PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Conducting a multi-week remote simulation: Reflections from the (simulated) Republic of China

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Elizabeth Thomson, a MLitt candidate at St Andrews. Elizabeth is currently writing her dissertation On the Security Implications of Australia’s Discretionary Power as it Exists Between China and America’s Strategic Competition. She has a background in South-East Asian studies and Political Philosophy.  

For more detail on the simulation design, see this earlier post by by Felipe Cruvinel (St. Andrews).


Part I- Context

In the simulation, a shipwreck off the reefs of Pratas Island triggered territorial dispute between the People’ Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (RoC, or Taiwan). Both governments wished to coordinate the search and rescue operations to maintain and assert authority over the territory in question. As the claims on sovereignty could shift Asia-Pacific politics and security the USA was interested in being an arbiter and equalizer to managing PRC and RoC relations. 

Three teams represented ‘active’ nations throughout the gameplay: PRC, RoC and USA. Each team of four players need to divide their team to fill specific roles (each team had a different number of players assigned each role to reflect the importance or dominance of that aspect within the different states): economic, executive, and military. Subsequently each position had its own debrief sheet of the role. In the RoC team, we distributed roles according to interest and background of the players. 

Part II- Bias

In this simulation I played the executive role for Taiwan, my objective was to achieve independence from the PRC. 

My team was comprised of individuals from Western (‘Global North’) nations.  I believe this impacted our play, as it was more ‘gung-ho’ in policy and policy execution than the current government in Taipei. We were more focused on achieving our objectives than considering long-term diplomatic relations with the PRC. This was possible due to the one-month timeframe of the simulation, and willingness to see ourselves as completely separate to mainland China. This attitude is culturally inaccurate,[1] as PRC and RoC both consider themselves Chinese. 

Furthermore, our team had a fair bit of leeway, which from a gaming perspective made the experience much more enjoyable as you will see in the following section. Yet, I wonder if we would have had the same scope of indulgence as a democratic state has. Whilst I know that the securitisation of situations can provide a sort of blank check to the government, I believe that we would have had to ultimately petition to the elected representatives in parliament for certain actions to be approved.  I have played simulations where actions were given a probability and Game Control would roll a pair of dice which dictated the success of a move.  A third-party factor to influence the game could have curbed some of the more ‘gung-ho’ actions, making the simulation more reflective of the state and its administrative structure. 

Part III- Play 

What was our policy? Our policy was to secure authority over the Pratas territory by sea, land, and air. What was our aim? Sovereignty. Sovereignty at all costs, for without sovereignty there is no survival.[2]

Throughout the simulation we reacted quickly to updates in order to control the narrative(s). To push back against the PRC’s enthusiastic attempts to collaborate in Search and Rescue missions, the RoC military established a Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ). This was made possible by negotiations with the USA to deploy minimal naval support. RoC and USA agreed that a physical reminder of the RoC-USA friendship was necessary to promote peaceful negotiations between PRC and RoC. 

Throughout the simulation the RoC was conscious of USA’s Taiwanese Relations Act 1979 (TRA79) Section 2b.1.[3]  We worked within the scope of this Act, negotiating USA military presence in RoC territorial waters to disincentives any PRC trespassing and subsequent occupation of RoC territory.

Additionally, while our military were engaged with securing the area, our economic representative engaged in Track II Diplomacy with the USA. They discussed a potential oil drilling partnership. This included converting some of our PRC imports/exports to the USA.   The economic department established a deal where the USA would compensate any loss of PRC. Additionally, the USA would provide infrastructure to drill and as compensation, they had claim to the first ‘x’ amount of dollars in oil, then the profits would be split evenly. In the event of PRC joining the oil deal, the percentages of cost of infrastructure would be reassessed and a deal would reflect individual contribution.

Yet, to avoid sharing profits and being coerced into a diplomatic relationship with the PRC, the RoC’s internal policy was to provoke the PRC into triggering the TRA79. Thus, creating ‘legitimate’ reasons to declare independence.

We [RoC] began by framing the PRC as the rogue government through phrasing such as ‘our mainland provinces…’. We devised initiatives such as a ‘National Democracy Day’ inviting the Dalai Lama as the recognised leader of Tibet to join. To place pressure on PRC resources and distract their concentration we attempted to open a second front. For this we sought a bilateral military training agreement with India to train in the Himalayan Mountains on the Tibetan border. 

Finally, Operation Oppenheimer[4], was crafted but not launched to reopen the nuclear facilities on Taiwan. RoC would have operated under the protection that they aren’t officially recognised by the United Nations[5]. By abusing a grey area concerning nuclear development programs, RoC hoped to initiate UN recognition. 

Part IV- Communications 

 The format of the game benefited not only the pandemic circumstances but contributed to the overall feel of the simulation.  Owing to the high-level security nature of the simulation it felt realistic to separate into our teams and negotiate strategy among members which could be communicated to the control in a ‘real time’, which is how governments would operate. 

Additionally, the freedom to negotiate between teams (sans The Control) allowed the players to benefit from track II diplomacy. This was beneficial as The Control, could exacerbate announcements much like the media discourses. Having another avenue to discuss hypotheticals and discuss terms made our progress towards a peaceful resolution possible.

Part V- Replay?

From an economic point of view, it could have been more challenging to face budgetary realities, such as a cap on the military spending on operations. The budget of each state could reflect the extent of the grey zone commitment each state was willing to be bound by. Additionally, it could have made the diplomacy much more creative within and between the teams. As the PRC objective to not fall into conflict meant that they chose to remain silent and ignored our (RoC) taunts which blatantly undermined the CCP. I am quite sure that Chairman Xi would have been more proactive towards our strategies. In addition to incorporating a dimension of chance, I believe that game would gain depth that could provoke the creative solutions to the regional context.  

Nevertheless, I would recommend the simulation as it provides an effective learning tool of the regional dynamic of the Asia-Pacific.  


References

[1] Hayton, B. 2020.Chapter 7, Territory, (in) The Invention of China. New Haven; London: Yale University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv17z8490.1

[2] Inspired by Sir Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons, 10 May 1940.

[3] Taiwanese Relations Act (1979).

[4] Named after US nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the US atomic bomb.”

[5] 26th Session of the UN General Assembly, 25 October 1971.

Conducting a multi-week, remote crisis simulation

This article was written for PAXsims by Felipe Cruvinel, a PhD candidate at St Andrews. He is currently writing a thesis on applying data analysis to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He designs and produces wargames and simulations for the school and undertakes tabletop design and hobby gaming in his own time. Find Felipe on Twitter at @FCruvi 


Building on the work already carried out on a simulation in early 2020 (previously described at PAXsims by John Hart), a further simulation, to build on the lessons learned from the first was carried out in February of this year. While seeking to provide students with a practical, engaging, and immersive experience, the reality of the substantial changes that have taken place in the year since due to the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated additional redesign work to carry out the simulation in an entirely online environment. 

Map 1: The Disputed Islands in the Scenario

While remaining within the geographic Eastern Hemisphere, the new scenario was centred on China-Taiwan-US dynamics rather than on the multipolar tensions of the South China Sea. The reduced number of groups and players was leveraged by a new design structure, whereby each Country Team is divided into three distinct “Departments”: Executive, Defence, and Economic (thereby applying a finding of the previous multiweek simulation and the previous one day event). These three distinct inter-team groups provided not only a distinction between responsibilities and capabilities, but further provided a real source of inter-team friction through the use of public and secret objectives. 

Figure 1: Country and Department Structure for a 12 Player Simulation 

Each department is thus provided with a public and open objective which they may share openly, whether with other members of their team or with other participants within the game. These are meant to reflect real-world stances and policies which states publicly acknowledge and advocate for. Defence and economic departments, however, were also provided with secret objectives. These consistent of considerations and concerns which when addressed, are likely to come in conflict with their own public objective, or with that of the Executive department. The Executive department was not provided with such a secret objective in order to serve as the centre of gravity and pivot point for the team to focus on. Their objective is the state’s objective, and they must rally their teammates in order to effectively accomplish their objective and prevent them from letting their secret objectives endanger more important goals. 

Design Aims and Structure

The primary objective for this simulation was to gather insight on intra and inter-team friction in an international crisis setting. Fundamentally, this iteration on our previous simulation was meant to assess whether the added inter-team friction made conflict and resolution more or less likely. Understanding the processes and challenges of negotiations between disparate group of actors while subjecting them to internal pressures covers the majority of the secondary aims guiding our design choices. Given such constraints and objectives, three country teams were settled on rather than the previous four, in order to avoid stalemates through static alliances or overwhelming advantages.  

Figure 2: Likely Balance Outcomes in a Three Country Scenario

The task of maintaining a dynamic environment is rendered much simpler in a three country scenario given that only likely outcome #1 has to be avoided. Secret objectives conflicting with one’s own public and state level ones were meant to induce internal drift and tension which would make any stable alliance and bloc harder to maintain. Beyond this, the design of the objectives themselves, both public and secret, also made sure to highlight and stress the differences in strategic and political outlook between Taiwan and the United States. 

For the purposes of running and conducting the Simulation itself, MS Teams was used as both a meeting point for general weekly meetings and intra-country meetings, and as a repository and delivery channel for intelligence reports, breaking news, and any additional information or noise to be conveyed by the control team. While we initially began with 12 participants, external factors reduced the total participant count to 10 over the course of the four weeks during which the simulation was carried out. A two-hour bloc from 4pm to 6pm on Wednesday afternoons was settled on as the general meeting time for every week, during which teams were provided with new information and opportunities to communicate in official or unofficial settings within the scenario. Participants were still allowed to carry out actions and communications outside of the general meeting time, and information was received and provided on a 24/7 basis for the first week of the simulation. This information took the form of reports from civilian and state agencies, communications from other states, fabricated news articles and fabricated breaking news videos. A curfew on information provision and new developments was implemented from week 2 onwards to reduce workload on participants. 

Challenges Faced

The central challenge that emerged was that the ongoing process of engaging with and between participants throughout a timeframe of several weeks increases the commitment requirements of both those participating and members of the control team. There is certainly greater realism in such a 24/7 approach, but its demands in terms of time commitment can quickly grow to become unsustainable for both participants and the control cell. As a solution to this particular issue, proper expectation setting is of the utmost importance. Participants must be made fully aware of the time and involvement demands to be expected, and when or how such commitments might change. 

Additional observations were made throughout the course of this simulation will certainly inform future iterations. Behind the scenes negotiations for instance, took place far more frequently than in our previous simulation. It is unclear if this was a consequence of the ease of secret and informal communication in an online environment versus in-person, or because the division of responsibilities, means, and objectives in our structure also incentivizes individual team members to explore options away from their country team. 

The added friction from team divisions and separate objectives was also seen to have an effect on the control team’s role, necessitating far more engagement in order to keep track of various lines of argument and both public and underhanded agendas. It further increases the “black box” of inter-participant discussion which sits outside the control team’s vision, as it is virtually impossible to control every exchange between participants in an informal setting, and it may in any case be undesirable. Establishing that such behind the scenes conversations are indeed acceptable within the simulation boundaries may be a useful preparatory step in the future. 

The final conclusion to be carried forward was that competitive interaction between and within teams improved engagement and participant experience while providing learning motivation. Participants appeared highly receptive to new information and often made their own independent plans for action in both cooperative and competitive methods, while taking the opportunity during debriefing to express their interest in future simulations.  

International relations crisis simulation at the University of St Andrews

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by John Hart.

John is part-time PhD candidate at the University whose research is titled ‘What Band of Brothers? An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis into the Meaning of Individual Motivation and Group Cohesion in Non-flying Royal Air Force Personnel.’ He previously served had a 25 year career in the British Army and Royal Air Force during which his role required his participation in both the management of, or participation in, many military exercises and simulation events. 


Introduction

Crisis simulations have been run in recent years in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, one form was based on an exercise model that has been run previously in the United States.[1] This took a scenario based on a contemporary international issue – the proliferation of WMD – and allowed the teams, representing 3 major countries, to seek resolution to this crisis through internal decision making as well as interactions with other teams. This simulation was a one-day event with each of the 3 country teams themselves subdivided into leadership, diplomatic and military sub-teams. Supervision of teams was undertaken by staff mentors and outside subject matter experts, whilst the exercise play, including intelligence feeds and scenario development, was managed by a PhD candidate-led simulation Control Cell.

Since this one-day event, the team developed a different format in running a game. Instead of an intensive one day the event was split over four weeks and combined in-person and online (remote) engagement. It is the design, outcomes and challenges that I reflect on here. 

Background: Design Aims

The South China Sea Crisis simulation was held in early 2019 with the scenario being a fishing vessel disappearing in mysterious circumstances in the region. This crisis simulation was an evolution from the previous simulation, but differed from the one-day events in 4 key respects:

  • it was held largely remotely;
  • played over a longer period (4 weeks);
  • more state teams (4 countries: Vietnam, Philippines, China, the US) and,
  • no division into internal sub-teams  (diplomatic, military or executive).

The design aim of the simulation was largely identical to that previously, with the overarching objective being to expose the teams to the complex environment of international crises. This included their use of intelligence and media sources of information, managing risk, negotiation and decision making. In addition to the simulated interactions of competition and/or cooperation with other states, the simulation also replicated the internal challenges of managing internal decision making within states. However, the four key differences in structure of the game meant slightly different objectives/skill could be sought. The remote/in-person structure, meant that managing information, arranging meetings and overall team management was largely down to the teams’ own control. The absence of rigid internal divisions in the cells (between diplomatic, military and the executive) meant that the teams didn’t generated the same in-group frictions.

A key feature of the simulated crisis was the use of uncertainty. The use of multiple teams, and other 3rd party states, provided each other with opportunities or limitations to achieve their aims via negotiation. Also, multiple information/intelligence sources were used to inject a degree of complexity into the simulation.

Structure and Game Mechanics

The simulation was largely run remotely, with a single in-person session per week. The Control Cell consisted of 2 staff and 2 PhD-candidates overseeing 15 players. Gmail accounts were set up for each team and Control to facilitate group communications. This ensured that there were clearly understood mechanisms of communication to facilitate intelligence/information feed to teams. The design also included specified forms and processes for teams to request information or communicate actions to the Control Cell. 

With an outline of the crisis scenario was agreed within the Control Cell, this permitted generation of supporting simulated intelligence, diplomatic reporting or media stories on the crisis to teams. This feed included added ‘public’ noise – e.g., information provided that may have been, true and relevant; relevant possibly not true; not relevant. This was to allow participants to distil the relevant and true information from the stream of incoming material. Notably, the Control Cell capitalised on contemporary social media feeds – with Trump then in power – using his Tweets.

It was entirely left up to the players to self-organised internal or bilateral meetings. Once a week, however, a Control Cell-organised session was conducted to wrap-up the week’s round of play. This was held under the auspices of a meeting of an international organisation e.g., UN or ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This weekly session was often enhanced by simulated 3rd party nations, using pre-briefed additional participants.

Simulation Challenges

The teams’ internal dynamics were inherently more difficult to monitor during this simulation than the previous one-day, on-site exercise. The remoteness of the simulation gave more autonomy for organisation and internal decision making to team members, but this also gave the Control Cell fewer insights into the internal dynamics.[1] Anecdotally, there were fewer intra-team interactions, but the Control Cell did facilitate an opportunity during the weekly meeting. The Control Cell did possess, however, a good sense of inter-team dynamics and discussions due to access to teams’ email accounts.

A key difference (that may be considered a challenge) was that in the remote setting teams preferred to seek to defuse tension through accommodation and negotiation. One possible explanation is the time pressures of the single simulation induced greater tension and uncertainty into play. Another explanation is that the  participants in the multi-week simulations were composed of teams that were naturally more risk adverse. 

Future Design Considerations

A future consideration is to re-establish the internal elements within each country team. In the remote simulation, each team acted as a unitary actor, setting collective objectives and a common strategy negotiated between the players. However, this does not make it possible to understand the friction between various groups internal to states.[2] This reduced the agency of individual players replicating the internal ‘friction’ of domestic policy formulation and decision making. Separate sub-teams should induce greater internal ‘behind the scenes’ negotiations.

The use of pre-briefed contributors/participants/third parties to multilateral meetings – e.g., UN meetings, was a good enhancement. It injected another dynamic into the 3-country game and permitted the Control Cell another lever to obtain responses from teams, or to test their policy decisions. The weekly UN/ARF meeting was also a good forum to resolve a week’s play, create a realistic ‘arena’ for disputes and permitted insight for the Control Cell to prepare the following week’s development.


 

[1] Hunzeker, Michael A., and Kristen A. Harkness. “The Strategy Project: Teaching Strategic Thinking through Crisis Simulation.” PS: Political Science & Politics 47, no. 2 (2014): 513-517.

[2]  Such was the internal friction during a previous, in-person exercise that the on military team conducted a ‘coup d’état’ against its own executive.

Review: Simulations and Student Learning

Matthew A. Schnurr and Anna MacLeod, eds., Simulations and Student Learning (University of Toronto Press, 2020). CAD$56.25 hc, CAD$22.46 pb or ebook.

This edited volume provides a vitally important basis that will enable colleagues and students to understand the role of simulations in their teaching and learning. I identify three central contributions of this book:

  • First, it tackles the transdisciplinary opportunities of using simulations in teaching and learning. The book is divided into three sections: social sciences, natural sciences, and health sciences. Each section explores approaches to how simulations can contribute to the teaching in these areas, however, readers can gain a lot of insights from reading the sections that they may consider to be outside ‘their’ disciplinary home. The accessible writing style makes doing this possible. 
  • Second, the book is honest about what simulations can and cannot achieve in educational contexts and the need for effective management, incorporation and evaluation of their contribution to achieving intended learning outcomes. 
  • Third, the book carefully considers that not all students are the same, all will react to and engage with experiential learning differently. As a result, there are many moving parts to getting the simulation type, the design, the objectives and the outcomes, right. 

The book itself promises a lot, especially in terms of its objective to cross-disciplinary lines and to fill a gap (p.2) identified by Ellett, Esperanza, and Phan (2014). From my reading this book makes an exceptional contribution to achieving this objective. Overall, the book treads a delicate line here between presenting the challenges but also the payoffs for teachers and students. I think a particular strength of this book is that the authors haven’t ‘advocated’ but instead adopted a highly practical and pragmatic approach to using simulations in the classroom.

As I am developing a training course on simulations as tools for assessments. To do this effectively, I need to engage with a range of disciplines and demonstrate the utility of simulations to them, rather than inviting them into my research space and asking them to adapt and apply the tools for themselves. This book provides me with a language to be able to start that conversation. The accessible and jargon free writing style is particularly helpful as it will enable me to assign this text as reading for the course participants especially those who have never used simulations before. 

A particularly well-considered element of the book is that it clearly acknowledges that games and simulations are not a “silver bullet” (p.32) and it is possible to identify unintended insights. Throughout the book I think there is a considered view that games and simulations are reflective activities, they require the teacher, student, observers and any teaching evaluators to reflect on how the game was designed, run, played, adjudicated and evaluated. I would argue that games reveal to teachers the gaps in their knowledge and show the ability of the decision-making and the adeptness of thinking, in a way that other forms of teaching do not. As a result, like all learning tools and opportunities they need to be well run and selected to match the intended learning outcome (p.89). This binding of the simulation within the course or module is also effectives demonstrated in other chapters. For example, chapter eight by Gentry (pp.135-6; and 138) clearly maps how the simulation activity combines with other homework to enable the students to achieve the intended outcomes. 

In considering how to build-in simulations into teaching chapters of the book fairly consider constraints and offer practical and pragmatic methods to manage these challenges. For example, in chapter three, Donohue and Forcese discuss “liberating 40 hours of teaching time” (p.52) and utilising the tools available more effectively. This requires teachers to identify what learning is passive and can be done away from the tutor and what learning is active and needs or is enhanced by tutor-student and student-student interaction. This in itself is demanding and requires more time from teachers, not only in terms of preparation of the simulation materials, but also the jiggling of other course contents to fit. 

In other sections of the book (for example by Chamberlain in chapter 7) authors also highlights the physical constraints and potential barriers to running simulations for students of chemistry. The chapter then clearly expresses the requirements for running a simulation for these students (p.117). Again, as in other chapters this exploration of the challenges is then matched with an articulation of potential solutions including some free resources (p.118). 

The chapters also consider and highlight how simulations and their assessment can augment and add-value to different programmes. For example, in the chapter on social work the author identifies a limitation in how students are observed in practice and how simulations can contribute to the assessment process, enabling a more holistic approach to evaluating the student’s performance. A central message throughout the book is to provide an awareness of challenges in building simulations into teaching and learning spaces and programmes but matching this with practical and pragmatic solutions to overcome any problems. From this approach, the reader is therefore prepared, and well equipped, to start to incorporate these ideas into their own work. 

The book should not be read as being solely a ‘how to guide’, nor a piece of advocacy to convert teachers and lecturers to add-in simulations wholesale to their course. The authors do highlight the strengths and problems of simulations, but they also tackle head-on some of the potential problems of whether the performance in a simulation affects the practice that follows (chapter 14 by Picketts and MacLeod, in particular p.238). The findings of the research indicate that in the simulation the students acted in a ritualised way but when applying the same methods in practice they flexibly adapted to the situation (p.240). 

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone considering how to add simulations to their learning environment, but I think it is always very useful for people who have used simulations for years as there are nuggets of gold within each chapter that may enable a different way to reflect on your own practice. The book has certainly given me some new approaches and ideas. 

%d bloggers like this: