PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

simulations miscellany, 12 November 2013

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

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At Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Peck asks “Should You Be Allowed to Use Chemical Weapons in a Video Game?

Your next Call of Duty game might be a bit less colorful — or less ethically challenged — if the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has its way. 

The ICRC is now asking video game publishers to incorporate the laws of war into their games. The organization makes clear that it is not calling for a ban on violence in video games, nor does it consider — contrary to earlier reports in 2011 — that war crimes in video games equate to real crimes. But it does want games to penalize players for violating the laws of war. “The ICRC is suggesting that as in real life, these games should include virtual consequences for people’s actions and decisions,” notes the Red Cross website. “Gamers should be rewarded for respecting the law of armed conflict and there should be virtual penalties for serious violations of the law of armed conflict, in other words war crimes.”

The ICRC fears that the next generation of soldiers will have their notions of ethical battlefield behavior shaped by video games. “Certain game scenarios could lead to a trivialization of serious violations of the law of armed conflict,” the organization says. “The fear is that eventually such illegal acts will be perceived as acceptable behavior.” Such virtual behavior includes “the use of torture, particularly in interrogation, deliberate attacks on civilians, the killing of prisoners or the wounded, attacks on medical personnel, facilities, and transport such as ambulances, or that anyone on the battlefield can be killed.”

How widespread the problem is can be seen in an article on game site Gameranx, which identified 10 egregious cases of war crimes in video games, such as executing wounded prisoners in Call of Duty 2, genocide in Gears of War 3, and using torture against captives in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

But the ICRC is not calling for removing war crimes from games, on the grounds that including them is actually educational, allowing players to make the same difficult choices that real combatants face. “We do not suggest that games be sanitized of all illegal acts,” ICRC spokesman Bernard Barrett said in an email to Foreign Policy. “Also, games must remain fun and challenging. A boring game is of little interest to the players, to the manufacturers or to us. We would prefer that players not be required to commit illegal acts to move to another level or be rewarded in some other way.”

For previous discussion of this issue at PAXsims, see here and here.

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Can a wargame spark a real war? It has long been known that a 1983 NATO military exercise named “Able Archer” caused some in the Soviet Union to fear an impending surprise attack. An article in The Observer reports on further evidence of how dangerous this all became:

Chilling new evidence that Britain and America came close to provoking the Soviet Union into launching a nuclear attack has emerged in former classified documents written at the height of the cold war.

Cabinet memos and briefing papers released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a major war games exercise, Operation Able Archer, conducted in November 1983 by the US and its Nato allies was so realistic it made the Russians believe that a nuclear strike on its territory was a real possibility.

When intelligence filtered back to the Tory government on the Russians’ reaction to the exercise, the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, ordered her officials to lobby the Americans to make sure that such a mistake could never happen again. Anti-nuclear proliferation campaigners have credited the move with changing how the UK and the US thought about their relationship with the Soviet Union and beginning a thaw in relations between east and west.

The papers were obtained by Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), an organisation that campaigns against nuclear proliferation, who said that the documents showed just how risky the cold war became for both sides.

“These papers document a pivotal moment in modern history – the point at which an alarmed Thatcher government realised that the cold war had to be brought to an end and began the process of persuading its American allies likewise,” he said.

“The Cold War is sometimes described as a stable ‘balance of power’ between east and west, but the Able Archer story shows that it was in fact a shockingly dangerous period when the world came to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on more than one occasion.”

The Observer piece doesn’t really add anything we didn’t know, however—indeed, there is even a Wikipedia entry on the exercise. It also doesn’t mention the glitch in the Soviet early warning system that, on 26 September 1983, gave a false warning of a US nuclear missile launch against the USSR. Fortunately the Soviet officer on duty at the time violated protocol and waited for further evidence, rather than immediately passing on the warning to already nervous superiors.

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Wondering how Bayesian inference can help you understand Iranian nuclear negotiations with the P5+1? Harry Hale discusses the issue at Arms Control Wonk:

Life can be modeled as a tree of future events with branches that will be realized with different probabilities.  Each branch can be thought of as forked paths in the forest.  Each branch in the past or the future relates to other branches.

Bayesian inference offers a method to relate the conditional probability of a certain branch to the probabilities of other branches.  This can be a useful tool in improving the odds of achieving a desired result.  I have applied such a tool to the Iranian nuclear negotiating portfolio, looking at the situation from the perspective of the P5+1 negotiation team (a tree created from Iran’s perspective would have different nodes and primary goals).  It is simple in concept, yet surprising in results.  This tool, which I have modeled in Excel spreadsheet form, can help to realize the implications of various decisions on the ultimate outcome: an Iran with or without “the Bomb.”

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In a forthcoming article in International Studies Perspectives, Emre Hatipoglu, Meltem Müftüler-Baç, and Teri Murphy discuss “Insights from a Multi-Day, Multi-Stage, Multi-Issue Simulation on Cyprus.”

This article reviews experiences from a large-scale student simulation, which concluded the Istanbul Conference on Mediation: Enhancing Peace through Mediation that took place in February 2012. We share insights on two unique aspects of the simulation. First, the paper examines a rare case where the simulation crossed paths with real life: a number of the impersonated officials (and offices) including the president of the General Assembly of the UN, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, and the Director of the Policy and Mediation Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs were in the audience and shared their impressions. Second, the setup of the simulation was more complex than its typical in-class counterparts. Our insights from this multi-day, multi-stage, and multi-issue simulation can inform colleagues who plan to run larger scale simulations. Besides sharing experiences on a number of logistical points, we especially draw attention to the constructive role facilitators can play in augmenting the learning benefits accruing to the students from simulations.

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Coming soon to PAXsims: a review of another volume in GMT Games “COIN series,” Cuba Libre.

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