PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: