Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: August 2013

The “Fuzzy Edges of Wargaming” ? Exploring Non-Kinetic Conflict Dynamics


Tomorrow I’ll be headed off to the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London. As a special advance preview for PAXsims readers I am posting the slides for my presentation (click image above for pdf)—although, obviously, they’re not entirely self-explanatory without my verbal comments. For those, you’ll have to be attending the conference!

I’ll also post an AAR of the event at PAXsims too once it is all over.

Review: Hyde, The Wargaming Compendium

Henry Hyde, The Wargaming Compendium (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2013). 517pp. $60.00 hardback.

HydeWargamingI would have killed to have had this book in 1974. It was then, as a teen, that I made my first steps into wargaming after being given a sample wargaming magazine that had been sent to my parents’  hobby shop. Within a year I was buying Airfix figures, scouring the library for Donald Featherstone and Charles Grant books to learn more about the hobby, and writing my own rules. Shortly thereafter we all moved to the UK for a few years, at a time when it was easy to find fellow wargamers at school and in the community—and I spent the next several years gaming regularly with the rest of the Lymington and District Wargames Club. The rest, as they say, is history.

Despite its title, the Wargaming Compendium is not a compendium of all wargaming. Rather, it is very much focused on miniature gaming. In it, Henry Hyde provides an overview of the history and basic concepts of the hobby, discusses wargaming different periods, offers advice on how to paint figures and construct scenery, reviews battlefield tactics and organizing campaigns, and even discusses photography and blogging. The book also includes sample rules for gladiatorial combat, a Wild West skirmish, and horse-and-musket era battles, all rather fondly old-school in inspiration. The book is written in an engaging style, and lavishly illustrated throughout. Moreover, unlike some lavishly illustrated and even more expensive wargaming books—almost anything by Games Workshop comes to mind—the illustrations are almost all quite useful. The book also features colour-coded tabs marking each chapter for quick reference (hear that too, Games Workshop?)

This is a great book for would-be hobbyists, and for hobbyists who (like myself) like to read, reflect, and write about their hobby. You won’t really learn anything about professional, educational, or policy wargaming. You could learn something about game design and mechanics. You might even end up with lots of dice and tape measures, a closet full of scenery, hundreds of painted miniature figures, and a wargaming table in your basement.

Review: Martin van Creveld, Wargames

Martin van Creveld, Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). 332pp. $27.99 paperback

vancreveldMartin van Creveld is a renowned Israeli military historian and theorist, and author of more than twenty books on everything from the history of military logistics to changes in modern warfare. However, while his latest book is published by Cambridge University Press, readers shouldn’t expect a wholly academic work. Instead, what he supplies is an interesting, always readable, frequently thoughtful,  sometimes meandering, and occasionally very frustrating account of more than two millennia of playing at war, from hunting and combat sports through to gladiators, trial by combat, jousting tournaments, duels, paintball, boardgames and hobby wargaming, military reenactment, role-playing games, political-military crisis gaming, military exercises, computer games,  and military simulations.

The author sets as his purpose addressing a broad range of questions:

Where did wargames come from? What purpose did they serve? Who participated in them, why, and what for? What forms did they take? What factors drove their development, and to what extent did they reflect changes in the art of war itself? What did they simulate, what didn’t they simulate, how, and why? What do they reveal about the conduct of war at the times, and in the places, where they were played? How useful are they in training for war and preparing for it? Why are some more popular than others, how do men and women compare in this respect, and what can the way the sexes relate to wargames teach us about the nature and relationships between them? Finally, what does all this tell us about real war, fake or make-believe war, the interactions between the two, and the human condition in general?

As might be expected, raising so many questions about so many genres of “wargames” over such a long period of history means that none of them is really answered very fully. Hobby wargamers and computer gamers, for example, will be struck by the somewhat shallow and uneven treatment of their pastimes. Those involved with the professional simulation of war will feel the same. Compounding this is the nagging sense that van Creveld cherry-picks his examples and evidence to illustrate his intended narrative about war and games, rather than engaging in systematic scholarship. There are footnotes aplenty, although sources range from ancient classics and academic publications to wikipedia entries, websites, and comments made at online message boards.

The section of the book devoted to gender is especially odd. Van Creveld is deeply interested in gender differences, and indeed has argued elsewhere that allowing women to fight will “wreck a military.” He is especially preoccupied with the idea that these differences have fundamental biological roots and that women are therefore ill-suited to any kind of war-fighting in a sort of men are from Mars/women are from Venus kind-of-way. Indeed, here the book veers into face-palm territory when the author feels the need to bring into the discussion  “modern movies such as Gladiator Eroticus: The Warrior Lesbians” (p. 287), argue that “busts, being soft and vulnerable, make it hard for owners to engage in combat of any kind” (p. 296), or draws to conclusions from his observation that women spectators of contact sports “often engage in blatant sexual displays with the objective of drawing attention to themselves” (p. 306). While there are a great many interesting issues to be explored with regard to women, war, and gaming, it is fair to say that this book contributes nothing useful to a critical understanding of these.

Leaving that aside, however, other sections of the book make interesting observations about everything from the social conventions of  gladiatorial combat or duelling to the challenges of conducting military exercises or wargames in a way that enhances combat capabilities. Van Creveld’s observations on the difficulties of gaming human psychology and perceptual differences are important ones, and his use of the phrase “hubris in, hubris out” (p. 177) to describe wargames that simply reinforce the biases of policymakers and planners is one I’m likely to quote myself in future work.

Overall this is a book well worth reading, especially if one skips over the chapter on “the female of the species.” As with some of van Creveld’s previous work, don’t expect systematic investigation or much in the way of methodology. Instead, be prepared for a textual experience that rather resembles an extended late-night pub discussion with a well-informed, but rather eccentric, regular: lots of pithy comments and witty observations, many thought-provoking, and others best ignored.

The Humanitarian Crisis Game beta (video overview)

UPDATE: This video portrays an early beta version of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. For the latest on game development, see here.

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Above you’ll find a video overview of The Humanitarian Crisis Game, a four player boardgame that explores the interagency cooperation needed to address the emergency and early recovery stages of a complex humanitarian crisis. It was meant to be a “brief video,” but apparently I like to hear myself talk.

The game is set in the fictional country of Carana, but is loosely modeled on disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Carana has suffered years of sometimes violent turmoil, and has only recently taken the first steps to tentative steps to national reconciliation and reconstruction. Poverty is widespread, government capacity is weak, and ethnic and political tensions remain high. Nongovernmental organizations and United Nations specialized agencies are active in the country, including a moderately-sized UN civilian police (CIVPOL) contingent.

At dawn today, a powerful earthquake struck the capital city of Galasi, causing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people are in need of urgent aid and medical attention. At the request of the Caranan government, military forces from several friendly countries—operating as the multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, or HADR-TF—are en route to assist, as are additional contingents of UN and NGO personnel, together with relief supplies….

The game design itself is inspired by discussions on Haiti at the Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference “Game Lab.”

Next week, following one more playtest at McGill, I’ll post the beta version of the rules and materials to PAXsims. I’ll be also offering a demo at the Connections UK conference ion September 3, and trying it out in the classroom during the 2013-14 academic year.

Simulations miscellany, 21 August 2013

miscellanySome recent material on peace/conflict/development simulations and gaming that may be of interest to our readers:

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Registration is still open until August 23 for the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference to be held at King’s College London on September 3rd and 4th. I’ll be there, as will be several other PAXsims contributors.

Registration for the conference (including lunches and dinner) costs £100, and should be done via KCL.

I’ll also be running and demo and playtest of the Humanitarian Crisis Game that I’m developing for classroom use, based on ideas from the Connections 2012 “Hati HADR Game Lab” (see here and here and here), as well as Gary Milante’s Crisis Response card game (featured on PAXsims here). I could do with a few more volunteers for the game, so if you’ll be attending Connections UK and are interested, let me know.

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The McGill Humanitarian Studies Initiative as offering a multi-disciplinary program that includes both in-classroom learning (one evening per week, September 10 to December 17) as well as a 3-day Field Simulation (Spring 2014):

The course provides registered medical students, residents, public health students, and other graduate-level students with relevant backgrounds, mid-career professionals and humanitarian workers with the globally recognized competencies relevant to humanitarian work.  The course is created so course participants gained competency-based essentials in humanitarian response practice recognized by Non-governmental Organizations (NGO’s), Canadian universities and government as the standard for professional-level humanitarian training.

You’ll find further details at the HSI website. You can also find a review of the Spring 2013 version of the course by PAXsims contributor June McCabe here.

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The North American Simulation and Gaming Association will be having an online discussion on Twitter (#NASAGAchat) on August 29:


Time: August 27, 2013 from 9pm to 10pm (EDT)
Location: Twitter, Twubs
Organized By: Melissa Peterson

Event Description:

One of the things we discussed last time was the large difference between the design and implementation of in-person games, board games and virtual or video games.

This time we will be delving into that in more detail. What are those differences, what are the pros and cons of each, and how do we decide what the best option is for a particular project?
Join us to learn or provide your expertise!

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The annual conference of the Digital Games Research Association will be hosted by Georgia Institute of Technology at the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Atlanta on 26-29 August 2013:


This year’s proposed theme is a playful linguistic remix of the terms “frag” and “defrag.” Defragging is the computer term for reducing file fragmentation. Fragging, derived from the military term for killing a superior officer of one’s own unit, has become video game parlance for the temporary killing of another player.

In the early game studies community, a good deal of fragging (in all three senses) took place between various camps, schools of thought and disciplines. This included discussions as to whether or not game studies should split into more discipline-centered communities; however, the overall trend has been to continue to grow our field as an “interdiscipline” that includes humanities, social sciences and psychology, computer science, design studies, and fine arts.

Borrowing from the computer engineering term, the theme for DiGRA 2013 highlights this process of defragmenting, which both embraces and better articulates our diverse methods and perspectives while allowing the game studies research community to remain a coherent and unified whole.

DiGRA 2013 will take place immediately proceeding Dragon*Con, America’s largest multigenre fan convention. For more information, visit:


Questions about the conference?

Celia Pearce, John Sharp, Helen Kennedy
DiGRA 2013 Conference Co-Chairs

DiGRA Students have put together some useful research resources:

As our updated version of the Games Research Positions Map ( has received so much positive feedback, the new “Games Research Journal Map” has been structured in a similar way. It is completely searchable, sortable (by journal name, discipline, publisher, or frequency of publication), and contains a range of important information about the different academic journals in the field that regularly publish games-centric research (e.g., impact factor, word limits, link to submission guidelines, etc.). Check it out here:

We hope that this will soon become a valuable resource for students and academics alike! Please feel free to pass this information along to any other mailing lists/researchers who may be interested in such a resource.

Also, if there is a journal that has been overlooked, or see an error in one of the postings, please let us know via this thread ( on the DiGRA Student forums. As the only known list of its kind, we would like to keep it as accurate and comprehensive as possible.

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In a very thoughtful review at BoardGameGeek, game reviewer (and insurgency groupie) extraordinaire Tom Grant has high praise indeed for Andean Abyss:

Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss recently won the Charles S. Roberts award for best post-World War II boardgame. That deceptively simple statement means a lot more than it might seem at first glance. Andean Abyss is one of the most important wargames published in the last decade, a real watershed in the history of the hobby. And it’s a damn good game, too.

We were very positive about the game too, as you’ll see from our earlier review.

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This month in Seattle, the world championships for the fantasy-themed computer game DOTA 2 featured the largest ever prize for a digital game competition, $1.4 million. As noted in the  BBC’s reporting on the competition, it follows an earlier decision by the US government to grant P1 visas to professional gamers, much like internationally renowned athletes or entertainers.

Alas, D&D never paid like that…

Carvalho: Virtual Worlds Can Be Dangerous

logo-large-330x329Gustavo Carvalho, a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, has an interesting article appearing soon in International Studies Perspectives on the use of computer simulations in an international relations classroom—in this case, the online educational game Statecraft. He warns, based on use of the game in an introductory international relations course at U of T, that such games may not necessarily be very effective, and may also be less versatile in the classroom than non-digital “manual” games:

Video games have become a hot topic in education. To their proponents, they enhance the interactive and active aspects of learning. In addition, mass-produced off-the-shelf video games promise a cheaper and more convenient approach to education, being quick and easy to set up, in contrast to the extensive time commitment that goes into designing a simulation from scratch. My paper uses our experience with Statecraft, a commercial off-the-shelf IR computer simulation tailored to the educational market, as a proxy to discuss the educational usefulness of commercial strategy video games in general. Our experience recommends that we be cautious and reflective in the use of ready-made games for teaching. More to the point, it is still not clear which benefits, apart from convenience, commercial computer simulations bring to our classes that cannot also be provided by old-fashioned, low-tech customized simulations, whether designed by instructors or in collaboration with students.

The full text of the article is behind a paywall, but for readers who don’t have access to the journal here are some of the major points he makes, together with some comments of my own:

In view of how much they relied on the lectures, it is of some concern that only slightly over a quarter of the students said that the simulation helped them understand IR theories and concepts much (23.91%) or very much (4.35%), while close to a third (32.07%) ranked their experience only as average. Likewise, although a little more than a quarter of the students said Statecraft improved their engagement with the course readings (29.3%), a quarter felt that the improvement was average (25%), and almost half of them felt that it improved their engagement little (23.37%) or nothing at all (21.74%). Not surprisingly, given the status quo bias of Statecraft, only slightly over a fifth of the students said the simulation changed their previous views on international politics (21.19%). In a more positive tone, however, close to half of the students said Statecraft improved much (32.07%) or very much (13.59%) their engagement with the lecture and tutorials, while less than a fifth (19.02%) recorded an average change in engagement.

Much depends, of course, on how a game is integrated into curriculum, and especially how it is briefed and debriefed. That being said, the numbers aren’t very impressive—even more so when one considers that they are self-reported learning effects, which tend to be a more generous appraisal of game effects than objective learning measures (such as impact on test scores). One also needs to consider opportunity costs. It isn’t enough that a game have learning effects—it also needs to have learning effects that are greater or different from those that would be generated by a similar amount of time devoted to lectures, tutorials, readings, films, or other ways of examining the course material. It is an observation that international relations scholars James Robinson, Lee Anderson, Margaret Hermann and Richard Snyder made almost half a century ago in a seminal research article in the American Political Science Review, but which often gets lost amid contemporary enthusiasm for the gamification of learning. (It should be noted, however, that a 2013 paper by Chad Raymond on Statecraft reports much more positive learning experiences—again suggesting that much may depend on how any give game/simulation is used in the classroom.)

While it is often assumed that games-based learning is more attractive to students, Carvalho has some words of caution based on his classroom experience:

In contrast with the expectations of some scholars (Weir and Baranowski 2011:450), my first takeaway point is that computer-based simulations may in fact be unattractive to students, particularly those that do not feel at ease playing video games…. One student summarized this problem poignantly: “(…) I found that I got lost very quickly. Not being used to computer games I had to take more time to get acquainted with the rules and on top of trying to understand what was going on [at] my screen, I had to connect that with what I was learning.”

He also later notes that, based on the results from his class survey,  “commercial video game simulations appeal more to those students who already enjoy playing them outside of the academic environment.”

The author’s second takeaway from the experience relates to the issues of course design and other learning methods raised above:

My second takeaway point is that there is a careful balance to be struck between simulations, particularly video game-based ones, and traditional learning tools, such as lectures and tutorials. Simulations and video games do not replace good textbooks and content material, and they need to be carefully interwoven with lectures if they are to be effective educational tools (Aldrich 2009). Moreover, simulations and video games may also be detrimental to the experience of students who prefer traditional learning methods (Asal 2005:361) or feel uneasy in intense social situations.

His third major point relates to the problem of “realism” versus playability, a constant source of debate among conflict simulation designers:

My third takeaway point is that the trade-off between complexity and playability, important for games in general, is crucial in educational simulations. Game designers may feel tempted to increase the complexity of a game, or the amount of variables and elements that the players need to deal with, in order to make it seem more “realistic” (Sabin 2012:21). This seems to have been the case with Statecraft. Our data suggest that many students had trouble with the number of variables they had to control and with the choices they had to make in every turn of the game.

Gus also discusses the need for an educational game to be easy to play and run:

My fourth takeaway point is that off-the-shelf or commercial computer products may present serious technical challenges to course instructors. In the case of our experience with Statecraft, many software glitches had a direct impact on the performance of the countries, a serious problem for a simulation that relies too much on conflict-based game dynamics. In our case, the bugs and glitches were not serious enough to derail the simulation, but they may have been detrimental to our educational goals in the course, and particularly to the experiences of students that were not gamers to begin with

His fifth major point is a very important one, relating to the way in which any game models the “real world,” and the need to be aware of the potential message this sends to students:

My fifth takeaway point is that, when using commercial video games for teaching purposes, we need to be aware of the concepts and ideas that they either explicitly or implicitly transmit to the players. Game designers may be uncritical when choosing game mechanics or may be more concerned with making the game viable from a commercial point of view. Either way, their choices may not be equally useful in helping the students to better understand political science and IR, and some may actually be counterproductive to the goals of our courses.

In the case of Statecraft, it is difficult to say whether its designers had strong views about IR theories or were attempting to emulate successful games such as those in the Civilization and Age of Empires series.[13] Either way, as a result of their design choices, Statecraft ended up as a tragic caricature of international politics, to the detriment of its pretense realism. Instead of depicting the nuances of international politics, with the real trade-offs behind decision-making and the high costs associated with conflict, the game dynamics behind the simulation pushed the students to behave with the testosterone-infused logic of the stereotypical male gamer, including the “trash talk” and “trolling” that are associated with it. This is supported by the survey, with more than two-thirds of the respondents ranking the level of realism of Statecraft as average and lower, and was highlighted by the nuclear wars that occurred in two of our simulated worlds.

This is a widespread problem. We raised similar concerns a few years ago in a review of the manual, book-and-roleplay IR simulation  International Relations in Action: A World Politics Simulation. We also pointed to the problem of exaggerated levels of international conflict  in our recent review of the computer game Masters of the World

One final point in the article that is worth underscoring is how serious games in the classroom can positively affect inter-student dynamics:

…an interesting, and usually neglected, part of the entertainment factor of group simulations such as Statecraft is their social or community-building aspect (Aldrich 2009; Hofstede et al. 2010:830–832). In private conversations, some of my students noted how the simulation had actually brought them together and helped them connect with other students in their tutorials, a welcome change in our current environment of huge (and increasing) class and tutorial sizes.

This is a point my own students frequently make, with the friendships forged in the simulation often enduring for years after (or, in one notable case, resulting in marriage!)

All-in-all, an excellent piece, and well worth a read.

simulations miscellany, 12 August 2013


Some recent material on conflict simulations and serious games that may be of interest to our readers:

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The folks at Reacting to the Past historical role-play project are in the process of transitioning to a new publisher, which may temporarily affect the availability of their published volumes:

As the new academic year approaches, we wanted to reach out to everyone in the RTTP community with important information about the availability of Reacting to the Past Series games for the Fall 2013 semester. The Reacting to the Past Series is currently in transition to a new publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, and is temporarily unavailable for purchase. We are confident that our relationship with W.W. Norton & Co. is going to be a successful one, but we must remain focused on quality and be willing to accommodate to industry-standard timelines.  Unfortunately we cannot guarantee that printed versions of the nine (previously published) RTTP game books will be available to purchase by September 1. Therefore, we have implemented a new policy to ensure that instructors will be able to obtain game materials for Fall 2013 courses. All instructors planning to teach a published game should follow this alternative procedure.

As noted at the link above, RTTP will make their simulation materials in the Fall 2013 term via an encrypted PDF version of the student game book(s).

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The preliminary programme for the 7th European Conference on Games Based Learning (Instituto Superior de Engenharia do Porto, Porto, Portugal, 3-4 October 2013) is now available.

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Eversim—the same people who produce Masters of the World and Rulers of Nations—also produce iScen, a software programme that allows you to create netowrked interactive multimedia training modules. Currently only available for PCs, version 2.0 (in development) will also be available in a Mac version.

A free evaluation version is available from their website. (If anyone with some experience in educational simulation wants to review this for us, drop us a line.)

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These two papers aren’t new, but were only posted to the Social Science Research Network earlier this year:

  • Zapalska, Alina and Brozik, Dallas, A Model for Developing and Evaluating Games And Simulations in Business and Economic Education (December 19, 2008). Zbornik radova Ekonomskog fakulteta u Rijeci, časopis za ekonomsku teoriju i praksu – Proceedings of Rijeka Faculty of Economics, Journal of Economics and Business, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2008, pp. 345-368. Available at SSRN:
  • Ebner, Noam and Efron, Yael, Little Golano: An International Conflict Management Simulation (2009). Available at SSRN:

Crazy Pants

The current widespread closure of US diplomatic facilities in the Muslim world and reports of a possible al-Qaida terrorist plot has generated much comment from terrorism analysts:

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials insisted Tuesday that extraordinary security measures for nearly two dozen diplomatic posts were to thwart an “immediate, specific threat,” a claim questioned by counterterrorism experts, who note that the alert covers an incongruous set of nations from the Middle East to an island off the southern coast of Africa.

Analysts don’t dispute the Obama administration’s narrative that it’s gleaned intelligence on a plot involving al Qaida’s most active affiliate, the Yemen-based Arabian Peninsula branch. That would explain why most U.S. posts in the Persian Gulf are on lockdown, including the U.S. embassy in Yemen, which on Tuesday airlifted most of its personnel to Germany in an “ordered departure,” the government’s euphemism for an evacuation.

But how, then, does it make sense for the State Department to close embassies as far afield as Mauritius or Madagascar, where there’s been no visible jihadist activity? And why is it that countries that weathered numerous terrorist attacks – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example – were excluded or allowed to reopen quickly?

At Tuesday’s State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there were plans to keep 19 posts closed to the public through Saturday. But she had no answers when a reporter asked: “How did the countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean get into this?”

“We make decisions post by post,” Psaki said. “That’s something that is constantly evaluated at a high level through the interagency process.”

If ordinary Americans are confused, they’re in good company. Analysts who’ve devoted their careers to studying al Qaida and U.S. counterterrorism strategy can’t really make sense of it, either. There’s general agreement that the diffuse list of potential targets has to do with either specific connections authorities are tracking, or places that might lack the defenses to ward off an attack. Beyond that, however, even the experts are stumped.

Take this sampling of reactions from prominent al Qaida observers:

It’s crazy pants – you can quote me,” said Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on counterterrorism who this month joins the Brookings Saban Center as the director of its project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

Well, as avid players of the counter-terrorism boardgame Labyrinth, how we could pass up an opportunity to modify the game to reflect the latest news? Therefore, PAXsims is pleased to give you (with apologies to @will_mccants) the  “Crazy Pants” card for your next game:

Foreign correspondents in a simulated civil war

The following piece, contributed by Lisa Lynch of the Department of Journalism at Concordia University, describes how we have used students from her JOUR 422 (International Journalism) class as reporters in my annual week-long POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) simulation at McGill University. This year the experiment worked particularly well, and certainly enriched the entire simulation experience for my political science and international development students. Many thanks to Lisa and her crew for taking part!


How to respond when the President himself asks you to spike a story?

As World News Service, a (fictional) media outlet covering a conflict in (imaginary) Equatorial Cyberspace, prepared to file a story about the mining of the ‘conflict diamonds’ in the region, they received a brief and pleading email from the president of the war-torn country of Brynania.  Concerned that media coverage might skew negotiations underway to end such mining, President Foldy noted that “given the sensitive nature of the issue at the moment” he would appreciate WNS ”not pursue this story.”

The WNS editorial team took a moment to consider: was this a legitimate request, or the suppression of important and timely information?  Even as they grappled with the ethics of putting their investigation on hold, further crises competed for their attention: frontier skirmishes, back-room meetings, munitions deals, aid efforts, slave labor, even mass graves.  What should they cover?  What worked best as a radio piece?  What should go to broadcast?  Was there time to create a data visualization?  And was the leader of the Icasian guerilla movement deliberately avoiding them, or was he just in class with his smartphone turned off?

WNS was the second group of students of my International Journalism course at Concordia University to embed themselves within a peacebuilding simulation run by Rex Brynen at McGill University.  Playing the roles of reporters and editors at an international media outlet that had ‘parachuted’ in to Equatorial Cyberspace to cover an ongoing conflict, my students spent a grueling week being were lied to, manipulated (especially by Foldy), insulted, threatened, and, occasionally, praised by their readers.  They loved it.  And by participating in the simulation, they learned (and sometimes taught) important lessons about the role of journalism in facilitating or undermining the complex policy processes that unfold in the transition from war to peace.

Brynen’s peacebuilding simulation has been ongoing since 1998. After a semester studying the intricate machinations of post-conflict stabilization, his students spend a week as political figures, aid workers, and editors at domestic media outlets.  In their roles, they oversee (or subvert) negotiations to quell insurgents, secure borders, and ensure harmony in a series of neighboring countries Brynen has carefully brought to life through background lectures and maps.

In April of 2011 and 2013, the residents of Equatorial Cyberspace had one more twist to contend with in their peacemaking process: the attentive scrutiny of an international media outlet.  Thrown into a world comprised entirely of actors with specific agendas, my students took on the role of the “neutral, objective” media, guided by media ethics and perhaps also by commercial imperatives.

To some of my colleagues, my decision to embed journalism students in a political science simulation run by a different university seemed to be something of a folly: journalism students, one argued, didn’t need to play at being journalists in a fictional world when they could simply cover the world at hand.  For me, however, offering the simulation as a course option helped surmount what I found to by the central pedagogical challenge of class that needed to serve competing interests.  International Journalism is an undergraduate course consisting largely of journalism majors, with a handful of political science and communications majors and at least two exchange students each semester.  Journalism majors often take the class because they actually want to be foreign correspondents: though some change their mind as the semester goes on, others have spend their post-graduation years as freelancers abroad.  Non-majors, on the other hand, tend to be more critical and analytical in their approach, wanting to discuss the structural and economic conditions that produced flawed or limited coverage of global events.

The challenge of the JOUR 442, then, has been how to establish a balance between theory and practice, so that journalism students have a chance to ‘test’ what they have learned in the field while non-majors feel as if the class allows them to apply their analytical and research training to the course material.  This balancing acting is further complicated by timing and budgetary constraints.  While other journalism programs —  notably the graduate journalism program at the University of British Columbia —do offer opportunities for students to do international reporting, Concordia won’t have the resources to do this any time soon.

When I learned about the McGill peacebuilding simulation, I wondered if allowing journalism students to ‘report’ from within the sim would provide an opportunity to bridge the divide between theory and practice.  I contacted Rex, who was game for the experiment, and equally curious about how the presence of trained journalists might alter the dynamics within Equatorial Cyberspace.

We decided Concordia students would be briefed on Brynania, but arrive as outsiders to the conflict.  Like the McGill students who participated in the simulation, they would learned the progress of events within the sim through a digest of public email communications between all the actors – moderated by Rex himself – but also private communications from those who wanted to tip off WNS about stories.  In turn, they could contact any actor in the simulation directly.

Given the training of most of the students in the class, prompting students to set up a news outlet was fairly straightforward.  They would be instructed to organize as an editorial team that would produce a real-time online news site during the same hours the simulation operated.   Collectively, they would need to set up a schedule so that two of them were on duty at any given time – one who could serve as editor and one who could work as a reporter in the field.   They would also need to develop a name and “brand” for their news organization and design a website using WordPress that conveyed their brand identity.

Since only a select group of students in the class would have the training, interest, or availability to participate in the sim, I decided to offer the simulation as one option for the course term project, the other being a substantial research paper.  In 2011, the first year of the simulation, nine students decided to participate.  They created the Global News Network, or GNN, and used a combination of text stories and radio broadcasts to cover events.  Of the sixty stories produced, their strongest pieces included a series of editorials that took a stance on events within the simulation from an outsider’s perspective, sometimes drawing on analogies with real-world events for inspiration.  Some stories — including one on the discovery of mass graves in an unexpected location — were less successful, as students discovered how errors made while reporting can have a serious impact on the credibility of a controversial story.

Overall, the first iteration was a success, as students expressed that the weeklong experience really transformed their understanding of the course material.  The stories they found themselves writing resonated strongly with the examples of international conflict and disaster reporting they’d discussed throughout the semester, alternately affirming and challenging the observations they had made about the practice of international journalism. They did, however, feel as if they were a bit too much on the outside of the simulation: they had to work harder than they’d imagined to convince the other actors within the simulation that it was important to respond to their interview queries or engage with their finished stories.  In the end, they felt, their primary interlocutors were less the political actors or aid groups than the domestic media outlets who championed or protested GNN’s reporting according to their only political agenda.

During the post-simulation debrief, Rex informed them that their feeling of marginalization was more perception than reality; behind the scenes, in meetings and conversations they were not privy to, GNN was an important part of the simulation conversation: their reporting had real consequences inside the simulation, prompting actors to shift positions and policy as they worked to broker a fragile peace in the war-torn region.

Given this feedback from my students, however, Rex and I made an effort to further integrate the McGill students with Concordia students during the 2013 simulation.  This second group (Word News Service, again comprised of 8 students) was invited to attend a UN Security Council meeting on the first day of the simulation so that they meet some of the key players in the simulation.  This created a different dynamic from the beginning, with Concordia participants feeling like they were more integrated into the simulation as a whole.  Perhaps equally important, the members of World News Service functioned more effectively as a unit than the first group, producing nearly 90 stories and a far more elaborate site which combined radio, text, simulated television broadcast, and information graphics.

As the week progressed, World News Service had far more direct contact with the inhabitant of Equatorial Cyberspace than Global News Network.  Interestingly, this meant that they may have been more cleverly manipulated by some of the more Machiavellian actors within the simulation; during the debrief, they ruefully acknowledged being ‘played’ by Brynanian President Foldy on a number of occasions.  On the other hand, their integration within the sim was far more seamless, to the point where their news copy functioned as information currency within the simulation; 60 of their stories were retweeted by other actors, and select information from stories was also circulated via email (often, as my students ruefully noted, without attribution).  And while GNS had a difficult time getting NGOs to communicate with them, NGOs went out of their way to urge WNS to cover events within the sim.

This increased attention to the WNS site did not come without consequences, however.  A story on diamond mining, illustrated with a questionable stock photograph of a buxom model in a diamond necklace, provoked the ire of a McGill student within the simulation who called it sexist and demanded that it be removed from the site.  The demand produced an interesting conundrum: was the request made from inside or outside of the simulation?  The student — a rebel leader — said it was made from outside the simulation.  In the end, WNS decided that the image needed to remain, though the editor in question agreed to ‘step down’ from his post: the rebel leader cut off communication.  Afterwards, the journalism students wondered whether the controversy affected the news organization’s credibility during the final day of the simulation, or whether the blowback from the image reflected the waning importance of the media as the conflict came to resolution.

Indeed, the most challenging moment for WNS came at the very end of the simulation, when — given the course of the final round of negotiations — the presence of the media was no longer seen as strategically useful to the actors within the simulation.  Having had such an impact in the previous days, my students felt the loss of access and influence keenly.  Their frustration with the end-stage negotiations left me wondering at first whether to better prepare the next group of “embeds” for what they might experience on their final day of reporting. On the other hand, like many of the experiences within the simulation, that moment was perhaps more ‘real’ than my students might yet realized: the frustration journalists feel when the story marches on without them, and they understand that they will always be outside of the course of events.

Embracing that necessary — if sometimes painful — outsider status is key to surviving as a journalist, especially a journalist working abroad.  For that reason, bringing Concordia students into the McGill simulation was perhaps even more effective than Rex and I anticipated, as it reproduced for my students the real-world mileu of reporters isolated in a conflict region, reluctantly beholden to a group of untrustworthy antagonists who, in turn, are reluctantly beholden to them.  After a semester spent studying international reporting from the outside, I couldn’t imagine a better pedagogical outcome for a group of aspiring journalists.

WNS by the Numbers (by WNS staff)

  • Days spent covering fake civil war: 7
  • Hours active: 73
  • Staff: 8
  • Stories published: 89 (per hour: 1.2)
  • WNS Stories Re-Tweeted: 60 instances
  • Twitter followers: 61 (compared to CONTROL: 81)
  • Tweets tweeted: 361 (per hour: 5)
  • Emails received: 878 (per hour: 12 = one email every 5 minutes)
  • Emails sent: 292 (per hour: 4)
  • Total page views: 3,271 (per hour: 45)
  • Most viewed article: “The Month in Review for May” (80 views)
  • Least viewed article: “MdsmYUFuPh5KlS3dukVYkTjG96b02auPvMQA9jLx-LM,hHAz_4eh52GUSBKW81oc_bWYMu11Eng8t6BZ4knUECA” (A.K.A, a picture of the U.S. Ambassador: 1 view)
  • Unique visitors: (min in a day: 71 | max in a day: 212)
  • Actors in Sim: 123 (non-sim visitors: 89)
  • Times booted out of UN meetings: 3 (UN meetings attended: 5 = 60% booting ratio)
  • Money accrued, despite rules saying we couldn’t get money: $2,000
  • Major scandals broken: 5
  • Enemies made: 4-5 (debatable)
  • People annoyed: [does not compute]
  • Times made fun of: come on, it’s McGill, and we’re Concordia J-School
  • Times #professionalnews used against us: 4 (counting #professionaljournalism)
  • Times original coverage cited without link or reference: ha.ha.ha.ha.
  • Photos grossly manipulated: 2
  • “Sexist” article titles: 1 (thanks for ruining our sterling reputation, Jacob)
  • Coffees consumed: ∞
  • Chimichangas consumed: 1.8 (which is 1.8 too many)
  • Beers drank: far too few

My students were surprised, as well, to learn that the audience for their work was broader than the 120-plus actors within the simulation: a globally-dispersed group of Brynen’s ex-students, themselves alumni of the sim, followed the action by visiting the WNS site or following WNS on Twitter.

Lisa Lynch, Concordia University 

Simulations miscellany, 6 August 2013


Some recent simulation and gaming items that may be of interest to our readers:

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The May/June 2013 issue of the US Department of Defense Modeling and Simulation Coordination Office (M&SCO) M&S Newsletter is now out. You’ll find it here.

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Brian Train (insurgency simulation designer par excellence) has a thoughtful discussion with Tom Grant (of the I’ve Been Diced game blog, whose PhD was on insurgency before he turned to other things) on the challenges of designing counter-insurgency wargames via Brian’s own Ludic Futurism blog.

Brian will be among those presenting at the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London next month.

* * *

According to the Washington Times, US Republican politician Newt Gingrich has growing doubts about the US ability to export democracy:

Mr. Gingrich supported the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but he said he has increasingly doubted the strategy of attempting to export democracy by force to countries where the religion and culture are not hospitable to Western values.

“It may be that our capacity to export democracy is a lot more limited than we thought,” he said.

Mr. Gingrich at times has expressed doubts about the U.S. capacity for nation-building, but he said he now has formed his own conclusions about their failures in light of the experiences of the past decade.

“My worry about all this is not new,” Mr. Gingrich said. “But my willingness to reach a conclusion is new.”

Mr. Gingrich said it is time for Republicans to heed some of the anti-interventionist ideas offered by the libertarian-minded Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, tea party favorite and foreign policy skeptic.

I think it would be healthy to go back and war-game what alternative strategies would have been better...” [emphasis added]

It is nice that Gingrich has such confidence in the ability of professional wargaming to deliver such answers, but here’s the thing: they can’t. It might be possible to use policy games to explore some of the things that might go wrong in democracy-promotion—although you can probably do that even more effectively in a simple seminar-style BOGSAT discussion. We certainly can’t wargame what would definitively “work,” however, because the social science just isn’t there to support unambiguous judgments. On the contrary, both scholars and the intelligence community are still searching for greater clarity as to how complex political processes like regime change and political transition unfold.

Any wargame requires an underlying model of cause and effect. If our knowledge of cause and effect is fuzzy—as it so often is with social and political processes—one needs to treat with considerable caution any predictions derived therefrom.  (h/t Red Team Journal)

* * *

MW7The September/October 2013 issue of Modern War magazine is out. There are articles on the Vietnam War, the Second Congo War, Robert Thompson’s work on counterinsurgency, and the US Army National Training Center, as well as shorter pieces on game design, weapons systems, and other topics.

The  wargames included in this issues are designed by Eric Harvey, and examine two 1967 Vietnam War operations: “Snoopy’s Nose” (riverine action in the Mekong Delta) and “The Iron Triangle” (an offensive against Viet Cong bases and tunnels northwest of Saigon).

[War]gaming bureaucratic politics


In a recent discussion at the Simulating War Yahoo group, Phil Sabin commented on the extent to which most wargames reduce the bureaucratic processes of war-fighting to unified entities and singular decision-making:

It is absolutely true that one of the biggest abstractions in wargames (and game theory) is the representation of complex bureaucracies as single decision making ‘actors’. Players have god-like control over forces represented as inanimate counters or computer pixels, whereas in reality, even the most absolute ruler has to focus on the human skills of motivating his or her subordinates and employing subtle psychological devices and a judicious balance of carrots and sticks to achieve anything at all. Jim Dunnigan’s ‘NATO Division Commander’ game scratched the surface of this internal management challenge, but it would really take a bureaucratic role playing game to give anything like the flavour of the human relations challenges involved.

He suggested that this might be a good thing, since wargaming allowed military officers to push everyday bureaucratic process aside for a moment and focus on the command of combat operations against a calculating opponent:

My own take on the potential contribution of wargames for military officers is rather different. In reality, military forces are so preoccupied with the day to day bureaucratic challenges of management, leadership and politics within their own services and governmental systems that real enemies tend to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This tends to produce results such as ‘the fallacy of the passive opponent’, in which so much energy is spent on the massive challenge of developing and implementing one’s own strategy that one forgets that the enemy will have a counter-strategy which could change the contest completely. The beauty of wargames is that, by abstracting out the internal challenges with which military officers are already so familiar from everyday experience, they allow those officers to focus on and to gain vicarious experience with the equally important but much more sporadic challenges of prevailing over active and reactive adversaries.

I don’t disagree with the point that he is making. However, my own experience—dealing with different sorts of games and different sorts of audiences—is rather different.

Specifically, most of my professional gaming involves either teaching students about the inter-agency complexities and coordination challenges of peace operations, or working on policy issues with folks in the diplomatic, development, and  humanitarian communities. These games typically take the form of role play exercises, where participant X is representing (for example) USAID or the State Department and participant Y is representing UNHCR or a local government. Most participants are therefore “one-person bureaucracies.” As such, they are generally not fully constrained by the legal rules, institutional procedures, or bureaucratic inertia of their real-world counterparts. Moreover, because of the rather “free kriegsspiel” character of a roleplaying simulation (whereby written rules are kept to a minimum and much depends on adjudication by the white cell/game control/game master), the potential freedom of action of players is even larger compared to a wargame wherein unit capabilities are quantified and interactions are rules-based.

bureaucracy-cartoonBecause of this, a fairly common observation in student debriefs from my POLI 450 “Brynania” peacebuilding simulation is that the simulation highlighted how important personal initiative and face-to-face meetings are in solving problems. That’s partly true, of course—but it is also the case that, in a real civil war or humanitarian emergency, foreign ministers and heads of UN agencies don’t pop down to a café near campus to resolve some problem, or that the problem is quite so easily fixed. Needless to say, my usual debrief for that course addresses the extent to which the simulation format may exaggerate some elements (heroic problem-solving individuals) and undervalue others (large complex institutions with established procedures).

Can this be addressed in the game itself? I do have a few elements I introduce to try to generate some institutional politics (resource constraints, budget envelopes, multiple participants playing different parts of the same organization). However the problem here is that one doesn’t want to introduce so much bureaucratic process that the simulation becomes one of endless committee meetings and filling out form GX1233-45B in triplicate. If participants seem to be headed in an institutionally unrealistic direction, they may be presented with a request to write a memo explaining their proposed course of action in light of likely constraints. Helpful “junior staff” (i.e., me) may send them an email explaining why, in practice, what they want to do wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t work. In those cases, where students ought to have known better, I might just let it all go terribly wrong. In the most recent Brynania simulation, for example, one simulated Defence Minister decided to launch a coup in his authoritarian country by simply ordering troops to overthrow the President, without any clear reason for doing so, and without addressing the safeguards that likely existed in the system (for example, senior officers chosen for political loyalty). Needless to say, the Defence Minister was arrested instead, and was subsequently “shot while trying to escape.” (In such cases, I generally allow students to reincarnate into different roles.)

frank-cotham-it-s-always-cozy-in-here-we-re-insulated-by-layers-of-bureaucracy-new-yorker-cartoonOne notable success I  had in trying to address these sorts of issues involved a simulation on Palestinian refugee negotiations organized for Chatham House a few years ago. Those of us who had been working on the issue had been worried for some time of a possible disconnect between the negotiations (dominated by leaders and lawyers) and the practical and institutional challenges of actually implementing an agreement. The simulation design was intended, in part, to recreate this: Israeli and Palestinian participants (many of them former senior officials or negotiators) were largely involved in try to producing an agreed text. Pretty much everyone else (from aid agencies, international organizations, and NGOs) was charged with trying to make it work. As we expected, those in the “negotiation bubble” tended to lose sight of some of the procedural and institutional details as they focussed on high politics. Those with experience in implementation sent back the signal that what they were contemplating in the agreement would be very difficult to make work in the way they imagined. The gap between what leaders wanted to do and what institutions could do was instructive, and indeed spurred the UK Foreign Office, EU, Canada, and others to devote greater attention to the practical challenges of implementation and process.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is trying to show, in a game context and within the game dynamics, that bureaucratic politics— while often bemoaned—also has its own logic and value. Not everyone at the table agrees, or shares the same perspective. Precipitous action isn’t always bold, it is sometimes stupid. Getting parties to act in concert requires that they feel they are part of the solution rather than taken for granted. Obtaining scarce resources ought to require convincing senior officials that you aren’t going to squander them, and probably should involve further safeguards to make sure others don’t squander them too.

Just as a brilliant maneuver on the battlefield to achieve a military objective is usually intrinsically and extrinsically rewarded in most wargames, so too the negotiation and institutional choreography required to make complex organizations change direction or undertake initiatives ought to be framed as a “victory” of sorts in games that address policy, peacebuilding, and interagency cooperation.

CSR 2012 winners

CSRLogo1The winners of the 2012 Charles S. Roberts wargame awards have now been posted on the CSR website:

  • Best Ancient to Napoleonic Era Board Wargame
  • Best Post-Napoleonic to Pre-World War 2 Era Board Wargame
  • Best World War 2 Era Board Wargame
  • Best Post-WW2 Era Board Wargame
  • Best Pre-20th Century Era Computer Wargame
  • Best 20th Century Era – Modern Computer Wargame
    • Battle of the Bulge, Shenandoah Studios
  • Best Science-Fiction or Fantasy Board Wargame
  • Best Science-Fiction or Fantasy Computer Wargame
    • X-Com: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis 2K Games
  • Best Magazine Game
  • Best Desktop Published (DTP) / Print-and-Play / Postcard Game
    • City of Confusion: The Battle for Hue, Tet 1968 (by Paul Rohrbaugh), High Flying Dice Games
  • Best Expansion or Supplement for an Existing Game
  • Best Board Game Graphics
  • Best Computer Game Graphics
    • Battle of the Bulge, Shenandoah Studios
  • Best Professional Game Magazine
  • Best Amateur Game Magazine
    • 1914 Dispatches, Oregon Consim Gamers
  • Best Historical/Scenario Article
    • 1914 – A postwar Solution for Austria-Hungary’s Mobilization (Michael Resch C3i nr 26)
  • Best Game Review or Analysis Article
    • For the People – Defending the Union (by Dave Dockter and Mark Herman)C3i Magazine
  • James F. Dunnigan Design Elegance Award
    • Dean Essig
  • Clausewitz Award HALL OF FAME
    • Brian Youse

PAXsims offers particular congratulations to Volko Ruhnke for having won in the “Best Post-WW2 Era Board Wargame” category with Andean Abyss (recently reviewed at PAXsims here). Volko won in 2010 in the same category with Labyrinth (which we reviewed here).

My gaming group will also be pleased that Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game won the the science fiction category…


simulations miscellany, 3 August 2013


Some recent simulations-related items that may be of interest to our readers.

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AFP recently featured a report on humanitarian training simulations, and the role they can play in preparing humanitarian workers for growing challenges in the field:

Go, go!” shouts a soldier at five Red Cross aid workers crammed into a 4×4 truck speeding into the woods as explosions go off nearby, sending up plumes of white smoke.

The scene feels menacing and real. But it is in fact taking place far from an actual battlefield and just a stone’s throw from a city renowned for its international peace efforts, in one of the safest countries on the planet.

Welcome to Alpesia, an imaginary land created by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) 15 years ago in the woods of Geneva. Here the Sequane Liberation Front rebels are facing off against the authorities in a “conflict” tailored to teach new aid workers how to face the increasingly dangerous world they will soon be ushered into.

Nearly 200 participants, who have to be between 25 and 35 years old, pass the simulation test each year before joining a profession where armed attacks, kidnappings and hospital bombings are becoming ever more prevalent.

In the Swiss woods, they get a taste for what life could be like on mission: military checkpoints, visits to destroyed hospitals and a refugee camp — all within eight days of practical and theoretical training.

* * *

The New York Times (2 August 2013) has a long report on “The Dog-Eat-Dog World of Model UN.”

 This is not F.D.R.’s Model United Nations, that rigid simulation of General Assembly protocol and decorum. Conferences like this one in Philadelphia, hosted by the club at Penn, have turned MUN, as it’s called, into a full-fledged sport, with all the competitiveness and rowdiness that suggests. Today, there are official sponsors, a ranking of schools and, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, non-U.N. role play.

MUN’s roots are older than the United Nations itself. In 1927, Harvard invited nine colleges to a simulation of the League of Nations, nearly a decade after that body’s creation in the wake of the First World War. Today, anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 high school and college students in this country attend Model U.N. each year, according to the United Nations Association of the United States of America.

In classic MUN, students represent the positions and values of assigned countries, adhering to official protocols when speaking, negotiating and drafting resolutions. Consensus is important, and the process of arriving at innovative solutions to global problems the goal. That is still the prevailing model. But a new breed of Model U.N., popular among student-run clubs at elite universities, has a distinctly different philosophy. Their “crisis committees” focus on a single historical event (the 1929 Atlantic City conference of crime bosses, for example) and fantasy recreations (“Star Wars,” “Harry Potter”). Participants battle it out in four-day conferences in hopes of winning a coveted gavel, awarded to the strongest member on each committee, and schools with the most “best delegates” top the new rankings.

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HGWellsThe BBC (2 August 2013) offers a look at “Little Wars: How HG Wells created hobby war gaming,”

It is a century since HG Wells published the first proper set of rules for hobby war games. There’s a hardcore of gamers who are still playing by his code.

Pine tips are stuck in the grass to represent trees. Roads are laid out with trails of compost.

This is the Battle of Gettysburg, with Union soldiers on one side and Confederates on the other. But the soldiers of this new Gettysburg are 54mm (2in) tall and mostly made of plastic.

The battle is taking place between a group of enthusiasts in a garden at Sandhurst military academy under the rules of Little Wars, devised by HG Wells in 1913.

War was then looming in Europe and Little Wars was both an expression of Wells’s passion for toy soldiers and to his fears over the coming slaughter. The science fiction author even believed that war games could change attitudes.

“You only have to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be,” wrote Wells.

But this is looked on with disapproval by some modern war gamers, who prefer theoretical bombardments worked out with distance tables.

Phil Barker, a celebrated deviser of modern games, acknowledges Wells’s role in “showing it could be done – and giving grown men an excuse to play with toy soldiers”.

But he adds: “Combat was based on shooting solid projectiles at the figures. Today, this would be discouraged because of the risk of someone getting a projectile in the eye, but it was the chance of damage to the finish of lovingly home-painted figures that led to the switch to less lethal dice.”

* * *

Given both  continued Sino-Japanese suspicions stretching back to before WWII and continued territorial disputes between the two countries over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands/Tiaoyutai/Pinnacle islands—what you call them depends on which claim you are advancing—it is hardly surprising that they have become the subject of a video game. According to The Diplomat (2 August 2013):

 Chinese video game, designed in part by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and originally intended as a training tool for soldiers, allows gamers to engage in all-out war against foreign enemies. An early version of Glorious Mission generated a fair share of controversy when it appeared to pit virtual soldiers against the U.S. military.

Today, a more recent version of theCall of Duty clone received an update, containing a new mission – a siege of the contested Diaoyu Islands – a move that embodies China’s shifting of aggression from America to its Asian neighbor and past colonizer, Japan.

Disputed islands between China and Japan have become the centerpiece of diplomatic tension in Asia. Called the Diaoyu Islands by China and the Senkaku Islands by Japan, bitter territorial disputes over ownership of the rocky outcroppings have sparked mass protests in both countries. Chinese nationalists went as far as burning and looting Japanese-owned businesses in China last year, following a Japanese government announcement that it would purchase and nationalize the uninhabited islets.

Glorious Mission Online’s latest downloadable content (DLC) gives Chinese gamers a chance to virtually evict Japanese “invaders” by force – aided by China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier and an arsenal of military weaponry.

“Players entering the game will fight alongside Chinese armed forces and use their weapons to tell the Japanese that ‘Japan must return our stolen territory!’” read a press release on the game’s website,according to the South China Morning Post.

The video trailer for the scenario can be found here:

* * *

MST_magazine_2013_lrWith regard to professional military training and simulation, the latest issue (3-4/2013) of Military Simulation & Training can be found here.

Review of the Canadian Humanitarian and Disaster Response Training Program SimEx 2013

June McCabe is an MA student in political science at McGill University, whose research interests including peace operations, humanitarian assistance, and simulations. She participated in the Canadian Humanitarian and Disaster Response Training Program in May, and offers these reflections on the experience.


Recently, there has been a growing trend in humanitarian response to use simulation exercises to train personnel for work in the field and improve organizational capacity by familiarizing humanitarian aid workers with protocols and standards for effective provision of aid. Simulations can be useful not only in research and knowledge creation but also as a method to teach in a practical way that is difficult to get from classroom experience alone. Moreover, simulation can help to provide a strong foundation for future aid workers pre-deployment so that when arriving on scene in a real crisis they have the personal and professional skills to cope. The Emergency Capacity Building Project has identified three distinct types of simulations used in humanitarian response: skill drills, where specific skills and knowledge are utilized and tested; functional simulation, where participants act in a role they could fulfill in a real crisis; and table top simulations, which involve discussion and problem solving of an aspect of a real or hypothetical crisis (Barnhardt, Bulten, Hockaday, Sitko, Staples 6).

HTIprogramFor over 10 years, the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard has offered a highly regarded training program, the Humanitarian Studies Initiative, which employs all three of these simulation methods to train both university students and aid workers in the basics of humanitarian response. This May, I participated in the first ever Canadian Humanitarian & Disaster Response Training Program conducted by the Humanitarian Training Initiative, which emulates the original Harvard program including the three day simulated humanitarian crisis called the SimEx.

