Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

[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.

6 responses to “[War]gaming bureaucratic politics

  1. brtrain 07/08/2013 at 1:51 am

    I have found very few serious attempts to model military bureaucracies. Mostly it seems to be a better target for satire. John Prados’ book “Pentagon Games” contains the game “Pentagon – Monopoly in the Military”, where representatives of different armed services tour around the board trying to get as large a budget as possible, though incentives for cooperation are cleverly baked into the design as well.

  2. Brant 07/08/2013 at 6:27 am

    is there a way to work in some sort of external ‘oversight’ mechanism such that when players squander their scarce resources on bad cooperative decisions, they receive fewer of them in subsequent turns?

  3. Rex Brynen 07/08/2013 at 9:07 am

    Brant: It is easy enough to do what you suggest n a moderated role-play–indeed, it happened this past year in “Brynania.” Several donor countries provided funds to a (deliberately shady and ineffective) NGO, and were subsequently punished by having their aid budgets temporarily suspended pending an investigation (for which they were required to write an investigatory report for their fictional bosses), and then subsequently cut by 10%.

    It is rather harder to do in a boardgame, however–without a White Cell to decide, how does one assess “squandering”? More fundamentally, how does one create a “bureaucratic politics” rule in a boardgame that doesn’t make bureaucratic politics look like an irrational, wholly negative thing. After all, you could have a “roll a 5+ to introduce new weapons system” rule, but the implicit take-away most players would have is that faceless bureaucrats are little more than traitors who have nothing better to do but stand in the way of innovation and national defence.

    One way of doing it (which would reflect my view in the main post that making bureaucratic politics work in your favour should be seen as an achievement) would be to require players to put together the requisite elements of institutional initiative within the game mechanics. To go back to the example above, a player could introduce a new weapons system when they manage to collect a “scientific breakthrough,” “organizational leadership,” and “budget support” cards. Without “organizational leadership” the system gets developed, but more slowly. In this way, the signal sent by the game is that skill in managing complex institutions is a desirable trait.

    Indeed, one could take it a step further, and have commanders rated both for military prowess and bureaucratic prowess–the former better at war-fighting, but the latter better at managing the resources for war-fighting. This is rather nicely done in the computer game Empire: Total War, in which cabinet ministers all have ratings may enable them to generate or spend resources more effectively–getting the right person in the right job can therefore have a significant if subtle long-term effect on your strategic position.

  4. brtrain 07/08/2013 at 2:22 pm

    Funnily enough, Prados’ book has another game in it that covers that topic as well, in much the way you describe it!
    It’s called “The R&D Game: Congressional Chutes and Ladders.” It’s designed as a solitaire game, based on a decision tree mechanism with about 15 “frames” (a big chunk of the book is taken up with these). At each frame the player makes a decision of some kind that leads him off into different branches, some of which end in success, others not.
    Like Pentagon Monopoly, it is only partly satirical – you know Prados can’t be all funny, no more than he can be entirely serious.
    (and the third game in the book is a simple wargame about the fall of Saigon, so I can invoke it no more)

  5. Rex Brynen 07/08/2013 at 2:28 pm

    And with that, I ordered the book!

  6. brtrain 07/08/2013 at 2:50 pm

    I got Prados to autograph my copy at Connections 2012! Wotta guy…
    You may recall he was demonstrating a Resistance-warfare game there called “Set Europe Ablaze”, it looked really interesting and I wonder what’s happened with it.

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