Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

“Crimson Contagion” – What Can We Learn?

The New York Times today broke a well reported and detailed story about pandemic flu wargaming that had been done from the late Obama into the Trump administrations here

The signature item in the article was an exercise codenamed CRIMSON CONTAGION, the  AAR of which bears serious reading.

The article touches on many important process and methodology issues, especially as related to gaming at the very highest political level. It is worth reading for all of us in the community, and I expect, will be the subject of much further unpacking in the near future.

Of special note, since we here at PAXsims are always promoting the wisdom of co-editor Stephen Downes-Martin, is the question of what the utility of gaming is after the original customer moves on? (see Stephen’s famous Three Questions to ask a game sponsor – including “When do you rotate?”)

“But by the time the current crisis hit, almost all of the leaders at the table — Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Perry among them — had been fired or moved on.

In 2018, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser at the time, John R. Bolton, ousted Mr. Bossert and eliminated the National Security Council directorate, folding it into an office dedicated to weapons of mass destruction in what Trump officials called a logical consolidation.”

Image result for john bolton shrugging

In the blog over the last week we have highlighted the Do No Harm principal. It is important for us all as practitioners to keep that front and center when gaming with people’s lives. But this story also demonstrates again where there may have been serious utility to using gaming to shape policy – with accurate data, well informed science, and serious attention from high level decision makers. It also shows how easy it is for the power of this tool to be shelved, sidelined, or fall through the cracks.

For further resources, see PAXsim’s COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Further Holiday Spirit…

Evidence that the Matrix Game Construction Kit can be used to win an office holiday party door decorating competition – yet another way to deploy this amazing product!



Taps: CAPT Todd Kauderer

Howard-Kauderer-1499764860.pngWith great regret we pause to note the passing of Todd Kauderer. Todd was a stalwart of the wargaming community, and a friend and mentor to many. He had a distinguished career in the United States Navy, as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense, and as one of the chief wargamers at the Johns Hopkins APL. Of all Todd’s many admirable qualities, one we will most miss was his boundless enthusiasm. Despite being an old hand, with a lustrous CV, he was always first in line to show a new recruit the ropes; always signing up for every new demo and half-baked idea. Todd was an inspiration in his vocation and his avocation. The middle of three generations of proud service to the U.S. military, he also spent his free time assembling one of the great 15mm scale miniature collections, and helping the rest of us be more accurate and more relevant. He gave his technical expertise and encyclopedic knowledge as generously as he could, and he never lost his love for the work. The last time I spoke to him he was still plotting what team might be assembled to steal the NIC wargaming contract from SAIC. His loss will be deeply felt.


Talk: Insights from Cyber Wargaming at Newport


The Joint Staff, J39 Office of Strategic Multilayer Assessment will host a talk at 1400 ET, January 26 by Jacquelyn Schneider from the Center of Naval Warfare Studies will discuss, Cyber and Crisis Escalation: Insights from Wargaming.

To call in to the talk, dial: 866-712-4038; then passcode:  60114984#.

Jacquelyn G. Schneider is an Instructor in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies and a core faculty member of the Center for Cyber Conflict Studies. Her research focuses on the intersection of technology, national security, and political psychology with a special interest in cyber, unmanned technologies, and Northeast Asia. Her work has appeared in print in Journal of Conflict Resolution and Strategic Studies Quarterly, and on-line at War on the Rocks, The Washington Post, The National Interest, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and The Center for a New American Security. Jacquelyn is an active member of the defense policy community with previous adjunct positions at RAND and the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as an active duty Air Force officer in South Korea and Japan and is currently a reservist assigned to U.S. Cyber Command.  She holds a B.A. in Economics-Political Science from Columbia University, an M.A. in Political Science from Arizona State University, and is a PhD Candidate at George Washington University.

Slides and paper here:



Collision of Tropes: DC Edition

It’s not everyday the liberal establishment and the wargaming community of interest meet in one event (other than when Rex and I have drinks and talk about US foreign policy…), but here is the forthcoming  New Yorker article entitled “War Games” which covers the story of a bunch of IC professionals playing Axis and Allies and lamenting the political situation today…


Transition Gaming

In an article this afternoon covering the meeting between President Obambombera and Donald Trump at the White House, the New York Times included the following snippet of information at the end:

“In December, Mr. Obama’s team plans to hold the first of two war-gaming exercises to prepare Mr. Trump and his staff for a potential national security crisis.

Mr. Obama’s aides participated in a similar exercise organized by Mr. Bush’s White House the week before his 2009 inauguration, during which they sat side by side in the Situation Room and gamed out how the government would respond to a series of simultaneous explosions in American cities.

The second simulation for Mr. Trump is set for January, days before he officially gains access to the nuclear codes.”

Very high-level games like these – and the periodic other games held at the White House situation room – are usually organized by some combination of the National Security Council staff and key elements of the most relevant Departments that are responsible for strategic-level, political-military gaming (for example the Joint Staff Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Division (J-8 SAGD)).

This is NOT a Drill!

First – Applause for the Connections UK crowd – it was a very nice week in London, and I will be posting on that front shortly.

But in the meantime… Over the weekend, I read the pretty well done Politico piece on the “missing” hours on 9/11 during which the presidential retinue was being hop-scotched around the country on Air Force One. I was struck by the following extract. Early on, they head to Barkesdale AFB to get fuel and try and figure out what’s going on. As it happens, the 8th Air Force is in the middle of dialing-in to GLOBAL GUARDIAN – the annual STRATCOM exercise – leading to the following moment:

 “Lt. Gen. Tom Keck, commander, Barksdale Air Force Base, Shreveport, La.: I was the commander of the 8th Air Force. We were in the midst of this big annual exercise called GLOBAL GUARDIAN. They loaded all the bombers, put the submarines out to sea, put the ICBMs at nearly 100 percent. It was routine, you did it every year.
A captain tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sir, we just had an aircraft hit the World Trade Center.” I started to correct him, saying, “When you have an exercise input you have to start by saying, ‘I have an exercise input.’ That way it doesn’t get confused with the real world.” Then he just pointed me to the TV screens in the command center. You could see smoke pouring out of the building. Like everyone else in aviation that day, I thought, “How in a clear-and-a-million day could someone hit the World Trade Center?”

I had forgotten that the GLOBAL GUARDIAN exercise that year was actually investigated by the 9/11 Commission for whether it had impact the military response to the attacks detrimentally. The conclusion was ultimately that the heightened exercise readiness may have actually helped response. Go read the 2001 GLOBAL GUARDIAN scenarios – no spoilers in this post – and think about 2001 vs. 2017.

Of course 9/11 is the salient event of the contemporary, western national security narrative – but as practitioners we have to think about the same kinds of things in our daily lives. To whit, a conversation I had with a colleague and collaborator a couple of years ago:

“Me: hey [colleague], what’s up?

Colleague: Hey, did you send me some scenario materials, like draft injects?

Me: Oh, yeah, I did, a few hours ago, why?

Colleague: are they fake versions of acquisitions documents for an ISR program, with, uh, FAKE SAP markings on them?

Me: Yeah! …oh

Colleague: So, you didn’t write: “Exercise Purposes Only” on them, and now there are some guys taking all the computer hardware out of my office, and I have to see my security officer in an hour…

Me: [pause] Sorry.”

Mistakes happen in both directions. Remember to check-in!

Legal Advises You to Choose a Fictional Country…


Jonas Savimbi IRL and in Call of Duty: Black Ops

We don’t talk a lot on the blog about the weirder liability considerations involved in games designed for profit – or even sometimes as part of a public research agenda – but the risk is out there.

The family of infamous Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi is suing the makers of Call of Duty: Black Ops over the game’s depiction of the warlord. Three of Savimbi’s children, who live in Paris, having taken the company, Activision, to court, demanding 1 million Euros in damages for defaming their father as “a barbarian.” The game designer’s lawyers, meanwhile, have called the portrayal: “favorable.”

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 shows him rallying his troops with phrases like “death to the MPLA”, referring to the party that has governed Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975.

But his family said they are outraged at the depiction.

“Seeing him kill people, cutting someone’s arm off… that isn’t Dad,” said Cheya Savimbi…

A lawyer for Activision Blizzard, Etienne Kowalski, said the firm disagreed with Savimbi’s family, saying it showed the former rebel as a “good guy who comes to help the heroes”.

OK then. Well the U.S. government had strong currents of support for him at times too, I guess – despite the appalling violence committed by UNITA (including burning suspected witches. Really).

At least in Brynania you can assign whatever despicable behavior you want to the Zaharian Peoples Front (ZPF) without fear of winding up in court. Game writers take note.

ICONS Project seeks researcher/simulation developer


Dear Readers,

I’ve not been posting much lately. In part due to the fact that I am under an extremely heavy workload. The good news, is that the ICONS Project is adding staff, so I should soon have a lot of time back! I encourage anyone in the PAXsims community who is interested in joining the Project to consider applying here and/or passing this notice on to your communities of interest.

The ICONS Project seeks a Researcher and Simulation Developer to support the ICONS Project’s growing portfolio of simulation-based research, education, and professional training programs. A substantial portion of this position’s time will be devoted to supporting projects looking at U.S. strategic planning and decision-making in the field of international relations and security.

The open position will join the Project’s simulation development team, reporting to the director of the Policy & Research program. Duties will include simulation design and writing, simulation maintenance, project management, research and development and instructional materials and tools, and technical support and customer service.

The position will be directly supervised by the ICONS Project Associate Director. The candidate will report to the ICONS Project’s lead simulation developer on overall creative matters, and to the appropriate principal investigator or program head on specific projects. The ICONS Project has a long history of growth and innovation, and we welcome applicants who are looking for an opportunity to shape and expand a position over time.

Best consideration date is October 27. The sooner we fill this role, the sooner I can turn to another “On Methods” posting…

Devin Ellis

Cards Against Humanit… arian Aid. Really.


For those of you cynics out there who have been waiting for the gamification of the aid world’s dysfunction – wait no more. We give you: Jaded Aid the satirical card game based on Cards Against Humanity (TM), but with cards specific to appalling corruption, malfeasance, abuse, failure, and greed from the realm of development assistance.

So far the cards remain under development, but the article is worth a read, if for nothing other than two gems:

  1. the idea came about at Board Room, the wonderful but absurdly elitist Dupont Circle board game bar (when the Bank has you grounded you have to get your Catan fix somewhere, right?).
  2. The initial kickstarter was oversubscribed within 24 hours. That’s how disillusioned the development community is… OK, and how much fun they are willing to have at their own expense.

PAXSIMs promises that when the “Jaded Aid” CAH pack is released, the associate editors will convene some DC testing sessions and post a review on the blog.

PAXsims at ISCRAM 2015

ISCRAM 2015 logo

I have just arrived here in picturesque Kristiansand Norway, to attend the annual Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM). At the moment the weather is very. ahem, ‘Norwegian Seaside’ (read 50 degrees F, with cool rain blowing in off the ocean, and dense fog), but I’m excited to here. As Rex noted earlier, the association has added a new Serious Gaming track to the conference this year, and I will be delivering a paper on a training simulation ICONS developed in conjunction with some crisis communication experts and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) for the US Department of Homeland Security. I am also very much looking forward to many of the panels in the Analytical Modeling and Simulation track.

I plan to post at least once this week with updates and worthy information for the community of interest. Check out the Conference Proceedings and comment on this post or drop me an email if there’s a paper you would really like live reporting on, or an author I should approach for more information.

From ‘The Norwegian Riviera’

PAXsims Goes to Carlisle

Barracks-e1376937377369I will be attending the upcoming China Futures Wargame at the USArmy War College Feb. 18-19. The game is unclassified and will focus on a strategic look at the US-China relationship outside the traditional Asia Pacific AOR (i.e. Africa and latin America). The event should be interesting, and there will be high quality attendees including some of my China expert colleagues Michael Swaine from the Carnegie Endowment and Will Norris from Texas A&M, as well as NIC wargame master Dan Flynn. I will plan to report as appropriate.


Diplomacy in the Classroom… Full of Political Scientists

I attended the first day of the American Political Science Association (APSA) Teaching and Learning Conference today.

The Simulations track this year was put together by the inimitable Victor Asal, and features some very interesting papers, about which I will report after the conference (and when the official rapporteurs notes are available). However, never one to be idle at a conference, Victor also organized a workshop this afternoon, along with Amanda Rosen on the use of the classic game Diplomacy in the classroom.

Victor and Amanda prepared materials to explain how they teach and use the game in class, but given the time constraints, we actually skipped the presentations and jumped right into playing. There were about 17 of us, which made for mostly teams of two and a couple teams of three (I was half of Team Germany). Somewhat surprisingly, only about five of us had ever played the game before – but that proved to be a bonus when it came to the Q&A about using it as a teaching tool, since several people honed in on how to create time and space in a course to effectively teach students to play the game, and how to balance between students who were naturally good at/inclined to the game and those who struggled more with it.

After two full turns (four rounds of orders) it was almost time to head to the conference reception. Needless to say Austria-Hungary had been basically obliterated, but we had also given a lot of thought to the applicability of this hoary standard of the gaming repertoire to the modern IR or comparative politics classroom. Victor and Amanda interrupted us throughout play with “pedagogical moments” and we had a lively debrief. Some of the takeaways:

  • Formats: Victor and Amanda run it quite differently. Victor uses the game mostly in large classes and runs it during class periods, usually either four full 1:15 classes, or one long intro and then 15-20 minutes at the beginning of each class for the rest of the semester. Amanda does the intro, and sometimes demo rounds in class, but then has students do all the negotiating and decision making outside of class time. Orders are submitted to her at set intervals and she adjudicates using the online version of the game, with a single board where all the students can see the state of play.
  • The nitty gritty: the nastiness of betrayal, double-dealing, and backstabbing in the game is, of course, highlighted as a window into a) realism; b) the deplorable realities out there.
  • Using teams with their own internal roles and decision making rules was discussed as a way to make the game feasible in larger class sizes (e.g. a team of five playing Germany has a Kaiser and a bunch of ministers who get to make recommendations).
  • As mentioned above, balancing for skill and interest level was much discussed. Victor actively participates as a strategic advisor to those teams he feels would otherwise loose interest or be side-lined in his classes – since he can observe dynamics in the room. Amanda adopts several approaches, including offering “Pro Tips” as part of her adjudication roundup after each turn, in which she highlights areas where poor understanding of rules or strategy might have gotten the better of different teams.
  • A variety of grading and assignment strategies were discussed, from reports after each round to assessments of how the overall themes of the game mirrored core theory being taught in the class.
  • The issue came up of what to do with a team that goes out earlier in the game? Those who had used it agreed that re-assigning those students to other teams generally worked well.

The core takeaway though was… it’s fun. If there hadn’t been the prospect of an open bar, I’m not sure some of us wouldn’t have stayed for another turn (I was anxious to see how our conflict with Russia over Warsaw would turn out). It was a good reminder that as we explore the limits and complexities of gaming methodology in many directions, there is still a lot of value to the classics when well applied.



MMOWGLI, the massive multiplayer online simulation experience developed by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), begins its next interactive program on January 20. This iteration is based on the impact of black swan events. Below, the write-up from the team. If you are interested in signing up to participate, go here. For PAXsims coverage of the previous 2011 and 2012 MMOWGLI Piracy games, check out Rex’s previous posts

The future is here – today’s trends and uncertainties are laying a foundation for tomorrow’s events. Innovation is at the forefront of the Department of Defense’s new technology strategy, as outlined in Better Buying Power 3.0. The blackswan Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) is a tool designed to foster innovation, and challenges individuals to adopt a new way of thinking about the future global landscape. blackswan MMOWGLI wants to explore this “futurescape” and determine how best to ensure our success.

Black Swan refers to events that are unexpected and have the potential for major impact, but with the benefit of hindsight, post-analysis can often lead to an “it was bound to happen” moment. The blackswan MMOWGLI is a massive multiplayer online wargame aimed at identifying potential black swans and technology ideas and/or concepts to mitigate them, should they become a reality. Over the next 30 years, we will experience new challenges on frontiers that exceed our current understanding and imagination of the world in which we live. The exploration and adaptation of new “mental models” will be essential to envisioning this space and devising strategies that help us prepare for the future.

We would like YOUR IDEAS: from your professional knowledge to your wildest imaginings. All of these could help us anticipate the next black swan event, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and examine transformative technologies that will shape our future.

What if you could…
…collaborate across borders?
…explore the potential of game-changing innovations?
…play the idea that sparks a hundred more?
Participation in blackswan MMOWGLI will be limited.
Join us now at to sign up to play. Also follow us on Twitter @MMOWGLI to stay updated.
Every idea counts. We hope you’ll join us. How will you play the game, change the game?
— The blackswan MMOWGLI team

Lost in Translation?

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
– George Orwell, 1984

Ellie Kicked off the New Year with some great thoughts about the need to explore qualitative assessment of games, and I’m going to jump on the bandwagon with another methodology post. In fact, I’m going to inaugurate what I hope will become a regular series for the blog:

On Methods

The holiday season is behind us now, but if you celebrated Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Festivus, or THE DAY OF THE TOILING MASSES OF POLI 340, chances are there were texts, songs, or other traditional accompaniments in multiple languages. I’ll use that as a tenuous hook to transition into the substance of today’s post: the issue of languages – and native speakers.

I do a lot of bilateral and trilateral Track-II work, and so my projects often involve participants who are speakers of several languages. Naturally, we always discuss whether to allow participants to conduct their intra-team deliberations in their native tongues, or request that they do so in English so all members of control can follow the whole progress of the simulation without interpretation. Any game designer or director who has worked in a multi-lingual setting has encountered this dilemma. I’ve found that if all your participants have working proficiency in a shared language, it is treated as a logistical and resource management issue: do you have the funding/space/time to allow for translation? Do you have in-house language capability in the game staff or control team? Will language issues slow down the rounds too much? Etc. If the answers to one or more of these questions is ‘no,’ then we usually ask everyone to work in the common language.

But it’s possible this approach does not go far enough to understanding the impact of language on the results of a game. Albert Costa, and Boaz Keysar, psychologists at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and University of Chicago, respectively, have both studied the differences in how people make moral decisions in native versus non-native languages. Recently, the two joined forces, along with a number of co-authors, on a study published this past April in Plosone. Subjects were asked to make decisions in classic morality problems, such as the trolley dilemma (Thomson J (1985) The trolley problem. Yale Law J 94: 1395–1415), with treatment groups working in their native language and in another langauge in which they were profficient.

The study found that, to a significant extent, subjects’ decisions differed when the problem was presented in their native language versus the other.

“We have shown that people’s moral judgments and decisions depend on the native-ness of the language in which a dilemma is presented, becoming more utilitarian in a foreign language. These results are important for models of moral decision making because they show that identical dilemmas may elicit different moral judgements depending on a seemingly irrelevant aspect such as the native-ness of the language. Most likely, a foreign language reduces emotional reactivity, promoting cost-benefit considerations, leading to an increase in utilitarian judgments.”

The experiment was well constructed – if you want all the details, read the paper, but I will say here that they controlled for things like cultural differences, degree of fluency, etc. And the findings are compelling. If, indeed, decision making becomes more utilitarian and abstract with a psychological distance created by language, it could have real meaning for those of us trying to analyze and interperet behavior. Whether traditional wargame, crisis response exercise, or policy planning simulation, these projects often involve complex and high-stakes decision making. The research focused on moral judgements, but the findings suggest that the removal of emotion and a greater degree of abstract rationalization evident in those speaking a non-native langauge could impact all manner of decision making.

The silver lining? As one would expect logically, the greater the subject’s fluency in the second langauge, the smaller the difference in decision making. So there’s a practical take-away for the game director: if you are working in a lingua franca, get your participants’ TOEFL scores before you start to interperet the decisions they made during the course of play…

Food for thought.

%d bloggers like this: