Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

simulations miscellany, 20 January 2013


A few items of recent interest from around the conflict simulations and gaming world:

* * *

In a newly-published article on “Games, Claims, and New Frames: Rethinking the Use of Simulation in Negotiation Education” in the Negotiation Journal 29, 1 (January 2013), Daniel Druckman and  Noam Ebner find that role-play simulations aren’t necessarily an especially effective way of teaching about negotiations:

Negotiation educators have long considered the use of role-play simulations as an essential classroom teaching method, and have had high expectations regarding their suitability and efficacy for teaching. In this article, we review the literature to examine the degree to which simulations deliver on these perceived benefits, finding that simulations enjoy only limited advantages over other teaching methods.

On the other hand, their research suggests much greater teaching effectiveness when students are asked to design, rather than just participate, in such simulations:

We note three trends that have developed as part of this reevaluation process: improving the way simulations are conducted, deemphasizing the use of simulations as a teaching tool while seeking new methods, and finding paradigm-changing uses for simulations. With regard to this last trend, we describe our own experiments assigning students to design their own simulations, rather than participate in them as role players. Among other benefits of the design method, we found that designers showed greater improvements in concept learning and motivation than did role players.

* * *

While on the subject of academic journals, I’m told by a reliable source that the forthcoming issue of the Middle East Journal will contain a review essay on Middle East-related games, with reviews of four boardgames about conflicts in the region: Oil War—Iran Strikes, Persian Incursion, Battle for Baghdad, and Labyrinth.

* * *

Game The News has recently released Endgame: Syria, a game about the ongoing bloody civil war in that country. The game is available as an Android app, or can be played online at the developer’s website.

It won’t be available for Apple products, however, since Apple refused to carry it in their app store. As Michael Peck reported at Forbes:

…the company was told that Endgame: Syria was rejected because of guidelines “forbidding games that ‘solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity’”, according to a statement by Auroch Digital. Tomas Rawlings, the game’s designer, said “we had hoped that Apple would be more nuanced in how they applied this rule, but we got a bit worried when it had been in submission for around two weeks without a decision – we then figured that because of the controversy of using the gaming medium to cover an ongoing war meant passing the game had become an issue for them.” Apple could not be reached for comment.

You’ll find further coverage of Apple’s decision at The Guardian. Russia Today ran a story on the game too, offering a mild critique of the underlying politics:


Meanwhile, at the Political Violence @ a Glance blog, Erica Chenoweth (University of Denver) offers a few broader thoughts on the issue:

1. The game is meant to approximate “real life.” Why would this approximation yield satisfaction to players? Is it because they want to learn how to be better rebels?

2. The game was developed in two weeks! If this kind of technology — where news aggregation can be translated into artificial intelligence and then repackaged into a real-time civil war simulation — proves valuable, it opens a host of new opportunities for rebel groups and opposition movements in general. I’ve discussed before the inherent difficulties of strategic planning facing non-state actors: they rarely have the time, resources, manpower, or space available for realistic simulations. But if games like Endgame: Syria become more ubiquitous and speak to ongoing civil conflicts, simulations may eventually prove to be ample substitutes for real war games.

3. If the latter hypothetical were to come true, then here’s an interesting research question: does war-gaming improve rebel performance in civil war? Governments certainly seem to think that war games help their own forces’ military performance. But it remains to be seen whether this perception would extend to rebel military performance. My hunch is that this would be largely contingent on the level of coordination and organizational discipline within the rebel group — which is noticeably lacking in Syria. But where rebel groups are well-organized, easily accessible tools like this may provide opportunities for more strategic (rather than just tactical) approaches to fighting. I can see why Apple would be dubious of approving the game.

4. Apple rejected Endgame: Syria. Is this because of technical specification problems, or because they do not want to put their brand behind something that trains people to be better rebels? If the former, then the rejection’s not a very interesting story. But if it’s the latter, here is an interesting example of a powerful corporation anticipating a moral hazard down the line.

As you’ll see in my comments on Erica’s blogpost, I think that Endgame: Syria has some limited value as a newsgame that illuminates for its players some of the strategic choices faced by the opposition. However, it certainly isn’t the sort of game that would develop useful tactical, operational, or operational skills. Equally, while there are a few digital games out there that could sharpen warfighting skills (such as Steel Beasts or Arma 2), I don’t see much evidence that this has ever been a significant factor in contemporary civil wars, notwithstanding the oft-quoted (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) comment by Libyan rebels in Misrata in 2011 that they had honed their combat abilities playing Call of Duty.

* * *

WPGJohn Hunter’s book World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements is now available for preorder. It will be published on April 14.

In John Hunter’s classroom, students fearlessly set about tackling global problems—and discovering surprising solutions—by playing Hunter’s groundbreaking World Peace Game. These kids—from high school all the way down to fourth grade, in schools both well-funded and under-resourced—take on the roles of presidents, tribal leaders, diplomats, and military commanders. Through battles and negotiations, standoffs and summits, they strive to resolve a sequence of many-layered, interconnected scenarios, from nuclear proliferation to tribal warfare.

Now, Hunter shares inspiring stories from over thirty years teaching the World Peace Game, revealing the principles of successful collaboration that people of any age can apply anywhere. He offers all of us not only a forward-thinking report from the front lines of American education, but also a generous blueprint for a world that bends toward cooperation, rather than conflict. In this deeply hopeful book, a visionary educator shows us what the future of education can be.

* * *

Robert Hossal is thinking about the challenges of developing a “universal” insurgency simulation, into which localized variables could be plugged so as to simulate particular conflicts. You can follow Part I of his thoughts of the subject here at his SmartWar blog.

One response to “simulations miscellany, 20 January 2013

  1. Ronald Skip Cole 22/01/2013 at 1:33 pm

    > their research suggests much greater teaching effectiveness when students are asked to design, rather than just participate, in such simulations
    I’m always excited about results that indicate that people learn more from designing simulations than they do from playing in them. Someone should create a specialized tool to make it easy for novices to create their own simulations. Oh wait, we do that ;-)
    BTW, the Peaceconferencing process allows the students to make many of the design decisions in creating their own simulation. The students pick who the players at the negotiating table are, what role they individually will be and set some of the ground-rules for play. It appears to be highly successful at The Bishop’s School, but it has not been scientifically studied yet, as far as I know. (A research opportunity!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: