Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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.

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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 


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