Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 09/11/2014

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 9 November 2014


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

* * *

A newly-released video game, Liberation of Palestine, challenges players to organize political and military resistance to Israel. Game play includes establishing refugee camps, building homes, buying weapons, preparing camp residents, forming alliances, scoring attacks, and conducting prisoners swaps. It is clearly designed to emphasize the greater value of paramilitary action over diplomatic negotiation.

As Ha’aretz notes:

A new computer game developed in Gaza, “The Liberation of Palestine,” invites players to liberate Palestine by all means at their disposal, including force.

In a promotional Arabic-language video trailer that was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the game is depicted as teaching players that force is preferable to negotiations. Players are also required, however, to forge diplomatic alliances within the region and arrange prisoner swaps.

The game’s broader aim, the developers say, is to develop “a spirit of resistance among Palestinian children.”

Games dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have aroused a great deal of controversy. During last summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza, Google removed from its Play Store several downloadable computer games featuring the bombing of the Gaza Strip. Among them were “Bomb Gaza” and “Gaza Assault: Code Red.”

The controversy over these games initially surfaced in the late 1980s. In one intifada game, players had to disperse demonstrations in the West Bank or Gaza Strip without killing any protesters, so that an overly left-wing government would not be elected in Israel. The game prompted objections in Israel and abroad.

In the 1990s game “Conflict: Middle East Political Similator,” participants played the role of Israeli prime minister and had to stay the course until all the surrounding countries collapsed.

A number of other games followed, some taking a more serious approach than others. “Peacemaker,” for example, in which participants were also placed in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister (or the head of the Palestinian Authority), was more oriented toward achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Games reflecting the Palestinian or Arab point of view have also made headlines. Among them were “Under Ash,” a shooting game that opens in Syria in which the player is a Palestinian fighting the Israel Defense Forces; and “Special Force,” which was developed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite militia.

The website for the game is here, although at the time of writing requires log-in credentials.

For additional discussion on “video game wars,” see my 2012 report for World Politics Review (via CNN).

h/t Julie Norman

* * *

The Guardian has a sympathetic profile of, and interview with with Call of Duty game designer Dave Anthony, whose appointment to Atlantic Council to explore the future of war has been previously discussed at PAXsims and elsewhere.

To some, a writer of video game fictions may seem an unlikely candidate for a role that exists to “help to provide ideas to protect the United States from future attack.” Anthony, who has been writing and programming games for twenty years, deals in the realm of jingoistic military fiction, which, in the case of the Call of Duty series, features a protagonist who single-handedly conquers unending waves of anonymous terrorist enemies. In this way it has as much in common with the rhythm and spectacle of a Rambo movie as it does with the docudrama verisimilitude of a Zero Dark Thirty.

But push aside Call of Duty’s bluster and the appointment isn’t so incongruous. Modern combat games compete on authenticity; their creators must gather props and detail from the realm of fact and arrange them into believable fiction.

During his recent talk Anthony showed videos depicting a US drone that had been hacked by Iran to attack Americans, an idea that first featured in Black Ops 2’s storyline. “In Washington, there is a tangible fear of suggesting controversial ideas, rocking the boat or moving outside of the established system,” he says. The fear is perhaps understandable for the career-minded Washington-ite. In the business of military prophecy, one doesn’t want to be marked out as an eccentric.

But Anthony believes that his entertainment background frees him from the incentive to limit his imagination. “As a director and writer, my job is to break expectations and established thinking without fear of failure in order to create new and fresh ideas,” he says. “It’s timely as the threats we face today don’t play by established rules. Our enemies are starting to use our own technologies and systems faster and more efficiently than we are.”

There are similarities to the stultifying rhetoric of the Cold War era: the race to master technology before the other guy, the fear of the unheralded catastrophe, a disaster from an unknown source, foes under our noses. But one thing is different this time: in video games the military is able to try out its theories, to simulate its strategies, to set a devastating domino run in motion and see where the pieces land, without consequence. Anthony believes that, for all their historical ties, perhaps games and war aren’t close enough after all. “I would like to see more collaboration with the military and game developers,” he says.

War is Boring also feature an interview with Anthony, in which again emphasizes his role as an outsider challenging comfortable Washington orthodoxies:

Anthony was not well-received. Critics took to Twitter to chastise the game director. Blogs pointed out the creepy implications of his ideas about proactive defense.

But Anthony wasn’t fazed. He knew that Beltway types would be loathe to listen to “a video-game guy.”

“When you’re working on something like Call of Duty, you’re at the top of your field,” he admits. “Everybody wants to bring you down.”

The criticism of his talk didn’t bother him. He’s heard far worse from gamers.

Anthony’s hope is that people will openly discuss his ideas—no matter how wild they may seem at first. He says fear and media spin are the main obstacles to the free exchange of ideas.

“All [the media and politicians] are looking for is sensationalism,” he says. “You can see that with the Ebola thing right now. Yes, we have to be cautious, but the way it’s presented is fear-based. It’s extremely frustrating.”

“Everything in the media is 90-percent fear-based,” he continues. “The government needs to find a better way to communicate with people, to try and educate people to the nature of threats and even consider ways in which people can help overcome those threats.”