By the end of the 10 day course, my knowledge of humanitarian aid had been greatly expanded. I now feel ready to consider aid work with a grasp on how it must be to work in the field. The sim showed some of us that we never want to do humanitarian aid work, while others of us found it invigorating and are preparing for deployments to the DRC. The simulation was the part of the course that brought what we had learned during the long classroom tutorials into focus. It challenged both our abilities and our ideas about being an aid worker. In the end, the SimEx was one of the most multifaceted and complex learning experiences I have ever had.

The SimEx Scenario

During the first week of the course, we learned about the cluster system, the Sphere core standards, as well as ethics and the history of humanitarian aid. Lectures were supplemented by table top exercises culminating in a mock aid project pitch where we created a project with short and long-term goals, a timeline, materials projections and budget estimates for an IDP camp in Côte d’Ivoire. The last three days of the course, the SimEx, took place on a campground at Sparrow Lake, Ontario made into the fictional country of Simlandia. The SimEx placed students in the midst of a complex emergency scenario where aid workers struggled to reach populations affected by a tsunami while dealing with tight military controls as well as rebel activity in the area. The simulation scenario itself touched on some of the most challenging aspects of a complex emergency including child soldiers, government manipulation of aid flows, celebrity appearance and of course, high security risks to NGO personnel.

THTIhe SimEx was built on both functional simulation and skill drill components. Upon arrival at the camp, students were broken into NGO teams (i.e. Oxfam, World Vision). Within the team, each student was assigned a cluster specific role (i.e. WaSH, Shelter, Security). During the day, NGO teams would rotate through different “stations” performing skill drills relating to a specific cluster. Each station challenged the students to employ knowledge of Sphere standards and skills learned during the first week of the course. Information collected at these stations also contributed to an overall picture of the developing humanitarian emergency. In contrast, the functional aspect of the sim focused almost entirely on the emotional and physical demands of being a humanitarian aid worker during the first day, week and then month of an emergency (time conversion on Days 1, 2 and 3). How to work as a team and communicate while being hot, hungry and tired was one of the most fundamental lessons the sim was designed to teach us.

Overall Assessment

Overall both the functional and skill drill portions of the simulation were educational and illuminating. The skill drills allowed students to utilize the training materials and information that we had learned during the previous week and carrying this out successfully was very motivating. The functional part of the simulation really allowed us to experience the stress and fatigue that can occur during a deployment immediately following a disaster. The most valuable and rewarding part of the functional portion of the simulation was learning how to work as a team and to rely on teammates for emotional and physical support. The course as a whole also provided a great networking opportunity for students trying to enter the humanitarian aid sector. The SimEx facilitators were very high caliber founts of knowledge, one of the program’s strongest points. Being able to work with such experienced and knowledgeable people like Dr. Kirsten Johnson and Dr. Hilarie Cranmer was a great learning opportunity.

While the simulation was largely constructed and executed well, the combination of skill drills and functional simulation as well as the short time allocated for debriefing post-simulation were areas in need of some improvement. The following sections will elaborate on these challenges and provide suggestions for future iterations of the SimEx.

Organizational Difficulties between Functional and Skill Drill Components

One of the primary reasons for including the SimEx in the humanitarian training program is to allow students to experience the stages of a humanitarian emergency scenario without the actual loss of life and accompanying emotional stress. However, the stress of trying to manage one’s team objectives, deal with the media, and function in the woods with little rest and food is still a difficult task in and of itself. These team objectives, coordination, report writing, lack of food and rest can all be considered part of the functional simulation component. The skill drill stations were interspersed with other big-picture events such as meetings with UN OCHA. Teams were often unprepared or unaware of what would happen at the next station because these big-picture functional events took so much time and focus. In the worst cases, the skill drills actually functioned in opposition to larger team objectives. For example, while trying to coordinate a food distribution in an IDP camp, we were brought as part of a skill drill to a meeting that ICRC had set up between my team and the local rebels, who happened to be child soldiers. We had not planned this meeting, nor did we understand the larger objective. In the end the meeting went poorly and we lost valuable time to plan the food distribution. In future years, the SimEx could be improved by tying the skill drills more closely to the larger scenario events and allowing teams more freedom to decide when, where and how they would attempt a skill drill. Although it is reasonable to have both functional simulation and skill drills in the same scenario they need to be integrated more smoothly for the students to truly benefit from them. A slightly less contrived station rotation would also help to maintain suspension of disbelief. To achieve this may require fewer skill drills or fewer events and assignments in the functional component. Students will continue to feel the stress of the scenario even with far fewer events to complete.


Another critical aspect to simulation is the debriefing portion. Due to time constraints, debriefing was quite short in the SimEx. The Emergency Capacity Building Emergency Simulations Administrators’ guide recommends a debrief period equal to the time of the exercise itself (Klenk 50). Three whole days of debrief may be unnecessary, but a much greater emphasis should have been placed on debriefing after skill drills as well as the different stages of the functional simulation. It could be constructive to utilize the “experimental learning cycle” which breaks activities into stages of concrete experience, reflection, generalization, application and then a return to experience (Klenk 57). It would help students in the future to practice a skill drill or a specific event or scenario, debrief and then attempt a similar event utilizing the same skill. Debriefing in the middle of a scenario can disrupt the realism, however it is better to do so than not debrief. Perhaps this presents another difficultly in trying to integrate skill drill and functional simulation methods into the same scenario.


The program certainly achieved its goals to improve disaster preparedness of humanitarian aid workers attending the course. Through coordination of organizations like HTI, the long-term goal of improved operational capacity of NGOs and inter-sector communication seems quite possible. Students from these programs are receiving a standardized education of the field and the Sphere project, creating a common language that can be used during a crisis. The SimEx is an incredibly valuable learning tool and opportunity for growth. The specific goals of the SimEx were also met; the vast majority of students came out of the experience with a greater understanding of a humanitarian aid operation and whether they would like to participate in one in the future. Finally, as the Canadian training program expands and matures, hopefully some of the first time difficulties we experienced can be reflected on and used to improve the SimEx in the coming years.

June McCabe


Barnhardt, Daniel, Odile Bulten, David Hockaday, Pamela Sitko and James Staples. “Simulating the worst to prepare the best: a study of humanitarian simulations and their benefits.” ECB Project Case Study May 2013: Web. July 2013.

Humanitarian Training Initiative. “The 2013 Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program. ” 8-9 May. Web. August 2013.

Klenk, Jeff. “Emergency Simulations: Administrators’ Guide.” ECB Simulations Project 2007: Web. July, 2013.

Afghan provincial reconstruction (optional rules)

As previously mentioned here at PAXsims, last term I modified the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game to include a Taliban team, and also added associated “insurgency cards” that they could try to use to sabotage stabilization efforts. Since then, I’ve done still more tinkering by changing the turn sequence, reworking the “national stability index,” adding new provincial and national event cards.

I have had a request for those optional/revised rules, so if you’re interested here they are (pdf format). To make any sense of them you’ll need the original game. I also haven’t had a chance to playtest the latest version, so I can’t be sure that the game balance is quite right.


To read more about the game, click the links above, or read the article by game designers Roger Mason and Eric Patterson in Simulation & Gaming.


UPDATE (23/02/2014): The optional game rules have been updated, based on our most recent game.

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