Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Dance of the Simulation Designer (updated)

Earlier this month I offered some rather critical reflections on a recent Syria crisis simulation held at Brookings, highlighting some of the the potential problems of wargaming as a tool of policy analysis, as well as addressing some apparent pitfalls in the Brookings simulation design.

In a subsequent blog post, Natasha Gill then added some thoughts of her own on the issue of designing simulations for think-tank clients.

That in turn led Devin Ellis of the ICONS Project to agree with some of what Natasha had said, but to also disagree with some of the rest. Because he raises some very important points about the inevitable compromises between design ambitions and practical realities, as well as the potential for still designing useful exercises within these constraints, I thought they were worth lifting from the comments section and featuring below as a full blog post. Note to Devin: This doesn’t count as the blogpost you promised us—we still hope to collect on that offer!

Update: Natasha offered a response, which I have added below. Any further discussion I’ll leave to the Comments section.

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As someone whose bread is buttered by think-tank simulations, I am am following this evolving series of posts with interest. Some of the observations from Rex and Natasha Gill are spot on and there are things we all wish were better about these high-level exercises. But there are also very real constraints on these, and I find some of the statements above to be pretty sweeping and harsh without a lot of ‘evidence’ to support them. I know there are constraints on what you can put in a blog format, and I am really looking forward to the book when it comes out – but I think there’s some room for debate here.

Rex has brought up Stephen Downes-Martin’s comments and pointed out that the problem may sometimes be that a wargame or simulation might not really be the best tool in the analytic box. It is also true – however – that if a simulation IS a good approach, that is no guarantee the designer and the client won’t face all the same dilemmas incurred by high level participants and a politicized, media-seeking environment. What bothers me a little about Gill’s comments is the sense of expectation that 1) exercises not meeting all her criteria are inherently less valuable than those that do; 2) the major problem with think tank sims is failure to meet the articulated standards of participation; 3) the designer’s wishes will prevail over the reality of the atmosphere.

Stephen gave an excellent talk on living up to our professional integrity this year at Connections, but the truth is it’s also not a one way street. If we walk away from every simulation or game request where the client can’t or won’t meet every aspect of our ideal design and running, we’re limiting our usefulness to the policy world. Truly. If we’ve decided that a simulation or game is a useful investigative approach to the client’s problem, my responsibility as a designer is to help the client make sure the scope and methodology of the simulation are appropriate both to the questions under investigation AND the resources available.

There are many points I would respond to above (favorably as well to be fair), and I’ll write a full post if need be, but I will here just say a word about the issues with high level participants to offer an example of my reservations. I work on high level think tank sims every year, and the truth is, you will never get participants for the lengths of time envisioned in Gill’s work. Her comments on process are wonderful, and I would give my left arm to have participants at the top level in an isolation environment for a week to run a program – the truth is it rarely ever happens.

On the issues of role sheets Gill writes:

Paradoxically, the tendency to obtain false or weak outcomes from a simulation is more likely with participants who know the issues well than with novices. The former can, consciously or not, leap over the instructions provided in their role sheets, bringing their own interpretations to the table rather than learning from the simulation process. As a result, the simulation will confirm the assumptions of the participants rather than provide them with new insights.

I think the first sentence is a reach. Sometime’s that might be the case, but it’s bold to make that statement categorically – though I am willing to be persuaded by evidence. As for the rest, I raise the following contentions:

  1. Yes, think tanks recruit top-level participants in part to give the event or publication more profile – but that’s not the only reason. From a methodological standpoint the value of having those folks is that the ARE indeed experts. If the purpose of your exercise is to explore possible policy reactions to a crisis (I’m going to take it as a given that no one reading this blog believes the purpose of a well designed and run wargame is to predict the ‘real future’ in a complex policy environment) then the choice of participants is a factor in your design. Real top level experts might not be any better than undergrads at coming up with thoughtful, innovative approaches to a problem (they may be worse at is, as Gill implies) but they are undoubtedly better at depicting the probable behavior of their actual peers in a similar situation. A well run policy exercise acknowledges that. You expect the biases in your game design and you account for them in your debriefs and your analysis of the outcomes. Indeed this can sometimes be enlightening to the folks in the ‘thinking’ world about where they fail to understand which issues are viewed as most relevant to the folks in the ‘action’ world.
  2. Gill’s point about self-confirming, and therefore self-fulfilling, observations from participants who “skip over’ their detailed role sheets actually cuts both ways. ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ is not just the garbage the participants bring, but the garbage the scenario writer brings. I am very leery of what seems like an assumption that we, as designers, are always going to have a better take on realistic policy approaches to our hypothetical scenario than the person who has been at the table in real life. By telling my top level participants to obey the objectives or political attitude I have articulated in the role sheet without introducing their own perspectives and experiences, I am turning the simulation into MY self-fulfilling prophecy rather than theirs. I am also – indeed – making the added value of a top level person very limited. I’d be just as well with any reasonably well informed gamer.

In sum, I’ll say it’s a dance: there are sometimes big problems with high level participants – but there are also excellent insights to be gained from them. Gill’s points are well taken, but it is our job to see those issues and work to address them in a way that does not shop the whole prospect of doing focused games with those types of people.

Devin Ellis

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Natasha sent in this response to the points that Devin raised:

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Thanks to Devin Ellis for his thoughtful comments on my piece. I appreciate his feedback, and would like to clarify a few issues and pose a question to him.

The Time Factor

My first point is just a clarification: I’m not sure where Ellis got the idea that I would expect high level participants to spend an entire week doing a simulation. It’s true, my own specialty is creating and running extended and in-depth modules (if I’m teaching graduate students the simulation can last the full semester!). But when I work with diplomats or professionals in conflict, the modules are limited to two days.

I realize that’s more than most professionals can spare, and it’s always a struggle to get them to commit the time. But when they do, they usually offer two comments specifically on the importance of the time element: 1) it made all the difference in terms of grasping the ‘logic’ of the role and understanding the multiplicity of variables that each player had to manage; 2) it was key in helping them learn the most vital lesson, which was less about content and more about the experience of living out a worldview, an experience that helped them gain new insights into the interests, incentives, resistances and obstacles faced by various actors.

Who Fulfils Which Prophesy

I agree that facilitators/game developers can project their own prejudices onto a scenario with as much vigor as a participant. But I was certainly not suggesting that the alternative to participants running the show is the facilitator creating a simulation out of his/her own head. I think the best model is when simulations are developed with a great deal of input from outside specialists, on each aspect of the scenario and roles. The answer to the ‘projection’ question is that there must be more rigor in how modules are constructed, rather than faith in the abilities or knowledge-base of the participants.

I am not implying that high level participant’s don’t have strong abilities or in depth knowledge: I’m suggesting that a good simulation aims to challenge these in ways that benefit the participants and improve the quality of their policy recommendations.

My Way or the Highway

I can see why it sounded as though I believe each simulation should fit the model I’m outlining (you’re lucky you only heard about one part of that model! Don’t order my book when it comes out…). To clarify, I know each simulation cannot and need not fit one model. But simulations are proliferating like rabbits – in universities, think tanks, peace-making and peace-building training programs. And yet many are developed in an ad hoc manner, and facilitators who run them are not always specialists in education/teaching or in simulation development. Further, because almost any simulation generates a great deal of enthusiasm, we as facilitators and professors running them don’t always do enough in the sense of evaluating the weaknesses of the module.

Consequently, I think it’s worth outlining a best practice model of simulation, which is what I’m trying to do in my book. I accept that many great and rigorous modules will follow a different approach and have different goals and methods. I still think it might be useful to assemble and describe the elements that lead to very strong learning outcomes.

Exploring but Not Predicting

My question to Ellis is this: he writes that the purpose of the exercise is to “explore possible policy reactions to a crisis” but in the same sentence admits that “no one…believes the purpose of a well designed and run wargame is to predict the ‘real future’ in a complex policy environment.”

I think this means that although facilitators and participants are well aware that the details of the future can’t be known, the responses of various players to a crisis might be generally predictable in a simulation, in such a way as to be informative or useful for policy makers.

But upon reflection, if this is what Ellis meant, I’m not sure it makes sense to me. If a simulation can’t predict the future, then how much is it really telling you about possible ‘policy reactions’? And how much of what it does tell you about these actually useful (rather than merely interesting) to real policy makers? Policies are guided by the choices of human beings; and the motives guiding those choices are likely to be revealed in a simulation of it delves deeply into the realities lived by those human beings – the pressures they face inside themselves, within their own camp and in confrontation with their adversaries. It’s my view that in a crisis-simulation it is often the case that many of these elements are caricaturized rather than deepened.

Non-specialists versus The Pros

Finally, I’d like to make a point that I realize will sound like my least credible statement. I’m making it nonetheless because I feel I can take cover under the umbrella of those who originally raised it…

I always run a simulation with ‘coaches’ – ‘real’ negotiators, military/security officials, diplomats or analysts who, in addition to helping create the materials, are onsite throughout the simulation to help participants work through the issues. After watching the simulation evolve, the coaches almost always make the same comment: they say they are astonished and disturbed at the non-difference between novices and, well, themselves and other ‘real ‘actors. In contrast to Ellis point that top level experts are ‘undoubtedly better than non high-levels at depicting the behavior of their actual peers” (italics added) – the coaches I cite above are unsettled precisely by the opposite; the fact that, given very realistic roles, detailed materials, elaborate strategies, the non-experts at the table reproduce reality in ways that are striking: in terms of how they discuss and analyze complex issues, how they express the beliefs of various players, and how the dynamics between parties evolve.

