On February 16, McGill University hosted the third annual CONNECTIONS NORTH professional wargaming conference. We might be biased as the organizers, of course, but we were very pleased at how it all turned out.
Attendance was excellent, with 73 people registered for the event. This was triple our attendance last year. CONNECTIONS NORTH is now the third largest of the Connections wargaming conferences, behind the Connections US and Connections UK—although Connections NL and Connections Oz still have us all beat on participants relative to national population.
The conference programme and speaker biographies can be found here.
Of those who attended, slightly over half were national security professionals, researchers and educators, game designers, and hobbyists. The reminder university students from McGill University, other Montreal universities, and beyond. We were pleased to see participants from across the Department of National Defence (Canadian Joint Warfare Centre, Royal Military College, Canadian Forces College, Defence Research and Development Canada, and elsewhere), other government departments, the US Army War College, and the US Naval War College, as well as colleagues from as far afield as the UK, Netherlands, Norway, and Australia. Amongst the students there was even a group who travelled up from Tufts University and MIT for the event!
The first panel featured Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) and LCol Mike Beauvais (Canadian Joint Warfare Centre), who provided an overview of wargaming in Canada. Ben surveyed a range of activities that DRDC had supported in recent years (slides/pdf), while Mike discussed a recent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) wargame conducted at the CJWC. They both noted a recent resurgence in wargaming in Canada, although it remains somewhat sporadic and disconnected, with many parts of DND (or other government departments) not aware of what others might be doing. Hopefully, activities such as Connections North, outreach by DRDC, and the establishment of a wargaming and red teaming group at the CJWC all provide an opportunity to “connect the dots” in this regard. David Last (Canadian Forces College), Stephen Downes- Martin (US Naval War College), and David Redpath (Revision Military) all offered their own thoughts as discussants, and then other attendees had an opportunity to offer questions or observations.
Next, our attention turned to wargaming methods and approaches. Murray Dixson (DRDC) talked about the work he and others are doing on updating and developing course of action analysis as part of NATO SAS (System Analysis and Studies panel) 130 (slides/pdf). Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College) explored group dynamics in wargames (full paper/pdf), highlighting the ways in which group discussion and decision-making processes might produce sub-optimal analysis. His presentation certainly highlighted the relatively unstructured and unscientific way that the wargaming community has thus far approached the issue, and the insight that could be had from drawing upon existing scholarship in the fields of psychology, decision science, and management.
After lunch, a session on “from war to peace” looked at the use of serious games to examine insurgency, peace and stabilization operations, and peacebuilding more broadly. This session had been made possible through a McDonald, Currie Professional Development Award from McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development.
Game designer Brian Train (who has likely designed more commercial counterinsurgency wargames than anyone else, ever) discussed “Soft Power Maps: Integrating the Political, Social and Economic in Insurgency Games” (slides/pdf). His presentation highlighted the evolution of game systems and approaches in his own work. Anja van der Hulst (TNO) offered some “Reflections on Peace and Stabilization Games,” recounting the various steps (and missteps) in the development of the Go4it Comprehensive Approach simulation Model, which she ran very successfully for McGill University students last year. I talked about serious games and peacebuilding, introducing a few cases where we have used games or game techniques to assist in contingency planning in the humanitarian sector, to support peace negotiations, or even to influence parties to an ongoing conflict (slides/pdf). Finally, Jim Wallman (Stone Paper Scissors) offered his own thoughts on gaming peace operations, drawing upon the examples of both his War in Binni megagame, and his smaller Barwick Green peacekeeping game (slides/pdf).
With that, the formal sessions came to an end. However, we weren’t quite finished yet. After some moving of chairs and tables, we were ready for a few hours of gaming. The games on display or being played included:
- Barwick Green (contemporary peacekeeping operations)
- We Are Coming, Nineveh (the Iraqi liberation of West Mosul)
- Reckoning of Vultures (a matrix game of coup plotting in a fictional republic)
- District Commander Maracas (counter-insurgency in a fictional megacity)
- Nights of Fire (1956 Hungarian rebellion)
- Trump’ets at Dawn (hypothetical MEU landing in Venezuela)
- The Day My Life Froze (refugee/humanitarian simulation)
Next year we will continue efforts to promote greater diversity among participants. One-quarter of the participants were women (better than most Connections conferences in the US, UK, and elsewhere), but only one of the presenters was. We would also like to see more colleagues working in digital game studies. medical and emergency management simulation, and other related fields. We will also have to decide whether to cap attendance at 75, or book a larger room for next time.
Professional colleagues commented very favourably on the opportunity to network with colleagues and hear new perspectives, while students were very positive about the opportunity to interact with professionals who use serious games in their work. My own POLI 422 students also had an opportunity to discuss their various game projects with expert designer, both during the conference and thereafter.
The following day, many of the participants stayed around for a rather less serious activity: defending Canada from zombie hordes in APOCALYPSE NORTH, the fourth annual McGill megagame. That, however, will be the subject of another PAXsims report.
On a final note: if you are involved in professional wargaming, conflict simulation, and other serious gaming in Canada, you can always join the CONNECTIONS NORTH email list.