PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gaming foreign policy (at the FCO)

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Today I spent an enjoyable day at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, running an abbreviated version of the ISIS Crisis matrix game and discussing how gaming approaches can contribute to policy analysis in a foreign ministry setting. About a dozen people participated, most of them FCO research analysts.

My notes for the session can be found here. I started by highlighting the ways in which serious games could be used to explore issues of crisis, conflict, foreign policy, and related issues. We then launched into ISIS Crisis. This proceeded rather more slowly than usual, partly because foreign ministry staff tend to more spend a little more time verbally framing their actions, but mainly because we devoted considerable time to discussing strengths, weakness, and possible variations in the game methodology as we went along.

ISIS started things off by organizing a successful terrorist attack against a cruise liner in Greece, which boosted their morale and reputation. Alleged civilian casualties from an unsuccessful US drone strike against a senior ISIS leader were also used in jihadist propaganda.

In Iraq, the Kurds tried to take advantage of Baghdad’s focus on Mosul to consolidate their control of the city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi government responded by bolstering its own forces in the Kirkuk area. This resulted in a tense stand-off that was eventually defused through Iranian mediation. The Kurds then sought to use the incident to reopen negotiations on a range of revenue-sharing and constitutional issues, but the central government showed little interest.

The incident also put the long-planned campaign to recapture Mosul behind schedule. When Iraqi forces sought to regain the initiative by pressing forward in a poorly-coordinated fashion they suffered heavy casualties from determined ISIS resistance.

Meanwhile, the failure of Baghdad to address Sunni grievances, coupled with a growing Iranian role and the continued presence of Shiite militias in Sunni areas only increased Sunni alienation. The Sunni opposition player was increasingly disinclined to cooperate with the central government in counter-ISIS actions, and successfully sought funding from Saudi Arabia (which only worsened relations between Baghdad and Riyadh).

We finished up with a discussion of the game and its methodology. I made the point that games need to be designed for their intended purpose, that they could be useful in generating questions and issues for further examination, and that they usually worked best when they formed part of a broader process of policy analysis.

I hope the participants found the day as useful as I did. Particular thanks are due to Owen ElliottHead of the FCO’s Africa Research Group, who arranged the session.

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