Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: August 2014

PAXsims reaches a quarter-million page views


Today PAXsims reached a total of 250,000 page views since it was first established in January 2009. During that time we’ve featured some 791 articles and postings by some forty contributors.

Where do our visitors come from? WordPress doesn’t provide tracking data that stretches back to the beginning, but a review of visitors over the past year reveals the following distribution:

Country Views
United States 45.1%
Canada 11.0%
UK 7.9%
Germany 2.9%
Australia 2.5%
France 2.4%
Nertherlands 2.2%
Spain 2.0%
Italy 1.7%
India 1.4%
Sweden 1.2%
Brazil 1.0%
Phillipines 0.9%
Belgium 0.9%
Poland 0.9%
Japan 0.9%
Turkey 0.7%
Russia 0.7%
Czech Republic 0.6%
others 13.4%

Thus, around two-thirds of our readers are coming from the US, Canada, and the UK. The remaining one-third, however, have come from 182 countries and territories around the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia. Other than Cape Verde, Chad, the Central African Republic, Congo, Papua New-Guinea, Turkmenistan, and a few small island republics in the Pacific, that’s pretty much everywhere.

paxsims map

Currently, we’re receiving about 5,000 page views per month. We’ve had 831 comments posted by readers, with our most prolific commentator being Brian Train (aka “The Great Designer“).

Our most popular posts have asked whether video games “precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars”, announced the then-forthcoming (and now much-lauded) COIN game A Distant Plain, and reviewed the videogame Rulers of Nations. More recently, almost two thousand people have read our overview of gaming the crisis in the Ukraine. We’ve published 49 book and game reviews to date, and generally the number of PAXsims visitors spikes a little when we publish game and book reviews. However, we have trouble keeping up with the number of new titles being published. If you are well-qualified in peace and conflict simulation and might be interested in reviewing relevant material, let us know. We’re also interested in other possible contributions.

We look forward to the next quarter million visitors with an interest in conflict simulation and serious games. And if you know anyone in Cape Verde, send them a link!

Ideas wanted



Devin Ellis (ICONS Project, University of Maryland) is looking for some game ideas from PAXsims readers:

I am currently wrestling with the mechanics of a planning game I am working on. In terms of scope, it’s strategic and theatre-wide. I am looking for good suggestions from the simulation and gaming community of models I could look at for ideas – with particular respect to keeping the level of detail of player inputs realistic but not utterly overwhelming. Rounds will coordinate roughly to 5 year USG planning cycles, and the background environment is extremely rich in detail and interactive moving parts, some of which the participants can impact, and others which are out of their control. I welcome any and all suggestions for un-classified resources. Thanks in advance!

If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments section or email him directly.

World of PeaceCraft

John Oliver (Last Week Tonight, 10 August) pretty much nails it in his take on the realities of international negotiation.

..and yes, they actually do make games like this:


Simulations miscellany, 17 August 2014


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

* * *

Games for Change has a brief listing of games (in production or development) that examine war away from the battlefield:

Countless games have thrown players into heated warzones, whether as a soldier holding a gun ready to fire or an almighty commander who oversees the entire battlefield, moving units around.

What’s less examined in games is what’s happening off the battlefield and the consequences of violence. Recently, however, we see more developers who are examining war’s impact on civilians. We’ve made a list of games that we’re looking forward to and a list of thought-provoking titles to play right now.

Some of those mentioned in the short piece have been discussed before at PAXsims, including PeaceMaker and This War of Mine.

* * *

The current conflict in Gaza spurred  the development of several games on the theme. According to Time:

In Bomb Gaza, a game about doing precisely what its peremptory title commands, you play as the Israeli Air Force, tapping a touchscreen to pour red-nosed bombs into a 2D multi-level landscape filled with cartoonish people wearing white robes and clutching children — meant to signify civilians — as well as others draped in black, clutching rifles, touting greenish headbands and grinning maniacally. The goal is to hit those black-garbed militants — presumably members of Palestinian militant group Hamas — while avoiding the white-clad civilians.

At some point in the past 24 hours, Google removed Bomb Gaza from its Android Play store (the game was released on July 29). It’s not clear why. Google’s only officially saying what companies like it so often say when handed political hot potatoes: that it doesn’t comment on specific apps, but that it removes ones from its store that violate its policies….

It’s unclear which of Google’s policies Bomb Gaza might have infringed, but in Google’s Developer Program Policies document, it notes under a subsection titled Violence and Bullying that “Depictions of gratuitous violence are not allowed,” and that “Apps should not contain materials that threaten, harass or bully other users.” Under another titled Hate Speech, Google writes “We don’t allow content advocating against groups of people based on their race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, or sexual orientation/gender identity.”

Bomb Gaza isn’t the only Gaza-centric game Google’s removed: another, dubbed Gaza Assault: Code Red is about dropping bombs on Palestinians using Israeli drones. Its designers describe the game as “[bringing] you to the forefront of the middle-east conflict, in correlation to ongoing real world events.” It was also just yanked, as was another titled Whack the Hamas, in which players have to target Hamas members as they pop out of tunnels.

Politically-themed games about touchy current issues have been around for years, from depictions of deadly international situations like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to others modeled on flashpoints like school shootings. In late 2008, a game called Raid Gaza!appeared around the time Israel was carrying out “Operation Cast Lead,” a conflict that left 13 Israelis and some 1,400 Palestinians dead. In that title, you’re tasked with killing as many Palestinians as you can in three minutes, and actually afforded bonuses for hitting civilian targets, all while listening to a version of the Carpenter’s saccharine “Close to You.”

In the past, quick browser or app games have developed for the purpose of sitar or political commentary—as is immediately evident if you play Raid Gaza!. In this case, however, it seems to have simply been a case of game developers cashing in on the widespread destruction in Gaza to create a quick “how many Hamas militants can you kill” game.

There was also at least one Arabic game that put the player in the role of Hamas. According to the BBC:

The US-based firm has now removed Rocket Pride by Best Arabic Games, in which players attempt to outmaneuver Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, from its Google Play app store.

It also deleted Iron Dome by Gamytech, which challenged players to “intercept the rockets launched by Hamas”.

Other titles that do not name the “enemy” remain online.

You’ll find further discussion of this phenomenon at Slate, The Guardian, and Haaretz.

* * *

The Connections Australia website has been updated with a general conference program and registration information. The conference will be held on 8-9 December 2014 oat the University of Melbourne.

* * *

cropped-hsi-logo-red-jpegAdditional details have been announced for the 2014-15 Disaster and Humanitarian Response Program at McGill University (October 2014-April 2015). The program includes a field exercise to be held in May 2015.

2014-2015 Disaster and Humanitarian Response Program

Beginning in October 2014, the Humanitarian Studies Initiative of McGill University will be once more offering its innovative and multi-disciplinary humanitarian training program that advances and improves the quality of humanitarian work and practice to improve the lives of people most affected by war and disaster around the world.

The 2014-2015 Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program offers an evidence-based approach on the globally-recognized core humanitarian competencies that are essential for anyone involved in disaster response and/or humanitarian assistance. This course is specifically designed for people with little or no prior experience in emergency settings who wish to undertake a career in the humanitarian sector. Participants will learn about the background and context of humanitarian emergencies, international humanitarian law, doctrines, and operating procedures of in many technical areas.  Instructed by a community of humanitarians and Faculty from around the globe, the program also offers participants an occasion to join an exciting network of humanitarians.

In-Classroom training is on a weekly basis from October 2014 till April 2015.

The 3-day field-based disaster simulation exercise will be held in May 2015.

The course will take place in Montreal at the Department of Family Medicine

Interested applicants can apply directly on our webpage  or send their enquiries to the Program Manager: Melanie Coutu.




Graduate student reflections on Connections 2014

Graduate student (and periodic PAXsims contributor) June McCabe attended her first Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference this year, and has sent on her impressions to share. June is an experienced gamer, although a  neophyte wargamer. You’ll find my own reports here, here, and here.

* * *

I first heard about Connections in 2013 after my supervisor Rex Brynen returned from the first annual Connections UK in fall of last year. At that time, we were working on updating various parts of the Brynania conflict termination simulation, which students at the graduate and undergraduate level participate in as part the Peacebuilding curriculum at McGill. We spoke often about the utility of simulation in the classroom and this provoked a greater interest in wargames writ large for educational and analytical purposes. I am now writing my Master’s thesis on Title X wargames. This year, as part of my project I attended Connections 2014. The conference served as an initial point of contact for me to meet members of the wargame community and discuss the history, methods and philosophies of wargaming. I also, of course, took the opportunity to play-test some games.

Wargaming is a vast genre that is often misunderstood to mean simply “playing at war.” This depiction is far from accurate, as wargames serve a wide range of purposes and vary in complexity, depth of scenario, and realism. Some wargames are played for fun while others are designed specifically to educate and prepare players for conflict situations. Connections certainly reflected the field with participants coming from backgrounds in government and military, commercial game design, and academia among others. Moreover, most wargamers are members of multiple cohorts. Many having grown up playing hobby games to later incorporate their interest in strategy and tactics into their work.

The primary theme of the conference this year was “international wargaming cultures.” Presenters spoke about the differences between professional wargaming across states from the United States to Sweden to China. It was interesting to see how cultural contexts effect the execution of wargaming. However, it was also noted that in many ways the similarities across cultures are are often much greater than the differences.

During the game demos portion of the conference, a wide variety of games were available to play-test. The Humanitarian Crisis Game, originally designed during the Connections 2012 game lab and then developed at McGill by Professor Brynen since, was played again with great success. Other games like Barwick Green explored uncertainty and mistrust when a unit of Bangladeshi peacekeepers was deployed to an otherwise quiet (at least at first glance) village in the English countryside.

Later, I participated in my first matrix game, ISIS Crisis which focused on the conflict in northern Iraq. Matrix games are very simply constructed scenarios that require the players to provide reasons for the actions they take during his or her turn. The adjudicator grants bonuses to dice rolls depending on the strength of the player’s argument. Other players provide counterarguments to lower dice rolls, which pushes players to draw on their experiences not only with tactics but also their knowledge of geopolitics, history, and regional dynamics. I found the matrix game one of the most challenging I’ve ever played but found it to be a fantastic learning experience and an excellent method for brainstorming.

Players battle for control of Iraq in the "ISIS Crisis" matrix game.

Battling for control of Iraq in the “ISIS Crisis” matrix game.

Connections is an important venue for introducing and exploring new ideas and sharing insights between members of the wargaming community. The only drawback to this type of event is that it is challenging to find a way to include everyone from disparate professions. For example, organizers struggle to find a middle ground between encouraging military participation as well as reaching out to commercial developers. Creating resources that are useful for newcomers but also demonstrate the variety and complexity of the genre is another challenge.

The Connections group is taking steps to address these obstacles and despite the fact that I am new to the field and approaching it from an academic perspective, I was welcomed by participants from all backgrounds. This went a long way towards helping me to feel comfortable enough to participate in the demos and workshops and I find that I am already looking forward to the next Connections in 2015.

June McCabe 


Teaching about peace operations

Brazilian members of the United Nation's MINUSTAH mission patrol in Haiti.

Brazilian members of the United Nation’s MINUSTAH mission patrol in Haiti.

A forthcoming issue of International Peacekeeping (2014) features a number of articles on future directions for peacekeeping research, edited by Paul Diehl. My own contribution focusses on teaching about peace operations:
The complex, multidimensional nature of contemporary peacekeeping operations presents particular challenges for teaching about them in the classroom. Teaching should bridge the academic/policy divide, and impart a real sense of the political complications and operational challenges of peacekeeping. Fortunately, teachers can call upon new resources to help address these challenges. These include, in addition to the growing body of scholarly research, practice-oriented materials produced by operational agencies. It is increasingly easy to bring field perspectives into the classroom via the internet. Finally, classroom simulations can be particularly useful in exploring the ‘problem space’ of contemporary peace operations.
As you might expect, I address the potential use of simulations and serious games in the article. You can find the full article here (paywalled), or possibly here (limited free access), but I’ve reproduced the relevant section below:

Games and Simulations

One potentially very effective method for exposing students to the interaction of theory and practice in peace operations is the use of classroom simulations and exercises. In recent years, there has been growing attention to the potential contribution of such teaching tools in the political science classroom.13 The academic journal Simulation & Gaming recently devoted an entire special issue to peacebuilding simulations, suggesting that such techniques could offer particular insight into the ways in which peace might be achieved and sustained:

Through serious games, participants can gain a better sense of the dynamic relationships at work in complex environments, explore good fits and practical solutions, and understand how mistakes occur (often, by making them themselves). These are real skills needed in the real world: In recent decades, policy makers working on peacekeeping and peacebuilding have certainly been faced with the prospects of failure and have been forced to choose between ‘reinforcing success and salvaging failure.’ When games engage multiple participants, the games reproduce some of the political, coordination, communication, and coalition- building challenges that often accompany peace and stabilization operations, especially if a simulation is designed to reproduce some of the organizational silos and bureaucratic politics that exist in the real world.14

Similarly, the Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) project, comprised of several of the world’s largest humanitarian and development NGOs, has emphasized the extent to which humanitarian sector is placing ‘increasing value on simulations as valuable staff capacity, preparedness and relationship building exercises’.15 Professionals who have traditionally designed war games for militaries and governments have also devoted increasing attention to simulating peace and stabilization operations and humanitarian assistance.16

Certainly, simulations (usually in the form of command-post exercises) have long been used by militaries to help train personnel for peace operations. They have also increasingly been used within the UN system over the past decade to teach staff and planning skills, as well as to provide training in other key areas.17 Many of these are set in the fictional country of ‘Carana’, which is also used in modified form for training of members of the African Union’s Standby Force for peacekeeping, stabilization and humanitarian operations.18

While such exercises are rarely appropriate for classroom use as designed, the scenarios and background materials can be adapted for use in other contexts – thus saving a course instructor the work of having to invent a fictional setting from scratch. This, for example, is what the World Bank did in modifying Carana so that it could serve as the setting for a very different course simulation addressing economic planning in fragile and conflict-affected countries.19

Other resources are also available to support role-play and seminar type simulations on issues of conflict resolution.20 Most of these focus on peace negotiations rather than peacekeeping operations, however.

Simulations can either be run face-to-face during class time, or outside of the classroom between classes. The ubiquity of email and Skype, and the relative ease of setting up websites and blogs, means that most university instructors already have available to them all of the (free) communications infrastructure necessary to sustain an out-of-class simulation.21 This can also be used to enable simulations involving students in different locations, or even at different institutions.22 In addition, there are some companies and projects that provide simulation support services, whereby scenario materials and communications are provided within a dedicated (usually web-based) software platform. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the ICONS project, based at the University of Maryland. ICONS offers both pre-packaged simulations (some of which address conflict issues, although not peace operations), and can develop customized scenarios upon request.23

These sorts of simulation approaches are best seen as a sort of ‘technology-enhanced role-play’ in which the traditional seminar-style game is expanded and enriched by online communications and information resources. What about true digital games, however, where the computer itself models and moderates outcomes, or even acts as an artificial intelligence responding to player decisions?

Certainly there has been significant development of such resources within Western militaries, a consequence of both post-Cold War peacekeeping operations and US-led interventions and stabilization missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Peace Support Operations Model (a ‘faction-to-faction, turn-stepped, cellular geography, semi-agent-based model that was designed initially to represent a range of civil and military aspects of Peace Support Operations’), for example, has been developed over the past decade for the UK Ministry of Defence as an analytical and decision-support tool, and has been evaluated and used by other Western militaries as well.24 In the US Department of Defense, considerable attention has been devoted to modelling stabilization operations and irregular warfare. The post-9/11 period has similarly seen the development of serious digital games for the military that seek to train personnel in everything from language skills and negotiation to urban stabilization operations.25

Few of these, however, are available for use outside government. There are some digital games that seek to raise awareness of issues related to conflict (and hence peace operations), but these are generally very limited in scope and intended more as advocacy tools than educational ones useable at the university level. One exception is Country X, a purpose-designed classroom simulation of mass atrocity prevention, used both at Columbia University and to train practitioners in the field.26 In this, participants assume the role of the president of fictional country X, an opposition leader, a Western diplomat, or a subregional representative tasked with conflict early warning. During the game they make a series of policy choices, which may take the country away from – or towards – widespread violence. Another excellent web-based game is Inside the Haiti Earthquake, which provides thoughtful perspectives on the challenges of humanitarian assistance.27

Both Country X and, even more so, Inside the Haiti Earthquake are not sophisticated, AI-based games. Instead, they are more like interactive stories in which actions at one point open up, or foreclose, a range of possible choices later in the game – in many ways, the electronic equivalent of the ‘choose your own adventure’ books that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Several online applications now make it relatively easy to produce interactive e-learning exercises of this sort, whether text-based or including video.28 An instructor could, for example, create a peacekeeping-focused game in which students face the sorts of choices and operational dilemmas encounter by actual peacekeepers, and experience similar sorts of outcomes. Placed in the position of the UN headquarters, for example, how would students react to limited information from a peacekeeping commander suggesting the existence of arms caches and a risk of violence – especially if the scenario were disguised so that it was not initially recognizable as Rwanda in January 1994?29

Alternatively, students can be given the assignment of developing their own interactive stories, exploring the challenges of peace operations and other issues related to civil conflict. Some research evidence suggests that students may learn more from authoring simulations than simply from participating in them.30 In my own classes, students have authored simulations that address such issues as humanitarian negotiations with armed groups; demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of combatants; and survival as a refugee in the Syrian civil war.31

Finally, there are some low-tech alternatives to this, in the form of manual board games that address issues related to peace operations. Peacekeeping is a quick and simple game that challenges several players to each stabilize their country by allocating resources to peacekeeping, security sector reform, social welfare and development of a market economy, while facing the problem of spoilers and violence.32 Players may subvert or aid each other. The Humanitarian Crisis Game places players in the role of the local government, the UN, NGOs or foreign militaries attempting to deal with the aftermath of a major earthquake. Here, the focus is on coordination, logistics and political challenges, while event cards generate realistic operational challenges and opportunities each turn.33 While such games tend to be somewhat abstract, they can be useful for illustrating key concepts and engaging students in a different (and potentially more enjoyable) way than conventional lectures.34 With a little effort, purpose-designed games like this can be designed for particular classroom needs.

Despite the considerable attention devoted above to the value of simulations in teaching on peace operations, several important caveats are in order. It is important to recognize that simulations and serious games rarely teach themselves, nor are they necessarily more effective than traditional teaching methods. Much depends on how they are integrated into broader course content, and the purposes that they serve within a broader pedagogical strategy. Second, and closely related to this, is the importance of simulation and scenario design,35 as well as the actual conduct of the game or simulation. It is important to recognize that all games involve embedded assumptions and models of peace and conflict, which participants should be encouraged to approach from a critical perspective.36 Finally, it should be stressed that debriefing is an absolutely essential part of the simulation process. Indeed, considerable evidence suggests that it is during debrief that much of the actual learning takes place.37

CFP: ISCRAM 2015 – serious gaming track


The 12th International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM 2015) will be held on 24-27 May 2015 in Kristiansand, Norway. The conference will include a track on serious games:

Experiencing the unexpected is crucial to understanding and being able to handle crisis. Serious Gaming is rapidly gaining credibility in providing professionals with rich and varied experiences that present the reality of crisis management, but in a safe environment that allows them to reflect and gradually improve. Serious games can range from single player, standalone computer games aimed at informing or educating citizens to extensive, multiplayer virtual exercises for the training of professionals.

The aims of this track are to explore how serious games contribute to crisis management and to offer a platform for researchers and practitioners to exchange state of-the art knowledge on serious games for crisis management as well as discuss future challenges and opportunities. The type of submissions that we are looking for can serve any of these purposes including the use of serious games for training, for creating awareness and for research. The track also aims to explore possibilities of the upcoming notion of gamification in crisis management, i.e. applying game mechanics to non-game applications. Such game elements provide alternative ways to guide, motivate, and engage people – citizens and professionals – in tasks, and therefore have the potential to increase the effectiveness of crisis management.

Track topics

The theme for this track is “experiencing the unexpected”, because of the power of serious games to induce practical learning in a safe but realistic environment.

  • Serious Gaming (SG) for crisis preparation – including community awareness
  • Virtual environments for crisis and emergency response training
  • Strategy gaming for complex decision making during crisis
  • Serious gaming for inter-organizational coordination during crisis
  • Crisis communication: Serious gaming that trains users to transfer information and instructions (earthquake or flood risks) to different audiences
  • Crowd sourcing games, which involve the larger public in data analysis and solution generation during crisis
  • Gaming Analysis for measuring disaster response aspects
  • Serious games to develop and evaluate disaster recovery plans

You will find further information and contact details in the full call for papers.

h/t Anja van der Hulst 

Connections 2014 — final round-up


The final half day of the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference was devoted today to out-briefs from the various working groups meetings that had been held the day before, as well as a more general “hot wash” of the conference. You’ll find discussion of previous days of the conference here and here.

Working Group 1 on an inventory of wargame cultures suggested that it would be useful to have an online index of professional wargamers, which listed experts and expertise. This information would then be available online to those who needed advise and assistance. The challenge, I think, is finding the volunteer time to make it possible, keeping it up-to-date, and making sure it is known and used.

Working Group 2 had looked at promoting international cooperation through wargaming. It examined the use of games to preserve peace, foster interoperabilities, problem-solving and analysis, networking and communication, and cultural education. A number of issues were also identified too.

  • Do you want allies to observe shortcomings?
  • Smaller countries may learn a lot, but may also feel marginal.
  • Games may be generated to suit US/sponsor policy objectives.
  • Many relevant international actors and organizations may not be aware of the potential value of gaming.

To address the latter, the working group highlighted the importance of outreach strategies, the value of hands-on processes (through playing and collaborative game design) to foster both skills and networks, and extending the remote participation element of Connections.

Working Group 3 had explored achieving advances through transfers between wargaming cultures. Part of the discussion focused on digital outreach, via an improved website and possibly social media.

This has been a longstanding discussion at Connections, and progress has been slow. I think we’ve managed to make this more complicated than it actually is. The website should be shifted to WordPress, which is robust, easy to use, and has all the content hosting capability that Connections needs. Social media (Facebook, Linkedin) should be used to enable networking and informal discussion. Content generation will be key to sustaining online engagement.

