PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: February 2017

Discussion welcome: (war)gaming the US as ally and adversary

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I’ll be giving some thought over the next week to “(war)gaming the US as ally and adversary,” for a piece I hope to write soon. I have always been interested in how we model actors with murky or complex decision-making processes, as well as actors who may at times appear irrational (North Korea for example, or Qaddafi’s Libya). How much of this is simply different worldviews and interests, and how much of it is truly non-rational? How can pol-mil wargames best generate policy responses that reflect ideology, confirmation bias, pride, narcissism, bureaucratic infighting, and other non-realist determinants of strategic or operational behaviour?

In particular, in the coming months and years those of us outside the US who do national security gaming may need to consider:

  • How best to model unpredictable US behaviour (say, wavering alliance commitments) or behaviours that veer between supportive and threatening.
  • How best to model the US as a partial adversary or threat to national interests (for example, on trade policy, or liberal democracy).
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No this isn’t a real tweet.

Any ideas are welcome in the comments section.

Reflections on (another) McGill megagame

Last year (in)famous megagame designer Jim Wallman made a trip to frozen Montréal to run New World Order 2035 at McGill University, with some one hundred or so players taking part. It was a big success.

Last week Jim made a return visit for War in Binni, this year’s McGill megagame. Again, approximately one hundred persons participated in the day-long event, most of them McGill students. The event was cosponsored by PAXsims, the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill (IRSAM), and the McGill Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA).

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War in Binni has been run several times before elsewhere, notably at last year’s Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London. The theme of a civil war in a fictional country in West Africa was of particular interest to students, including those in my POLI 450 and POLI 650 peacebuilding courses. We’ll be running our own even larger, week-long Brynania civil war simulation later in the term. However, unlike the Connections/KCL version, the game at McGill included a significant “weird science” component, with a touch of both Lovecraft and Indiana Jones. The event was held in excellent space New Residence Hall, including a large ballroom, two conference rooms, a foyer (and cloakroom), an integrated audio and data projectors. The staff were helpful as ever.

I should also note that almost half (41%) of our our participants were women—and, moreover, they all paid to participate. This was similar to last year. Those who argue that women are somehow uninterested in political-military gaming clearly have no idea what they are talking about.


We started off with a basic orientation to the game from Jim. Rules and maps had been posted online before the game, and individual role briefings had been emailed to all players about a week beforehand.

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Action at the map table, as the Clewgists celebrate a victory.

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Map Control (me), pointing.

While the government, various rebel groups, and regional actors vied for territory and influence, shady international arms dealers sold weapons to the highest bidder, the UN Security Council met in emergency sessions, and humanitarian aid workers struggled to cope with a growing flood of refugees.

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The United Nations Security Council meets.

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Heavy fighting takes a heavy toll on civilians, forcing many to flee.

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The Clewgists mourn the destruction of their sacred grove by a rival militia.

Three archaeological digs were also at work in the war-torn country. These soon uncovered increasingly unusual findings. These included evidence of alien technology, and various occult items with mysterious powers.

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An archaeologist briefs the French ambassador.

Little did the players know that, hidden among the participants were a small group of secret cultists. This group managed to obtain key objects from the digs, perform a dark ritual, and summon an Elder God of unspeakable power. The huge creature appeared atop Mount Clewg, and began to rampage through the country, destroying everything in its path.

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An extradimensional creature appears atop Mount Clewg.

The international community responded with a barrage of cruise missile attacks and bombing strikes, but these did minimal damage. Researchers at McGill University utilized one of their archaeological finds to slow the thing’s progress. Regional powers revealed that they had all been secretly researching WMD, and unleashed chemical weapons and radiological missiles. However it was the Kingdom of Gao, in alliance with Christian and Muslim rebel groups and the local Clewgist tribal insurgents, that inflicted the most damage, severely damaging the creature with an alien death ray before a suicidal charge by the Clewgists destroyed the evil abomination.

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Militias (and Gao) unite to destroy the terror.

As all this was happening, the government of Binni—afflicted by plummeting domestic political support and the assassination of the President—finally agreed on peace terms with the main opposition alliance. Peace had come… but at what cost? And what does the future hold for Binni?


Overall I thought that Binni went even better than NWO 2035. There were, perhaps, several reasons for this.

