PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and game reports

Conducting a multi-week, remote crisis simulation

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


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

Map 1: The Disputed Islands in the Scenario

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

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

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

Design Aims and Structure

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

Figure 2: Likely Balance Outcomes in a Three Country Scenario

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

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

Challenges Faced

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

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

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

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

International relations crisis simulation at the University of St Andrews

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

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


Introduction

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

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

Background: Design Aims

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

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

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

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

Structure and Game Mechanics

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

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

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

Simulation Challenges

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

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

Future Design Considerations

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

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


 

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

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

Christensen and Dobias: Wargaming the use of intermediate force capabilities in the gray zone

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation, Kyle Christensen and Peter Dobias of Defence Research and Development Canada discuss wargaming the use of intermediate (nonlethal) force capabilities in the “gray zone.”

Military operations in the gray zone (defined here as the space between peace and war where states are currently involved in a competition continuum) present a unique challenge for military planners. Often tactical actions can have significant operational, and even strategic implications. This makes traditional modeling approaches, such as wargames, of somewhat limited applicability. This limitation can be further exacerbated if the modeled systems are intended to address specific adversarial actions within the gray zone continuum across tactical and operational levels. A specific example of such a problem is modeling military capabilities at the force continuum between inaction and employment of lethal force. Whereas the tactical effectiveness of such systems may be lower than the effectiveness of lethal systems (e.g., if there is a requirement to stop an incoming threat, the use of lethal force is often more effi- cient than the use of acoustic or optical warning devices), the operational and strategic effectiveness of their use would likely be better.

In the summer of 2020, the NATO’s Science & Technology Organization, System Analysis and Studies- 151 (SAS-151) research group conducted a series of test wargames to evaluate whether intermediate force capabil- ities (IFCs) can make a difference to mission success in the gray zone. As described in the following, IFCs offer a class of response between doing nothing and using lethal force in a situation that would be politically unpalatable. This article reviews NATO SAS-151’s development and tests of an IFC concept development wargame aimed at examining a maritime task force’s ability to counter hybrid threats in the gray zone. It covers the strategic context and background of hybrid threats in the gray zone; the conceptual background and development of non-lethal weapons (NLW) through to IFCs; the design and development of the hybrid wargame methodology; and the implementation and execution of the test IFC wargame(s), with initial observations where applicable.

This wargame series was particularly important for two reasons. First, it explored an operational challenge facing many Western militaries in the current strategic environment where opponents and adversaries are using hybrid threats (i.e., tactics and techniques) to deny traditional Western military freedom of action. However, rather than challenge Western militaries in head-to-head confrontations, these tactics aim to remain below the threshold of open conflict, and create strategic, operational, and/or tactical dilemmas for decision-makers. They blur the line between strategic, operational, and tactical, and exploit situations where tactical decisions/actions have strategic impacts.

Second, it used traditional game mechanics in a unique and innovative way to evaluate and assess IFCs. While the concept of using kriegsspiel and/or matrix wargames by themselves to develop and test concepts, inform decision-making, and validate capability requirements are not new, combining both into a single hybrid wargame is new. The approach described in this article was to execute a modified strategic matrix wargame to assess the outcome of an initial tactical level free kriegsspiel engagement game. Although the key components of a kriegsspiel and matrix game are retained, how they are set up, and how they are used together to approach the problem of assessing IFCs in the gray zone is a unique adaptation of these traditional games.

How I learned to stop worrying and love climate change and geo-politics

The following item was written for PAXsims by Darren Green. After a career as a project manager at IBM and Toshiba Labs in the UK, Darren changed track to focus on using games for corporate team-building and more recently, in education. He runs training and educational sessions in the UK through his own business, Crisis Games (http://crisis-games.co.uk/) and is currently hosting an academic project to investigate how well games can communicate issues in climate change.


Why are nation-states finding it so difficult to keep the commitments they signed up to in the Paris Agreement in 2015? What can games/simulations tell us about these difficulties? The problem of climate change has been framed as an example the tragedy of the commons which is made all the more difficult because it has a time horizon that does not fit easily with electoral cycles. It is a problem that involves complex social payoffs situated decades into the future. A large-scale role-play simulation looks like it would be a good tool to provide at least some insight into this.

Watch the Skies[1] is a popular megagame that examines how the geo-politics of the modern world are transformed by the arrival of aliens. As a first approach it might be a good basis for looking at how nations (fail to) address climate change. I tried unplugging the aliens from Watch the Skies[2] and plugging in a climate model (I used the C-Roads model from Climate Interactive’s World Climate Simulation, which is freely available and has been designed as a learning resource for use in role play activities).

The next issue that emerged was that the game needed a sufficiently detailed model of economic activity and CO2 emissions to interface with the parameters of the climate model. At this point it became clear that designing a complete new rule set (rather than adapting Watch the Skies) would be the easiest route. This conclusion was further reinforced by the goal of building a game that could be used in a public engagement setting. Megagames generally require 30 or more players attending the game for 6-7 hours – requirements that don’t mesh well with public engagement opportunities. A game that was playable in around 3 hours and accommodates 10-30 players would be suitable as a side-event at conferences, or in public spaces such as libraries or as an activity to be held in schools or colleges.

After running a few promising play test sessions in 2019, the next year was spent converting the game to online play as pandemic restrictions took hold. While there were many difficulties in making this transition, an online version of the game had some clear advantages. Firstly, it presented an opportunity to run follow-on sessions. It is much easier to start a session where the previous session ended – the game state is maintained digitally, because you don’t need to take down and pack away the game. Playing a follow-on session is a nice way of simulating a change in government administrations. If the players return to take on the same roles in that they held in the previous session then they represent an administration that has held on to power through re-election. If new players take over the roles then that simulates a change of administration.

Secondly, the game left a digital ‘paper trail’ so that the turns could be reconstructed. I have been fascinated with the narrative that tabletop or role-play simulations (wargames and megagames) generate. I have often scribbled copious notes while playing a game (this was before cameras were ubiquitous). However, even with a good set of notes or plentiful photos of counters on hex maps, the full story of the game often proves elusive, and with megagames there are so many different narratives and interactions happening that it is impossible for one person to follow everything. With online versions, reconstructing the narrative becomes much easier; with spreadsheets used to conduct resource allocation, (providing a record of where resources went and their effects) and a record of communication between players left by text messaging it was possible to put together a fairly detailed narrative of the game.

ABOVE: An example of text messaging in the game using a Discord server.

So, I present below a ‘future history’ of the world from 2024 to 2030 based on two game sessions played in November 2020. If you are expecting a dry discussion of various environmental targets then you’ll have to look elsewhere. The game treated the nations in the game as fully-realised states that were able to pursue political agendas through economic or military means and the players took full advantage of this!

Some of the events may seem extraordinary (but I hope, still within the realms of believability); players were briefed with a short summary of national doctrine and key agendas, but they were given some leeway to break from this if they wished to. Also, in common with Matrix games and the megagame format, players were allowed to respond to situations with improvised plans if the rules did not address a strategy or tactic they wanted to employ. Facilitators carefully adjudicated these plans to determine a realistic outcome – a task which the facilitators in the game (Stefan Salva Cruz, Patrick Rose and Glenn Russell) performed outstandingly.

So, we begin the game with the climate change model predicting a mean annual global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. Six nations were played in the game: USA, EU, Russia, China, India and Brazil. There were also three global corporations played (Trans Global, Interprime and Neotech) and a team of players took on the role of the United Nations. If a detailed game write-up is not for you, skip to the end where there is a brief summary of outcomes and concluding remarks.

ABOVE: The climate model at the start of the game

2024

  • US companies responded enthusiastically to US government tax incentives encouraging investment in Mexico, Venezuela and Columbia.
  • Brazilian oil companies finalised a deal to exploit oil and gas reserves in and around the Black Sea.
  • Trans Global corporation rolled out the first of its next-generation solar arrays to be built just outside the Russian city of Sochi. Forecasts suggest that when fully operational it will supply over 80% of the city’s power requirements.

2025

  • The world’s largest commercial carbon capture plant started operation outside Detroit. The plant is run by an industry consortium backed by the US government.
  • Paramilitary terrorist attacks against US military bases and corporate buildings across Japan left hundreds dead and many more injured. The US government withdrew all non-essential staff from Japan and advised US citizens to leave. The attacks were conducted by a Japanese nationalist group known as Rising Sun. This group was previously little known to authorities. It is thought to have links with North Korea and credible reports state that the military hardware used in the attacks came from Brazil. The Japanese Prime Minister called a state of emergency and ordered Japanese Defence Force units to patrol the streets.
  • The forest fire season in California was one of the worst on record. The President ordered federal authorities to address the situation early and provided federal funding. FEMA was able to co-ordinate local, state and federal resources to minimise risks to citizens and property damage.
  • Wild fires in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy plagued the EU throughout the summer. Local authorities were able to keep on top of the situation through the use of specialised drones which mapped the progress of the fires in real time.
  • Interprime announced a contract with the Russian government to establish a smart power grid which will intelligently route power to where it is needed. This is predicted to provide 10-20% efficiency savings. Construction of the grid will start near Moscow’s northern suburbs, where Trans Global plan to install another of their advanced solar arrays.
  • The Brazilian economy suffered severe setbacks. Credit agencies rated Brazilian government and commercial debt as sub-prime. After weeks of riots on the streets of Brazilian cities and unable to attract international investment, the Brazilian President was forced to declare a state of emergency.

