PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming news

McGill gaming update

Previous McGill gaming updates for the Winter 2018 term can be found here (March 22) and here (February 3).


The regular school term at McGill University ended on Monday, and final exams are just starting. At the moment I am in the process of grading ninety or so student debriefs from our recent week-long (April 4-11) peacebuilding simulation in POLI 450/650. They are always interesting to read, encourage students to reflect on the simulation experience, and often contain insights from the game that had not otherwise occurred to me.

This year’s conflict in Equatorial Cyberspace saw months of tortuous negotiations between the government of Brynania and the Popular Front of the Liberation of Zaharia, finally resulting in a ceasefire and agreement on principles for a future peace deal. A small United Nations peacekeeping/observer mission, composed of Ethiopian, Indian, Canadian, and German personnel, was deployed to monitor and support the ceasefire at the most critical flash-point, the contested southern port city of Mcgilldishu. In the north, a ceasefire was also agreed with the diamond-smuggling warlords of the self-styled “Free People’s Army.” Elsewhere in the country, however, conflict continued: in the south, the radical Zaharian People’s Front conducted a series of successful hit-and-run guerilla attacks against government forces near Diku, while the western city of Aiku was seized by Icasian paramilitaries. A bloody, urban-type fight to recapture it followed, looking very much like the recent  Iraqi campaign to liberate Mosul.

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The government of Brynania and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Zaharia sign a peace agreement. Left to right: brutal defence minister, genocidal dictator, nice lady from the UN, scheming insurgent, ruthless guerilla.

The result—a ceasefire and preliminary peace agreement, supported by a UN force—has been the most common outcome we have seen over the 17 years I have been running the peacebuilding simulation at McGill, although certainly not the only one. Military casualties were the highest yet, however, due to the intense fighting around Aiku and with the ZPF. Civilian casualties were also very high, with the aid community slow to respond to the complex humanitarian crisis in the south.

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More than two hundred thousand refugees fled the area during the seven months the simulation covered, although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees did well in addressing their immediate needs—inspired, perhaps, by a real message of support sent by the actual High Commissioner of UNHCR at the start of the simulation (thanks again, Filippo!).

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Students and CONTROL alike were active on Twitter throughout—sometimes seriously, sometimes less so. One of the nice things about running this game in a university setting is that the participants can be very witting in their public statements (and Titter trash-talk), without in anyway distorting the fundamental dynamics of game or undermining the learning experience.

 

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The Brynania simulation is something of a labour of love: it took up around 18 hours a day of my time for a full week, during which I read or sent 6,438 simulation emails and simultaneously monitored 118 Facebook or other online messaging forums/chats—plus Twitter. You will find a couple of video documentaries on Brynania SIMs here and here.

My POLI 490 seminar in conflict simulation has also wrapped up, although the game projects are not due until the end of the month. The seminar this year was a practice run for a full class I’ll be teaching on the topic next year, and one thing I have learned is to add some graded milestone reports to the evaluation schema to make sure that each of the design teams gets a prompt start on developing a physical game prototype and playtesting it.

This year, there are three teams, one working on a game of the Darfur conflict, another developing a semi-cooperative game focusing on China’s One Belt One Road economic initiative, and a third exploring Iraqi military operations against ISIS in west Mosul in 2017.

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The game board for One Belt One Road.

Yesterday I was involved in a playtest of the Mosul project (“We Are Coming, Nineveh”). It is simple and elegant to play, but there is a lot built into the game design:

  • pre-game planning and capability investments (especially for ISIS, which needs to decide how to defend the city before the Iraqi assault)
  • fog-of-war via blocks and dummy counters
  • area movement that coincides with actual neighbourhoods and street grids
  • terrain types (open, urban, Old City) with effects on combat, and major thoroughfares (which allow for more rapid movement if cleared of enemy forces)
  • IEDs and VBIEDS
  • coalition UAVs (and ISIS modified quadricopters)
  • snipers
  • artillery and air support
  • bunkers and fortifications
  • tunnels
  • command and control issues, including coordination difficulties between different Iraqi units and organizations
  • combined arms
  • hastily-trained ISIS recruits and child soldiers
  • information operations, propaganda, and public opinion
  • civilian casualties/collateral damage

We will see how they all pull it together when it is finished—as they are finding out, there is a lot of detail to be ironed out before a game concept becomes a polished, final reality.

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Playtesting We Are Coming, Nineveh. At McGill University, our conflict simulation course teaches the pointing skills so essential to serious wargaming.

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Advancing forces of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services towards the IED-strewn alleys of the Old City.

At our final POLI 490 seminar meeting last week, we explored the issue of “in-stride adjudication”—an issue that will be examined in detail at this summer’s Connections US professional wargaming conference in Washington, DC. Since the students have acquired considerable experience this term participating in games with some degree of in-stride adjudication (Brynania is primarily adjudicated that way; February’s DIRE STRAITS megagame involved large doses of it, and they’ve all played in matrix games that often involve a subtle sort of in-stride adjudication by the game facilitator) I thought it would be useful to get player perspectives on the issue. It turned out to be an excellent discussion, and one of the students has offered to write it all up as a white paper for the Connections conference.

Now, back to grading papers!

 

Gaming at the CIA

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Ars Technica has an update on the use of boardgames for analyst training at the Central Intelligence Agency:

Last year, the CIA used a South By Southwest festival event to reveal one of its weirdest training exercises: a series of globe-trotting, espionage-filled board games. If you’re wondering why we’re circling back to this news almost exactly one year later, we have four letters for you: FOIA.

A series of Freedom of Information Act requests, filed last June by Southern California tech entrepreneur Doug Palmer, finally bore fruit last week. The CIA has now released rules, art, and design documents for the two board games we played at last year’s SXSW.

If you’re wondering: yes, these documents include enough rules and materials to help budding CIA officers print and play their own versions of the game’s Collection Deckand Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo. Unfortunately, the released files don’t come close to printing-grade quality, owing both to low resolution and fax-grade 1-bit color. Ambitious board gaming fans will have to pick up the aesthetic slack themselves. (Here’s to hoping someone creates entries at BoardGameGeek to inspire such an effort. As of press time, no BGG entries for either game exist.)

You’ll find the full report, and some low-res images, here.

It is a subject which CIA educator and renowned commercial wargame designer Volko Ruhnke has talked about in other settings too. Here at PAXsims we have also covered the role that crisis simulations play in CIA outreach and recruitment effort.

h/t Aaron Brennan

McGill gaming update

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Looking forward to the eventual arrival of Spring at McGill.

At McGill University, the annual, week-long Brynania peacebuilding simulation is fast approaching. Most of the role assignments have been made, and materials will be distributed to members of my POLI 450 peacebuilding class on Monday. The actual simulation will run from April 4-11, and during that period I’ll pretty much vanish—I will be deep in the Brynania CONTROL bunker in suburban Montreal, fuelled by endless coffee as I monitor the activities of almost one hundred participants.

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Yes, Galasi (the capital of Carana) looks suspiciously like a remodeled Copenhagen.

Two weeks ago, I ran the “Crisis in Galasi” simulation at a conference on the urban dimensions of religious conflict organized by Prof. Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). This seemed to go well, with participants welcoming a break from the usual academic workshop process to periodically assume the roles of actors in a fictional scenario of rising religious and political tensions. The simulation saw sectarian rumours circulate on social media; a protest march that turned violent, with barricades, arrests, and mysterious gunfire; and splits between soft-liners and hard-liners in the cabinet, resulting in a political crisis and the formation of a new coalition government. At the end, there was some effort by local Catholic and Muslim officials to find a way forward that might be acceptable to all sides, but the situation remained fraught and fragile. The Matrix Game Construction Kit was used to support the simulation.

This Tuesday, I took part in a simulation run by the folks at the ICONS Project, examining corporate response to potential armed conflict in their area of operation. I can’t share the details, but the event seemed to go well.

Finally, my POLI 490 seminar on conflict simulation design continues to be a pleasure to teach. This month we’ve looked at the design of negotiation simulations (drawing upon Natasha Gill’s excellent book on the topic), as well as best and worst practices in professional wargaming (using the UK Ministry of Defence/DCDC Defence Wargaming Handbook for the former, and CNA’s 2004 study of wargaming pathologies for the latter). Students have played Islamic State: The Syria War, and Brian Train’s recently published game Chile ’73.  Next week we will look at matrix game design, and we’ll play through the Reckoning of Vultures scenario from the Matrix Game Construction Kit. Since this (like Chile ’73) is also a game about coup plotting with pre-coup and coup phases, it will provide an interesting opportunity to contrast the relative strengths and weaknesses of more rigid, rules-based approaches and more free-form techniques.

 

Review: Hostage Negotiator

The following review was contributed by the ever-mysterious Tim Price.


Hostage Negotiator. Game designer: A. J. Porfirio. Don’t Panic Games/Last Level/Van Ryder Games, 2015. USD $24.99

Hostage Negotiator is a single-player game involving cards and dice. The player plays the role of the Hostage Negotiator in a scenario where someone has taken hostages and is threatening to kill them unless their demands are met.

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The basic game mechanic is that you have a “Hostage Negotiator Tableau” on which there is a track representing the mental state of the Hostage Taker. This represents the threat level and, if the threat level is low, you get more opportunities to influence the Hostage Taker and perhaps get hostages released; or if the threat level is high, your chances of influencing the Hostage Taker reduce and the chances that he will kill a hostage increases. There are random “Terror” cards and “Pivotal Events” to add flavour and increase uncertainty.

The principal tactics are to select “Conversation Cards”, each of which has a cost in “Conversation Points” and a risk/reward payoff with regard to the threat level. The aim is to get at least half of the hostages out alive and capture/kill the Hostage Taker, or to rescue all the hostages, in order to win.

The game is well made with very high-quality components, the rules booklet is clear and well-illustrated and the scenarios are well balanced. The box is small with no wasted space and the time to play is 15 to 30 minutes.

I’m really not a fan of solo games, but the idea of someone making a game about hostage negotiation really intrigued me. There are some minor niggles with the rules (exceptions to existing rules at different times in the game), but they are generally clear and easy to follow.

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The game was tense and developed a credible narrative following the cards played. I became engrossed and, after messing things up horribly (with most of the hostages getting killed), I immediately played again – which is always a good sign. I then introduce the game to someone who really isn’t a game player but was also intrigued by the subject and it was just as much fun, if not more so, working together to decide on the best negotiating strategy.

The reason that I’m writing a review here for PAXsims is that the game struck me as a possible model for social media influence, or other “hearts and minds” effects base influence operations. The threat track could easily be modified to represent “Social Media Sentiment” or “Support for the NATO Peacekeepers” with measurable effects occurring at the points where a hostage would have been released or killed. Modifying the conversation cards into a range of different “effects” gambits would be a very useful exercise, along with working out appropriate alternatives to the random “Terror” cards.

There is a lot of interest in “social media” simulation and emulation at the moment in Defence. A number of large simulation companies are offering to replicate various social media demographic groups by the use of “AI and machine learning”. The aim is to generate a social media feed that is supposed to replicate the target demographic to such an extent that the users can try out influence strategies for the purposes of training.

My personal view is that you might be able to use “AI and machine learning” to some extent to identify useful information from a mass of background noise, but this is several orders of magnitude away from being able to replicate those feeds to a level of fidelity for training purposes. These approaches are also likely to be hugely expensive and take some years before they could possibly be effective. In the meantime, we need to train people in “hearts and minds” and “effects” on people’s beliefs and attitudes, right now. Current training consists of scripted injects into exercises that are either trivial “box-ticking” exercises or at best short-term interventions that are deliberately limited in their effects so as to avoid upsetting the normal flow of training.

I think that the process of looking at a simple and inexpensive, off-the-shelf, little game like this; with a view to modifying it to produce a manual game system for effects and influence, may have a much greater payoff than putting one’s hope in a large multi-national company’s promise of “AI and machine learning”…

I intend to try this idea out and hope to be able to report back shortly.

Tim Price

How Russia wargames

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In the latest issue of the British Army Review (Winter 2018), Steven Main explores “How Russia ‘Plays’ At War.”

Earlier this year, an announcement appeared concerning the re-opening of the War Games Centre in the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. According to the interview of the Commandant of the Academy, Lieutenant-General Sergei Kuralenko:

…after refurbishment, in the Military Academy of the General Staff is the Centre of War Games. It is a multi-media complex and, thanks to the latter, the Centre of War Games will be able to conduct inter-service war games, as well as [other] measures of an operational training nature.

In an earlier statement on the work of the War Games Centre, Kuralenko noted that:

…the reconstructed War Games Centre has all the latest achievements in the area of information technology, all the training and strategic and operational strategic command posts have been re-equipped. The conduct
of command staff and military-practical games at the aforementioned command posts to the fullest extent possible ensure the practical training of the students to assume high of ce in the Armed Forces, or other forces of the Russian Federation.

You’ll find the full article at the link above.

McGill gaming update

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It has been a good week for McGill University gaming-related activities.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a very enjoyable (and, I hope, very productive) couple of days at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Alexandria, VA. Much of the time we were discussing the ethics and crisis management simulations IFES is developing to bolster the capacity of election commissions, with the view that it is best to practice these sorts of issues in a safe-to-fail game environment. I also had time to make a more general presentation on the use of simulations and serious games (pdf here). They are a terrific group of skilled and dedicated folks at IFES, and kept me well supplied with coffee and sugary treats.  As you might expect, any place that names its conference rooms after the murder locations in the board game Clue is going to be simulation-and-gaming friendly.

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Wednesday was my weekly conflict simulation design seminar at McGill. We discussed aspects of game design (drawing heavily upon Phil Sabin’s excellent book Simulating War), and the students provided an update on the three group projects they are working on:

  • A wargame examining urban warfare in Mosul (2016-17). We had considerable discussion of how best to represent urban terrain, building types and density, urban population, transportation routes, ISIS defences (tunnels, fortified positions, various types of IEDs, human shields), and other elements in the game.
  • A wargame of the war in Darfur. This is intended to educate human rights workers, diplomats, development workers, and military personnel about the political and military logics of mass atrocity, with an eye to developing appropriate ways to deter and respond to them.
  • A strategic diplomatic/economic/military game of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. This is shaping up to be a semi-cooperative game, in which players represent different Chinese actors (for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Liberation Army, state-owned enterprises, and the Chinese private sector).

We also heard a student presentation on gaming international humanitarian law. This largely looked at efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to promote greater IHL compliance in video games, including the partnership between ICRC and Bohemian Interactive which saw the release of IHL-themed downloadable content for the ARMA series of tactical first person shooters.

At the end of each seminar, we play a game (or at least part of one, since there is rarely time to finish). This week it was the 3 October 1993  “Lead the Way” scenario from Urban Operations, in which US Rangers and Delta Force personnel try to fight there way through hostile Somali militias to secure the crash site of Super 61 of “Blackhawk Down” fame. The game does a terrific job depicting urban terrain using a combination of hexes (for outside areas) and polygons (for buildings), which is why I had selected it as a demonstration game.

While all seemed to be going well at first for the Rangers, angry Somali crowds began to slow the Americans and growing numbers of Somalia National Alliance militia began to engage US forces. The Combat Search and Rescue team grimly held on at the crash site, using the helicopter wreckage to fortify their position as they drove back waves of attackers. Eventually they started to take casualties and run low on ammunition. Overhead, AH-6 Little Birds provided much-needed fire support, but found it increasingly difficult to get a clear shot at gunmen as the streets grew more crowded with angry local residents. Finally, Somali forces closed in on the Rangers from the west, and a lucky RPG shot took down one American platoon commander and forced the rest of his unit to take cover well short of Super 61.

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The Rangers advance towards the crash site, harassed by angry crowds and SNA gunmen. Minutes later, however, additional militia reinforcements would arrive from the west (left), engaging the rear of the American force.

This week we also finished the annual McGill AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament. This was a optional activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course, and 28 of them chose to take part as one of four teams. There are class participation bonuses for taking part, for being part of the highest-scoring winning game, and for being a member of the highest scoring individual team. In order to provide a similar level of challenge, and also to optimize teachable moments, the Event deck was prepared before each game to present an identical sequence of challenges and opportunities for each group.

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The results of the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

This year, two of the games were wins, one was a narrow loss, and other was a more substantial loss. This is the third year I’ve run the game for the class–you’ll find last year’s results here.

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This year’s winning team at work in the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

Finally, we’ve sold most of the tickets for the DIRE STRAITS megagame at McGill on February 25 (although there are still some available, if you’re interested). The scenario video for the game was posted earlier today here on PAXsims.

A busy year of gaming ahead

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Well, 2018 is already shaping up to be a very busy year for PAXsims, and certainly for yours truly.

This term I’m teaching a small seminar on conflict simulation design at McGill University. This is really a dry run for a larger course next academic year—and, if that goes well, possibly a regular offering in the academic years ahead.

Starting this week, Hiba Zerrougui and I will be running an AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course. This is an optional event, in which players pick up bonus class participation credits for taking part, and an extra bonus if they win the tournament. You’ll find a report on last year’s version here.

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Next week, I’ll be in Washington DC for a couple of days to assist the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to develop serious games and simulations for training election officials. IFES does terrific work around the world helping countries with the complex procedures and mechanisms of electoral democracy, and I’m happy to lend a hand. I’ll also be doing some work with the ICONS Project over the coming months.

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On February 6, it’s off to my alma mater, the University of Calgary, to talk about the use of serious games in teaching about international development, and to run a demonstration game of AFTERSHOCK.

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On February 24, we’ll be holding a CONNECTIONS NORTH miniconference at McGill University on professional wargaming in Canada, with around 20 participants. Small as it will be, it is likely to be the biggest assemblage of Canadians to discuss serious wargame development in quite some time.

The following day Jim Wallman (Stone, Paper, Scissors) and I will, together with members of our elite Control team, be running the 3rd annual McGill megagame, DIRE STRAITS. This is a revised version of the game that Jim and I organized for the Connections UK wargaming conference back in September (and which received international coverage from BBC News). Anja van der Hulst (TNO) will be passing through Montreal so that she can take part in both the conference and the game, and she’s kindly offered to run her comprehensive approach game for my students on the following Monday.

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In early March, I’ll be taking part in a workshop on the urban dimensions of religious conflict, being organized by my colleague Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). Mick and I have worked on other conflict simulations before—including a prescient 2013 policy simulation that explored possible US cuts to UNRWA, and an educational simulation on the Syrian refugee crisis. This time I’ll be developing a multi-part crisis simulation, set in the fictional country of Carana, that will continue throughout the event. Our hope is that it will compliment the academic papers and discussion that are the main component of the workshop with some illustrative communal flash-points, conflict, and policy challenges.

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In early April, civil war will once more stalk Cyberia, as more than one hundred students in POLI 450 and POLI 650 spend a week trying to bring peace to Brynania. This will be the 19th annual running of our massive McGill University peacebuilding simulation, and I’ll spend much of the time monitoring more than 15,000 emails between the participants in my role as CONTROL. The effort that the participants put into this is truly phenomenal, especially considering how little the activity actually counts for (10% of their course grade), and is testimony to the outstanding students we have at McGill. You’ll find a detailed account of the simulation here, in an article in PS: Political Science & Politics (2010).

During the summer, things won’t be slowing down all that much. I’ve got an article, and possibly a book chapter, to write on serious gaming. There may be another return visit to Dstl—I certainly hope so, since these have been a hugely valuable opportunity to see what my UK defence colleagues are up to. I hope to be presenting at the Connections US professional wargaming conference at National Defense University in July on the results of our DIRE STRAITS experiment, and I’ll certainly be attending the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London in September.

Plus there are all sorts of game ideas germinating—some of which you will hopefully see on the pages of PAXsims in 2018. And that’s just me! Associate PAXsims editors Ellie Bartels, Devin Ellis, Tom Fisher, Gary Milante, and Tom Mouat are just as busy with their own projects too, many of which you will also see here in the year ahead.

PAXsims 2017 in review

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With 2017 now behind us, it seems an appropriate time to review some PAXsims statistics from the past year.

In 2017 the website attracted some 92,480 views from some 48,885 visitors. That’s slightly down from 2016, and similar to 2015. The number of email and WordPress subscribers continues to grow, and now stands at 389. Since PAXsims was first established we’ve had more than half a million views from more than a quarter of a million visitors.

Our visitors last year came from 172 different countries and territories, with the United States continuing to represent by far the largest share:

  1. United States 45.0%
  2. United Kingdom 11.5%
  3. Canada 9.4%
  4. Netherlands 4.3%
  5. Germany 2.8%
  6. Australia 2.6%
  7. France 2.1%
  8. Spain 1.7%
  9. Italy 1.5%
  10. Belgium 1.2%
  11. Sweden 1.1%
  12. Brazil 1.0%
  13. Japan 1.0%
  14. New Zealand 0.7%
  15. India 0.7%
  16. Poland 0.6%
  17. Turkey 0.5%
  18. Czech Republic 0.5%
  19. Russia 0.4%
  20. Portugal 0.4%

We posted 119 items to the website in 2017. The most popular of these were:

  1. FBI: wargamers are intelligent, overweight, messy, loyal, frugal, and spend a lot on games
  2. MaGCK (Matrix Game Construction Kit)
  3. Dungeons & Dragons as professional development
  4. War in Binni: another McGill megagame
  5. Wanted: wargame analyst (US DoD)
  6. UK MoD: Wargaming Handbook
  7. Request for feedback: Teaching wargame design at the US Army Command & General Staff College
  8. Reflections on (another) McGill megagame
  9. Review: Urban Operations
  10. Dissecting DIRE STRAITS

Our most popular post from previous years in 2017 was the AFTERSHOCK resource page.

We had 161 visitor comments last year. Once again, our most prolific commentator was Brian Train.

Of course, PAXsims did a lot more than just post materials online. Last year also saw the publication of the Matrix Game Construction Kit, a joint project by PAXsims editors Tom Fisher, Tom Mouat, and myself. We also ran demonstration games of AFTERSHOCK, helped design the DIRE STRAITS megagame, provided game design advice, and organized a diplomatic game on the South China Sea for Global Affairs Canada, among other activities.

Now it’s onwards into 2018!

Further Holiday Spirit…

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

 

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An entirely different perspective

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(photo Hester Rotgerink)

The following item was contributed by Dr. A.H. (Anja) van der Hulst, Senior Scientist Serious Gaming at TNO.


 

It’s 2.5 minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock is counting down. We are in Dr. Strangelove’s war-room, attempting to save the world from impending disaster. The setting is Aarhus, European Capital of Culture 2017, in a play “What if Women Ruled the World?” by Yael Bartana.

End of November, I had the honour to be part of the team of experts advising the all-female superpower government in this play.  Our government is elected on the basis of a policy of unilateral disarmament and non-proliferation. The population of our state had seen the wisdom of trying to end the endless arms race and instead had voted to spend their tax money on jobs and healthcare rather than on defence.

The play was an experimental format, basically a totally inverted re-enactment of Dr. Strangelove with an all-female government and, each night 5 female experts advising.  In my expert team; the first female general from Denmark, an anarchist from Iceland, a former member of the EU parliament who worked on the Iran nuclear deal, and a brilliant defence academic covering, amongst other things, the nuclear priesthood. Quite a few members of the crew and cast were from Israel, our Secretary of State was Palestinian.

It wasn’t the best of times for unilateral disarmament. It was a time of high tensions between the countries, our adversary a strong man leader of a super power.

Between rehearsals, sound checks and make-up, we debated intensely what would actually be our options in light of an enemy threat – given a policy of disarmament.

Then,  on stage, in front of the audience, we learnt that the adversary had broken a non-proliferation agreement and started to increase their nuclear stockpiles. What should we advise our government, should they continue to disarm and how to withhold our adversary from going all-out nuclear…

Everyone agreed we would never use nuclear weapons but there was disagreement about whether to continue with disarmament and rely on diplomacy or to suspend disarmament.

During the night, one of our allies came under serious threat of being targeted by our opponent’s nuclear missiles. Our policy of unilateral disarmament heavily reduced our options to retaliate, hence, we had given up on elements that could form a credible deterrence. We concluded that we would need to bring in international support to apply pressure and isolate our opponent and to use back channels to find out why our adversary was going on the offensive. But that would not be enough to stop him.

Obviously, one of the lines of strategizing could be to create a situation where an adversary doesn’t have to feel threatened anymore and might refrain from further activities to undermine our state and our allies and equally spend part of his defence budget on jobs, education and healthcare. Evidently, there was strong doubt whether our adversary would be receptive to a dovish narrative. So, one of the things we came up with was empowering the women in the adversary state to stand up.. In the spirit of  ‘most conflicts are more dangerous for women than for soldiers’ they would need to stand up against their own governments hawkish tendencies, rally to stop the arms race and to demand for investment in education and health care instead. Thus, cause quite some domestic turbulence and pressure. We estimated that our adversary might be much more scared of his own women rioting than of us.

Whether we actually managed to stop the doomsday clock, I doubt it. While our president was on the phone with the adversary, suddenly the lights went off and ….  Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ started to play …….

Spending two days debating with teams of exceptionally bright experts, being forced to start from a fairly uncomfortable perspective of unilateral disarmament and to actually play the scenario out in the night on stage was quite some experience, not to say a transformative one.

In war gaming, we try to come up with smart, creative strategies, but in my experience, we never really change the basic premises. Evidently, I received a fair amount of comments stating this ‘women ruling’ would be ‘crap’, as would be the idea of unilateral disarmament. Yet, it fundamentally changed my way of thinking and it still does. Shouldn’t we be far more innovative in our conflict games by challenging our basic assumptions as well as biases. Rather than just riding the waves of the growing international tensions, shouldn’t we try to create strategies that actually allow the release of some of those tensions?

 

Duffelblog on “Counterinsurgency”

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The satirical military website Duffelblog today reports on a  “Realistic new ‘Counterinsurgency’ video game lets you watch troops fuck up until you’re fired.”

An upcoming real-time strategy game is designed to let you watch your troops fuck up until you’re fired, sources confirmed today.

Titled Counterinsurgency, the debut video game from Seattle-based Green Wood Studios breaks new ground by pulling players into a protracted campaign mode with virtually no way to win. During this time, you — playing as the Theater Commander — get to witness gross mismanagement and malfeasance on the part of your subordinates until you are replaced.

“Most RTS games are about achieving measurable objectives, such as destroying the enemy team or acquiring key resources,” said Jerry Cevalos, the lead game designer, during an interview at GWS. “We went the opposite direction by instating a nebulous end-game of installing and sustaining a democracy.”

This part will certainly sound familiar for anyone who has followed the seemingly endless COIN campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere:

According to a preview of the game, despite having superior forces and materiel on the player’s side, things quickly go haywire after the campaign begins. Faulty intelligence gained from tortured prisoners leads to a missile obliterating a wedding, killing 23 unarmed civilians and a CIA asset. A shadowy, Russian-backed cartel quickly gains recruits from the angry populace, and the Red Phoenix Army is born.

Numerous pre-scripted and dynamic real-time events wreak further havoc on your command, from vehicle-borne IEDs blowing up civilians and gate guards, to special ops raids killing the wrong people, to soldiers disobeying orders or going on murder-sprees.

“You could be in the middle of stability operations in a nearby province, and a disillusioned soldier will desert his post or leak classified documents,” Cevalos explained, referring to unscripted incidents that can happen during gameplay. “And don’t be surprised if your best troops with fleshed-out skill trees quit the military and get replaced with inept morons.”

Making things worse, the insurgents are often indistinguishable from neutral non-playable characters, making accidental civilian deaths practically unavoidable. This problem is compounded by vindictive locals falsely accusing their rivals of being guerrillas, while others have no interest in ratting out their insurgent friends and family. All of these contribute to the loss of Confidence Points and bring your command tenure to its inevitable demise.

“Whether it’s sending Special Forces to train people who will later try to kill them or arresting a dozen Marines in a drug and prostitution sting, we intend to make this the most realistic RTS to date,” Cevalos added.

Syria, lies, and video games: Russian MoD edition

Well, the Russian government is at it again—that is, using modified images from video games as part of their propaganda efforts. In this case, they released images of supposed US-ISIS collaboration:

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Except, one of these was actually a modified screenshot from the mobile phone game AC-130 Gunship Simulator:

The other pictures were fakes too, drawn from videos of other incidents. The excellent open source intelligence website Bellingcat has the full story.

This isn’t the first time Russia has done this—as we previously reported at PAXsims, back in May 2016 the Russian Embassy in London used screenshots from the game Command & Conquer: Generals to illustrate false allegations of chemical weapons shipments to the Syrian opposition. (The “image used for illustration purposes” disclaimer on the tweet wasn’t added until AFTER the internet had caught them out.)

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The actual story of ISIS forces withdrawing from Raqqa has been covered very well indeed by the BBC. As for Russian chemical weapons allegations? Well, the recently leaked report of the OPCW-UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism found that Syria was almost certainly responsible for the April 2017 use of sarin nerve gas at Khan Shaykhun. A similar conclusion has also been reached by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

AFTERSHOCK and WFP

As many readers will know, all profits from the sale of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game are donated to the World Food Programme and other United Nations humanitarian agencies. We’re happy to report that those contributions now total some $2,000.

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You too can donate to WFP here.

If you want to buy your own copy of AFTERSHOCK, you will find it at The Game Crafter

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Australian Army wargaming at The Cove

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In December 2016 the Australian Army launched The Cove, an unclassified professional development network intended to encourage learning, reflection, and discussion:

The Cove is an online professional development network for the Australian Army. It is based on the theory of ‘Connectivism’. Often referred to as a ‘learning theory for the digital age’, connectivism recognises the importance of developing communities of practise to share expertise and enhance continuous learning.

The Cove is designed to connect Defence members together into a professional network, based on their professional interests and/or level of experience. We act as a medium for the sharing of experience and expertise. The Cove includes a variety of videos, podcasts, blogs and academic papers to engage all sorts of learning styles. Some of our content is guided, but most of it is designed to be self-accessed and shared.

When you first visit, you might think the Cove is an Army resource. It isn’t! We like to think of it as a ‘land resource’ focused on fighting in the land domain. As such, it should be as relevant to the RAAF and the RAN if they want to learn about operating on land.

While there is a breadth of information available on the World Wide Web, we have found that our most valuable resource is our own people. The Defence community contains a wealth of knowledge, experience and wisdom that, if shared, can help pave the way for future generations. As with any profession, the ‘Profession of Arms’ is best learnt from those who have gone before. For this reason we encourage all members to contribute their ideas and add their own voice. Active participation is rewarding and can bring about significant change.

The Cove is all about a mature and professional conversation. By using our resources, you agree to adhere to the Cove Charter. It’s simple: adhere to Army’s values. If you can’t do that, you won’t be allowed to take part. To view the Cove Charter and rules for participation, click here.

It is a terrific initiative, and very well done—especially if they can maintain a good pace of posting new content and attracting contributions and content. I’ll be following it regularly in the future.

Operation Overmatch

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Operation Overmatch is an initiative by the US Army to harness gamers and gameplay to explore the future development of weapons and systems.

According to an August 23 press release from the US Department of Defense:

Operation Overmatch is a gaming environment within the Early Synthetic Prototyping effort. Its purpose is to connect soldiers to inform concept and capability developers, scientists and engineers across the Army.

“What we want is two-way communication, and what better medium to use than video games,” said Army Lt. Col. Brian Vogt, ESP project lead with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capabilities Integration Center.

Encouraging Soldier Innovation

Through a collaborative effort between TRADOC, U.S. Army Research and Development Command and Army Game Studio, Operation Overmatch was created to encourage soldier innovation through crowd-sourcing ideas within a synthetic environment.

“Soldiers have the advantage of understanding how equipment, doctrine and organization will be used in the field — the strengths and weaknesses,” said Michael Barnett, chief engineer at the Army Game Studio and project lead for Operation Overmatch. “And they have immediate ideas about what to use, what to change and what to abandon — how to adapt quickly.”

Within Operation Overmatch, soldiers will be able to play eight versus eight against other soldiers, where they will fight advanced enemies with emerging capabilities in realistic scenarios.

Players will also be able to experiment with weapons, vehicles, tactics and team organization. Game analytics and soldier feedback will be collected and used to evaluate new ideas and to inform areas for further study.

The game is in early development, Vogt said, but interested troops can visit www.operationovermatch.com for more information.

One of the benefits of collecting feedback through the gaming environment within ESP is the ability to explore hundreds — if not thousands — of variations, or prototypes, of vehicles and weapons at a fraction of what it would cost to build the capability at full scale, Vogt explained. A vehicle or weapons system that might take years of engineering to physically build can be changed or adapted within minutes in the game.

“In a game environment, we can change the parameters or the abilities of a vehicle by keystrokes,” he said. “We can change the engine in a game environment and it could accelerate faster, consume more fuel or carry more fuel. All these things are options within the game — we just select it, and that capability will be available for use. Of course, Army engineers will determine if the change is plausible before we put it in the scenarios.”

The game currently models a few future vehicles to include variants of manned armored vehicles, robotic vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. The scenarios are centered on manned/unmanned teaming at the squad and platoon level in an urban environment. Through game play, soldiers will provide insights about platform capabilities and employment.

You will find more on the initiative at TRADOC,  Task & Purpose, and the project’s Facebook page.

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