conference. Not only did I enjoy myself immensely, but I learned a very great deal, and found many new opportunity for networking in my gaming areas of interest. Enormous thanks are due to the conference cochairs, Matt Caffrey and Tim Wilkie, for all of the work they put in. Thanks are also due to the the various panel organizers who put together such interesting content. Matt Kirschenbaum did an especially good job, bringing in a number of game scholars and other academics who might not otherwise have attended, and who certainly broadened the perspectives at the conference. Once again, the many folks at NDU did a truly outstanding job of hosting us. On a more personal note, I would like to express my immense gratitude to Deirde Hollingshed (my cochair of Game Lab) and  for her tireless work in making it possible, and to my team leaders and SMEs for making the team discussions so lively, productive, and informative.

See you all at Connections 2013!

live from Connections 2012

The Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at National Defense University is about to start its third day of panels and other activities, and so far it has been going extremely well. The speakers have been excellent, and—as was the case last year—NDU has done an extraordinarily good job of hosting the event.

I’ll post a full after-action report when it is all over, but in the meantime you can follow along with the live broadcast of some key panels via NDU, and the semi-live-blogging of the event by Brant Guillory (or “Burnt Jewellery“) of GrogNews:

This year, Connections introduced “GameLab,” in which participants are divided into teams, and given a few hours into which to develop a game concept for an assigned scenario. The scenario this year was the humanitarian assistance/disaster relief during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Ty Mayfield—who was one of the subject matter experts we had on hand to offer his input—has shared his reflections on the GameLab process over at his Kabul Cable blog.

simulations miscellany, the day-before-Connections-2012 edition

Yes, in a few hours I’m leaving on a jet plane—for the Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference. Connections starts on Monday afternoon at NDU with a number of optional activities, plus a reception. Both of your PAXsims editors will be at the conference, and—if all goes according to plan—David Becker and I will be providing a preview of the GameLab Haiti earthquake scenario on Monday during Joe Miranda’s “Wargame Design 101” session. The main conference sessions start on Tuesday (see the agenda here).

For those of you who can’t make it to the conference, NDU will be broadcasting selected portions of the conference.

We will be streaming some parts of the conference over the internet, using the same streaming service we use for our roundtable series. This will be the first time in the history of Connections (going back to 1993) that portions of the conference will be available via the internet. Below is the current streaming schedule, but please check this page on the CASL website for updates early next week, before you try to tune in.

Day 1, Monday, 23 July

1200-1600     Wargame Design 101
Joseph Miranda, wargame designer, editor

Day 2, Tuesday, 24 July

0800 – 0810     Welcome
Prof. L. Erik Kjonnerod, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, NDU

0810 – 0950     Keynote Addresses,
Moderator: Mr. Matt Caffrey, Col USAF (ret), AF Material Command
Dean Robert Rubel, Dean of Naval Warfare Studies, Naval War College
Prof Phil Sabin, King’s College London, Wargame Designer, Author
Dr. William Lademan, Director, WGing Div, USMC Warfighting Lab

1030 – 1200   “Needs Pull,” Defense Decision Support Wargaming Today

Co-chairs:  Prof Stephen Downs-Martin & Col Westy Westenhoff
Speakers:    Approaches to Title X Gaming: Concepts or Capabilities,
Doug Ducharme, Naval War College
Wargaming In Support of Science and Technology Decision
Making, Paul Vebber, Naval Underseas Warfare Center
Aids to Effective Contingency Planning,
Westy Westenhoff, Col USAF (ret) Checkmate

1430 – 1600      “Opportunities Push,” Developments/Potential of Popular Wargaming
Co-chairs: Chris Carlson & Gordon Bliss
Speakers:    Miniatures/Figure, Alan Zimm
Print/Board, John Prados, WG designer, historian
Computer, Paul Vebber

