Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Brynania

Peace comes to Brynania (maybe, this time)

Signing the peace treaty.

Signing the peace treaty.

The week-long 2015 Brynania civil war simulation came to an end at McGill University yesterday, with a ceasefire and UN-sponsored peace agreement being signed among all of the warring factions. The UN Security Council authorized a peacekeeping mission (UNPOB) in support of this, supplementing a Concordian-led regional observer force that was already on the ground. Concerned that the negotiations were too prone to offer a blanket amnesty to those who might have conducted mass atrocities during the conflict, the Security Council referred the matter to the International Criminal Court.

Aid workers coordinated the delivery of humanitarian and development assistance to 33 difference areas of Brynania and neighbouring countries.

Aid workers coordinated the delivery of humanitarian and development assistance to 33 different areas of Brynania and neighbouring countries.

Imprisoned poet and human rights activist Zahra al-Zahra was also freed by the government in a last-minute deal largely brokered by the European Union. Her release had been a key demand of many civil society groups, not to mention Brynania’s legendary Simsim birds.

A total of 147 persons participated:

  • 101 from my undergraduate POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course
  • 9 from my POLI 650 (Peacebuilding) graduate seminar
  • 6 from Prof. Megan Bradley’s POLI 359 (Politics of the International Refugee Regime) course, who formed a special policy advisory unit for the main UNHCR team
  • 13 from Prof. Lisa Lynch’s JOUR 443 (International Journalism) course at Concordia University, who made up the World News Service and reported in real-time on simulation events
  • 18 others in four different countries (former students and other friends recruited via Facebook) who represented “public opinion,” members of the diaspora, and private charitable donors.

The class sent some 12,451 separate emails during the simulation, and conducted many hundreds of hours of meetings, videoconferences, and online conversations. I also sent some 2,127 emails during the week.

By my rough calculation—taking into account that many emails were send to multiple addresses, or even to the entire group via the simulation’s listservs—I estimate that McGill’s email server delivered over 181,000 items during the week. Many thanks are due to Hiio Kirby and the folks at McGill IT Customer Services (ICS) for outstanding technical support.

Since I’ll be on sabbatical for 2015-16, it seems likely that Brynania will experience at least two years of peace. However, I fear that civil war will once more return to this long-suffering land in March 2017…


Brynania 2015


In a couple of hours, the 15th annual edition of the week-long Brynania civil war simulation starts at McGill University. I’ll be neck-deep processing around 15,000 student communications during that period, so don’t expect any PAXsims updates from me for the duration!

The Brynania simulation involves 100 undergraduate students from my undergraduate POLI 450 course on peacebuilding, plus a smaller number of graduate students from my POLI 650 seminar. In addition, a small group from Prof. Megan Bradley’s course on refugees is taking part as a UNHCR policy unit, while students from Prof. Lisa Lynch’s journalism class have established the World News Service to cover events in war-torn equatorial Cyberia. Various other people play the role of “public opinion” and private donors to aid organizations.

For further information see the simulation resource website, this article from PS: Political Science & Politics on the SIM, video coverage by TV McGill and McGill University, and a blogpost by Lisa on how her journalism students participate.

Brynania in the news


The McGill Tribune recently published an article by Caity Hui on innovative teaching techniques at McGill University. Among the examples profiled is my own peacebuilding simulation in POLI 450/650:

…New developments impacting departments and faculties at McGill continue to push the boundaries of teaching and learning. From peace negotiation simulations to crowdsourcing science, these initiatives are not only enhancing students’ learning experiences, but also generating a host of novel ideas and involvement outside the classroom.

Political science Professor Rex Brynen, for instance, has been pioneering a unique approach to teaching peace-building in his course POLI 450. Popularly known as “Sim Week,” the students within the course are exposed to a weeklong civil war simulation within the fictitious land of Brynania. The students take on various roles to explore issues from the civil war associated with peace building.

“The challenge of the simulation is to negotiate and implement a peace agreement without it all falling apart,” Brynen explained. “It’s very intense, in semi-real time, taking place both face-to-face and electronically—by email, chat, or Skype.”

Initially designed for a class of 25 students, Brynen’s simulation has expanded over the years to encompass around 100 undergraduates. While other courses at McGill run simulation negotiations, this weeklong event takes on a significantly larger scale than any other class at the university.

“The class generates up to 15,000 emails during the simulation—all of which I have to read,” said Brynen. “Most students become very engaged with it.”

Beyond breaking up the monotony of a lecture-based course, the purpose of Sim Week is to provide students with the opportunity to apply their skills acquired in the class to a real-life situation. Brynen explained that for students working in areas like international development or conflict resolution, it is particularly important to have an experiential component integrated into students’ education, whether in the form of internships, field study, or—in the case of POLI 450—simulations.

“One of the challenges in teaching this topic is that it is very easy to read stuff on how you are supposed to negotiate peace agreements,” Brynen said. “In practice, however, it is highly complex and dynamic, characterized by mixed motives, imperfect information, and many second and third order effects.”

Brynen emphasized that while lectures provide students with the knowledge and foundations to develop peace-building policies, these more passive learning styles do not recreate the complexities that occur in a realistic experience.

“Lectures and text are great and wonderful things,” Brynen said, “But the simulation is really designed to bring home the stuff that lectures don’t bring home well.”

The majority of comments each year following Sim Week echo Brynen’s observations.

“You do so much theorizing and writing [in the course],” said Jake Heller to Tv McGill, a participant in the 2010 rendition of the simulation. “It was really refreshing to sit down at the table with someone and negotiate and apply a lot of the things that I have learned in some of the classes.”

Despite the advantages of this new resource as a teaching tool, Brynen cautions that simulation-based learning is not a one-size-fits-all paradigm. Depending on the course, lectures provide opportunities for professors to quickly cover large volumes of information in a logical fashion.

“It would be challenging to run a simulation for a class of 600 students,” Brynen said. “[POLI 450] has a lot of games because the course focuses on a lot of operational issues, and games give an experiential sense of those. Conversely, my Middle East politics class has no games in it and I don’t plan on introducing them because the lectures serve better at covering the material.”

While POLI 450’s simulation stands as a novel learning tool within the McGill community, teaching styles across faculties are paralleling this cross training through various other avenues….

You’ll find the full article here.

Student simulation enthusiasm: An accidental field experiment

OK, this wasn’t really a proper experiment. However, it does suggest how enthusiastic students can be about the opportunity to take part in a political science simulation.

Every year I run the Brynanian peacebuilding simulation in my POLI 450 class. Usually I  announce in class that students are now able to sign up for their simulation roles. This has the unfortunate effect of causing virtually the entire class to ignore my lectures for the next 15 minutes as they pull out their laptops and email me their SIM role preferences.

This year I thought I would get clever: SIM sign-ups would start at 7am on a non-class day—an hour alien to many students. In this way, I hoped, the small minority of super-keen students would wake up early to get first choice of simulation roles, while their sleepier colleagues would slowly email me their preferences during the rest of the day (or week). After all, they’ve got until the end of the month in which to choose.


I failed to allow for two things. The first was their technical skill—several simply set their email clients to mail me at 7am, while they might have been still snug in bed. Second, I clearly failed to account for their ruthless efficiency and almost fanatical devotion to simulated peacebuilding (or war-fighting). Some 45 students—almost half the class—emailed me between 7:00am and 7:01am. Two-thirds had emailed me before 8am.

So much for my cunning plan.


War—and maybe peace—returns to Brynania

Yes, it is that time of year again: on Wednesday morning we launch the annual Brynania civil war simulation at McGill University, involving over one hundred students from my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) and POLI 650 classes. Once again this year we also have students from Lisa Lynch’s JOUR 443 (International Journalism) class at Concordia University participating, assuming the role of the World News Service. This will be the fourteenth time we’ve run the simulation at McGill since 1998.

Once the simulation starts you’ll be able to follow some of the action at the WNS website, via the #Brynania hashtag on Twitter, and via the special issues of the (simulated) New York Times that you’ll find in the media section of the Brynania simulation website. However, that only scratches the surface: the SIM runs 12 hours a day in semi-real time for a full week, and generates 10-15,000 email messages. Don’t expect any PAXsims blogging from me until it is over.

You’ll find more on the simulation in this article in PS: Political Science & Politics. There are also video reports produced by TV McGill and McGill University, and a couple of audio reports by the CBC Radio and Adam Bemma. Finally, if you want to immerse yourself in more of the rich musical subcultures of Equatorial Cyberspace, check out the sounds of Cyberia.

simulations miscellany, belated 2013 New Year’s edition

IMG_0863We’ve been a bit slow posting material over the last couple of weeks, what with the holidays and all. (I’m also happy to report wargames were received under the Christmas tree.) Now, however, we’re back in the saddle—and hence this, our periodic PAXsims round-up of simulation-related news. Happy 2013!

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MOWThe new edition of Geopolitical Simulator 2—Masters of the World: Geopolitical Simulator 3—will be released by Eversim between January 15 and February 15, and is now available for preorder.

Masters of the World, Geopolitical Simulator 3, includes a number of new features, including a multi-country game mode, new map construction items (pipelines, high-speed train lines, ports, etc.), new laws (nationalization; taxation by brackets; regulation of abortion, physician-assisted suicide, marijuana consumption, and more), the ability to create your own international organizations, televised appearances, debt management including rating agencies and international lenders, new commando troops, new playable countries, and new scenarios.

You’ll find our positive review of the previous version of the game here.

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Military-Sim-feature-Point-of-Attack-1-610x468At PC Gamer last month, Tim Stone explored “Ten military sims that are answering the call of duty.”

While a PC Gamer Editor’s Choice logo on the front of a wargame or simulation box might be a cast-iron Fun Guarantee, it doesn’t mean you’re about to purchase a product that will help you understand or stay alive on a modern battlefield. To be sure of that you need to seek out one of The Camo Club – the select band of titles so steeped in realism, today’s armies use them as training tools.

The men with the buzz cuts and big pockets began utilising videogames back in the early ’80s. One of the first recruits was arcade classic Battlezone. Struck by the parallels between hunting vector-graphic hover-tanks and UFOs in a 3D battlespace, and hunting T-72s and Hind gunships on a Cold War battlefield, the US Army persuaded Atari to adapt their coin- op for instructional purposes. Two ‘Bradley Trainers’ were eventually built. Featuring 20th century targets and weapons, and AFV-style control yokes rather than joysticks, the machines were designed to assess and sharpen the skills of Infantry Fighting Vehicle gunners – a fact that could explain why movement options were restricted to turret traversal.

Today’s military classrooms are awash with PC-based games. Cheap and convenient compared to field exercises, versatile 3D simulations and map-based strategy titles are helping teach our troops to do everything from pilot aircraft and operate tanks, to lead infantry platoons, plan counter-insurgency operations, and organise logistics. Those careworn warriors on the evening news – the ones dashing from Chinooks, crouching behind mud walls, or poring over laptops in tented HQs? At some point in their careers, they’ve probably sat in front of a monitor wondering whether to push on, pull back, or check GameFAQs for a walkthrough….

The PC games discussed include  Harpoon, Tacops, Decisive Action, Future Force, Close Combat, VBS, Combat Mission, Point of Attack 2, DCS: A-10C, and Steel Beasts Pro.

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A forthcoming article by Håkan Söderberg et al in the The Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation will ask “In video war games, are military personnel’s fixation patterns different compared with those of civilians?” The answer is: apparently not.

For combat personnel in urban operations, situational awareness is critical and of major importance for a safe and efficient performance. One way to train situational awareness is to adopt video games. Twenty military and 20 civilian subjects played the game “Close Combat: First to Fight” on two different platforms, Xbox and PC, wearing an eye tracker. The purpose was to investigate if the visual search strategies used in a game correspond to live training, and how military-trained personnel search for visual information in a game environment. A total of 27,081 fixations were generated through a centroid mode algorithm and analyzed frame-by-frame, 48% of them from military personnel. Military personnel’s visual search strategies were different from those of civilians. Fixation durations were, however, equally short, that is, about 170 ms, for both groups. Surprisingly, the military-trained personnel’s fixation patterns were less orientated towards tactical objects and areas of interest than the civilians’; the underlying mechanisms remaining unclear. Military training was apparently not advantageous with respect to playing “Close Combat: First to Fight”. Further research within the area of gaming, military training and visual search strategies is warranted.

Although the findings have multiple explanations, they potentially do raise some important questions about video-game based tactical military training, given that the visual cues, muscle-memory responses, and so forth of game playing can be quite different from those in the field.

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The folks at Statecraft have posted two videos of their classroom international relations simulation online, showing how both instructors and students set up the game to play.

Statecraft appears to be a very thoughtfully-designed, polished product. We won’t be able to bring you a full review, however, since the folks there are reluctant to let us have a play around with the software.

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The NGO Seeds of Peace recently held a dialogue meeting of Israeli Jewish and Palestinian youth that involved, among other things, a simulation of the forthcoming Israeli elections. You’ll find details here.

