PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connection UK 2015: Day 1 AAR

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The Connections UK 2015 interdisciplinary wargaming conference started today at King’s College London, with two of your PAXsims correspondents in attendance—Devin Ellis and myself. This is the largest Connections UK ever, with up to 130 registrants (and, I think, the second largest Connections conference ever).

We started off with lectures on “Wargaming 101.” Tom Moaut (Defence Academy of the UK) provided a general overview of basic gaming approaches, while Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives) discussed how to design a wargame to meet particular requirements. In the latter presentation Jim stressed the importance of determining game objectives and purposes at the outset, noting that the client may not always be clear exactly what they want. Next, he stressed, you also need to establish game constraints and boundaries: participants (numbers, skills, enthusiasm), time, space, level, game resolution, equipment needs, and so forth. Having done this, one can consider initial elements of structure: scope (what does the game explore), structure, time/scale, and how open or closed the game is (that is, whether information is public, or private with “fog of war” represented). Next are game mechanisms. He suggested that this was a somewhat easier step than those prior. A key challenge here is balancing complexity/detail/granularity with simplicity and design elegance. In terms of playtesting, he identified three stages: the “unbaked” session in which one brainstorms initial ideas’ “half-baked” when you have some of the initial ideas translated into game mechanics; and finally playtesting the “baked,” near-final game design.

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Jim Wallman’s obligatory design diagram.

Jim correctly stressed that games needed to be assessed against their design aim, and care should be taken that this is not lost sight amid in the enthusiasm of design and play. He warned too that “defensiveness is the enemy of good wargame design”—that one has to be prepared to discard ideas, approaches, and mechanisms.

After coffee, we returned to hear Stephen-Downes-Martin (Naval War College) examined “How NOT to analyse wargames.” Stephen emphasized the importance of using professional analysts, and warned against the influence of senior officials who lack analytic expertise but who do have the power to press their views. Analysts need to be partners with the game designer, thinking from the outset about how they will extract the necessary data from the players and their interaction. Immediate hot-washes, conducted amid the continuing buzz of a recently-completed game, may be inadequate to collect impressions and feedback. He noted that the decisions made in the game are typically less important than the reasons behind those decisions. He stressed the analytic need to treat the White Cell/adjudicators as participants, and understand the rationale for their decisions too.

Stephen too had an obligatory wargaming diagram.

Stephen too had an obligatory wargaming diagram.

Stephen also highlighted the challenge of having the right players in the game. I’ll admit this is an increasing concern of mine, since I’m of the view that game outcomes are heavily shaped by the profile of participants (domain knowledge, risk aversion, interpersonal skills, etc.).

Following on from this there was an excellent panel of analysts from the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) on using data (and models) in wargames. Mark Pickering looked at trials and experimentation as a data source for wargames. Dan Ledwick explored systems and performance modeling, looking at lethality and effects. Stevie Ho addressed the use of historical analysis to generate wargame data. He noted that the Falklands War highlighted how different combat experience was from earlier field trial weapons and performance data. Finally, James King (who had also introduced the session) suggested ways of checking wargame data, and underscored the importance of doing so.

The presentation panel from Dstl. Being Dstl, they had many diagrams.

The presentation panel from Dstl. Being Dstl, they had many diagrams.

After lunch we all engaged in a large participatory wargame, New Dover Patrol. This revolved around a vicious separatist insurgency against the rightful government of Silvania by Kippist religious extremists. Faced terrorist gangs seizing parts of the southern city of New Dover, the government had been forced to call upon the United Nations and the powerful country of Freedonia to assist. (Of course, my perspective in all of this may have been distorted somewhat by playing the role of the President of Silivania.)

Jim Wallman presents the game.

Jim Wallman and Tom Mouat present the game.

My government was anxious to get as many Freedonian troops on the ground as quickly as possible, both to combat the extremist menace and to assure their continued commitment. To this end, Freedonian marines seized the port district while our own battered forces performed gallantly and liberated the airport from Kippist terror gangs. This allowed the rapid follow-on of additional forces.

As evidence of their treachery, Kippist extremists tried to assassinate me. Although bloody, I was unbowed, and called upon the country to redouble its efforts. At the same time I held out a hand of reconciliation to moderate rebels who might wish to abandon violence and seek a political settlement. Sadly our efforts were rebuffed by the fanatics.

The enemy was steadily pushed back, but not without heavy collateral damage that began to eat away at Freedonian political support for intervention. This was compounded by the sometimes less-than-cautious activities of the Freedonian air contingent, as well as a second amphibious landing to the west that captured the area around the New Dover water treatment plant—but at the cost of damaging the facility and risking an outbreak of disease. We pressed for the UN to address the humanitarian emergency, and as the game ended we had also called for a local ceasefire in the area around the water treatment plant so that we could effect repairs.

Following the game we then had an analysis session in which we discussed both how the campaign had been fought as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the game design. I thought the game went very well indeed, despite the difficulty of having scores of players all in one tiered lecture theatre.

For the penultimate session of the first day we broke into three groups: Tom Moaut discussed “wargaming effects;’ Jim Wallman explored “developing insights from wargaming;” and Graham Longley-Brown (LBS Consultancy) led a session on “fully engaging the player.” I took part in the latter. Graham stressed the many ways in which truly engaging play supported games-based learning. He did an especially good job of suggesting how we ought to frame the gaming experience so that students remain in both the flow of game play and the “bubble” (or the “magic circle”) of narrative setting. I absolutely agree, and in my Brynania simulation I spent a great deal of effort immersing students in a fictional conflict in a way that generates enthusiasm and emotional commitment to role and interaction. However, I raised the concern that engagement ought not be allowed to substitute for clarity about learning objectives—after all, it is possible to be enthusiastic about learning the wrong lessons. This, I think, was a problem with the Jane McGonigal/World Bank EVOKE social entrepreneurship game. It is, in a somewhat different way, a problem also explored by Anders Frank, who has written about military cadets entering “gamer mode” wherein they are so motivated to win that they exploit game mechanics in ways that undermine realism.

Graham's impressive diagram.

Graham’s impressive diagram.

Finally, we had a hot-wash discussion of how the day had gone.

Both here and at the US Connections conference these first day lecture/course/introduction sessions face a couple of challenges. The first is how to pitch them: although they are intended to aid relatively new wargamers develop their skills and knowledge, a great many of the people in the room are actually very experienced gamers. That may skew the discussion. Second there is the risk that we all tend to discuss the approaches we habitually use, which may mean that some techniques receive more emphasis than others. Nevertheless I thought it was all very well done.

Tomorrow the main session program starts in earnest, with discussion of wargaming developments in the UK and around the world, as well as a games fair (including a demonstration of AFTERSHOCK: A humanitarian Crisis Game).

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