Day 3, Wednesday, 25 July

0800 – 0930     Methods and Application of Tomorrow’s Wargames
Innovation from the Defense Wargame Community
Co-chairs: Margaret McCown & Yuna Wong
Speakers:    Rebecca Goolsby, Ph.D. Office of Naval Research
Yuna Wong, Marine Corps Combat Development Command
Zygmunt F. Dembek, Ph.D., M.S., M.P.H., COL, AUS (Ret)

0950 – 1120      The Future of Wargaming
Future Security Challenges Wargaming Will Need to Depict
Chair: Jon Compton
Speakers:  Simulating the Polarization of American Politics in Foreign
Policy Gaming, Robert Leonhard, Ph.D., LTC(R)
Emerging Changes in Warfare, T.X. Hammes
Overcoming the PolMil Prediction Addiction, Jon Compton

Day 4, Thursday, 26 July

0815-0900       CASL Lectures on Strategic Gaming
0900-0910       Introductions, Working Groups Out Briefs
0910-1000       Group #1: Connections Game Lab, Methods for Tomorrow’s WGs
1020-1050        Group #2: Creating an Online Resource for Wargamers
1050-1120        Group #3: Building a Wargaming Profession
1120-1200        Connections “Hot Wash”

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Meanwhile, a quick pre-departure round-up of other simulation news:

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Dr. Ewa Unoke at Kansas City Kansas Community College will be organizing a Transitional Justice Model Simulation on 22 September 2012. According to an article in the Kansas City Kansan:

At KCKCC, high school delegate teams will be assigned countries to represent how governments and societies deal with their unpleasant pasts and specifically how the Ugandan society is dealing with its historical injustices.

“Led by Joseph Kony, a rebel group by the name of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) began a guerilla campaign to overthrow the Ugandan government during the 1980s,” said Dr. Unoke. “In 1984, Kony began the mass abduction of children and youth and when the LRA troops grew thinner; he enslaved and enlisted more and more children as child soldiers and sex objects.

“An International Criminal Court opened an investigation into the human rights abuses committed by Kony and the LRA in 2003 and an arrest warrant was issued in 2005 for Kony and five of his commanders for their criminal acts including murder, sexual enslavement and the forced enlistment of children. However, Kony is still at large.”

During the KCKCC simulation, students will play the role of diplomats in resolving the issues of human rights abuses, historical injustices and the cultures of impunity.

Each high school will have one to two representatives on each of the four committees of the model and will debate on whether or not alleged criminal offenders such as Kony and the LRA should be pardoned or punished – and if so, how? In addition, students will role-play in transitional justice models and adopt resolutions toward resolving global, regional or intrastate conflicts. The four model committees are:

Truth and Reconciliation Committee – Primary purposes include; reconciliation, truth-telling and the national recovery of Uganda.

International Criminal Tribunal Committee – Focus will be on the legal trial and punishment of Joseph Kony and the LRA in order to deter future perpetrators.

Peace Building Committee – The goal of this committee is the post-conflict reconstruction of the Ugandan society.

UN Millennium Development Committee – The exploration of the means of building a post-conflict Ugandan future which satisfies the UN millennial goals agenda set for 2015.

Dr. Unoke says the simulation will enable students to learn about human rights concerns and hopes of people in different regions of the world; how peoples’ lives worldwide can be improved by the UN-KCKCC Transitional Justice model; and skills and behavior which contribute to international cooperation, peace and security; leadership training and conflict resolution skills.

For further information, visit the Transitional Justice Model Simulation website.

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A hat-tip to Skip Cole for pointing out to us an interesting recent (June 2012) paper by Noam Ebner (Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution) and Daniel Druckman (George Mason University) on “Simulation Design: Negotiation Learning Gains.” In it they note that research often shows negligible gains from simulation-based learning. However, having students design simulation may produce better learning outcomes:

Negotiation educators have long considered simulations a central classroom teaching method, with high expectations regarding the method’s suitability and efficacy for teaching. This paper presents a meta-review of the literature exploring the degree to which simulation delivers on these perceived benefits of simulation, showing that, in reality, simulation enjoys only limited advantages over other teaching methods. Additional critique recently posed to simulations suggests that contextual or cultural reasons might sometimes make their use unsuitable. The combined weight of these two thrusts of critique requires re-evaluating the use of simulation in negotiation education.

In this paper, we note three trends developing as part of this re-evaluation process: Improving use and conduct of simulations, deemphasizing use of simulations as a teaching tool while seeking out new methods, and finding paradigm-changing uses for simulation. With regards to this last, we describe two experiments we’ve conducted, assigning students to design and author simulations, rather than participate in them as role-players. Amongst other benefits of the design method, we found that designers showed higher levels of concept learning and motivation than did role-players.

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In a recent issue (16 July 2012) of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Andrew Zammit-Mangion et al discuss “Point process modelling of the Afghan War Diary.”

Modern conflicts are characterized by an ever-increasing use of information and sensing technology, resulting in vast amounts of high resolution data. Modelling and prediction of conflict, however, remain challenging tasks due to the heterogeneous and dynamic nature of the data typically available. Here we propose the use of dynamic spatiotemporal modelling tools for the identification of complex underlying processes in conflict, such as diffusion, relocation, heterogeneous escalation, and volatility. Using ideas from statistics, signal processing, and ecology, we provide a predictive framework able to assimilate data and give confidence estimates on the predictions. We demonstrate our methods on the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diary. Our results show that the approach allows deeper insights into conflict dynamics and allows a strikingly statistically accurate forward prediction of armed opposition group activity in 2010, based solely on data from previous years.

You’ll also find discussion of the article in a piece at Wired magazine.

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At Reddit (h/t Adam Elkus), you’ll find a long discussion by student participants of how they “won” various classroom simulations (“During my final year in school, I turned the Student Council into a dictatorship. What “evil” plots have you successfully hatched?“). Some of the postings show very clever strategies being adopted by students. Some show problems with metagaming and exploiting weaknesses in the game “rules” to obtain extreme, unrealistic, or other undesirable results (well, undesirable for the instructor—I’m sure the student concerned had fun).  Still others, quite frankly, appear to show some really weak moderation skills on the part of instructors. All-in-all it is useful reading for teachers, highlighting some of the potential pitfalls of using classroom games and simulations with groups of bright, mischievous students. (In one of my own classes years ago, student planned a coup for when my favourite TV show was on in the hopes I would be offline for at least an hour. Unfortunately for them, it was a rerun.)

New America event in DC on kids, gaming, education and new technologies

For those in DC, the New America Foundation, as part of their “Future Tense Now” series (cohosted with ASU and Slate) will have a lunchtime discussion on “Getting Schooled by a Third Grader: What Kids’ Gaming, Tweeting, Streaming and Sharing Tells us About the Future of Elementary Education”.  Details here.

Not super relevant to peacebuilding but I was struck by the overlap between the questions they are asking their panel and the reflections that Wheaton is posting about in his 5 Myths of Game Based Learning Series.

Speaking of which, here is an update:

Myth 1: Game Based Learning Is New
Myth 2: Games Work Because They Capture Attention

Wheaton: The 5 Myths of Game-based Learning

Kris Wheaton at Mercyhurst College writes the Sources and Methods blog, an excellent resource on all things related to intelligence analysis and the teaching of intelligence analysis. In his latest post, he kicks off a series on the 5 myths of game-based learning, based on a recent presentation at the annual conference of the American Union of University Professors.

Let me start this series of posts by saying – unequivocally – I am a strong advocate of game-based learning.  It has worked for me personally, I have seen it work in the classroom and have read the research that, in general, suggests that game-based approaches can provide powerful new ways to learn.


As someone who has spent the last three years applying at least some of the theory of game-based learning in the classroom, I can tell you that it is…well…tricky.

Don’t get me wrong.  My intent is not to lead you on and then ultimately come to the conclusion that it can’t be done or that it doesn’t work or, even, that it is hard to do.  It is just trickier than I expected due, I think, to the “myths” that have sprung up about games and learning.  My hope is that this series of posts will help other teachers (particularly other university professors teaching intelligence studies…) to have a more realistic view of both the difficulties and the rewards of incorporating games into their classes.

Where did these myths come from?  I believe that they are a natural consequence of the inevitable distance between theory and practice.  Any practitioner will tell you that theory only works well…in theory.  Actually applying a pedagogical approach to a real world classroom with real world constraints and challenges is another thing entirely….

You’ll need to check back to his blog regularly to get the full series.

Picture above: Another sort of gaming Myth (and a very good game it was too).

simulations miscellany, the Friday-the-13th edition

As usual, our periodic round-up of simulation-related items from around the net. Have suggestions for future material? Email us!

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Red Team Journal, which is devoted to “the practice of red teaming and alternative analysis,” will be relaunching soon. Gaming, of course, is one way in which alternative and competing perspectives can be developed.

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Interested in “Wargaming Courses of Action During Other-Than-Major Combat Operations?” Well then read the piece by George Hodge at Small Wars Journal (22 June 2012).

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Submissions for the 2012 International Serious Play Awards have been extended until July 15. the Awards are associated with the 2012 Serious Play conference, which will be held in Redmond, WA on 21-23 August.

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We have their RSS feed here at PAXsims, but really to need to visit Play the Past often. All the smart kids do. They are way glossier than us, too!

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has released a new smartphone game, in which users can explore “My Life as a Refugee.” The game is available for both Android and iPhones, and can be downloaded for free here.

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In a rather less humanitarian development, the China-Japan territorial dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands is now a Chinese iPad game. The game involves the Chinese player gunning down waves of rather stereotyped Japanese invaders, and was apparently yanked from Apple’s Chinese online app store for violating its online terms of service agreement.

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At ZenPundit, Charles Cameron muses that the best war game is a library of windows.

Meaningful Play 2012

The Meaningful Play 2012 conference will be held at Michigan State University on 18-20 October 2012.

Whether designed to entertain or to achieve more “serious” purposes, games have the potential to impact players’ beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, emotions, cognitive abilities, physical and mental health, and behavior.

Meaningful Play 2012 is a conference about theory, research, and game design innovations, principles and practices. Meaningful Play brings scholars and industry professionals together to understand and improve upon games to entertain, inform, educate, and persuade in meaningful ways. The conference will include thought-provoking keynotes from leaders in academia and industry, peer-reviewed paper presentations, panel sessions (including academic and industry discussions), innovative workshops, roundtable discussions, and exhibitions of games and prototypes.

Meaningful Play 2012 and the Journal of Gaming and Culture have partnered to bring a special issue of the journal containing top papers from the Meaningful Play 2012 conference. Top paper authors will be invited to revise their Meaningful Play paper for publication consideration in the special issue. The Journal of Games and Culture is a peer-reviewed, international journal that promotes innovative theoretical and empirical research about games and culture within interactive media.

Paper, Panel, Poster, Roundtable, Workshop, and Game Submissions are sought from both researchers and practitioners in academia and industry. Graduate and advanced undergraduate students are also encouraged to submit either jointly with an industry professional or faculty mentor or alone.

The call for submissions deadline has been extended until July 28.

The Guillory Anomaly

We’re serious people here at PAXsims. Really, we are—addressing serious uses of games and simulations to explore issues of conflict, fragility, security, and development. However, Brant Guillory really ought to have known better than to have tempted us in the comments section of our recent Connections 2012 update

As for the walrus reference, you’ll need to read here.

The “Ruhnke-Train Effect”

PAXsims researchers offer dramatic scientific evidence that if you mention a forthcoming Volko Ruhnke/Brian Train counter-insurgency wargame, the number of visitors to your website more than doubles triples quadruples quintuples (update: we’re almost up to 900 today).

President Obama announces voting for the Charles S. Roberts Awards (sort of)

Like Hillary said, voting is now open for the 2011 Charles S. Roberts Awards(h/t Brant Guillory)

The Connections 2012 “GameLab” challenge

The Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference will be held later this month (23-26 July) at National Defense University in Washington DC. It looks to be an especially impressive array of speakers and panels this year too.

As Winston Churchill notes, among the new elements this year is the Connections GameLab. Background material for the 2010 Haiti earthquake scenario we will be using has now been posted on the Wargaming Connection website—I urge everyone to have a look. Whether you’ll be a conference participant or not, you’re welcome to start discussing the game design challenge before the conference actually starts. How would you design this game? What would be its key features—and why? How would you link game mechanics to key learning objectives? Offer your own ideas in the comments section!

Simulating stability operations: the discussion continues

We’ve had quite a response at PAXsims to the recent request from the folks at the US Army Command and General Staff College for comments on their draft requirements for a simulation on stability operations—it has had several hundred page views, and there is now a very rich discussion in the comments section there.

One of the discussion contributors has been Graham Longley-Brown, who offered  the insights below. His graphic couldn’t be included in the comments section, so I’ve reproduced the whole thing here as a blogpost.

The diagram above is a ‘Campaign Tree’ process I developed for a ‘Hybrid Warfare Tactical Wargame’ at our Land Warfare Centre. This supports training for company HQ and/or battalion HQ commanders and staff. It addresses some of the points discussed – and it works! The concept is simple: the Training Audience (TA) move through the Campaign Tree from vignette to vignette along a path determined by their own decisions and actions. Vignettes are played out in real-time and use a real-time (largely kinetic) simulation. The TA decisions and actions taken – under pressure – during each vignette are adjudicated by Excon SMEs and dictate the path taken to the next vignette on the Campaign Tree. The periods between vignettes are modelled using a soft factors simulation and last from 3 – 8 weeks. Hence the consequences of the actions taken by the TA during the vignettes, combined with their ongoing Concept of Operations and decisions taken in response to injects and events fed in by Excon are played out during the longer time periods. The solid lines show one path through the Campaign Tree (with associated TA and Excon briefings) but obviously any path is possible.

The process integrates two simulations, both adjudicated and moderated by Excon ‘Rainbow Cell’ SMEs. MEL/MIL injects are used as required to bring out Teaching Points; these are, in the main, pre-considered but can be dynamically scripted. Likewise the vignettes are pre-considered and pre-loaded in the real-time simulation but can be modified just before going live depending on the TA plan during the preceding time period and can be executed however Excon deems appropriate. The diagram doesn’t show AARs, information flows etc – it’s just the bare bones concept.

Although I think this is quite a simple concept it’s hard work to pull all the elements together in the space of a 1-day training event that spans most or all of an operational tour deployment in game time. But it works…

The thing I love most about it is that it allows the TA to create their own narrative; it’s their actions that determine the path through the Campaign Tree – their story. Hence they are more likely to internalise lessons learned. Check out Peter Perla and Ed McGrady’s Naval War College article “Why Wargaming Works for more on why a created narrative, as opposed to a presented narrative is so strong a learning mechanism.

The process is also very flexible. Delete the soft factors sim and insert a board game if you like. Run it all using just deterministic Military Judgement.

So what? Paul makes the point very well that the GCSC requirement assumes a computer simulation solution that can do everything.  I don’t think such a sim exists, or will do in the near future. A more flexible approach is needed that integrates a number of simulation methods and exercise processes.  Paul’s ‘Right answer’ of a ‘family of games (decision-centric tools) where the students use a variety of small, purpose focused games to get at specific aspects of the problem‘ is spot on. Rex’s ‘preselected teachable moments‘ are encapsulated in various places in the Campaign Tree, and lessons learned are reinforced by the narrative created by the TA themselves. In summary, I suspect that the GCSC solution will need some innovative thinking rather than assuming (hoping?) that someone will come up with a sim that walks on water.

Have thoughts of your own? Go contribute here.

COIN in Afghanistan: A Distant Plain

Dudes, this is a major happening! For those interested in wargaming insurgency and counterinsurgency, the coming together of game designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train to produce a new board game on contemporary Afghanistan is great news—something akin to the Rolling Stones and Green Day touring together. Many thanks to Brian for providing the information below—we’ve already volunteered to help with the play-testing!

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Now it can be told: Volko Ruhnke, designer of Andean Abyss, Labyrinth – The War on Terror, and Wilderness War, has teamed up with Brian Train, perpetrator of numerous designs on irregular warfare, to produce what could be the Grail of modern COIN games: a workable design on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

The game is called “A Distant Plain – Insurgency in Afghanistan” and it comprises another entry in the COIN series of games by GMT Games, following the just-released Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre! (still in
playtesting). The basic system draws heavily from Andean Abyss, but features some important differences due to the changed dynamics of the situation: there are four player factions, but they actually form two pairs of antagonists, each in a very uneasy alliance of alternating convenience and necessity. With each turn cards are drawn from a deck of 72, forcing difficult decisions among shaping the larger
battlefield, exploiting short-term opportunities and pursuing local operations.

Just as in the actual conflict, the four player factions have dissimilar abilities, vulnerabilities and war aims. They include:

  • The Coalition – representing the Western interventionist forces of NATO. Their troops are highly capable and mobile, but few in number and their sponsoring governments are sensitive to casualties. The Coalition forces cannot do all the fighting; the Afghan government’s security forces must be trained to assume ever-increasing degrees of responsibility in order to keep the country stable once they leave. Meanwhile, how to build popular support for a central government that often seems more interested in enriching its patrons and friends?
  • The Government – Acutely aware of its own limitations, both in force capability and legitimacy, the Government must try to stabilize itself and extend its power outward from Kabul – the Taliban insurgency is only one of an impressive array of obstacles blocking its progress. The Government is simultaneously dependent on and frustrated by the  actions of the Coalition, which means well but has no understanding of how things need to be done in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban – driven into its sanctuaries in Pakistan in 2002, the insurgency began to build and make inroads on Afghan society. The Taliban brought stability, order and righteousness to Afghanistan once; they can do it again.They have numerous tactical advantages, but their main task of solidifying opposition to the government while establishing a “shadow government” throughout the country is a difficult one.
  • The Warlords – this faction represents the many and varied tribal powers, local authorities, and criminal gangs in Afghanistan. As such, they represent the traditional atomized political structure of Afghanistan and their objective is to resist the efforts of the other three factions to bring the population under their respective centralizing authorities, all while securing wealth and power for themselves.

Features of the game include:

  • the difficult nature of joint Coalition-Government operations
  •  Pakistan’s variable position towards support of the Taliban
  • evolution of both side’s tactics and technology through “capabilities” cards
  • multiple scenarios to depict different phases of the conflict
  • graft, desertion, foreign aid, Coalition casualties, returning
  • refugees, drug trafficking and eradication, highway robbery, drone
  • strikes, bribery
  • and many more!

Finally, the game will feature a set of flow charts to handle the operations of the various factions, so the game is equally playable by one, two, three or four players.

The game has entered playtesting – the above shot was taken at the recent Consimworld Expo in Tempe AZ – and this will continue throughout 2012 as pre-orders accumulate (hopefully quickly) towards the magic P500 point. If all goes well, the game could come out well in advance of NATO’s final withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.

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UPDATE: Frankly, it is spooky how fast Rodger MacGowan/GMT Games/C3i News turns these things into graphics…

UPDATE 2: A Distant Plain is now available for preorder on the GMT Games P500 list. Click the image below.


UPDATE: The game has now been published–see the PAXsims review here.

Comments wanted: Draft CGSC “stability operations” simulation requirements

The US Army Command and General Staff College is currently developing its ideas and requirements for a stability operations simulation that would be used in professional military education at the CGSC and elsewhere. They’re also crowd-sourcing ideas and feedback—and so they’ve asked for your help, via PAXsims. There is a summary of the challenge below, and two attached documents to look over (here and here).

The US military defines stability operations as “various military missions, tasks, and activities conducted outside the United States in coordination with other instruments of national power to maintain or reestablish a safe and secure environment, provide essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian relief.” This might involve foreign humanitarian assistance and disaster response, peace operations, counterinsurgency, or combinations of these—usually undertaken in fragile and conflict-affected states. (For more detail, have a look at the US Army field manual on the subject, FM 3-07.)

For those of you who aren’t used to the jargon of the military and the military simulation community some of the material attached below will be unfamiliar. Don’t worry about that, however—the core question here is really one of “what do simulation users need to learn about stability operations, and how might a simulation best teach them that?” Folks who work in the humanitarian and development communities, or who work on the politics and economics of fragile and conflict-affected states, may have especially valuable “outside” perspectives to offer.

If you do have comments, ideas, or suggestions, please post them here in the comments section.

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Attached below is a very rough draft of requirements for a stability operations simulation intended to support staff exercises at the US Army Command and General Staff College. We’re looking for comments, and we’re interested in any simulations that might already fit these.

Overview: This document outlines required functional capabilities and training effects for a Stability Operations simulation enabling student staff exercises at echelons from battalion through brigade. There is no requirement to interface with the Live, Virtual, Constructive – Integrating Architecture (LVC-IA). At this time, the only Mission Command System that needs to be populated is Command Post of the Future (CPoF). There is no requirement to federate with other simulations. Stimulating additional Mission Command systems, federating with other simulations, and working with LVC-IA is acceptable if and only if there is no additional workload or cost associated with the capability and those systems are not required for fully capable operation. This document will assist the Material Developer to better understand the required functional capabilities and training effects to be included in the Simulation.
Description: The purpose of this Use Case is to provide requirements for a simulation to support competitive-play low-overhead educational staff-centric stability operations exercises conducted at battalion through brigade level by Professional Military Education (PME) students acting as commanders and key staff officers. This simulation is focused on Stability Operations and enables experiential educational environments. It adjudicates the results of student staff planning and decisions, requiring students to adapt their plans to an evolving situation. This is not a predictive simulation. It is intended to produce generally plausible outcomes whose dilemmas will drive student learning.

More detailed technical specifications can be found in this enclosure.

This is not a formal statement of requirements, nor is it a solicitation for bids. There will be a long and difficult road between these documents and spending money (and us getting the simulation we need). Eventually, the final version of these documents will go to the National Simulation Center (NSC). Assuming it makes it through a Requirements Board process, the NSC will turn them over to PEO-STRI, who will contract out to have it made. There are no guarantees that the process will go through all those steps.

However, we’d like to have the best thinking on this we can, in hopes of getting the best product at the far end should we get there.

A few other notes, framing what this is supposed to be:

  • As noted above, this is not a predictive simulation. It is intended to produce generally plausible outcomes whose dilemmas will drive student learning.
  • There will not be a full staff, let alone all the supporting & subordinate staffs. Thus, the simulation has to produce data directly into a student-useful format. Correlating spot reports isn’t a useful employment of student’s time; analyzing the meaning of the summary of activity reports is. This allows for a lot of abstraction in the simulation.

Last but not least, apologies for the format. Yes, there is a lot of overlap between the primary document and Enclosure 1. This may give you a window into the “wonderful” world of requirements writing, though.

James Sterrett
Deputy Chief, Simulations
Digital Leader Development Center
US Army Command and General Staff College

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