PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Wong on wargaming

Yuna Wong briefly discusses wargaming at the latest edition of Eye on IDA. You can watch it below!

Registration now open for Connections US 2021

Registration is now open for the Connections US 2021 professional wargaming conference, which will be held (virtually) on 21-25 June 2021. The theme for this year’s conference is Ethics and Wargaming.

You will find addition information on the conference at the Connections US website.

Review: Gaming Disease Response

ED McGrady and John Curry, Roll to Save: Gaming Disease Response (History of Wargaming Project, 2021). 143pp. USD$20 paperback, USD$7.92 Kindle.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the value of serious gaming for supporting health sector preparedness and government policy response. Indeed, in my own case, during the past year I have found myself designing games on pandemic-related food security issues, working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Department of National Defence in red teaming Canada’s national vaccine roll-out plans (including a major national tabletop exercise), and I’m currently working with the READY Initiative on digital games-based training for epidemic disease preparedness and response in the humanitarian sector.

All of that is to say that I wish Roll to Save: Gaming Disease Response had been published a year ago, because it is a very useful resource indeed for anyone working in this area. Some of the chapters address general design issues, including the value of serious games; gaming at the strategic (policy), operational, and “tactical” levels of disease response; and important considerations in professional game design. Other chapters discuss particular game designs, addressing topics as wide-ranging as vaccination/prophylaxis; bioterrorism (anthrax, melioidosis); particular epidemic outbreak scenarios (ebola); mental health support; and pandemic recovery (COVID-X). It also contains brief chapters discussing some of the basics of infectious diseases, epidemiology, public health planning, outbreak investigation, and the importance of information, politics, and the media. My only disappointment was the bibliography, which lists some of the sources cited in the book but which doesn’t provide a wider reference to the substantial literature on medical and emergency preparedness gaming.

Above and beyond the very considerable value of this publication for those designing disease response games, it also stands as an excellent example of how serious gaming should be undertaken. McGrady not only has extensive experience in designing and implementing serious games on a wide range of national security and policy issues, but also has keen insight into what works in what context. He thus underscores the importance of designing a game around not only the topic, but equally the game objectives, available resources, participants, and client/sponsors.

Bryant and Nagle on “Wargaming for the new great game”

At the Modern War Institute (West Point), Susan Bryant and Tom Nagle have written an excellent article on “wargaming for the new great game.” In it, they explore the challenges of wargaming irregular warfare, highlighting common shortcomings and suggesting some very useful best practices.

Specifically they identify “four keys to better wargames”:

Focus on the Narratives

In irregular warfare, narratives carry the day. Narratives describe how individuals experience the world around them and then communicate that information to others. The Department of Defense has enormous blind spots in understanding how adversaries interpret our actions and spin new counternarratives.

Each party to a conflict comes with its own narratives. Robert Rubel, who chaired the Naval War College’s Wargaming Department, notes that participants routinely fail to connect the political and military aspects of the game. Unfortunately, this often results in unnecessary and costly escalations.

Plentiful Parties and Overlapping Objectives

Irregular warfare wargaming requires more robust, skeptical third-party teams with knowledge of political warfare and narratives. In traditional wargames of conventional conflicts, enemy and friendly forces fight over discrete objectives with minimal third-party engagement. However, in irregular warfare scenarios, third parties’ interpretations of friendly and enemy actions may decide the conflicts. Further, many parties simply defy these categories.

The Syrian Civil War provides an example of the complex array of actors involved in IW. To secure its interests, Russia must support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, defuse friction with Turkey, partner with Iran, defeat ISIS, and isolate the United States. No wargame could responsibly model the Syrian conflict without these and other players competing and seeking to advance their own objectives.

Unfortunately, US wargames understate the complexity of these types of situations. Once third-party players begin to outnumber friendly and enemy players, the games will begin to represent IW’s complexity. Attempts to accomplish this type of wargaming are nascent, but they do exist. The work done by Lieutenant Colonel Arnel David and Dr. John De Rosa on gaming narratives in the Baltics provides an example of what this type of approach would entail.

Whole-of-Government cannot be Controlled by the Military

Wargames are too military-centric. While the military aspires to a whole-of-government solution to population-centric conflicts, wargames rarely reflect this aspiration. Too often, the military assumes a degree of latitude not representative of real-world constraints. Expanding interagency and coalition teams in wargaming is one way to ensure more instruments of national power are realistically incorporated, rather than simply assumed.

Games Should Seek a Position of Continuing Advantage

Successful strategies in an actual irregular warfare conflict create conditions favoring long-term success, rather than the achievement of discrete military objectives. Irregular warfare–oriented games should employ an approach tailored to the scenario and avoid an emphasis on specific, traditional military outcomes. Though military objectives will still play a role, the use of the military instrument must be fully integrated with other activities intended to create favorable conditions for successful military actions.

They conclude by noting that addressing the challenge of irregular warfare is difficult, in part because of institutional inertia and the difficulty of promoting truly innovative thought.

Replicating IW is hard. As compared to conventional conflicts, IW campaigns will often play out over months and years. Fortunately, new wargaming tools offer promise to unlock new IW concepts and shift perceptions of IW. These tools can take many forms: for example, planning wargames as asynchronous, multiday events would leverage the time between turns to stimulate creativity and new IW concepts. Similarly, transitioning to a virtual format for some types of wargames not only can add more nuance to the scenario, but can make participation more accessible to tactical and operational decision makers across the force who may not normally have the opportunity to engage in these exercises. Increasing distributed, scalable, and easily manipulated irregular warfare wargames both for the operational force and at all levels of military education will not only promulgate new concepts and shift mindsets about irregular warfare, but will better prepare the entire defense apparatus to approach the contemporary security environment in dynamic and innovative ways.

h/t Scott Cooper

Connections US: Call for game lab proposals

The organizers of the Connections US professional wargaming conference have issued a call for proposals for their “game lab” sessions. If you wish to proposal a topic for discussion, USE THIS LINK (since the ones in the image below won’t work here).

As noted above, the deadline for proposals is May 30.

UK Fight Club: Wargaming peace, stabilization, and counterinsurgency operations

On May 13, UK Fight Club will be hosting a webinar on wargaming peace, stabilization, and counterinsurgency operations, featuring none other than me. The session starts at 20:00 BST, and you can sign up here.

CSIS: Fellow or Senior Fellow in gaming and futures analysis

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC is looking for a Fellow or Senior Fellow in gaming and futures analysis.

The CSIS International Security Program (ISP) is a constant source of reliable analysis on the threats and opportunities shaping U.S. and partner security interests at home and abroad. The Fellow or Senior Fellow, Gaming and Futures Analysis, is expected to help create a broad intellectual agenda in accord with the overall approach of the program, and to maintain a high level of scholarship in a dynamic and fast-paced environment. The Fellow or Senior Fellow will work on several projects simultaneously, in addition to responding to daily demands.

Essential duties and responsibilities

Essential functions may include, but are not limited to the following

• Conceptualizes and actualizes the vision of ISP work on gaming and futures analysis, including securing necessary sponsors and fundraising, as well as energizing Center-wide initiatives and cooperative arrangements.
• Develops and executes complex games, scenarios, and other events to deepen CSIS’s research and insight on a wide range of national security-related subjects. 
• Contributes to the intellectual vitality of the Center by serving as a nationally-recognized thought leader whose work embodies the CSIS principles of scholarly independence, objective analysis, and political bipartisanship.
• Manages the substantive and operational priorities of sizable projects and initiatives.
• Collaborates effectively with staff across ISP and CSIS.
• Produces content-rich proposals and publications that contribute to analysis of key policy debates in Congress, the Executive Branch, between the public and private sectors, and in the international sphere.
• Represents CSIS on a national and international level in media outlets, at conferences and workshops, and among a broad range of stakeholders.

You will find a fuller description of the position and application information at the CSIS website.

Simulation and gaming publications, March-April 2021

PAXsims is pleased to present a selection of recently-published items on simulation and serious gaming. Some of these may not address conflict, peacebuilding, or development issues at all, but have been included because of the broader perspective they offer on games-based education or analysis. Others might address “gaming-adjacent” issues such as group dynamics and decision-making, assessment, forecasting, or related topics. If you have published something recently and we haven’t yet included it, let us know!

Articles may be gated/paywalled and not accessible without subscription access to the publication in which they appear.


Christensen, Kyle (2021). “Wargaming the use of intermediate force capabilities in the gray zone,” Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology (online first).

This work reviews the development and tests of an intermediate force capability (IFC) concept development hybrid wargame aimed at examining a maritime task force’s ability to counter hybrid threats in the gray zone. IFCs offer a class of response between doing nothing and using lethal force in a situation that would be politically unpalatable. Thus, the aim of the wargame is to evaluate whether IFCs can make a difference to mission success against hybrid threats in the gray zone. This wargame series was particularly important because it used traditional game mechanics in a unique and innovative way to evaluate and assess IFCs. The results of the wargame demonstrated that IFCs have a high probability of filling the gap between doing nothing and using lethal force. The presence of IFCs provided engagement time and space for the maritime task force commander. It also identified that development of robust IFC capabilities, not only against personnel, but against systems (trucks, cars, UAVs, etc.), can also effectively counter undesirable adversarial behavior

Hill, Richard T.; Hirtz, Derek (2020), Rebels and States: A Game Of Revolution And Dominance, MSc thesis, US Naval Postgraduate School. 

The U.S. military is currently in an era of change highlighted by a shift in focus from small-scale and limited wars involving counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) to preparations for large-scale combat operations with a near-peer threat. This shift has placed emphasis on conventional focus in training, education, and planning to stand ready for a potential conflict as the United States continues to maintain its unilateral grip as the world’s lone superpower, and Russia and China try to expand their spheres of influence in the great power competition (GPC). But as with the Cold War, it is unlikely this showdown will occur. Conversely, it is far more probable conflict will be highlighted by competition through state-sponsored insurgencies, proxy wars, and a struggle over influence. Special operations forces (SOF) therefore must balance their understanding and preparedness of conventional warfare while standing ready to execute unconventionally. This wargame is designed to train entry-level SOF candidates in the interaction between the insurgent and counterinsurgent, utilizing COIN and unconventional warfare (UW) doctrine as a basis while also employing the concepts of insurgent, resistance, and COIN theorists. The goal of the wargame is to aid SOF candidates as they prepare to serve in their operational units, providing a venue to test strategies and understandings of COIN and UW principles, and ensure an enhanced education in doctrine and theory.

Jaramillo-Alcázar, Angel; Venegas, Eduardo ; Criollo-C, Santiago; and Luján-Mora, Sergio. (2021). “An Approach to Accessible Serious Games for People with Dyslexia,” Sustainability 13.

Dyslexia is a cognitive disorder that affects the evolutionary ability to read, write, and speak in people, affecting the correct learning of a large percentage of the population worldwide. In fact, incorrect learning is caused because the educational system does not take into consideration the accessibility parameters that people with dyslexia need to maintain a sustainable educational level equal to others. Moreover, the use of mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, has been deployed in education programs, offering many benefits; however, the lack of accessibility of those devices creates new barriers to students with dyslexia that hinder their education. With the aim of reducing these barriers, this paper presents an approach to the development of accessible serious games games for children with dyslexia. As a case study, a serious game based on a previously proposed serious game development method and a new set of accessibility guidelines for people with dyslexia is presented. The main purpose of the serious video game is to improve the treatment of dyslexia, through the collection of data obtained from two puzzles designed to train certain cognitive areas that affect this disability. This article has a double contribution: on the one hand, the guidelines and the method that can help video game developers and therapists to develop accessible serious games for people with dyslexia and, on the other hand, the two specific serious games that can be used by therapists, family members and people with dyslexia themselves. 

Lim, Jong-Won; Choi, Bong-Wan; Yim, Dong-Soon (2021).  “A Study on the Methodology for Combat Experimental Testing of Future Infantry Units using Simulation,” Journal of the Korea Academia-Industrial Cooperation Society 22(3).

Owing to the development of science technology, particularly the smart concept and defense policy factors of the 4th industry, military weapon systems are advanced, and the scientific and operational force is reduced dramatically. The aspect of the future war is characterized by the operation of troops with reduced forces from advanced and scientific weapon systems in an operational area that has expanded more than four times compared to the present. Reflecting on these situational factors, it is necessary to improve combat methods based on the changes in the battlefield environment and advanced weapon systems. In this study, to find a more efficient future combat method in a changing war pattern, this study applied the battle experiment methodology using Vision21 war game model, which is an analytical model used by the army. Finally, this study aimed to verify the future combat method and unit structure. Therefore, the scenario composition and experiment method that reflect the change in the ground operational environment and weapon system was first composed. Subsequently, an analysis method based on the combat effectiveness was applied to verify the effective combat performance method and unit structure of future infantry units.  [In Korean]

Lu, Tongliang; Chen, Kai; Zhang, Yan; Deng, Qiling (2021). “Research on Dynamic Evolution Model and Method of Communication Network Based on Real War Game,” Entropy 23(4).

Based on the data in real combat games, the combat System-of-Systems is usually composed of a large number of armed equipment platforms (or systems) and a reasonable communication network to connect mutually independent weapons and equipment platforms to achieve tasks such as information collection, sharing, and collaborative processing. However, the generation algorithm of the combat system in the existing research is too simple and not suitable for reality. To overcome this problem, this paper proposes a communication network generation algorithm by adopting the joint distribution strategy of power law distribution and Poisson distribution to model the communication network. The simulation method is used to study the operation under continuous attack on communication nodes. The comprehensive experimental results of the dynamic evolution of the combat network in the battle scene verify the rationality and effectiveness of the communication network construction

Tanner Mirrlees, Tanner, and Ibaid, Taha (2021). “The Virtual Killing of Muslims: Digital War Games, Islamophobia, and the Global War on Terror,” Islamophobia Studies Journal 6 (1).

This article argues that digital war games communicate misleading stereotypes about Muslims that prop up patriarchal militarism and Islamophobia in the context of the US-led Global War on Terror. The article’s first section establishes the relevance of the study of digital war games to feminist games studies, feminist international relations, and post-colonial feminism. The second section contextualizes the contemporary production and consumption of digital war games with regard to the “military-digital-games complex” and real and simulated military violence against Muslims, focusing especially on the US military deployment of digital war games to train soldiers to kill in real wars across Muslim majority countries. The third section probes “mythical Muslim” stereotypes in ten popular digital war games released between 2001 and 2012: Conflict: Desert Storm (2002), Conflict: Desert Storm 2 (2003), SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs (2002), Full Spectrum Warrior (2004), Close Combat: First to Fight (2005), Battlefield 3 (2011), Army of Two (2008), Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007), Medal of Honor (2010), and Medal of Honor: Warfighter (2012). These games immerse players in patriarchal fantasies of “militarized masculinity” and place a “mythical Muslim” before their weaponized gaze to be virtually killed in the name of US and global security. The conclusion discusses the stakes of the stereotyping and othering of Muslims by digital war games, and highlights some challenges to Islamophobia in the digital games industry.

Satopää, Ville and Salikhov, Marat and Tetlock, Philip and Mellers, Barb, (2021). Decomposing the Effects of Crowd-Wisdom Aggregators: The Bias-Information-Noise (BIN) Model, SSRN.

Aggregating predictions from multiple judges often yields more accurate predictions than relying on a single judge: the “wisdom-of-the-crowd” effect. This aggregation can be conducted by different methods, from simple averaging to complex techniques, like Bayesian estimators and prediction markets. This article applies a broad set of aggregation methods to subjective probability estimates from a series of geopolitical forecasting tournaments. It then uses the Bias-Information-Noise (BIN) model to disentangle three mechanisms by which each aggregation method improves accuracy: the tamping down of bias and noise and the extraction of valid information across forecasters. Averaging works almost entirely via noise reduction whereas more complex techniques, like prediction markets and Bayesian aggregators, work via all three BIN pathways: better signal extraction and noise and bias reduction.

Schupp, Janina (2021). “Wargaming the Middle East: The Evolution of Simulated Battlefields from Chequerboards to Virtual Worlds and Instrumented Artificial Cities.” In A. Strohmaier and A. Krewani (eds.), Media and Mapping Practices in the Middle East and North Africa: Producing Space. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Shortly after the end of a tank combat during the Gulf War, a team of US Army historians, scientists, and engineers flew to Iraq to gather detailed data of the battle. The collected information was used to create an exact virtual simulation of the combat for training. The mapping capability – offered by the resulting simulation game 73 Easting – to visualize the battlefield from any position and point in time revolutionized military exercises. With ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, these digital training cartographies are now linked to real bodies and vehicles through digital and mobile technologies during live training in artificially constructed villages. This chapter analyses this evolution and critically investigates the growing ‘gamification’ ensuing in these representations of Middle Eastern battlefields.

Bandera online

Tim Price—reclusive starship designer, small-holder, zombie survivalist, and lock-pick—has put together an online version of his recent Bandera Russo-Ukranian conflict matrix game for PAXsims readers, using Google slides. The link to access these is below, but first you need to read these instructions verrrrry carefully.

  1. Go to the Google slides at the link below.
  2. Do not move, alter or edit anything on this slide deck in any way!
  3. Instead, pull down the File menu and make a copy of the presentation for your own use (see below).
  4. Close the original set of slides.
  5. Do whatever you want with the copy!

Using Google slides, any number of users can view the deck, move tokens, and so forth. It’s also easy to clone tokens if you need more, or make up new ones.

And what is the link, you ask? Here it is.

CNAS call for applications: A Russia Crisis Simulation

The Center for a New American Security has issued a call for applications for “Wargaming with the Next Generation: A Russia Crisis Simulation.” The virtual workshop will provide students and young professionals with the opportunity to simulate decision-making in a political crisis and military conflict in Europe.

The one-and-a-half-day event will be held on July 21 and 22, 2021. The first half-day will focus on the basics of wargaming and will teach participants how defense and strategy games are used by U.S. and EU stakeholders to enhance decision-making. During the second day, participants will engage in a virtual crisis simulation with defense and national security experts to gain greater insight into the longstanding diplomatic and defense relationships between the United States and Europe, including NATO and EU dynamics.

Applications will be accepted until 11:59 pm EDT on Friday, May 21, 2021. Selected applicants will participate in a virtual workshop on July 21 and 22, 2021.

To be eligible, applicants must be US citizens between 15 and 30 years old.

Additional information and application details can be found at the CNAS website.

KISG PhD studentship – intelligence and wargaming

Anna Nettleship at the King’s Wargaming Network has circulated the following announcement:

The Wargaming Network is pleased to announce the availability of the KISG PhD Studentship – Intelligence and Wargaming award for the 2021-2022 academic year. Details are below, interested applicants may find details on the application process here

The King’s Intelligence and Security Group (KISG) provides a forum for collaborative research and networking between War Studies faculty and PhD students, external partners and affiliate institutions, and practitioners working in intelligence. We bring together a research community with expertise ranging from the history of military and civilian intelligence to contemporary intelligence issues, such as oversight, privatisation, and international liaison. Through an active programme of events, expert workshops and applied research, we foster the public discussion of key issues in intelligence.

This PhD studentship is for a thesis on intelligence and wargaming. The successful applicant will work within KISG but provide a link to the Wargaming Network. We welcome applications on theses that seek to bridge the two disciplines of ‘intelligence’ and ‘wargaming’, particularly around the methodology of forecasting, prediction, and scenario building.

Award value: Home Tuition Fees.

Eligibility criteria:  Applicants must have already applied to the War Studies PhD programme and must satisfy the entry requirements of the PhD programme. The studentship is open to citizens from the UK. 

Bandera: A Russo-Ukrainian conflict matrix game

The ever-mysterious Tim Price has put together yet another matrix game, this time on the most recent developments in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict

The package contains background materials, briefings, a map, counters, and basic instructions on how to play a matrix game. You can download it here:

A high-resolution version of the map can be downloaded here:

Permission is hereby granted to print copies of the game, counters and maps, for educational, professional, or recreational purposes, without restriction (provided you aren’t using them to plan an attack against a neighbouring country or annex part of its sovereign territory.)

Building a climate change megagame (Part 3)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Parts 1 and 2 here and here.


Concluding thoughts

One of the first impressions was that we were rather overwhelmed by the experience, which is one of the reasons this blog post, long overdue and way too long, did not materialize until at least one academic period had transpired after the main CCM event. However, now that we have gathered our thoughts a bit, we realized that we have probably learned a great number of things so far. For instance:

1.     Reasons for creating a megagame on climate change and social transformation

There are many types of games that relate to climate change and negotiations, but few that we feel concern the types of negotiations, dilemmas and interactions that may be common for professionals in companies and citizens in local regions facing the prospect of societal change. One of us, Ola Uhrqvist, had previous experience developing a game about city planning to take both climate adaptation into account— but there, few negotiations were conducted as the game was primarily a single-player web application. 

In the literature on learning for a sustainable development, engagement and various pedagogical forms is stressed as key to ensure that learners experience first-hand the dilemmas and difficulties they need to overcome. Furthermore, we noticed that when we pitched the idea of a “Climate Change Megagame”, it immediately piqued people’s interest in a way that acted as an icebreaker and helped us to engage rather diverse groups in conversations. Even though there were practical issues with every single version of the game we have tried, the concept itself has been intriguing enough to make people joining as players or contribute as control team and even contributing to game development. However, to understand exactly which difficulties to subject players, and what type of realistic situations to simulate, has proved to be almost as elusive as real societal transformation.

2.     The eternal challenge of playable realism

Serious games always needs to balance between relevance and playability. The activities players engage in, and the type of experience they have, must be of relevance whether it is “realistic” or not. We learned that some types of realism, such as players getting bogged down by managing their daily lives, may not be helpful in ensuring that the resulting experience is relevant to the end goal of understanding dilemmas and options for societal transformation. We wanted the game to offer interesting challenges without directing players too much with respect to what they would want to do. As designers, we can include mechanisms that reflect aspects of reality such as economic capital being vital for investments in infrastructure, say, without going so far as to say that without a growing economy, people would starve to death. We wanted to provide enough context and feedback mechanisms to stimulate discussions and make different visions apparent, without constricting players in such a way that their room for creative discussions and maneuvering would be artificially restricted. 

A golden rule for how to ensure players understand the rules well enough to be comfortable about breaking them and understanding just how much freedom they have to negotiate freely probably don’t exist but we understand much better now than before what would count as interesting and relevant challenges compared to “realistic” ones. In our experience minimalism of game mechanics is desirable in order to let participants focus on the content. 

3.     Recruiting and maintaining a committed and diverse design team

Including more people from the early playtests in game design and discussions made it apparent that it was difficult to ensure equal commitment among all when the game concept changed quite a lot, partly as a result of feedback. Also, we wanted to be open to suggestions about how different groups could contribute to the project, which placed high demands on participants to express clearly what they wanted to contribute to and what they expected. Some of the early contributors who provided invaluable feedback on the game and made it much better in the end still did not feel comfortable joining at the end as the game changed quite a lot between playtests. Though it was necessary to make the changes, it became difficult for all members of the design team to keep up with the ideas for changes that the core group brought forward, especially as we became limited to digital meetings during the pandemic. The take home lesson is the value of a clear aim, participants roles and modes of decision making and communication is increasingly important in a dynamic, explorative project.

4.     Going digital

Going digital opened up new opportunities for players from around the world to join and it greatly simplified our ability to collect data on how the game progressed, but also introduced a whole host of new issues. We spent quite some time even after the core game mechanics and graphical elements had been decided to ensure that the digital platform (Miro) could handle all graphical components and the 50 players with decent latency. Therefore, some graphical optimizations were required before the main event took place. For instance, components were merged into bitmaps instead of hundreds of separate graphics components. The communications channel (Discord) was set up very professionally by our Megagame colleague Darren Green from Crisis Games in the UK and that enabled players to have both private and public spaces for communications. Even with such a setup though, some players felt lost between all the channels and the Miro board. Having a technical setup and preparation before the main event, just focusing on the technical aspects of the game would probably have helped some participants who were struggling.

The main event was hosted at a venue where we broadcast everything live from a studio over Vimeo. This worked rather well as a compromise between having only an internal event and only having a studio with professional talking heads but having dual roles as hosts for both the game and the “show” was hard to manage. It would have been better to have studio hosts who could have focused on being hosts. Then again, a digital event that plays out through discussions on Discord and board changes on Miro might not offer enough continuous action for a continuous live show.

5.     The importance of good debriefing

The main event was intended to let people experience and reason about the needs for mitigation and adaptation, as in the needs for making changes to our societies that will reduce emissions versus the needs to adapt to climate change we cannot avoid. The primary aim of the debriefing was to capture the perceptions of these potentially conflicting needs, but it became apparent that the participants were mostly preoccupied with thoughts about the game mechanics, graphical elements and direct experiences. A debriefing is very important for a proper learning experience, and for us, the fact that people became preoccupied with the mechanics and graphical elements indicated that these were in fact the objects they thought mostly in terms of directly afterwards. Maybe the game was too heavy on mechanics since it became hard to talk about abstract things such as mitigation and adaptation in direct connection to having played. It would probably have been easier to first address game-specific issues and then later broaden the horizon to comprise the real world.

6.     Future development

The project had until this point been run exclusively on a small amount of seed money for a pedagogical project and a lot of personal commitment. We realized that continued work with this require us to leverage our initial experiences and gain access to proper funding for work that could significantly expand on what we have been doing. The game itself is not a goal, it is not even a product that may be finished but at best a way to help us think better, as designers and players, about what a sustainable society may be like. With some luck, we may have a chance to build on all we have learned and enable others to learn as we have about how to move constructively towards a societal transformation to sustainability.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Building a climate change megagame (Part 2)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.


Playtesting

Play-test 1: Card-driven anarcho-communism

The first iteration of the game was card-driven and centered around meeting different needs such as housing, food and transportation needs, while also being about changing the way you fulfill those needs (from more carbon-intensive variants to less carbon-intensive ones). Much of the game centered on meeting needs and negotiating with local politicians as well as companies on how to do that in a low-carbon manner. We had 15 players, three different municipalities in our region along with some companies and regional politicians. Everything was definitively NOT ready, but we understood enough of what we wanted to do so that we could start playing the game. After a few rounds of learning how to fulfill needs in general, people started getting creative about the use of different transportation methods so that we ended up having an electric garbage truck from one of the municipalities helping the population with food deliveries. Not quite sure about whether that would have conformed to sanitary guidelines, but we were rather happy about the level of creative thinking the group had going.

On the whole, the initial playtest left a bewildering mix of impressions. On the one hand, everyone present very much loved the format and engaged in lengthy discussions about how to develop the game further. On the other hand, we had succeeded in reducing carbon footprints in a way that may not have revealed very interesting tensions. As one commented, as players we seemed to behave as an “anarcho-communist collective”. Maybe not what we’d expect to see. We were not sure about how to interpret the outcome either. The companies were rather willing to forego profits and instead help the population get goods and services to meet their needs at cost. The local politicians had few restraints on their willingness to spend or meet needs or expectations from the local population. The emissions were not important in providing guidance to the players, and were not even noticed as part of playing. We succeeded without having very difficult conversations. In all, our collective success and limited sources of friction gave us much to consider for our next iteration of the game. Was the game too easy? Were we just too few to create interesting social dynamics? Did we need to pitch business owners or politicians as antagonists to the overall goal of achieving a transformation to reduce emissions, or did we simply need stronger incentives or opportunities for people to act in their own interests?

However, one design decision that was made at this stage was critical, and influenced the final game version: the general population of our region, Östergötland, would be represented in the game by players who would be able to take actions and make decisions, not as abstract values and mechanics such as tracks manipulated by decision-makers such as politicians, corporations, etc. This decision caused quite a few problems in the later stages of the design process, but in the end contributed to add a layer of interaction to the game that would otherwise have been missing and possibly sets the CCM apart from other megagames. In a megagame about, for example, the Napoleonic Wars, there are players playing generals and the officers they command, but there are no players playing the actual troops fighting the battle – whether they march where the general orders them to or refuse to move is most often decided by a morale roll, it is not the decision of a player. In this respect, the CCM was designed to bring to the table the debate taking place in society and the sometimes – from a societal planning point of view – irrational refusal by the entire or parts of the population to follow regulations and use available options to create a sustainable future.

Play-test 2: Overwhelming complexity

From the first to second iterations, we made several changes to explore designs hinted at by these questions. For one thing, we introduced quality of life, as a general mechanism that would see players optimizing well-being for the populations in their respective municipality, where reduced well-being of a population would trigger different sorts of social unrest.

Two main game mechanics were introduced in this version: the Quality of Life (QoL) tracker and Climate Impact tokens. The idea for the former began as a perceived need to track the progress of individual players in a clearer and more comparable way – an attempt to introduce the neighbour effect, i.e. ‘if my neighbour has it, I want it too’. This functioned as a form of victory points for the population players, which was affected by the overall goals in an indirect way, as extreme weather events could impact a player’s QoL, but would not necessarily do so depending on the type of event and what community it impacted.  

Here, each population player played a social stratum of the population: the population player’s needs were affected by the generations in their part of the population – each player began with 2 or 3 generations, each of which aged between turns and ran a risk (represented by a die roll) of ‘dying’ of old age and ill health. The latter was represented by a tracker, and players had to keep track of their generations so that they got proper health care, either from the local authorities or by purchasing it from private companies. This was introduced to give players a sense of relationship to a part of the population in one of the towns or municipalities. 

There were quite a few things to keep track of in this version of the game. All the needs cards in this version of the game had been replaced by boards and trackers, and players had to run back and forth to get the right resources to cover the needs boxes on their player boards. Some thought had been given to this being an obstacle in a game of a hundred players in the same room, and so some of the aspects, such as housing, had been placed on the board beforehand and did not change much during the game. Overall, however, the complexity of scaling up the original version of the game became a major problem: over 4000 cards and 50 player boards was needed for a game intended to be played by an estimated 30 players for the playtest – a climate impact issue in itself, as was noted by the control team when spending two hours cutting cards and boards. Also, if all 30 playtesters had turned up, we came to realize that there would have been chaos in the bargaining to get the resources they needed. 

The Climate Impact (CI) tokens was tied to the overall sustainability goal, which had been rather vaguely formulated in the first version of the game. The idea was that each action would carry with it its own ‘shame pile’, as one of the team members called it, in the form of a pile of CI tokens that accumulated over the lifetime of the resource. As an example, a good produced in Asia, with a certain amount of CI token already on it as decided by its production method and mode of transportation to Europe, would be purchased from the world market by a corporate player and then sold to a population player. As part of the negotiation to sell the good, the corporate player could offer to sell it at a lower price to if the population player would also take with them all CI tokens – or else offer to take all or some if the CI tokens in exchange for a higher price. The idea of the ‘shame pile’ was for each player to stand at their player board at the end of each turn and take in the sight of the climate impact they had given rise to during the turn. This was intended to provide incentive to opt for products and production methods that would lead to fewer CI tokens for the player, while giving them tangible feedback on their progress towards a sustainable society.

The complexity issue became apparent even with fewer playtesters than anticipated, and we figured out that we needed a better way of managing the small communities in the region, so we thought that having groups of players collaborating in smaller teams explicitly for the purpose of a small community might be a way forward. Also, we wanted to understand if the game design could work with a wider group of players and decided to recruit playtesters from a broader group for the next playtest.

Playtest 3: Decreasing complexity and the breakdown of the market system

Thanks to broader marketing and better advance planning, the third playtest featured a much more varied group of players, with roughly 25 playtesters of varying ages and backgrounds that attended the session. This was the first time we encountered accessibility issues relating to e.g. English as the only language for rules and components to cater the the minority of English-only participants, the height of tables in relation to wheelchairs and other aspects which had not been considered before with our smaller group.

This version of the game was a streamlined version of the one used in Playtest 2, and thought had been given to decreasing the complexity of the game and focus on the sustainability goals while not giving up the idea of simulating the problems faced by the population players in meeting their needs of the various generations of the population strata they represented. Generations were made a more central game aspect as they provided population players with actions and income, and the population players were also given more distinct roles with role-specific actions, e.g. the ability to steal from other population players or increase the resources gained from certain standard actions. The number of players per population had also been increased from one to two or three to decrease the complexity and workload of each player, and as it was beginning to dawn upon the game design team that megagames are played by groups of players, which had been noted in Playtest 1, when individual players banded together to discuss things and make sense of situations. 

The political system, which had been absent in Playtest 2 due to a lack of players, was incorporated into the game through the population player’s vote cards, which allowed them to give one of three political parties their vote. The parties, which were represented by one or two players, between them decided on regional policy. Such policies included taxes and restrictions – the power each party wielded was decided by how many vote cards they had and their ability to make voters stay with their party. The population players could change their vote at any time. This system proved to be rather static, as almost all vote cards were placed with one of the parties and few players gave their vote any thought during the game, leaving the players of two parties to try to get people to change their votes, which was in vain due to them being fully occupied with trying to sort out all of their needs and actions. This may have been rather realistic, as some of the players noted, but not great in terms of game experience. 

Two other roles were completely overwhelmed: the local authority player and the corporate players. These were more or less assaulted by a horde of population players demanding all kinds of goods and solutions to their problems, and getting access to market and local authority players became so difficult that the game rounds ended before all players had had a chance to get to the front of the line that formed in front of the market table. Thus, this version of the game showed that it would be impossible to hold on to the idea of simulating the complexity of the economic system of supply and demand – even in simplified form – by moving cards and tiles from one place to another. This also proved to be the fall of the ‘shame pile’ system as it had been imagined up to this point, as it proved far too problematic to transport the CI tokens in the room.

Research also made a small appearance with the introduction of research players, which tried to get funding to carry out research projects that would improve production processes and other aspects of the game. As this had not been given proper thought, the main role of the researchers, who represented universities as well as private research institutions, became to distribute university education and discuss matters connected to the Swedish government, which was not represented by a player in this game, but rather appeared on screens with different kinds of national policy, which the politicians were to deal with. 

After the playtest, further playtests and the main game event was postponed due to restrictions following the pandemic, which left ample time for reflections and rebuilding the game. In May 2020, the game design team met to discuss a heavily revised version of the game, which relied on the ‘steady-state system’ to deal with the choke points presented by the reliance of population players on the market and local authority players to get hold of the resources they needed to play the game. The object of this was to place more focus on the issue of discussing the overall goal of the game—a societal transformation towards a sustainable society, which had been more or less completely ignored by players during Playtest 3 – again, rather realistic, but not ideal for a game such as the CCM.  

Even though we wanted to illustrate that as citizens we have to spend our time managing our own lives instead of considering changing lifestyles and promoting a societal transformation, this was an unwanted piece of “realism” in CCM. Both game designers and playtesters wanted an immersion in the decisions and dilemmas inherent in societal transformation. To simply implement mechanisms that deflect from those decisions because those mechanisms are in place in real life would not stimulate the kinds of discussions we wanted. In that way, we did not want a “realistic” game experience but an engaging, immersive and relevant experience. We realized the difference between the two at about this point.

Playtest 4: The making of a megagame

The fourth and final playtest was held in October and was partly digital – some players sat by their computers in the same room as the control team (the only restriction at that time involved groups over 50 people) and others participated from their homes over Discord. This was in preparation of the main event, which in the end were to be entirely digital, a fact that was suspected at this point in time. Just under 20 players and control team members participated, and the playing was done using a Miro board. 

During Summer 2020, the game had been reinvented based on the lessons learned during Playtests 1-3 and the lead game designer’s improved understanding of megagames after studying them more closely over the past year. Population players were assigned roles tied to age group (young, working-age, old) rather than social stratum and, together with a local authority player, placed in groups based on which community in Östergötland they represented. This made it easier for players to act as a group against other groups, but also gave each player an individual income and a special ability, which both made them useful to the group and put them in a position to negotiate with the group members to reach their individual goals. The same was done for the corporate players, the researchers, and the politicians, who were all placed in groups (the business community, the research community, and three different political parties) with both common and individual goals. A map of the region divided into hexagons and some rules connected to it made the impact of extreme weather events and actions such as farming and harvesting forest clearer.

The most notable change was the disappearance of the market system and the cards or tiles for various needs as this proved to be a major detraction from the discussions we wanted to promote through the game. The constant negotiations to fulfil needs were replaced by an abstract ‘steady-state’ system in which only changes were recorded, and the needs of each community were reduced to four areas (food, goods, transportation, and housing). Each area was represented by a track with six boxes: three orange (technological solutions) and three blue (changes to lifestyle). By investing economic capital (earned primarily by working-age population players and local authority players), social capital (earned primarily by young population players), and cultural capital (old population players) the communities could either buy technological solutions or make changes to their lifestyle to decrease their community’s CI, which was displayed on the game board in relation to the goal of a CO2-free society in 2050.

Most of the lifestyle changes were available from the start of the game as they involved reducing consumption, often at the assumed social costs (which resulted in negative effect cards being drawn to affect the community occurring at the end of turn). The technological solutions, however, were mostly unavailable at the start of the game and had to be unlocked by the business community, which in turn relied on the research community to make the necessary technological advancements. Thus, economic capital flowed from the corporate players to the researchers, who worked hard to research the technologies that would allow the business players to unlock the technological solutions on the communities’ boards, allowing them to be purchased by the communities. However, even with technological solutions unlocked, community players could choose not to buy it and instead opt to implement lifestyle changes to reduce their climate impact. 

In this version of the game, the business community was made up of corporate players without specific roles, which made them act more like anonymous risk capitalists than local businesses.

Also, in this version the communities’ choices of technology and lifestyle did not affect the income of the corporate players which we realized was a missed opportunity for conflicting interests.  

Regarding research, a single player handled research using a deck of cards in which they put research objectives that came into effect as soon as they were drawn from the deck (this could be sped up using economic and cultural capital to draw additional cards, increasing the chances of success), which made the impact of research very low, which may be a realistic interpretation, but made the research sub-game less rewarding. 

As for the politics, no politicians were included in this playtest and instead one of the control team took on the role of discussing with anyone who wanted to contact the regional/national government, regarding, for example, increased research grants. No vote cards were used as this aspect of the game design was at this time in doubt whether they would actually contribute to the game experience. In the end it was concluded that they would, as they were reinstated in a slightly different form in the final version. 

The game lasted for two rounds out of the planned three, and the general feeling among the players afterwards was that the game would be very interesting to play, which resulted in several of the playtesters joining the control team for the main event. The game design team felt that the game inspired the intended kind of negotiations, even though feedback from the debriefing session mainly related to the game experience rather than to its connection to the real world. At this stage, we felt we were approaching what we imagined a proper Megagame experience should be like, and we were feeling increasingly confident that we could pull this off for a larger audience.

Some of the major lessons from the fourth playtest were that we needed some tighter connections between different groups of players. For instance, all corporations (each being run by one or two players) were given specific abilities and goals that were directly related to either local production (farmers, private forest owners, local factory owners, etc.) or import businesses (food store chains, import goods businesses, import car dealers, etc.), reflecting the conflict between local supply and global trade. The final version of the game was to feature two main contentions as we had uncovered from literature on differences between sustainability visions: technological change and intact/growing economy versus behavioural changes to reduce the economy, and global solutions versus local self-sufficiency.

Also, the community players’ decisions to make behavioural changes was made to affect the income of business owners in the final version of the game and research became directly connected to the business community’s ability to make technological solutions available to the communities.

The main event: Playtest 5

The main event was held November 21, 2020 and attended (digitally) by some 40 players from different countries. From our earlier playtests, we now had a well-functioning control team and managed to host the game from a studio at the local concert hall in Linköping which had been retrofitted into a studio for digital events during the pandemic. Two of us, Ola Leifler and Ola Uhrqvist, acted as both hosts and play leaders. As we ended up with roughly half the players required for a full game, it was decided that half the communites on the map (four out of eight) were not to be played. The work leading up to the event included a control team briefing session held via Discord and session a few days before the event, and a few days before that the sending out of 4-page role and rules documents to players. 

The changes that had been made to the version used in Playtest 4 involved the completion of the business and research communities as outlined above, and the addition of the regional council (politicians) and vote cards. Further reductions in complexity of game mechanics had been made, which resulted in cultural capital being removed and social capital being changed to social change tokens, which represented the snowball effect of change begetting change in that the more social change tokens were used, the more the young population players received the turn after. The old population players were also given a single social change token, as well as the power to make populations (now tokens on the game board) into generalists that could survive without the support of modern society to bring this option to the table as well. 

Final version of the game board: overview.

The politicians were divided into three distinct parties and given the option to grant economic capital to aid the communities and the business and research communities in their efforts achieve specific boxes on their development tracks, which provided them with both incentive for negotiations with other players and collaboration between the parties.

The individual goal of the politicians was to collect as many vote cards as possible, which all players (not just the populations) had been given and were free to give to any politician at any point up to the penultimate turn. Players could not take back their vote once cast, so it was important not to make the wrong choice or sell out too cheap in negotiations with politicians; most players waited to the very last minute to give someone their vote. The vote was used in an election held at the end of the penultimate turn, which decided which party/-ies would control power in the last turn. As the votes spread quite evenly the party with the most votes still had to make deals with at least one party made deals in the last round, so this did not change matters very much. 

The outcome of the game was that the four communities very nearly made it to a carbon-free society in 2050. As expected, most communities did not opt for only technological solutions or only behavioural changes but went with both, which left the business community rather poor at the end of the game due to heavy investments in research paired with loss of income from the reduction of consumption following lifestyle changes. The differences between communities was mostly during the first round, when some communities (primarily the large ones) opted to wait for the technological solutions to turn up (or even actively invested in research to make that happen), whereas others engaged all they could in lifestyle changes (the small and medium ones, who had little economic capital). During the second and third turns, the former made many lifestyle changes too, likely because they had the capital to do so and did not want to take any chances, and the latter gained handsome deals from the business community, which was trying to expand business to make up for lost income.  

Final version of the game board: close-up.

After the final round and looking at the results, debriefings were held and afterwards analysed (see a separate report. From a game design point of view, it was concluded that the game may have been a bit too easy to ‘win’, as in there may have been too much economic capital in relation to the price of unlocking the development boxes. On the other hand, all parts of the game functioned as intended and there was a great deal of negotiation going on, and the general tendency was for players to become more and more comfortable in their roles with each turn, which suggested that the game is possible to understand and make sense of. This was also suggested by the player debriefings, and the initial confusion reported by some appears to be mostly related to the megagame experience being difficult to envision beforehand, as well as the all-digital format which made it challenging to see how you could engage in conversations with other players when not in the same physical location.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Building a climate change megagame (Part 1)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You will find Parts 2 and 3 here and here.


Part 1:  Building a game about regional transformation towards a sustainable society

We have made major breakthrough in understanding cultural change and human behaviour”!

“VOTE for the Market Prophets if you believe in emission free transport, eco-building, repair shops and advanced food technologies such as synthetic meat”!

How do you convince people, a lot of people, to engage in meaningful conversations, or wild speculations such as those above, about societal transformations towards a sustainable future? How can you bring different perspectives to life through roleplaying in a way that not only roleplaying nerds can handle? How can you bring over 50 people from all over the world to sit in front of computers for 8 hours, starting from 3am or ending in the middle of the night? As it turns out, a Megagame on societal transformation, the Climate Change Megagame (CCM), was just what the doctor ordered. That it came to fruition as a digital event in the middle of a pandemic came as a surprise to those of us involved, but we speculate that it may have been a result from sending invitations for participation, and with people demonstrating and interest in participating, we settled on a date, panicked upon realizing that we had to create an all-digital version of the whole thing, and somehow forgot our panic and got to work. This is our story, as they say.

In early 2019, two of us (Ola Leifler & Ola Uhrqvist), who had met a number of times before but not really worked together, came to realize that we are both engaged in ensuring that learning becomes a platform for working towards a sustainable development, and we are both interested in creative approaches to learning as well including the use of boardgames and role-playing. One of us had heard about Megagames from a boardgame review site (Shut Up & Sit Down) but we had never played one ourselves. However, the concept sounded interesting enough and we also happened to have some seed money from a pedagogical project involving how to make use of climate simulation data in education, so we enlisted our third core member Magnus Persson as lead game designer and started our journey.

At the start, we wanted to illustrate how a societal transformation towards a long-term sustainable society would induce tensions between regional actors and interests such as conservation groups, business interests, the general public and politicians in a Swedish region of 500 000 inhabitants. Also, we wanted to make it clear that even as climate change effects will not be felt exactly the same by our region as others, and effects will be cumulative and delayed, there will be disruptions to food production and serious extreme weather events in the coming decades.  The exact nature of tensions and future visions were not very clear initially though, even as we read through reports from different research projects as well as national transformation initiatives. It became clear that visions for a transformed society could look rather different. There was also a whole lot of research on synergies and trade-offs between the different sustainable development goals which seemed to indicate that there are many layers of interactions between the different goals, both on regional but also national and international levels. An initial source of tension that we found to be interesting to explore through a Megagame concerned whether to make changes to our current way of life as we anticipate that it is not long-term sustainable, or focus on achieving short-term goals for ourselves such as going on vacation, building a house, buying groceries or finding a decent pair of shoes. 

So, was our challenge just to create a simulation of a region in a complex global industrial society? That would have been far too easy. We soon realised that this was just the point of departure on top of which we also had so simulate different futures depending on the paths the participants would embark upon and the transformation to get there. Oh, yes, we almost forgot, the game had to be comprehensible enough to be grasped in less than 20 minutes. 


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

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