I am not suggesting that these participants are able to offer policy recommendations on the same level as specialists. There are of course many differences in the knowledge and wisdom of high level and non-high level participants, and simulations have to work with and around those. But in my experience, the difference in what participants learn from a simulation is not the result of what they bring to the table, but what the table compels them to take from it.

Natasha Gill

Happy endings, doomsday prophesies, and the perils of think tank simulations

Having recently commented on the dangers of poorly designed crisis simulations, we’re pleased to feature this guest contribution by Natasha Gill of TRACK4: Simulations in Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation. This piece is an excerpt adapted from a forthcoming book by Natasha entitled Integrative Simulations: An Apprenticeship in Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation, (Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich).

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Happy Endings and Doomsday Prophesies: The twin hazards of simulations run in policy centers and think tanks 

Some of the most influential and publicized simulations are run in think tanks and policy centers, due in part to high-level participants and respectable host institutions. Yet many of these modules appear to produce self-fulfilling prophesies rather than facilitating a deeper understanding of a conflict or developing robust policy recommendations.

With crisis-oriented or futuristic scenarios, thin role descriptions that allow participants to draw mostly from their own knowledge-base, and a host of intervening external events that drag the scenario into spirals of urgent decision-making, these war-game type modules miss out on key simulation-opportunities. They often seem to provide evidence for a series of assumptions that are embedded in the very structure of the simulation itself, and thus produce predictable outcomes that confirm rather than challenge the views of participants. Even more problematically, it appears that participants are trusted to accurately represent the characters at the table based on their own knowledge, in the absence of strict role instructions or ‘role reversals’ that challenge them with unfamiliar positions. This is the equivalent of playing chess alone and believing you can inflict on yourself a surprise checkmate.

Crisis Simulations versus Conflict/Negotiation Simulations

Whether or not the time is ‘ripe’ for negotiations in the real world, a negotiation simulation that faithfully reflects the positions of real players and the impasses between parties is likely to produce more profound insights and realistic outcomes than a crisis simulation based on a future scenario or driven by dramatic external events.

A complex simulation structure is most valuable when it relates to a nexus of concepts, interests, concerns, positions and inter- as well as intra-factional tensions, rather than gaming devices relating to impending crises. Interventions such as bombings, assassinations and terrorism, while crucial variables in the real world, are highly problematic when inserted into a futuristic scenario where the context, players or calculus of the leadership are likely to be different. Further, after several such interventions the simulation is catapulted far outside the orbit of reality, and outcomes begin to take on an aspect of the absurd. Participants might learn something about what could occur in one of many possible parallel universes in which each of these events took place in the precise sequence they did in the simulation: they will have gained little insight into the current impasses, position and options of key players or their likely responses to events.

On the contrary, this kind of simulation allows participants to mistake the heart of a crisis with the heart of a conflict. They must make urgent decisions based on critical events rather than delving deeper into the motivations of various players – the psychological, cultural, historical, political and personal baggage they bring to the table. Such scenarios also tend to highlight the divisions between adversaries rather than offering a nuanced view of the internal divisions and pressures that influence the decision-making of key players.

Bringing the Emotions Into the Room

One of the most problematic aspects of crisis games or loosely structured simulations is that they leave a key player outside the room: emotion. As a result, while participants might experience adrenalin-driven emotions – the stress of leadership or challenge of decision-making under crisis – they have the option to sidestep some of the entrenched beliefs, fears and resistances that grip the actual parties.

This can lead to two equally problematic outcomes: in one case, participants sacrifice a deep understanding of key impasses for a premature leap into creative problem-solving or deal-making, and produce elegant (but ultimately unimplementable) proposals; conversely, they might caricaturize the other side, or allow the process to be driven by their own personal fears, resistances and ideological positions. In this case, the outcomes will reflect these fears rather than those of the individual they represent in the simulation. In both scenarios, participants are likely to come away with an unrealistic notion of the circumstances under which parties can or cannot make compromises.

In contrast, a more ‘integrative’ simulation module will incorporate the emotional, visceral and relational elements of a real encounter, bringing to the fore the human and psychological dynamics between parties and within factions. This pushes participants into a direct encounter with the seemingly ‘irrational’ responses that sustain a conflict and make ‘rational’ solutions so elusive. As a result, they experience (rather than objectively analyze) the concerns, resentments and preconceptions that key players bring to the table, and begin to adopt the logic of the positions they represent.

Confirming the assumptions of participants rather than discovering more about the interests of the actual parties

Paradoxically, the tendency to obtain false or weak outcomes from a simulation is more likely with participants who know the issues well than with novices. The former can, consciously or not, leap over the instructions provided in their role sheets, bringing their own interpretations to the table rather than learning from the simulation process. As a result, the simulation will confirm the assumptions of the participants rather than provide them with new insights.

