Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 03/11/2012

IR theory and virtual worlds

At the Bretterblog, Felix Haas asks (in the original German, or in English via Google Translate) a very good question—why haven’t more political scientists used interaction within massive multiplayer online games to study theories of international relations?

I’m certainly aware of very little work in this area, although one of our recent PhD graduates in psychology, Michael King, did use my annual civil war simulation at McGill to examine possible relationships between personality type and the use of violence. You’ll find a few of his findings here (there’s more in his actual PhD thesis).

For one attempt to connect IR theory and multiplayer online simulation, have a look at the Teaching with Statecraft blog, which discusses how to teach international relations using Statecraft. Statecraft is a multiplayer strategy-and-resource game for classroom use, with a rather Civilization look-and-feel: players develop productive assets, trade, build (and use) military forces, engage in espionage and terrorism, research technologies, and so forth. In many ways, therefore, it is similar to Brock Tessman’s International Relations in Action manual/book-based simulation, but with the greater complexity that a computer enables. It is also different from the Open Simulation Platform in that it is much, much less scriptable, and has most interactions automated through programmed algorithms (rather than having these determined by the moderator). The Statecraft website contains a number of useful suggestions as to how classroom game play can be used to illustrate key theories in international relations, as well examples of course outlines, class lectures, and assignments that integrate the simulation.

While Statecraft is configured as a teaching tool, it seems to me that—provided data is collected from player interactions appropriately—it could also be used as a research tool. Statecraft and similar simulations could thus be used to generate data on patterns of strategic behaviour drawn from repeated play (for example, when do players “balance” or “bandwagon“?) and also used for experimental methods (how, over large numbers of plays, does altering key variables or relations affect behaviours and outcomes?)

At some point—when time allows—we’ll arrange for a trial of Statecraft so that we can report back our impressions.

Zombies and stabilization operations

A distant village in a war-affected country. The Visiting Foreign Official meets with village elders, as his nervous personal security detail scans for threats.

Then it happens. An IED explodes. Moments later the village is assaulted by ravenous hordes of hungry undead….

Yes, that’s how it unfolded at the recent HALO Counter-terrorism summit in San Diego, with the zombie action provided by Strategic Operations, Inc., which specializes in “provides Hyper-Realistic™ training environments for military, law enforcement and other organizations, using state-of-the-art movie industry special effects, role players, proprietary techniques, training scenarios, facilities, mobile structures, sets, props, and equipment.” All that was missing was for FOX News to blame the Obama Administration for security lapses and a “craven willingness to compromise with radical undeadism” in what it what its commentators would soon dub the “Zombiegate scandal.”

Remember folks: head shots. Use gunfire sparingly—it attracts herds of walkers. An armoured SUV may be expensive at the gas pump, but it can be a very effective counter-zombie weapon, used properly. And always, ALWAYS double-tap.

h/t: Michael Peck, “Zombies Battle Navy SEALs for Afghan Village,” Forbes, 1 November 2012.

Mirror imaging and wargame design

A couple of weeks ago at Defense News, Michael Peck asked “Can We Simulate Non-American Wars?” raising the problem of mirror-imaging in policy and planning wargames:

The cardinal mistake in military history has always been mirror-imaging: the assumption, often colored by wishful thinking, that your enemy will conveniently devise the same goals, strategy and tactics as you do. But this doesn’t just apply to enemies. Even allies frequently misperceive each other.

This came to mind last month, when I read an article in Foreign Policy Magazine that described how Pentagon planners predict three possible Israeli options for destroying Iran’s nuclear program: air strikes, a commando raid, or wiping out Iran’s senior leadership. The article troubled me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why – until I realized that the Pentagon expects the Israelis to fight in the same way that the Pentagon itself might fight if it targets Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

It’s not totally illogical; the Israelis fight American-style (or Americans fight Israeli-style), so perhaps there’s a commonality of approach that enables accurate forecasting. But an Israel-Iran war would be a conflict between two foreign nations, with their own domestic agendas, cultural traditions and military methods. If Israel attacks Iran, it may employ technologies and tactics that the U.S. hasn’t thought of. Armies aren’t cloned like Dolly the Sheep.

Michael is absolutely right, of course—that’s why the dangers of mirror-imaging are pretty much in every Intelligence 101 course that trainee government analysts ever take. However, while being aware of the problem is part of the solution, it doesn’t in and of itself resolve it. Methodologically, there are variety of tools that one can use to get a sense of typical behaviours by “the other,” including examination of past military campaigns, published doctrine (fortunately, militaries love to publish doctrine), engagement of subject matter experts, and so forth. Equally important, however, may be the recruitment of personnel with the cognitive abilities and styles that allow them the empathize with the perceptions and motivations of others.

Yet focussing solely on the mirror-image part of the problem leads to another possible deficiency—namely the countervailing risk of viewing an actor’s responses as excessively determined by doctrine or cultural and organizational constraints. A study of pre-war Commonwealth military doctrine, for example, would have given you few grounds on which to have predicted the innovations of the 1942-44 Burma campaign under General William “Bill” Slim. Similarly, the performance of United Nations and mediation and peace operations has varied substantially depending on the personal attributes and styles of senior mission personnel. Trying to understand the behaviour of Hizbullah solely through the cultural lens of Shi’ism or Islamist movements would tend to obscure the almost Google-like innovation the organization has shown at times (but not always).

But do you want to allow game players full flexibility to do whatever they want? Much depends, of course, on the purpose of the wargame. How does one balance exploring the most probable response of an actor with the possible (but less likely) response? Can one do this in a single game (or, for that matter, is a wargame even the best way of exploring all of these contingent possibilities?)

Part of the answer, I think, is to view the behaviour of parties in a conflict (or, for that matter, peace process) as being distributed along a normal curve. Certainly, some types of behaviours or responses may be more common than others, but less doctrinaire or more innovative approaches (of greater or lesser effectiveness) should also have a non-zero probability of appearing. Game rules can variously permit less orthodox behaviours (but at an additional cost in time, energy, or resources), assign probabilities to approval of more innovative approaches (to reflect that less conventional response may be less likely to receive endorsement from the powers-that-be), or have doctrinal responses being the “default” setting which participants must actively decide to alter.

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For more on the subject of simulating the behaviour of adversaries, have a look at the always-excellent Red Team Journal.

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