2026

  • The US President announced that Congress had approved funding for two further carbon reduction schemes. Firstly, the nation’s aging nuclear power stations would be upgraded to use next-generation reactors provided by Trans Global. Secondly, after the success of the carbon capture plant at Detroit, new plants would be opening outside Atlanta, Portland and Sacramento.
  • The French President and German Chancellor announced a programme of EU-sponsored joint stock ventures with firms in North and South Korea. The scheme is intended to encourage further progress on Korean re-unification, applying the experience gained from the successful re-unification of Germany in the 1990s.
  • Pakistan revealed the deployment of an armoured brigade fielding Neotech’s autonomous combat vehicles. These vehicles can be driven remotely and can also switch to a fully autonomous mode in which the onboard computer will make kill decisions without human intervention. The vehicles were manufactured at the Neotech plant outside Sao Paulo in Brazil and were supplied on the basis of ongoing Brazilian defence contracts.
  • The Indian Prime Minister reacted to Pakistan’s military deployment by declaring a state of emergency and ordering an the Parachute Regiment and Gurkha Rifles to the border. The UN reminded the world of the dangers of conflict between these two nuclear-armed nations and called for de-escalation. When asked for comment, the Brazilian President’s Office said that they expected to receive a large order for Neotech’s autonomous combat vehicles from India shortly.
  • Japan was devastated by the worst typhoons in living memory. Aid was swiftly provided by the international community under leadership of the US. The death toll was finally tallied at several thousand.
  • A series of international climate summits hosted by China ended with world leaders announcing a world-wide tax on the use of fossil fuels burned for vehicle fuel or commercial power generation. The stock of major petrochemical companies dropped sharply.
  • China stunned the global community by bringing in emergency laws to restrict all commercial activities linked with foreign exports or investments. Veteran China-watchers had warned about this as internal divisions in the Chinese Communist Party had emerged at the last Party Congress. It appears the hard-line nationalist stance advocated by the Premier with the backing of the General Secretary has won the day. Chinese companies with export contracts or linked with significant foreign investment have been told they will need to apply for special licenses in order to continue their business.
  • Japanese companies with links to China were in desperate efforts to try and reposition themselves. China’s new stance on exports, combined with the domestic Japanese terror threat and higher than expected typhoon damage claims has meant that analysts regard the huge Japanese government debt as no-longer sustainable.
  • Markets turned favourably towards Russia’s economy, which appears to have successfully pivoted away from dependence on gas and oil exports towards a high-tech, green future. 

2027

  • The Saudi air force conducted air strikes on Yemen’s coastal cities. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran very quickly ramped up and small scale border conflicts threatened to break out across the region. Violent unrest was reported in cities throughout the Middle East.
  • Social media was flooded with memes drawn from the 1980s film ‘Robocop’ as Brazilian military officials and Neotech executives showed off the paramilitary version of the autonomous combat vehicles that have been deployed in India and Pakistan. Neotech announced that orders for these vehicles have already been received from South African police departments and Chinese government security forces.
  • The US President announced that he had signed an order to decommission 25% of US coal and gas-fired power stations. These power stations, situated mainly along the east coast of the USA are some of the oldest plants and significantly contribute to the USA’s carbon emissions.
  • China maintained a nationwide state of emergency. The government announced that emergency measures were needed to deal with the series of storms which were predicted to hit China this year. Analysts suggested that emergency measures were more likely being kept in place to handle potential civil unrest as the Chinese economy endures a huge downturn due to plummeting exports.
  • The Russian President opened a section of smart highway running parallel to the M11 from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Neotech robotic vehicles will run along the roads, powered by electricity provided by Trans Global arrays and intelligently channelled by Interprime power networking to where it is needed.
  • Trans Global corporation announced that on the back of its successful re-commissioning of US reactors, it has been invited by the Russian government to conduct a feasibility study to assess whether reactors used in its submarine and icebreaker fleets can be re-purposed for domestic power generation.
  • The Chinese Premier opened a Trans Global solar array outside of Shanghai. Trans Global shares surged on the news that its solar arrays had been successfully deployed in a second nation.
  • The Brazilian President once again declared a state of emergency after a series of riots in Brazilian cities. Police and military units were seen patrolling the streets along with Neotech’s autonomous vehicles. A film crew claimed to have recorded the first purposeful killing of a human by artificial intelligence.
  • The Russian President said that trials of its new space plane (built by Trans Global) were successful and would allow it to take cargo to low earth orbit at a fraction of the cost of traditional rocket delivery.  The President announced that in partnership with Trans Global, Russia would focus on landing cosmonauts on the moon as the first step to establishing a base there. Trans Global shares were down 30% at one point as investors dumped the stock, worried about the corporation being involved in such a risky and expensive venture.
  • The United Nations Security Council authorised the deployment peacekeeping forces along various contested border regions in the Middle-east. The US would provide the majority of the forces but France, Germany and Russia would provide contingents for deployment in areas which were too sensitive for the deployment of US personnel. 
  • The IPCC released a report showing average global temperature rise by 2100 is predicted to be 2.6 degrees. While progress in addressing climate change was praised, it was pointed out that a temperature rise of 2.6 degrees would lead to a 90cm sea level rise by 2100. This would threaten the existence of low lying cities such as New York and London, as well as entire nations such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh.
  • Australia endured one of the worst droughts on record as it entered the height of the summer.

2028

  • In response to Russia’s announcement of a space programme to land a cosmonaut on the moon, the US President announced that the Artemis mission to return US astronauts to the moon would be restarted. Artemis was originally scheduled for blast off in 2024, but had been postponed and eventually put on hold due to funding difficulties.
  • UN aid camps were set up in Oman to take in refugees from Yemen, where the short war has left widespread property destruction and displaced thousands.
  • A new government was elected in India on a platform of combating corruption.
  • A new Chinese Premier and General Secretary of the Communist Party were appointed, suggesting the isolationist stance of China may be softening.
  • The outgoing UN Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General received the Nobel Peace Prize for their extremely quick reaction to tensions in the Middle East. The prize committee suggested that their action prevented further widespread conflagrations in the area.
  • Trans Global landed a survey rover on the moon to gather geological data with a view to assessing the location as a site for a manned base.
  • A UN sponsored peace conference between Pakistan and India continued throughout the year. One of the reasons for the talks taking so long was that the Indian representatives were plagued by accusations of corruption in the Indian press and were continually being replaced by the Prime Minister due to his zero-tolerance policy on corruption.
  • Trans Global announced that it would be making a revolutionary solar-powered stove available in India. It would be cheap enough for villagers to afford and supply eco-friendly heating in areas where power is unreliable.

2029

  • Interprime announced plans for smart power grids in Brazil, Poland, Hungary, north-eastern USA and northern India. Construction work had already begun in Brazil and India and was scheduled to begin next year in the other locations.
  • Trans Global’s line of solar powered jewelry has become the sensation of fashion shows around the globe. The corporation reported that budget versions of the jewelry would be available for consumers later this year. Trans Global’s shares reached an all-time high.
  • A Category 5 storm hit the Philippines. The USA, China and India all pledged aid, but it was slow to arrive and was too little to address the effects of the widespread destruction in the wake of the storm. Analysts predicted that the Philippines’ fragile economy will be severely challenged due to the level of destruction.
  • China’s credit rating was upgraded to AA as it emerged from a state of emergency. Its economy recovered from the huge drop in exports to the west and benefitted from a revitalised domestic and regional economy. The Chinese government has also signed into law requirements on business to use of low-carbon power sources.
  • NASA announced that the launch of the Artemis manned mission to the moon would be pushed back to 2032 due to funding being held back by Congress. There was no mention of the Russian plan to land a cosmonaut on the moon and experts predicted that any such mission is at least a decade away.
  • UN peacekeepers supplied by the USA took up position on the Indian-Pakistan border.
  • The Russian President announced the opening of the city of Neo Kaliningrad. Although only a small portion of the city centre has been constructed, the ‘smart city’ will interface directly with the technologies supplied by Trans Global, Neotech and Interprime to reduce the environmental footprint of its inhabitants.

2030 

  • Russia announced the establishment of a second smart city: Neo Novosibirsk. The President explained in a long and detailed press session that the city would welcome climate refugees. There were rumours that the Russian General Staff had attempted to persuade the President against any invitation of refugees to Russia, warning that it would be difficult to maintain the integrity of the Russian huge land border. Shortly after the President’s speech, some of the General Staff were reported to be on secondment at remote military bases in Siberia.
  • Neotech assisted India in setting up a network of drones to monitor flooding risks and anti-flood measures in anticipation of a heavy monsoon season.
  • China allowed its currency to float freely and the markets took to it enthusiastically. Many institutions holding dollars reduced their exposure to the US currency and bought the Yuan. The US economy faltered as the dollar collapsed and a huge inflationary shock hit home. Credit rating agencies upgraded China to AAA, and downgraded the US to AA.
  • There was a military coup in Latvia as senior army generals took control of the civilian government, accusing it of losing sight of the ‘Russian threat’. Latvian citizens were called up and there were reports of tanks and artillery heading to the Russian border.
  • China announced that all of its coal-fired power plants would be closed down in the next two decades and no new permits for coal-fired power plants would be issued. China is now widely seen as the global leader in decarbonising its economy.
  • War broke out after a decade of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia appeared to be using Brazilian-made weapons and armoured vehicles.
  • The US President declared a state of emergency as rioting broke out in cities along the East coast and in the Mid-west. Falling living standards were seen to be the main driver of the unrest with US inflation running at more than 10%. Order gradually returned after several weeks of the National Guard patrolling the streets of major cities.

ABOVE: The climate model at the end of the game

Conclusion

While the game broadly accomplished its goals, there are a couple of areas of the design that need reviewing. Firstly, player feedback indicated that the briefing materials and mechanics should focus more on addressing climate change. While players appreciated the broad scope of actions available to them and the realistic pressure of balancing economics and political agendas against climate change mitigation, they felt that the climate challenges needed to be presented to players much more clearly to facilitate negotiations about them.

Secondly, while the C-ROADS climate model is scientifically based and peer reviewed, the interface between the model and the game is arbitrary. The amount of resources that a nation must spend to achieve a certain change in the model parameters has been adjusted over a number of play tests to broadly reflect expected real-world effects. The same is true of the effects of various sustainable technologies that the corporations in the game can roll out. This is very much more an exercise in empirical testing and game design rather than a scientific exercise and the numbers and game mechanics used must be reviewed to ensure that they broadly match what is observed in the real world. 

I believe the game narrative presents a credible version of future events. The predicted global temperature rise remaining stubbornly above 2 degrees for the duration of the 2020s is sadly all too believable. Although there were many economic and political distractions for the players, it should still be noted that reducing the predicted temperature rise by 0.5 degrees in 7 years is no mean feat!

One pattern that emerged was that the nations in general focussed on how they could reduce their own carbon emissions rather than looking at the big picture. This resulted in China and Russia making huge progress in switching to sustainable power but their CO2 emissions were then  ‘exported’ to other regions of the world (South-east Asia, Korea and Eastern Europe) where cheaper (fossil fuelled) power was still available. So while China and Russia’s reduction of CO2 emissions in the game look praiseworthy if viewed in isolation, overall global emissions remained stubbornly high.

Special mentions should be given to the USA team which took a globalist perspective and was instrumental in solving many of the issues that cropped up, only be crushed in the final turns by China’s push for economic dominance; to the EU team, who realised that using their economic power to support other developed and developing nations to transition to sustainable power generated much bigger reductions of CO2 emissions than if they devoted all of their resources to their own carbon-reduction schemes; to the India team who put India on a firm footing to sustainable development and were winning their war on corruption; and to Brazil team who explored many interesting (and somewhat disruptive) ways to extract themselves from Brazil’s many difficulties.

With grateful thanks to all the players and facilitators.

Darren Green, Crisis Games

[I am currently working on a new version of the game that addresses much of the player feedback from the game described above and preparing it for face-to-face play when that becomes possible. If you would like to be involved in testing/playing the new version please email me at: crisisgames.info@gmail.com]


[1] See https://www.stonepaperscissors.co.uk/games-download/watch-the-skies

[2] In fact, I first ran a version of Watch the Skies where the aliens were intent on persuading nations to adapt to sustainable technology and cleaning up excess CO2. Of course, it was extremely difficult for the nations to figure out whether the alien technology was helping with climate change or terraforming the Earth ready for alien overlords to take residence. It was entertaining, but probably had too many complicating factors to try and realistically examine the geo-politics of climate change.

Testing the waters: A science-policy simulation in an ice-free Arctic

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Hubert Brychczyński, Łukasz Jarząbek, Nicole Arbour, and Brendan James Frank.


Let us travel to 2035. According to scientists, the Arctic is going to become ice-free by the end of the decade. Vessels will soon start rushing there, enticed by the promise of year-round sailing opportunities. An international organization, called the Arctic League, safeguards the region’s future development while balancing economic, societal, and environmental considerations… This is the premise to the Arctic Future simulation, which was presented during the Canadian Science Policy Conference in 2020. Coincidentally, 2020 was also the second hottest year in recorded history. With global ice reserves melting at a record rate of 1.2 trillion tons per year, we can see how the trends that inspired the simulation play out before our eyes.

How to bridge science, policy, and society

The unprecedented rate of climate change calls for adequately unprecedented measures, especially at the intersection of science and policy. The WHOUNESCO, and the EEAC, among others, all recognize that successful cooperation between the two areas is key for developing globally consistent and robust responses to climate change. Right now, however, the cooperation is far from ideal. In fact, there is a gap between science and “science users” (policy makers and practitioners) that prevents optimal use of existing knowledge. For example, scientists in their research activities often don’t take into account what kind of results will actually be useful for science users. On the other hand, policy makers often make their decisions based on information that may not be the best available scientific knowledge. How to bridge these gaps and improve the development of both science and policy? Science-policy simulations can help. They create a safe interface for stakeholders, scientists, and policy makers to effectively work on strategies toward a better future.

What are science-policy simulations?

Science-policy simulations are a type of social simulations. The easiest way of thinking about the social simulation is to picture it as an interactive, multiplayer role-playing game. Run either offline or online, it recreates – or simulates – the dynamics of a complex, real-world system by using game elements, such as problem cards, pictures, tokens, boards, etc. Social simulations focus on the social aspect – the freedom of each individual to make their own decisions and explore possible options in interaction with other players and within the simulated reality.

Social simulations belong to a broader category of tools that use mechanisms known from games for purposes other than entertainment. The oldest kind of such tools are strategy games used for military purposes. In the 20th century, wargaming techniques became more and more often applied to non-military contexts. The beginnings of this change can be traced back to World War II, when the approach to wargaming shifted from “rehearsing for war” to “simulation gaming as a (…) method for military policy and planning” (Mayer, 2009, p. 827). It was in that time that applied mathematics and engineering started to inform military strategy development more prominently. This led to the establishment of operations research, a discipline used for military planning in the US, which laid the foundation for the emergence of systems analysis and policy analysis. Called “decision sciences”, the two disciplines started to apply various kinds of gaming methods to non-military contexts, for example to urban and social planning, health care, economy, and more. As a result, such methods as policy gaming, simulation games, planning games, policy exercises, serious games and others were developed to address challenges in different fields.

Social simulation approach was heavily influenced by the abovementioned traditions, combining them with a strong role-playing and performative aspect. It puts emphasis on combining learning through direct experience (Kolb, 2015) with social learning – “a process of iterative reflection that occurs when we share our experiences, ideas and environments with others” (Keen et al., 2005, p. 9). This process of learning is possible because social simulations involve participants with different experiences, types of expertise, and worldviews, who impersonate different roles within the simulation – for example ones in research, administration, business, and NGOs. Within the safe confines of the simulation, they can jointly discuss problems, devise strategies, propose solutions, and diffuse tensions through negotiating and debating. They can also implement the potential solutions and see them play out right away in the condensed environment of the simulation.

Science-policy simulations build on social simulation approach, adding to it an extended narrative layer. The participants take on the roles of different policy makers, scientists, activists, and business people. They face a series of dramatic events. While this storyline unfolds, the participants work in different thematic groups to respond to the changing situation. The storyline is presented using a series of professionally-made videos, news articles, social media accounts, and other materials, such as maps or infographics. The storyline is always created based on available scientific data on the subject matter and consulted with experts from the field. Such crafted simulation allows the participants to gaze into the future and explore how to use the available scientific knowledge to craft better policies to address upcoming problems – and how to conduct research to produce results that will be actionable to support such policies.

The Arctic Future Policy Simulation

The Arctic Future Simulation was prepared for the Canadian Science Policy Conference 2020 in collaboration between Centre for Systems Solutions, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa. It was created based upon the Cascading Climate Impacts simulation that was developed within the CASCADES project

Building on the premise of a future ice-free Arctic, the simulation explores possible challenges and tensions anticipated to arise in the region with regards to international trade routes and security. Participants, assuming the roles of high officials from Arctic countries, negotiate and vote on a treaty that regulates economic, social, and environmental issues in the region. The debate, revolving around trade routes, extra fees, and marine environment, is interrupted by a series of unexpected, narrative interludes – like news about the blockade of Suez and Panama canal.

The design process of such simulation requires close collaboration between a core team of game designers, researchers, writers, filmmakers, and graphic designers, and external subject matter experts. The first step is to prepare a plausible scenario of chains of events based on available literature and expert knowledge. After a few iterations and consultations, we turned it then into a draft storyline. In parallel, we selected the organizations to be included in the simulation (national ministries, business organizations, Indigenous People’s organizations, NGOs, citizen initiatives) – and then created a detailed matrix of negotiation positions for each role, with an emphasis on conflicting values and interests. Iterating the whole process allowed us to reach the desired interplay between the gameplay and narrative layer. 

Striking the right balance between the exploratory function and narrative immersion was the biggest challenge in making the simulation. After all, the purpose of social simulations is to imitate a system as closely as possible and offer the participants a testing ground for problem-solving. On the other hand, the storyline had to be attractive and well-paced to keep the participants curious about what will happen next. This meant that we had to make the narrative as dramatic as possible while staying true to the scientific background it was based upon. We found this tension between the need for representing real-world systems plausibly and for incorporating fictional elements both challenging and fascinating. 

Ultimately, the simulation was successful. In after-game surveys, the participants not only reported the representation of reality as plausible but the experience as immersive and engaging thanks to the surprising narrative elements. What’s more, they felt like actual diplomats, learning about difficult diplomacy concepts in the heat of the moment.

Summary

In our increasingly interconnected world, the need for close collaboration between science, policy, and society is only expected to grow. Science-policy simulations are a promising tool for mediating this collaboration. They offer stakeholders a safe and life-like testing ground for exploring difficult issues before facing them in reality. Moreover, such simulations are highly adaptable and applicable in many diverse contexts and environments, both offline and online. So far, the Arctic Future simulation alone has been successfully deployed two times already. Cascading Climate Impacts – the simulation it was based upon – was also used two times, with more workshops to come in 2021. Needless to say, we plan to continue delivering such narrative science-policy simulations in the future. 

References

  • Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. FT press.
  • Keen, M., Brown, V. A., & Dyball, R. (Eds.). (2005). Social learning in environmental management: towards a sustainable future. Routledge.
  • Duke, R. D., & Geurts, J. L. (2004). Policy Games for Strategic Management: Pathways to the Unknown West Lafayette, IN.
  • Mayer, I. S. (2009). The gaming of policy and the politics of gaming: A review. Simulation & Gaming, 40(6), 825-862.
  • Susi, T., Johannesson, M., & Backlund, P. (2007). Serious games: An overview.
  • Caffrey, M. B. (2019). On Wargaming: How Wargames Have Shaped History and How They May Shape the Future (Vol. 43). Naval War College Press.
  • Wilkinson, P. (2016). A brief history of serious games. Entertainment computing and serious games, 17-41.
  • Weichselgartner, J., & Pigeon, P. (2015). The role of knowledge in disaster risk reduction. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 6(2), 107-116.

About the Authors

Hubert Brychczyński is a Content Writer at the Centre for Systems Solutions. By night, he doubles as an English teacher and translator – the latter with a focus on visual arts, such as graphic novels and films. A graduate of The School of English at Adam Mickiewicz University, he loves the written word, storytelling, and science communication.

Łukasz Jarząbek is a Senior Game Designer at the Centre for Systems Solutions. He worked on social simulations and serious games in different fields, including disaster risk management, resilience, cultural and natural heritage, climate change, cultural theory, and business sustainability. He is interested in using experiential methods such as games and simulations to aid co-production of knowledge and bridging scientists and stakeholders. 

Dr. Nicole Arbour is the External Relations Manager at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), where she plays an active role in building and maintaining relationships with IIASAs national member organisations (NMOs). She is passionate about the science-to-policy interface, evidence-based decision making, and science diplomacy. She holds a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Ottawa.

Brendan Frank is a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) at the University of Ottawa, currently serving as Interim Research Director. He hosts the ISSP’s new podcast, Disruption Discovered. His training is in science (Bachelor’s in Environmental Science, Queen’s University) and public policy (Master’s in Public Policy, University of Calgary), and he possesses strong research and knowledge mobilisation experience in the public, private and civic sectors

Wargaming the laws of armed conflict

At War on the Rocks today, Thomas Gordon IV, Adam Oler, Laurie Blank, and Jill Goldenziel discuss “Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter: Wargaming the Role of Law in War.”

In partnership with National Defense University and the Emory University School of Law’s  International Humanitarian Law Clinic, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College implemented National Defense University’s “Burning Sands” wargame for the student body of 213 midcareer military officers and civilian counterparts. Burning Sands was created by faculty at the National War College and designed by National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning for the university’s War Crimes and Strategy elective. As students simulate a joint force command staff tasked with liberating an Islamic State-controlled city in North Africa (a fictional scenario based on Israel’s experience during its 2014 “Operation Protective Edge”), they navigate war’s changing character —and recognize its enduring nature.

At the start of the wargame, the students received an order with three mandates. First, they were tasked to secure the town as quickly as possible. Second, U.S. and coalition casualties were to be kept to a minimum. Third, students had to comply with strict rules of engagement, including stringent limitations on civilian casualties. None of these demands were surprising, at least initially. Political pressure to achieve military objectives rapidly and with minimal casualties is hardly new. Minimizing civilian suffering maintains coalitions, undergirds military ethics and the profession of arms, and is central to the just war idea. To accomplish the mission, students were provided a variety of military forces and weapons, ranging from special forces to cruise missiles.

Through a series of injects, students faced immediate operational dilemmas that raised legal questions and, in due time, presented challenges to the legitimacy of U.S. and coalition actions. Students quickly ascertained that, as several put it, “I can get you two, ma’am, but not all three mandates.” Students were required to assess the legal, operational, and policy issues and brief the joint force commander accordingly. To be clear, none of the options were close to ideal. Each time the coalition attacked a target, the results were immediately captured on video and broadcast to the world. For example, when the game started, students learned that the Islamic State was operating its main command and control node deep inside the city’s only hospital. As designed, the students wrestled with whether and how attacking the hospital would be legal once the Islamic State was using it for military purposes, as well as the accompanying moral and operational considerations. To start, the target could be destroyed with minimal coalition casualties with a large air-delivered ordnance. However, this decision would increase the prospect of civilian deaths. Alternatively, the students could recommend a ground assault on the hospital to neutralize the command and control node, limiting civilian casualties but increasing the risk to coalition forces. Most students asked for more time and intelligence reports, but the joint force commander reminded them of the time pressure imposed by Washington. Students would have to make a timely decision, as they would in the real world, in the absence of complete information….

Read the rest at the link above.

Simulating civil society: The case of the Beirut Port explosion

The following report has been prepared for PAXsims by Nadya Hajj, Associate Professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Wellesley College. She has a new book, Networked Refugees: Palestinian Reciprocity and Remittances in the Digital Age (University of California Press) coming out in Fall 2021. 


In the Fall 2020 academic semester I launched into teaching a remote digital course,  Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at Wellesley College. The course explores critical issues in the politics of the MENA and draws from the literature in Peace and Justice studies to consider practical strategies for transforming political conflict in different state systems and among different groups across the region.

Specifically, the class is tasked with exploring a variety of violent (terrorism/coups/violent protest) and non-violent strategies (political humor, peaceful protest, civil society groups) vis a vis Curle and Dugan’s (1982) classic model of conflict transformation. The Curle and Dugan model is concerned with how to transform unpeaceful relations into peaceful ones. Unpeaceful relations are ones in which either or both parties are damaged possibly through physical violence but also economic or psychological ones. Like Galtung (1969) suggests, unpeaceful conditions are marked by structural violence, where one’s potential is curtailed due to broader socio-economic forces. In contrast, peaceful spaces are collaborative spaces where people, with the help of others, realize their own potential. When there is a high level of awareness and parity among the suffering and those that might help then you are likely to find peaceful spaces (Dugan and Curle 1982). Awareness refers not only to whether the parties involved know of the suffering of the aggrieved, but also the degree to which parties are aware of its sources and the possibilities for addressing the situation. Parity considers the balance of power among those that are suffering and those that might help.  In latent conflict, the suffering of others, their needs, and potential pathways for remedying them are “hidden” usually because there is a low level of awareness and a great disparity between those suffering and those with control or access to valuable resources (Curle and Dugan 1982). Understanding and deploying strategies that enhance parity and awareness are key learning objectives in my classroom.

Of course, through readings and class Zoom discussions we evaluated the costs and benefits of different strategies. One thing that I noticed is that many people, not just passionate young college students, often argue that bolder (and sometimes) violent strategies are more effective than subtler forms of resistance because they are, theoretically, more likely to raise awareness and tip the balance of power such that communities can transform structural conditions of repression that underpin the suffering of many. Certainly, these bold strategies may bring about dramatic shifts in political systems if they are successful. However, the cost in terms of human suffering when they fail or only partially succeed is often difficult for students to comprehend in the safety of our anodyne classroom setting. I encourage students to consider the human implications when such movements fail and share digital talks, for example, from the few Syrian dissidents that survived prisons in Syria like those of Omar Alshogre. Still, it is hard to teach this perspective shift of theoretical versus human implications of particular strategies through traditional readings and lectures.

Simulations offer a chance to shift perspective and prompt students to learn through experience. It has been found that simulations and game-based learning promote skill acquisition, knowledge retention, attitudinal change, support the understanding of new concepts and ideas, shape behavior, and improve context-based problem solving (Klabber, 2003; Mateas 2003; Prensky 2001; Ricci, Salas, & Cannon-Bowers, 1996). In particular, Stevens and Fisher (2020) find that, “serious games have the capacity to help humanitarian students more deeply understand and critically engage with important issues. Experiential Learning Theory and Situated Learning Theory help explain why this is the case. According to Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), individuals learn most from direct experience, active participation, and visible feedback on the consequences of their actions. Situated Learning Theory (SLT) likewise suggests that people learn better when placed in authentic contexts to perform actions that parallel real world tasks, interacting with others and applying knowledge.” 

In my classroom, I wanted students to experience a shift in perspective that simulations could offer so that they might consider the true costs and benefits of particular conflict transformation strategies in the Middle East. The catastrophic Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020 provided a current and critical real-world case for student learning to do just that. Students were “dropped into” Lebanon just moments after the explosion. The simulation was introduced with a description of what the explosion felt like for residents in Beirut. Borrowing from Jaddaliya’s excellent reporting, I shared:

The date is August 4, 2020 and the time is 6:05pm. The place is Beirut, Lebanon. In the midst of the novel coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic, the Lebanese economy is weakened by a financial meltdown that has wiped out life savings and reduced the purchasing power of most segments of society to mere survival, threatened by the scarcity of food items, and frightened by rising levels of poverty now estimated at fifty percent by the World Bank. Just moments ago an explosion rocked the port of Beirut. 

Sisters Yasmine and Rhola Khayat described the moment of the blast in their Beirut family apartment, “Still gripping my mobile, I felt the floor become jelly as I watched my cat dash maniacally into the furthest corner underneath my bed, not to emerge for a full twenty-four hours. Rola burst into the hallway screaming, “Did you feel the earthquake?” Then the entire house shook, our window screens, false ceilings, and door hinges blowing out. Even the laptop went sailing through the air as plumes of fluorescent pink nitric acid blanketed the sky (Khayat and Khayat 2020).”

Furthermore they shared, “reports began to trickle in that it was the result of sheer negligence—2,750 explosive tons of negligence, epitomizing the abyss that catalyzed the peoples’ collective rage against rampant corruption last October—and all that remains of that chapter. An accidental spark caused by fireworks, they say, catalyzed the ammonium nitrate dumped for years in the port, into an indescribable fireworks display. “Fireworks,” Theodor Adorno writes, ‘are apparitions par excellence.’ The humanitarian crime of neglecting 2,750 tons of explosive materials for six years in the heart of Beirut criminalizes the ineptitude of the government that cost people’s lives, livelihoods, and sense of being, to go up into apparitional smoke (Khayat and Khayat 2020).”

Students were pre assigned groups (4 groups of roughly 5 students each) and instructed with the following tasks: 

Your team constitutes a Lebanese civil society group that just experienced the explosion and your members are knowledgeable of the unfolding crises that precipitated this cataclysmic event. You have also trained in conflict transformation strategies. You are tasked with developing a strategy that transforms this catastrophic moment of suffering into a path forward that realizes greater justice and peace for Lebanon. You must use your skill set and share your strategy (an executive summary and a power point presentation) with other groups. Your plan will be assessed by other civil society groups (i.e. classmates) and tough to please outside experts (i.e. Prof. Hajj and several Wellesley alumnae currently working in the policy, humanitarian, and think tank sphere in America and the Middle East).

Students were incredibly creative in crafting civil society group names, logos, and even websites. They did extensive research on community needs and existing resources available to communities in Beirut. They were conscientious of the need to develop horizontal and lateral relationships among sectarian groups, cognizant of deep histories of mistrust rooted in the decades long civil war. One group contacted a startup tech company that provides mobile WiFi units in disaster zones (the company has already piloted projects in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria) to assess the possibility of adapting technologies to various neighborhoods in Beirut. They crafted superb power points and generated well-argued and clearly stated executive summaries. Students spoke of their strategies with professionalism and compassion. They were self-aware about the potential limits and pitfalls of their plans. I was truly astounded at their teamwork and commitment in the midst of a difficult remote semester during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Upon reflection, I believe the simulation went well for three main reasons:

  • I led the class through a variety of readings and lectures in the weeks prior to the simulation that provided a strong base of book knowledge about Lebanon’s political history and the theoretical arguments for how and why social capitol and civil society groups work to transform communities toward more peaceful situations. Students had a solid foundation from which they could iterate and create.
  • Prior to the simulation, students interacted with a Wellesley alumna from Lebanon that is pursuing her PhD in advanced spatial mapping and recently co-founded a civil society organization called “OpenMapLebanon.” She gave insight into what it was like in Lebanon during and after the explosion- from sweeping broken shards of glass to using her anger to mobilize others for justice. She spent almost two hours of class time providing real time knowledge of what is happening in Lebanon and fielded questions. Her presence and participation created a more authentic context for the simulation to unfold.
  • Finally, students were given tough but constructive feedback from Wellesley alumnae working in related policy and think tank fields in America and the Middle East. 

Students left the simulation feeling like they had a firm grasp of Lebanese politics, knowledge of specific historic events, and most critically, a sobering view of the “real world” benefits and drawbacks of using civil society groups to transform conflict and injustice. In a final project evaluation, one student shared: “Working with my teammates in a safe but high stress time limited situation forced me to really consider efficient, resilient, and realistic solutions to an emergency crisis. It was fun to work creatively with others and to stress test all these theories we encountered in readings. Having tough outside feedback from alumnae working in the real world made me feel like it was a realistic assessment of our projects. I don’t think I will ever forget the assignment.” Though the preparation and run time of the simulation meant students did not get to all the topics one could study about the MENA region, I firmly believe the students left with a renewed perspective and lifelong learning experience that will inform their knowledge of the Middle East and conflict transformation strategies for many years to come.

Nadya Hajj

Beyond Solitaire: Gaming the US elections

Liz Davidson at the Beyond Solitaire podcast recent interviewed me on the New Yorker US election simulation. We discuss the Zenobia Award too!

You can listen to the podcast here.

Fully remote and virtual SIMULEX keeps 47-year streak alive at Fletcher

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Brandon Daigle, Paul Pawluk, and David Kaczmarek (full biographies below), with the support of PAXsims research associate Maggie Snyder.


With only 2 months of deliberate planning amidst a global pandemic and navigating the seas of uncertainty, the first ever Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) SIMULEX wargaming experience is complete. This year’s group of Military Fellows and over 80 Fletcher School graduate students, in close partnership with the Army War College, Air War College and local area institutions, ensured the 47-year continuous chain of SIMULEX experiences remained unbroken under the leadership and guidance of Professor Robert Pfaltzgraff, who garnered resounding participant and cadre feedback as “hands down, the most immersive, fully remote, virtual learning experience I’ve participated in.”

What is SIMULEX?

Each year, The Fletcher School at Tufts University conducts SIMULEX, a major crisis management exercise where participants assume the roles of national policy makers in an international scenario. Over three days, SIMULEX exposes participants to the constraints and opportunities facing policy makers in a highly realistic, near-future quest to make the best possible decisions and associated actions. As representatives of various national and international teams, participants are charged with developing strategy and tactics necessary to achieve their country-specific goals, while driving efforts to bring the global crisis to a preferred end state ranging from world peace to all-out nuclear war. In an atmosphere of conflict escalation, graduate students from a variety of departments within The Fletcher School work alongside resident military fellows representing each service component, Boston area universities, Department of Defense, The Naval Postgraduate School and other partner agencies to learn leadership in uncertainty, crisis management, team building, adaptability, and policy negotiation skills, walking away more equipped to appreciate each component.

SIMULEX2020 Structure

While the past 46 offerings of SIMULEX were held on campus and in-person, this year, the first Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) SIMULEX2020 was conducted on Zoom, SLACK, and a closed loop communication system that fed real world injects into the simulation from real media outlets. No E-mail used throughout the exercise.  The “no-email” option was chosen deliberately, serving as a forcing function to drive players to “newer” tech solutions more representative of how peers communicate, and to streamline an innovative information flow. Additionally, in a crisis environment, communication breakdown through email overload is a real threat. A critical message can be lost in a sea of emails and there is no way to display an inbox worth of information for multiple users coherently in a single interface. Innovations such as SLACK and Zoom overcome that challenge.  In the case of SIMULEX2020, SLACK provided a real-time data picture (at the speed of a text) organizing information by topic in a searchable format. Zoom allowed the face-to-face communication required to mitigate misperceptions and confusion. Combined, both tools become invaluable in managing a fast-paced crisis.

Brandon, Paul and Dave established in a makeshift SIMULEX2020 Operations Center, (utilizing a basement on Hanscom AFB MA., Military Family Housing)

This initial communications framework was a key piece to establish at D-60 (where “D” represents the start date of the exercise and “-60” represents 60 days prior to startex). The participants were aligned to one of six country teams (~10 pax per team) representing India, Japan, United States, Taiwan, South Korea, and China. The control team, media team, closed-loop communication system, non-attribution environment, and three orchestrated moves would stimulate dynamic interaction between individuals, respective participant teams and the overall plenary session participants. One Fletcher School military fellow was directly aligned to each country team serving as advisor to help formulate strategies and provide recommendations on the role of force and the potential use of military capabilities throughout the event.

Near view is a representation of what a single participant/controller sees.   Far view is a much larger monitor designed to project key events, meetings, media releases, additional Common Intelligence/Operating Picture elements across the participants to level information flow.

A Complex and Compounding Scenario in 2023

This year, the setup of SIMULEX2020 was centered around a crisis in the Indo-Pacific region in 2023. The COVID-19 global pandemic has grown even deadlier, appearing to shape the geopolitical environment and introducing a new concept of “Vaccine Diplomacy” to actors on the global stage. The following paragraphs describe the actions that players encountered and drove their necessary strategies throughout the scenario.

Russia and China have aligned more closely, though there is collective recognition that China remains dominant. Throughout the game play and across a series of three critical moves, flashpoints occur in the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea and along the India-China border. Each inflection point occurs within the 2023 timeline and as the United States has continued to strengthen its existing political and military relationships with her Indo-Pacific allies and, in 2023, leads an aggressive formation of a global counter pandemic organization. 

Paul representing a key Russian figurehead in both persona and in language involved in a negotiation meeting with 2ndyear Fletcher graduate student Cameron Fels, who represented China.

Simultaneously, the implementation of the Hong Kong security law has ended its special “one country, two systems” status while Pro-independence forces gain power and boost widespread support in and throughout Taiwan. As these developments unfold at speed, there is an accelerated buildup of China’s military forces on the mainland, opposite Taiwan.  

Enter North Korea.  North Korea and reveals they continue to accelerate the growth of their nuclear weapons capability as a client-state of China and Russia. The situation becomes more complex when India faces a two-pronged threat from China, on its Himalayan frontier and in the Indian Ocean. The escalations and tensions rise across all fronts and support for nuclear weapons increase in Japan even as Tokyo and the United States strengthen their own security links.

SIMULEX Objectives

SIMULEX2020 was designed to intentionally extrapolate current events into plausible near-future scenarios within given time constraints throughout the exercise. The realistic stress associated with making decisions under pressure forces the participants to think on their feet creatively and with a sense of urgency. Learning is the fundamental goal, not necessarily winning. Participant decisions made throughout the game are assessed based on their articulated strategy, alignment of Ends-Ways-Means, methods of communication, and diplomatic feasibility.

SIMULEX2020 participans:

  1. Gained practical experience in developing written national strategies and policies
  2. Experienced a wide range of obstacles and opportunities confronting real-world international decision-makers
  3. Applied classroom foundational knowledge in translating national goals into specific policies with proven workable courses of action across the international system through “living” written strategy papers and practical negotiations in dedicated “virtual” rooms
  4. Encountered internal & external pressures, relationships, & proved ability to adapt to the operational and strategic environment during crisis decision-making
  5. Developed and implemented best practices for crisis communication for real-world application without the use of E-mail.
  6. Understood the benefits and limitations of simulations, virtual exercises, and wargames
  7. Focused more on “how” to think versus “what” to think

SIMULEX2020 participants met or exceeded all objectives in this Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) environment that allowed the opportunity to make mistakes, encouraged opportunities for ideas to compete and fostered an academic space that delivered a high stress yet enjoyable experience for everyone involved, regardless of role.

Six Key Takeaways From the 1st Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) Event

1) Slash cost and maximize efficiencies through available/familiar technologies

Utilizing technology (Zoom, Google Docs, Slack) allows participants to be more creative and much faster improving overall team efficiencies. By using the video teleconference capability through Zoom, each participant was able to adopt a persona (on screen personality, background screen, name, etc.) aligned with their country and position which increased aggregate participation. Additionally, this help game officials ensure the right participants were in the right rooms and conversely, there was no “spying” in on others breakout meetings although in the future, there could be a built in mechanism by which other countries can exercise the influence of their intelligence networks. By having the ability to rapidly schedule multiple events and move from one to another eased increased involvement and provided new opportunities for bi- and multi-lateral diplomatic engagement across multiple levels.  

A simulated social media feed via Slack proved extremely realistic. Incorporating participants’ personal electronic devices into the simulation provided the realism one would face in a real crisis like with the use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. 

Zoom allowed more oversight and evaluation of the exercise with members of the Fletcher School Faculty, fellows, or advisors to easily bounce from event to event with little to no disruption to the exercise, and without having to record and save “feedback” for a final close-out session.

Developing a 1 min SIMULEX2020 video trailer early on and releasing it at D-45 across all available platforms was pivotal to generating the buzz and fostered the bulk of registrations, despite revealing few details. ****SHOW TRAILER #2**** The key is a rapid investment here early on with the dates, times, general theme, and a lot of graphics. Do not wait to have it all figured out as this is a quick litmus test in gauging the level of interest or becoming aware of other scheduling conflicts competing for the same populous.

Given more planning time, there would be value in exploring software that produces a Common Operating Picture (COP) at the conclusion of each move to display the results of their actions and tasks, associated decision and how it shapes the overall outcome of the game. If software is not possible, a recommendation would be to have the Intel/Control Team brief a situation update at the starting phase of each move.

2) Build the virtual network/framework and set up a weekly battle rhythm event

Consistent over-communication was key across the exercise design and development team. Structuring an early cross-functional Zoom planning session at D-60 set the stage for the knowns, unknowns and revealed the unknown-unknowns. A warm start rehearsal at D-02 with all involved parties served as a first meet and greet and set the stage for the following day’s full technology rehearsal at D-01. These synchronized efforts ensured players and controllers alike were equipped to begin immediately at STARTEX and kept the game on track through its entirety.  Taking lessons learned from experts in the field across many Boston based and Silicon Valley companies, the integration of SLACK rapidly helped to dismantle silos while flattening and improving every command and control (C2) aspect of the simulation.

3) Equip and establish teams to organize for purpose – get better before getting bigger

To allow participants to better understand and experience the emerging environment of great-power competition AND to maximize, optimize, and adopt US, Allied, and Partnered options (ways & means) and their limits in dealing with very plausible crises, it is critical to establish the Team to do so. Establishing a general framework to posture the teams for success should include the minimum:

  • President/Prime Minister/Dictator (can be team lead).
    • Defense Lead – responsible for Requests for Forces (RFF) generation and submission to controller.
    • Diplomatic Lead – responsible for generating any request for action related to the Diplomatic Instrument of Power and submission to controller.
    • Economic Lead – responsible for generating any request for action related to the Economic Instrument of Power and submission to controller.
    • Public Affairs Lead – responsible for developing and issuing unofficial statements.
    • Request for Information Lead – responsible for questions/answers needed to promote a given country’s strategy.
    • Communications Lead – responsible for operating Player Team Slack Channel messaging for Player Team communications. All things comms related conduit to control.

4) Design the game flexibly to absorb dynamic changes at speed and scale

 By incorporating the impact of the global pandemic, the participants were exposed to an added dilemma to consider as they developed their strategy for engagement. This variable was easily understood since each student has first-hand experience of the COVID-19 impacts and as such have seen it play out globally from a personal perspective, especially in cases where it was handled well (New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany). With other pandemic-style variables participants may only rely on historical knowledge and readings which could downplay the scale of its complexity. With respect to a three-move game, consider altering the Move 2 / Move 3 pre-determined outcomes to a free-flowing real time “develop the move on the fly” construct to allow a more dynamic experience that will simultaneously meet goals and satisfy the efforts of individual country teams. Information will flow much faster than the participants, controllers and adjudicators will be able to keep up with. This is okay, it provides another element of realism, an opportunity for exercising patience and making decisions with minimal or unclear information available.

5) Manage the crisis as it unfolds

As SIMULEX2020 played out, other global stakeholders were brought into the scenario. In cases such as these, members of control and staff teams quickly took on the role and entered negotiations with the participant countries. The learning point here is that members of the staff or control team should not play direct roles of actors that are not explicitly written into the exercise UNLESS that is their sole responsibility. For example, in SIMULEX2020, if Russia were played by 3-4 experts that negotiated with each team during the moves, it would offer a new level of realism and uncertainty to resemble real-word diplomacy dynamics. A recommendation would be to have a handful of reserve Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in reserve for potential and expected wildcards that could occur during the game.

6) Prioritize feedback throughout – Incorporate a During Action Report (DAR)

The virtual environment enhances the frequency for real time feedback and interaction across the range of participants and staff. In this role, senior leaders, mentors, fellows, and cadre had the ability to directly inject at the time and place of their choosing to deliver advice on strategy papers critiquing End-Ways-Means approaches in conjunction with how well a team was aligned with the Risk Strategy Framework. The criticality of feedback both in the written and real time negotiation aspects of the simulation ensured participants remained sharp in their strategic thinking and prioritized clearly throughout the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment.

The establishment of a During Action Report (DAR) channel within Slack, allowed for all participants to drop quick points of feedback along the way that could be expounded on later if needed. Writing the DAR comment during game play in as little or many words as desired, ensures the proper context is articulated, actions may be resolved before the game transitions to the next phase and most importantly, the comment is not forgotten at the formal call for feedback and critique.

Closing Remarks

SIMULEX2020 has proven to be a trailblazing event and has established the new standard of Fully Remote and Virtual (FRV) simulations and wargaming experience. This exercise evolution has taught that this model is rapidly scalable, fosters integration and teamwork, streamlines communication, inspires decisive action, minimizes overhead cost, and affords the environment necessary to thrive while valuing real time feedback, both positively and negatively.  

Additionally, the exercise would not be possible without the involvement of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and National Defense University wargaming communities. These communities include the Center for Strategic Leadership, Army War College; Air Force Wargaming Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; Wargaming Department, Naval War College; Wargaming and Combat Simulation Center, Marine Corps Combat Development Command; Wargaming and Simulation Center, National Defense University.  The speed and dynamic nature of the simulation is a direct testament to the involvement of the parties listed. 


For more information or further SIMULEX2020 details please contact the author directly at  brandon.daigle@tufts.edu.  


Lt Col Brandon Daigle is an Intelligence Officer in the United States Air Force and has held a variety of in-garrison and deployed leadership positions.  He most recently served as the Commander of a Joint Unit at Ft Bragg, North Carolina. He holds a M.S. in Defense Analysis/Special Operations and Irregular Warfare, Naval Postgraduate School, where he led multiple wargames associated with the Arctic Environment and published his thesis on the Strategic Utility of the High North in December, 2016 using Senturion modeling and spatial bargaining theory.  He holds an M.S. in Organizational Leadership and Design from Amridge University and a B.S. in Religion from Southern Christian University.  He is currently a Military Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Lt Col Paul Pawluk is a National Defense Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Previously, he commanded the 22d Airlift Squadron flying the C-5M Super Galaxy. He is a command pilot and EUCOM Foreign Area Officer with fluency in Ukrainian and Russian. He has a MA – NPS,  Security Studies in Europe and Eurasia (with distinction), MA – Norwich, Diplomacy with a Concentration in International Conflict, and a BA-Wisc, Political Science, International Relations, and Russian 

Lieutenant Colonel David Kaczmarek is a Civil Affairs officer in the U.S. Army with several overseas deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa.  He has held various command and staff assignments within NATO, 18th Airborne Corps, 101st Airborne Division, and the U.S. Special Operations Command (Airborne).  He has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Virginia Military Institute, and a Master’s Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.  He is currently a Military Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Gaming a contentious American election

Not a real headline—one of the slides from the game.

Back in mid-October, I co-designed and ran a “contested US election” matrix game for The New Yorker Radio Hour in which we examined what could go wrong after election night. Due to an unexpected problem the segment never aired, but it was a terrific game. So, with polls starting to close and as everyone waits for the actual American election results to come in, I thought I would say a little about it.

At the time the game was held, fears of a US election running off the rails were very real. Indeed, the highly regarded Crisis Group—which usually reports on places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, or Nagorno-Karabakh– even put out a report on managing the risks of US election violence:

As the 3 November U.S. presidential election approaches, the country faces an unfamiliar danger. While Americans have grown used to a certain level of rancour in these quadrennial campaigns, they have not in living memory faced the realistic prospect that the incumbent may reject the outcome or that armed violence may result. That has changed in 2020 because of the emergence of risk factors that would spell trouble in any country: political polarisation bound up with issues of race and identity; the rise of armed groups with political agendas; the higher-than-usual chances of a contested outcome; and most importantly President Donald Trump, whose toxic rhetoric and willingness to court conflict to advance his personal interests have no precedent in modern U.S. history. The risk of unrest may ebb and flow as the final days of the campaign unfold, but it is almost certain to remain, and it will increase if either side forms the impression that the vote has been rigged.

Our scenario envisaged a tight race in which much depends on the counting of mail-in ballots—something that advisors to the Trump campaign acknowledged to the New York Times was a distinct possibility:

Trump advisers  said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.

Another report added:

In his last days of campaigning, Mr. Trump has essentially admitted that he does not expect to win without going to court. “As soon as that election is over,” he told reporters over the weekend, “we’re going in with our lawyers.”

Trailing consistently in the polls, Mr. Trump in that moment said out loud what other Republicans have preferred to say quietly, which is that his best chance of holding onto power at this point may rest in a scorched-earth campaign to disqualify as many votes as possible for his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

If there is a clear-cut outcome on Tuesday night that could not plausibly be challenged via legal action, all of the planning on both sides could become moot. But if there is no decisive result, the following days would likely see an intensifying multifront battle fought in a variety of states.

After months of claiming that any election outcome other than a victory for him would have to have been “rigged,” the president used his final days on the campaign trail to cast doubt on the very process of tabulating the count, suggesting without any evidence that any votes counted after Tuesday, no matter how legal, must be suspect.

We weren’t the only ones to game out what could go wrong in the election, of course. The earlier work of the Transition Integrity Project has already been discussed at PAXsims.

Methodology

The game ran over two days. On each day there were two matrix turns planned, for a total of four (November 4, November 9, November 16, and mid-December). In practice we abandoned matrix game procedures for the last turn, and free-styled it in a lively series of moves, countermoves, and open discussion.

There were six main sets of actors:

  • Donald Trump (including the Trump Administration, Mike Pence, and the Trump/Pence campaign)
  • Joe Biden (including Kamala Harris and Biden/Harris campaign)
  • The Republican Establishment (Republican Members of Congress, Republican Governors, Republican state legislators, former Republican elected officials)
  • The Democratic Establishment (Democratic Members of Congress, Democratic Governors, Democratic state legislators, former Democratic Elected Officials)
  • The Extra-Establishment Right (QAnon conspiracy theorists, militia members, Proud Boys, right-wing social media trolls, OAN, InfoWars, police unions, etc.)
  • The Extra-Establishment Left (Black Lives Matter activists, Antifa activists, left-leaning celebrities, progressive social media, etc.)

In addition, two other actors could take actions when called upon or otherwise appropriate, as well as contribute to the broader discussion:

  • The Courts (Supreme Court of the United States, other federal and state courts)
  • The Military (Joint Chiefs of Staff, State Adjutants General, senior military commanders, intelligence community)

All were played by New Yorker writers or others with appropriate expertise. Adjudication used the assessed probabilities, whereby after an action had been proposed by a player and discussed, we polled participants (via a Zoom poll) for their view of the likelihood the action would be successful. We used this to establish a probability against which we then rolled percentage dice. Since all of our participants could reasonably claim to be subject matter expertise on the game topic, it worked very well.

The scenario described a very close election, in which everything hinged on the outcome in Pennsylvania.

The early count had Trump ahead, but mail-in ballots were still being counted and these were breaking two-to-one for the Biden campaign. It seemed likely—unless something happened—that the Democrats would eventually come out on top.

This is, of course, the worst possible scenario, which is exactly why it was the one we gamed. A unambiguous Biden or Trump victory wouldn’t pose the same risks to political stability.

The voting graphs here were dynamically linked to a Google spreadsheet, so they could be easily changed during the game.

The briefing sheets all outlined essentially the same situation, but were very much tailored to the world-view of the actors. The Biden briefing, for example, noted:

Once again, polls underestimated public support for President Trump. In late October, moreover, the President announced a successful  COVID-19 vaccine—though the medical establishment is divided on whether the vaccine in question is efficacious enough for widespread distribution. In several states, voter suppression tactics by Republican-led administrations may have cost the campaign tens of thousands of votes. As a result of all this, the Presidential election has proven to be much closer than expected. 

On election night the Biden/Harris campaign lost in both Arizona and Florida, and won only narrowly in Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Pennsylvania has emerged as an electoral battleground. 

In Pennsylvania, the President is currently ahead. However, according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, mail-in ballots can still arrive for three more days (until Nov. 6th). Between COVID safety precautions and teams of lawyers challenging every ballot, a long count awaits.

Pennsylvania’s election was beset with irregularities. On election day and during the counting, groups of (often heavily-armed) Trump “poll watchers” have intimidated voters and officials alike. We’ve heard unsubstantiated reports about missing mail trucks, which some on the right have fixated on as proof that mail-in voting was somehow rigged.

A legal challenge about whether these ballots (which are expected to strongly favor Biden) can be counted is on its way to the US Supreme Court. 

The Republican-controlled Legislature in Pennsylvania has said that unless a winner is declared by December 1st, it will award the state’s electors to Trump (one full week ahead of the deadline to name electors). State Democratic legislators have threatened to relocate to West Virginia to prevent a quorum. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D) has vowed that Pennsylvania will not name electors until the full election results are certified by Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D). 

President Trump is  ahead in the national vote by a small fraction. However that lead will certainty be reversed as mail-in ballots in places like California get counted. 

Democrats seem to have narrowly captured the Senate, but three races are essentially too close to call. The new majority will not be seated until January 3rd. Democrats have kept control of the House.

Amy Coney Barrett has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Barrett has cleared her hearings in a party line vote. Mitch McConnell has vowed that she will be confirmed by the Senate. 

Encouraged by the President, right-wing activists and militias have mobilized, with some arguing that force might be used to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. Several liberal justices have requested enhanced security measures in view of this growing threat. 

The number of COVID-19 cases is sharply on the rise once more. Some 300,000 Americans are projected to die by February, a total which could rise to half a million if the President and some Republican governors are successful in further easing restrictions, mask mandates, and other public health measures. Expert consensus is that, despite the premature President’s vaccine announcement, widespread vaccination will not be possible until the late summer.

Conversely, the Trump briefing spun the situation as a Trump victory that would be stolen away through absentee ballots. For its part, the Extra-Establishment Right briefing warned:

America now faces perhaps its greatest DANGER since the Revolution. The Deep State and communist agitators are CONSPIRING to overturn the election results. The President has signalled that he needs OUR HELP to defeat this conspiracy. #WWG1WGAWe have information that the Democrats plan to flood the count  fraudulent Biden mail-in ballots, previously harvested by their activists. Before the election, Antifa anarchists stole several mail-trucks containing blank ballots. Local officials in some Democratic-controlled districts also rebuffed poll-watching and ballot security measures undertaken by patriotic groups of Americans freely exercising their 2nd amendment rights. Clearly they had something to hide.

As previously noted, we ran this as as a matrix game over Zoom, with a deck of Google slides used to update the players with the current vote count, news stories, legal deadlines, and other information. Using Google slides in this way it was possible for me to share them with the players, while other members of support team modified future slides behind the scenes to reflect new developments. You can see them here:

In the past, I’ve found matrix games a bit ponderous online—people simply just aren’t as efficient at online discussion and you lose the ability to easily have multiple side conversations during game play. I must say, however, that the team put together by The New Yorker were outstanding. I think this had a lot to do with most of them being journalists, and most having substantial television or radio experience—a setting in which you rarely have more than a minute to answer any one question and only six or seven minutes in the entire segment to get your broader analysis across.

Game Summary

The game started with President Trump complaining vociferously about mail-in ballot “fraud,” a narrative that was much amplifed by the Extra Establishment Right (including faked videos of supposed wrong-doing). The courts were not very responsive to such complaints, however, seeing no evidence of widespread or systematic abuse and preferring to leave the status quo intact in the midst of vote-counting.

The White House escalated by ending federal law enforcement to (federal) post offices and mail sorting centres in Pennsylvania for “security” purposes and seize ballots and look for evidence of the alleged fraud. It was a bit late, however—but this point almost all the ballots were at (state/county) counting centres. Moreover, the (Democratic) Governor of Pennsylvania responded by deploying Pennsylvania State Police to vote-counting locations. As tensions rose the Extra-Establishment Left organized peaceful candlelight vigils. These soon grew to a national campaign.

As the vote started to shift decisively to the Biden campaign, Pennsylvania Republicans considered assigning their own set of electors for the Electoral College. That initiative was unsuccessful, however, with too many members of their own party finding it a step too far. Had they been successful, the Democratic establishment was thinking of responding in kind in other states.

Biden has pulled ahead.

Given the failure of efforts in the Courts to stop the counting and with Pennsylvania Republicans unwilling to override voters, President Trump’s Twitter feed became even hotter and more voluminous. Police resources were increasingly overstretched by the need to safeguard vote counting centres and keeping an eye on vigils. There was some low-level violence and arson attacks, but the risk of something more serious couldn’t be discounted. As a result, Pennsylvania decided to call up some National Guard units to assist the police.

There was growing concern in the Pentagon about how this might all play out. Indeed, efforts had made to assure any military response would be slow and deliberate, stalling for time if necessary and trying to stay out of the political fray. Concerns grew further when the President started to tweet about federalizing the National Guard too, putting soldiers in the position of having their Commander-in-Chief seemingly at odds with their Governor. Pennsylvania National Guard commanders were careful in which units were called up and where they were sent, focusing on those that were known to have good discipline and calm, level-headed commanders—a tacit acknowledgement that some in the military might handle a fraught situation worse than others.

At this point, Russia dramatically stepped-up social media and other digital activities with the intention of further escalating tensions and possibly provoking more widespread violence. In response, the Pentagon took the decision to retaliate with limited offensive cyber attacks against certain Russian internet capabilities. The White House was not consulted in advance on this, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs arguing this was an immediate defensive response by United States Cyber Command that required no prior approval.

As tensions grew, the stock market started to tank. It also became apparent that the Supreme Court—even with the addition of Amy Coney Barrett—was not going to intervene in the election tally in the absence of actual evidence of fraud. With this, many key Republicans (including many major Republican donors) became concerned at the growing potential for violence, political chaos, and economic crisis . Some reached out to the Democrats to see whether Biden campaign might offer political inducements (such as a promise of no “court packing”) to secure Republican endorsement of the election process and outcome. Biden was under pressure from the left of his party not to agree, but he was inclined to hold firm anyway. He had very much stayed the course throughout, counting on the process to work while the Democratic Establishment mobilized legal and other resources to fight for every vote cast.

And so the game ended, with President Trump still tweeting angrily from his bunker beneath the White House, National Guard, federal law enforcement, and State Police deployed across Pennsylvania, sporadic acts of limited violence—but a transition to a new Biden presidency seeming largely assured.

Whether the political divisions and fractures caused by the process might afflict the United States in the coming years remained to be seen.

Final Thoughts

After it was all over, some participants said they felt reassured that the process and institutions had indeed worked. To me, however, it rather felt like careening down the hairpin turns of a steep and narrow mountain road in a car with no brakes. Sure, it’s great to arrive intact at the bottom of the mountain at the end, but it is also worth remembering how close you came to careening over the edge of cliff. There were several points in the game where things could easily become much worse.

In practical terms, it was one of the best matrix games I’ve taken part in: thoughtful participants, great discussions, and useful insight. At the time of writing this, I have no idea how prescient it might be—but let’s hope the actual days following November 3 are rather less contentious.

Atlantic Council: Competitive strategy insights from wargames

The Atlantic Council has just released a new report on “Competitive strategy insights from wargames,” which summarizes the results of a series of recent games.

How the US military prioritizes future force-modernization investments has the potential to shape long-term geopolitical and military competition. Beyond increasing lethality, new capabilities also affect how rival great powers like China and Russia conduct strategic planning and make decisions on the types of forces best suited to challenge the United States.

To assess this dynamic, the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its Forward Defense practice area hosted a series of competitive strategy games to evaluate: how US national security professionals allocated resource investments across Army Futures Command (AFC) moderniza- tion priorities (Long-Range Precision Fires, Future Vertical Lift, etc.) in order to advance US strategy; and the extent to which these investments altered military strategy and defense-modernization programs in China and Russia, both played by subject-matter experts (SMEs).

Two unexpected outcomes emerged. First, a new stability-instability paradox defined the competitive investment cycle. Within the games, the United States focused on bolstering its conventional deterrent and warfighting capabilities through technology, but both China and Russia players responded to new US technology by funding proxy clients, the Belt and Road Initiative, cyber operations, and propaganda…. The results produce counterintuitive findings for future force-modernization and force-design initiatives. Based on these insights, the United States should counter its competitors’ asymmetric advantages by exploring low-cost ways to bolster US and allied forces operating in the contact layer and supporting gray-zone activities….

Second, new capabilities create new escalation risks. Russia players voiced concerns about inadvertent escalation. They assumed that the extended ranges associated with modernized US long-range precision strike could be used against Moscow’s strategic (i.e., nuclear) forces. Accordingly, they sought to attack these long-range fires early in a crisis or conflict, which could produce dangerous escalation spirals….

The games were modified matrix games. By establishing several different US teams, variations in US strategy and technology investment could be explored.

You can download the full report at the link above.

Brooks: What’s the worst that could happen?

In today’s Washington Post, Rosa Brooks (Georgetown University) further discusses the findings and implications of four recent crisis games examining potential challenges arising from the 2020 US presedential election:

We wanted to know: What’s the worst thing that could happen to our country during the presidential election? President Trump has broken countless norms and ignored countless laws during his time in office, and while my colleagues and I at the Transition Integrity Project didn’t want to lie awake at night contemplating the ways the American experiment could fail, we realized that identifying the most serious risks to our democracy might be the best way to avert a November disaster. So we built a series of war games, sought out some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around, and asked them to imagine what they’d do in a range of election and transition scenarios.

With the exception of the “big Biden win” scenario, each of our exercises reached the brink of catastrophe, with massive disinformation campaigns, violence in the streets and a constitutional impasse. In two scenarios (“Trump win” and “extended uncertainty”) there was still no agreement on the winner by Inauguration Day, and no consensus on which candidate should be assumed to have the ability to issue binding commands to the military or receive the nuclear codes. In the “narrow Biden win” scenario, Trump refused to leave office and was ultimately escorted out by the Secret Service — but only after pardoning himself and his family and burning incriminating documents.

For obvious reasons, we couldn’t ask Trump or Biden — or their campaign aides — to play themselves in these exercises, so we did the next best thing: We recruited participants with similar backgrounds. On the GOP side, our “players” included former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, conservative commentator Bill Kristol and former Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson. On the Democratic side, participants included John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a top White House adviser to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Donna Brazile, the campaign chair for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run; and Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan. Other participants included political strategists, journalists, polling experts, tech and social media experts, and former career officials from the intelligence community, the Justice Department, the military and the Department of Homeland Security.

It is all rather dire stuff, although Brooks ends on a hopdeful note:

But there’s some good news: This kind of exercise doesn’t predict the future. In fact, war-gaming seeks to forecast all the things that could go wrong — precisely to prevent them from happening in real life. And if the Transition Integrity Project’s exercises highlighted various bleak possibilities, they also suggested some ways we might, as a nation, avoid democratic collapse.

For more on the games, see the full Transitions Integrity Project report archived here.


For current poll aggregation and modelling of the US presidential campaign, PAXsims readers may find the following resources useful.

FiveThirtyEight

Current (3 September) election prediction from FiveThirtyEight. For the the most recent version, go here.

The Economist

Current (3 September) election prediction from The Economist. For the the most recent version, go here.

Nature: Two decades of pandemic war games failed to account for Donald Trump

Before the current COVID-19 pandemic, American pandemic preparedness had been the subject of numerous serious policy games. At Nature this month, Amy Maxmen and Jeff Tollefson ask why the US response has been much worse than those games anticipated.

Event 201 was one of dozens of simulations and evaluations over the past two decades that have highlighted the risks of a pandemic and identified gaps in the ability of governments and organizations around the world to respond.

The exercises anticipated several failures that have played out in the management of COVID-19, including leaky travel bans, medical-equipment shortages, massive disorganization, misinformation and a scramble for vaccines. But the scenarios didn’t anticipate some of the problems that have plagued the pandemic response, such as a shortfall of diagnostic tests, and world leaders who reject the advice of public-health specialists.

Most strikingly, biosecurity researchers didn’t predict that the United States would be among the hardest-hit countries. On the contrary, last year, leaders in the field ranked the United States top in the Global Health Security Index, which graded 195 countries in terms of how well prepared they were to fight outbreaks, on the basis of more than 100 factors. President Donald Trump even held up a copy of the report during a White House briefing on 27 February, declaring: “We’re rated number one.” As he spoke, SARS-CoV-2 was already spreading undetected across the country.

Now, as COVID-19 cases in the United States surpass 4 million, with more than 150,000 deaths, the country has proved itself to be one of the most dysfunctional. Morhard and other biosecurity specialists are asking what went wrong — why did dozens of simulations, evaluations and white papers fail to predict or defend against the colossal missteps taken in the world’s wealthiest nation? By contrast, some countries that hadn’t ranked nearly so high in evaluations, such as Vietnam, executed swift, cohesive responses.

The scenarios still hold lessons for how to curb this pandemic, and for how to respond better next time. Deadly pandemics are inevitable, says Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “What’s not inevitable is that we will continue to be so underprepared.”

Part of the answer, as the title of their article suggests, is Donald Trump:

Confusion emerged in most pandemic simulations, but none explored the consequences of a White House sidelining its own public-health agency. Perhaps they should have, suggests a scientist who has worked in the US public-health system for decades and asked to remain anonymous because they did not have permission to speak to the press. “You need gas in the engine and the brakes to work, but if the driver doesn’t want to use the car, you’re not going anywhere,” the scientist says.

However, they also note that—regardless of who occupies the presidency—institutions also failed to respond to insights and warnings that emerged from many of these games.

Perhaps the biggest limitation of simulation exercises was that they didn’t actually drive policymakers to prioritize and fund improvements to the public-health system. Morrison now questions whether it’s even possible to do that through simulations alone, or whether people must experience an epidemic at first hand.

The vulnerability of games (and, by extension, policy response) to idiosyncratic player/policymaker effects, and the difficult of translating game results into real world consequences, is something that was debated in a classic 1964 internal RAND discussion between Robert Levine, Thomas Schelling, and William Jones—which every policy gamer should read. I’ve also addressed the challenge of gaming unpredictable and unreliable decision-makers in the specific context of the Trump Administration, while Devin Ellis has commented on the problems that arise when game insights are not translated into policy or preparedness.

For more on pandemic, see the PAXsims COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Transition Integrity Project: Preventing a disrupted presidential election and transition

As previously mentioned at PAXsims, the Transitions Integrity Project has conducted a series of matrix games on what could go wrong in the 2020 US election and a subsequent presidential transition. The games have been covered by the Washington Post, Boston Globe, NPR, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

In June 2020 the Transition Integrity Project (TIP) convened a bipartisan group of over 100 current and former senior government and campaign leaders and other experts in a series of 2020 election crisis sce- nario planning exercises. The results of all four table-top exercises were alarming. We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape. We also assess that the President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power. Recent events, including the President’s own unwillingness to commit to abiding by the results of the election, the Attorney General’s embrace of the President’s groundless electoral fraud claims, and the unprecedented deployment of federal agents to put down leftwing protests, underscore the extreme lengths to which President Trump may be willing to go in order to stay in office.

In this report, TIP explains the basis for our assessment. Our findings are bolstered by the historical expe- rience of Bush v. Gore (2000) and other U.S. electoral dysfunctions. The closest analogy may be the elec- tion of 1876, a time of extreme partisanship and rampant disenfranchisement, where multiple states proffered competing slates of electors, and the election was only resolved through a grand political bargain days before Inauguration—one that traded an end to Reconstruction for electoral peace and resulted in a century of Jim Crow, leaving deep wounds that are far from healed today.

The full report from those games is now available (pdf):

UPDATE: If you are interested in the Transition Integrity Project, you’ll also be interested in The New Yorker election simulation—the scenario for which has turned out to be very close to the actual 2020 election, with much depending on the outcome in Pennsylvania.

[Comments have been disabled.]

CNAS: A deadly game in the East China Sea

The Center for a New American Security has posted the video of their recent wargame of a future militarized crisis in the East China Sea. Each turn, members of the audience chose from among the options presented by CNAS experts, who then gamed the results.

The post-game session included not only the scenario and East Asia security issues, but there also a discussion (at 1:46:35) on the value of diversity in serious gaming.

%d bloggers like this: