Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

S&G: Simulations, games and peace

SGpeaceThe latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 44, 1 (February 2013) has just been published—and it is a special issue on “Simulations, games and peace” coedited by Gary and myself. Most of the articles are paywalled by SAGE and you’ll need a subscription to access them, but our introduction to the issue (excerpted below) is open access:

Simulations and games have long been used to examine war-fighting. Chess—one of the world’s oldest, and certainly most ubiquitous, games—has its origins some 1,500 years ago in India as a game of contemporary warfare. Since the invention of KRIEGSSPIEL in 19th century Prussia, professional wargames have been used to educate officers and train armies for battle (Perla, 1990).

Similar mechanisms can also be used, however, to examine conflict from another perspective: that is, how it might be avoided, reduced, managed, transformed, or resolved. Whether we focus on nuclear deterrence, provincial reconstruction in Afghanistan, tribal tensions in Sudan, or efforts to avert genocide in COUNTRY X, the games featured in this special symposium issue of Simulation & Gaming share a common interest the in building or maintaining of peace.

Our interest in this area comes from our own practical experience using games as an experiential teaching technique. One of us works as a senior economist at the World Bank, where he designed and implements the CARANA simulation, used to teach World Bank staff the skills necessary for assessment, strategic planning, prioritization, and program design in conflict-affected and fragile states (World Bank, 2012). The other uses a variety of games in teaching about development and war- to-peace transitions at McGill University, most notably the annual BRYNANIA civil war role-playing simulation (Brynen, 2010). Together, we also coedit the PAXsims (2012) blog on conflict simulation, which brings together game designers, users, students, and practitioners.

Why Use Games?

With regard to military matters, Philip Sabin (2012) has argued that the educational value of games can be substantial:

The most important function of wargames is to convey a vicarious understanding of some of the strategic and tactical dynamics associated with real military operations. Besides learning about the force, space and time relationships in the specific battle or campaign being simulated, players soon acquire an intuitive feel for more generic interactive dynamics associated with warfare as a whole. . . . As variation in combat outcomes during the game creates unexpected threats and opportunities, players will be faced with other classic real world dilemmas such as whether to reinforce success or salvage failure. Actually grappling with such dilemmas at first hand rather than simply reading or hearing about them has enormous educational potential. (p. 31)

Much the same arguments can be made about the use of simulation and gaming techniques to enhance our understanding, not of warfare, but rather of the process whereby peace might be achieved and sustained. Through serious games, participants can gain a better sense of the dynamic relationships at work in complex environments, explore good fits and practical solutions, and understand how mistakes occur (often, by making them themselves). These are real skills needed in the real world: In recent decades, policy makers working on peacekeeping and peacebuilding have certainly been faced with the prospects of failure and have been forced to choose between “rein- forcing success and salvaging failure.” When games engage multiple participants, the games reproduce some of the political, coordination, communication, and coalition- building challenges that often accompany peace and stabilization operations, especially if a simulation is designed to reproduce some of the organizational silos and bureaucratic politics that exist in the real world.

The value of peacebuilding games is particularly evident in training and educational settings (Lantis, Kuzma, & Boehrer, 2000). However, they have other uses as well. Because simulations are inevitably built upon an explicit or implicit model of reality, their construction is essentially an exercise in social science theorizing. As a consequence, they can be used as a research tool to examine the implications of hypothesized relationships and conflict dynamics (Boyer, 2011). Advances in both computation power and conflict modeling allow this to be done with ever-greater degrees of sophistication (Yilmaz, Ören, & Ghasem-Aghaee, 2006).

There are, of course, good reasons to be doubtful about the ability of games to work as predictive tools, as social and political processes are complicated things and the particular dynamics of peace and conflict are often highly context dependent; they are “wicked problems” (Rittel & Webber, 1973). However, games can certainly serve as useful heuristic devices, helping practitioners and policy makers to think in new and creative ways about challenging issues or simply to compare worldviews for a better shared understanding of these complex challenges. The use of games as problem-solving spaces and as exercises to better understand complex problems are explored in all the articles in this issue; the reader is directed to the contributions by McMahon and Miller and by Bartels, McCown, and Wilkie for more substantial discussion.

Such games can take a variety of forms. Abstract games can be used to highlight particular issues that arise in conflict resolution, or to build key communication, mediation, coordination, or other skills. Role-playing exercises are also quite common, in which participants explore either historical and contemporary conflicts (for example, Kumar, 2009; Public and International Law Policy Group [PILPG], n.d.) or fictional ones (such as Gamson & Peppers, 2000, or Tessman, 2007). Such games may involve rule sets that govern interaction and resource management, or simply focus on processes of discussion, debate, and negotiation. The REACTING TO THE PAST series of books and role-play resources, although aimed more at history courses than at the development of conflict resolution skills, is a particularly successful version of this approach (Barnard College, 2012). In some cases, such educational simulations have been taken a step further, in the form of digital implementations of these traditional approaches. In such cases (such as the Open Simulation Platform or the ICONS Project), software serves to facilitate customizable player briefings, interaction, and debriefs (Brynen, 2012; ICONS Project, n.d.; United States Institute of Peace [USIP], n.d.-b). In still other examples—such as the USIP’s Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise (SENSE) simulation, or the GEMSTONE counterinsurgency wargame at National Defense University (NDU)—players may interact with a digital model of the political, social, and economic model of the society in conflict, which provides a focus for broader discussion and negotiation (NDU, n.d.; USIP, n.d.-a). Although there remain relatively few traditional boardgames that have peacemaking as an educational (as opposed to entertainment) focus, recent years have seen the development of serious video games that serve this purpose, such as PEACEMAKER, in which participants seek to achieve a negotiated outcome to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (Kampf & Gürkanyak, 2012).

Inside This Issue

The contributions to this special issue of Simulation & Gaming examine a wide variety of different types of learning games and simulations (Table 1). In drawing out the many lessons that the contributors have to offer, it is useful to think about both the similarities and differences in their approaches to the topic….

The articles included in the issue are as follows:


  • Peace, Violence, and Simulation/Gaming
    • David Crookall 

Guest Editorial

  • Peacebuilding With Games and Simulations
    • Rex Brynen and Gary Milante


  • Designing Peace and Conflict Exercises: Level of Analysis, Scenario, and Role Specification
    • Elizabeth Bartels, Margaret McCown, and Timothy Wilkie
  • Playing With Conflict: Teaching Conflict Resolution Through Simulations and Games
    • Richard B. Powers and Kat Kirkpatrick
  • Modeling Choices in Nuclear Warfighting: Two Classroom Simulations on Escalation and Retaliation
    • Julian Schofield
  • Leveraging Web-Based Environments for Mass Atrocity Prevention
    • Tucker B. Harding and Mark A. Whitlock
  • War Gaming Peace Operations
    • Roger Mason and Eric Patterson
  • Simulating the Camp David Negotiations: A Problem-Solving Tool in Critical Pedagogy
    • Sean F. McMahon and Chris Miller
  • Games, Social Simulations, and Data—Integration for Policy Decisions: The SUDAN Game
    • Peter Landwehr, Marc Spraragen, Balki Ranganathan, Kathleen M. Carley, and Michael Zyda


We would like to thank both S&G editor David Crookall and the various authors for their contributions. We hope that our collective efforts spur further discussion of the role that conflict simulations can play in enhancing both the theory and practice of peacebuilding.

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