Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: April 2013

Reflections on a humanitarian policy simulation


Earlier this year, my colleague Mick Dumper (University of Exeter) and I organized a policy simulation that explored potential near-term challenges to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the agency which deals with Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. As a brief account on the University of Exeter website notes, the exercise was set one year in the future, in a Middle East that looks much like the current one, only worse:

UN Agency Learns from Simulation at Exeter

It is March 2014, Syria has imploded, refugees are massing at the borders, the Palestinian Authority is bankrupt and its security services have been unpaid for 3 months.  How should the UN agency responsible for 5 million Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) react when it itself is adjusting to US Congress-inspired funding cuts of 20%?

This scenario was played out in a simulation organised by the Department of Politics, with senior management of UNRWA, including its Commissioner-General and Director of External Relations, leading academics in the field, some donor representatives and diplomats.

The exercise involved three “Policy Teams” (one of which was composed of three College PhD students) who were set the task of coming up with clear recommendations for UNRWA by interviewing a number of stakeholders representing the EU, US, Jordan, Lebanon, HAMAS, the PA and the refugees.  Should it increase its advocacy work at the risk of alienating its main donors?  Should it cut services and where? What would the impact of that be on the host countries?

“The fact that the scenario was uncomfortably close to reality gave real impetus to the task and also weight behind the recommendations that were finally presented” commented Professor Mick Dumper from the Department of Politics who convened the simulation with Professor Rex Brynen  from McGill University.

In designing the exercise we decided against the usual two-or-three-turn crisis simulation format wherein participants assume the role of actors with an ability to take actions that iteratively affect the course of events. Such an approach, we felt, would limit focus too much energy on move-countermove and too little on developing and assessing a broad range of contingencies and UNRWA policy options. On the other hand, we did want to use simulation-type mechanisms to generate participant engagement with the complex and dynamic operational environment in which the Agency finds itself.

In the end we decided to run the exercise as a sort of competitive brainstorming exercise, with a variety of simulation mechanisms added to this. Most of the participants were allocated to one of three policy teams. Each 5-6 person team was given the same near-future scenario, and was tasked with producing policy options for the Agency that would address “key challenges, short and medium-term policy initiatives to address these, risks and associated contingencies, and possible future challenges.”

139772-unrwa appeal 2013The simulation started with a 40 minute briefing from the UNRWA Commissioner General, who did a superb job of making the scenario come alive for participants and making it clear what he hoped to see from the teams. While UNRWA staff played themselves and were available for consultation throughout the exercise, we also had a small number of experts role-playing various Palestinian, regional, and international actors. Each of these held a brief (15 minute) “press conference,” to which each policy group sent at least one member. Groups could also schedule one or more meetings with UNRWA or the various stakeholders. By listening to and speaking with each stakeholder the policy teams were thus given a simulated taste of the complex operational environment and the associated issues facing the Agency. Additional scenario events were also announced during the exercise. These injects served both to underscore the dynamism of the regional setting and underscore the pressing urgency of the various challenges.

The teams were given a full day to consult, discuss, develop ideas, and prepare their presentations. The second day was devoted to fine-tuning these, presenting their analysis and recommendations, and discussion. We also asked all of the stakeholder players to write short papers on how they thought their actor would want the Agency to act in the scenario setting, and these papers were also briefed back to the full group for discussion on the final day.

Most effective simulation designs involve a certain degree of psychological manipulation-by-design of the participants, and this one was no different. In order to motivate the groups, we made the exercise deliberately competitive, with two winners (one chosen by UNRWA staff, the other by the stakeholder players) being selected at the end of the second day. While two of the three groups were made up of academic, NGO, and policy community experts, we formed one group of entirely of graduate students specializing in refugee issues, supported by a senior mentor/facilitator. We calculated—quite correctly—that the student group would throw themselves at the task with particular energy, enticed by the prospect of beating some of the senior figures in their fields in their own area of expertise. We also calculated—again, quite correctly—that fear of losing to students would equally motivate the more experienced participants!

So how did it all work? Overall, I think it was quite successful.

The policy option papers were all quite good. I did think that some of the recommendations didn’t give adequate consideration to the rather challenging  environment we had outlined in the scenario, and instead reflected more the prior political, academic, or technical inclinations of participants. Still, that is hardly unusual, and this effect was  less pronounced than had the meeting been held in the usual conference, workshop, or seminar format.

Some of the stakeholder players may have felt rather under-utilized during the exercise, since they didn’t get to directly participate in the policy group discussions and some had periods of “down time” when they weren’t engaged in either press conferences or bilateral meetings. From our point of view, however, they did a superb job and were an essential part of the exercise: the “press conferences” were remarkably lifelike (right down to avoidance of awkward questions), the stakeholders were generally in high demand for meetings, and the short  perspective papers they each wrote were themselves very useful too.

While there were perhaps a small number of participants who felt a little out-of-place in a simulation, but most took to it with considerable enthusiasm. Unlike a regular workshop we really made them work for their supper too, with considerable participant effort going into all three presentations.

Finally, I think people enjoyed themselves. I certainly did! One of the real advantages of the simulation methodology was to provide an opportunity for an intellectual cross-training of sorts, with participants able to got at familiar problems in new ways and from new perspectives.

simulations miscellany, 30 April 2013


Some recent items on serious games and simulations that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:


A revised version of Stephen Downes-Martin’s presentation on “Adjudication: The Diabolus in Machina of War Gaming” (presented at the 2011 Connections conference, and also featured here in PAXsims) has now been published in the Summer 2013 edition of the Naval War College Review.


The University of Minnesota will be holding a humanitarian crisis simulation and field exercise from 31 May to 2 June 2013. This seeks to train participants to:

  • Understand common good practice, minimum standards, and how to improve the effectiveness and accountability of humanitarian program implementation.
  • Achieve humanitarian-based outcomes by using resources efficiently and effectively.
  • Develop collaborative skills, coordinating people and organizations at times of heightened complexity and risk.
  • Operate safely and securely in a pressured and changing environment.
  • Develop personal management and leadership skills.

You’ll find further information and registration details here.


The Public International Law & Policy Group will be holding a training session on “negotiating and drafting provisions related to natural resources in a peace agreement” for legal and policy practitioners on May 3 in Washington DC. The day-long session will include a negotiation simulation. Prior sessions in the series have included ceasefires, power sharing arrangements, transitional justice, and security sector reform. For more information, visit the PILPG website.

Papers, Please

While it doesn’t really count as a peace and conflict educational simulation—unless, that is, you are training people to be border guards for a faintly East European 1980s-era communist dictatorship—I wanted to give a quick mention to Papers, Please. This quirky, sardonic little game is still in development, but a fully playable beta is downloadable  from the website of  designer Lucas Pope. I loved it, right down to the blocky, pixelated graphics reminiscent of an earlier time.

Papers, Please

A Dystopian Document Thriller.The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.

Pope also has a few other interesting quick games on the website, including 6 Degrees of Sabotage (a surveillance tape whodunit) and Republia (in which you are a newspaper editor attempting to make the regime look good while attracting readers).

h/t David Brynen

Welcome to Tahrir Square: A classroom simulation of the Egyptian revolution


Ora Szekely (Department of Political Science, Clark University) has passed on to PAXsims a classroom simulation she designed that explores the February 2011 overthrow of the Husni Mubarak regime in Egypt. Ahlen wa sahlen fi Midan Tahrir! (Welcome to Tahrir Square!) takes 60-90 minutes, and is designed for up to ten players: the Egyptian government (2 players), the Egyptian army, the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberal opposition (2 players), the US (two players), Saudi Arabia, and Jordan:

The date is February 2nd, 2011: protests have been ongoing in Egypt for a week

  • For Jordan and Saudi Arabia
    • Will you ignore them? Aid the government? Push for reform?
  • For the US:
    • Will you pressure Mubarak to step down?
  • The Egyptian government and army:
    • What will you do to retain power?  And for the army, how loyal are you, and to whom?
  • For the opposition:
    • How committed are you? Will you use violence? Or will you stick to peaceful methods?
  • There will be five 10 minute rounds.
  • During each round, you must each make a couple of choices, as indicated on your information sheets.
  • The decisions you make will effect what everyone else does, in one way or another.
  • All of the players have certain private information about their own incentives, preference, and what they will be forced to do under what circumstances.
  • Civil war, for the purposes of this simulation, is defined as two consecutive rounds in which both protesters and the army use violence
  • If Mubarak does step down by the end of the fifth round, we will hold elections. Any of the Egyptian players can run in them

The simulation makes clever use of private information to shape game play. Mubarak can be overthrown through particular configurations of either domestic or international pressure, although these may not be clear to everyone at the outset. Uncertainty is introduced via the roll of a die at key junctures, notably in determining whether soldiers open fire on demonstrators or the eventual outcome of possible elections. There are also a selection of random events to use, one per phase. Some actors are two-party teams, thus creating a sense of their internal policy divisions.

For more details, see her powerpoint briefing for students (pptx), the role description sheets (docx), and the random events (docx).

simulations miscellany, 11 April 2013


Having now partially recovered from the 2013 Brynania civil war simulation (and the 13,148 emails that the participants made me read over that week), I’m now back to offering the usual periodic PAXsims assemblage of simulation-and-serious-games-related news.


GCN features an article on “Gaming moves to the forefront in government:”

As a learning tool, Hackathorn thinks games have no equal. “Games have a unique ability to engage people, to make them do things,” he said. “They can make a child do homework, or improve someone’s data entry skills.”

Hackathorn said that most of the current game-like efforts in government actually fall into the more general category of gamification, which is different from games. He explained that what makes games interesting to players are the elements in them, which can be broken down and applied to everyday tasks. “We can take game elements that we know players enjoy — like earning badges, getting names posted to leaderboards and reward schedules — and use them to help a player reach ‘flow,’ where time just stops,” he said. “And that can make learning effective, even for tasks that would otherwise be uninteresting” and thus difficult to teach.

President Barack Obama supports gamification efforts through the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  In 2011 he issued a call for more educational games as well as games that address national challenges during a speech at the TechBoston conference. “I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create…educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up,” the president said.

Part of that effort led to the formation of the Federal Games Working Group, which is affectionately called the Federal Games Guild by members, a name invoking World of Warcraft, where likeminded players organize themselves into guilds. Today that group has over 200 members representing 34 agencies, four White House offices and four other federal entities. The group regularly meets to discuss gaming strategy and share experiences.

Not surprisingly for a CGN website that is all about public sector IT issues, the piece all about digital gaming only. Somewhat surprisingly, it says nothing about the largest user of digital games in the US government: the US military and Department of Defence.



Michael Peck defends North Korea from the imperialist aggressors at Foreign Policy magazine.


The latest issue of  the US Department of Defense Modeling and Simulation Coordination Office M&S Newsletter (January-February 2013) is now available. At the moment the link on the M&SCO website is wrong, but with some guessing at the probable file name I found it here.


Want see what they’ve been up to lately in terms of online learning and simulations at the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace? You’ll find a video overview below.

7th Vienna Games Conference FROG13

The call for abstracts for the 7th Vienna Games Conference FROG13 (27-28 September 2013) is out. The deadline for submission is May 25.


Exploring and Reframing Games and Play in Context

Vienna City Hall, Austria, Friday 27 to Saturday 28 September 2013

Conference website:


TL Taylor is a games and Internet researcher and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on play communities and experiences in online worlds, E-Sports, and professional computer gaming. She recently published Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming and co-authored Ethnography and Virtual Worlds.

Sebastian Deterding is a designer and researcher working on user experience, video games, persuasive technology and gameful design. He is interested in how code shapes conduct — and how to put that knowledge into practice. He is a PhD researcher in Communications at the Graduate School of the Research Center for Media and Communication, Hamburg University. He is also an affiliated researcher at the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research in Hamburg, and works as an independent user experience designer.

Jesper Juul is an assistant professor at the NYU Game Center. He has been working with video game theory since the early 1990′s. His previous book are the game theory classic Half-Real and A Casual Revolution. He recently published The Art of Failure a book that combines personal confessions about failure with philosophy, game design analysis, psychology and fiction theory.

More keynote speakers will be announced at

FROG13 THEME: “Context Matters!”

The activity of play is situated within different contextual constraints. Games contextualize the way we play and, vice versa, our play recontextualizes the rules and goals of games; culture, society and history contextualizes the way we create and experience games; language and communication are situating how we play and what games mean to us. The context of play matters and influences the impact games have on their players, on our society and culture. The study of context and frames that impact play raises the following questions: How can we understand the contextual characteristic of play? What forms of contexts and frames matter and why? What are constructive or problematic contexts of play? How can we study context and what methods appear appropriate to examine it? What context does game design and development establish? What is the contextual impact of technology on games and play? What media forms contextualize our play and how are the converging?

FROG13 focuses on questions, challenges and innovations in exploring the contexts of play – such as the cultural, personal, social, educational, theoretical, technological or historical contexts – and their impact. The organizers seek proposals covering all aspects of cutting-edge research on digital gaming, game design, game culture, game studies, therapy and economy within or across academic disciplines.

We encourage participation from a wide range of disciplines including Game Studies, Education, Psychology, Computer Science, Game Design, Cultural Anthropology, Fine Arts, Human-Computer Interaction, Media and Communication Studies, Philosophy, Social Science, Urban Studies, Digital Humanities etc … The FROG Conference facilitates the exchange of ideas and current research findings in an engaging and convivial atmosphere. Submissions are welcome on a wide range of topics, such as:

… Context, Design and Change: (Contemporary Uniqueness of Computer Games and Game Design)

Human play doesn‘t equal computer gaming: How does the appearance of computers and the emergence of a new sector of the cultural industry change our perception of playing? Is there a significant difference in growing up with digital practices? How do digital games change the way we live? And what alternate forms of play are of importance? And how do games, game design and game development determine the transformations in game culture? What does this mean for academic work, which is influenced by these circumstances as well, while dealing with these questions?

… Context and Competence: (Learning, Teaching and Experiencing with Games)

Today it is broadly accepted that computer games can trigger learning processes, that knowledge is acquired painlessly and that games foster highly demanded abilities (team-work, flexibility, multi-tasking, problem-solving,…). It seems likely to design games with specific educational intentions, while another important question waits unanswered: How does the handling of devices inform and entail these learning processes? Not only what contents and topics and to what extent they can be treated, but how is data processed, in what context are games consumed? Which competences are required to play a game, even before it can have any effects? How can we facilitate creative and unrestricted play in educational contexts that are restricted and instrumentalizing play? How can educational game designs reflect the contextual impact of play

… Context and Culture: (Signs, Symbols and Communities)

With nostalgia we look back at pixel-graphics; with pomp we stage E-Sport as mass-media events; with sincerity we fancy the creative work of game designers and the virtuosic performances of gamers. How are new signs and symbols within game culture invading our culture? Memes, emoticons, abbreviations and neologisms like „frag“ form new ways of expression, that are more and more commonly accepted. What kinds of significance do icons have that obviously come from computational or game practice and queue into pop-cultural discourse? How are ancient myths revived and refashioned through interfaces, narratives and game mechanics? How do play communities perform play and thereby impact the context games are played in?

… Context and Communication: (Media, Convergence and Controversy)

Not only multiplayer-games are social events, the act of play always references a broader social and communicative context. In consequence, social forms of play open possibilitites for meaningful experiences but also for conflict, discrimination, racism, and hate speech. FROG13 specifically wants to provide room to explore the problematic phenomena of hate speech. How is our society answering to the potentials but also problematic issues of virtual worlds? And what novel insights does the violence and addiction debate offer? Here as well, content is not the only matter of interest: What kind of thinking about interactivity and sociability are provided through out the gaming discourse? What policies are executed and on what are they based on? How do we address questions related to violence in games? What ethics are applying to games and how are they negotiated? How did the awareness for the communicative aspect of gaming change design paradigms? How does the media influence the way our society thinks about games? How do different media forms collide in games and how are they influencing each?

Abstract Submission:

All authors are invited to submit an abstract of research work relating to FROG13 subject of “Context Matters!” in either English or German and according to the specifications of the different forms of presentation. Authors are required to submit their abstracts online at: no later than 25 May 2013 in the forms of:

PRESENTATIONS: In assignment to FROG13 topics authors are required to submit a short mini-abstract (150 words) and a profound extended abstract (PDF File) outlining the topic, thesis and methodology of the paper abstracts (1000 words) for their talks (30 min.).

FROGA KUCHA: This is the Viennese Version of Pecha Kucha but limited to 5-7 mini-presentations in a row, in which you show 20 slides, each for 20 seconds (exactly 6’40” in total). The images forward automatically and you talk along…. and the audience will give immediate feedback. (Abstracts 500 words as a PDF File + 150 word mini-abstract).

FROG POSTER, GAME & PROTOTYPE PRESENTATION: At FROG13 a poster, game and prototype session is providing space for classical Viennese Coffee Culture. You bring your ideas, games, prototypes concepts and research topics and results, we provide a unique atmosphere, a beautiful space, good coffee and time for you to discuss your ideas with colleagues (Abstracts 300-500 words as a PDF File + 150 words mini-abstract).

All abstracts will be reviewed and judged on originality, quality and relevance to the Conference. All accepted abstracts will be printed in a book of abstracts, which will be distributed during the Conference. Authors of accepted abstracts (for regular presentations) will be invited to prepare a full paper for publication in the printed proceedings of FROG13 at New Academic Press (f.e. see the FROG13 proceedings

Important Dates:

  • Abstract submission: 25 May 2013
  • Notification: 20 June 2013
  • Conference: 27-28 September 2013
  • Full paper: 21 October 2013
  • Proceedings Publication: March 2014

Registration for the Conference & Conference Fee:

  • Early bird: 15 June – 15 August 2013; Registration: 16 August  – 26 September 2013
  • Conference fee: € 125,- / Early bird: € 100,-
  • Conference fee for students & staff members of youth organizations: € 60,- / Early Bird: € 50,-

The registration fees includes admission to all sessions, a printed copy of the Book of Abstracts, coffee breaks, lunch on 28 September and the Conference Dinner on 27 September.

Conference Program Co-Chairs:

Jason Begy (Concordia University); Jennifer Berger (University of Vienna); Mia Consalvo (Concordia University); Clara Fernández-Vara (The Trope Tank, Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Henrik Schønau Fog (Aalborg University Copenhagen); Simon Huber (Universität Wien); Fares Kayali (University of Applied Arts Vienna); Christoph Klimmt (Hanover University of Music, Drama, and Media); Nikolaus König; Jonas Linderoth (University of Gothenburg);  Konstantin Mitgutsch (MIT Game Lab; Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Scot Osterweil (Education Arcade); Alexander Pfeiffer (Danube University Krems); Alenka Poplin (HafenCity University Hamburg); Herbert Rosenstingl (Austrian Federal Ministry of Economy, Family and Youth); Steve Schirra (MIT Game Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Abe Stein (MIT Game Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Jaroslav Švelch (University in Prague); Michael Wagner (Drexel University); Jeffrey Wimmer (TU Ilmenau)

For any questions, please contact or visit the Conference website

Sequestration is no game as MORS military operations research conference scrambles for a new location


The Military Operations Research Society is the largest association of military OR researchers in the world,  and its annual conference is a place where the American operations research community (including wargaming and simulation design experts) have been discussing and advancing the discipline since 1957. However, with budget sequestration having led to tight restrictions on military participation in conferences and workshops, MORS is now scrambling to relocate its annual symposium which was to have been held at the United States Military Academy (West Point) in June:

MORS was informed late last week that the Office of the Secretary of the Army has not approved the waiver request for the United States Military Academy (USMA) to host the 81st MORS Symposium, making West Point unavailable this year.

As a result, the 81st MORS Symposium will be moved to the National Capital Region (NCR). The exact location is still being arranged and further details will be provided as soon as they are available. We would like to share our plans for proceeding:

A. Every effort is being made to keep the Symposium on the same planned dates 17-20 June, 2013.

B. The Symposium will be restructured into sessions at the Composite Group level, rather than at the Working Group level, in order to make them more compatible with potential venues in the NCR. Working Group leadership will be coordinating their presentations and discussions with the Composite Group leadership.

C. Every effort is being made to allow presenters to have the opportunity to present in person or remotely via Defense Connect Online (DCO) or similar video teleconference system.

D. If you have submitted an abstract you will receive a MORS questionnaire asking if you can attend the Symposium in the NCR, attend only to present, or present remotely.

E. Everyone who has registered for the Symposium may request a full refund until June 5th, 2013, if you determine you cannot join us at the new location. Please contact Liz Marriott at or 703-933-9070.

F. Note that if you have made a hotel reservation at West Point you must call the hotel and cancel your reservation. MORS cannot cancel reservations made by individuals even as part of the MORS room blocks.

MORS is fully aware of the uncertain environment and the current restrictions affecting our community. Denial of the waiver request by the Army may affect Army personnel differently than others and we encourage you to check with your command or organization to determine if you can present your work, either in person or remotely. MORS continues to work with the other services to determine the status of their waivers.Moving the Symposium at this late date is a great challenge, but MORS firmly believes it is worth the effort to preserve the opportunity for the OR community to share work, exchange ideas, and keep our community focused on moving forward.

Let us take this opportunity to thank the Symposium Program team headed by Tom Denesia, all of the Working Group Chairs, Co-Chairs and advisers, the other session Chairs, and the USMA site coordination team for the many volunteer hours spent preparing for this Symposium. Your dedication and support to MORS is greatly appreciated.

There will be more details in the near future, please look for updates and check the MORS website,, for the latest information on the 81st Symposium.

Very Respectfully,

Mike Garrambone

MORS President

Susan Reardon


As previously noted at PAXsims, sequestration has also led to the postponement of a planned MORS special meeting on professional gaming, and has also affected efforts to organize the 2013 Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference.

War—and maybe peace—returns to Brynania

Yes, it is that time of year again: on Wednesday morning we launch the annual Brynania civil war simulation at McGill University, involving over one hundred students from my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) and POLI 650 classes. Once again this year we also have students from Lisa Lynch’s JOUR 443 (International Journalism) class at Concordia University participating, assuming the role of the World News Service. This will be the fourteenth time we’ve run the simulation at McGill since 1998.

Once the simulation starts you’ll be able to follow some of the action at the WNS website, via the #Brynania hashtag on Twitter, and via the special issues of the (simulated) New York Times that you’ll find in the media section of the Brynania simulation website. However, that only scratches the surface: the SIM runs 12 hours a day in semi-real time for a full week, and generates 10-15,000 email messages. Don’t expect any PAXsims blogging from me until it is over.

You’ll find more on the simulation in this article in PS: Political Science & Politics. There are also video reports produced by TV McGill and McGill University, and a couple of audio reports by the CBC Radio and Adam Bemma. Finally, if you want to immerse yourself in more of the rich musical subcultures of Equatorial Cyberspace, check out the sounds of Cyberia.

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