Participants in the group thought it might be useful to resurrect the kind of “Game Lab” activity that was featured at Connections 2012. The conference might also be themed around specific wargaming techniques and methodologies. More small group hands-on sessions might be useful. There was also extensive discussion of mentoring and apprenticeship (but no clear conclusions).

The working group reports transitioned everyone to a broader discussion of what had worked well at the conference, and what they wanted to see at Connections 2013 (possibly to be held at National Defense University in Washington DC). There was discussion about possible scheduling synergies and conflicts, as well as how more game publishers might be encouraged to attend.

One suggestion was to issue a game design challenge well in advance of the conference, and then have designers or teams present their games or ideas at the conference itself. Certainly I would have no difficulty finding a group of McGill University students willing to take up the challenge.

It was also suggested that any future Game Lab-type activities be designed in a way that discussions weren’t dominated by experienced game designers.

There was some criticism of the social element of this year’s conference. Largely this was a function of the venue: Quantico town has only very limited services, the hotel was not within walking distance of restaurants, and the location for the evening wargame had to close at 9pm. There were also apparently some technical problems this year that limited the ability of those connecting remotely to hear some of the sessions.

coffeeOverall, I thought it was an excellent conference this year. The immediate conference site (conference room, break-out rooms) was very good, and the organizers managed to do it all on the cheap (no conference registration fees, brown bag lunches available by morning preorder for $10).

I missed having coffee, though!

I have asked June McCabe—a sometimes PAXsims contributor and one of my graduate students, who also attended the conference—to write up a few thoughts on the conference, which we’ll post soon.

All of this sets the stage for the Connections UK conference at Kings College London on September 2-4. I hope to you there!


Connections 2014 — update


Wednesday’s presentations at the Connections 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference started off with a keynote address by author and game designer Larry Bond. He recounted an anecdote about playing Persian Incursion with a group of Marine Corps intelligence students. At first the participants had difficulty understanding fairly typical wargame rules and combat results tables—although they soon caught on. The episode highlighted that waging a war is not the same as wargaming. Indeed, many war-fighters have little or no interest in wargaming.

Larry argued that wargames are very useful for training, and while they can’t validate or prove anything, it can be used to identify major themes and issues. The learning curve may be steep for non-gamers. However relatively simple and focused games can be very useful. Role-playing games are quite extensively used, and can immerse players in context. Miniature games have fallen almost completely out of favour in the military, although they do have utility in providing a visual, spatial representation. Card games are not used either, although do have considerable potential. Digital games are favoured in the military because they are usually are easier to use. However they are expensive to develop and require extensive support.

Games need to be made accessible with a relatively simple learning curve. Appropriate time needs to be devoted to introducing as well as playing the game.

This was followed by a panel discussion on cultures within wargaming. Specifically it examined use of wargames as military decision support in the US Marine Corps (Bill Simpson), the experience of the US Naval War College with wargaming and reflective practice (Shawn Burns), observations on gaming cultures from peacebuilding games (myself and Gary Milante) and the moot court process in legal training and trial preparation (Jeff Robins).


The argument we made in our own paper was that while cultures tend to have somewhat different attitudes to interaction, power, cooperation, and other aspects of individual and collective behaviour. However cultures should not be thought of in solely national/ethnic/religious terms. Subcultures also vary by profession/occupation, generation, even gender—as demonstrated by research in experimental economics and psychology.


Peacebuilding processes are inherently “multicultural” along all of these dimensions. These differences can be both negative (in terms of differing perspectives and agendas, and attendant problems of coordination) and positive (in terms of differing skills, synergies, and the potential “wisdom of crowds”). Game designs need to explore and address these issues.


The lunchtime talk was by Adam Frost of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (J8), discussing the work they did on gaming broad, strategic political-military issues.

The next major panel was on how social science can increase the value of wargaming, Anja van Hurst (TNO) discussed games used in the Netherlands examined the challenges of complex decision-making in tactical situations, disaster management, and stabilization missions. She highlighted their conclusions that is was sometimes necessary to “train less” (by deleting details, such as maps, that might distract participants for the core issues), “train more” (through low-cost fidelity that enables more frequent play), and “train different” (through an emphasis on discovery learning and reflection rather than teach/try/critique).

Yuna Wong (Operation Analysis Division, US Marine Corps) and Sara Cobb (GMU) examined narrative analysis in wargaming. Yuna started off by noting there were three ways to establish your credibility in wargaming presentations—to quote Peter Perla, to show a picture of 19th centurury Prussian kriegsspiel, or to mention your favourite wargames played in youth. She and Sara opted for a Perla quote, as at least half of the other participants had done in their own presentations.


Sara then discussed how and why narratives are important in conflict. A narrative analysis technique, specifically actant analysis, was applied to a game that looked at potential conflict in an unstable Arab Spring-like situation. This highlighted to which actors’ internal narratives and self-understanding could be quite different from the narratives other parties developed about the same situation.

Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives) talked about designing games that are intended to promote (cross-)cultural understanding. A game can help to expose the spoken, implicit, unspoken, and hidden assumptions of groups. His cultural wargames tend to be non-kinetic, mixed cooperative/competitive, involve distinct roles and perspectives. He described his Barwick Green game, in which outside Bangladeshi peacekeepers are deployed in a small village in the context of an unstable Britain. Tim Moench (US Air Force Global Strike Command) discussed “Schelling Revisited.” There was a great deal of substance in his presentation (and in Schelling’s views upon which it built), making it difficult to summarize.

After a break, we were all given an opportunity to participate in a hands-on workshop, either on narrative analysis (with Sara and Yuna) or to play Barwick Green with Jim. Having grown up in a small British country village, I naturally gravitated to the latter. I loved the way in which the game captured the difficulty of peacekeepers coming into an alien, complex, closely-knit local society and trying to get a handle on what is going on. Jim has let me have a copy, and I’ll definitely be giving it a try in POLI 450 next year.

Jim Wallman leaps back in blurry surprise as insurgent weapons are smuggled under the very noses of UN peacekeepers in the small rural village of Barwick Green.

The final session of the day split participants among one of three working groups: the first on developing an inventory of wargame cultures, the second on using wargames to promote international cooperation, and the third promoting advancement by interchange between wargaming cultures. The reports of these groups will be presented tomorrow.

Finally, as a special treat, Tom Mouat demonstrated how relying on the sat nav in your rented car while en route to a nearby restaurant will take you through restricted areas, unpaved backwoods roads, and finally a locked barbed wire security gate.



Connections 2014 – a first report

Gray Research Center, Quantico Marine Corps Base.

Gray Research Center, Marine Corps Base Quantico.

The Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference began yesterday, with a number of introductory educational sessions on wargame history and techniques. Today the main event started—and with a fascinating keynotes address by Thomas Schelling, no less. Quite apart from his work on deterrence, game theory, and strategic behaviour Schelling was also a pioneer of political-military wargaming at RAND.


Thomas Schelling delivering the opening keynote address at Connections 2014.

Schelling’s talk started with a discussion of what he didn’t like about the wargaming he first found at RAND in the late 1950s and 1960s. Specifically, games often had imposed, a priori limits on escalation (notably with regard to nuclear use) which hampered their ability to explore nuclear signaling and escalation. He was also dissatisfied with role-playing in political games, which he felt was too theatrical, with participants playing expectations of a role, rather than fully engaged in policy-making. He discussed a seminar games he conducted during the Cold War on topics ranging from the Berlin Crisis to Iran to Cuba, and the extent to which they revealed the difficulty of signaling and understanding an opponent’s behaviour during a crisis. This was true despite the fact that both teams were being played by Americans with similar backgrounds, thereby largely negating any additional problems that might otherwise arise from cross-cultural communication.

Part of the reason for this difficult, he suggested, was that the signals sent by teams were actually compromises within teams since participants often had very different views on optimal responses. This consensus tended to less threatening, less conditional actions, with firmer actions delayed—which had the effect of poorly signaling resolve. There was much less attention to nuclear force posture in games than he would have expected. Parties also directly communicated less than they might have, relying instead on signaling through actions. In these games, he noted, the Control team often needed to inject events in order to keep the level of antagonism high.

The lessons learned about the difficulty involved in signalling was one of the reasons for establishing a hotline between Washington and Moscow for crisis management. (Interestingly, he argued that this worked best as a teletype that enabled each side to thoughtfully respond to a written communication from the other, rather than a telephone that would require an immediate response.)

He suggested that the games and the actual Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated how important it is how you compose a crisis team.

He also noted that participants found the games useful as an experiential form of education, not as a method of prediction. Some alsos saw value in their broader applicability. In particular, Robert Kennedy remarked that the technique would be useful for exploring how to pursue the desegregation of schools in the southern US.

Finally, he brought the whole keynote together by suggesting that the principal oversight regarding Pearl Harbor was the lack of inductive reasoning, working backwards from the military aspirations of the Japanese in the Pacific, the US knew that Japan could never fulfill those aspirations, so long as the US had the battle fleet in Pearl Harbor, so should have worked backwards from what would be necessary to eliminate that fleet.


German kriegsspiel.

The second keynote talk of the day was a presentation by Milan Vego (Naval War College) on the impact of German wargaming on other countries’ militaries. As is well known, the wargames of first Georg Leopold von Reiswitz (1812) and then even more importantly his son Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reiswitz, (1824) introduced such elements as accurate depiction of spatial and terrain elements (first using a sandtable, then using a map), double-blind/hidden movement, and umpire adjudication. Versions of kriegsspiel were adopted within the Prussian military, which increasingly emphasized education and training.

Debate emerged over whether games should be government by complex rules that reflected doctrinal and research (rigid kriegsspiel) or whether experienced umpires should be given more scope to determine effects and results (free kriegsspiel).

The presentation went on to discuss the adoption of wargaming by Austria-Hungary, the UK, France, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Japan, and the United States, notably in the period between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI.

German wargaming underwent further development between WWI and WWII. It was often linked to the development and refinement of operational plans. German games had a very high ratio of planning, study and discussion to actual moves undertaken, and post-game critiques were detailed and extensive. Promising young officers (many of whom went on to hold senior positions) were often assigned to games.

After this a lunch break followed, during which a number of game demonstrations were on display. These included PAXsims’ own Humanitarian Crisis Game.

In the afternoon the first panel on international wargaming cultures featured presentations by Tom Mouat (UK), Devin Ellis (UMD, on wargaming in China), Anders Frank (Sweden) and Paul Massel (Defence Research and Development Canada). Tom discussed the use of wargaming—and its limits—in the Ministry of Defence, services, and military colleges. He identified a problem of limited in-house expertise. However, he also identified areas of hope, including a post-Afghanistan recognition that not all preparation went well.

Devin made a fascinating presentation on wargaming in China, highlighting the lack of complex political-military wargaming, the extent to which Chinese participants treat their perceptions of a situation as a fundamental reality, and their lack of understanding of the dynamics of US alliance relationships. There is a high degree of silo-ing, resulting in low levels of inter-service and broader knowledge. A much greater degree of emphasis is placed on the debating philosophical and legal foundations of policy. He also noted some change over time, for example less criticism of scenarios that don’t fully accord with Chinese views, and more willingness to have their actions adjudicated in joint crisis games. There is also less reference to maxims, and increasing frankness in discussing concerns over US policy. Generally, he suggested, the PRC national security establishment does generally not do high-quality wargaming. However some institutions are interested in improving.

Anders examined Swedish wargaming culture. Sweden was an early adopter of wargaming, largely due to strong linkages to the Prussian officer corps. WWII then the Cold war later shaped the development of Swedish defence doctrine. Wargames are used extensively in officer training and elsewhere., with officers playing up to forty games a year. The end of the Cold War brought a major reorientation. Eventually a greater focus on international missions emerged. The deployment to Afghanistan created new pressures to develop appropriate training and capabilities. Much tactical and strategic wargaming was eclipsed by cultural training—until the Afghan mission wound down and Russia reemerged as a major regional threat. The pendulum is swinging back to kinetic wargaming against major external military threats.

Paul addressed the culture of wargaming in Canada. In Canada, he argued, “wargaming has a pulse” but isn’t exactly “alive and kicking.” It is used for concept development, defence analysis, procurement, and for training—but Canada does very little campaign planning wargaming. More generally, the country is not consumed by its (military) history. General (video) gaming is popular, although recreational wargaming is a small and niche activity. Perhaps only 5% of the operational research community in Canada are recreational wargamers.

The next panel addressed the same broad themes in the context of German and NATO wargaming, presented by Uwe Heilmann (German Air Force) and two NATO colleagues. They discussed the many different definitions of wargaming within NATO and more broadly. In West Germany, they suggested, wargaming atrophied to some degree during the Cold War period, certainly compared with the pre-WW II experience. Computer-assisted exercise and virtual/synthetic simulation have grown. However field exercises are more constrained due to a lack of geographic space, although a new training facility has been established.

The presentation also looked at wargaming in East Germany during the Cold War. In order to make a scenario plausible whereby NATO attacked the Warsaw Pact first, one wargame simply invented two West Germany army corps. Operational analysis was based heavily on Russian operations during WWII, and was highly optimistic about the rate of progress Warsaw Pact forces would make. Analysis was heavily formulaic too.

There was also an overview of NATO wargaming and exercises. It noted that in exercises in games, NATO always wins. If Red gets too successful or innovative, the exercise is sometimes reset.

The final presentations of the day featured Brian Train on the GlobalECCO Project, and Anders Frank on Swedish cooperation within the Partnership for Peace.

GlobalECCOThe Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program brings foreign officials and officers to the US to study counterterrorism. GlobalECCO is an online platform intended to encourage networking and continued contact among CTFP fellows. Part of this includes an online game section, featuring both simple asymmetric strategy games and themed games. The games are intended to be simple and easy to play.

viking14klarAnders discussed the Viking multinational staff exercises, focusing on crisis response and peace operations in unstable environments. Some 24 military organizations from multiple countries participate, as do 64 civilian organizations., and up to 2,500 participants over two weeks. The exercise is largely scripted. Swedish wargamers have worked to foster a more dynamic game, for example through injects that create common problems that generate work and require coordinated responses. They have learned there is a need for people with a good understanding of gaming (a particular problem, he suggested, with civilian organizations). Injects that are good for one part of the training can cause problems for other parts. Scenario complexity can overwhelm the game. High-level decision makers need to be “semi-trained” so they know what to take away, and not take away, from the exercise. Finally, there is limited ability to address high intensity operations in this sort of exercise, in part because of the secrecy surrounding military capabilities.

Following the last formal session, we reconvened for an evening of game demos and gaming. Among these was Tom Mouat’s “ISIS Crisis” matrix game of the current conflict in northern Iraq, for which I had helped to prepare the scenario briefing sheets.

I was also able to run a full two hour session of the Humanitarian Crisis Game, in which the participants responded to the needs of earthquake-ravaged Carana. They were ultimately successful in doing so, with all players earning a win—although the United Nations (Devin Ellis) barely managed to scrape over the line, having suffered from a spate of bad media coverage, worse luck, and an ill-timed visit by Sean Penn that forced cancellation of an important press conference.

Tom Mouat and I pose with the overall winner of the Humanitarian Crisis Game, Yuna Wong (NGOs). Sadly, I forgot to snap a picture during the game itself.

Tom Mouat and I pose with the overall winner of the Humanitarian Crisis Game, Yuna Wong (NGOs). Sadly, I forgot to snap a picture during the game itself.

Tomorrow the Connections conference will feature more panels on international wargaming cultures, a discussion of how social science can enhance the value of wargaming, a hands-on workshop, and a series of working groups.

Archipelago Annie on gaming definitions, bosses and game development, and professional gaming careers for women



Archipelago Annie is PAXsims’ very own advice columnist, offering words of wisdom on serious gaming in the national security community. Have a question for her? Email us, and we’ll pass it on!


Dear Annie: Can you explain the difference between gaming, wargaming, war gaming, peace gaming, serious games, exercises, seminars, table top games, and simulations? –DAZED AND CONFUSED

Dear DAC: Unfortunately, probably not. Just like finches differentiated in the Galapagos, terminology has morphed at the different islands of the gaming archipelago. Many of the terms you mention do have very specific definitions, but those definitions are different in different places.

The short version is that all the terms you mention can be used to describe a type of educational tool or analysis in which players are asked to make decisions based on an environment based on a particular set of rules. Folks will use different terms based on the purpose, institutional norms, personal preference, or house definitions. So for example, development agencies don’t like the term wargame (because they are talking about something other than combat) while academia uses the term “simulation” to refer to this tool, but “simulation” means a mathematical model run over time that does not require human input in DoD terminology. Furthermore, lots of folks also don’t like “game” because its strikes them as unserious.

The majority of practitioners have given up having a unified set of terms, and just work with the house style, and make sure to include a definition of what they mean when talking to folks from other shops. I recommend you save your energy and do the same.


Dear Annie: My boss is making me crazy changing my game! What can I do to make him stop? –DON’T GO CHANGING

Dear DGC: First, know you are not alone! Any time you get to gamers together, stories of the way their perfectly designed game has been ruined by the interference of others. In fact, a favorite paper of mine discusses how your boss can be one of the “Witches” of wargaming.

The first thing is to think really objectively about whether the changes your boss wants actually put the objectives of the exercise at risk. There is some existing work on how to do this. While other changes may be irritating, they are not going to have the same magnitude of effect, and it’s worth learning to pick your battles.

If it is really a situation where analytic or educational conclusions of the game will be compromised, then I would suggest trying hard to explain the specific ways that the outcomes of the game will be comprised. If the game goes on ahead, try to note in your post-game analysis where findings should be treated with caution as a result.


Dear Annie: I think wargaming sounds like an awesome career! How can I get a job in it after college? –BRIGHT YOUNG THING

Dear BYT: How exciting! I obviously love my place in this particular archipelago, and I’m glad you are interested!

However, a word of caution: gaming—like most other national security jobs—tend to have more applicants then positions. Many people competing for “entry level” slots will have master degrees, and/or will have works in unpaid internships. This does not mean that qualified folks who can’t afford these expensive signaling mechanisms can’t make it in the door, but it is really important to have reasonable expectations going in.

There are also relatively few jobs that exclusively involve gaming, and few people manage to do only gaming for their entire career. Attending games when you can, volunteering to help if other parts of your organization run games, and staying up to date with the field can all help you move back and forth between gaming- and non-gaming-centric positions. Building up regional and other analytical expertise will also make you more attractive

I’d also recommend you read up a little bit. Peter Perla’s book is a canonical text. The Naval War College has made its war gaming handbook accessible, and CASL, the gaming center at the National Defense University, has a bibliography that includes a list of good foundational texts. Commercial gaming (particularly old school hex and counter/table-top wargames) is still a major cultural touchstone in the field. If you didn’t grow up gaming I’d recommend beefing up a bit on the basics. Jim Dunnigan’s book is a standby.

Finally, recognize that much of gaming is taught through a master-apprentice system. When you are interviewing for a position, you want to make sure that the gamers you will work for are interested in teaching you the types of skill you want to develop. However, it is also important to be aware that a major part of the junior member’s job on a gaming team is to manage the “party planning” so don’t be surprised or offended when someone asks you to make coffee. I promise, it can be critical to the success of the game!


Dear Annie: I’m interested in wargaming, but I hear so much about gamer culture and DoD culture not being friendly towards women that I’m hesitant about my chances as a women in the field. How worried should I be? –Worried Woman

Dear WW-:Much like other DoD analytic fields, wargaming has traditionally had more men than women involved. There may also be a gender imbalance because of the role of hobby gaming in bringing people into the field. That said, there are women publishing and presenting actively in the community. I personally have seen established (male and female) gamers go out of their way to mentor and encourage young women in the field. I have also heard more than one discussion about how to encourage better gender representation.

Interestingly (and again completely anecdotally) the majority of female gamers tend to be focused on more strategic level (as opposed to tactical) analysis. There is also currently a bit of a concentration of women interested in social science methods. That said, it’s more likely that’s due to personal preference and distorted sample sizes then anything systematic.

All that said, gaming isn’t all done at conference, and office cultures can differ considerably. Based on my non-representative sampling of wargamers, treatment of women varies a lot office to office. My sense is that looking at the general advice for DoD civilian women will give you a better sense of day to day life than focusing too much on wargamers as a specific niche.

Destination: Connections 2014


On Monday,  both of your intrepid PAXsims editors will be headed off to attend the Connections 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at Quantico Marine Corps Base, for a few days of serious games, conflict simulation, and general gaming geekiness. This year’s theme is wargaming cultures, and we’ll be presenting our thoughts on the multicultural character of most development and peace gaming, which almost inevitably engages participants across various national and professional subcultures. The presentation will eventually appear on the Connections website, but here’s a sneak peak.

We’ll also be running some demonstration games of the latest version of the Humanitarian Crisis Game. If you’re at Connections, feel free to drop by and see if you can save the disaster-afflicted people of Carana! If you want, we’ll also play Jargon Wars with you too.

Video Games and the Simulation of International Conflict

GAME: six days in fallujah

Screen shot from Six Days In Fallujah (Atomic Games, 2009) which proved so controversial for its depiction of recent conflict in Iraq that the game was never published.


The website e-International Relations has a short but useful piece by Marcus Shulzke on the simulation of international conflict in video games:

Video games are important political media, yet they receive little attention from political scientists. Even studies of the political implications of popular culture and new media rarely discuss video games. This is a serious oversight, which I hope to correct by calling attention to some of the many ways in which video games, especially video games about armed conflict, play a role in international politics. I will start by discussing how video games differ from other media. I then explore four dimensions of military video games’ political significance. First, political actors use video games as strategic communications tools that project soft-power through entertainment media. Second, video games simulate recent and current events in ways that may help to construct, and in some cases reconstruct, those events. Third, video games create imaginary conflicts that explore threat scenarios, the efficacy of military force, and the moral boundaries of warfare. Finally, video games can have critical import when they are used to question government policies or the conventions of the military gaming genre.

He concludes by noting:

The presence of critical themes and opportunities for critical interventions in games makes it important to avoid reductionist analyses of games that focus entirely on how they distort real events or glorify war. As with other media, games are open to multiple interpretations and can be politically significant in different ways depending on which interpretations they can sustain. The significance of video games for international politics is therefore multi-dimensional and calls for research that can account for the many nuances of the genre and of individual games.

These are all issues we’ve discussed before at PAXsims, in the context of both digital and manual conflict simulations. Indeed, most of this website is devoted to how games and simulations can illuminate conflict issues. See, for example:

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