Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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!

9 responses to “Connections 2012 AAR

  1. Brant 27/07/2012 at 8:56 am

    nice wrap up :)

  2. Aaron 27/07/2012 at 11:30 am

    Very interesting. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Ty 27/07/2012 at 12:44 pm

    Great rollup! Thanks again for the invite… I hope we get to sit down again soon. I’ll be looking at games differently from here on out!

  4. Robert 27/07/2012 at 10:49 pm

    Great write-up, almost as good as being there. I don’t suppose there’s a video of the keynote addresses?

  5. Rex Brynen 27/07/2012 at 10:56 pm

    The original plan was to livestream them only, but that may change. There was (as you probably know) a copy of Fardh al-Qanoon on display, being demonstrated by none other than Peter Perla!

  6. Jon Compton 28/07/2012 at 8:10 am

    “characteristic bluntness” HAH

  7. brtrain 31/07/2012 at 1:37 pm

    Thanks so much for the photos Matthew! I was too busy showing and telling to take any pictures myself.

  8. John Curry 07/08/2012 at 12:54 pm

    very interesting summary, with thanks

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