Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections UK 2013 (Day 2 report)


Day 2 of the Connections UK conference started today on a sad note with news of the death of veteran wargame author Donald Featherstone.  John Curry (History of Wargaming Project) and Phil Barker (Wargames Research Group) shared their memories of Featherstone, who was in many ways the father of the modern hobby of miniature wargaming. As noted recently on PAXsims, my own entry into the hobby (and later the professional gaming field) was very much spurred by Donald Featherstone books borrowed from the local library.

ConnectionsUKThe first full panel of the day addressed “the fuzzy edges of wargaming,” that is how games might explore non-kinetic conflict dynamics. I presented an overview of my own experience of gaming peace operations, negotiations, and development in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Colin Marston discussed the Peace Support Operations Model, and the use of PSOM in Afghanistan to explore campaign plans and challenges. At the other end of the spectrum, Tom Mouat made an excellent presentation on the use of matrix games to explore conflict (or other issues). Finally, David Hockaday summarized the work of the Emergency Capacity Building Project in building disaster-response capacity in local governments and NGOs.

The next panel addressed the common faults of wargaming in the military. Graham Longley-Brown argued that 90% of military wargaming was done badly. He identified several recurrent problems: ambiguous or differing definitions of key terms and concepts; failure to make appropriate distinctions (for example, between training and education requirements); poor design (including the lack of an appropriate design team with game-design expertise, or weak design process); and weaknesses in delivery. He also pointed the need to meet the “military credibility test.” Andrew Sharpe discussed the general value of gaming, then moved on to a series of very witty and insightful observations on the institutional and cultural challenges to selling wargaming in the military. One of the most important take-aways was the need to promote wargaming by “enlightment and stealth” rather than with a sort of boundless enthusiasm that might be off-putting to senior officers. (He also managed to slip in a Warhammer snotlings reference that, as a former Orcs and Goblins player, was particularly appealing.) Another presenter talked about his own experience as a UK infantry battalion commander, expressing the view that military wargaming was too infrequent and often poorly done.

After lunch, Phil Sabin launched a discussion of the stigma and skepticism wargaming attracts. He suggested that there was a bias against games, a fear of appearing childish, as well as a a reticence among wargamers to discuss their interest in war. The fact that many government wargames are classified effectively removes them from academic or public consideration. The image of wargaming as being “fun” means it is taken less seriously. Recreational games are usually driven by entertainment considerations at some cost in historical accuracy. The use of dice to represent random events (or, more accurately, variables outside the game model) can undermine the credibility of wargames. Manual games are also difficult to repeat many times in order to develop a full understanding of the range of possible outcomes. Wargames (even professional ones) often have weak analytical foundations and questionable assumptions. All of this, he suggested, contributed to a pervasive scholarly skepticism.

My own sense is that, to some degree, this skepticism is discipline-specific to some degree—as I have noted before, I certainly don’t sense much resistance from political scientists to gaming as an instructional tool, although wargaming as a research methodology might be a slightly more difficult sell. I also think we need to work harder at reaching out beyond the current (male, middle aged) demographic of professional wargamers (most of whom who first developed their expertise playing miniature wargames and boardgames as  hobbyists) to a broader community. Although it is hardly the fault of the organizers, I couldn’t help but notice that the Connections UK audience, much like the Connections US audiences, was 95% male with a median age of 45-50. In particular we need to engage students—who, after all, are future academics and practitioners.

ConnectionsUK2The final session of the day was a wide-ranging hot-wash of the conference, addressing everything from content and format to future locations. Matt Caffrey, the driving force behind two decades of Connections conferences in the US, offered some constructive advice on future UK and European efforts.  Personally I think the organizers did an excellent job, and I found the two days very useful indeed. I hope that KCL continues to host future Connections UK conferences, that ongoing efforts are made to broaden the range of participants, and that some way is found to bring more graduate and senior undergraduate students into the meetings.

The slides and audio from the various Connections UK presentations will soon be posted to the conference website—when they are, we’ll announce it here  have now been posted to the conference website.

2 responses to “Connections UK 2013 (Day 2 report)

  1. Rex Brynen 07/09/2013 at 8:31 pm

    As noted in the amended blog post above, the conference presentations are now available at the Connections Uk website.

  2. brtrain 05/09/2013 at 4:55 am

    Thanks for the detailed accounts Rex – this was an excellent conference. I enjoyed your presentation very much too, and again, thank you for having this general topic placed on the agenda.
    An unfocused thought (well, what other kinds do I have): The other social sciences/humanities – political science, sociology etc. do seem more open to experimentation, treating as they do the “fuzzy edges” of the human experience, both past and future. Well, so does history, but it seems to go at it in the most hard-science way. Devoted as it is to the past, you could think that past events are always replicable in the same way; even though there may be new interpretations of the Battle of Marathon, each new interpretation is phrased in terms of “no, it was THIS way and I can prove it.” And because Phil presents his work in a less determinate way (thinking of that slide he showed a couple of times of the range of outcomes) it gets less respect.
    Eh, I’m not sure. Maybe it is just the inbuilt cultural stigma against games as irresponsible, recreational activity that is the main factor here. The term “serious games”, coming from over 50 years ago, still can’t get much traction.

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