However, among those that I’ve discussed the issue with criticism of Anthony hasn’t been that he’s a “video-game guy” at all, but that he doesn’t have a very good grasp of modern conflict and warfare and that he himself tends to focus on the sensationalist. I also think the notion of a Beltway community unwilling to address new security challenges is somewhat misleading. On the contrary, security punditry is full of (and probably oversupplied with) those who emphasize all manner of emerging threats, from drones to EMP, transnational terrorism, WMD proliferation, access denial weapons, cyberattacks, and robot swarms—not to mention buzz phrases like asymmetric conflict, hybrid threats, and 3rd/4th/5th/whatever generation warfare. Finally, strategy is about balancing costs, risks, and benefits—something that so far has been absent from Anthony’s presentations and interviews.

* * *

The Active Learning in Political Science blog has a piece by Simon Usherwood exploring cultural specificities in simulations:

The question that occurred to me was what impact does [cultural experience] have on one’s general understanding of the kind of simulations we run, re-creating political interactions?

Precisely because participants are bringing their personal experiences to a simulation, it can sometimes be hard for them to bring the experiences of the roles that they are playing. This can cause any number of problems when trying to recreate a real-world scenario.

To that just one example, when I ran a game that asked students to play different agencies of the US federal government in putting together a foreign-policy document for an in-coming president, they all worked on the basis that all Americans want the same things, and so didn’t really get into the differences that obviously (to us) exist.

A couple of solutions to this present themselves, one inward-facing, the other outward.

When we want to make sure that participants are representing external cultures within our games, then we need to ensure that they have sufficient opportunity to internalise that culture. This is easy in larger games, where you can ask them to produce essays/papers or negotiating briefs that reflect the real-world actor’s dispositions, on which you can provide feedback. In smaller exercises, it’s more difficult, but you could either provide some key points on attitude (rather than policy per se), or else mark out red lines that effectively require a particular approach.

At the other end of the process, we can work with participants to draw out their personal reflection on the impact of their culture on their approach to a simulation. The obvious place to do this is in the debrief and feedback after the game, where we can build on their comments to strengthen their self-reflection.

Again, cultural elements are always going to be part of simulations, both because our participants have culture and because we want them to recreate cultural objects: the key thing is to be alive to this and to help them see how this works.

In by own comment at the blog, I noted the need to understand “culture” in a broad way:

The question of (war)gaming cultures was the primary focus of the Connections conference this year. In my own presentation I argued against the danger of seeing “culture” as a homogenous thing based on ethnic or religious identity–there is substantial evidence to show, for example, that the differences between (say) military officers and students or economists and everyone else are at least as substantial as those between (for example) Turks and Americans. In other words, Turkish and American military officers may behave more like each other than they do Turkish and American diplomats.

* * *

Zombie-Apocalypse1We’ve discussed zombies quite a lot at PAXsims, both because of our commitment to preparing the world for the impending apocalypse, and because the zombie genre has increasingly been used in disaster simulations and classroom teaching. In a forthcoming article in Politics, however, Erin Hannah and Rorden Wilkinson warn of the possible pitfalls of such an approach:

The zombie genre is quickly becoming a feature of International Relations (IR) classrooms and pedagogical toolkits as scholars enthusiastically embrace the undead as a vehicle for teaching the discipline. This article offers a cautionary note on a generally positive move to embrace the use of zombieism in IR. It shows how an uncritical use of a zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for teaching IR can reinforce existing divisions in the field, essentialise country positions, crowd out heterodox approaches, reinforce gender stereotypes and dehumanise people. To guard against these problems, the article shows how Zombie IR can be better used to think critically and normatively about world politics.

Specifically, they raise several sets of concerns:

Our worry is that zombies are being used merely as a means of teaching students about existing theories of IR rather than as a vehicle for developing critical and normative thinking. If this is the case, not only are we letting slip an engaging way of teaching students about the contours and problems of world politics, we risk underscoring existing divergences in the IR canon that obfuscate our capacity to engage with each other. A second, and related problem, is that by limiting our use of zombies to teaching students how existing approaches would respond to an outbreak of the undead we avoid getting them to push forward thinking about how to solve the most pressing global problems and to come up with alternative ways of organising the world. We see a third danger in the use of an IR of the undead that essentialises country positions, reinforces gender stereotypes and dehumanises people in ways that limit the possibilities for cooperation and legitimises certain forms of violence and attitudes towards adversaries in conflict. Ultimately, we believe that zombieism – particularly if engaged with ‘actively’ (i.e. through role-play, scenario and problem-solving exercises) – is an important tool in our pedagogical armoury. Yet, it is not one that we are utilising fully. Thus, we explain why we believe the answers to the questions we set out above are currently insufficient, present the potential dangers of this insufficiency and offer a way forward that may be more fruitful in making better use of this popular cultural resource.

A few of these concerns were also raised by David Romano in a recent piece at PAXsims.

While their focus is on zombies, some of what Hannah and Wilkinson have to say applies to other scenario-based teaching too. It is a thoughtful article, and very much worth reading.

%d bloggers like this: