Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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.

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