Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: February 2016

How Japan saved—or enslaved—the (simulated) world


In case you’ve been wondering what happened at the not-so-serious, but-seriously-fun McGill University New World Order 2035 megagame, this article in the the McGill International Review provides a very good overview:

We here at the MIR by our own admission talk a pretty big game when it comes to the Things That Must Be Done To Fix The World. Suppose we were thrown out of our armchairs and told “All right. Let’s see you do better.” What would the world look like then? I and fellow MIR writer Sara Gold learned precisely this when we participated in Jim Wallman’s geopolitical megagame New World Order 2035 as Japan’s Minister of Defense and Economics, respectively.

The results are not entirely encouraging. In fact, we may or may not have enslaved humanity forever to an immortal artificial consciousness. Maybe. It’s a long story.

This, at long last, brings me to the story of human enslavement I teased you with at the outset of this article. Our diplomatic efforts against Korea rendered moot, we returned to our scientific arms race fixationtechnology-worshiping cult focus. With Mexico’s help, we discovered cold fusion by the early 2040s. It was at this time that we were approached with a new project: a “Mycroft” class sentient computer. Displaying our blissful ignorance of how such projects tend to go, we approved the project. After pouring the entire state treasury into the effort, we had a prototype prepared. Jim then called us over and asked us – twice – if we were really sure we wanted to turn the device on. We said yes.

And with that, Mycroft was born. Sentient, self-aware, and with access to the sum of human knowledge through the Internet, it – I nearly wrote “he” – answered what questions we put to it, from how to upload human consciousness to how to achieve faster-than-light travel. At this point, we reached a decision: Japan would build the ship Mycroft had described and take our citizens’ consciousnesses on a voyage to explore the cosmos. Korea could have the Earth, for all we cared. The infinite cosmos would be ours.

It was around this point that the world’s satellites, one by one, started going dark. Military communications soon followed, as did the world’s nuclear arsenals. Mycroft had decided that, since humanity had created him, they had no need for such crude devices. This was, to put it mildly, poorly received. When I pleaded with the world not to shut Mycroft down, I was overruled, including by a scientific community whose moral compunctions forbade artificial intelligence but not, say, weaponized space plague. China mobilized its forces – such as they were – to shut Mycroft down by force. Korea and the United States followed suit. While Mycroft’s infiltration was able to stall the invasion fleet dead in the water in what would turn out to be the game’s final turn, it wasn’t before we immortalized him by uploading his software into the Internet itself. Such was the state of the world at game’s end – the world’s first sentient AI was immortal, omnipresent, and undoubtedly more than a little upset at humanity’s attempt to deactivate him. Add into the equation the robot servants I alluded to earlier, and we may very well have Terminator-ed the human race.

Which is not to say that, given the chance, I wouldn’t do every last part of it all again.

Otherwise, you can also try to make sense of the organized chaos that unfolded in YouTube celebrity Harley Morenstein’s vlog on the game.

For more serious discussion of the challenges of running mass participation games, see also our mini-series of Control debriefs:

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 28 February 2016


PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) games that might be of interest to our readers. Ryan Kuhns contributed material for this latest edition.


Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Ian Hopper discusses the value of military simulations in communicating the complexities of warfare:

I am entering my fourth year teaching military history and I have found that my students have no problem learning about the fog of war and the friction of war, but they understand them only as abstract concepts. They struggle to appreciate how uncertainty, misinformation, and miscommunication played a crucial role in a given historical war or battle. Likewise, they fail to grasp how the immense logistical challenges of warfare can derail even the simplest operations in the present. It is for this reason that each of my military history courses includes a substantial war simulation: when my students take on the role of actors in an historical conflict it transforms their understanding not only of the specific war we are simulating but of warfare in general.

He makes a point (often made by Philip Sabin) about the particular value of historical simulation:

The military and academics interested in international relations often simulate future conflicts. Such simulations require highly speculative assumptions. These assumptions are extrapolated from what we think we know about past conflicts. There is little military and academic interest in simulating past conflicts, however. Refighting past wars is generally left to the enthusiasts, not serious-minded professionals.

But recreating and refighting historical wars has real usefulness. We know a great deal more about the reality of past wars and therefore can craft far more credible simulations for them than we can for the future; this factor alone makes them more realistic than any future simulator could be. Simulating past wars also allows us to reinterpret them and thereby challenge what lessons the actual past can teach us about what to expect in future conflicts. It is better to recreate and re-remember the last war than to refight it in reality.


8052575_300x300.jpgWe’ve previously covered the debate regarding the educational effectiveness of the Statecraft international relations simulation: you’ll find a link to Gustavo Carvalho’s highly critical article in International Studies Perspectives here, and a rejoinder from the game’s designer here.

In a follow-up (prepublication) article in Social Science Computer Review, Nilay Saiya explores the controversy and concludes that Carvalho’s finding were largely due to the way the game was used in the classroom, rather than the design of the game itself:

This brief article weighs in on a pedagogical debate concerning the didactic usefulness of an online international relations computer simulation called Statecraft. In a 2014 article, Gustavo Carvalho, a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto, claimed, based on the results of a survey he administered to an international relations class that used Statecraft, that the simulation had little to offer students as a teaching tool. In a rebuttal, Statecraft creator Jonathan Keller took Carvalho to task for not employing the simulation properly, which biased his results. While Carvalho only presented results for one class, the present analysis reports on survey responses of students over six different classes which used Statecraft from 2013 to 2014. The results call into question Carvalho’s findings and suggest that the context and curriculum matter as much as the simulation itself when judging the pedagogical value of computer-mediated learning tools.

The entire episode underscores that the educational effectiveness of games and simulations is in very large part a of how they are used—and that a given game can have substantially different effects if used in different ways or different contexts.




In The Atlantic, Daniel Hertz discusses how games like SimCity reflect popular (mis)perception about urban planning.

Like most city lovers of a certain age, I spent many hours as a kid playing SimCity. For readers who are tragically uninitiated, SimCity is one of the iconic computer games of the 1990s, though newer versions have been released as recently as 2013. Playing as mayor (or, really, dictator, but more on that later), you shepherd the growth of a city from its very first streets to towering skyscrapers—assuming you aren’t wiped out by tornados, fires, or aliens. By enticing thousands and thousands of people to plan commercial, industrial, and residential districts for their virtual towns, the creators of SimCity have probably done more than anyone in the history of the world to introduce basic principles of zoning to the public.

Recently, I started playing a successor to SimCity, Cities: Skylines (or CS, as I’ll call it). CS is very much like SimCity, with some added details (at least compared to the last version I played) and much better graphics. But unlike when I was 10, I can also appreciate that CS, like SimCity, has a whole host of assumptions about how cities work, and how urban governance works, built into the gameplay—assumptions that are both frustrating as a player and fascinating as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about real urban planning and governance. While all games that simulate real life are of course drastically simplified, the way that they’re simplified often speaks to the actual worldview of the people who design and play them. With that in mind, here are some notes on the assumptions that undergird urban-planning video games such as SimCity and CS…

Even though it’s just a computer game, Cities: Skylines has a lot to teach us about the unstated premises of our urban-planning conversations, and demonstrates how those premises profoundly shape what our cities can look like. When we assume the necessity of a given way of regulating cities, assume away the messiness of people and their relationships, assume away politics, and ignore major costs, we miss an awful lot of what urban-planning debates should be.


In his blog on gaming, Matt  Leacock discusses the growing number of cooperative games available:


Dividing the two gives the percentage of products featuring cooperative play. It’s no imagined effect—something changed in 2009. Prior to the release of Pandemic, products with a cooperative play element accounted for 2 to 4% of the total. The style of play has been growing ever since. In 2015 the style appeared in roughly 12% of all the listed products.

Keep in mind this is only compares the number of titles with this play style—it’s not a comparison of total sales. I’d expect that coops would still be dwarfed by strictly competitive games. But it does show that willingness of designers and publishers to create games with this style of play has grown significantly since 2009.


At the Active Learning in Political Science blog, recent items have included a guest post by Kevin Pallister describing his international economic globalization simulation.


Meanwhile, at his blog Ludic Futurism, Brian Train has posted the slides from his recent presentations at the RAND Center for Gaming in Washington DC on commercial irregular warfare/counterinsurgency simulations, and how civilian wargames can contribute to the development of professional games.



Writing in the North American Simulation and Gaming Association newsletter SIMAGES (February 2016), Tom Fennewald discusses semi-cooperative game design:

I wanted to design a game that would foster moral debates between participants about when they thought players should act in their own self-interest or act in group interest. This topic is extremely relevant to the real world teamwork dynamics that many organizations maneuver on a day-to-day basis. Yet, competitive and collaborative games did not foster moral discussions about self vs. group interest—player choices of who to help when were always simplistic and dictated by the win conditions of the game.

To solve this design challenge, my colleague Brent Kievit-Kylar and I began to play with the notion of an independent goal—a way for a player to be successful or unsuccessful regardless of the performance of fellow players. The game we developed, Troubled Lands, (formally The, positioned each player to play a different role: Farmer, Rancher, or Lumberjack. Each role has a leaderboard that tracks points across a set of games (for instance a dozen participants playing a single iteration of Troubled Lands in four groups of three players each).

I invite you to think about the kinds of messy real-world negotiation that organizations and teams face on a daily basis in order to succeed at their work. Think about what elements of this experience—whether it’s how to maneuver multiple competing interests or how to learn how much trust to give others—that you want to simulate and ask yourself:

  • What is the experience I am trying to simulate?
  • Will a competitive or collaborative game simulate this experience?
  • If not, what rules, mechanics, and win conditions will help me to simulate this experience?
  • Have I positioned players to make hard choices about whether and how much they will work together with their fellow players?
  • And finally, have I given players the time, space, and incentive to negotiate and deliberate with one another in lively ways?

I have found these questions productive as I design games that go beyond competition and collaboration to simulate the messy real-world negotiations that occur in our jobs and geopolitics.

AFTERSHOCK gets a mention in the article too.


Iranian television recently aired video of a Hizbullah sniper killing ISIS fighters in Syria.

It turns out, however, that the images were actually taken from the video game Medal of Honour. You can read more about it from France 24 (who first reported the story) or in Ha’aretz.


According to the New York Times, boardgames rule in Toronto cafés.

In walkable Toronto, every major street seems to offer a space for playing old-fashioned tabletop games, with drinks and snacks on the side. Several, like Castle Board Game Cafe near the University of Toronto, evoke dorm lounges with plain chairs and soft couches.

There are so many of these game rooms in Toronto that the popular metro culture site BlogTO named its top 20 local board-game cafes two years ago, and commenters have been noting new ones ever since. Toronto has become a model of how popular these games can become across a single city. At least a dozen dedicated board-game cafes have popped up around the United States, including in Manhattan, Boston and Los Angeles.

More than the Canadian winters fuel the cafes’ ubiquity here, cafe owners agree. Certainly geek culture has grown more mainstream. The TV blockbuster “Game of Thrones” and its board game variations play a role. European strategy games like the Settlers of Catan have carved inroads into the North American market. And the irreverent Cards Against Humanity has become such a runaway hit that its stock at Snakes & Lattes Annex takes up an entire sales wall. The cafe hosts monthly game developer nights so creators can test the next big things. “We’ve seen the evolution in Canada,” said Aaron Zack, a Snakes & Lattes partner. “It’s not about labeling yourself as a geek. It’s literally about having fun with your friends.”

As for Montreal, we’re currently holding the city’s second annual games festival, Festival Montréal joue.


Don’t hold your breath for something similar in Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s top cleric has forbidden chess. According to the New York Times:

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric has declared the playing of chess “forbidden,” calling it a waste of time and money that creates hatred between players.

In a fatwa, or religious decree, issued in response to a question from a caller to a Saudi television show, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh said that the game was “the work of Satan,” like alcohol and gambling, despite its long history in the Middle East. Chess is played across the Arab world.

A member of the Saudi Chess Association, Musa BinThaily, took to Twitter on Thursday to defend the game, saying that it had nothing to do with gambling and that the association had held 70 events in the kingdom. He posted photos of Saudi players at the group’s events, including one that showed members of the group posing with a prince from the United Arab Emirates.

The Guardian also has more on the story.



Every Single Solidier is a digital game company that produces counterinsurgency games. They’ve already published one, Vietnam ’65, and they have another in development that looks at the early stages of Afghan campaign, Afghanistan ’11. You’ll find the developer diary here.


Published last year,  Models of Strategic Reasoning: Logics, Games, and Communities (Spring 2015) explores strategic reasoning from a  variety of perspectives:

Strategic behavior is the key to social interaction, from the ever-evolving world of living beings to the modern theatre of designed computational agents. Strategies can make or break participants’ aspirations, whether they are selling a house, playing the stock market, or working toward a treaty that limits global warming. This book aims at understanding the phenomenon of strategic behavior in its proper width and depth. A number of experts have combined forces in order to create a comparative view of the different frameworks for strategic reasoning in social interactions that have been developed in game theory, computer science, logic, linguistics, philosophy, and cognitive and social sciences. The chapters are organized in three topic-based sections, namely reasoning about games; formal frameworks for strategies; and strategies in social situations. The book concludes with a discussion on the future of logical studies of strategies.

The book is coedited by Johan van Benthem, Johan, Sujata Ghosh, and Rineke Verbrugge.


UPSEThe American Political Science Association is looking for a new editor/editorial team for the Journal of Political Science Education.

The Journal of Political Science Education is an intellectually rigorous, peer-reviewed journal that publishes evidence-based and theoretically informed scholarship on teaching and pedagogical issues in political science. It aims to represent a full range of empirical and philosophical questions, issues, and approaches relevant to political science education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including research on teaching methods, pedagogical innovations and techniques, classroom activities, educational assessment, and curriculum development. It welcomes work from diverse methodological perspectives, and work that represents levels of analysis ranging from classroom-based studies to inter-institutional and cross-national comparisons. The journal supports research that engages with the broad scholarship of teaching and learning and improves the quality of teaching and learning in the discipline.

Proposals are due by 1 April 2016. You’ll find additional details here.


The Winter 2015/16 issue of the vlog/podcast Game, Play, Learn! is now available:

Our new episode has a segment on using the Sims 4 for learning about human behavior, social and economic systems, and design; a segment about using Valiant Hearts to learn about WW1; a manifesto on the future of learning; a segment on using Democracy 3 to learn the workings of politics and policy implementation; plus, I summarized all the great news, events, job postings of the past 3 months in the field of games and learning.

Still more reflections on a megagame

The following piece was written by Thomas Fisher, who served as Economic Control during the recent New World Order 2035 megagame in Montréal. You’ll find earlier reflections by Vince Carpini (Science Control) and myself (Map Control) here and here.



New World Order 2035: A new era for Montréal gaming

February 20th, 2016 saw an historic gaming event for Montréal: her first ever megagame. Under the guidance and tutelage of the Grand Master of megagames, Jim Wallman himself, the Montréal Control Team and player community pulled off an exhausting, exhilarating and extraordinary day of gaming excitement.

The premise seemed simple (as if): in the near-future, faced with climate change, shifting power balance, unequal resources and (rather effective) rogue elements, the 100+ participants would shape the geopolitical, scientific and economic narrative of the world. Mastering the ever-shifting economics, research, technology diplomacy and military struggles of this new world became the aspiration of 16 country-teams, 4 mega corporations, the world’s press, cutting edge (rather competitive) scientists, the United Nations, and a very sly cadre of anarchist terror cells with their own chaotic agenda.

The game culminated in a possibly scary future where an independent AI believed it knew what was best for this technology-dependent, über-connected world, and began acting on this belief.

Of course, the destination only part of any journey’s story. Along the path to the New World Order, scientific discovery, unhindered by controls lead to the regeneration of dinosaurs, but also the cure for cancer. Altruistic countries came together, forging an alliance made possible, in particular, by the diplomatic efforts of the Vatican, and free sharing of technology by states such as Canada, to ratify a complex and comprehensive Climate Change Treaty, forcing all countries to take an immediate and substantial economic hit for the greater good. This New World saw a nuclear warhead fall into the hands of a terror cell, whose goal it was to detonate the devastating device in New York, and they succeeded. Meanwhile, mega corporations, merged and plotted as they were developing technologies that saw them achieve near country status as they weaponized bio-weapons and agents, selling cures to only the highest bidders.


The immediate takeaways were how immersive and engaging the MegaGame experience could be. Emotions ran very high in some instances, but the players did, certainly, keep all in perspective (and fun).

It became immediately clear that game success relied on player buy-in, and quality a Control team to keep things running smoothly. While we may have used more Controls, I do not think we could have found any better. Playing the careful role of arbiter, coach and occasional encouragement provider/shoulder to lean on, the Control team performed exceedingly well in this baptism of fire!


Following discussions with various Control members and some player-participants, room for improvement was certainly identified:

  • Megagames have been the domain of experienced war gamers, role players and the pro gamer community. This run with a more casual-gamer, student population revealed a need for a simplified guide to the possible. A number of players felt initially overwhelmed by the vastness of the possibilities in play, being used to more structured rules-based games. Adapting the rules and guidelines to the particularities of the Montréal setting will be a priority to future megagames.
  • Some roles need to be more clearly defined, with hands-on guidelines to keep players engaged. Particularly the Press role who, as arbiters of information and shapers of the narrative, have tremendous power in the game, yet a number of the Press-players felt the opposite. Discussions are ongoing among the control group to develop a game mechanic highlight the media’s role and bring it to the fore.
  • Technology is a powerful asset—when it works. We had unfortunate screen and audio failures (leading to this Control bringing out his old rugby-coach voice) that needed backup. While we recovered with manual substitutes, the confusion was not insignificant to some teams.
  • It became apparent that some game mechanisms were either ignored or deemed insignificant by the players. While a stock market component should have been of particular importance to the corporate teams, they seemed nonplussed by any changes in the market. Whether overwhelmed by other aspects of the game or simply not caring, these small issues will certainly be addressed, and either given prominence in their effect or adapted (dropped) in favour of more effective metrics.
  • Certain Control-specific functions have been identified for improvement. There are certainly some logistics issues with regard to economics that have been identified which will simplify the transfer of funds. Items such as treaties, deals and alliances were handled on the fly with Control-improvised adaptations that will certainly be built into future games. Fortunately, through discussions with players, the participants were completely unaware of any logistics issues that sprung up. Again, highlighting the impact Control has on these games.

As the megagame movement evolves in Montréal, I see it having a very bright future, indeed.

A very special thanks goes out to Jim Wallman for developing the megagame revolution and bringing it to Montréal, that has opened up such possibilities and avenues for gaming excitement.

Rex Brynen, organizer, adapter-of-rules, and all-around games guru, provided such insight and played the role of local control team Captain as only he could.

Vince Carpini, Science Control mastermind and the fastest idea developer and typist I have ever known, who shared this particular megagame baptism of fire with me as hundreds (if not over a thousand…) of emails flew back and forth in the weeks leading up to the awesome event.

The rest of the Control team consisting of: Kaitlyn Bowman (UN), Merouan Mekouar (Corporate), Claire Sinofsky (Americas/Pacific), Karen Holstead (Europe/Central), Ruth Gopin (Africa), Isabelle Dufresne-Lienert (Media), performed so well and with such aplomb that their impact on the game can never be overstated. The success this game enjoys is thanks to you and the engaged players who made for an exceptional day!

Tom Fisher (Economic Control)


More reflections on a megagame

The following thoughts were contributed by Vince Carpini, Science Control during the recent New World Order 2035 megagame. You can read my own reflections on the game here.


Then the Science Gets Done, and Everybody has Fun

Rex has been kind enough to open PaxSims to further commentary from the NWO 2035 megagame Control team, and I am happy to share my own observations.

Full disclosure: I am a hobby gamer and have little serious games experience. While I don’t think this was a drawback for NWO 2035, it does frame my perspective.

As Science Control, my role was to manage and (gently) drive the R&D aspect of the megagame. Players in the Scientist role are crucial, as they enable teams to research technological advancements that provide a variety of game effects, from hunter-killer satellites and military cyborgs to the cure for cancer and flying cars … and yes, even the game-changing Mycroft AI.


Scientists hold a press conference to warn of the dangers of sentient AI.

In NWO 2035, most teams do not have a Scientist, and so must vie for the attention and assistance of a limited pool of ‘International Scientific Geniuses’ – in our game, there were six Scientists for 15 country teams (the Holy See and the four Corporations each had a dedicated Scientist). For their part, the Scientists are also engaged in a separate ‘mini-game’ wherein they aim to make the most impressive discoveries, win the acclaim of their peers, and ultimately be recognized as the Greatest Scientist Ever.

Like most of our participants, the majority of the Scientists were not gamers, and this presented a challenge: like virtually everything else in the megagame, the role requires player initiative – but without the backing and advice of a team. Fortunately, the Scientists rose immediately to the occasion, taking full advantage of their independence to work with different teams throughout the game, they shamelessly promoted their own work, stole credit for others’ efforts and bitingly undercut their rivals. All of this was expected and encouraged.


Selling science to the highest bidder.

Quite unexpectedly however, the players spontaneously adopted a sense of responsibility as the Smartest People in the World. Each turn, the Scientists withdrew to a closed-door Conference, where they presented their work and competed for awards and prizes. On several occasions, the established agenda was ignored in favour of entirely player-driven discussions about how the Scientists could help to address the larger problems that plagued the near-future world. Global Warming was of particular concern, and several Scientists became very active in international efforts to address the phenomenon (in one case, two Scientists skipped a Conference because they had been invited to speak on the topic at the UN). I found the way in which this small group of largely-inexperienced players chose to expand their role within the confines of the larger game to be very interesting.


I share Rex’s opinion that the game was quite successful, and I agree that there are some refinements to be made for future megagames. Speaking specifically to Science:

  • There is room to streamline the rules for how researching Technology functions in the game. The basic mechanic is sensible: spend Research Credits to ‘unlock’ a Technology, and then spend Money to put that Tech into play – but many players struggled with the idea that they had to ‘pay twice’. Further complicating matters, researching and implementing Technologies was not captured in the turn sequence provided in the player briefings, so teams only learned the exact when-and-how once the game began. Also, many Technologies directly impact team economy and/or the overall level of ‘Global Tension,’ which required a somewhat unintuitive and cumbersome process of confirming with Science Control that the research had been done, and then advising the Map and Economic Controls of any relevant developments. Going forward, I would like to explore how to reduce the administrative workload associated with getting Technology into play.
  • The Technologies available for research at the outset of the game were determined pseudo-randomly. As the game went on, I tailored which new technologies became available based on the interests of the individual Scientist players, and a general knowledge of what had already been discovered. However, while many technologies had (or acted as) pre-requisites, we did not provide a tech tree, which made it difficult for Scientists and teams to make meaningful plans or set specific goals with regards to their research. The resulting dynamic was of a world in which science ran amok, and was tremendously entertaining – but I think it would be interesting to give players the tools to make more thoughtful decisions as well.
  • Science Control needs to be disciplined and consistent in how they interact with the teams. While I believe that I succeeded in this from a ‘rulings’ perspective, I would change the way in which I actually moved through the room. Caught up in the excitement, I allowed myself to be dragged around the room by first one player, and then another. As a result, teams were often left waiting an over-long time for me to answer their questions or approve their research. Jim Wallman suggested that future Science Control could remain in a fixed position and have players come to them, which I think has merit. Personally, I enjoyed moving around the room and catching snippets of what was going on – but I think that if Science Control wants to rove in this way, then they must adopt – and stick to! – a regular route to ensure that all teams are seen.

Who cares about the effect on the future of humanity when you can win science awards—and genetically re-engineer dinosaurs!

I feel very fortunate to have helped facilitate New World Order 2035, and I learned a great deal about game design and management from Rex, Jim and Tom Fisher. I look forward to another megagame in 2017!

Vince Carpini 



Reflections on a megagame


On February 20 more than one hundred participants gathered at McGill University for Montréal’s first ever megagame: New World Order 2035, designed by Jim Wallman. NWO2035 wasn’t a serious game, to be sure: during almost seven hours of play, this particular future involved—among many other things—a nuclear attack by terrorists against New York, aided by a rogue Turkish defence minister; a multinational corporation willing to threaten the world with space-based bioweapons; a secret Brazilian hunter-killer satellite programme based in Antarctica; genetically reengineered dinosaurs; an Australian plot to influence the UN Security Council with mind-control drugs; a global warming treaty; a hyperactive Vatican, solving major global problems; the launch of the USS Trump, one of two American orbital battlestations; and Japan’s creation of a sentient artificial intelligence. The latter, known as Mycroft, promptly hacked the world’s high-tech militaries in an effort to end war, and/or possibly enslave humanity.


Setting up at 8am.


Jim gives the pre-game briefing.

Overall I thought it went very well indeed, and I certainly had a great time. Feedback from most participants has been very positive too.


The game underway.



NWO2035 also provided some insight into the challenges of running mass-participation games:

  • The Control team was key. Ours was outstanding, and we couldn’t have done it without them. Many thanks are due to Kaitlyn Bowman (UN), Claire Sinofsky (Americas/Pacific), Karen Holstead (Europe/Central), Ruth Gopin (Africa), Isabelle Dufresne-Lienert (Media), Merouan Mekouar (Corporate), Vince Carpini (Science), and Tom Fisher (Economic).
  • Megagames are chaotic by nature, the rules are flexible, and player creativity is encouraged. We saw that at NWO 2035 too. However, I think we might have done a slightly better job of adapting the game to the audience. Most megagames have a very high proportion of hobby gamers (who are perhaps more inclined to study the rules and briefings in depth before the game), and a significant proportion of veteran megagamers who know what to expect. By contrast, fewer of the participants were hobbyists, most were students, and almost none had played in a megagame before. Consequently when we next run a  game like this for a similar audience, it would be worth spending more time orienting players, and streamlining some game mechanisms to make them easier or more intuitive.
  • Turn length will shape not only game pace, but the entire atmosphere of the event. We deliberately ran a quite fast clock, with turns taking a maximum of 40 minutes, and the various phases usually lasting 5-10 minutes. Had we made the turns longer we would have had more thoughtful and coordinated actions, perhaps—but at the cost of the frenetic buzz that characterized almost all of the game. Personally I rather liked the hectic nature of it all.
  • The media role is an essential one, but presents particular challenges too. In NWO2035 I thought that the Global News Network did an outstanding job, reporting simulation news via blog, tweets, and live announcements. However, some of the media team felt that they weren’t full participants, but instead were largely limited to rebroadcasting press statements provided to them by the players. We should have been clearer that they were under no obligation to report everything, and that they were free to set their own journalistic agenda. We might have also explained more fully the various investigatory tools they had available to them to uncover the many secrets and conspiracies in the game. I also know from more than a decade of running the equally large Brynania civil war simulation that the press role is one that isn’t for everyone: some participants love breaking an important story, while others would prefer to do the sorts of things that states and other overtly political-military actors do.
  • Be prepared for technical problems. We encountered dodgy VGA cables, a data projector that would randomly shut down, and a wireless mic that ran out of batteries part way through the game. Fortunately spare cables, a flip chart, and shouting allowed us to overcome those problems. I forgot to properly charge my GoPro too, which was annoying.
  • The staff at New Residence Hall were extremely helpful throughout. We couldn’t have asked for a better venue.

I’ll encourage other members of the “Control Illuminati” to post their own reflections. If we run another McGill megagame next year we’ll also be sure to announce it first here at PAXsims.

You’ll find further reflections here:


GNN at work.


Post-game debrief.


Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program 2016


Registration is open for the annual Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program, now offered by Humanitarian U:

The Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program is an educational program that proposes a novel three-way blended approach that combines an online course with face-to-face sessions and a 3-day field based disaster simulation exercise. Using content that has been developed by academia and humanitarian professionals over the last 15 years, this hybrid of competency based pedagogical methods offers students a rewarding and impactful learning experience.

The in-person components of the course will take place from 9-15 May 2016, including a three day field exercise in the Montreal area. The cost of the program is $2,200.


Connections North AAR


On February 22, a small group came together in Ottawa in what will hopefully be the first of many “Connections North” interdisciplinary wargaming meetings. The miniconference—organized at the very last minute by Defence Research and Development Canada and PAXsims to take advantage of a visit to Canada by the one and only Jim Wallman—attracted eleven participants with expertise in wargaming, operations research, medical and humanitarian simulation, virtual simulation and training, higher education, and game design.

Following introductions and introductory remarks, Murray Dixson (DRDC) made a presentation on the MAGIC (“Matrix Games for Improvement of CBP”) project. This has involved a series of trials of the matrix game method to explore how it might be used to enhance capability-based planning at the Department of National Defence. To date they’ve run several games of the ISIS Crisis scenario, and found that the approach could be helpful for scenario testing and validation, although less so for identifying specific capability gaps. Analysis suggests that subject matter experts and non-SMEs take similar lengths of time to make a game move, and that the ratio of political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, information, and cultural (PMESII-C) actions was broadly similar across games. Both the presentation and the subsequent discussion highlighted the importance of game facilitation skills, and the risk that facilitators/adjudicators might insert their own views into the game. It was noted that the game materials also potentially cued players into making certain types of moves—a map with military assets displayed, for example, tends to encourage military actions. Game participants expressed some frustration at the difficulty of pursuing a coherent long-term strategy in ISIS Crisis. While this is partly a function of the sequential turn sequence, it likely has even more to do with the nature of the scenario, with its multiple conflicting actors and objectives. Future trials will likely involve a different scenario, thus allowing analysts to determine what game dynamics may be scenario-specific.

Paul Massel (DRDC) then made a presentation on a recent playtest of the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset (RCAT), which is being assessed by DRDC as a possible mechanism for stress-tresting defence planning scenarios, as well as a campaign planning tool. Given that the Canadian military is most likely to deploy as a “plug-and-play” component of much larger coalition efforts, other tools (such as the Peace Support Operations Model) have proven less useful for this task. As a member of the playtest group (and the nefarious Red commander), I had been impressed by RCAT’s flexibility and adaptability. Interestingly it sometimes uses a matrix game-like approach to resolving contextual circumstances and other issues that lie outside the normal rules, including those at the “fuzzy edge” of wargaming (ie, non-kinetic dynamics).

Next, I offered a slightly revised version of the presentation I made a few weeks ago at RAND on “Gaming the Semi-Cooperative: Peace Operations, HADR, and Beyond.” My key argument here was that extrinsic rewards and victory conditions were not the sole method to elicit semi-cooperative behaviour among players in a game. Player psychology is also important, and players can be influenced in a variety ways so as to introduce friction and tension in otherwise cooperative games, or to encourage a degree of cautious cooperation in otherwise largely adversarial ones.

Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives) offered some insightful remarks of his own on “wargaming for insight.” The key elements of such gaming, he argued, were the developmental or analytical requirements; relevant scenarios/vignettes; adoption of an appropriate game type and structure; resolution of the inevitable tensions between the time needed, the time available, and the time actually spent on a wargame; skilled facilitation; effective recording and reporting of the game; and post-game analysis.

With regard to the former he emphasized the need to define the scope of the investigation, and clarity as what was to be stress-tested or compared. He warned against the “kitchen sink” syndrome where sponsors attempt to encumber a wargame with too many components or questions. He warned against using off-the-shelf scenarios, or reusing those from different games, as they were rarely as effective as those that had been purpose-designed. Indeed it was important to recognize that insights were usually scenario-dependant. Game design and implementation should reduce the temptation and ability of players to “fight the white (cell)” by arguing against the scenario, rules, or adjudication. Game structures could be open or closed, rigid or free, and manual, digital, or a synthesis of both. Throughout he stressed that wargaming, while a very useful analytical tool, was not always the best tool to explore a particular issue—and that game designers needed to be clear about this.

A group lunch at Nandos was then followed by a general discussion of gaming issues, followed by a demonstration session of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. Here the players found the first days of the earthquake extremely challenging, with their collective (relief point) score approaching -20. However, by the second week of the disaster their position had improved considerably due to increasingly effective interagency coordination. The HADR Task Force and the government of Carana took the lead in repairing the port and airport, thus enabling a greater volume of relief supplies to flow into the country. Social unrest proved to be very limited, and was dealt with through community mediation and the occasional government security operation. The UN and NGO teams had begun to repair critical infrastructure, and thereby support a transition from emergency relief to early, sustainable recovery. We had to stop the game before it was finished, but the players seemed well on their way to a successful humanitarian assistance operation.


All-in-all, I thought it was a very successful day. There seemed to be considerable support among participants for making Connections North a somewhat larger annual event that brings together an interdisciplinary group of those involved in the serious application of national security gaming methods in Canada. In the coming months the next steps will be to determine the best time of year for this, expand the network of serious gamers who could be involved, and to find an institution (ideally in the Ottawa area) to host such an event. If you’re interested in becoming involved, drop me a line.

AFTERSHOCK and Connections North

As I write this, Tom Fisher, Jim Wallman and I are en route to today’s Connections North professional wargaming “mini-conference” in Ottawa. As has become the tradition with Connections events, that means that AFTERSHOCK will be on sale this week. Save $10 off the regular price and get your copy now!

AFTERSHOCK discountAll net proceeds are donated to United Nations humanitarian organizations.


Pettyjohn and Shlapak on obstacles to reinvigorating defense wargaming


War on the Rocks features a piece by Stacie Pettyjohn and David Shlapak (RAND Center for Gaming) on the obstacles confronting current efforts by the US Department of Defence to reinvigorate wargaming:

These are laudable goals. Nevertheless, creating, orchestrating, and observing recent games across the Department of Defense — and conferring with the broader gaming community — has made us aware of a number of potential challenges. These are important to keep in mind for a reinvigorated wargaming enterprise to succeed.

Bonanza or Bust

A failure to appreciate the strengths, weaknesses, and limitations of wargames and wargamers could lead to a situation in which “bad games drive out good ones.” This is not a new concern. As wargaming expert Peter Perla has observed, wargames have often been “oversold” and “abused,” and wargaming as a method has suffered as a result. Given the current zeitgeist, this could become a problem again.

Supply and Demand

The growing demand for wargames also might outstrip the wargaming community’s capacity to successfully execute good games. This mismatch between supply and demand could negatively impact the quality of wargames and contribute to a potential backlash against gaming. The professional wargaming community may have already reached a point where the demand for games is exceeding the current supply of experienced game designers, skilled players, and other subject-matter experts vital to conducting first-rate games. As the number of wargames has swelled, the increased operational tempo also has the potential to stress organizations that are now being asked to run many small games each year instead of one large annual or biannual exercise, taxing short-handed staffs (especially if those small games need to be executed simultaneously or in quick succession).

Failure is an Option

To facilitate the dissemination of information about wargames, the Department of Defense has created a wargaming repository that will house the results of all completed games as well as information about planned exercises. Additionally, a Defense Wargaming Alignment Group is being created to ensure that senior leader priorities shape wargames while the insights from wargames inform senior leaders. These are important initiatives. But like all good initiatives, the Pentagon needs to be mindful of the unintended consequences that could emerge.

One of the main virtues of wargames is that they offer a low-risk and “intellectually liberating” environment. Yet the current effort to catalog, scrutinize, and utilize game results might inadvertently undermine this environment by raising the stakes of each game. This, in turn, could have two effects.

First, players might become more reluctant to criticize current plans, policies, and programs. For wargames to succeed, participants need to set aside parochial interests and try their best to identify, assess, and solve problems, even if their insights challenge the status quo. Increased oversight of the wargaming enterprise — and greater dependence on wargame findings to shape budgets in a time of resource scarcity — could actually make games more conservative when the intent may be exactly the opposite.

Second, organizers might exaggerate their findings to demonstrate that games are indeed the driver of innovation that many assume. Yet not all wargames uncover new insights, no matter how well-designed and well-executed they might be. Thus organizers and their sponsors need to adopt a “venture capital” model and understand that the failure to identify new solutions is not itself a failure of the game.

It’s a terrific piece, and well worth reading.

For more on current efforts to reinvigorate wargaming, see also these PAXsims posts:

Gardiner on wargaming as an overlooked educational tool

BAR.jpgThe most recent issue of British Army Review 165 (Winter 2016) contains an article by Lt Col Ivor Gardiner on the merits of commercial wargames as a tool for officer education:

Within the British Army, wargaming is primarily used as part of the Seven Questions (7Qs) of the Combat Estimate. However, it lacks a proper adversarial element. During the planning phase, the plan will become awed if most, or all, dangerous enemy actions and responses have not been articulated.

The missing aspect in British military wargaming is the adversarial. It is this aspect, and the replacement of military judgement by the use of variable factors and the ever maligned use of dice to determine outcomes, which results in much of the misperceptions directed towards wargaming. The result is usually a somewhat dismissive attitude and an assertion that it is a game of dice not much different from Risk and is more associated with ‘childish things’.

In the piece he discusses his experience using commercial wargames within the 1st Battalion the Royal IRISH, and highlights its value for staff training, complimenting battlefield studies, and force and capability development.

Historical legacy in professional military wargaming is proven. I think we can draw much from the importance ascribed to wargaming by the Prussian Army. It would be trite to say Prussian military success was based on wargaming, but nobody could deny that the emphasis placed on the conceptual and educational aspects of training Prussian – and later German – officers, partly through the medium of wargaming, did not make a significant contribution. This utility has been recognised by British thinkers such as H.G. Wells and Basil Liddell Hart; more recently strongly encouraged by Major General (Ret’d) Andrew Sharpe CBE, who retired as Director of the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) and now heads up the newly established Centre for Historical Analysis and Critical Research (CHACR). Yet we fail to fully appreciate this fantastic tool. We place an emphasis on Understanding of the environment on modern operations, yet still fail ourselves to fully Understand the value that can be added to military conceptual development through the simple and affordable medium of commercial wargaming.

You’ll find the full piece here.

h/t Tom Mouat 

On an unrelated note, if you haven’t yet completed our PAXsims reader survey, please do so—we’ll be discussing the results soon.

Connections North (Ottawa, February 22)

Join_the_Team_RCAF.jpgThis is rather last minute notice—probably because we’ve put it together at the very last minute—but Canadian readers will be interested to learn that Defence Research & Development Canada and PAXsims will be hosting Connections North, a one day miniconference on professional wargaming, in Ottawa on Monday, 22 February 2016. Among the presenters will be Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives), who is visiting the colonies this week.

Ottawa—deliberately located so as to be beyond the immediate reach of an US invasion, and with its scenic Rideau Canal providing strategic mobility for Imperial troops in the event of American aggression—is obviously the perfect place for such a get-together. You can’t be too careful.

Update—further details

We’ll be meeting in a meeting room at the Lord Elgin Hotel (100 Elgin St, Ottawa). The agenda for the meeting is below.

0930 Arrive at meeting location and set-up
0945 General Introductions: Workshop Overview and Objectives
1000 Presentation on DND matrix game trials

Dr. Murray Dixson (DRDC)

1015 Break
1030 Presentation on DND`s Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset (RCAT) trial

Paul Massel (DRDC)

1100 Gaming the Semi-Cooperative: Peace Operations, HADR, and Beyond

Prof. Rex Brynen (McGill University)

1130 Perspectives on Wargaming

Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives)

1200 Lunch
1315 Round table discussion on the application of wargaming to defence analysis and to support strategic decision making
1400 Demonstration of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game

Rex Brynen (McGill University) and Thomas Fisher (Imaginetic)

1530 Final Points and Conclusion

We hope to see members of the Ottawa wargaming community there, as well as those working on national security issues more broadly and others interested in the use of serious games for education and policy analysis. Pass it on!

Stephen Downes-Martin: The diagram

At the most recent MORS wargaming Community of Practice meeting/teleconference, Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College) presented on the topic of “Adjudication: The Diabolus in Machina of Wargaming.” I wasn’t able to attend since I have a (not-so-serious) game to organize this weekend, but much of what he had to say was based on an important article on the same topic he published in Naval War College Review 66, 3 (Summer 2013).

What was new to me, however, was this very useful diagram summarizing his arguments, which we’re happy to present to PAXsims readers:

Adjudicating Discovery Wargames Stephen Downes-Martin.png

Indeed, I’m almost tempted to make a game of it (“roll d6: on a 4+ your adjudicators believe they already know the answer, and ignore potential insights from the game that run counter to their preconceptions”).

Baranowski and Weir on political simulations: What we think we know, and what we still need to know

upse.jpgThe latest issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 11, 4 (October-December 2015) contains an article by Michael Baranowski and Kimberly Weir (Northern Kentucky University) on “Political Simulations: What We Know, What We Think We Know, and What We Still Need to Know.” It is a very useful reminder of the need for us to be more methodologically sophisticated in examining the issue.

For political scientists looking for creative ways to engage students, simulations might be the answer. The common conception is that because this type of activity offers a unique way to convey information through active learning, student learning will consequently increase. In order to evaluate this claim, we conducted a meta-analysis reviewing relevant simulation articles published in the Journal of Political Science Education from its inception through 2013. This systematic approach examines not just whether simulations prove engaging but, more importantly, whether they are valuable learning tools. We found that the discipline needs to conduct a more rigorous assessment of learning outcomes to move beyond the “Show and Tell” approach to evaluating simulations. Upon reviewing the articles, we are able to identify how a few changes can offer better information about the pedagogical value of simulations.

They are critical of some of the assessment mechanisms used to measure the learning impact of simulations:

The good news is that most of the simulations we examined did employ some sort of empirical evaluation method. However, this is only in a very broad sense and includes essentially any sort of measurement of student engagement and learning, including student reaction papers, course evaluations, exams, and final course grades. As one might reasonably expect, in every instance except one (Raymond 2012, discussed below), the authors concluded that their evidence demonstrated the effectiveness of the simulation to some extent.

Unfortunately, much of this empirical evidence was not as convincing to us as it often seemed to be to the authors. The fundamental problem with exams, final grades, and course evaluations as measures of simulation effectiveness is fairly obvious: It is extraordinarily difficult to isolate the effect of the simulation on student learning and/or engagement. Most of us are familiar with the feeling that a simulation or some other technique really helped students “get it” in a way reading and lectures did not, but general evaluations that do not focus specifically on the simulation itself cannot really tell us if that is the case.

While it is common for instructors to set aside time after a simulation for an in-class debriefing session, it is difficult to carefully evaluate this sort of evidence and even more difficult to convey it with any precision to anyone not present for the debriefing session. This is not to suggest that postsimulation debriefings are without merit as they can provide a wealth of potentially useful information to instructors. But alone they cannot provide sufficient evidence of the success of a simulation.

For the reasons outlined above, we do not consider simulations that solely rely on grades, course evaluations, or impressionistic debriefings to provide much in the way of strong empirical evidence….

Overall, they argue that the evidence on simulation effectiveness is positive, but that more effort is needed to assess this:

Our review confirmed that, while instructors struggle to systematically evaluate simulations, a small but growing body of evidence lends support to the contention that students who participate in simulations do in fact learn more than students not taking part in such exercises.

The literature has done a better job of identifying qualitative ways that students gain from participating in simulations. The fact that students are more enthusiastic about learning increases the likelihood that they might more regularly attend classes, as noted by Gorton and Havercroft (2012). While enthusiasm can only help to engage students, it does not necessarily lead to learning. That being said, rigorous research in which the effects of simulations can be isolated and measured is not as prevalent in the literature as we hope it one day will be. In part, this may be due to the manner in which pedagogical research is designed. While none of the authors we reviewed wrote anything like “I ran this simulation and then thought I should write it up,” some of the studies led us to suspect that is how things happened. While we are glad that the results of these efforts can be shared with the larger community, seeking rigor in the discipline necessitates planning on the part of the instructor to incorporate elements such as pretests and control groups rather than including them as an afterthought.

As Baranowski and Weir note, student surveys and self-reported learning may be a better gauge of how much students have enjoyed the simulation than what they have actually learned (or, for that matter, whether they’ve even learned the right things, since simulations may also especially vulnerable to generating misleading conclusions). They recognize, however, that fully experimental methods—using a control and treatment groups, and random assignment to these—are often not feasible. Certainly I know my POLI 450 students would riot if half of them were told they weren’t participating in the Brynania simulation. However, in the absence of a Control group there’s no reliable way of determining if the opportunity cost of a simulation was really worth it, or whether students would have learned just as much through other more traditional means like lectures, assigned readings, or course discussions.

They briefly discuss some of the problems with pre/post-test assessments of learning, although I think they understate the problems of prompting, sensitization, and consequent bias. The article largely focuses on traditional learning outcomes (knowledge retention, for example), and not necessarily on other learned skills (diplomatic skills, leadership, communication, self-confidence, stress management).

Finally, it seems to me quite possible that simulations articles in general, and those that include explicit attention to assessment mechanisms in particular, are an unrepresentative sample of simulation use more broadly. Almost by definition they are written by instructors with a particular interest in simulation methods, and who might therefore be much more effective at designing and implementing simulations, as well as integrating them into course curriculum.

All-in-all, the piece is a welcome contribution to the political science literature on simulations and learning.

Ciută: Playing Video Games with IR


The latest issue of Milennium 44, 2 (January 2016) has an article by Felix Ciută (University College London) entitled “Call of Duty: Playing Video Games with IR,” in which he explores recent scholarship on videogames and international relations:

This article attempts to further develop the IR research agenda on video games. The argument starts with a critique of the narrow focus on war-themed blockbuster games of current IR work on video games. I argue that this narrow view of IR and of video games is unsustainable and counterproductive, and has led to the positioning of IR as a regime of value with an unwarranted focus on the ideological effects of video games, and also to a paradoxical closing off of its research agenda. In the second half of the article I attempt to sketch two directions of research that could help overcome these initial limitations. The first outlines the potential for the IR study of the global aesthetic economy of video games, and the differentiated distribution of its regimes of value. The second encourages the study of game-worlds as practical-theoretical spaces where a particular relationship between academic subjectivity and its objects is constituted. The significance of this argument transcends IR video games research: it has relevance for cross-disciplinary issues regarding the status of academic moral-aesthetic judgements about cultural artfacts and practices; the relationship between academic and ‘popular’ knowledge; and the potential for political mobilisation at the interface of entertainment and social critique.

While non-specialist readers may find the article rather more opaquely written than necessary, he raises some important points about both an excessive focus on military-themed games, and about scholarship on popular culture and international relations more broadly.

PAXsims reader survey


While we know where PAXsims readers come from, and to some extent how you get here, we have less data on who you are, what your engagement with serious (and hobby) gaming is, and what you would like to see more of at the site. Consequently we thought it would be useful to put together a short PAXsims reader survey. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes to complete.

Thanks in advance for your assistance!

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