Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming publications

UK MoD: Wargaming Handbook


The Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the UK Ministry of Defence has just issued their new 98 page Wargaming Handbook—and it is available as a free download.

In the preface, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff notes:

Wargaming is a powerful tool. I am convinced that it can deliver better understanding and critical thinking, foresight, genuinely informed decision-making and innovation. Sir John Chilcot’s report highlighted
these very themes. I have also been struck by how important wargaming is becoming among many of our allies and partners. It allows those involved to experiment and learn from their experiences in a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment.

I wish to reinvigorate wargaming in Defence to restore it as part of our DNA. Historically the UK military was accomplished at wargaming but this culture has largely been lost. Where it exists, it is ad hoc and uncoordinated, with demand outstripping existing expertise. We must seek to regenerate this culture and the associated skills among our people – military and civilian alike – at all levels and in all areas of our business. This effort requires everyone’s participation and encouragement, but particularly at senior levels.

The Wargaming Handbook is the first publication of its type in Defence. It is an important element of this initiative and a key resource for us all. I commend it to you.

The Handbook contains chapters on:

  • Introducing wargaming (Chapter 1)
  • Wargaming fundamentals (Chapter 2)
  • Wargaming types, variants and contexts (Chapter 3)
  • Wargaming process (Chapter 4)

…plus annexes on “Applying wargaming to Defence problems” and “Further reading and information.” It is extremely instructive reading, and will certainly be a seminal resource in the professional wargaming community for many years to come.

PAXsims gets a few mentions too!

Jensen: Wargaming the changing character of competition and conflict

SB4.png And there’s still more on wargaming at the Strategy Bridge! Today it is Benjamin Jensen (Marine Corps University) on “#Wargaming the Changing Character of Competition and Conflict” —and it’s not so much an article as it is an invitation to readers to participate in a series of collaborative online wargames over the coming year:

Over the next year, as a part of an ongoing series on #wargaming, we will return to Moltke’s vision of a series of map exercises that illuminate the changing character of war and, in the process, help the military professional develop new theories of victory.  Every month #wargaming will feature a vision of the next war by publishing a campaign-level decision game.  These short, seminar-style games are designed to help national security professionals think about multinational  campaigns and major operations possible, but not necessarily probable, in the near future.  These modern map exercises can be played individually similar to a tactical decision game, or used by a group to discuss military strategy and practice.

The games in this series will be take the form of short, seminar games that can be conducted by collaborative networks of individuals sharing their ideas or in small groups.  The games will establish a scenario and available forces.  Based on this initial data, readers can discuss military options, possible adversary countermoves, and the resulting cascading effects.  These discussions provide a vehicle for the national security professional to visualize and describe the changing character of war.

Jones: Communicating uncertainty in #wargaming outcomes


Another day, another wargaming article at The Strategy Bridge! This time it is Mark Jones Jr. on  “Communicating Uncertainty in #Wargaming Outcomes.”

If a game were played one hundred times, would the outcome be the same every time? On the one hand, we do not expect the tactical results of this game to appear identical, but would the strategic outcomes appear consistent across countless repeats of game play? Is there any chance that strategic outcomes would vary? If so, how much? It’s certainly expected that small variations of the strategic outcomes may appear in repeated wargaming, but is it plausible to believe that some percentage of outcomes would suggest a completely opposite strategy or strategic outcome? These questions are what we mean when we ask, “How much confidence do we have in the outcome?” Unfortunately, we are ill-prepared to answer this question but not for dearth of tools and technology to make such assessments. Instead, there is a chance that most of us would not accurately comprehend such a confidence statement. This occurs largely because of a lack of shared understanding of a shared language of confidence and uncertainty. To help us build a vocabulary for answering these questions, I would like to propose three foundational rules. First, we should express wargame outcomes both qualitatively and quantitatively. Second, we should attempt to describe the range of possible outcomes. Finally, we ought to assess the frequency of potential outcomes.

Oh, and if the game in the graphic header looks familiar—it’s from Alex Langer’s prototype wargame on the Syrian civil war (one of the best insurgency wargame designs I’ve ever played).

Rothweiler : Wargaming for strategic planning


It’s Wednesday, and the Strategy Bridge features yet another article in their week of wargaming analysis and discussion. This time it is Krisjand Rothweiler (US Army War College), who addresses “#Wargaming for Strategic Planning.”

Wargaming in most Department of Defense contexts consists of the action-reaction-counteraction of the Joint Operations Planning Process and is usually the first thing that comes to mind when this tool is mentioned. A close second to “planning” wargames are exercises conducted at the tactical and operational level, often also called by the same name. However, both these fail to consider strategic decision making exercises. Strategic decision making exercises can be described broadly (though not exclusively) as wargames, either seminar or matrix, which leverage gaming tools such as dice, cards, or boards and tokens to facilitate the process. These games are applicable to strategic planning, but are generally limited to academic (including military) institutions or small cells in strategic organizations due to the specialization required to construct and run such games. What this essay aims to do is introduce to planners and analysts the broader concept of wargaming while highlighting the utility of these alternate methods in planning and supporting military leaders.

He goes on to discuss seminar games, matrix games, and other approaches—and even cites PAXsims in the process. He concludes by noting:

Wargaming is not just a planning process step for military staffs but includes a variety of methodologies that are useful in informing strategic decision making and aiding in the development of strategies and contingency plans prior to or during detailed planning. By bringing wargaming into the planning process early and often, a staff can enable the inclusion of a wide variety of information and escape the often-hyper-focused mentality that comes at the initiation of a headquarters planning process. Finally, for those potential wargame sponsors, there are numerous military, academic, and private capabilities to enable the design, execution and analysis of wargames to address their objectives.

Brynen: #Wargaming unpredictable adversaries (and unreliable allies)

SB2.pngAs part of a week of articles on wargaming, the Strategy Bridge today features a piece by me on “#Wargaming Unpredictable Adversaries (and Unreliable Allies).”

One challenge in wargaming, and especially political-military (POL-MIL) games, is how to best model the behavior of unpredictable, even apparently irrational, foes. Is the mercurial behavior of North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, or Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army truly irrational, or is it a simply the product of a very different set of interests and objectives sustained by a very different world-view? To what extent do seemingly erratic aspects of their strategic behavior derive instead from factors we don’t understand well, such as internal politics or decision-making process? It has been well established since the POL-MIL wargaming of the 1950s and 1960s that actions that one actor believes to be rational signals of intent or deterrence are often entirely misunderstood by their intended recipient, in large part because they are deeply shaped by internal decision making processes that opponents fail to appreciate or understand.[i] How do we incorporate this into wargames when, almost by definition, we do not fully understand what is going on?

This ongoing methodological challenge has acquired greater significance in the context of recent political changes in the United States. Leaving issues of political partisanship aside, it is clear that many US allies find the new Administration of President Donald Trump to be unpredictable—to the point of posing a potential threat to their countries’ core national interests.[ii] Harsh campaign rhetoric, a seemingly chaotic foreign policy making process, mixed signals, and the propensity of the President to express his thoughts in provocative tweets have left many allied policymakers scrambling to develop contingency plans in case long-established US positions or commitments are no longer credible.[iii] Indeed, even those members of the US State Department charged with reassuring nervous US partners express frustration that they are often unclear as to what American policy is on any given day.[iv] The result has been an increasing interest in some allied countries in gaming the US as a potentially unreliable military-diplomatic ally, or even—on some non-military issues, like trade or climate change—as a political adversary….

Comments are welcomed.

McDermott: Psychology, #Wargames, and the Duel


Strategy Bridge kicks off a week of wargaming articles with a piece by Thomas McDermott entitled “In the Mind of the Enemy: Psychology, #Wargames, and the Duel.” McDermott is Director of the Cove, the Australian Army’s professional development network.

In war the duel should be all.  My experience, however, is that too often it is not.  The article will discuss how linear doctrine, a lack of understanding of psychology, and ultimately poor strategy leads to a situation where ‘plans’ become an end in themselves, and not a means to win the duel.  It will suggest two ways to address this problem; the establishment of the field of psychology as a pillar of the modern profession of arms, and a reinvestment in the art of the wargame.

It’s an excellent start to the series, and well worth reading.

Review: Paddy Griffith’s Counter-Insurgency Wargames

John Curry, ed. Paddy Griffith’s Counter Insurgency Wargames (History of Wargaming Project, 2016). 91pp. £12.95pb


Griffith.jpegPaddy Griffith—military historian, lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, hobbyist, and founding member of Wargame Developments— was an influential figure in the evolution of British wargaming. In this volume, John Curry and his History of Wargaming Project have collected together materials from two counterinsurgency (COIN) simulations that Griffith developed in the late 1970s, as well as the outline of the main components of a live action exercise. Prolific COIN wargame designer Brian Train provides a Foreword to the collection, placing the wargames in the broader context of developments in counter-insurgency doctrine and practice.

If the first game, LONGREACH VILLAGE (1980), looks rather like a fictionalized British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary hunting for an IRA active service unit in a Northern Ireland border village—well, that’s hardly surprising, for such was the counterinsurgency challenge that would be faced by young British officers at the time. Today,  when most insurgencies and COIN wargames alike involve underdeveloped and failed states, it may all seem of marginal relevance. After all, this is not a setting where there are major impediments of poverty, language, or cultural understanding. Instead the background materials outline the milkman’s daily routine, the opening hours of the pubs, banks, and shops, and details of the local farmers’ market. However, in doing so the game provides an outstanding example of the sort pattern-of-life analysis that underpins local intelligence collection and tactical patrolling in almost all peacekeeping, COIN, counter-terrorism, and stabilization operations. This is something that—with the notable exception of Jim Wallman’s BARWICK GREEN game—is almost completely absent from modern wargames on the topic , which focus instead on either local armed clashes or larger-scale operational and strategic issues. Is Mr. X acting suspiciously, or is he they simply eccentric? Is a meeting in the pub a benign collection of friends, or a plot in progress? Where can you best position an OP to observe civilian (and possible insurgent) activity without being spotted? Where should vehicle checkpoints be established? What sorts of information should you be collecting? Who might be hoarding precursors for IEDs and other weapons, and how would you know?


The border village of Longreach.

The wargame is largely played by having the Security Force and Red Cell players allocate personnel to missions, schedule their various activities, and plot their locations or routes, with the umpire then adjudicating the outcomes. The book also contains some brief suggestions for resolving some activities on the tabletop. Supporting materials include a map of the village, background information on the villagers, a list of daily routine activities, as well as the assets available to the Security Forces and Red Cell.

The second COIN exercise is SUMMER IN ORANGELAND, which envisages possible terrorist activity by the “People’s Liberation Army” in the fictional town of Dodgem-on-Sea. Any resemblance here to IRA cells (or perhaps 1970s era leftist terrorists) operating in the mainland UK would not be coincidental. In this case the primary government actor is the local police force which, in addition to dealing with a possible terrorist cell, also has to cope with a busy schedule of other challenges: planning and security for the summer carnival, a football final, a concert, gold bullion shipments, and even a royal visit. The terrorists—some of whom have decidedly Irish surnames—must plan and execute a plot before they are discovered. In typical Paddy Griffith fashion, there are a few curveballs and eccentricities to keep the players on their toes.

The final exercise, GREEN HACKLE, is a series of live-action tactical vignettes to be carried out over three days by approximately 250 Sandhurst cadets operating in a mock-up village training area. The book contains a list of scripted events, plus some photographs.

Altogether, this slim volume provides fascinating insight into British counterinsurgency training in the 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, the first two games highlight key challenges of tactical intelligence and analysis that remain highly relevant to contemporary COIN, counter-terrorism, peacekeeping, and stabilization operations. They are easily adapted or modified for classroom use, or could provide the inspiration for similar sorts of wargames set in other, rather different, political and cultural contexts.

(Matrix) wargaming to support strategic planning

Last year Murray Dixson, Michel Couillard, Thierry Gongora, and Paul Massel of Defence Research and Development Canada wrote a paper on “Wargaming to Support Strategic Planning” which describes DRDC’s study of matrix games as a tool to explore the Force Development Scenario Set used by the Canadian Armed Forces as part of their capability-based planning process:

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) capability based planning process uses a set of force planning scenarios to assess different options for the capability requirements of future forces. A good understanding of the key drivers of the scenario is important so that the subject matter experts can more fully understand and identify the capabilities required for success in it. A project is underway to investigate whether this capability identification can be enhanced through the use of various wargaming techniques. The Matrix game methodology is one that has been chosen for this research and was used in a recent series of research games. An ISIS conflict scenario was used as an explorative tool in all the games which were played out using several combinations of player types. Each iteration of the game was analysed using a set of metrics to help determine the utility of the games for the force planning application. The results are provided in this paper.

Readers of PAXsims will already know something about this, based on Ben Taylor’s thoughtful piece on serious matrix games, our game at the University of Ottawa, and our various other posts about the ISIS Crisis game that was used as a testbed for the study.

The study concludes:

As a result of these experiments a number of useful observations were obtained concerning the intricacies of organising and conducting a wargame; the value of participating in a wargame from the players’ perspective; and the potential applicability of augmenting Canada’s capability assessment efforts with one or more wargames. In terms of conducting a wargame, valuable experience in understanding the importance of the rules and structure of the game; of the principles and limits of keeping players involved in the game; and of the nature and key role that the GM or adjudicator plays in the conduct of a successful game. From the players’ perspective new players gained a greater understanding of the Matrix wargaming methodology, and more experienced gamers gained a greater appreciation of the many layers of complexity and dynamics that characterise this regional conflict. Finally, in terms of the relevance of Matrix wargaming methods to supporting Canada’s capability assessment effort, this experiment was limited by the nature of the game itself. The ISIS Matrix game is a replication of a complex, multiplayer, geo political situation. As such, it was observed to be a useful platform for introducing some of the region’s complexities to the assembled players. This would seem to have similar promise if this methodology were to be applied to one or more of Canada’s defence planning scenarios, but this clearly resides in the realm of future work.

I think Murray and the team are right that ISIS Crisis is a game heavily skewed towards political-military dynamics—in their test games, kinetic actions only accounted for slightly more than half of all player moves. Moreover, because military actions are dealt with at high level of generalization and abstraction, ISIS Crisis may not be very useful at teasing out questions of capability.


However, that is in large part a function of the scenario design: a better test of the matrix game method for capability-based planning would probably focus on military activities more narrowly, with units on the map representing clearly-defined assets rather than indicators of relative combat power, and a more rigorous time scale for player actions.

On the other hand, as DRDC’s RCAT playtest suggested, some of DND’s current Force Development Scenarios probably hinge far more on political and other non-kinetic actions than is intended. Political-military matrix games as useful for pretesting and refining planning scenarios, and could certainly be used to generate vignettes that could then be explored in greater detail through a capability-based matrix game, another type of wargame, or other forms of analysis.

The DRDC report also offers some interesting insight into the challenges of game adjudication (in the MAGIC 1 playtest they describe, where I was double-hatted as both facilitator and subject matter expert, left an impression among some of heavy-handed adjudication), compressed vs extended playtime, the ease of learning the rules, and other issues. It is very helpful reading for those considering using matrix games as an accessible method for wargaming complex problems.


Pettyjohn and Shlapak on obstacles to reinvigorating defense wargaming


War on the Rocks features a piece by Stacie Pettyjohn and David Shlapak (RAND Center for Gaming) on the obstacles confronting current efforts by the US Department of Defence to reinvigorate wargaming:

These are laudable goals. Nevertheless, creating, orchestrating, and observing recent games across the Department of Defense — and conferring with the broader gaming community — has made us aware of a number of potential challenges. These are important to keep in mind for a reinvigorated wargaming enterprise to succeed.

Bonanza or Bust

A failure to appreciate the strengths, weaknesses, and limitations of wargames and wargamers could lead to a situation in which “bad games drive out good ones.” This is not a new concern. As wargaming expert Peter Perla has observed, wargames have often been “oversold” and “abused,” and wargaming as a method has suffered as a result. Given the current zeitgeist, this could become a problem again.

Supply and Demand

The growing demand for wargames also might outstrip the wargaming community’s capacity to successfully execute good games. This mismatch between supply and demand could negatively impact the quality of wargames and contribute to a potential backlash against gaming. The professional wargaming community may have already reached a point where the demand for games is exceeding the current supply of experienced game designers, skilled players, and other subject-matter experts vital to conducting first-rate games. As the number of wargames has swelled, the increased operational tempo also has the potential to stress organizations that are now being asked to run many small games each year instead of one large annual or biannual exercise, taxing short-handed staffs (especially if those small games need to be executed simultaneously or in quick succession).

Failure is an Option

To facilitate the dissemination of information about wargames, the Department of Defense has created a wargaming repository that will house the results of all completed games as well as information about planned exercises. Additionally, a Defense Wargaming Alignment Group is being created to ensure that senior leader priorities shape wargames while the insights from wargames inform senior leaders. These are important initiatives. But like all good initiatives, the Pentagon needs to be mindful of the unintended consequences that could emerge.

One of the main virtues of wargames is that they offer a low-risk and “intellectually liberating” environment. Yet the current effort to catalog, scrutinize, and utilize game results might inadvertently undermine this environment by raising the stakes of each game. This, in turn, could have two effects.

First, players might become more reluctant to criticize current plans, policies, and programs. For wargames to succeed, participants need to set aside parochial interests and try their best to identify, assess, and solve problems, even if their insights challenge the status quo. Increased oversight of the wargaming enterprise — and greater dependence on wargame findings to shape budgets in a time of resource scarcity — could actually make games more conservative when the intent may be exactly the opposite.

Second, organizers might exaggerate their findings to demonstrate that games are indeed the driver of innovation that many assume. Yet not all wargames uncover new insights, no matter how well-designed and well-executed they might be. Thus organizers and their sponsors need to adopt a “venture capital” model and understand that the failure to identify new solutions is not itself a failure of the game.

It’s a terrific piece, and well worth reading.

For more on current efforts to reinvigorate wargaming, see also these PAXsims posts:

Gardiner on wargaming as an overlooked educational tool

BAR.jpgThe most recent issue of British Army Review 165 (Winter 2016) contains an article by Lt Col Ivor Gardiner on the merits of commercial wargames as a tool for officer education:

Within the British Army, wargaming is primarily used as part of the Seven Questions (7Qs) of the Combat Estimate. However, it lacks a proper adversarial element. During the planning phase, the plan will become awed if most, or all, dangerous enemy actions and responses have not been articulated.

The missing aspect in British military wargaming is the adversarial. It is this aspect, and the replacement of military judgement by the use of variable factors and the ever maligned use of dice to determine outcomes, which results in much of the misperceptions directed towards wargaming. The result is usually a somewhat dismissive attitude and an assertion that it is a game of dice not much different from Risk and is more associated with ‘childish things’.

In the piece he discusses his experience using commercial wargames within the 1st Battalion the Royal IRISH, and highlights its value for staff training, complimenting battlefield studies, and force and capability development.

Historical legacy in professional military wargaming is proven. I think we can draw much from the importance ascribed to wargaming by the Prussian Army. It would be trite to say Prussian military success was based on wargaming, but nobody could deny that the emphasis placed on the conceptual and educational aspects of training Prussian – and later German – officers, partly through the medium of wargaming, did not make a significant contribution. This utility has been recognised by British thinkers such as H.G. Wells and Basil Liddell Hart; more recently strongly encouraged by Major General (Ret’d) Andrew Sharpe CBE, who retired as Director of the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) and now heads up the newly established Centre for Historical Analysis and Critical Research (CHACR). Yet we fail to fully appreciate this fantastic tool. We place an emphasis on Understanding of the environment on modern operations, yet still fail ourselves to fully Understand the value that can be added to military conceptual development through the simple and affordable medium of commercial wargaming.

You’ll find the full piece here.

h/t Tom Mouat 

On an unrelated note, if you haven’t yet completed our PAXsims reader survey, please do so—we’ll be discussing the results soon.

Baranowski and Weir on political simulations: What we think we know, and what we still need to know

upse.jpgThe latest issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 11, 4 (October-December 2015) contains an article by Michael Baranowski and Kimberly Weir (Northern Kentucky University) on “Political Simulations: What We Know, What We Think We Know, and What We Still Need to Know.” It is a very useful reminder of the need for us to be more methodologically sophisticated in examining the issue.

For political scientists looking for creative ways to engage students, simulations might be the answer. The common conception is that because this type of activity offers a unique way to convey information through active learning, student learning will consequently increase. In order to evaluate this claim, we conducted a meta-analysis reviewing relevant simulation articles published in the Journal of Political Science Education from its inception through 2013. This systematic approach examines not just whether simulations prove engaging but, more importantly, whether they are valuable learning tools. We found that the discipline needs to conduct a more rigorous assessment of learning outcomes to move beyond the “Show and Tell” approach to evaluating simulations. Upon reviewing the articles, we are able to identify how a few changes can offer better information about the pedagogical value of simulations.

They are critical of some of the assessment mechanisms used to measure the learning impact of simulations:

The good news is that most of the simulations we examined did employ some sort of empirical evaluation method. However, this is only in a very broad sense and includes essentially any sort of measurement of student engagement and learning, including student reaction papers, course evaluations, exams, and final course grades. As one might reasonably expect, in every instance except one (Raymond 2012, discussed below), the authors concluded that their evidence demonstrated the effectiveness of the simulation to some extent.

Unfortunately, much of this empirical evidence was not as convincing to us as it often seemed to be to the authors. The fundamental problem with exams, final grades, and course evaluations as measures of simulation effectiveness is fairly obvious: It is extraordinarily difficult to isolate the effect of the simulation on student learning and/or engagement. Most of us are familiar with the feeling that a simulation or some other technique really helped students “get it” in a way reading and lectures did not, but general evaluations that do not focus specifically on the simulation itself cannot really tell us if that is the case.

While it is common for instructors to set aside time after a simulation for an in-class debriefing session, it is difficult to carefully evaluate this sort of evidence and even more difficult to convey it with any precision to anyone not present for the debriefing session. This is not to suggest that postsimulation debriefings are without merit as they can provide a wealth of potentially useful information to instructors. But alone they cannot provide sufficient evidence of the success of a simulation.

For the reasons outlined above, we do not consider simulations that solely rely on grades, course evaluations, or impressionistic debriefings to provide much in the way of strong empirical evidence….

Overall, they argue that the evidence on simulation effectiveness is positive, but that more effort is needed to assess this:

Our review confirmed that, while instructors struggle to systematically evaluate simulations, a small but growing body of evidence lends support to the contention that students who participate in simulations do in fact learn more than students not taking part in such exercises.

The literature has done a better job of identifying qualitative ways that students gain from participating in simulations. The fact that students are more enthusiastic about learning increases the likelihood that they might more regularly attend classes, as noted by Gorton and Havercroft (2012). While enthusiasm can only help to engage students, it does not necessarily lead to learning. That being said, rigorous research in which the effects of simulations can be isolated and measured is not as prevalent in the literature as we hope it one day will be. In part, this may be due to the manner in which pedagogical research is designed. While none of the authors we reviewed wrote anything like “I ran this simulation and then thought I should write it up,” some of the studies led us to suspect that is how things happened. While we are glad that the results of these efforts can be shared with the larger community, seeking rigor in the discipline necessitates planning on the part of the instructor to incorporate elements such as pretests and control groups rather than including them as an afterthought.

As Baranowski and Weir note, student surveys and self-reported learning may be a better gauge of how much students have enjoyed the simulation than what they have actually learned (or, for that matter, whether they’ve even learned the right things, since simulations may also especially vulnerable to generating misleading conclusions). They recognize, however, that fully experimental methods—using a control and treatment groups, and random assignment to these—are often not feasible. Certainly I know my POLI 450 students would riot if half of them were told they weren’t participating in the Brynania simulation. However, in the absence of a Control group there’s no reliable way of determining if the opportunity cost of a simulation was really worth it, or whether students would have learned just as much through other more traditional means like lectures, assigned readings, or course discussions.

They briefly discuss some of the problems with pre/post-test assessments of learning, although I think they understate the problems of prompting, sensitization, and consequent bias. The article largely focuses on traditional learning outcomes (knowledge retention, for example), and not necessarily on other learned skills (diplomatic skills, leadership, communication, self-confidence, stress management).

Finally, it seems to me quite possible that simulations articles in general, and those that include explicit attention to assessment mechanisms in particular, are an unrepresentative sample of simulation use more broadly. Almost by definition they are written by instructors with a particular interest in simulation methods, and who might therefore be much more effective at designing and implementing simulations, as well as integrating them into course curriculum.

All-in-all, the piece is a welcome contribution to the political science literature on simulations and learning.

Ciută: Playing Video Games with IR


The latest issue of Milennium 44, 2 (January 2016) has an article by Felix Ciută (University College London) entitled “Call of Duty: Playing Video Games with IR,” in which he explores recent scholarship on videogames and international relations:

This article attempts to further develop the IR research agenda on video games. The argument starts with a critique of the narrow focus on war-themed blockbuster games of current IR work on video games. I argue that this narrow view of IR and of video games is unsustainable and counterproductive, and has led to the positioning of IR as a regime of value with an unwarranted focus on the ideological effects of video games, and also to a paradoxical closing off of its research agenda. In the second half of the article I attempt to sketch two directions of research that could help overcome these initial limitations. The first outlines the potential for the IR study of the global aesthetic economy of video games, and the differentiated distribution of its regimes of value. The second encourages the study of game-worlds as practical-theoretical spaces where a particular relationship between academic subjectivity and its objects is constituted. The significance of this argument transcends IR video games research: it has relevance for cross-disciplinary issues regarding the status of academic moral-aesthetic judgements about cultural artfacts and practices; the relationship between academic and ‘popular’ knowledge; and the potential for political mobilisation at the interface of entertainment and social critique.

While non-specialist readers may find the article rather more opaquely written than necessary, he raises some important points about both an excessive focus on military-themed games, and about scholarship on popular culture and international relations more broadly.

Simulation & Gaming, February 2016


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 47, 1 (February 2016) is now available:


The article on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in UK military training by John Curry (History of Wargaming Project), Philip Sabin (KCL) and the legendary (or mythical) Tim Price is likely to be of particular interest to many PAXsims readers:

Aim. This article gives an overview of how commercial computer game technology was introduced for training, education and decision support within the British Army.

Value of the article. It records the narrative of the introduction and development of first person shooter computer games into the British Army; an area where developments are not routinely reported outside the closed world of defence training.

Methodology. The research was based on interviews of key staff who worked in procurement at the Defence Academy of the UK and for the MoD during 2002 to 2012. The interviewees included two officers, an experienced defence contractor and a senior civil servant. These interviews were given on the understanding that the views expressed would not be individually attributable as they might not represent those of their current employers. The authors were also given access to a unique collection of documents, some of which were not publically available, but are held in the archives of the UK Defence Academy. These are cited in the bibliography.

Limitations of the article. This article cites the evidence from the time that supported the continued use of what was a radical and contentious new way of training. Since the introduction of Virtual Battle Space 2 into the British Army, further research into the effectiveness of games based training in the military has been published.

Analysis. Games based training has become a significant part of the training cycle for many parts of the British Army. These games have limitations, but are the only alternative to real operations for some types of training. However, the difficult topic of what is the correct proportion of games based training to other types? is a contested area within defence training in the UK.

Conclusions. Initial evaluations on the effectiveness of the use of computer games in preparing UK forces for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan showed they had a significant positive impact. The first experience of the British Army with these games has secured the long-term application of this technology and it is unrealistic to imagine future military training without some degree of games technology.

Global politics in historical strategy computer games


Nicolas de Zamaróczy has a forthcoming piece in International Studies Perspectives entitled “Are We What We Play? Global Politics in Historical Strategy Computer Games,” in which he explores the way that popular (gaming) culture portrays international relations. It’s already available here, and well worth a read.

Building upon current interest in studies of how popular culture relates to global politics, this article examines one hitherto overlooked aspect of popular culture: computer games. Although not prominent in the field of International Relations (IR), historical strategy computer games should be of particular interest to the discipline since they are explicitly designed to allow players to simulate global politics. This article highlights five major IR-related assumptions built into most single-player historical strategy games (the assumption of perfect information, the assumption of perfect control, the assumption of radical otherness, the assumption of perpetual conflict, and the assumption of environmental stasis) and contrasts them with IR scholarship about how these assumptions manifest themselves in the “real world.” This article concludes by making two arguments: first, we can use computer games as a mirror to critically reflect on the nature of contemporary global politics, and second, these games have important constitutive effects on understandings of global politics, effects that deserve to be examined empirically in a deeper manner.

The games he examines include various editions of Civilization (II, III, and IV); Age of Empires IIEuropa Universalis II and III; Medieval: Total War (I and II); and Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. He offers several thoughts as to how the image of international relations embodied in such games both reflects and shapes popular opinion.

Thinking about historical strategy games as a mirror forces us to reflect critically on the nature of global politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century. I attempted above to demonstrate that many of the key assumptions of these games run against much of the best IR scholarship in several domains. At the same time, however, these games would not enjoy the popularity they do if they represented global politics in a way that was too disconnected from the conceptions held by a majority of their players.

They may also shape the preconceptions of IR students:

Furthermore, IR educators have particular reason to worry about the constitutive effects of digital games, given that what they attempt to teach by day in the IR classroom may be undermined by what students are playing at night. Statistics suggest that this is not just an idle fear.

In urging further examination of such issues, de Zamaróczy also argues the need for greater methodological sophistication:

Digital games, through their strong emphasis on active participation rather than passive reception, stand out from the rest of pop culture as the medium that arguably most allows for agency, reinterpretation, and contestation. So it would be inaccurate to expect simple, direct causal effects as a result of playing digital games; the nature of the relationship is likely to be both more diffuse and less determined. Indeed, some have even suggested that instead of having a conservative effect, digital games can actually have emancipatory properties (Chan 2009; Chien 2009; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009; Lammes 2010).

This, in turn, opens the door for further systematic empirical research. Much of the existing literature in IR on the constitutive nature of popular culture, while persuasive in toto, tends to simply posit a relationship rather than seek to test it empirically. This is especially true for the few existing IR studies of digital games, where claims about, say, games’ constitutive role in militarization tend to be asserted rather than tested (e.g., Stahl 2006; Power 2007; Höglund 2008; Gagnon 2010).10 Fortunately, though, scholars in a variety of other disciplines have been developing techniques for empirically establishing the causal microfoundations between pop cultural artifacts and their constitutive effects. For instance, the constitutive effects of digital games have been assessed through survey data (Penney 2009; Wang 2010; Festl, Scharkow, and Quandt 2013), panel studies (Williams 2006), direct observation of in-game behavior (MacCallum-Stewart 2008; Payne 2009; Kafai, Cook, and Fields 2010; Monson 2012), focus groups (Schott and Thomas 2008; Huntemann 2009), content analysis (Šisler 2008; Gagnon 2010; Hitchens, Patrickson, and Young 2014), and reviews of online material posted by players (Brock 2011; Owens 2011; Pulos 2013; Braithwaite 2014). IR will develop a richer understanding of how global politics actually works if it unpacks the constitutive effects of pop cultural artifacts using empirical techniques like these.

h/t Ryan Kuhns 

Review: King, It Could Happen Tomorrow

Russell King, It Could Happen Tomorrow! Emergency Planning Exercises for the Health Services and Business. John Curry, ed. History of Wargaming Project, 2015. 152pp. £14.95 pb.

rkitcouldhappencoverRussell King has worked in a  variety of senior managerial positions in the National Health Service (England), and for some years now has specialized in emergency planning and training. In this volume he draws upon this extensive experience to offer valuable insight into planning and implementing emergency planning exercises.

It Could Happen Tomorrow starts with an overview of exercise methodology, as well as a broader discussion of how hospitals plan for disasters. King emphasizes the importance of training exercises that can be undertaken with low marginal cost, and without significantly interference in the regular daily clinical practice of a hospital or other health institution.

The volume then devotes considerable attention to what the author terms the “Autumn Leaves methodology,” based on major exercises he has run. This approach consists of a series of linked desk-top exercises, reflecting the structure of the organization where the exercise is being held, conducted in or near the actual workplace. Established institutional metrics, feedback sessions, and peer review are essential to assessing performance, learning lessons, and enhancing preparedness.

Most of the remaining chapters examine particular preparedness exercises: coping with an outbreak of pandemic disease; preparing for a wide-area event (in this case, stages of the Tour de France); shortages of key supplies; discharge of patients to free up hospital capacity for a mass casualty incident; dealing with a VIP visit; and small scenarios and problems that can be used as the basis for quick “what-if?” discussions. The latter run the gamut from the sudden appearance of the media (for unknown reasons) to reports of an armed man dressed as a cowboy in the staff canteen. Many of these “staff college” problems are drawn from the author’s experiences as a hospital administrator, although he sadly gives no indication of whether the cowboy incident is based on real events.

Finally, King discusses how institutions and managers can best learn from preparedness exercises, and how creativity might be most effectively promoted. This chapter in particular can be usefully read in conjunction with the Emergency Capacity-Building Project’s work (2004-13) on effective use of simulations to address disaster planning and humanitarian assistance, which also investigates the challenge of individual and institutional learning.

Overall, this volume offers a range of instructive examples, procedures, and helpful advice, and is well worth reading for those interested in preparedness exercises. It also marks something of a new phase in John Curry’s History of Wargaming Project, which has now begun to address non-military serious game topics too.

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