In simulations run with high-level participants, facilitators might intervene in the sense of planning and bringing in crises and external events; but they will not always monitor the way participants interpret their character, or question the approach of participants who are considered specialists. The most productive outcomes, however, will be met if facilitators show respect for the knowledge and experience of participants while still holding them to account with an intricate role packet that pushes them beyond their current knowledge-base, and provides them with a detailed worldview, portfolio and set of strategy objectives. Where possible, participants should be encouraged to take on roles that are unfamiliar to them or do not correspond with their personal background/experiences, underlying beliefs, political/ideological positions or natural dispositions.

Aims without Goals

A conflict simulation can have several aims: help participants refine their understanding of a conflict (in particular, the core issues and positions of a wide variety of parties); enable a direct experience of the dynamics between parties and divisions within factions; reveal distinctions between apparent and genuine areas of impasse; and, based on a scenario that mirrors ‘reality’, help participants anticipate the responses of various parties to a conflict, or manage a conflict or crisis.

In order to achieve these aims, a simulation need not be overstuffed with critical events that lead to an escalation of otherworldly responses and outcomes. In fact, although the process itself should be carefully designed to focus on specific issues and ends, its effectiveness is not measured by a series of elaborate crisis outcomes. On the contrary, participants can storm out of a negotiation, remain stalled for hours in separate rooms and with little apparent movement, utterly fail to prevent an escalation, and yet still achieve an extremely productive result. The simulation will have been a success if participants have increased their ability to assess the motives and potential actions of key parties, anticipate likely dynamics that will emerge between players, or re-asses their view of how to manage a conflict.

Natasha Gill  

Grogheads: The “Distant Plain” interview

Over at the Grogheads wargaming site,  Brant Guillory has posted an excellent interview with Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke, the codesigners of the forthcoming game of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, A Distant Plain (GMT Games).

The lengthy interview is in two parts. In addition to providing much detail on the game, it also offers insight into the challenge of game design for COIN operations:

Great stuff! There is also a GrogHeads discussion forum for the topic.

New KCL simulations available online

Each year, graduate students in Phil Sabin’s conflict simulation course in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London create a wargame as a central part of the module. Several downloadable, playable examples from the most recent (2011-12) class have now been added to the large and ever-growing list on Phil’s website, including simulations of the Battle of Freeman’s Farm (1777), Singapore, Vietnam, Lebanon, the Falklands, Georgia, and Robert Hossal’s Fardh al-Qanoon game of security operations in Baghdad (map below).

Anxiety in the archipelago of gaming excellence: NDU faces “alignment”

Last week, Michael Peck had a piece at Foreign Policy Magazine highlighting both the impending cuts and the (re)alignment of priorities at National Defense University:

The budget axe is descending on National Defense University, the Pentagon’s flagship institution for professional military education. The cuts come amid controversy over whether NDU should focus solely on Joint Professional Military Education (JPME), which addresses military strategy and cooperation between the services, or whether it should also serve as a think-tank for strategic analysis. According to an internal Pentagon document, the Joint Chiefs of Staff want NDU to stick to JPME, and have recommended a long list of budget cuts that would slash other functions. But critics worry that narrowing NDU’s mandate will deprive the United States of big-picture thinking at a time when American planners are struggling to adapt to changing geopolitical and budgetary circumstances.

The budget cuts, including dozens of layoffs from NDU’s 800-strong workforce, are part of a long list of recommendations compiled by the Joint Staff, which works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JCS spokesman Richard Osial refused to comment on the grounds that the cuts are part of an internal staff document under review, but a copy obtained by Foreign Policy says the changes are intended to “align NDU organization and funding with [the] new fiscal reality.”

Some cuts were bound to come, of course, especially under the current US budget sequestration process that will see some $50 billion or so lopped from the DoD envelope in FY2013 (and additional cuts of a similar amount each year thereafter). Personally, I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing given budget realities, but that really isn’t an issue for PAXsims—at least, not until we expand our mandate from fragile and conflict-affected countries to include the even scarier world of American fiscal and budgetary politics.

Somewhat more of an issue for PAXsims (since both of us work professionally in and on conflict-affected countries) is the apparent view from the Pentagon, quite separate from DoD budget constraints but undoubtedly reinforced by them, that the US military needs to have its professional military education reduced to a much narrower vision. If anything, the last decade has highlighted the need for a highly interdisciplinary and interagency understanding of national security issues, and NDU has done a great deal to support precisely such an understanding internally, in its research activities, and through its outreach and networking. Now much of that seems to be at risk.

However, my main point in raising all of this is what the both the cuts and new direction at NDU could mean for the professional (war)gaming community. In recent years the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at NDU has played an enormously valuable role in bringing together the many people across the military, other agencies, the gaming industry, and various academic communities together to share and develop professional best practices. It has also provide an opportunity for those relatively new to the field to increase their knowledge of the art, craft, and science of crisis simulation and wargaming. CASL’s quarterly roundtables on innovation in strategic gaming have provided a forum that, quite simply, exists nowhere else in the world, let alone elsewhere in the US. CASL did an extraordinary job of hosting the last two Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conferences. It has also featured special lectures on wargaming, and pushed these out to a broader audience through online streaming. If professional wargaming does indeed comprise often isolated “archipelagos of excellence” as has sometimes been suggested, NDU has been an unparalleled bridge-builder between and among these.

Unfortunately, the recommendations compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff propose major cuts for CASL, as well as a narrow focus on supporting joint PME—with the attendant implication that outreach and networking activities across the broader gaming community is not part of what CASL should do:

Organization: Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL)
Way ahead: Re-orient and rescale to support JPME.
Rationale: Elimination of non-JPME efforts allows for a smaller organization. Resource savings: Reduced annual costs of approximately $1.02M direct and $0.5M reimbursable funding and a workforce reduction of 7 direct funded FTEs and 1 other. Four military officers become available for reassignment or return to the Services.

By my uninformed count, that would appear to be almost one-half of CASL’s current staff.

Michael’s piece in Foreign Policy ends with some pithy criticism of the proposed cuts and realignment from (understandably) anonymous NDU staff and associates. I am not now, nor have I ever been, associated with NDU. However, I—like many others in the professional/policy gaming community—have certainly been an eager beneficiary of their intellectual and professional outreach. A major diminution of CASL’s contribution in that regard would hardly serve anyone very well as we prepare to face the complex security challenges of an uncertain future world.

Zombie Safe House Competition

No one would doubt that the zombie apocalypse is likely to be rather conflictual, and design challenges are almost a game, so on that admittedly tenuous note PAXsims once again indulges its fondness for zombie preparedness exercises with a pointer to the annual Zombie Safe House Competition, sponsored by Architects Southwest. As a recent article in The Economist notes:

THE streets are full of lurching, brain-hungry zombies and humanity faces extinction. Should you run for your life or stand your ground? Luckily, bespectacled men and woman who stare at blueprints have already started thinking about it. Architects are designing zombie-proof housing for Zombie Safe House, a design competition, now in its third year. It was originally devised by a trio of designers at Architects Southwest, an architectural firm in Louisiana, as an informal platform for colleagues to showcase their creative talents in a “pragmatically unconstrained format”, says co-founder Shea Trahan. It now attracts hundreds of students, practicing architects, industrial designers and artists from around the globe looking for an inventive way to boost their portfolios.

More broadly, the competition highlights how these kinds of scenario-based exercises can be used as a way to encourage innovation and creative thinking:

By using the apocalypse as a thought experiment competitors can identify the issues that impact all architectural design, and plan for real-world disasters, such as surviving when power, water, or sewerage is cut off. “The designers have to stretch their imaginations to see what kinds of design might be required for extreme circumstances”, says Michael McClure, a professor of architecture at the University of Louisiana and a judge on last year’s panel. “This takes the ideas of ‘off the grid’ and ‘sustainability’ to great lengths”, helping to push the boundaries and envision how we might live if our modern conveniences were stripped from us. “Sustainability is currently a huge issue due to concerns about climate change and rising energy costs,” says Mr Jordan. If humans can be shown to be self-sufficient in a design such as Look Out House then “certainly we can reduce energy consumption in the here and now,” he says.

You’ll find the website for the competition here, with the winning 2011 entries featured. Information on the 2012 edition will be released shortly—for more information, visit the competition Facebook page. (Image above: The 2011 winner, by Austin Fleming).

SFCG: Computer Game Teaches Conflict Resolution Skills to Rwandan Children

Search for Common Ground, an international NGO that “works to transform the way the world deals with conflict – away from adversarial approaches and towards collaborative problem solving,” has teamed up with Serious Games, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Rwandan Ministry of Education to develop a computer game that helps primary school students learn about the causes conflict and ways to deal with it:

The game, Bana Dukine (Kids, Let’s Play!) is set near a water hole and the characters in the game are the animals that use the water hole. The central character is Little Lion, whose father left him in charge of distributing water to the other animals. As the days go by, the temperature rises, and the amount of water in the hole decreases. This sets up the conflict between the animals over diminished resources. At this point in the game, conflict dialogues appear on the screen between characters, and it becomes the responsibility of little lion (i.e. the student) to choose the best response.

Bana Dukine is played on laptops donated by One Lap Top per Child (OLPC), a program championed by the Rwandan government that aims to distribute more than 200,000 laptops to Rwandan children. Launched in 2008, the program has reached at least one school in each of Rwanda’s four-hundred and sixteen (416) sectors. Additionally, OLPC has trained over 2,000 teachers to implement the game. OLPC is coordinating with district governments to connect schools to the national electricity grid to power the computers. In schools that are located too far from the grid, OLPC workings with the Government to install solar energy.

Target Group

Bana Dukine is being used by students in the fourth and fifth grades. This age group was targeted because they are old enough to understand the message of the game and they have the reading and computer skills to use the program. The game is designed to complement the lessons in the school curriculum. During the testing and design phase of the game, we spoke with a wide sample of Rwandan children to find out what types of situations and conflicts they typically experience in their lives. The conflict dialogues within the game are based on the feedback we received. For example, in one scenario two of the animals fight over a soccer ball. In another, an animal feels left out because her friend did not include her to play together with the other animals.

Preliminary Evaluation

In June, SFCG conducted a preliminary evaluation of the game in 20 primary schools, conducting focus groups and interviews, and reaching over 400 students and 40 teachers in each province of the country. The evaluation sought to assess whether the game was appropriate for the students, if they learned new conflict resolution skills, and whether they could relate the lessons of the game to their real lives. Evaluations found that the game resonates with the children and that they, and their teachers, think it is a fun way to learn conflict resolution skills. Focus group discussions showed that the children had gained a high level of understanding of conflict resolution skills and, that the game provided a productive and safe space to learn and practice these skills.

You will find a more detailed account of how the game works here,  on the blog of Pauline Nyirahirwa (from where we’ve taken the screenshot above).

CGSC stability operations simulation follow-up

As you may remember, last month some of the folks at the Digital Leader Development Center, US Army Command and General Staff College asked PAXsims to help crowd-source comments and ideas for a proposed stability operations simulation. That request prompted quite a few comments, both at PAXsims and elsewhere, as well as some broader media coverage.

James Sterrett has now sent us this update:

About a month ago, Rex kindly posted CGSC’s draft Stability Operations requirements documents.  Expecting a handful of replies, we were hit by a large wave of responses, both at PaxSims and elsewhere.  We are busily reworking the draft in light of the feedback.

THANK YOU to everyone who responded.  We truly appreciate the time and effort you put in to assist us.  Also, THANK YOU to Rex for posting it!

The various replies have proven helpful in four ways:

1) Design commentary

Number of Actors: Modeling the number of actors involved in stability operations emerged as a common theme in the commentary.  We were trying to incorporate this and are working to strengthen and clarify it.

Flexibility emerged as a common theme as well.  The community agreed that the game needs to foster a deeper understanding of conducting stability operations, that any simulation used should be descriptive rather than prescriptive in its nature and strongly instructor-driven. Implicit in this is the assumption that the instructor must have as much control and flexibility of the simulation as possible.    We strongly agree with this, and thought it was codified in our documents; this is an area we are working hard to clarify.

2) We received a number of suggestions of simulations to look into, including GEMSTONE, PSOM, IW TWG, Athena, SENSE, and the Oz Wargame Integration Toolkit.  We’ve already had demonstrations of some of these are and working on demos for the rest; some we have seen in the past but they have grown new capabilities.  Even when we can’t see how to utilize them directly, it is always useful to see others’ design concepts.  PAVE (part of TRAC-MRO’s IW TWG) is soon to undergo a closer look to see if we can modify it to meet our needs.

3) We made connections with organizations we hadn’t known existed, such as the TRADOC Analysis Center’s Modeling and Research Office (TRAC-MRO) and the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute.  TRAC-MRO’s office is less than 500 meters from us, but neither of us knew the other existed.

4) We thought we had made the exercise structure and POI clear, but a variety of comments demonstrated that we did not.  If PAXSims readers didn’t understand it from our documents, then we clearly need to improve the description!

                                                                        James Sterrett

                                                                        Deputy Chief, Simulations Division

                                                                        Digital Leader Development Center

                                                                        US Army Command & General Staff College

If any readers still have comments or suggestions that they would like to make, have a look at the original post (linked above) and add your comments here.

simulations miscellany, 12 August 2012

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

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I’ve updated the links to various report on the Connections 2012  interdisciplinary wargaming conference at the Wargaming Connection website. Even if you missed the conference, you can find out what happened.

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PAXsims gets a shout-out in an article on crowd-sourcing ideas in the military at the Training & Simulation Journal.

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According to “learning guru” John Seely Brown, businesses would be better to hire a World of Warcraft player than it is to hire a Harvard MBA:

While he’s right about the collaboration skills and inventiveness that can characterize some high-end play, and I do think people are often inappropriately dismissive about the skills and social element of MMORGs, I do think (as a moderately experienced WoW player myself) that he’s rather overselling it—unless, of course, your business model involves a lot of ganking newbies.

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Back in April 2012, the Rockefeller Foundation and Institute for the Future ran Catalysts for Change, a “a 48-hour online game to engage people around the world to reimagine the future of poverty and global well-being.” The summary report of that exercise is now available.

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The preliminary programme is now available for the North American Simulation and Gaming Association annual conference, which will be held 7-10 November 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. You’ll find full details here, and registration is here.

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My colleague Neil Caplan passed on a recent piece (coauthored with Wendy Pearlman, Brent E. Sasley, and Mira Sucharov ) on “History, Rationality, Narrative, Imagery: A Four-Way Conversation on Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict” in the Journal of Political Science Education   8, 3 (August 2012). What does that have to do with games and simulations? Well, they are mentioned a couple of times in the article as teaching techniques:

Simulations are games in which students are (often) divided into groups representing specific actors, and sometimes individual students are given specific roles within the unit. The groups then interact with each other in the process of working toward a specified outcome (e.g., a peace agreement, a conference communique ́, etc.). The benefits to simulations have been highlighted at length elsewhere (for some discussion see Sasley 2010). Here, I would like to add that it is the ‘‘real life’’ experiences that such games provide to students that benefit them.

Let me explain by an example. In a recent class I divided students into ‘‘Israel,’’ ‘‘Fatah,’’ ‘‘Hamas,’’ and the ‘‘United States.’’ Their task was to reach the broad outlines of a written agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. This was complicated by the fact that the Palestinians were composed of two factions. What was most interesting about this simulation was that the students came very close to achieving their goals; in fact, with another two or three minutes they would have.

Hamas was composed of hardliners and moderates (not always helpful descriptions, but conventional and easy to work with in this case). They had major disagreements with each other, until one group began to plot the overthrow of the other group to take over the organization. The group that planned the coup was the one that would have signed a final agreement. Time ran out before they completed their takeover; however students were so excited by this part of the simulation that they continued to discuss it for the rest of the course.

What is interesting about this outcome is that it reflects real-life disagreements within the Hamas leadership. Certainly students could have read about this, but feeling it as they did—and generating the excitement that it did, as evidenced by evaluations and after-simulation comments to me—provided them with a real sense of the complexities and pitfalls inherent in any interactor relationship.

Interestingly, a forthcoming article in Simulation & Gaming by Sean McMahon and Chris Miller will argue that simulations of the Arab-Israeli conflict also have potential ideological biases that could be seen as problematic:

This paper reflects critically on simulations. Building on our experience(s) simulating the Palestinian-Israeli-American Camp David negotiations of 2000, we argue that simulations are useful pedagogical tools that encourage creative—but not critical—thinking and constructivist learning, but can also have the deleterious effect of reproducing unequal power relations in the classroom. We develop this argument in five stages. First, we distinguish between problem-solving and critical theory and define “critical thinking” – something not done by the simulation orthodoxy. Second, we describe the Camp David simulation. This is our contribution to the relatively small corpus of literature on simulating Palestinian-Israeli relations. Third, we review the constructivist learning and peer teaching done through our simulation. This section is notable because it is authored by a graduate student who participated in the simulation as a meaning maker. Fourth, we review the manner in which simulations promote creative, not critical, thinking and reproduce asymmetrical power relations. Fifth, we reflect on the overall utility of simulating the Camp David negotiations in the classroom.

The latter piece will appear in a special issue of Simulation & Gaming on “simulations and games to build peace,” coedited by Gary and myself.

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Finally, what serious wargamer hasn’t wondered what are the optimal siege tactics for taking Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle? (h/t @MahmudNaqi)

Simulation & Gaming (August 2012)

The August 2012  issue of Simulation & Gaming (43, 4) is now available online.


Simulating REAL LIVES: Promoting Global Empathy and Interest in Learning Through Simulation Games

  • Christine M. Bachen, Pedro F. Hernández-Ramos, and Chad Raphael

Comparing Objective Measures and Perceptions of Cognitive Learning in an ERP Simulation Game: A Research Note

  • Timothy Paul Cronan, Pierre-Majorique Léger, Jacques Robert, Gilbert Babin, and Patrick Charland

The Validity and Effectiveness of a Business Game Beta Test

  • Steven C. Gold and Joseph Wolfe

Ritualistic Games, Boundary Control, and Information Uncertainty

  • J. Tuomas Harviainen

Similarity of Social Information Processes in Games and Rituals: Magical Interfaces

  • J. Tuomas Harviainen and Andreas Lieberoth

Toward a Model for Intercultural Communication in Simulations

  • Bradley E. Wiggins

Association News & Notes

Association News & Notes

  • Songsri Soranastaporn

Syria, intervention, and the limits of wargaming

Today’s PAXsims post is something that I’ve been meaning to write about in a general way for a while, but is triggered this week by the confluence of several events. The first was a question raised by Michael Peck on the milgames email list, in which he asked how policy planners might usefully wargame the current civil war in Syria and the political and military complexities of possible external intervention. The second was a presentation by Stephen Downes-Martin at the recent Connections conference which focused, in part, on the ethics of wargame design, coupled with a follow-up point that he made in a comment on the Wargaming Connection blog about knowing the limits of our craft. Third, the Saban Center at Brookings has just released a report on a recent policy game they conducted on Syria, entitled “Unravelling the Syria Mess: A Crisis Simulation of Spillover from the Syrian Civil War.” Finally, I’ve been spending much of the week working on Syria-related research.

My answer to Michael’s question about wargaming Syria was fairly straightforward: while I felt that gaming could offer insight into the military challenges of intervention in Syria, I didn’t think it had much to offer in exploring the possible first, second, and third order political effects of intervention in such a complex and dynamic environment—especially given how many “known and unknown unknowns” lurk in the situation there. On the contrary, if I wanted to illuminate the Syria question I would prefer to do it through a workshop or well-run BOGSAT  (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) discussion, with a team of participants and moderators who knew how to move the discussion along in interesting and thought-provoking ways.

The advantages of this are two-fold, I think. First, a wargame usually (although not always) embeds a single model of a situation, and unless there are opportunities for multiple plays (a rarity in policy games) there is little  scope to explore a variety of possible relationships between key elements of the scenario. A workshop or BOGSAT discussion, on the other hand, allows you to unpack critical assumptions, debate them, consider alternatives, and talk through the policy implications of all that. This is especially important in a case where there is genuine disagreement about the causal processes and relationships at work. Such a discussion can also be very agile, allowing you to rapidly explore new directions when interesting ideas are put forward. That can be much more difficult to do in a wargame, especially the heavily-scripted three-move seminar games of the sort that often predominate in policy settings.

The report of the Syria wargame undertaken at Brookings, unfortunately, rather illustrates my point. The report itself is rather badly done: it isn’t at all clear how large the teams were, how they were formed, how much experience and expertise they had, what range of policy options they considered (or were allowed to considered), or how the white cell and game adjudication operated. The write-up itself is also extraordinarily vague in recounting who actually did what, when, and with what effects. Even the initial scenario is poorly described, as are any injects that might have been introduced during the game. Only three actors were represented by active players in the crisis game: the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian government wasn’t represented, nor were the many Syrian opposition actors. With no Syrian actors represented, it isn’t clear that any creative countermoves were taken by Damascus to deter or offset the creeping  intervention that took place in the game, nor that the locals could act to manipulate foreign engagement to their own local advantage. Many of the games findings seem to be self-evident, and hardly needed multiple players to give up a day to identify. The game report notes, for example, that Turkey is important in what happens in Syria—a fact that ought to be evident to anyone who has read the news, or who can even read a map.

Even more serious than this, however, is the extent to which many of the “findings” of the game seem to be as much presuppositions of the game model as they are actual findings. For example, the report notes:

Nevertheless, despite Turkey’s significance, American power still went a long way. For instance, the Saudi team evinced interest in the battles for the arms‐ supply routes through Lebanon which the scenario depicted as escalating—and in the deteriorating situation in Lebanon more generally. But the Saudi team again found itself relatively unable to explore options there without support from the U.S. team. The Saudi team also considered working with Jordan as an alternative (or supplement) to Turkey, but the other teams (principally the U.S. team) showed little interest in pursuing the feasibility of that option.

The paragraph, and the game, presumes that there are “battles for the arms supply routes in Lebanon.” It isn’t clear what exactly that means, nor does it sound especially realistic to me. The report also suggests the game was configured in such a way that the Saudis couldn’t influence events in Lebanon without US assistance—which I also think is fundamentally wrong.

To take another example:

…the Saudi team found that Saudi Arabia had only a modest impact on events in Syria itself, and made little headway with either the American or Turkish teams until the Americans and Turks had decided on their own—and for reasons having nothing to do with Saudi efforts—to intervene in Syria. At that point, Saudi/Arab help became extremely useful, but even then it was not decisive: the American and Turkish teams had made up their minds to do so based on their own interests, and would have intervened (and felt they could have intervened) with or without Arab support, although the Arab support was certainly welcome.

Potentially, Saudi and Gulf influence on events in Syria is (I would argue) much greater than the report, and the crisis game model, seem to suggest—especially regarding financial and material support to the Syrian opposition.

Overall, one gets the sense that the game was rigged to tilt the process towards certain policy conclusions, either because of the policy preferences of the game sponsors and designers or because of the particular worldview that it was built on.

In his comments at Wargaming Connection, Stephen warns of the dangers of “trying to sell war gaming as a solution when other solutions might be better.”  He’s right, of course. It is often the case that a wargame or policy game is not the best way of exploring an issue; indeed, I would argue that it is very often not the best way of exploring complex political issues.

On the other hand, if (say) you’re a think tank in Washington and you want to (say) influence policy on Syria, running a game and putting “crisis simulation” in the title of your report is one way of making it seem somehow more weighty and special. It is, after all a crisis—you know, important and urgent—and a simulation—which, of course, must mean that it bears some relationship to reality. Which means it’s got to be correct, right?


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