Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: December 2013

PAXsims year-end review 2013


As 2014 approaches, here are a few highlights from the past year at PAXsims:

Of course, that also means that the next time I see either of them I’ll have to decide what a “Golden PAXsim” is…

Simulations miscellany, Boxing Day 2014 edition


Happy holidays to all PAXsims readers—we very much hope that nondenominational Gaming Santa brought everyone a sleigh-load of games and conflict simulations!

We have a few items that may be of interest:

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At War Is Boring, Michael Peck discusses his picks for the Best War Games of 2013.

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Masters of the World (Geopolitical Simular 3) will be releasing an add-on in January 2014 that will update the game with new economic and other data. It will also include a ““God’n spy game mode where you can access nearly a hundred internal hidden game engine variables, all modifiable on the fly.”

For our previous PAXsims review of the game, see here.

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JDMS header

The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation 11, 1 (January 2014) is now available. Of particular interest to agent-based modellers of conflict and cooperation will be an article by Dariusz G Mikulski, Frank L Lewis, Edward Y Gu, and Greg R Hudas on “Trust-based coalition formation in multi-agent systems.”

In this paper, we provide a framework to study trust-based coalition formation in multi-agent systems using cooperative game theory as the underlying mathematical framework. We describe how to study trust dynamics between agents as a result of their trust synergy and trust liability in cooperative coalitions. We also rigorously justify the behaviors of agents for different classes of games and discuss how to exploit the formal properties of these games for cooperative control in an unmanned military vehicle convoy.

In addition, a forthcoming article in JDMS by Jeffrey Appleget, Robert Burks, and Michael Jaye on “A demonstration of ABM validation techniques by applying docking to the Epstein civil violence model” is now available online:

The increased focus of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) on irregular warfare and counterinsurgency has served to identify the lack of credible models and simulations to represent the relevant civilian populations – the centers of gravity of such operations. While agent-based models (ABMs) have enjoyed widespread use in the social science community, many senior DoD officials are skeptical that agent-based models can provide useful tools to underpin DoD analysis, training, and acquisition needs mainly because of validation concerns. This paper uses docking and other forms of alignment that enable the linking of the Epstein civil violence agent-based model results to other models. These examples of model-to-model analysis could serve to assist and encourage DoD ABM human domain model validation efforts.

Playtesting the Humanitarian Crisis Game

hadr-event-cardsRecently, Professor Jeremy Wells of the Department of Political Science at Texas State University—San Marcos playtested the beta version of the PAXsims’ AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game with  students in his civil-military relations course. You’ll find their impressions below.The play test even got a mention in the local newspaper, the San Marcos Daily Record—see the newspapers clipping at the end of this blog post. In reading through the account they provide, several things stand out to me. One was his innovative decision NOT to allow the students to read the full set of rules in advance, but rather inform them of what they needed to know as they played the game. This undoubtedly facilitated easing them into the game, and also generated a sense of being temporarily overwhelmed by a new situation, although it may have inhibited some strategic planning. Also, I was struck my the more competitive way his students appear to have initially approached the game. In  my own playtests at McGill, students were generally much more cooperative from the outset. This may have been because many were international development studies students, or because they had completed a course with me on peacebuilding. It might also have been a function of having had fuller access to the rules before the game. As the account below notes, the game sets up both collective victory conditions (“Relief Points” indicating how well players are saving lives), and individual ones (“Operations Points,” reflecting the organizational achievements and political capital of each particular actor). Players can all win, all lose, or some may win while other lose. The game described below highlights the importance of logistics infrastructure: if you don’t invest early in opening up the airport, the main roads, or the port, players will soon run into major bottlenecks. This mirrors the importance of efforts by the US to open Port-au-Prince airport during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the disaster upon which the game is largely modelled. I’m pleased at the degree to which the game seems to have revealed to participants the relative advantages different players have, as well as the potential synergies between players. In refining the game, I’m still struggling with two major challenges. The first of these is complexity—is it too complex, or would simplification lose too much of the essential texture? Student comments below mention how complex it seemed at first. On the other hand, one playtester at the Connections UK conference said it had a rather simplified/abstracted “Eurogame” feel  to it. The second issue  is length of play. At the moment it takes about three hours to play, which is a bit long for classroom use. I’ll be using the game next term as an option activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course. I’ll be organizing that exercise as competition, to see which team is best able to same the disaster-affected population of Carana.


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My Civil Military Relations class played the Humanitarian Crisis Game as a final project for the course. The nine students were divided into pairs playing the Carana, United Nations, and nongovernmental organization sides, while the remaining three made up the Task Force. They played the game over two 80-minute meetings. 2013-11-18 16.04.37 Each student was required to submit responses to four general questions about their experience playing the game, and three general issues were common across most of the responses: consideration of individual versus overall results, immediate versus long-term goals, and the complexity of the rules of the game. The Humanitarian’s Dilemma The HCG rules encourage players to focus on both Relief Points (RP), which indicate the overall progress in Carana, as well as Operations Points (OP) that tally the individual success of the four teams. That humanitarian aid agencies are driven by competition with other organizations as by helping targeted peoples, regions, and countries is nothing new, but the message still comes as a shock to many. This was definitely the case with the nine students playing the game. EG, half of the Carana government pair, noted that at the “beginning of the game, we often chose the option that would gain us the most individual points instead of choosing what was best for the players as a whole. This later proved detrimental as we realized if we moved our teams to benefit other players our tasks were made easier as well.” One example was the need for security operations as social unrest became in the problem later in the game. The rules discourage the Task Force from initiating security operations, placing the burden on the already-pressed Carana regime. EG added:

It was frustrating that we, the Government of Carana, would exhaust our resources sending teams to security while… the Task Force was not as proactive. This led me to realize how frustrating it must be when a Task Force assigned to a specific disaster-stricken region is not executing its mission properly. As the government of an impoverished country with few resources, it would be incredibly maddening to be working with a Task Force that was not proactively protecting the victims of the disaster. I believe this apathy on the side of the Task Force is because they have no real stake in the issue. It is not their state to defend, and therefore there is less motivation to see the mission of victim protection through.

One of the Task Force members, MH, admitted that the costs of intervening prohibited their desire to engage: “In our coordination with civilian authorities one of the impacts of being the task force was that there was less of an investment in the country and long game, as we knew that we would have to withdraw anyway, distancing ourselves from the country and making it harder to coordinate with other groups when these actions would involve some sort of sacrifice.” Another Task Force member, BP, recognized that thinking in terms of each group’s sacrifice was misleading:

We realized that our supplies weren’t really OUR supplies but everyone’s, as we were all trying to meet the same goal–providing for the people in the districts. Once I got out of the mindset that we were in different groups to compete and realized that we were all essentially on the same team, my goals in the simulation became clearer and decisions became easier.

Of course, as UN member JW points out, this took a relatively long time: “It wasn’t until the end of the game that the Task Force began to work security and do what its job was. And that was only when we really needed it due to the amount of social unrest.” Players were also distracted from the overall operation by the media card and media operations, which early on led players to compete for attention and OP. NGO player TS noticed this early on:

Everyone was concerned only with the district in which the media was present, which is somewhat understandable because all teams need to have good public relations. However, when the teams were concerned only with the district where the media was present, other districts suffered from our negligence, which came to hurt us. We addressed the needs of certain districts before others solely because of the media presence, even though there were many more people suffering in other districts of the city. In a real life disaster, the United Nations and the local government would be doing whatever is possible to make their efforts look the best they can to the media

BP took the lesson a step further, noting the moral hazard caused by the media: “The idea that some groups actually might want to come out on top or with a better image than another group in real life is particularly disturbing as the most important thing should always be to help the people, not worry about how good you look doing it in the media.” 2013-11-18 16.04.46The early focus on individual gains had repercussions later on as well though, even as groups began pushing for cooperative efforts. The Task Force especially struggled with this, as MH points out: “The strategy we started out with was building up a lead in OP early in the game; however, as the game developed, we found that this strategy had hampered our ability to meet the needs of the districts and was contributing to the massively negative RP on the field. Moreover, this also created tension between us and other players as later in the game it was harder to convince them to cooperate with us.” NGO player KK agrees that the Task Force hamstrung itself early on: “If one group is not on the same page or not trying to achieve the same goal, the whole response effort will fail; at times we saw the Task Force not being on the same page with the rest of the group and trying to work for themselves and just gain points for themselves, which hurt every team and Carana.” After the first meeting, JW pointed out to me personally that the game portrayed a four-person Prisoner’s Dilemma. As a member of the UN, he had been sacrificing opportunities for individual OP in order to staff Emergency Relief boxes, allowing the other teams to take advantage of Coordination Clusters to distribute resources via the UN. One of the strongest points of the HCG is the inherent Prisoner’s Dilemma. The possibility of individual point-scoring added a dimension to the game often lost in general discussions of complex cooperative efforts. By allowing competition and cooperation to develop organically, rather than as the result of artificial rules or direct rewards, students learn about the rational processes of competition and cooperation. The Shadow of Crisis The students also recognized the difficult balance between immediate emergency needs and long-term development goals in a crisis situation. Logistics infrastructure particularly became the focus after the first few periods when players realized the limits on warehouse space was keeping valuable resources out of reach. By this time, however, the most affected team, the NGO, was generally unsuccessful at getting the other teams to trade supplies for what they saw as expensive infrastructure. Only later in the game did EG recognize the need to invest in infrastructure, despite the easy access to Carana’s supplies:

Another difficulty the Government of Carana faced was knowing when it was the best time to buy logistics infrastructure. Logistics infrastructure pieces could be purchased with any three of our supply chips of different colors, and their purpose was to create more room in the warehouse that other players could move their supplies in for quicker access when it was time to move them to districts. By purchasing logistics pieces, we had to give up three of our supplies, and we were the team with the fewest supplies. We rarely, if ever, made the decision to purchase logistics infrastructure during the beginning of the game, as we could see no benefit to our team directly. As the simulation progressed, we realized our sacrifice allowed other teams with more resources to move their supplies to districts whose needs we could not meet.

The class played the game the first time before the Thanksgiving break in November. I let the class play a second time after the break. Interestingly, the students agreed to put all their supplies toward infrastructure, but this prevented them from resolving any districts early on, and by Carana’s start of the second period, the RP counter dipped below the minimum threshold, immediately ending the game. With plenty of time remaining, they restarted, this time balancing the need for immediate short-term coverage of as many districts as possible with the desire to generate long-term development. This produced a fruitful discussion comparing foreign assistance to institution building in developing countries, adding another dimension to the lessons learned from the game. The Rules A general complaint from the students concerned the complexity of the game’s rules; however, this was not entirely the fault of the game’s developer. I purposefully kept students mostly in the dark right up until the first turn began to push the point that UN member MM writes, “in the very first stages of the game there was so much information that we had to remember. If there was a list of rules and regulations handed as a hard copy to all of the teams then I believe the start of the game can run more smoothly and efficiently.” But this is exactly the situation I did not want to allow. Carana Government member JR added that not fully understanding the rules at first “made it harder to develop a game plan early on.” When crises begin, there are no rules. When situations required explaining the rules or making a judgment, I made the call, but I left the progress of the game and the learning up to the students as much as possible. This also allowed for some mistakes to be made along the way, as KK points out: “The only issues, I believe, arose because we did not have a list of what the actual rules were. At times we would forget rules or just have little mistakes.” My response, when students first asked for a copy of the rules, was that in a real situation there are no rules; I would then tell them to relate the ensuing frustration to that of the responders and victims of real crises. This converted emotional responses to the complexity of the game into another learning experience. Conclusion Overall the students thoroughly enjoyed playing the game while I enjoyed watching them learn not only about crises but how crises and the responses develop. They connected abstract concepts, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and debates over the best means of generating economic and political development, to in-game outcomes and real-world situations. This game is well-suited for courses in world politics, international studies, global issues, international or comparative political economy, and international development. It was also relatively easy to play the game as groups if you have more than four players. The game will definitely be a part of many of my future classes.

Jeremy Wells Department of Political Science Texas State University—San Marcos


MORS 82nd Symposium


The Military Operations Research Society will be holding its 82nd annual symposium on 16-19 June 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia. In addition, “virtual” sessions will be held on 4-6 June.

The Virtual sessions will take place via DCO for both unclassified and classified presentations. The in-person 82nd Symposium is structured so that unclassified sessions will take place at the Hilton Mark Center and classified sessions will take place at surrounding classified facilities.

We welcome abstract submissions for both the virtual and in-person Symposium through the MORS Abstract Submission site. You will be able to designate your abstract for the virtual sessions and/or the in person sessions. Please click here to submit an abstract(s). Once in the system you will be asked to login with your MORS login (e-mail) and password or create an account if you do not have one. For questions and assistance please contact Liz Marriott 703-933-9071.

Schedule Highlights:

  • 4-6 Virtual Sessions
  • MON 16 June: CEU Courses and Tutorials
  • TUE 17 June: Plenary, Sponsors Panel, Tutorials, Special Sessions, CEU Courses Continued and Evening Social/Mixer
  • WED 18 June: Composite/Working Group Presentations, Tutorials and Demonstrations
  • THU 29 June: Composite/Working Group Presentations, Tutorials and Demonstrations

Who Can Attend: US Citizens with or without a clearance may attend the full program at the Hilton Mark Center. In addition special arrangements have been made to include cleared participants from Five Eyes (FVEY) countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) whose clearances have been passed to MORS via their Embassy. The Five Eyes (FVEY) participants will be able to attend the unclassified presentations at the Hilton and some of the classifed sessions. Those with a U.S. Secret Clearance may attend all classified sessions. More information will be posted in the near future with clearance and visit request instructions.

The slight relaxation of the usual NOFORN (US citizen only) rules for the classified sessions is certainly a plus, although much depends on what proportion of these sessions are opened to FVEY participants.

Several of the Working Groups address issues relevant to conflict simulation and serious games, most notably Working Group 30:

WG 30 – Wargaming

Chair: Scott Simpkins, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Co-chairs: Michael Ottenberg, OSD CAPE

Advisors: Kyle Kliewer, Lockheed Martin Corp.

Wargames are used as one means of supporting senior Department of Defense and national security decision makers. Wargaming is also found in training curricula in military school houses, in businesses and in university courses. Most wargames are structured to address specific issues, such as current or future National Security challenges but all wargames provide a low cost evaluation of alternatives. Their outcomes tend to be of the qualitative nature, but still of substantial interest to Defense leadership. There is an intense interest to apply quantitative tools to these games, so that analytical techniques may be applied. Wargames are attractive to decision makers because of the human interaction between those who have a vested interest in the issues at hand. The narratives derived from a game are sometimes more important than the raw data. Relating these narratives to quantitative analysis is a challenge, but may reap immense benefits to the users of wargames.

The emphasis of Working Group (WG) 30 presentations is metric determination, game design, statistical analysis, game verification practices, tools to present information to players and capture data, use of models and simulations to supplement game play, and techniques, methodologies, or processes. Special interests of the working group include considerations of interdisciplinary games, applications of game theory, complexity theory and chaotic behaviors. WG-30 encourages presentations on both completed and work in progress.

Comments from the gallery on the Syria PeaceGame

On December 9, the United States Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy magazine conducted a “PeaceGame” on the conflict in Syria. Most of the day’s discussions were livestreamed by USIP, and those not in attendance could also follow along via the #PeaceGame hashtag on Twitter.

Ellie Bartels (National Defence University) and I were among those following along from afar, and much like Statler and Waldorf of the Muppet Show, we couldn’t resist offering some comments along the way. Ellie has kindly contributed some more detailed thoughts on the methodology of the “game” for PAXsims below, and also included some recommendations for future iterations. I’ve appended some of my own thoughts at the end.

In addition to the recorded video which will be posted to the USIP website, you’ll also find a summary of the day’s events at Storify, as well as an op ed on Syria and the PeaceGame by PJ Crowley on BBC News.

Ellie Bartel

Ellie Bartels

Yesterday, USIP and Foreign Policy put together the first of what promises to be an important series of PeaceGames, which seek to “bring together the leading minds in national security policy, international affairs, academia, business, and media to “game” out how we can achieve peace in Syria.  USIP and FP intend for the game to redefine how leaders think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace.” The game produced a lively conversation, with some very interesting findings about the potential paths to peace in Syria.  However, this post is looks at the event from a slightly different angle: how the first PeaceGame worked as a game, and what may be the analytical consequences of the design choices that were made.

But first a few quick caveats: I was in no way involved with the design or execution of this exercise, and thus some of my analysis is based on assumptions about the intent of the team that put the event together.

Furthermore, I was not at USIP in person, so my observations are limited to the livestream feed of the event, as well as Twitter conversations I had with other observers and participants. Thus, my observations are based on limited data – I couldn’t see side conversations or non-verbal responses of players off screen, or eavesdrop on conversations during the break.  I tried to supplement this information by asking questions of the participants who were active on Twitter during the game.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, I am a professional gamer who is paid to run this type of event.  I have the job I do because I believe that gaming can be a rigorous, insightful tool to create shared understandings within or between communities, and that creating this type of understanding on foreign policy issues can lead to better national security policy.  Thus, this post isn’t a critique of the use of games to address “serious” problems (which some observers did raise during the event) — it is a response aimed at promoting good design and analysis in this and future public games.

Overview of the first Syrian PeaceGame

The stated objective of the game was to lay out the conditions for a “best possible peace” to end the Syrian conflict.  45 experts, ranging from retired ambassadors to academics to Arab activists, role-played 19 different actors selected for their influence on the war. These also ranged widely from nation states, to sub-national actors within Syria, to the global media.   All teams sat around a single table for discussion, which was directed by a moderator.

Because of impending weather in DC, the event was shortened from a planned four sessions of discussion, billed as “Achieving a Near-Term Political Solution,” “Establishing the Peace,” “Challenges to Peace Emerge,” and “Establishing a Sustainable Peace” to only cover the first, second, and fourth topics. Each discussion session started with several scene-setter slides on the current state on the ground in Syria, followed by anonymous voting on the importance of different issues, which was then used by the moderator as the jumping-off point for discussion.

The first session’s discussion was dominated by views on the potential of various processes for negotiating a peace.  The majority view by the end of the session was that for negotiated peace to occur, key actors (most participants identified a combination of Russia, Iran and the Alawites) would need to sign off for the deal, or an alternative process would be needed.  There was also a tension identified between outside stakeholders who were capable of reaching a negotiated deal, and internal actors who likely could not.

The second session, scheduled to be about establishing the peace, instead returned to the issue of what a peace deal might look like in Syria.  However, in contrast to the focus on negotiations in the first session, here conversation focused on what the final deal would look like, with a limited discussion of implementation.  In general, those with a strongly nation-state view tended to see a powersharing government or division along sectarian lines as the only viable options.  In contrast, participants focused on non-state actors suggested that informal governance and local dealmaking could be empowered to form a peace with characteristics of both of the state-centric models.

The third session focused on what each group would need to see for peace to work, as well as last words from the participants. Again, a strong undercurrent in the discussion was the split between participants that focused on the role of non-state actors, and those who tended to take the perspective of nation-states. Non-state actors could often offer specific things they wanted to see prior to peace; those who saw states as the dominant actors were often reduced to talking about how conditions weren’t “ripe” for peace. There was also more of a focus on this round about the needs of Syria’s neighbors to avoid conflict spillover.

Notes on Design

Based on my observations, I think there are four areas where design choices had substantial effect on what we can and cannot conclude from the first PeaceGame.  In the rest of this post, I describe the choices made about the audience, objectives, format, and moderations of the exercise, and discuss the potential impacts.  I offer recommendations both for mitigating the impact of these choices on game analysis, and suggest alternative choices that may be worth exploring in future PeaceGame exercises.

Audience. The first thing worth noting is that PeaceGame was very public event, with a very high level of quality in participants.  I (like many other analysts) was able to follow along with the event on a very well done live stream, with an active Twitter conversation running in virtual space (after the first session, the moderator mentioned that there had already been 1300 tweets using the event hashtag, which is more than many conferences ever get).  Participants were well-established experts, with deep knowledge of the subject.  That is not an easy combination to pull off, particularly when talking about a topic as politically sensitive as Syria, and I applaud the PeaceGame team for building a space safe enough for so many to participate.  However, it is also reasonable to assume that had the same conversation been held in a private space with only a few select analysts listening in, discussion may well have included facts and opinions that were not included in the public forum.

Recommendation. Public game findings can be supplemented with more private, post-game interviews to allow participants to raise important issues that may not have been discussed in the PeaceGame forum.

Objectives.  Unsurprisingly for the flagship event of a new program, PeaceGame had an ambitious set of objectives.  In addition to the frequently repeated tasking to consider what a “best possible peace” would be, the program’s website added broader ideas like “redefine how leaders think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace.”  These broad objectives translated into a very broad conversation that sometimes sacrificed discussion on specific issues like spoiler, veto points, and second-order effects in order to cover wide ground.

Recommendation. Analysts should understand that the broad and sometime shallow conversations of the Syria PeaceGame were caused by the broad objectives, and should be seen as a feature and not a bug of the exercise. However, future games might consider laying out narrower objectives in order to guide deeper discussion of some of the issues of interest identified in this game.

Format. The most consequential choice the game designers made was to have the entire game take place at a single table with all 19 teams.  While this choice is logical given the requirements of a public event, it also meant that any discussion of small negotiating teams, partnerships, and side deals could only be discussed “out in the open.”  This seemed to make discussion about process somewhat more hypothetical in tone, because there was little ability to explore through the game what the dynamics of efficacy of such a tactic might be.

Recommendations. In future PeaceGames, consider allowing opportunities for smaller breakout sessions in order to play out specific combinations of actors at negotiations. This seems particularly helpful when studying issues like back channel negotiations that are often not legible to observers, since the game will allow for clearer observation than is likely to be possible for analysis in real life.

The lack of defined operating space in the game outside the large table also made for some interesting dynamics involving the violent non-state actors, who are relatively unlikely to be included the type of formal negotiations that the game format mirrors.  Non-state actor players often asserted (either in their speaking time or on Twitter) that they were focusing on campaigns on the ground that made the negotiations irrelevant, going so far as to declare that they were “winning” the game.  However, the format of PeaceGame did not have a clear way to connect these “independent” game actions with the broader discussion in a consistent manner.

Recommendations. Future games with more emphasis on implementation may benefit from a mechanism to incorporate unilateral actions, particularly by potential spoilers and veto points.  This likely will require a more formal adjudication process than was used in the PeaceGame to reconcile different types of events into a narrative about the outcomes of player decisions.

Finally, despite the moderators’ efforts, participants often dropped out of role to speak in their professional capacity, particularly during the third session. This added good information to the discussion, but likely limited the game’s ability to reproduce emotional or psychological dimensions of peacemaking that might have been explored with stronger role playing.

Recommendations. Game analysts might consider impact of level of role play in different portions of the discussion as an important variable driving the tone and content of the discussion.

Moderation. FP Group CEO and Editor David Rothkopf had the superhuman job of corralling 45 engaged experts to keep them on topic, on time, and decorous.  Having experienced trying to get this big a group to just not talk over top of one another, I was very impressed by his ability to hold and direct the group.

However, Mr. Rothkopt’s moderation style included many injections of his own opinions, which is generally frowned upon in the gaming community.  Many gamers would argue that the best practice is for the moderator in a game to facilitate the participants, by ensuring everyone is able to move through the event in accordance with the rules.  Our concern is that if you as the moderator are seen to be driving the discussion based on your understanding of what the content should be, you exclude participants whose views might differ, stifling the discussion.

In this case, some Twitter commenters noted that Mr. Rothkopt seemed to “have his own agenda,”even noting that he seemed dismissive of some of the non-state centric solutions which participants proposed.  If participants felt the same way, this tendency may have biased which ideas were considered and even who spoke, and how much.

Recommendation. Analysis of the game may want to look at the role of the moderator and consider how the moderator’s contributions may have changed the discussion.

Ellie Bartels

Rex Brynen

Rex Brynen

I very much enjoyed listened to the USIP/FP Syria “PeaceGame.” There was a remarkable degree of talent in the room for the day, and as expected their contributions were informed and insightful. Unfortunately, because of the format and large number of participants, many in attendance only managed to speak only a very limited number of times. Although a few  offered comments via Twitter, I often found myself wishing for more of their input and analysis.

Recommendation. Find a mechanism whereby participants are able to express their views other than via the main microphone. Twitter is an imperfect mechanism for this, since it forces complex issues to be addressed in 140 characters or less. Instead, participants might be permitted to liveblog on a central website (or provide comments for support staff to post on their behalf), or given a period in which they summarize thoughts and recommendations mid-game for public distribution.

For the most part, the Peacegame wasn’t a “game” at all. Participants didn’t get a chance to “do” anything, and the role-playing (which, as Ellie notes, was only partial) was used more as a device to facilitate discussion than as part of some iterative, strategic process. Given that the purpose of the exercise was to explore aspects of the problem space in a way that caught the attention of the media, policy-makers, and the broader public, that’s fine by me.

That being said, introducing more game or “game-ish” elements could have been useful. The different phases of discussion might have been introduced with detailed, updated scenarios in the style of a classic three-move seminar game. Without these, some of the later discussion on stabilization and reconstruction foundered because it wasn’t entirely clear what would be the contextual environment for such activities. Also, introducing events as injects would have been useful, whether to provide atmosphere (and a sense of crisis), or to nudge participants to address key aspects of the problem that appear to have been overlooked or bypassed in the discussion.

Recommendation. The “PeaceGame” doesn’t need to operate like a wargame or crisis simulation. However, there are some game mechanisms that might enhance the process (many of them also identified by Ellie above).

While the “PeaceGame” angle did help generate buzz for the event, it did have one unfortunate side-effect: it was clear from the Twitter discussion that some Syrians and others felt that the participants were simply “playing” while real Syrians died. The occasional levity or gallows humour from the participants contributed to that alienation.

This is hard to address. Even when discussing deadly serious issues like the Syrian civil war (with its 125,000 dead), humour can make a conference run more smoothly and productively for those engaged in the meeting. Indeed it may be especially helpful at times when handling a topic that, after all, is rather dark and depressing. However, it can look  rather different for those not in the room, or who do not usually participate in such meetings.

Recommendation. “PeaceGame” may not be the best title for events like these (something the the “Syria PeaceSimulation” might have been less problematic). Moderators need to recognize that the external audience may need to be reassured that human tragedy is being addressed with an appropriate degree of seriousness.

Finally, allow me to nominate “Islamic Extremist” Mona Yacoubian as the role-player of the day. She was excellent at showing how her actor(s) would manipulate the political and military situation to best advantage, whether by spoiling peace initiatives or exploiting  local war economies to enhance their resources.

Recommendation. Don’t ever let Mona get real control of a jihadist group. Someone may also want to consider placing her on a No Fly List.

Rex Brynen

Wargaming articles in the Naval War College Review

W14-cover-thumbThe latest issue of the Naval War College Review (Winter 2014) has two articles on wargaming that will likely be of interest to PAXsims readers:

ht/t Stephen Downes-Martin

Simulations miscellany, 10 December 2013


Between grading exams and a forthcoming Chatham House conference, I won’t be posting much at PAXsims for the next couple of weeks. However, it does seem a good time for a round-up of recent serious games and conflict simulation-related news:

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The United States Institute of Peace has conducted the first of what will be a series of semi-annual PeaceGame, in this case devoted to the ongoing conflict in Syria. You’ll find a brief summary of the day at Foreign Policy magazine (cosponsors of the event). We’ll also feature a contribution in the coming days that looks at the methodological strengths and weaknesses of the USIP event.

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The Games+Learning+Society Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be hosting the 10th annual Games+Learning+Society (GLS) Conference on 11-13 June 2014 (with some pre-conference activities on June 10):

The GLS Conference is the premier event in the field of videogames and learning. Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, this grassroots “indie” event continues to be one of the few destinations where the people who create high-quality digital learning media can gather for serious discussion about what is happening in the field and how the field can serve the public interest. Our event is well known for its exceptionally high quality of content yet “community event” feel – one attendee called GLS “what happens if an all-inclusive Sandals Resort met a typical educational conference and landed in Wisconsin.” Each year, we foster in-depth conversation and social networking across diverse disciplines including game studies, education research, learning sciences, industry, government, educational practice, media design, and business. Our continued commitment is to reinvent learning both in and out of formal school environments through the promise of games and simulations.

Conference highlights include: keynotes by leaders in both academics and industry; interactive workshops on game research and game design; both individual and symposia presentation sessions; big debates about critical aspects of gaming and game design; hands‐on game play in the arcade; the beloved “hall of failure”; a massively multi-player evening poster session over dinner and an open bar; fireside chats that enable cozy conversations among VIP speakers and attendees; a brand new Working Examples submission system; and the third glorious year of the Educational Game Arcade, which offer a space for conference attendees to play the games created by members of our community.

We offer a variety of session formats, and encourage submissions ranging from traditional paper presentations to innovative formats focusing on game play. Submissions will be accepted starting December 1, 2013, and are due online by January 31, 2014. Complete submission guidelines and templates can be found on our website, as well as more information about the GLS Playful Learning Summit and the Doctoral Consortium.

And don’t hesitate to email with any questions –

Constance Steinkuehler
Caroline C. Williams
Games+Learning+Society Conference
University of Wisconsin – Madison
Twitter:  @GLScenter

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Hemda Ben-Yehuda, Chanan Naveh and Luba Levin-Banchik of Bar Ilan University and Sapir College are organizing an online conflict simulation before and during the 2014 International Studies Association conference.

The World Politics Simulation Project offers ISA members an innovative, informative and enjoyable way to network on Facebook with colleagues across the globe before the ISA convention and during an ISA workshop in Toronto, 2014. Stepping into the shoes of key decisionmakers in the Middle East will give participants a unique opportunity to become a part of active learning community.

The ISA 2014 Simulation Schedule

Until January 15 2014 – Registration for the Facebook Simulation and ISA workshop

FACEBOOK SIMULATION: January 31st 2014 – Scenario posted on Facebook Wall. Within team domestic politics and foreign policy formation begins. Media teams approach the political teams and interact.

February 10th – Updated scenario posted on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 12th (9.00-11.30 PM, Israel time) – World politics round, on Facebook.

February 13th – February 20th – Ongoing world politics, on Facebook.

February 25th – Feedback form deadline.

SIMULATION: March 25th 2014- ISA workshop in Toronto from 1:00 -5:00 PM, a face to face game, followed by a debriefing discussion on simulations as a teaching tool.

Join us on Facebook:

For more information:

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Interested in fictionalized settings and the scenario development process? Then check out Graham Longley-Brown’s blog.


Spooks in the guild? Intelligence collection and online gaming


The latest round of Edward Snowden leaks on the National Security Agency reveal that the NSA, together with the UK’s GCHQ, have explored the collection of data from World of Warcraft, Second Life, and other online games and virtual environments. According to an article in today’s Guardian:

The NSA document, written in 2008 and titled Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, stressed the risk of leaving games communities under-monitored, describing them as a “target-rich communications network” where intelligence targets could “hide in plain sight”.

Games, the analyst wrote, “are an opportunity!”. According to the briefing notes, so many different US intelligence agents were conducting operations inside games that a “deconfliction” group was required to ensure they weren’t spying on, or interfering with, each other.

If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence, according to the NSA document. They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people’s social networks through “buddylists and interaction”, to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications.

The story is also examined by ProPublica and the New York Times.

The Guardian article understandably combines an occasional tone of ridicule (“What it really needed was a horde of undercover Orcs.”) with some overstatement. However, the NSA documents make it clear that there is a legitimate intelligence angle to all of this:

  • Online environments could provide a potential mechanism for both communications and financial exchange among intelligence targets (although they have drawbacks too, including the likelihood that the game provider may archive all chat logs and financial transactions)
  • Information on online game playing may provide insight into a target’s social networks, for additional SIGINT or HUMINT exploitation.
  • Informants can be recruited in games, and other sorts of virtual HUMINT operations can be undertaken in virtual environments.
  • Some digital games (notably combat and flight simulations) may be used as virtual trainers by terrorist groups.
  • Digital games may be used as propaganda and recruitment tools.

We’ve previously discussed some of these issues at PAXsims here (“Gamifying online jihad”) and here (“Iran, covert information operations, and the politics of video games”).

Much of the thrust of the NSA documents concerns the need to collect metadata, so as to enable future analysis. While this makes sense from an analysis perspective (when a new target arises, you need to have preexisting data on interactions in order to quickly analyze that target’s contacts and network), it does raise issues of overreach, privacy protections (for US or UK citizens, in this case), and whether the costs of metadata collection and storage are justified given the useful intelligence it eventually produces. This is on top, of course, of the additional—and even more serious—issues raised by the collection of actual in-game communications.

The challenge in debating the public policy of all this, of course, is that necessary security classification  makes it impossible for the public and most politicians to know what kinds of benefits this kind of intelligence collection might have had. Moreover, SIGINT capacities are usually something that takes time to put in place. Their development thus reflects not only a desire to collect information now, but also to enable an agency to collect information at a future point if and when it became necessary. No agency wants to tell its policymakers or public that it is unable to collect material because it failed to plan ahead for such collection. Conversely, it can become very expensive building collection mechanisms that are then generate little useful information. Compounding all this, the “Five Eyes” (US/UK/Canada/Australia/New Zealand) SIGINT community is full of enthusiastic geeks who have never met data they didn’t enjoy trying to collect.


ProPublica has provided a link to the partially redacted documents. We won’t reproduce the classified ones here, but we will provide a link  to an unclassified (FOUO) report prepared by the defence contractor SAIC for the US government on Games: A Look at Emerging Trends, Uses, Threats and Opportunities in Influence Operations.

Connections UK 2014 dates announced


The dates for the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference have been announced: 2-4 September 2014, at King’s College London.

Details will be posted in the near future on the Connections UK website. In the meantime, you can find the PAXsims report on Connections UK 2013 here and here.

USIP Syria PeaceGame 2013


The United States Institute of Peace will be conducting a “peace game” on the civil war in Syria on 9-10 December 2013:

Governments around the world regularly devote enormous resources to conducting “war games.”  On December 9 and 10, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and The FP Group (FP) will conduct the inaugural PeaceGame, with a focus on “the best possible peace for Syria.” With one game in the U.S. and another in the Middle East, the semi-annual PeaceGames will bring together the leading minds in national security policy, international affairs, academia, business, and media to “game” out how we can achieve peace in Syria. USIP and FP intend for the game to redefine how leaders think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace.

The game will be webcast live, and can also be followed on Twitter via the hashtag #PeaceGame.

Participants in this inaugural PeaceGame will begin with a discussion of potential scenarios for peace in Syria and the steps and conditions necessary to achieve it.  Players then will assume roles representing different stakeholders in the Syrian war.  They will explore four scenarios representing different phases of a peace process: Achieving a Near-Term Political Solution, Pacification, Transformation and Institutionalization, and Stabilization.  In addition to formulating a prescriptive solution to the situation in Syria, the PeaceGame will illuminate the essentials of peace, what institutions and capabilities we need to achieve it, and how thinking seriously about peace might change how our national and international institutions approach their short and long-term missions.

PeaceGame Participants include: Peter Ackerman, Henri Barkey, Hans Binnendijk, Esther Brimmer, Daniel Brumberg, Ambassador Maura Connelly, PJ Crowley, Paula Dobriansky, Andrew Exum, Nelson Ford, Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm, Karen House, Lise Howard, Steven Heydemann, Ambassador James Jeffrey, Murhaf Jouejati, Ambassador Ted Kattouf, Mark Katz, Steven Koltai, Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, George Lopez, Kristin Lord, Colum Lynch, Firas Maksad, Robert Malley, Sharon Morris, Robert Mosbacher, Jr., Ambassador George Moose, Mouaz Moustafa, Manal Omar, Carina Perelli, Kenneth Pollack, Ambassador Mitchell Reiss, David Rothkopf, Paul Saunders, Mark Schneider, Jeremy Shapiro, Randa Slim, Julianne Smith, Andrew Tabler, Ambassador William B. Taylor, James Traub, Mona Yacoubian, Judith Yaphe, Casimir Yost.

Expeditionary Warrior 2013

EW13 Final Report_FINALIn February-March 2013 the US Marine Corps held its annual “Title 10” wargame, Expeditionary Warrior 2013. The game explored a future crisis in 2035 in the fictional country of “Karta,” at a time when geopolitical changes have limited US access to bases and China is more powerful and assertive:

EW13 utilized a fictional scenario set in 2035 Southeast Asia that presented operational challenges for a distributed joint force conducting engagement across the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) area of responsibility. The scenario revolves around the fictional U.S. ally Karta, made up of the real nations of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. When the King of Karta dies unexpectedly, a power struggle ensues between the rightful heir – the oldest prince who is a U.S. friend – and his younger brother, an anti- American traditionalist. When the younger prince takes action to stage a coup, the modern Kartan Armed Forces splinter into camps that pledge their allegiances to the rightful heir or rebel prince, or stay neutral. With a regional conflict brewing astride the strategic Strait of Malacca, a U.S.-led coalition seeks to protect the new king and coalition interests.

A world significantly different than today provides a plausible future beyond the next few budget cycles to stimulate imaginative thinking about FMO. Planners used a “Move 0,” executed in December 2012, two months prior to the Main Event, to establish the strategic assumptions and steady state force laydown within the EW13 scenario. The wargame created a different geopolitical reality that realigned U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region and created operational stressors to the coalition responding to the crisis in Karta. These changes included:

  • A newly unified Korea no longer hosting significant U.S. permanent basing on its soil, forcing changes to U.S. force posture and basing away from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia.
  • The People’s Republic of China (PRC) unifying with Taiwan after peacefully resolving decades-long tensions. At the same time, the PRC asserts itself in the region due to territorial disputes with other countries.
  • A new Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the United States prompting a reduction in the military footprint on the island nation. This also prompts U.S. forces to redefine the nature and size of its bases and enabling sites within the region.

The unclassified report on the wargame was published in June. The game was conducted in parallel with three different blue cells, led respectively by US Marine (A), US Navy (B), and Australian (C) officers. Each played the game rather differently. Cell A emphasized direct kinetic operations. Cell B stressed the importance of (shipborne) naval operations. Cell C focussed on information and cyber operations to deescalate the situation, and even when they had recourse to kinetic strikes emphasized “the need to communicate messages that articulated strength and a willingness to provide a ‘way out’ for the Kartan rebel forces.”

The report tends to highlight the findings of the wargame with regard to military capabilities, platforms, command and control, logistics and sustainment, and so forth. However, the very different approaches taken by the three cells—and the apparently greater emphasis of the Australian-led team on conflict deescalation—may be an equally interesting finding.


Review: Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Jeff Grossman and Volko Ruhnke. $69.00.


Recently there was yet another insurgency in the office, as a group of us got together to refight the Cuban revolution—but with rather less violence, and better pizza, than the real thing. Cuba Libre is another title in the GMT Games series which has also given us Andean Abyss (Colombia) and A Distant Plain (Afghanistan). All games in the series use the same basic game system, but with modifications to adapt each to the era and struggle being represented.

In the case of Cuba Libre, up to four players are involved: the Cuban government, the leftist July 26 Movement revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, the anti-communist Revolutionary Directorate, and the criminal syndicate. The map is significantly smaller than others in the COIN series. Moreover, the geography of Cuba means that essentially all strategic movement is along an east-west axis, with most provinces bordering only two others. By contrast, in  Andean Abyss or A Distant Plain, most provinces border at least four, and players usually have myriad movement options. The effect of this is to render the geography of insurgency and counterinsurgency far more important in Cuba Libre, where players may seek to develop blocking positions to slow the expansion of rivals. Somewhat against my initial expectation, I soon found that I rather enjoyed this aspect of the game.


In general, pretty much all of the positive things we’ve said about other games in this series apply to Cuba Libre. One of our playtest group (who, as the communist opposition, eventually won the game) commented:

It was interesting to watch how lower numbers of possible guerrillas and bases changed strategies and how the geography really affected game play. It was challenging but to try to work with limited reinforcements and attempt to find a feasible way to increase government opposition without additional bases (for my victory condition). Without a speedy way to move my guerillas to opposite sides of the island, I found myself trapped deep in the mountains and unable to reinforce my western front. As a result, we struggled to spread the virtues of communism in many areas. In the end, we often had to quickly give the local population a terrifying reminder of the dangers of capitalism before we were attacked. The cards were great and especially painted a vivid picture of the terrible Batista government and their inability to keep our race car drivers safe! Each time we have played the COIN series, I am struck by how well the mechanics work. Despite a misunderstanding regarding how one card worked, the faction order system, ended up preventing me from dominating the game.… In the end however, the immortal words rang true. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”


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