This past week was the first ever Connections Global conference—that is, the annual Connections US professional wargaming conference, but organized as a virtual, online event because of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The conference ran for five full days, and featured over fifty presentations, panels and keynotes (split between two virtual rooms), plus associated online gaming and social events. I don’t know how many people registered in total, but keynotes typically had in excess of two hundred participants. The event was cosponsored by CNA, which also provided technical expertise to make it all work.
From a technical point of view, I thought it went really well. Zoom proved easy to use and reliable. There were few hitches. I enjoyed the ability to listen to a speaker, ask questions (using the Q&A function) through the moderator, and have discussions with other participants via the text chat. I did find that if a presentation was less interesting to me, I tended to multitask, answering email or doing other work while semi-listening to the conference. Unlike previous conferences, moreover, I didn’t take detailed notes for this report–I was either too engaged with the presentation via questions or discussions, or doing something else in the background.
I found the social events were less effective, with the exception of the one meeting of the Women’s Wargaming Network I attended (having asked to attend, lest anyone think I was crashing their space).
This question of how well the conference format worked will be important for other conferences that are going virtual because of the pandemic, including Connections North in February 2021. I was very pleased. Some others I know, however, found it a little unengaging to watch a speaker via Zoom from the privacy of their own home. The organizers have asked attendees to complete a survey and we will see what that indicates. Attendees are also welcomed/encouraged to leave thoughts in the comments below.
Connections US is one of the cosponsors of the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming. On the plus side the Principles were referred to frequently in presentations or discussions, badges and icons made appearances, and they were referred to in the rotating intermission slides. On the negative side, a little under 15% of the participants were female (by my rough count), and only 10% of the panelists and presenters were. Visible minorities were also underrepresented. Digital conferences, because of their ability to bring in speakers from anywhere in the world, ought to have an easier time being more inclusive. This point was brought up several times, and the organizers took it on board. I think we’ll see even greater efforts in this direction in future both here and elsewhere.
Although I attended the entire conference, the two-room format meant that I only saw and heard half the presentations. No one should feel slighted, therefore, if a pick a few personal favourites:
On Monday, I was especially impressed with the lively panel discission on building capacity in the university. In an earlier talk, ED McGrady also had some very interesting things to say about on adjudication.
On Tuesday, Graham Longley-Brown‘s talk about his practitioners guide to wargaming (which you can see here) covered a lot of fertile ground. Hank Brightman‘s presentation on Urban Outbreak 2019 and pandemic gaming was timely and useful.
On Wednesday,the keynote by Phil Sabin was outstanding, highlighting the ways in which many of wargaming challenges of today are rather different than the sorts of issues grappled with by the women and men of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit during WW2. Sawyer Judge‘s very articulate presentation on wargaming as an art and science won widespread plaudits. I actually disagree with some of what she argued: I’m not sure debating the art vs science is very useful, and instead think that wargaming should be thought of a humble methodological tool much the same as other research techniques in the social sciences. However, it it was a excellent example of a talk that stimulated a great deal of valuable discussion.
On Wednesday, Pete Pellegrino’s presentation on distributed gaming was excellent, to the point that I had colleagues discussing it in emails even before he had finished speaking. (He recorded it too.) He (and, the previous day, Sawyer) also set the standard for clear and effective presentations at the conference, so I am officially proposing the Pellegrino-Judge Unit (PJU) to be the official measure of visual, verbal and overall information clarity in PowerPoint wargaming presentations. It should be noted that PJU scores are not only inversely correlated with the amount of text and logos crammed on a slide but also the number of military acronyms. In any sort of global conference, 98% of the latter should be banned. Half of your fellow national services DKWTDASF (Don’t Know What The Damned Acronym Stands For), let alone your foreign or non-military colleagues. Those receiving low PJU scores are strongly recommended to go and watch this. Chad Briggs also had a number of insightful things to say about the design and execution of wargames during COVID-19.
On Friday, in addition to Tom Mouat’s pithy comments on AI and expensive new toys, I very much enjoyed Jeffrey Sugden’s presentation on course of action generation with machine learning and Andrew Reddie’s talk about the SIGNAL project on nuclear signalling, use, and escalation. I took part in “Connections international” panel discussion together with Matt Caffrey (Connections US) and Colin Marston (Connections UK). In addition to summarizing past and future Connections North events, I also updated everyone on the status of the Derby House Principles. However, I will address the latter in a future PAXsims post, since there is a lot going on.
There was a lot of other valuable material at the conference which I haven’t mentioned—this is just a list of my personal favourites from among the presentations I attended.
Overall, I think it was a very successful event. Kudos to the organizers, who adjusted well to the challenges of a once-in-a-century global pandemic and adapting the conference to the digital realm.