Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Utrecht Institute for Crisis and Conflict Simulation

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Tim Goudriaan.

The COVID-19 pandemic inspired Dutch academics, students, and gamers to create the Utrecht Institute for Crisis and Conflict Simulation (UICCS). In March 2020, when the Netherlands went into lockdown and universities moved their classes online, nearly 30 Utrecht University students reorganised themselves into an online think tank. They subsequently created and played various war- and matrix games on the impact of (governments’ responses to) the pandemic and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in East and South Asia, whilst also publishing a 100-page report on the same. Around 100 students from different classes and departments were eventually involved or otherwise participated in this experiment, playing games, collecting as well as analysing data, forecasting events, and writing reports. 

The think tank was created and executed upon almost wholly by students at University College Utrecht, conceived by university lecturer Tim Goudriaan, and made a reality with the help of (war)game designer and forecasting expert Diederik Stolk. The story continues: a group of 20 students will spend their summer break of 2020 formalizing the institute and developing various games. In this blogpost, Tim explains why UICCS was created, and shares his experiences and insights so as to show what students can achieve when organised around creative, common goals – in online environments.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Many of us have had to find unconventional ways to deal with these unconventional times. But while this is the first pandemic of our lifetimes, it may well not be the last. We need to come to grips with other current and upcoming conflicts and crises, such as those evolving around the increasing synthesis between warfare, intelligence, and politics on the one hand, and (nano)technology, big data and A.I. on the other. And our challenges are hardly confined to this planet. Humanity is on its way to becoming a multiplanetary species, and the merging of man and machine is hardly science fiction anymore – not to mention the potential realization of the Singularity and/or the Great Filter. Going back to ‘business as usual’, therefore, would be a disservice to this and future generations. It’ll also be less fun.

Games & Simulations in a (post-)Pandemic World

This is why and when UICCS came into existence. We (increasingly) need people who can think on their feet, handle complexity without being overwhelmed, and who can communicate effectively and professionally across disciplines. Sound familiar much? In the increasingly online environments that characterize work, life and studies, they will have to engage in strategic planning and decision-making through team and information management, coalition building, negotiation and diplomacy. 

Games and simulation-based learning can instil the creativity and adaptability in students and professionals that we need in the playful future that we want. The newly-founded Utrecht Institute for Crisis and Conflict Simulation therefore aims to (re)shape academia through (serious) games, skills-based education, and big data.

In this post, I elaborate on three things: 1) why we created UICCS; 2) how we did it (so you can too), and; 3) what we are doing now.

Wait but why (not)?

As we were halfway through teaching a new course on (war)games and simulations at University College Utrecht, the impact of the pandemic forced me to come up with a way to teach students practical skills in an online environment. Since January, we had engaged in a variety of mostly real-life games and activities surrounding war and conflict that many of you who read this article are surely familiar with. Here’s what happened: we reorganised the class of nearly thirty students into a simulation posing as an interdisciplinary think tank focused on crisis and conflict simulation, run by the students themselves.

This was to become a two-month long simulacrum producing, playing and analysing simulations. Other than learning practical experiences and skills, it also seemed important to tackle current events. Because I also teach on (East) Asia and the Middle East, I combined classes and students in a way that our simulations and research activities as a whole focused on the impact of this 2020 pandemic on China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Asia and the Middle East. 

Hyperreality: making students’ life difficult but interesting (or at least ‘different’)

The think tank, like many simulations, was an illustration of the idea that anarchy supposedly is what states make of it. It was certainly difficult and confusing, and the ‘Control Team’ (consisting of Regional, Research and Gaming Coordinators), Unit Heads and all Representatives really had to dig in to get their bearings.

Overall, students have done a fantastic job with some pretty amazing results that they can be proud of – truly exploring the borders of what Baudrillard coined ‘hyperreality’. In any case, the think tank illustrates the interdisciplinary value and potential of liberal arts and sciences colleges: we have a legal unit ((wo)manned by legal majors, of course)), a civil-military unit (manned by strategists and riot-gear fetishists), a mapping unit (mapping geeks), a timeline unit (history reps) and even a pandemic unit (run by medical and a politics students). We even had PR & Fundraising and Graphic Design Departments. 

Map made by our mapping unit.

Students have created, facilitated, and analysed two online matrix games on future scenarios in the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal that we have played over a two-week period. The format of matrix games was specifically chosen for the purpose of converting it to online use, and to gather data to analyse and forecast trends and events. Students, as part of their assessment, analysed various datasets and came to some remarkably insightful and accurate conclusions – some of which can be found on reports on our website.

Map made by our mapping unit.

Students have also written country profiles and interdisciplinary op-eds that, together with analyses and forecasting from our games and research reports by students from my Middle East course, have been put together into two huge research reports on the consequences of the pandemic with regard to the BRI in Asia and the Middle East (the Asia-report including Executive Summary can be found here). Although the first few weeks were somewhat tough and confusing, students eventually really got into it: they have created (music) videos (like this analysis of the regional and geopolitical consequences of COVID-19 in Syria), podcasts, medical and legal quizzes, and arguably even the seeds of a new musical genre I’d like to dub ‘mappingwave’ (as part of a broader genre tentatively called ‘methodwave’).

“The Rise/Decline of Asia in (post-)pandemic world” created by students can be found here.

The Red Pill: UICCS in a (post-)pandemic world

The desire to continue on this path even after the course has come to an end, has led to the creation of the Utrecht Institute for Crisis and Conflict Simulation. With class coming to an end, students allowed their materials to be used to launch the institute, thereby simultaneously proding a platform for their work. We at UICCS aim to (re)shape academia through (serious) games, skills-based education and Big Data. Our organisation is largely run by students with the assistance of a focused group of experts on (war)gaming, military strategy, and forecasting.  

As such, we create, facilitate, play and analyse games and simulations that evolve around geostrategic issues, crises and conflicts. Our games and simulations have found their way into fields as diverse as history, politics, secret intelligence, military studies, grand strategy, and business consultancy. Are you interested in our work, are you looking for interdepartmental, interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaboration? Why not drop us a line.

Tim Goudriaan is a university lecturer and (serious) game designer. His work revolves around (war)gaming, intelligence, international security, the Middle East and (East) Asia.

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