Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming ideas

WACN game design video

I did a presentation on We Are Coming, Nineveh! recently for the San Diego Historical Games Convention, discussing both the Battle of Mosul and how it is represented in the wargame design. Here it is for those who might be interested.

We Are Coming, Nineveh! is published by Nuts! Publishing.

Votes for Women: Growing (war)gaming with new themes

The following article is written by Elizabeth Betsy” Joslyn, a Research Associate for the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division for the Institute for Defense Analysis. Her game research and design has largely focused on great power competition, mis/disinformation, and risk literacy. She received a Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy at American University’s School of Public Affairs. In addition, Betsy served in the Peace Corps in Zambia working as an aquaculture specialist. She recently joined PAXsims as a Research Associate. 

In the last decade, the boardgame industry has had an unprecedented surge. The global boardgame market value is currently estimated between $11 billion and $13.4 billion and is projected to grow in just the next 5 years.[1]

One of the driving elements of this surge is connected to the rewarding sense of community and fun that gameplay elicits. In addition, many of us find ourselves slowly crawling out of Gollum’s COVID-cave blinded by excessive computer screen lighting and desperate for some human interaction. Board games have come to the rescue. 

To match the demand, there has been an explosion of new games from not only seasoned game designers like Volko Ruhnke and Jamey Stegmaier, but also of new game designers such as Kevin Bertram, founder of Fort Circle Games and Tory Brown, who was empowered by Fort Circles to design the game Votes for Women.

A historical view of wargames and traditional table top games shows us that many of these games were made by men for men and usually feature topics, characters and strategies represented in gendered ways.[2] The recent uptick in game design and game play has given way to more categories and themes, prettier boxes and higher quality game pieces. In many cases, the rules are simpler and there are more offerings that focus on cooperation rather than competition.[3] The result of these significant additions has opened the gaming community, expanding the player base and inspiring topics and themes within the genre of gaming that have not yet been tapped. Despite the bigger game table, your average gaming organization, club, and community still seem to be male dominated.  

In a recent review of gender dynamics in boardgames, Tanya Pobuda, found that 92.6 per cent of the designers of the 400 top-ranked board games on BoardGameGeek were men. After reviewing 1,974 figures from board game cover art analyses, Pobuda’s analysis showed that male imagery was predominant. Images of men and boys represented 76.8 per cent of the human representation on covers, or 647 images in games such as Great Western Trail (2016) and War of the Ring: Second Edition (2012), compared to 23.2 per cent of the images of women and girls, which represented only 195 of the images counted as seen in games with more gender representation like Arkham Horror: The Card Game (2016) and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015).[4]

All this say, there are still more men sitting at the table than there are women. I recently had the opportunity to interview Tory Brown to discuss her game that was publicly released in December 2022. Votes for Women, a card driven game on the ratification of the 19th Amendment, captures and celebrates the struggle by inviting players to join the suffrage movement, organize support, and campaign for victory across the 48 states in 1919-1920. Tory’s game is highly relevant to the centennial celebration of Women’s Suffrage Movement, but another significant biproduct of a game on women’s rights has appropriately inspired more women to play games.[5]

During our conversation, Tory noted that “for many people, gaming is an escape. It’s a reprieve from day to day responsibilities; an activity to do with friends and peers. In terms of wargaming, it is not a usually a family activity. However, there are many gamers who want to include their loved ones in an activity they love so much. That being said, their wives and daughters might not be as interested in battling (or sometimes playing) Nazis as much as they are.” Rather than using trickery to get new players to the table, it is so much more effective and rewarding to coax new players with a story that they can resonate with and connect with. 

“People see Votes for a Women as an entry point,” Tory commented. “Dads especially want to play this game with their wives, with their daughters, with their loved ones. In this way, Votes for Women has become the vehicle that men are using to bring the women in their lives to the gaming table as it hits a sweet spot for people that want to play something a little more complicated than Monopoly and want to play a game on an issue that retains some salience or resonance for them. Votes for Women will expose players to core ideas, concepts, and mechanics in a way that can make other games, like Twilight Struggle by Jason Matthew, more approachable and easier to understand because you’ve already mastered these elements at an entry level.” 

Bringing more women into gaming is crucial for two reasons. The first being that diverse players enrich gameplay by bringing different perspectives, and thus creative strategies, to the table. Divergent viewpoints encourage players to challenge biases.[6] Tory added “being tied to tradition creates a bias that can stifle innovation; yet, there is a language to game play and game design.” Tory’s expertise highlights that understanding that language can unlock the ability to take stories that resonate with people resonate and create an educational and engaged experience via games. In theme with the game, a fresh perspective on game design seems to fall perfectly in line with the vision of the suffrage movement in breaking traditional biases and showcasing the benefit of diverse representation. 

The second benefit is that a diverse gaming demand will inspire more diverse game designs. As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons we see more male game players is typically because many of these boardgames have been made for men by men. As the player base becomes more diverse, the demand for more diverse games will increase, prompting even more games that cover and address topics and themes that have seldom been explored and that deeply resonate with society.

Votes for Women is so much more than an excellent historical and artistic review of a crucial moment in history. It is so much more than an extremely relevant and educational lesson on campaigning strategies and ratification challenges. This is a story that men, women, gamers, and the gamers to be have joined so that the boardgame torch can be carrying to new heights. If it’s not on your shelf, it should be.

[1] Jesse Maida, “Board Games Market Value is Set to Grow by USD 3.02 Billion from 2021 to 2026, Increasing Digitization of Board Games to be the Premium Trend,” Technavio, 8 March 2022.  

[2] Matt Shoemaker, An Overview of the History and Design of Tabletop Wargames in Relation to Gender: From Tactics to Strategy, (Routledge, 2019).

[3] Jaclyn Peiser, “We’re in a golden age of board games. It might be here to stay. Despite our addiction to screens, the card and table top games industry is thriving,” Washington Post, 24 December 2022.

[4] Tanya Pobuda, “Why Is Board Gaming So White And Male? I’m Trying To Figure That Out,” Kotaku, 21 May 2022.  

[5] Tory Brown, Votes for Women (Fort Circle Games, 2022). Fort Circle Games itself is one of the cosponsors of the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming.

[6] D. van Knippenberg, D., C. K. W De Dreu, and A.C. Homan, “Work Group Diversity and Group Performance: An Integrative Model and Research Agenda,” Journal of Applied Psychology 89, 6 (2004), 1008–1022. 

We at PAXsims welcome our new AI chat overlords

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI, currently free online. It is able to hold surprisingly realistic conversations or write accurate (or accurate-sounding) material in a matter of seconds in response to a plain-language query or set of instructions.

Here it is apparently channeling Stephen Downes-Martin:

Those of you in defence and security institutions who have yet to endorse diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming could certainly benefit from help from ChatGPT’s AI-generated commitment to principles:

Chat GPT can also be used to quickly write plausible game injects. Here are a few examples that might be useful in a asymmetric warfare game, a geopolitical crisis game, and a defence acquisition game respectively:

Gaming disinformation: Lizards and Lies

The following article was written for PAXsims by Scott DeJong, a Public Scholar and PhD candidate in Communications at Concordia University. His research investigates how media literacy, play, and game design can be used as tools for dealing with disinformation.Scott receives funding from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec.

Like any research endeavour, it started with a question: can we wargame the “disinformation war”? Initially part of a directed study on wargames, I worked with Dr. Rex Brynen to understand wargame design so I could think about conflict simulation for disinformation. This work led to an early prototype, a boardgame I called Lizards and Lies. It had a red team spreading disinformation and a blue team trying to remove it and it studied the analogy of disinformation as a war through simulation design. But the game has become so much more than a class project.

Early prototypes were drawn up on whiteboards, and later transferred to Tabletop Simulator and roll20.

The early development of Lizards and Lies found that the war analogy fell flat. Instead, the game turned towards the infodemic for inspiration. A larger process I wrote about here, it became clear that designing a game needed to contemplate actors and environments to connect the technical affordances of platforms (i.e. AI, algorithmic visibility) with the socio-cultural factors of content engagement and dissemination. Here, thanks to a student-project grant from the Technoculture Arts and Games Lab at ConcordiaLizards and Lies came alive. It moved from a static game, to a dynamic, asymmetrical, system management game where each player contributed to the disinformation space as either a spreader (fact checkers, platform moderators, digital literacy educators) or a stopper (edgelords/trolls, content recommendation algorithms, conspiracy theorist) with unique powers and goals.

A full shot of the game with art on display at a research exposition at Concordia University. 

At this point the game was proving fruitful as a research tool and educational object. The project received a grant from the Digital Citizens Contribution Program which transitioned the game from a research to educational device. The game was translated into French, adjusted for a non-academic audience, and by the spring of 2022 was released as a free, downloadable, print and play game

With the release of the game, I gave a series of talks discussing the game, its development process, and how it can be implemented as an educational device. In this promotion and discussion with other scholars, I saw the potential applicability of the title beyond the educators I initially sought to connect with. I was contacted by the Embassy of Canada in Lithuania who believed the game might prove helpful in the Lithuanian disinformation space. Working with them, the game was showcased to different government bodies, educators, and journalists to see how it might best fit the Lithuanian context. 

Lithuanian and English game parts set up for one of the events.

It was a whirlwind, but the game was eventually localized and I was invited to Lithuania to discuss its use. I met with academics in media studies, the Ministry of Defence, and members from the Department of Strategic Communication. I facilitated 5 different play sessions that looked at how the game functions, the design goals, and how it could be adjusted to different contexts.The responses were positive, with many contemplating how the game could be used in schools, as training tools, or even adjusted to discuss Russian disinformation rather than the conspiracy theories it currently visualizes.

From this I learned three things. First, interaction is key. There is a need for tools that allow players to explore systems rather than just tell them through a story or simple mechanics. Second, media literacy and disinformation bleeds into a variety of spaces, and games like Lizards and Lies need to be malleable to explore an array of instances. Hearing this, I am creating tools to reorient and help the game in its classroom implementation. Third, disinformation is global but also deeply local. I made a game for the Canadian context but in adapting it for Lithuania we talked about the cultural differences in where disinformation is most common – contemplating audience and demographics for use.

While the game is released, I see it as a beta or a version that will continue to be adjusted. It has been a year and a half since Lizards and Lies inception, yet there is so much potential left unexplored. Gaming disinformation is challenging and complex, but also deeply critical when we look at the issues and conflicts of today. For me, this means continuing to work on and adjust the game by creating alternate versions for different contexts so that it best fits the needs it’s addressing. This work is only a start, and I look forward to expanding Lizards and Lies and other tools in the future.

Scott DeJong

UPDATE: Here’s a YouTube video on how to play.

Burke and Cameron: Wargaming climate change

At War of the Rocks, Sharon Burke and Andrea Cameron discuss wargaming climate change.

To get the most out of climate change wargames, planners should heed some lessons from the Pentagon’s initial forays into this field. First, climate change is the ultimate systems-level challenge, so it is easy to overreach. Games that try to be about everything can end up being about nothing. Too many sponsors or stakeholders with different agendas can make for incoherent outcomes. Second, it is tempting to focus these games on disasters — the most obvious consequences of climate change — but that tends to produce insights about disaster response rather than climate change. For example, climate change dramatically worsened the scale and scope of Pakistan’s floods in ways that are strategically significant, both in terms of the stability of a nuclear-armed state and of China’s very public show of support for the erstwhile U.S. ally. But if a game focused on how to help Pakistan manage the emergency humanitarian response or disaster recovery, the findings would have more to do with relief and recovery missions than the way climate change may be raising strategic risks. Third, more can be done to build overlapping expertise between wargaming experts and climate experts with an eye toward bettering red-teaming climate change. Finally, climate games to date have focused more broadly on creating familiarity with the security angle to this geophysical phenomenon. It is time to move on to games that answer specific policy, planning, strategy, or budgetary questions. These could include exploring how climate change might shape strategic competition with China or modelling investments in resilience for bases that directly support military operations. 

The article is based on the work of the report of the Connections US 2022 Climate Wargaming Working Group. You’ll also fin additional articles on gaming climate change here at PAXsims.

Domaingue: Why the State Department needs an Office of Diplomatic Gaming

In the November 2022 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, Robert Domaingue argues that the US State Department needs an Office of Diplomatic Gaming:

Serious games, also known as decision or policy games, are used by many different organizations to deal with complex problems. They can be used to promote strategic thinking, conduct analysis, perform training, and advance diplomatic goals.

The Department of Defense (DoD) and the intelligence community (IC) routinely use games to examine assumptions, test concepts, and explore alternative courses of action. The Department of State, however, is lagging far behind in the use of policy gaming, and this hinders the department’s ability to proactively engage on issues rather than reacting to them as they occur.

There is no centralized office at State devoted to supporting the use of gaming to enhance decision-making. Various offices have used tabletop exercises (TTX) to explore important issues, but they have relied on DoD and IC designers to create and run the exercises. State needs a dedicated office with the capacity to design, facilitate, and utilize its own policy games, but it does not have one.

This was not always the case. The Foreign Service Institute’s Office of Special Programs, headed by Fred Hill from 1986 to 2006, advanced some of these capabilities. It developed high-level policy games on such topics as the possible collapse of the Soviet Union, transitions in various governments, potential war between countries, nuclear programs in specific countries, and conflicts in different regions. But the FSI office closed in 2007, and the State Department never replaced it.

Gaming is the tool of choice when facing uncertainty, and the State Department needs an office that can coordinate and build capacity for using this tool.

You can read his proposal at the link above.

1CMBG homebrew wargame development

LCol Cole Petersen, Chief of Staff at 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, recently took to Twitter to discuss the process whereby 1CMBG is producing its own home-brew wargame. The thread is well worth a read!

There’s also an update:

Reflections on gaming not-Ukraine

I’ll start this post with a three caveats.

First, there are stark limits as to what any wargame “not about Ukraine” can teach you about the current war in Ukraine, especially a commercial hobby or entertainment game.

Second, as Nicholas Moran noted in a recent video, it is tempting to draw conclusions based on the images and videos available on social media and elsewhere. However, this is problematic in many respects: not only do they represent only a very small part of what is going on, but most have been recorded, edited, and disseminated in support of various narratives.

Third, there are some wargames focused on the current war in Ukraine out there that may offer valuable findings. Here, I am thinking of the recent wargame conducted by James Lacey, Tim Barrick, and Nathan Barrick and their colleagues at the Marine Corps University (with participation from the wargaming cell at the Canadian Joint Warfare Centre). PAXsims also featured an earlier piece on wargaming the Ukrainian crisis back in 2014, when the Donbas war started.

Having said all that however, I want to reflect on two sets of “not Ukraine” wargames I was involved in that did generate some interesting insights, viewed in the context of recent events.

The first was a series of tactical miniatures games in 2020 in which I served as umpire. These used 1:285 microarmor, a hybrid, updated set of the old Wargame Research Group “modern” rules, and Zoom to allow distributed play and ground level cameras for “fog of war.” All of them looked at a potential Russian invasion of Estonia, pitting most or all of a Russian battalion tactical group (represented on a 1:1 scale) against Estonian and other NATO defenders. Most of the participants were Canadian or British defence analysts, who look at modern warfare for a living. A central part of the process of what we were doing was trying to understand what was and was not changing in modern high-intensity conflict.

Some things we got right. Even mechanized forces still struggle with woods and mud. The ISR capabilities provided by modern UAVs can be a powerful force multiplier.

Other aspects were prescient: light or dismounted infantry could do real damage with ATGMs, despite explosive reactive armour (ERA) and active protections systems (APS).

Still other things we got wrong. Russian artillery can be devastating, but in our games the Russian military was far more adroit using it in a fluid battlespace than seems to be the case in Ukraine. Much the same could be said about Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. Fundamentally, therefore, we assumed that Russian C4I was far more agile and capable than it seems to be in Ukraine. We assumed that thermal sights, APS, and other systems were more widely installed in Russian armoured vehicles than appears to be the case. We overestimated the availability of other capabilities, such as sensor fuzed submunitions. We also overestimated morale and subunit performance. Finally, like most tactical games, we didn’t model the effects of supply and maintenance.

I also took part, generally as a RED or BLUE team leader, in a series of day- or days-long games last year that looked at influence operations in a “not-Ukraine-but-rather-like-Ukraine” setting. These were undertaken for a serious purpose, namely to explore how one could model messaging and influence, and the effect of non-kinetic operations more broadly, rather than trying to understand any particular country or conflict. The game did this by creating an independent social media community, with participants assigned social, ethnic, and political backgrounds but otherwise free to interact as they wished. The teams then sought to influence this “jury” to advance their favoured discourse and narratives in support of their broader their strategic goals.

Not everything went right here either, but that was expected: the whole point of the exercise was to develop the methodology. Overall I think the designers and sponsors should be proud of what they achieved, which really did generate a dynamic and responsive social media environment.

In these games, a team was most successful when:

  • they were quick off the loop, getting inside the other side’s informational OODA (decision) loop;
  • they crafted stirring or witty messages that addressed real grievances, fears, and events;
  • they targeted different communities with different messages;
  • messaging was multi-faceted and pushed along multiple channels, but linked to a convincing set of narratives.
  • influencers responded to, built upon, worked with, and even adopted memes, themes, and narratives that emerged organically within key communities.
Above, Bobr the Beaver from the not-Ukraine influence game. Below, the Ukrainian National Guard tweeting cartoon cats.

In short, what worked looked very much like what has worked for the Ukrainians in the current war, right down to heroic leaders and cute memes. While the dynamics of influence have been changed by the internet and social media, I have been struck that good messaging hasn’t changed that much at all: it would be recognized by the propagandists of WW II, a most every advertising writer or political campaign advisor of the past century. No technology in the world is going to make your influence operation work if the basic messaging is weak.

Thinking about doomsday

At the Washington Post, Matt Kirschenbaum has an excellent piece exploring why we contemplate frightening futures.

When you read news analyses with titles like “Four Ways the War in Ukraine Might End” or “Four Scenarios for the Pandemic’s Next Act,” you’re reading a genre that originated in 1950s-era Cold War think tanks, collectives of brainiacs whose jobs were to think the unthinkable — and to think it not just in the abstract, but to play it out, step by step. In such speculative games, World War III has already been fought and refought a countless number of times, whether with pen and paper on legal pads or with computer chips. These games for thinking the unthinkable were known as scenarios to the people who played them. Because a nuclear war could only ever be rehearsed as a hypothetical, think tanks like the RAND Corporation treated the current geopolitical matrix as a kind of jukebox, constantly arranging and rearranging variables to work through endless permutations of possible futures. None of the scenarios would ever be exactly right, of course, but they allowed the nuclear war planners — who may have been only deceiving themselves — to believe they had some control over events. As the history of this genre proves, scenarios can’t predict the future, but they can help us come to terms with the anxiety of a volatile present.

Scenarios are instruments for war planners and policymakers, but they are also forms of fiction. They tell stories about what might be, about possible worlds. Often, the think tank scenarios went into great detail about the chain of events that could trigger a nuclear war, inventing plot twists and developments that could be mistaken for newspaper headlines. Historian Peter Galison aptly described them as “state science fiction.” Eventually, the scenarios began to leak out of the Cold War think tanks and became woven into the fabric of popular culture. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Dr. Strangelove,” was the first glimpse for many of this dark, twisted world of “fail safes” and “mineshaft gaps.” The character of Strangelove was based on a real person, the nuclear wargamer Herman Kahn who was working for RAND when he wrote a 700-page treatise called, modestly, “On Thermonuclear War.”

Kahn’s was a specialist text, but by the 1980s, thinly veiled nuclear war game replays had become improbable bestsellers. A surreptitious glance at a fellow commuter’s reading matter might have revealed a paperback copy of “The Third World War: August 1985” (1978) by retired British NATO general Sir John Hackett, or Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” (1986), which narrated a similar Soviet offensive into Western Europe with an ensemble cast that was (not quite) worthy of Tolstoy. Both books were bestsellers that spawned dozens of imitators, helping to inaugurate the techno-thriller genre, which has proved its vitality in the face of rising global tensions: In 2018, Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear affairs expert, published a “speculative novel” entitled “The 2020 Commission Report On The North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The U.S.”Presented as the faux government document of its title, Lewis’s novel unfolds an alarmingly plausible series of missteps in which the then-incumbent Trump administration blunders into a nuclear exchange with Kim Jong Un. (Lewis makes the bold literary move of narrating the aftermath of the nuclear attacks using descriptions quoted from Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.) Other recent fictive outings have covered possible conflicts between the United States and China, and even Putin’s Russia — no less a literary light than Ken Follett, who recently tried his hand at the genre in his 2021 potboiler “Never.”

He concludes:

Through fiction and storytelling, scenarios prepare us for a range of possible outcomes, from the everyday to the apocalyptic. The future, we trust, will eventually conform to one of them, more or less, somewhere along the spectrum. And when it does, having already read the story once, we’ll be that much more ready for it. If someone somewhere is able to nod and declare, “I told you so,” then the scenario is also the implicit promise that we’ll be around to hear them say it at all.

You can read the full article at the link above.

Operational-level wargaming and negative learning

On Twitter, Yuna Wong raises some concerns about negative learning from operational-level wargaming:

Click the “full conversation” link in the tweet above to see everything she had to say, as well as the responses.

Mason: Designing public safety games and tabletop exercises

At the LECMgt blog, Roger Mason discusses designing public safety games and tabletop exercises.

Public Safety organizations employ tabletop style exercises to train their personnel. These exercises provide a flexible and cost-effective system to simulate a variety of critical incidents. This article will discuss how to design tabletop exercises and the next level of simulation complexity, wargames. I will discuss the uses of these exercises and the common and unique characteristics of each.

We will explore five steps for designing a game or exercise and how to validate the design. Some people maintain that tabletop exercises are simple to design because they appear to be simple. There may be more to designing a tabletop exercise or wargame than some people believe.

It’s a very useful overview of the process and considerations involved and well worth a read.

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Sally Davis has put together a set of digital flashcards to support discussion of diversity and inclusion in the workplace—especially around the challenges that may be faced by LGBT+ colleagues. You will find it here.

Click the card to get more information on the possible challenges. Click “deal new cards” to generate a new combination. Use a browser other than Safari for best results.

Visualising War on wargaming

The Visualising War project at the University of St. Andrews has recently featured two podcasts on wargaming.

Wargaming in a Brave New World (SE01 EP14, 4 July 2021)

How do crisis simulations help us understand strategy and decision-making processes?  Crisis simulation exercises can take many forms, from complex live wargame events to on-screen and multi-week crisis scenarios. What is the role and utility of crisis simulations in the understanding, teaching, and making of strategy? Can wargames be used as a predictive tool, or should their utility be centred around training purposes? How are wargames and simulations adapting to an increasingly online workspace? 

James Fielder, Founder, Liminal Operations and Adjunct Professor, Colorado State University

Dr James “Pigeon” Fielder teaches political science at Colorado State University, where he researches emergent political processes through tabletop, live-action, and digital gaming. He founded the corporate wargame consultancy Liminal Operations and writes for Evil Beagle Games. Find Pigeon at @j_d_fielder

Paul Vebber, Assistant Director, Wargaming and Future Warfare Research, US Navy

Paul Vebber is a lifelong hobby wargamer and co-founder of Matrix Games. He currently works for the US Navy as a civilian focused on wargaming in support of technology development and associated employment concepts.

Yuna Huh Wong, Defense Analyst, Institute for Defense Analyses

Dr Yuna Huh Wong is a defense analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. At IDA she is currently involved in cyber wargames; as well as tabletop exercises and studies to support the Joint Staff. Find Yuna @YunaHuhWong

Felipe Cruvinel, PhD Candidate, School of International Relations, University of St Andrews

Felipe Cruvinel is a PhD candidate at St Andrews, 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 @FCruvi 

Let’s Play: War, From Rome’s Gladiators to Warhammer (SE01 EP15, 5 July 2021)

What are the cultural legacies of visualising war through wargames?  Wargames are not a new phenomenon; in military exercises, as tactical plays tested on maps and as entertainment spectacles, wargames have been with us from ancient times. Studying wargames allows us to better understand the fog of war, as well as giving us nuanced insights into the processes by which military strategy is visualised and drilled into the martial and civilian body. How do we game war? And what does the history of wargaming tell us about its use today?

Aggie Hirst, Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, King’s College London

Dr Aggie Hirst’s work focuses on international political theory and critical military studies. She is currently Principal Investigator on a Leverhulme Trust and British Academy funded research project exploring the US military’s use of wargames and simulations. 

Alice König, Senior Lecturer and co-lead of the ‘Visualising War’-project, University of St Andrews

Dr Alice König’s research is centred on intertextuality and socio-literary interactions, attitudes to and the transmission of expertise, science, and war. Currently, her focus is on the Visualising War Project, exploring how war narratives interact and form throughout history. Find Alice @KonigAlice

Aristidis A. Foley, PhD Candidate, School of International Relations, University of St Andrews

Aris Foley’s research combines political and critical theories with dystopian literature, exploring the notion of Critical Dystopianism. He is an avid painter of wargame models, a hobby which has engaged him for 18 years. Find Aris @ares_miniatures

Katarina H.S. Birkedal, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Classics, University of St Andrews

Dr Katarina Birkedal’s work focuses on the politics of storytelling. Her research centres an embrace of interdisciplinarity and multiplicity, of voices and approaches. She is currently working on bridging disciplinary silos to further our understanding of war stories and their social and cultural impact. Find Katarina @Kat_in_a_Birch

You can find a full list of these and all other episodes at the link above.

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

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

Specifically they identify “four keys to better wargames”:

Focus on the Narratives

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

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

Plentiful Parties and Overlapping Objectives

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

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

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

Whole-of-Government cannot be Controlled by the Military

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

Games Should Seek a Position of Continuing Advantage

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

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

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

h/t Scott Cooper

Building a climate change megagame (Part 3)

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

Concluding thoughts

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

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

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

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

2.     The eternal challenge of playable realism

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

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

3.     Recruiting and maintaining a committed and diverse design team

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

4.     Going digital

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

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

5.     The importance of good debriefing

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

6.     Future development

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

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

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

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

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