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Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

RAND: Gaming the gray zone

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RAND has released a new report by Stacie L. Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser on Competing in the Gray Zone: Russian Tactics and Western Responses. This addresses two major sets of research questions: first, “How are gray zone activities defined? What are different types of gray zone tactics?” and second “Where are vulnerabilities to gray zone tactics in Europe? What are those vulnerabilities?”

Recent events in Crimea and the Donbass in eastern Ukraine have upended relations between Russia and the West, specifically the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Although Russia’s actions in Ukraine were, for the most part, acts of outright aggression, Russia has been aiming to destabilize both its “near abroad” — the former Soviet states except for the Baltics — and wider Europe through the use of ambiguous “gray zone” tactics. These tactics include everything from propaganda and disinformation to election interference and the incitement of violence.

To better understand where there are vulnerabilities to Russian gray zone tactics in Europe and how to effectively counter them, the RAND Corporation ran a series of war games. These games comprised a Russian (Red) team, which was tasked with expanding its influence and undermining NATO unity, competing against a European (Green) team and a U.S. (Blue) team, which were aiming to defend their allies from Red’s gray zone activities without provoking an outright war. In these games, the authors of this report observed patterns of behavior from the three teams that are broadly consistent with what has been observed in the real world. This report presents key insights from these games and from the research effort that informed them.

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While the study is interesting enough as it is, RAND has also released a second 45 page monograph by Becca Wasser, Jenny Oberholtzer, Stacie L. Pettyjohn, and William Mackenzie that outlines the gaming methodology adopted: Gaming Gray Zone Tactics: Design Considerations for a Structured Strategic Game.

Research Questions

  1. Can a game model gray zone competition in a empirically ground sound yet playable way?
  2. What is the game design process for developing a structured strategic game for a complex political-military issue that simultaneously operates in two different time horizons?
  3. How can structured strategic gaming help researchers gain an understanding of adversary gray zone tactics and tools?

To explore how Russia could use gray zone tactics and to what effect, the authors of this report developed a strategic-level structured card game examining a gray zone competition between Russia and the West in the Balkans. In these games, the Russian player seeks to expand its influence and undermine NATO unity while competing against a European team and a U.S. team seeking to defend their allies from Russia’s gray zone activities without provoking an outright war. This report details the authors’ development of this game, including key design decisions, elements of the game, how the game is played, and the undergirding research approach. The authors conclude with recommendations for future applications of the game design.

Key Findings

The Balkans gray zone game demonstrated that structured strategy games are useful exploratory tools and this model could be adapted for other contexts and adversaries.

  • While the gray zone remains a murky topic, this game demonstrated that it was feasible to break the gray zone down into concrete parts, to conduct research on each of these parts, and to link these components to create a playable strategic game that yielded useful insights.
  • The scoped and structured approach to this game allowed for enough structure to keep discussions on track and provided links between inputs and outputs while still allowing for creativity, flexibility, and transparency.
  • This gray zone game can be adapted to focus on different regions or adversaries, could include additional allies, or could be made into a three-way competition.

The RAND team started with a series of matrix games to scope out the problem, and then progressed to semi-structured game. Finally, they moved on to creating a structured, three-sided (US, Europe, Russia) gray zone board game focused on the Balkans.

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Countries were tracked for governance quality and diplomatic-political orientation, as well as economic dependence (on Russia) and media freedom.

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Players acted through a deck of action cards, each specific to the actor(s) they represented. Potential Russian (RED) actions are shown above, and sample cards below)

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The report discusses the game design approaches taken, assesses their utility, and concludes with some suggestions as to future modifications.

All-in-all, it is a rare and outstanding example of serious game designers fully documenting their game design approach and research methods so as to inform future work on the issue. Kudos to all!


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