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Meanwhile, Ms. Riley’s A Block Honors Global Studies class held their own simulated Middle East Peace negotiations.

We haven’t the faintest idea who or where “Ms. Riley’s A Block Honors Global Studies class” is, but they seem to be having rather more success with it than the actual Middle East process-formerly-known-as-peace.

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Finally, Adam Bemma has put together a radio report on the annual “Brynania” peacebuilding simulation that I hold each year at McGill University. The civil war there will be continuing again in April of this year in POLI 450/650. Have a listen!

Songs of Cyberia (the sounds of simulation)

I’ve spent much of the weekend gearing up for the annual Brynania civil war simulation at McGill University, which will be held this year from March 28 until April 4. Since I launched it in 1997, the fictional universe of Equatorial Cyberspace (“Cyberia”) has come to be furnished with all sort of student-generated cultural backdrop—including artwork, poetry (lots and lots of poetry), and even a Harry Potter novel. None of this is a required part of the course. Instead, it is an expression of energetic McGill students immersing themselves in the fictional simulation universe. It is also a humorous way of letting of steam during a intensive simulation that runs 12 hours a day for a full week, during the busiest part of the term.

Of particular note is the music that has been written and recorded for the simulation over the years by various campus musicians, as well as the not-always-so-musical. With Cyberian music undoubtedly poised to sweep the entertainment world one day soon, I’m pleased to give you The Songs of Cyberia:

Qual Rexton
Qual Rexton’s Greatest Hits 

Known as the “Bard of the Revolution,” the haunting, lyrical ballads of Uqami folksinger Qual Rexton have inspired revolutionaries across Equatorial Cyberspace for more than two decades.

  • Berri-Degoba (2.2mb mp3 format). Whilst travelling on Uqamistan’s single rail line from the capital to the city of Degoba, the artist reflects on the Zaharian struggle for freedom in southern Brynania.
  • Uqamistan (2mb mp3 format). A patriotic song of the revolution, often sung by Uqami football fans at matches of the Cyberian Premier League.
  • If I Forget Thee oh Rexingrad (2.2mb mp3 format). A bitter reminder of Uqamistan’s historical struggle to maintain its independence against the forces of British colonial encroachment.
  • Burn Those Western Pigs (550kb mp3 format). A more contemporary anti-imperialist song.

Big E & Northside Crew (featuring French E)

The ZPF militants of Camp #6

  • The Movement (4.8mb mp3 format). The militant musicians of refugee camp #6 praise the struggle of the radical vanguard of the Zaharian nationalist movement.

Stephanie Butcher
Radio Unity’s Golden Hits

  • Rebels Won’t Succeed (3.8mb mp3 format). The mournful melodies of Butcher’s song reminds of us of the terrible human toll exacted by Zaharian rebel attacks. Years after its release, it continues to occupy #1 position on the charts at pro-regime Radio Unity.

Brendan Clarke
Release Me!

  • Zahra al-Zahra (4.7mb, mp3 format). Clarke reminds us that imprisoned human rights activist and poet Zahra al-Zahra is out of sight, but never out of mind.

Cyberian Frost
Zaharian Mortem

Jenny Woo

  • Uqami Freedom Song (3.1mb, mp3 format). Part of the “people’s music” campaign that swept Uqamistan, Woo proves to us that anyone can sing to further the cause of the toiling masses in the face of the oppressive structures of twilight capitalism.

Russia Today
Songs of a Brynanian Nomad (YouTube)

In this rare documentary footage, Brynanian nomads sing about their life, hopes, and dreams.

The McGill peacebuilding simulation

During the most recent run of my Brynania peacebuilding simulation at McGill University, a camera crew from the university followed the sim and put together a documentary report. You’ll find the result below.

CBC Radio on Brynania 2011

Rosemary Quipp covered the most recent Brynania simulation for CBC Radio. You’ll find her report here.

This year, the class generated 11,424 email messages (all of which I had to read), in addition to hundreds of hours of face-to-face meetings, IM, Skype, phone conversations, tweets, and everything else imaginable. I’m still recovering….

Re- #hashing Brynania

McGill annual Brynania civil war simulation is underway! While 99% of the simulation isn’t accessible from the outside, we are running occasional bits of news on Twitter with a #Brynania tag. The Twitter feed is sporadic, uneven, and not always accurate…. just like the real thing.

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