Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 28/02/2016

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.

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