With regard to the pandemic, there is good news now too: COVID-19 vaccination campaigns have started in many countries (although those in the developing world will face challenges in obtaining then administering vaccinations in a timely way). In the meantime, wear your mask, wash your hands, and distance!
Here at PAXsims we we had our one millionth (socially-distanced) page view today. Since the website was established in 2009, we have had over 459,000 visitors from around the world, and posted no less than 1,828 items on conflict simulation and serious games.
In 2020, we had 94,693 visitors from 190 countries and territories, viewing 176,319 pages—up 46% from last year, and our highest total yet. The ten most important countries of origin were:
United States 58.1%
United Kingdom 14.5%
A further 1,453 people subscribe to PAXsims via email or WordPress or follow us on Facebook.
The predominance of the US (and, to a lesser extent, the UK) in global discussions on wargaming and policy gaming indicated above raises an interesting question: to what extent are the challenges and processes of serious gaming different in countries with much smaller national security communities? This has been much discussed in Canada, and was raised in a recent Polish strategic studies conference too—and will be one of the topics under discussion at the Connections North (virtual) conference on 19-21 February 2021.
Of our visitors, Gallup Analytics estimates that 26% are female. Visitors are fairly evenly distributed across all (adult) age demographics. PAXsims support for diversity and inclusion was reflected in the launching of the Derby House Principles back in June, as well as our support for the Zenobia Award.
Your hard-working team of editors posted 265 items during the year. The most popular posts were:
The copy of the Transition Integrity Project matrix game report hosted on PAXsims has now been downloaded over 160,000 times—quite apart from copies at the TIP website and elsewhere. That makes it the most read wargame after action report of all time, so congratulations to TIP and the game’s mysterious designer (we know who you are, mate!) On the same topic but with a less successful outcome, PAXsims was a participant in one of the most widely-reported wargame mishaps of all time.
Ironically, we started 2020 gaming a pandemic—just not the right one. Later, however, PAXsims played a key role (in conjunction with the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces, and Defence Research and Development Canada) in the design and execution of a series of red team sessions and a day-long table-top exercise in support of Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Task Force. The latter involved some 150 or so participants from across the federal government, all ten provinces and three territories. You will be able to hear about that at Connections North too.
So there’s the PAXsims year in review. We hope you’re all well, that you’ve enjoyed the holiday season, and that all of our readers have a happy, healthy, and productive new year.
As with virtually every other hobby and industry, 2020 has been a disruptive year in wargaming, to say the least. Conventions have been cancelled, schedules altered, games delayed, time dilated. Perhaps the most lasting of this year’s legacies, however, will be that it has brought to the surface a conversation that the community has been putting off for decades: why has the hobby struggled so much with diversity and inclusion and how to fix it?
If 2020 has shown anything, it is that while the hobby still has a lot of ground to cover in terms of making wargaming a truly welcoming place, there have been some very hopeful, concrete steps towards diversity, inclusion, and experimentation this year.
This should be an issue of paramount importance to all wargamers. If you would like to see wargaming become a robust, successful, thriving hobby then you should be deeply invested in ensuring that the community is one that welcomes and encourages diverse voices.
Speaking of the hobby, he notes:
We can also confidently say that the vast majority of designers and creators in the wargaming and historical board gaming space fit into this narrow demographic category as well. This should not come as too much of a surprise considering there have long been undercurrents of racism, eurocentrism, and antisemitism lingering in the dark corners of the hobby. Even today, wargame-oriented message boards, Facebook groups, and other online communities often remain dens of unrepentant reactionary toxicity, homophobia, and misogyny. Many games still traffic in ahistorical tropes or various species of Lost Cause-ism, while others ham-handedly fumble with issues that require nuance.
However, he goes on to note signs of progress, including two initiatives that PAXsims has been involved in: the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming, and the Zenobia Award:
With that said, there have been a few very promising signs of improvement this year. Things are changing and it appears as though the community is coming to terms with some of the lingering issues around diversity and inclusion.
Encouragingly, several publishers have signed on to the Derby House Principals. Named after the headquarters of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit, a WWII-era team of naval wargamers staffed by women of the WRNS, the Derby House Principals is a statement of values that emphasize a commitment to promoting inclusion in wargaming and opposing bigotry in all forms.
While ostensibly directed at the world of professional gaming, several commercial publishers have signed on in support of the Principles, with some positive results so far. At the same time, following the events of this summer in the United States, other publishers have independently issued statements advocating for inclusion and diversity in the industry and wider community, including GMT Games, Multi-Man Publishing, and Hollandspiele.
Others have chosen to stay silent and avoid the ire of complacent fans. Of course, words alone can only go so far, but such widespread acknowledgment of the problem is more progress than has seen in a decade.
Contestants can enter for the chance to receive a cash prize – $4000 for the first-place winner – from a panel of diverse judges from across the gaming community. But, more importantly, the award also offers critiques for contestants and mentorship for finalists, something that can help to break down a significant barrier for underrepresented groups trying to gain a toehold.
With a bunch of publishing partners already signed on, this could be an excellent stepping stone to broadening the wargaming community, pushing genre boundaries, and telling new kinds of stories.
You can read the full article at the link above.
Sadly, the reader comments on the piece suggest the hobby still has a way to go before it enters the 21st century: there are the usual suggestions that broadening the community somehow is “mandated control,” feel-good political correctness, or even “communist nonsense.” Sigh.
PAXsims is pleased to offer some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to our readers. I’ve been a bit swamped as of late, so sorry for the delay!
Aaron Danis and Steve Sowards (and probably several others that I have forgotten to credit) suggested material for this latest edition.
On December 2, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Canadian Armed Forces, in collaboration with Defence Research and Development Canada and McGill University, conducted a day-long tabletop exercise on Canada’s vaccine rollout plans involving more than 150 participants from eight federal government agencies, all ten provinces and three territories, and the Canadian Red Cross. This TTX was proceeded by a week of “red team” exercises to identify potential contingencies and undertake a preliminary risk assessment.
At some future point we may write something up about it for PAXsims. You will certainly be able to hear about it at the next Connections North conference, which will be held online on 19-21 February 2021. Save the date, and look out for the conference and registration details soon at PAXsims.
The Office of Emergency Management helps organize and protects elections in Philadelphia, preparing for everything from power outages to bomb scares. But for this election, it also had to prepare for a disinformation campaign from the White House. For the tabletop exercises it ran before the election, the office designed mock-ups of inflammatory social-media posts from the president and gamed out its responses. Seth Bluestein, who participated in the exercises, told me, “It was uncanny how accurate they were.”
To American intelligence experts, two things have become clear: Certain parts of the world might one day use the effects of climate change as rungs on a ladder toward greater influence and prosperity. And the United States, despite its not-unfavorable position geographically, is more likely to lose than win — not least because so many of its leaders have failed to imagine the magnitude of the transformations to come.
For John Podesta, the profound geopolitical challenges posed by climate change first became clear in July 2008, not long before he took charge of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team. That month, he took part in a war game hosted by the Center for New American Security, a Washington-based research group. The room was full of people who were, like him, awaiting their chance to re-enter influential positions in the American government. Around the table in a private conference room at the Newseum in Washington, were former U.S. military officials, a former E.P.A. administrator, advisers to Chinese intelligence officials, analysts from McKinsey and the Brookings Institution and at least one European diplomat. “Let me be very clear,” Podesta told the gathering, in his assigned role as the United Nations secretary general. “Our time is running out.”
The exercise was set in 2015, with the climate crisis becoming violently apparent. A Category 5 hurricane had struck Miami shortly after a cyclone killed 200,000 people in Bangladesh. The scenario was designed by a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security named Sharon Burke, who would later become an assistant U.S. secretary of defense; her game plan suggested that a wave of climate migrants would be driven from their homes, part of the climate-caused displacement of as many as a billion people by 2050. One significant question put to the group then was how the United States, Europe, China and India would respond to that enormous migration and whether they could agree on what obligations under international law nations should have to care for migrants.
It wasn’t easy. None of the countries involved wanted to open the door to being obliged to take climate migrants in, Burke told me. The participants clashed over whether climate migrants could be called “refugees” at all, given the U.N.’s insistence on reserving that term for those persecuted or forced to flee. They wound up deciding the word should be applied only to victims of climate-driven disasters, not those suffering from slow-onset change like drought. In the end, the players were reluctant to face the migration challenges in depth — a worrisome sign that, in the real world, wealthy nations like the United States would be likely to cling to the status quo even as large-scale humanitarian crises begin to unfold. “One of the insights we got was that migration was just an absolute no-go zone,” Burke said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
The game marked a turning point of sorts in how some U.S. officials viewed the security threats posed by climate change. In 2010, in what was a rare and early official assessment of climate risk, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review warned that climate change “could have significant geopolitical impacts,” contributing to poverty, starvation, drought and the spread of disease, all of which would “spur or exacerbate mass migration.” By 2014, the Defense Department had applied the term “threat multiplier” to climate change, describing how it would make many of the security establishment’s greatest nightmares even worse. By the time Podesta went to China in late 2014 to negotiate an emissions agreement — a diplomatic feat that laid the groundwork for the Paris climate accord — he had come to believe that it was climate-driven food scarcity that posed the dominant threat to global security and to American interests. He saw that scarcity, and the migration it would cause, as leading to a fundamental, perhaps dangerous shift in the geopolitical balance of the world. “We were just at the beginning of the imagining of how big the problem was,” Podesta told me.
From February 4-6, 2020, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA conducted its unclassified Tabletop Exercise (TTX) Pacific Trident III, bringing together policy experts from the United States, Japan, Korea and other countries to examine pressing security issues in East Asia through simulated real-world contingencies.
In this TTX, Beijing served as the primary challenger to both the U.S.-Japan and the U.S.-South Korean Alliances, with Pyongyang acting as a willing “co-conspirator.” Beijing’s objectives were to undermine confidence in the U.S. security guarantee among its allies in East Asia and to achieve further territorial gains in the South China Sea. The strategy was to make multiple challenges across the region without provoking conflict. The simulated date at the start of play was August 1, 2020 with the end date as October 2, 2020—just weeks away from the U.S. Presidential Election.
The Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS) continues to host presentations from wargamin designers and scholars—including a recent presentation by Ivanka Barzashka on “Lessons Learnt from Building the King’s Wargaming Network” (below). Check out their website for past and future presentations.
Divergent Options and GUWS have partnered to issue a call for papers on wargaming in 2021. You’ll find more details at the Divergent Options website.
The U.S. Department of Defense has failed to educate generations of military officers on the skills of wargaming. Wargaming creates the environment in which uniformed leaders practice decision-making against an active, thinking adversary. Wargaming is also required by the Department of Defense’s planning process to create sound and executable plans, is inherent to designing new doctrine and operational concepts, and is a vital element in the cycle of research.
For these reasons, military leaders must have the ability to create and conduct wargames. However, the current military education process does not impart this critical knowledge.
It often happens that, when gaming a series of future events, a game within a game presents itself. The most recent example was in our game ‘The Dragon, The Bear, And The Steppe‘ (see here for more detail). This game contained a military engagement on the Caspian Sea and in south Turkmenistan between Russia, the US, and Kazakhstan on one side; and China and the Taliban on the other; with Iran intervening to act defensively. We dubbed this the ‘Battle Of Turkmenbashi 2045‘ (see here for more detail).
Without going into the detail of how we would play the Battle of Turkmenbashi as a stand alone game, the whole concept of the game within a game set me thinking about the question of nested gaming. To begin with, ought we to confine ourselves to a single game within a game? Could there be more than one? In many ways, the idea of a succession of nested games within a game is the core of campaign gaming. A situation where a single event does not necessarily shape the eventual outcome, and where subsequent events can have a more decisive impact the other way. For example, the campaign in France in 1940 didn’t settle the Second World War. From the Allied defeat came the basis for their eventual victory as fortunes eventually turned in favour of the Allies.
How would the United States respond if China or another adversary launched a missile against a vital communications satellite? Is that a clear red line that would result in an immediate military response? And what happens if the U.S. military does — or doesn’t — react?
In the past, military leaders have been better prepared to answer such tough questions than they are now. Consider that during the period between the world wars, the U.S. Navy alone conducted more than 300 wargames focused on future campaigns and tactics in addition to theater-level strategies. The Navy recognized that wargames could skewer erroneous assumptions and complacencies long before the heat of battle, and this effort very likely saved lives. Famously, Admiral Chester Nimitz claimed in the aftermath of World War II that Naval War College wargaming conducted to inform Allied planning ensured that “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise … except the kamikaze tactics.”
Now, both uniformed and civilian national security space leaders need to take advantage of space war games to prepare for deterring and defeating aggression in space. The benefits of expanding investment in space wargaming for these purposes far outweigh the relatively minor investments required to get more of them underway.
Wargaming gets a bad rep. Like reading doctrine, or wearing yesterday’s underpants, it is not something you necessarily want to admit to in public. We are coloured by our predjudices; wargaming is either the horror step of Course of Action development or something that involves buying tiny soldiers and spending weeks painting them.
That was certainly my view prior to undertaking a course on the design and use of wargames within training last summer. Having spent nearly a year designing a game for training Divisional level deception, I can say I am changed.
Wargaming presents an excellent vehicle for developing experience in thinking and decision making. What is more, is it does this with little cost, little risk and resource requirement. While I am lucky to have some future time in the Army left to incorporate wargaming into training, I cannot help thinking about the opportunities that I have missed where the use of games could have significantly helped develop those around me….
About the Position: Develops analytical procedures and simulation models. Serves as an Operations Research Analyst assigned to one of the teams in the Division. Responsible for the development, construction, and analysis of major segments of logical models of significant scope, size and complexity.
About the Position: Serves as the Operations Research Analyst for the United States (US) Army Installation Management Command (IMCOM), US Army Garrison (USAG) Ft. Belvoir. Participates with high level decision-makers in defining and establishing the war gaming methodology required to address operational and logistical initiatives or problem areas faced by the Army staff or major subordinate commands that are critical to the execution of their missions.
Details at the links above. The closing date is December 28.
CNA is hiring an experienced wargamer for its Gaming and Integration Program. They are looking for someone with significant design experience with demonstrated ability to independently design and facilitate wargames, TTXs, and workshops. This will be a joint position between CNA’s Center for Naval Analyses (the FFRDC) and CNA’s Institute for Public Research (non-FFRDC arm), so interagency experience is a plus.
Additional information on the position and application details can be found here.
PAXsims is pleased to present a selection of recently-published items on simulation and serious gaming. Some of these may not address conflict, peacebuilding, or development issues at all, but have been included because of the broader perspective they offer on games-based education or analysis.
Articles may be gated/paywalled and not accessible without subscription access to the publication in which they appear.
Andrew P. Betson, Tristan Boomer, Justin DiCarlo, Marshall Green and Adam Messer, “COVID-19 and Virtual Wargaming in the Reserve Officer Training Corps: Deadly Virus Resurrects Aged Tactical-Training Method,” Armor (Fall 2020).
The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic stopped the world in its tracks early in 2020. As unfamiliar terminology such as “social distancing” and “reducing the curve” proliferated everyday life, military leaders faced familiar (and unceasing) training requirements despite the unexpected challenges that arise from a pandemic.
At St. Louis’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Gateway Battalion, the story was the same. Universities across the city closed in March, and students were sent home, prompting the need for a new solution to fulfill training requirements. Our ROTC program’s third-year cadets were expected to be trained (or, at least practiced “P+”) in leader and collective tasks for platoon-level tactical operations and in warrior tasks and drills. With unprecedented levels of technology and communication at our fingertips, the cadre and the fourth-year cadet leadership of Gateway Battalion looked to the Prussians of the early 1800s and U.S. Army Reserve units of the 1980s for help. The result succeeded beyond expectations when it came to training our cadets.
Organizations are every day expanding their networks, increasing the number of servers and workstations in it. Such a growth expands the surface that can be tar- geted by malicious actors to cause harm. Therefore it is becoming more and more common for the organizations to create specialized teams of defenders (i.e. the Blue Team) who can monitor and protect their system. However, the fact that someone is actively hunting for malicious actors changed the balance in cybersecurity. Inter- acting with the attackers causes change in their strategies. We focused our efforts in studying the interplay between attackers and defenders, aiming at creating fur- ther studies in this new field. As the first step we tried to understand what part of the Blue Team investigations can be detected by an intruder, and we highlighted the fact that indicators of Blue Team’s OPSEC failures are the way attackers can likely achieve these results. We focused our study on the first line of defence within the Blue Team, the SOC (Security Operation Center). Using CTA (Cognitive Task Analysis) techniques we identified common OPSEC failures among SOC analysts. Subsequently, in order to evaluate the impact that such actions have on the strate- gies of attackers we organized a wargame in collaboration with Northwave’s Red Team demonstrating that being aware of the Blue Team’s presence determined the adoption of more cautious behaviour in the attacker. In order to achieve our goal we developed a new CTA technique that can be used to further study Blue Team’s cognitive processes. Additionally, we addressed a major problem within the cyberse- curity research community by developing a reusable virtual environment with built-in monitoring capabilities that can be used to create experiments that can be easily verified by other researchers.
Wargames are a fundamental part of military training. Still, wargames are controversial, with recurring cycles of appreciation and disapproval. Wargames can be defined as one conditional interaction with human players affecting simulated military actions. The purpose with this text is to examine and explain how military instructors alleviate their worries – more about handling a wargame. The text analyzes relevant publications on educational games to highlight the issue of instructors and wargames. This method is complemented by new and exploratory research, which includes grounded theory, regarding the substantial empirical the area of war games for military training. Military instructors use three strategies to achieve instructor acceptance ( instructor buy-in). A majority of the instructors strive to avoid explicit gameplay (gamification ). This avoidance constitutes a explanation for the change or cessation of certain wargames in military education. For this reason, it is vital that military instructors have an understanding of instructor acceptance to strengthen the practice of wargames. [Google translation of Swedish summary – article in English]
Mark Flanagan , Adrian Northey , Ian M Robinson, “Exploring tactical choices and game design outcomes in a simple wargame ‘Take that Hill’ by a systematic approach using Experimental Design,” International Journal of Serious Games 7, 4 (December 2020).
Experimental Design (ED) technique is a proven analytical method used in the chemicals industry. We have taken this approach and applied it to Phil Sabin’s ‘Take That Hill’, a simple wargame presented at Connections 2014. By evolving the tactical turn game choices into playable full-game strategies, a descriptive set of game outcomes can be delivered and optimised to produce winning strategies. This provides a systematic approach to testing a game, with full post-game deconstructive analysis which is capable of being used to identify flaws, and find optimal strategies in playing the game. The most successful strategies found by ED outperformed individual strategies developed by experienced players. ED allowed pairing of obvious good play with seemingly counterintuitive play that were found to work well in unexpected combinations.
This book is about the challenges that emerge for organizations from an ever faster changing world. While useful at their time, several management tools, including classic strategic planning processes, will no longer suffice to address these challenges in a timely and comprehensive fashion. While individual management tools are still valid to solve specific problems, they need to be employed based on a clear understanding of what the greater challenge is and how they need to be combined and prioritized with other approaches. In order to do so, companies can apply the clarity of thinking from the military with regard to which leadership level is responsible for what and how these levels need to interact in order to produce a single aligned response to an outside opportunity or threat. Finally, the tool of business wargaming, while known for some time, proves to be an ideal approach to quickly and effectively bring all leadership levels together, align them around a common objective and lay the groundwork for effective implementation of targeted responses that will keep the organization competitive and in the game for the long run.
The book offers a comprehensive introduction to business wargaming, including a historical account, a classification of different types of games and a number of specific real-world examples.
This book is targeted at practicing managers dealing with the aforementioned challenges, as well as for students of business and strategy at every level.
Simulation-based education (SBE) is a teaching strategy in which students adopt a character as part of the learning process. SBE has become a fixture in the university classroom based on its ability to stimulate student interest and deepen analytical thinking.
Simulations and Student Learning is the first piece of scholarship that brings together experts from the social, natural, and health sciences in order to open up new opportunities for learning about different strategies, methods, and practices of immersive learning. This collection advances current scholarly thinking by integrating insights from across a range of disciplines on how to effectively design, execute, and evaluate simulations, leading to a deeper understanding of how SBE can be used to cultivate skills and capabilities that students need to achieve success after graduation.
A war game simulating a large scale outbreak of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip underscored that Israel has no way to prevent a spread of the pandemic in Gaza, but it can take steps to alleviate the situation. Among the principal proposals: Israel should already transfer vital medical aid to the Gaza Strip; work with the World Health Organization and other relief agencies to mobilize medical resources for the area; avoid obstructing any initiative to establish an emergency government by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; and prepare to set up emergency assistance infrastructure on Israeli territory adjacent to the Strip.
The outcomes of military campaigns depend to a large extent on the support of local and other wider population groups, so it is important to understand their perceptions. Here we briefly describe the approach used to represent support for organizations and factions in a professional wargame designed to represent military campaigns. This specific approach was developed originally using a simple marker track system that used a basic quantified set of relationships between military campaign effects and changes to the track levels. This marker track system was developed for military campaign wargames in the UK as a means to portray support or dissent in population groups relevant to the operations, but there was originally no mechanism to drive changes other than by expert judgment. Our improved approach continues the use of marker tracks but attempts to develop a more defensible method based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for linking events to changes and levels on the tracks. We conducted experiments to quantify the relative importance of each element in Maslow’s hierarchy. We then continued by conducting a further experiment to identify the impact of a set of effects seen in a wargame against the Maslow elements. This has led to a set of quantified scores that may be used to drive the modifications to the marker tracks when wargame events occur. These scores are based on our initial experiments and may be updated for a specific application, perhaps for a specific setting or location in the world. The revised or enhanced approach aims to produce a transparent solution that can be understood by a military or security analyst, thus facilitating refinement, updating, and change.
Sawyer Judge is an Associate Research Analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), a recent graduate of the Georgetown University Security Studies Program, and a fellow for the United States Naval Academy’s Naval History Wargaming Lab.
As part of her fellowship for the United States Naval Academy’s Naval History Wargaming Lab, she is running a series of Delphi Surveys which will inform our understanding of the Wargame Design Community’s views on design education. This is part of a larger study addressing the following question:
How does current wargame design education measure against the norms of higher education in artistic disciplines?
Anyone can participate, and you will be asked about your ties to the community as well as your insights and opinions.
Delphi surveys aim to move towards a coherent picture of subject matter expert (SME) opinions within a particular community of interest (COI). It is a useful tool for identifying both consensus and divergence, without running any risk of “group think.” Delphi surveys are iterative by nature, so if you participate in the first round, she will be reaching out to you again for a second survey.
Click here to complete the survey. You are asked to complete as much as you feel comfortable and willing to complete. No question is required except for your name and consent at the beginning. Learn more about the study itself, her ongoing research, and the instructions for the survey on the survey’s first page.
Please complete the survey by January 8th 2021! Thank you.
Given the current interest in wargaming and PME, here’s an interesting overview by Group Captain Jo Brick, a Legal Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and Chief of Staff at the Australian Defence College, on how games can enhance PME. Contents include:
The Intellectual Edge, play, and gaming
Overview – from the Magdeburg War Gaming Society to ‘This War of Mine’ (2017)
What effects will AI or other advanced technologies have on how we fight? New technologies are notoriously hard to incorporate into existing military operational concepts. Some change nothing, others change everything. How to identify the holistic effects of technologies like AI or other advanced technologies is a task is well suited to wargaming. After all, wargamers often consider the far flung future and provide a possible universe for study. As noted by multiple authors the lack of actual technology did not prevent study of future technologies in the InterWar period.
The report contains an executive summary explaining the high level takeaways and the Working Group method and process, and seven research papers along with discussion.
The initial chapters provide an overview of the challenges inherent in addressing specific methods for including AI and other advanced technologies in wargames. Following this discussion, the next several papers provide an overview of a range of methods to represent AI and other advanced technologies in wargames. Finally, the report closes with a discussion of some of the mathematical considerations that may allow us to address the challenges provided by AI.
Please direct inquiries to the Chair of the Working Group, Ed McGrady: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or, how screwing up as Control can teach you moral lessons.
[Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this game for free in exchange for a review.]
We Come In Peace is a free-form RPG about first contact between two alien species with no prior knowledge of each other’s existance, language, or culture. To enforce that understanding barrier, the game is played without face-to-face communication between the teams. Control acts as a go-between relaying non-verbal messages, redacting anything with too much shared understanding between humans (numerals, icons, facial expressions, and gestures like thumbs up).
In person it’s played with the two teams in separate rooms, passing notes. We played over zoom, using a separate breakout room for each team, Control hopping between the two, and a shared slide deck so the teams could go full-Arrival with their attempts at communication.
The game is an allegory for a hidden scenario that only Control is aware of (until the debrief at the end), cloaked in enjoyable sci-fi buffoonery to keep the players and teams from bringing too much cultural hindsight and understanding to the table.
That means it’s Control’s job to take everything the players say, translate it into the hidden scenario to determine the outcome, and then back into the sci-fi allegory to communicate the effect to the players. Which is hard.
This is a game I learnt to play by screwing up as Control and seeing all my mistakes—and what would have made for better gameplay—in hindsight.
How did we do?
My intrepid space explorers did not start a global thermo-nuclear war, in fact the two sides ended having established a tentative trade agreement and cultural exchange…though one side thought they’d sent a hostage into orbit for four days and the other side planned to abandon their scientist planet-side indefinitely, effectively kidnapping the local…I think it’s safe to say we stored up a bunch of slower-time cultural collision consequences that would have ended badly for one side.
The teams did pretty well at establishing peaceful intentions, starting out sending mathematical sequences and sharing their words for basic chemical elements. We had a brief exchange of charades “we’re going to land our shuttle craft now, on that spot there…” before an historic meeting of both peoples and exchange of gifts. The subsequent trade negotiations almost caused an Incident when the message, “we’re sending two shuttles to harvest resources now, on these spots here and here…” was briefly misinterpreted as “they want us to leave our planet?!!” but cool heads prevailed.
It was interesting to watch the thought-process behind the communications with one team, and then hop across to the other team with the image and see their thought-process trying to unravel the message. The planetary civilisation were keen not to lose their new friends too quickly, so sent a message asking them to stay at least four days. The explorers got the days and the four, but didn’t know what to make of the rest so planned to do a midnight-flit on the third day to be sure of avoiding any unfortunate consequences of over-staying their welcome. That was the biggest misunderstanding we had.
Peace in our time, then?
Secretly we were all a little disappointed we hadn’t at least come to the brink of war.
My first thought was is this what happens when you put women in charge? Instead of establishing dominance, both sides tried extremely hard to understand the other side and understand how they might come across to the other side—gasp, leaders doing the emotional labour for a change…
My second thought was wow, this game is hard to be Control at. I was prepared for thinking on my feet, trying to relate the player actions to the hidden scenario. In doing that, I failed to communicate to both teams the sense of fear and isolation about their situation that should have been motivating a lot of their actions. The stakes of our game were we’ll make friends? when it should have been you face death and/or cultural extinction. The scenario is set up to pivot to that fear if one side opens fire (spoilers: the teams are wildly asymmetric) but neither side came close to aggression, and I really struggled to know if or when I should let on you can basically do what you want with impunity here. In hindsight I should have—but it’s also not that simple.
I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say the allegory is about racism—literally every alien encounter in science fiction is about how we treat people who are different to us.
But the game wouldn’t work with me just saying “haha you guys have all the power here,” because white supremacy and colonialism (and misogynism, and homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc) is fear-based: a fear that the oppressed group would do all the same bad things if the tables were reversed—that slaves would enslave the slave-owners if they were granted freedom instead of just, you know, living free. That women would treat men like chattle and unpaid household/caregiving labour if the patriarchy were dismantled, instead of just, you know, being equals. Supremacy feels precarious.
I didn’t want to dictate how the teams felt about each other. I thought that would be me influencing the game too much. I was trying to let the players decide how to react emotionally—and that was a huge mistake. I failed to communicate xenophobia to the teams: I was too focused on presenting the information neutrally within the allegory—what the equipment translated to—and I failed to account for the system and assumptions present in the hidden scenario that my players simply didn’t bring to the table because of politeness, decent-human-being-ness, Derby House Principles, or the game being majority-women and women being socialised to perform the emotional labour of any encounter.
In effect I ran a game of I don’t see colour.
By not manipulating the teams, our invented worlds didn’t include the seeds of racism to spontaneously generate cultural misunderstanding: both sides were too open to the other side being actual human beings like them, not less-than.
Racism doesn’t happen in a vacuum: people are indoctrinated into assumptions they don’t even perceive as racist. I don’t see colour only works in a world lacking existing injustice.
The default of the current system is the reproduction of racial inequality. To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs for white people to be really nice and carry on – to smile at people of color, to go to lunch with them on occasion. To be clear, being nice is generally a better policy than being mean. But niceness does not bring racism to the table and will not keep it on the table when so many of us who are white want it off. Niceness does not break with white solidarity and white silence. In fact, naming racism is often seen as not nice, triggering white fragility.
We can begin by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race. We can attempt to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or through unequal relationships. We can insist that racism be discussed in our workplaces and a professed commitment to racial equity be demonstrated by actual outcomes. We can get involved in organizations working for racial justice. These efforts require that we continually challenge our own socialization and investments in racism and put what we profess to value into the actual practice of our lives.
This takes courage, and niceness without strategic and intentional anti-racist action is not courageous.
I had a conversation at work with a guy who was adamant that he treated everyone equally, and therefore was not discriminating against anyone. In fact he was quite insistant that actively making space for women and minorities in any opportunity was wrong and unfair and though he didn’t say the words, underpinning his argument was the assumption that making room for women and minorities would mean better-qualified men missing out. Underpinning his argument was the assumption that women and minorities could not possibly be as qualified as the men currently taking up all the space.
“Treating everyone equally”—not seeing colour, not seeing gender (or gender identity), not seeing sexuality, not seeing disability—is to deny the lived experience of being black, a woman, LGBT, or disabled: their culture, their value, and the real and tangible obstacles they have faced to get here. The reality is the women and minorities who make it to the wargaming table are very often more qualified and more able than the straight-white-non-disabled-men, because it’s been so much harder for them to get there.
So what can I do about that, as a white person, and someone who supports the Derby House Principles?
People whose careers center on examining and repairing racial inequality tend to say that being willing to see color, and talking about what it means, is one part of how white people can turn their black friendships into something that broadens their horizons on race.
We Come In Peace is a good game. It works well over zoom. We had a real mix of experienced professional to never-wargamed-before players and everybody got into it. The puzzle of how do we even communicate that intention was enjoyable to watch.
The explorer team have some great dynamics going on: it was relatively easy to establish this team’s mentality based on the breifing and sci-fi touchstones. The team breifing’s humour provided excellent direction for the players’ motivation without it feeling heavy-handed.
The planetary civilisation felt less developed in their breifing. I took this to be a reflection of them being somewhat at-the-mercy of the situation, but the fact that they didn’t clearly have a goal to pursue beyond reacting to the demands of the other side made for less interesting game play, or relied on the team to spontaneously come up with a goal in response to the arrival of this alien speicies. I suspect this is why we had a relatively peaceful exchange: our planetary team spontaneously chose the goal of mutual cultural exchange, ie of co-operation. In reality—and in keeping with the hidden scenario—they needed an overriding desire to preserve a clearly-defined way of life to create friction. Even something as simple as the aliens have shown up on a national holiday and we’re busy would have set that train in motion.
The Control guide instructions on the hidden scenario were a little vague: read up on the real-life situation on Wikipedia, and here’s a glossary for translation into sci-fi which is focused on the physical—what sending a shuttle-craft or using sensors really means in the hidden scenario. If the players invoked combat the cultural collision would be obvious. Beyond that it was lacking guidance on how to be the cultural misunderstanding. My best suggestion for how to play Control in this game is to think of yourself as the rogue unit in Arrival delivering the explosives.
This is a game I’ve learnt to play by doing it wrong the first time, and realising that my job as Control is to manipulate the hell out of both sides, to out-right lie to them about the other side’s actions and perceived intentions—because ultimately this is a game about the clash of two different cultures, and when both teams are actually made of humans with the same culture, that clash and wild misunderstanding is not created by pictionary alone; both sides are operating from the same concept of what good intentions look like.
I thought my job was to be a neutral party and see if they do or don’t start a war by accident. I see now my job is to do my best to cause friction at every turn and see if both sides can tell cultural collision (my manipulation) apart from hostile intent.
The Educational Wargaming Cooperative (EWC) “works to advance the teaching and application of wargaming within university and professional military curricula by fostering collaboration between educators.” As part of that mission it has announced a wargame design competition aimed at portable and adaptable wargames suitable for educational purposes:
Wargames/games of conflict are often extraordinarily complex. They require massive learning curves and armies of facilitators to run. As educators, you struggle with serious tradeoffs, such as player engagement, resources, and time constraints. It can also be difficult to find games that fit the learning objectives of your course, whether it is a specific theme or conflict.
This year’s competition challenge takes aim at this specific problem. How easy is it to play your game? We want you to tell us about games you’ve adapted or created that are easily bootstrapped and/or portable. Bootstrapped games = Easy to set up, easy to learn, and fast to play. Portable games = playable anywhere, in many different courses, distributed/remote, adaptable across different concepts. We are looking for originally designed or unique new twists on already-existing games.
You’ll find further details and the submission process at the EWC website. The deadline for submission is 30 January 2021.
From the United States Army Combined Arms Center comes this interesting Handbook on how to use commercial off the shelf wargames to improve military COA analysis.
“This handbook focuses on three items: First, how to improve and develop the cognitive skill of visualizing, a key component to COA analysis (wargaming); second, improving the methods and conduct of action, reaction, and counteraction adjudication of COA analysis with off-the-shelf wargames; and third, thoughts on training the staff. COA analysis is similar to any collective skill, and is perishable if not continually trained and rehearsed. Therefore, it is the purpose of this handbook to provide thoughts on how to develop individuals and staffs so they can better conduct COA analysis during the military decisionmaking process.)
In conjunction with Australian Department of Defence, the Data Science and AI Association of Australia (DSAi) is hosting a virtual Gameathon to help generate ideas around the use of AI in the field of wargaming. The Gameathon is centred around the Defence Science & Technology Group (DSTG) wargame “Disaster of the JOADIA Islands” (outlined below) and has 2 challenges which cover Game Design and AI Assistance.
Challenge 1 – Game Design: Design new game systems and rule sets for the original game to explore concepts applicable to a HADR scenario.
Challenge 2 -AI Assistance: Exploring ways that modern AI techniques can enhance decision support for wargaming.
Prizes for each challenge = 1st $1000, 2nd $500, and 3rd $250
Contestants can register as individuals or as teams and create submissions for either or both challenges. The deadline has been extended due to COVID and DSTG and DSAi will judge the entries and award prize in late February/early March 2021.
Disaster of the JOADIA Islands is a turn-based wargame that models a Joint Task force assigned with the goal of rescuing civilians in a fictitious humanitarian aid disaster relief (HADR) scenario.