Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections UK 2013 (Day 1 report)


The Connections UK conference started today, with approximately seventy participants from a half-dozen or so countries. After an institutional introduction by King’s College London Principal Sir Rick Trainor, Graham Longley-Brown outlined the purposes of the conference. Like the original US Connections, Connections UK is aimed at professional wargamers but with significant input and participation from recreational gamers and commercial game designers.  While much of the conference focuses on manual (rather than computer) wargames, this was largely to enable a focus on underlying essentials—the conference itself is intended to be agnostic on manual vs digital games. Conference corganizer Phil Sabin noted that while the formal presentations would be made public, the subsequent discussions would be non-attributable under Chatham House rules.

The first panel of the day examined using games for educational purposes. Phil Sabin argued that wargames are not simply a “safe vicarious reflection” of war, but also were useful in their emphasis on “systematic interactive modeling” of conflict processes, while allowing us to explore counterfactuals and alternative outcomes through a process of active learning. He then discussed creating appropriate games, the challenges of involvement and accessibility, and finally offered a case study of his classroom use of games in teaching about air combat tactics. COL Uwe Heilmann (German armed forces) also discussed the value of teaching through games. His rich presentation highlight a great many strengths of gaming, and then looked at how games were used to develop command competence.

Among the points made in subsequent discussion was the importance of human dynamics within games, often above and beyond the dynamics that are hard-wired into the written rules or computer coding. There also seemed to be agreement that heterogeneous groups of players tended to produce better learning outcomes.

The next major session looked at using wargames for military purposes. Brian Train talked about his work using games to develop skills and maintaining ongoing networks for  the US government’s Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program. The Global Ecco website includes a multimedia magazine, a video archives, and a portal for playing abstract strategy games. Abstract strategy games (like Brian’s guerilla checkers, or classic chess) are emphasized because of their role in developing planning and cognitive skills. Graham Longley-Brown and Jeremy Smith offered an overview of the Rapid Campaign Assessment Tool (RCAT), a manual wargame for rapidly examining military campaign plans. Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives) looked at “wargaming wicked problems.” His “Crisis in Binni” game, originally designed for educational purposes, was adapted for use with senior military staff. Finally, Mike Larner (DSTL) provided an overview of wargaming at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, largely in the context of operations analysis.

A number of interesting issues arose during the subsequent discussion. One was the challenge of integrating cultural factors into games without either mirror-imaging (that is, assuming everyone thinks like “us”) and stereotyping (viewing ethnicity or religion or national origin as an absolute predictor of behaviour). Cultural effects are quite subtle, and vary not only with ethnic/religious/national identity, but also with class, occupation, age, and other factors. Another, which I raised, was how best to integrate subject matter expertise into game design, process, and adjudication—especially when the predictive records of many SMEs is uneven at best. Part of the answer has to do with the management of subject matter expertise. As one panelist suggested, drawing upon the views of multiple experts (and providing an opportunity for views to be debated and refined) can be useful.

In the afternoon two hours were devoted to game demonstrations (with additional time for gaming after dinner). I had an opportunity to demonstrate the Carana HADR game.

The keynote address on the first day was given by Peter Perla. In it he explored his own particular trajectory as a wargamer, starting with children’s games as well as television and books about WWII. He then examined the early history of kriegsspiel, and the apparent tensions between realism and playability. He asked why it was that so many people find wargames challenging. He suggested the problem might be one of “schemas,” that is a misfit between people’s experience and the structure of the rules. Players need to understand how game mechanics relate to the things they are interested in or learning. In short, the problem is not complexity in the game, but rather the (in)ability of the players to see their reality in the game.

All-in-all, and excellent first day to the UK’s first Connections conference.

One response to “Connections UK 2013 (Day 1 report)

  1. Joe Saur 06/09/2013 at 9:11 am

    Thank you for the cogent and interesting report! Joe

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