First, everyone seemed to internalize their roles very quickly, and game play was generally credible and “realistic” (or as realistic as it can be in a game featuring alien technology and an Elder God).

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The Global (later, Galactic) News Network at work.

Second, our Global News Network team did a terrific job of getting information out to the players. The GNN website contained a few in-depth stories, most of which had been written in advance by the Control team to be released during the initial game turns.  Most news was carried on the GNN Twitter feed. Special “breaking news” announcements were made over the audio system, sometimes only a few seconds after the event had occurred. The GNN team also did an excellent job of investigative reporting, using covert reporters and in-country teams to considerable effect. They resisted the temptation to report rumours as facts, or believe or print everything they were told.

I know from previous large games how important the media role is. It also requires players who understand their importance in the game process (acting, in some senses, as an element of the Control team), and enjoy acting as journalists: verifying, investigating, uncover secrets, and breaking important stories.

Third, War in Binni had fewer rules than NWO 2035, and game systems were generally more simple and straight-forward. This allowed players to focus on role-playing and interaction rather than understanding rules, and facilitated the sort of creative, emergent gameplay that is at the heart of a successful megagame.

We’re already thinking ahead to next year’s game…

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 19 February 2017

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It has been a busy month, and as a consequence we are a bit behind on updates. So here (at last) is the latest issue of simulations and gaming miscellany, filled with items on serious and not-so-serious gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers.

James Sterrett suggested material for this latest edition.

PAXsims

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It’s official! The next Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference will be held at King’s College London on 5-7 September 2017. I plan to be there.

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The Connections US wargaming conference will be held this year in Quantico, VA on 1-4 August 2017.

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PAXsims

The Military Operations Research Society will be extending the 85th MORS Symposium abstract submission deadline to 10 March 2017.

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PAXsims

The website for the 2017 North American Simulation and Gaming Association is now live. The deadline for conference proposals is 31 March 2017.

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PAXsims

The Canadian military has issued guidelines to assist peacekeepers in dealing with child soldiers. To support such training, students at  Dalhousie University have developed a game on the topic, in cooperation with the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative.

It’s a written training manual given interactive life, and it’s the brainchild of a group of informatics students at the Halifax school.

Developed over three semesters by 11 students, the game is set to be tested with peacekeepers in the field as part of training offered by Dalhousie’s Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative.

Josh Boyter, who works with the Dallaire initiative, said the game is designed so it can be deployed in some of the most difficult hotspots around the world without having to utilize the Internet or wireless connections.

“This game can sit on a USB key,” said Boyter.

“It’s all locally based, so as long as they have a browser on their laptop . . . the game won’t break. It’s purely designed to be as robust as possible.”

Boyter said his organization plans to give the game to the first child protection adviser to be attached to an African Union peacekeeping mission. The adviser will use it to help train soldiers and police.

“We are really excited to see how it actually is going to help in terms of our ultimate mission, which is to end the use of child soldiers,” he said.

The game presents a range of scenarios and roles in which child soldiers could be encountered, including as spies or even suicide bombers. Each scenario presents a list of choices for dealing with the child soldier and the game user is ultimately told whether those choices are right or wrong.

PAXsims

Ars Technica reports on an effort in Berlin to use boardgames to bring newly-arrived refugees and Germans closer together:

At the shelter I frequent most, a children’s worker named Robin spends many afternoons playing games with the kids. He teaches them the German classic Mensch, Ärgere Dich Nicht, a best-selling variant of Parcheesi. It has become one of their favorites.

My friend Karin, who publishes games for businesses, wants to donate some games for the refugees. She gives me black-and-white Parcheesi boards that can be colored in by the children, and we pick out various colors of pawns and dice to include with each board.

When I pull out the game boards at the shelter the following week, the children enjoy choosing their pawns. Then they get right to work, adding color to their boards with the markers and colored pencils I bring with me. When finished, they cannot believe that the games are theirs to keep. I assure them that they are—and suddenly find myself in the middle of a group hug.

Later, I ask my friend Thorsten—who works for the large Berlin publisher who makes Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht—if the company would be able to donate any games as Christmas presents for the children. He packs a large box, which I supplement with a few extra chess sets and some games that designer Néstor sent me. My family joins me in wrapping and distributing them.

This happens on a very special night, as the refugees are finally moving to “container apartments” after a full year of bunk beds and bedsheet partitions in a converted indoor basketball court. We are invited to share food and join in a dance, and the children’s eyes light up when they receive a game of their very own.

But the gifts are more than just games. They are reminders of the times we shared together every week over the past year, and the promise of more to come.

PAXsims

Following their very successful Simnovate conference in May 2016, the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning at McGill University will be holding another Simnovate event in Montreal on 29 March 2017:

Our four work groups, i.e. patient safety, medical technologies, global health, and pervasive learning, have come together, and with outputs from the youth innovation and costs of innovation panel, produced a series of high quality manuscripts. These will be published in a special issue of BMJ Simulation and Technology Enhanced Learning, to be publicly launched at the Mar 29 event.

We are extremely pleased to have Dr. Russell Gruen, Director of the Nanyang Institute of Technology in Health and Medicine in Singapore, Dr. Nick Sevdalis, Editor-in-Chief of BMJ Simulation and Technology Enhanced Learning, and Ms. Katrine Kirk, Danish Patient Safety Champion, join us in Montreal for the event. We also have the pleasure of hosting Assistant Deputy Minister Marie-Josée Blais, Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation, Province of Quebec, as well as many of the original invitees to the May 2016 event, to encourage and propagate further discussion, dissemination and implementation of the simnovate mission.

The event commences at 1:30pm, with a series of keynotes, panel sessions and discussions, followed by a cocktail reception for networking and further follow-up.

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PAXsimsPolygon recently reported on UNESCO’s interest in the power of gaming to promote empathy, understanding, and positive social change:

For lots of gamers, the power of the medium is its ability to place us in the shoes of other people, making tough choices that we’d otherwise never need to contemplate.

But how does that message of power and opportunity spread outwards, away from the mostly indie games that address serious issues, and the relatively small number of people who celebrate these noble efforts?

He’s also the author of a new report commissioned by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) which seeks to find ways in which games can be used to foster empathy and understanding around the world. The report was commissioned by UNESCO subsidiary the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace.

WP_cover.pngDarvasi’s report — Empathy, Perspective and Complicity: How Digital Games can support Peace Education and Conflict Resolution — focuses on academic studies into how so-called “serious games” can alter perspectives and create cognitive empathy.

“Perspective-taking helps negotiate social complexities, diminish biases, improve inter-group attitudes, and encourage a view of outgroups as more self-like,” states the report. “The potential to positively impact attitudes with digital games is not only rooted in their ability to grant perspective, but also in their potency as instruments of persuasion.”

“If you read the literature on conflict resolution, perspective-taking is very important in order to reconcile opposing points of view,” says Darvasi. “It’s difficult to have empathy if you can’t put yourself into somebody else’s perspective. Video games allow you to assume perspectives in an embodied form.

“When you watch the news or a documentary, you might not feel connected to the issue. But video games immerse you in the action. Your actions have consequences within the game and therefore there’s a greater emotional and cognitive investment.”

PAXsims

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The latest update to Power & Revolution: Geopolitical Simulator 4 was released by Eversim on January 20, to coincide with the inauguration of US President Donald Trump:

Donald Trump’s Challenge : play as the new chief executive of the United States and strive to keep your campaign promises on issues such as reducing the tax burden, stimulating the economy or the fight against illegal immigration… all while avoiding bankrupting the nation and maintaining your approval ratings with the end goal of being reelected for a second term in 202

War in Syria and Iraq 2017 : play as one or several warring factions in the new conflict map configuration updated as of the beginning of 2017 and strive to emerge victorious or put an end to hostilities. NB : the conflict scenarios from the beginning of 2016 will still be playable.

Gross National Happiness : improve the quality of life for your people by implementing reforms and try to raise your country’s global ranking.

French Election 2017 : play as one of the candidates in the French national elections or even the current chief of state and run a campaign, manage your budget, establish your campaign platform, participate in debates and try to get elected (or reelected) to the highest office.

Before you all ask, PAXsims has no information on whether the update includes dubious connections with Russian intelligence, immigration and refugee bans, “fake news”, bizarre press conferences, arguments over the size of crowds on the Mall, or turmoil in the National Security Council.

PAXsims

In early January, a not-exactly-secret ICONS simulation was mentioned in the New York Times article on US support for the Baltic states:

The intelligence also informs planning in Washington. In October, the military’s Joint Staff conducted a three-day confidential simulation exercise involving four possible situations in Latvia in which Russia used drones, cyberwarfare and media manipulation.

We’re told the event wasn’t classified at all, simply held under Chatham House Rules.

PAXsims

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In March 2017 Hollandspiele will be releasing two Brian Train wargames-in-one:

Ukrainian Crisis will be much the same as the PnP version available now here, except that the Resource cards will be chits (they can’t print up that many cards), the game length is increased to 9 turns and there are a few extra units, for variety and to fill up the counter sheet.

Even better, this will be half of a two-game package… the other game will be the mini-game The Little War, on the brief Slovak-Hungarian border war of March 1939! This one uses only 30 counters and a deck of ordinary playing cards to drive the action. I designed this one last year.

You can find out more at Brian’s blog, Ludic Futurism.

PAXsims

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A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology by Janina Krell-Roesch, Prashanthi Vemuri, and Anna Pink suggests that playing games can significantly reduce the risk of new-onset mild cognitive impairment:

Question  Does engaging in a mentally stimulating activity in old age associate with neurocognitive function?

Findings  In this population-based cohort study, 1929 cognitively normal participants 70 years or older were followed for approximately 4 years. The following activities were associated with significant decreased risk of new-onset mild cognitive impairment: computer use, craft activities, social activities, and playing games.

Meaning  Engaging in a mentally stimulating activity even in late life may decrease the risk of mild cognitive impairment.

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PAXsims

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Recently Brant Guillory at GrogHeads interviewed James Sterrett of the US Army Command & General Staff College about how hobby wargaming is making its way (back) into professional military ranks. You’ll find the whole thing here.

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PAXsims

Jim Wallman’s No Game Survives… blog on megagames continues to have lots of interesting content, including this handy “can it be megagamed” flow chart.

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Jim was recently hopped across the Atlantic to Montréal to run a megagame at McGill University, War in Binni. I’ll be writing up a game report soon.

PAXsims

PETA is concerned that so many Games Workshop Warhammer figures appear to be wearing fur:

The grimdark, battle-hardened warriors are known for their martial prowess – but wearing the skins of dead animals doesn’t take any skill.

Indeed, nothing on the bloody battlefields of Warhammer’s conflict-ravaged universe could match the terrible reality that foxes, minks, rabbits, and other living beings experience at the hands of the fur trade. Those killed for their fur typically first endure a bleak life inside a tiny, filthy wire cage before being electrocuted, drowned, or even skinned alive. Or they may be in the wild, minding their own business, when they get caught in a horrific bone-crushing steel-jaw trap – often languishing for days before eventually dying from starvation, dehydration, or blood loss.

PETA has written to Games Workshop CEO Kevin Rountree asking that the leading British miniature war-gaming brand ban “fur” garments from all Warhammer characters. While we appreciate that they are fictional, draping them in what looks like a replica of a dead animal sends the message that wearing fur is acceptable – when, in fact, it has no more place in 2017 than it would in the year 40,000.

This, of course, provoked much outrage, sarcasm, derision, mirth, and discussion among Warhammer players.

…which, PETA later admitted, was kind of what they were aiming for:

We’re laughing, too! For the cost of a postage stamp, our website has received record traffic – and the people who were prompted to visit our site by this story can’t have missed the prominently featured eyewitness footage showing that animals in real life are electrocuted, drowned, and sometimes even skinned alive for their fur.

Here’s a little secret: we know that Warhammer characters are fictional, and we’re not losing sleep worrying about what Leman Russ or the other miniatures are “wearing”. We are, however, lying awake at night thinking of ways to make people aware that real animals who are raised for their fur, skin, or flesh are suffering every day. We’ll sleep a little more easily tonight knowing that we’ve managed to get nearly a quarter of a million people (and counting!) to visit PETA.org.uk in the days since we sent our letter, because – whatever their reason for doing so – they’ll now know more about the cruelty behind fur.

So by all means, have a laugh at this campaign – you can even laugh at us – but please remember that the fur industry is a living hell for animals. If that bothers you, and it should, please share our fur exposés with your friends and family.

Well played, PETA, well played.

PAXsims

Last but certainly not least, PAXsims is very pleased to report that we’ve now had more that 500,000 page views and 200,000 visitors to the website. We’re also well on track to making 2017 our best year ever. Many thanks to our readers and contributors to making it possible!

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