Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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  

2 responses to “Happy endings, doomsday prophesies, and the perils of think tank simulations

  1. Rex Brynen 31/08/2012 at 9:49 pm

    Thanks for the detailed comments, Devin—I’ve moved them up to a full blog post: Let the debate/discussion continue!

  2. Devin H Ellis 31/08/2012 at 2:13 pm

    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 (,-players-and-sponsor–the-three-witches-.pdf) 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.

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