Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: February 2016

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 16 February 2016


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious games that might be of interest to PAXsims readers. Ryan Kuhns and Christian Palmer contributed material to this latest edition.


In Foreign Policy magazine last week, Derek Caelin asked “Can Your PlayStation Stop a War?

He’s cautiously hopeful about the transformative peacebuilding potential of games:

As this newer generation of the genre has evolved, it has shown that it also has the ability to change attitudes: Role-playing and self-persuasion can have profound and long-lasting effects on attitudes and behavior. In PeaceMaker, an influential social-impact game from 2007, the player acts as the head of state for one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tries to achieve a peaceful resolution. The player must respond to conflicting pressures from opposing parties and react to shifting political circumstances in order to accomplish this goal. One 2012 study of the title found that the experience had a significant impact on the audience’s perceptions of the parties of the conflict. When 68 participants played as the Palestinian leader, their perceptions of both parties shifted dramatically, causing many to reevaluate, at least in the short term, their opinions of the challenges faced by leaders in this conflict.

It is this element that is the most promising aspect of games for peacebuilders: that cleverly designed games have the potential to shift the way a player reacts to and behaves in the world.

But despite the potential obstacles and skepticism, the idea of using video games to make peace is worthwhile. Their suggestive reach is already being used to help fuel wars and spur recruitment into fighting forces. Whether it is Hezbollah creating games to allow players to digitally participate in the 2006 war with Israel, Islamic State supporters modifying Grand Theft Auto, or even the U.S. military recruiting youth with America’s Army, games are already being employed to allow their audience to participate in a conflict. And if they can be harnessed to serve war, games should and must be used to power peace.

We at PAXsims like peace, and we like game and simulations. It’s certainly good that Caelin is highlighting some of the possible connections. Unfortunately the piece suffers a bit from a  jumble of related (and somewhat trendy) ideas—games are popular, games shape attitudes, some peace games have been made, crowdfunding is cool, some games have been modestly effective in particular contexts—and doesn’t necessarily advance the art, science, and associated debates a great deal.



The American Political Science Association’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference recently concluded in Portland Oregon. The Active Learning in Political Science blog has plenty of reporting from the event:



Released on Steam last year are two political simulations: President for a Day: Corruption and President for a day: Floodings.

President for a Day- Corruption gives you the opportunity to assume the role of an African president. As such, you must make controversial decisions revolving around topics such as: democratic evolution, corruption, development aid- and cooperation.

President for A Day: Floodings is a turn-based strategy game where YOU are the President of Pakistan. With two weeks to Election Day, the monsoon could not come at a worse time. And in its wake comes famine, cholera, rebels, and much more. Can you save the nation in its hour of need?

Reviews have been mixed to mildly positive. Both games were developed by Serious Games Interactive—yes, the same company responsible for last year’s slave-trading simulation/debacle.





Business Insider reports on a refugee simulation held at last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

I did the simulation. It was not even 1% of what a refugee actually experiences, but it was enough to provide a jolt to my senses. It was by far the most illuminating thing I’ve experienced here. It was much better than a talk about what’s happening with refugees.


The Harvard Crimson reports on a new course at Harvard University on “Global Response to Disasters and Refugee Crises” that incorporates the annual Harvard Humanitarian Initiative field simulation.

The new course culminates in an optional crisis simulation in which students can apply what they’ve learned in a more realistic setting. Students will spend three days in a forest by North Andover, experiencing “the discomfort of being in the field,” according to VanRooyen.

The students in GHHP 70 will play the role of refugees, while graduate students, humanitarian professionals, and members of the U.S. military will act as aid workers.

“They have to work in teams,” VanRooyen said. “They work with U.N. agencies and military and NGOs and child soldiers and rebel militias and news media and all of those things to really understand the feeling of the field and to perform within it.”

The simulation, which has run for more than 10 years, has grown “in complexity and nuance” since its first iteration, VanRooyen said. Prior to this semester, the simulation run by the course heads was only available to graduate students and professionals in the field of humanitarian aid.


The Memorial Student Center Student Conference on National Affairs at Texas A&M University is cosponsoring a two day international relations/crisis simulation this week:

The MSC Student Conference on National Affairs, SCONA, and the U.S. Army War College will host a simulated “real world” crisis involving students representing multiple nations from around the world. Students will have the opportunity to negotiate through a crisis in an international conflict zone.

The International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise, ISCNE, will be held in the Memorial Student Center on Feb. 16 to Feb. 17 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The exercise is a closed event only open to registered delegates.

The event is a scenario driven, two-day exercise put on by the U.S. Army War College and is usually reserved for graduate schools, said Felix Perez, public relations director for ISCNE. However, Texas A&M is one of the few undergraduate institutions that has been given the opportunity to participate in this event. Each year there is a crisis that has to be resolved. Within the exercise there will be seven represented nations with about 60 participants who will have to solve the crisis.

“Each nation is briefed by their respective country’s foreign minister who in actuality is a representative from the U.S. army War College and will be given a list of criteria that their country has to highlight and take into consideration throughout the negotiations,” Perez said.

The countries that will be represented in this exercise range from Armenia, Turkey, the United States, Iran and more.

Further details can be found on their Facebook page.

Simulation & Gaming, February 2016


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 47, 1 (February 2016) is now available:


The article on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in UK military training by John Curry (History of Wargaming Project), Philip Sabin (KCL) and the legendary (or mythical) Tim Price is likely to be of particular interest to many PAXsims readers:

Aim. This article gives an overview of how commercial computer game technology was introduced for training, education and decision support within the British Army.

Value of the article. It records the narrative of the introduction and development of first person shooter computer games into the British Army; an area where developments are not routinely reported outside the closed world of defence training.

Methodology. The research was based on interviews of key staff who worked in procurement at the Defence Academy of the UK and for the MoD during 2002 to 2012. The interviewees included two officers, an experienced defence contractor and a senior civil servant. These interviews were given on the understanding that the views expressed would not be individually attributable as they might not represent those of their current employers. The authors were also given access to a unique collection of documents, some of which were not publically available, but are held in the archives of the UK Defence Academy. These are cited in the bibliography.

Limitations of the article. This article cites the evidence from the time that supported the continued use of what was a radical and contentious new way of training. Since the introduction of Virtual Battle Space 2 into the British Army, further research into the effectiveness of games based training in the military has been published.

Analysis. Games based training has become a significant part of the training cycle for many parts of the British Army. These games have limitations, but are the only alternative to real operations for some types of training. However, the difficult topic of what is the correct proportion of games based training to other types? is a contested area within defence training in the UK.

Conclusions. Initial evaluations on the effectiveness of the use of computer games in preparing UK forces for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan showed they had a significant positive impact. The first experience of the British Army with these games has secured the long-term application of this technology and it is unrealistic to imagine future military training without some degree of games technology.

Sabin: The continuing role of manual conflict simulation

Recently, as part part of a class he ran for Prof. Armin Fuegenschuh at the German Armed Forces University in Hamburg, Prof. Philip Sabin (KCL) gave an illustrated talk on the Continuing Role of Manual Conflict Simulation.  This has now been posted on the HSU website.  It offers a general introduction to the subject, making reference to many of his current activities, while in the Q&A he addresses some important nuances of designing and using manual conflict simulations. PAXsims and AFTERSHOCK even get a shout-out (43:07).

Matrix games at the US Army War College

USAWC.jpgThe following piece was contributed by Colonel Jerry Hall and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Chretien of the Strategic Simulations Division (SSD), Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College.

Dr. Rex Brynen of McGill University in Montreal, Canada recently delivered a presentation on “Conflict Simulation and Gaming in the Classroom” at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. During the workshop, Dr. Brynen introduced us to Matrix Games. He also moderated “ISIS Crisis,” a Matrix Game on the rise of ISIS set in the summer of 2014. Matrix Games have the potential to enhance experiential education in both wargaming and Professional Military Education (PME).

A Matrix Game is a low-overhead, facilitated, multi-player, argument-based game where players propose actions, weigh arguments and counter-arguments, and a die roll decides success or failure. Matrix Games typically last 2-3 hours and require a scenario with map and counters, a facilitator/umpire, a subject matter expert, and 4-6 players or teams of players. Matrix Games can be created on any topic, however the focus of this article is on strategic geopolitical crisis Matrix Games.

Chris Engle created Matrix Games in the late 1980s. He wanted to develop a game system in which it was possible for a player to role-play an entire country, but that did not have extensive rules, unit counters and combat results tables (like most wargames).[1] He based his system on roleplaying games, using a free-play framework where players propose actions, state their desired effect, and then posit arguments in support of why they believe the proposed action will succeed (other players may offer counter-arguments). Initially his games included a matrix of cue words, although over time the matrix was dropped, but the name stuck.[2] For additional information on Matrix Games, as well as free Matrix Games, see:


Subsequently, the Strategic Simulations Division at the Army War College hosted its first Matrix Game demonstration session on December 10, 2015 for staff members of the Center for Strategic Leadership. The purpose of the demonstration was to provide an overview of Matrix Games and their potential for use as an additional wargaming method. The War College hosts several strategic wargames a year, using the two-sided seminar format. In ISIS Crisis, the participants represent one of six sides: the United States, Iran, Iraqi Government, Sunni minority, Iraqi Kurds, and ISIS. Prior to the game, each team was provided team-specific background information, objectives, and a special rules card explaining rules unique to each side.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The purpose of the ISIS Crisis demonstration described below was to inform staff members on the Matrix Game methodology, not to formulate policy or strategy. Player actions do not reflect official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The game began with a strategy and diplomacy phase, during which each team developed its strategy and conducted diplomatic negotiations with other the teams. For some teams, the negotiation session was instrumental in brokering deals that would significantly shape the subsequent gameplay. For others, the negotiation phase provided a sense of where they stood politically with other teams.


The pre-game overview brief.

At the end of the strategy and diplomacy phase, each team announced the results of any negotiations (if they chose to). The United States team used the opportunity to announce a “four point” strategy for defeating ISIS. The final point of the strategy was support for a confederation system of government in Iraq, rather than continuing to support the Shia-dominated “unity” government. This announcement both surprised and immediately impacted the other players, especially the Iraqi, Iranian, Sunni minority and Kurdish teams.

The US team’s policy announcement set the tone for the game. The US built on its policy announcement by conducting a strategic information operations campaign to discredit ISIS and reduce its ability to recruit foreign fighters. Following a successful ISIS attack into Kurdish controlled Hasakah province and a successful Kurdish counter-offensive into Mosul, the US team deployed a significant aid package to the Kurds, in the form of air support, advisors, equipment and funding. Iraq interpreted the US policy statement and its direct support of the Kurds as destabilizing and sought to conduct reforms to increase minority representation in Parliament and its Ministries. The reform movement failed however, and the predominantly Shia Iraqi government faced the situation of a US-backed and resurgent Kurdish minority, combined with a now disenchanted Sunni minority leaning toward ISIS. The Iraqi Government responded by publicly appealing for military support. Iran responded to the call by announcing it would deploy ground forces into Iraq to help combat ISIS (the Iraqi and Iranian teams struck this secret deal during the diplomacy phase, unknown to the facilitator and the other players).


Map orientation.

The US continued its diplomatic efforts to defeat ISIS by approaching the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and asking them for help in cutting off funding for ISIS, then announced their own version of the 2014 Iranian Nuclear Deal, with a caveat that allowed Iran to deploy into Iraq to help fight ISIS. This deal effectively divided Iraq into a three-party state by driving the Sunni minority toward ISIS and further reinforcing Kurdish autonomy. ISIS and the Sunni minority successfully took Tikrit, then Fallujah, while Iranian forces deployed into Najaf, Karbalah and Samarra. ISIS then successfully conducted a covert operation in Samarra, destroying several Sunni mosques with explosives, and blaming Iranian forces. This event further strengthened the fissures between the Iraqi Government, the Sunnis and the Kurds. The Iraqi government attempted to gloss over the situation by conducting a “One Iraq” strategic communication campaign, but it did not reflect reality on the ground and was ignored by the other players. The game ended with Iraq in control of its Shia regions with significant Iranian ground forces, ISIS in control of the Sunni regions, including Tikrit and Fallujah, and the US-backed Kurds firmly in control of the Kurdish region. The new US policy announcement and the clever Iranian deals with the US and Iraq effectively created a three party Iraq. A by turn summary of all player actions as recorded is at the end of this article.


Iranian team deliberations.

The after action review with the players, who were a mix of wargaming and research analysis experts, yielded several insights. Collectively the players thought that Matrix Games could be most beneficial before or during (or even in place of) the prevalent two-sided seminar wargaming method. They felt that the Matrix Game method better promoted participation and engagement among the players. The analysts felt that Matrix Games provided more quantitative data to collect due to the increased interaction, as well as more qualitative data in the form of the supporting arguments and the die rolls. All players thought that Matrix Games would be best for current or future (potential) conflicts to avoid participant knowledge of historical scenarios. They did acknowledge that historical scenarios could be used for Matrix Games to gain insights and understanding into why actors behaved as they did in historical conflicts.

Finally, ISIS Crisis demonstrated the potential utility of Matrix Games in policy and strategy formulation. National Security practitioners could conduct multiple iterations of a Matrix Game, testing a different policy or strategy approach in each one, to gain insights into how the various parties may react. For example, had this game been a test of a “confederation Iraq” policy, the US team would likely discard that policy course of action due to the implications vis-à-vis Iran, the Sunnis and the Kurds.

Since this ISIS Crisis demonstration, we briefed the War College Commandant and began to design our own Matrix Games. We plan to provide the War College faculty training on the use of Matrix Games as another tool in their instructor “toolkit” and look forward to providing future strategic leaders an additional experiential education experience during their time here at Carlisle Barracks.

ISIS Crisis actions by turn summary:

Turns 0-1

  • Turn 0 (Diplomacy Round): US announced new “4 Point” Policy to defeat ISIS; final point was support for an Iraqi Confederation Government
  • US: Global IO Campaign to discredit ISIS (success)
  • Iran: Negotiate covert SOF advisors and equipment to Syria (success)
  • ISIS: Conquer Hasakah Province from Kurds (success; doubles*)
  • ISIS Free Move: Counter US IO Campaign based on taking Hasakah (success)
  • Iraq: Expand minority representation across minsitries (fail)
  • Sunni: Propose law for proportional minority representation in Parliament (fail)
  • Kurds: Conquer Mosul from ISIS (success)

*ISIS Crisis special rule: when any player rolls doubles on two six-sided dice, ISIS receives a bonus action related to the roll.

Turn 2

  • US: Deploy forces in support of Kurds (Drones, SOF, Air, Equipment) (success)
  • Iran: Move SOF (via air) and equipment (via sea) to Syria (fail; moved but detected and attributed to Iran)
  • ISIS: Retake Mosul from Kurds (fail)
  • Iraq: Open request for ground forces in support of fight against ISIS (no roll; Iran agrees to help)
  • Sunni: Conduct uprising in Tikrit: phase 1 build militia (success)
  • Kurds: Retake Hasakah Province from ISIS (fail; doubles)
  • ISIS Free Move: Provide support to Sunnis for Tikrit uprising (success)*

*Umpire mistake, not related to failed roll!

Turn 3

  • US: Soft diplomacy to GCC to stop flow of money to ISIS (success)
  • Iran: Deploy ground forces to Iraq: Najaf and Karbala (success)
  • ISIS: Conquer Tikrit with Sunni militia support (success)
  • Iraq: Conduct anti-ISIS IO campaign based on “one Iraq” (fail)
  • Sunni: Re-propose law for proportional minority representation in Parliament (success)
  • Kurds: Retake Hasakah Province from ISIS (success)

Turn 4

  • US: Announced Iranian nuclear deal in exchange for Iranian help against ISIS (success)
  • Iran: Deploy additional ground forces to Iraq: Samara (success; doubles)
  • ISIS Free Move: Blows up several mosques in Samara; Iran blamed (success)
  • ISIS: Regional recruiting campaign (success; doubles)
  • ISIS Free Move: Conquer Fallujah from Iraq (success)
  • Iraq: Coordinate for Combined Iraqi-Iranian assault to retake Fallujah from ISIS (fail; Iraq attacks alone)
  • Sunni: Appeal to US for support (no roll)
  • Kurds: Recuit/deploy additional Peshmerga into Kirkuk Provice (fail)

[1]Matrix Games: The Origins of Matrix Games,” Wargame Developments,  (accessed January 27, 2016).

[2] John Curry and Tim Price, Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming (Bristol, UK: The History of Wargaming Project, 2014), 7.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

COL Jerry Hall is an Army Simulations Officer and the Director of the Strategic Simulations Division, Center for Strategic Leadership, US Army War College. He can be reached at

LTC Joseph Chretien is an Army Simulations Officer assigned to the Strategic Simulations Division. He can be reached at

Global politics in historical strategy computer games


Nicolas de Zamaróczy has a forthcoming piece in International Studies Perspectives entitled “Are We What We Play? Global Politics in Historical Strategy Computer Games,” in which he explores the way that popular (gaming) culture portrays international relations. It’s already available here, and well worth a read.

Building upon current interest in studies of how popular culture relates to global politics, this article examines one hitherto overlooked aspect of popular culture: computer games. Although not prominent in the field of International Relations (IR), historical strategy computer games should be of particular interest to the discipline since they are explicitly designed to allow players to simulate global politics. This article highlights five major IR-related assumptions built into most single-player historical strategy games (the assumption of perfect information, the assumption of perfect control, the assumption of radical otherness, the assumption of perpetual conflict, and the assumption of environmental stasis) and contrasts them with IR scholarship about how these assumptions manifest themselves in the “real world.” This article concludes by making two arguments: first, we can use computer games as a mirror to critically reflect on the nature of contemporary global politics, and second, these games have important constitutive effects on understandings of global politics, effects that deserve to be examined empirically in a deeper manner.

The games he examines include various editions of Civilization (II, III, and IV); Age of Empires IIEuropa Universalis II and III; Medieval: Total War (I and II); and Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. He offers several thoughts as to how the image of international relations embodied in such games both reflects and shapes popular opinion.

Thinking about historical strategy games as a mirror forces us to reflect critically on the nature of global politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century. I attempted above to demonstrate that many of the key assumptions of these games run against much of the best IR scholarship in several domains. At the same time, however, these games would not enjoy the popularity they do if they represented global politics in a way that was too disconnected from the conceptions held by a majority of their players.

They may also shape the preconceptions of IR students:

Furthermore, IR educators have particular reason to worry about the constitutive effects of digital games, given that what they attempt to teach by day in the IR classroom may be undermined by what students are playing at night. Statistics suggest that this is not just an idle fear.

In urging further examination of such issues, de Zamaróczy also argues the need for greater methodological sophistication:

Digital games, through their strong emphasis on active participation rather than passive reception, stand out from the rest of pop culture as the medium that arguably most allows for agency, reinterpretation, and contestation. So it would be inaccurate to expect simple, direct causal effects as a result of playing digital games; the nature of the relationship is likely to be both more diffuse and less determined. Indeed, some have even suggested that instead of having a conservative effect, digital games can actually have emancipatory properties (Chan 2009; Chien 2009; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009; Lammes 2010).

This, in turn, opens the door for further systematic empirical research. Much of the existing literature in IR on the constitutive nature of popular culture, while persuasive in toto, tends to simply posit a relationship rather than seek to test it empirically. This is especially true for the few existing IR studies of digital games, where claims about, say, games’ constitutive role in militarization tend to be asserted rather than tested (e.g., Stahl 2006; Power 2007; Höglund 2008; Gagnon 2010).10 Fortunately, though, scholars in a variety of other disciplines have been developing techniques for empirically establishing the causal microfoundations between pop cultural artifacts and their constitutive effects. For instance, the constitutive effects of digital games have been assessed through survey data (Penney 2009; Wang 2010; Festl, Scharkow, and Quandt 2013), panel studies (Williams 2006), direct observation of in-game behavior (MacCallum-Stewart 2008; Payne 2009; Kafai, Cook, and Fields 2010; Monson 2012), focus groups (Schott and Thomas 2008; Huntemann 2009), content analysis (Šisler 2008; Gagnon 2010; Hitchens, Patrickson, and Young 2014), and reviews of online material posted by players (Brock 2011; Owens 2011; Pulos 2013; Braithwaite 2014). IR will develop a richer understanding of how global politics actually works if it unpacks the constitutive effects of pop cultural artifacts using empirical techniques like these.

h/t Ryan Kuhns 

COIN Day in Minnesota

The 1st Minnesota Historical Wargaming Society will be holding their second annual COIN Day in St. Paul, MN on February 26. The event will feature all manner of insurgency and counter-insurgency-themed games. You’ll find further details at BoardGameGeek.

1st MN Coin Day 2016 Feb 26.jpg

h/t David Dockter  



Playtesting the AFTERSHOCK gender expansion at National Defense University.

Ever since AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game was published last year we have had numerous suggestions for modifications and expansions. One particular request came from Neyla Arnas, who works on women, peace and security at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University. Would it be possible, Neyla asked, to design a variant of the game that would help to highlight the ways in which gender can shape humanitarian need and humanitarian response?

We were happy to take up the challenge. In doing so we were driven by several key design considerations:

  • First, it is important that players understand that because men and women (and boys and girls) may be affected by disaster in different ways, their needs and vulnerabilities may differ too. Accordingly, effective programme delivery requires recognizing and addressing this. In presenting a gendered perspective as an integral element of operational effectiveness we hope the expansion set neither seems preachy (which might turn off some) nor treats gender as an add-on or side issue.
  • Second, we didn’t want to imply that all gender issues are about women, or that programs that address gender are always the most important priority. Indeed, in a disaster where humanitarian need is intense, urgent, and overwhelming, there may not be the time and resources to address some issues. A central part of the AFTERSHOCK experience is identifying priorities and trade-offs.
  • Third, any supplemental rules or procedures in the game has to be clear and straight-forward. It is essential that they not confuse, excessively complicate, or slow down game play.
  • Finally, any system used for introducing gender issues into the game must be fully compatible with any other expansions we might introduce on other topics in the future. Indeed, ideally all expansions would use the same mechanic, allowing a game to be customized with material from multiple expansions sets.

Initially we thought about simply introducing new events into the Event deck. However, there are limits to this sort of approach. If too many new cards are introduced it distorts the game balance. There is also no guarantee that issues will arise in any given game.

In the end, we have added a few new Event cards, and one new Coordination card. However, the main mechanism of the expansion set is a new “Challenge Phase” that takes place at the end of each game turn. During this phase, players draw a Challenge card, which outlines a problem or need that they can collectively try to address during the coming turn. If they succeed certain benefits will accrue. If unsuccessful, there are costs.

Gender Challenge Quarter Map JAN 28 EDIT.jpg

A sample Challenge card.

As he did with AFTERSHOCK itself, Tom Fisher worked his graphic magic to make the new gaming components clear and engaging.

Gender Challenge Quarter Map JAN 28 EDIT2.jpg

Another sample Challenge card.

When we playtested it with volunteers at McGill University the feedback was very positive. This week I took it on the road and tried it out with a playtest group at NDU. There too there seemed to be agreement that the expansion did a very good job of raising issues without distorting the flow of the game.


Playtesting the AFTERSHOCK gender expansion at McGill University.

We’ll be tweaking the design more in the near future, and hope that the expansion set will eventually be available later this year.

Legal Advises You to Choose a Fictional Country…


Jonas Savimbi IRL and in Call of Duty: Black Ops

We don’t talk a lot on the blog about the weirder liability considerations involved in games designed for profit – or even sometimes as part of a public research agenda – but the risk is out there.

The family of infamous Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi is suing the makers of Call of Duty: Black Ops over the game’s depiction of the warlord. Three of Savimbi’s children, who live in Paris, having taken the company, Activision, to court, demanding 1 million Euros in damages for defaming their father as “a barbarian.” The game designer’s lawyers, meanwhile, have called the portrayal: “favorable.”

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 shows him rallying his troops with phrases like “death to the MPLA”, referring to the party that has governed Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975.

But his family said they are outraged at the depiction.

“Seeing him kill people, cutting someone’s arm off… that isn’t Dad,” said Cheya Savimbi…

A lawyer for Activision Blizzard, Etienne Kowalski, said the firm disagreed with Savimbi’s family, saying it showed the former rebel as a “good guy who comes to help the heroes”.

OK then. Well the U.S. government had strong currents of support for him at times too, I guess – despite the appalling violence committed by UNITA (including burning suspected witches. Really).

At least in Brynania you can assign whatever despicable behavior you want to the Zaharian Peoples Front (ZPF) without fear of winding up in court. Game writers take note.

Gaming the semi-cooperative


I’m in and around Washington DC for much of this week, and today had the opportunity to give a talk at the RAND’s Center for Gaming in Alexandria. My topic was “gaming the semi-cooperative,” and it focused on the challenge of designing games that are neither purely adversarial (unlike most kinetic, blue-on-red wargames) nor fully cooperative (unlike say Pandemic, or many emergency preparedness exercises). This sort of challenge comes up often in the sorts of games that I develop and use for both educational and policy/analysis purposes: for example, peace processes and operations where most actors may want peace, but they differ greatly in their approach, interests, and vision of the future; humanitarian interagency games, in which players may share a common overarching goal, but also have institutional interests and standard operating procedures that sometimes put them at loggerheads; or even substantially kinetic campaign games characterized by complex and tenuous multinational coalitions of the not-always-willing.

In the presentation I noted that one can try to generate semi-cooperative behaviour through the explicit rewards, payoffs, and game objectives given to the players. This is what might be termed a game-theoretic approach, since it presumes that players will, in rational pursuit of maximum gains and given a particular payoff matrix, adopt the desired semi-cooperative behaviours. And to some extent they will: AFTERSHOCK, for example, deliberately scores players both on their achievement of collective goals (saving lives, represented in the game by “Relief Points”) and separate individual goals (organizational reputation and political or donor support, represented in the game by “Operations Points”), thereby encouraging general cooperation complicated by occasional friction deriving from divergent interests.


The core of my argument, however, is that structuring rewards and explicit objectives is not enough.  Robust evidence from behavioural economics and experimental psychology shows that not all players respond in similar ways to game payoffs: norms, attitudes, and socialization makes a difference. How one frames a game to players has also been shown to have dramatic effect on the proportion of cooperative and non-cooperative actions. From a learning perspective, extrinsic incentives and rewards (scoring points, meeting defined objectives) may be less effective in educational games than intrinsic rewards—the emotional satisfaction—from playing a game well. Role identity and immersion in the game narrative can have powerful effects on game play dynamics. So too do player gaming styles and role assignment importance.

Given all this, I discussed several techniques I have used to manipulate player psychology and narrative engagement so as to foster semi-cooperation:

  • The use of limited or manipulated player information to generate friction, rivalry, suspicion, or sense of injustice.
  • Time pressures to spur both bonding and friction.
  • Manipulation of the physical environment (such as room assignments or game layout) to foster or hamper cooperation.
  • Social engineering of participant assignments, using known players in key roles to increase cooperation or tension.
  • Recognizing the importance of “fluff and chrome”—that is, the backstory, setting, and supplementary materials of the scenario—in generating a sense of immersion and role identity.

The slides for the talk can be found here (pdf) and here (powerpoint).

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