Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: CASL

The New World Order comes to NDU


Earlier this year, we ran a very successful New World Order 2035 megagame at McGill University, overseen by the infamous Jim Wallman.

Now he’s back, and taking the capital of the Free World/global capitalism/neoimperialism/Pax Americana by storm:

When: Tuesday and Wednesday, May 24-25, 9:30-4:00

Where: National Defense University, Ft. McNair, Washington, DC

What: Jim Wallman will demonstrate his techniques for designing and running larger-scale games by presenting New World Order, a Megagame set in the not-so-distant future.  NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning is hosting the event as a way to better understand the Megagame format – the focus will be on learning the format rather than maximizing gameplay, but it should be a useful experience for all.

How to attend: email to register and to receive directions, or if you have any questions.

“Burning Shadows”: Toward matrix gaming as a tool for joint professional military education

PAXsims has been pleased to publish a variety of pieces on matrix games, including various iterations of ISIS Crisis, Ben Taylor’s analysis of serious matrix game techniques, and a report on the use of matrix games at the US Army War College.

This latest piece has been contributed by Luke Nicastro and Ian Platz from the Center for Advanced Strategic Learning, National Defense University.



At the National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL), we develop experiential learning materials in support of the university’s core academic mission of joint professional military education (JPME). Essentially, we support the component colleges here by providing course-relevant wargames and exercises, with a particular emphasis on current and future strategic-level security challenges.

In view of its importance to the curriculum here, much of our work is centered on examining unconventional or ‘gray’ conflict. For our purposes, gray conflicts are characterized by low to medium intensity fighting (which, though pervasive, stays below the threshold for conventional conflict), the substantial use of non-kinetic tools, and the extensive involvement of non-state actors. The complexity of gray conflict makes it difficult to model through traditional tabletop gaming, since formal rulesets tend both to obscure and restrict students’ understanding of precisely those dynamics most crucial to an understanding of gray conflict. In search of another way to ‘gameify’ gray conflict, we came across the work being done by other wargaming professionals with matrix gaming. With its lack of comprehensive rules, inclusion of abstract concepts, and emphasis on structured argumentation, matrix gaming struck us as a potentially valuable tool for national security practitioners to explore dynamics of unconventional conflict. To test its applicability at CASL, we created a matrix game focused on Libya, to which we’ve given the working title “Burning Shadows.”

Libya Map North

Libya was chosen as the focus of our game for a number of reasons. The current situation in the country exhibits all of the most salient characteristics of gray conflict – a multiplicity of ill-defined actors, endemic low to mid-intensity conflict, and the prevalence of unconventional/non-kinetic tools. Libya is also becoming increasingly important to U.S. interests and operations in the Middle East and North Africa, even as it remains understudied and ill-understood (especially compared to Iraq and the Levant). Centering a game on Libya thus creates an opportunity for national security professionals to focus on the country in an academic, JPME environment. Additionally, the setting allowed us to utilize many of the dynamics present in ISIS Crisis, which served as an invaluable guide for us as we developed “Burning Shadows”.

Though the game was developed in January 2016, it is intended to reflect whatever situation exists in Libya at the time of gameplay. A basic map of territorial control is included in the game materials, but facilitators are encouraged to update the setup based on changes in the geopolitical situation. There are four playable factions in “Burning Shadows”: the House of Representatives (HoR), based in Tobruk; the General National Congress (GNC), based in Tripoli; the Islamic State (IS), based in Sirte; and Western partner countries/NATO. These four factions represent the most important geopolitical actors in Libya, and are described in detail in the game materials. As in ISIS Crisis, there is also a one-page role sheet for each faction, giving players an overview of their position, objectives, relationship to other factions, and special conditions. In addition to these playable factions, several other state and non-state actors (e.g. neighboring governments, tribal militias) can be controlled either by a facilitator or subject matter expert.

Libya Map South

Gameplay is represented on two large maps of Libya – one depicting the country’s Mediterranean coastline and the other showing its vast interior. By splitting up the map into two separate sections, we hope to emphasize the drastic difference between the two regions’ operating environments. More than 85% of the Libyan population lives in urban settlements along the Mediterranean, and the majority of Libya’s oil production is also located in this region. Southern Libya, by contrast, is sparsely populated and lightly governed. The vast wastes of the Sahara render it difficult for Libya’s rival governments to project power, and it is often the region’s indigenous populations (e.g. the Tebu and Tuareg ethnic groups) that are best-placed to act.

Gameplay is turn-based, with players making their moves in a set sequence (HoR -> GNC -> IS -> NATO). Turns are divided into two phases – Diplomatic and Movement. During the Diplomatic phase (which should last no longer than four minutes), the current player undertakes whatever negotiations or communications he/she may wish to make with other players and factions. After these have been concluded, the Movement phase begins, in which the current player outlines the major action they intend to take and provides relevant supporting arguments, which are adjudicated and then resolved. Each player is allowed to undertake one major action on the northern board and one on the southern board.

We’ve run a few ‘playtests’ of “Burning Shadows”, mainly among others in our office. Overall, we’ve been satisfied with the way the game runs, particularly the quality (and intensity!) of the discussions it’s generated. However, there are two persistent challenges we’ve run into. The first is probably an inevitable consequence of the subject matter – the complexity of and participant unfamiliarity with the Libyan situation (even after background reading and an introductory briefing) tends to create uncertainty and paralysis among players during the first few moves. Unsure of what a reasonable or ‘typical’ move might look like, new players often spend inordinate amounts of time planning actions, slowing down gameplay and impeding the flow that is so crucial to matrix game success. Although there is no way to remedy this altogether, one solution we’ve adopted has been the use of “suggested move templates” for the first turn, along with robust suggestions from facilitators.

The second challenge is one that I believe to be common to matrix gaming as a whole – the question of victory. The participants that have been generous enough to ‘playtest’ this game have observed that it is difficult to coherently organize strategies without a clear idea of a) how you win; and b) how you know you’re winning (or losing). There is a general concept of victory – physical/strategic control of Libya – but nothing more specific, and few metrics along the way. While matrix gaming can absolutely create a valuable forum for discussion and analysis without clear victory conditions/pathways, we believe that it would be optimal, especially when dealing with an understudied environment like Libya, to have those incentive structures present. This is a problem we’re currently working on –we have no answers yet, and would welcome and all input on ways of integrating victory conditions and metrics into the matrix game format.

We see this game (and JPME-focused matrix gaming in general) as a way of extending the DoD’s call for “increased innovation through wargaming” from the analytic into the educational sphere. The uniquely free-flowing nature of matrix games, the lack of constraints on participant action, and the entirely player-driven scenario progression together create a unique opportunity to foster precisely the sort of innovation and creative thinking demanded of national security professionals.

The game materials for “Burning Shadows” – which include instructions, role descriptions, map boards, and tokens – are still in draft form, but we’d be more than happy to send the current drafts to those who are interested. For more information, questions, ideas, or just to talk shop, we can be reached at and

Luke Nicastro is a defense analyst at NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning in Washington, D.C. Ian Platz is a defense consultant from Booz Allen Hamilton working in support of NDU’s wargaming capabilities.



NDU CASL: Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming (10/10/2013)


The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University will be holding another one of their “Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming” on Thursday, 10 October 2013 at NDU.

National Defense University’s strategic gaming group, the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, would like to invite you to participate in the thirteenth session of our roundtable discussions on gaming. Our intent is to continue to build a regular forum for practitioners and scholars to exchange ideas and compare notes about issues relating to game design, the use of games for analytical and teaching purposes, and interesting projects in the field. We will also have an audio feed available via internet streaming or teleconference (depending on technical issues), which we hope will make it easier for colleagues outside the Washington, DC area to participate. (Please contact one of the organizers for more information about the audio feed.)

Each roundtable invites a few speakers to present short, informal, talks on some aspect of strategic-level games to spark discussion among the group. Please feel free to circulate this invitation to interested colleagues – we’re hoping this will be a means of getting to know and building lasting professional connections between gamers.

Speakers: Scott Martin of George Mason University will present on Mason’s academic initiatives in computer game design, as well as an overview of the Serious Games Institute. Kristan Wheaton of Mercyhurst University’s Intelligence Studies program will speak on “The Five Myths of Game-Based Learning.”

For further information, contact:, or the coorganizers:

Tim Wilkie, Research Fellow, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University: (202) 433-4865,

Elizabeth Bartels, Research Analyst, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University: (202) 685-2634,


page1image21912 page1image22072

CASL: Operations Research and Wargaming


The folks at the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University will be convening another of their “Lectures on Strategic Gaming” on January 24th at 1130-1230. The speaker this time will LTC Mary Lou Hall (J8, Studies, Analysis and Gaming Division), who will presenting “We’re All McNamara’s Children: Connections between operations research and wargaming”.

As part of CASL’s efforts to reach a broad segment of the gaming community, the series will be conducted in a distributed environment. In this case, the event on January 24th will be held as a teleconference. To participate in the teleconference on January 24th, please RSVP to The presentation will later be publicly available here from the CASL website.

For those who have not joined us for this series in the past, the aim of the lectures is to create a resource for educating “journeyman” gamers outside of the dominant mentorship training methodology. The resulting library of presentations will help to bring gaming expertise and lessons-learned out ofisolation and ensure they are accessible to a wider community.

NDU Roundtable on Strategic Gaming (10 December 2012)

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defence University has announced that the next of their roundtable series on innovations in strategic gaming will be held at NDU (Washington DC) on December 10. Col Uwe Heilmann of the German Air Force will present on the use of commercial-off-the-shelf board wargames for leadership competence training, based on his work at NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Center. Dr. Scott Martin of George Mason University will present on Mason’s academic initiatives in computer game design, as well as an overview of the Serious Games Institute.

More details can be found here.

Peck on “Washington’s War on Wargaming”

Pentagon budget-cutters descend upon NDU.

At Kotaku today, Michael Peck decries the Pentagon decision to cut funding for National Defense University, and especially the Centre for Applied Strategic Learning:

The only thing that’s cheap about war is the gaming. The US military services and their assorted war colleges, the Department of Defense and various thinktanks do quite a bit of wargaming of potential conflicts such as Iran. Compared to a billion-dollar aircraft carrier, wargaming isn’t terribly expensive (all you really need is a table, chairs, coffee and danish, and PowerPoint). It’s a lot less expensive than learning the hard way in war.

Now, to the military, wargaming doesn’t mean games. It’s actually an analytical technique in the Military Decision Making Process, which essentially means analysing the likely outcomes of various choices and then making the best one. Nonetheless, what Joe Gamer thinks of as wargames — simulations involving players, maps, playing pieces and goals — is done by the military.

But one bastion of military wargaming is under assault. National defence University, at Fort McNair in Washington DC, is the Pentagon’s flagship for joint professional military education. It’s where officers leave the cloistered world of their individual service and come together to study joint high-level strategy and operations. “Jointness” is a fuzzy word but an important concept. Though sometimes the American military services seem to be at war with each other, modern warfare is a combined endeavour; the army needs ships and planes to get overseas, the navy needs the army because ships can’t occupy territory, and the air force provides an umbrella for both (and needs both to protect its airfields).

A vital part of that training is the centre for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL), which conducts wargames for military and civilian personnel, Congressional staffers, and even a journalist like me, who had a chance to play the Gemstone counterinsurgency game.

But NDU’s budget is being slashed by Pentagon staffers who believe that the college is too expensive, wasteful and is doing too much namby-pamby intellectual education instead of focusing on real military education. CASL is being chopped by half, which means a much less robust wargaming capability. Though all of the military is feeling the pain of budget cuts, what is happening to NDU and CASL is an example of the military mind at its narrow worst….

Michael has weighed in on this before, in a piece back in August at Foreign Policy. We agree with him, too—see our earlier take on the situation at NDU.

Picture above: The Gamer’s Table blog.

Anxiety in the archipelago of gaming excellence: NDU faces “alignment”

Last week, Michael Peck had a piece at Foreign Policy Magazine highlighting both the impending cuts and the (re)alignment of priorities at National Defense University:

The budget axe is descending on National Defense University, the Pentagon’s flagship institution for professional military education. The cuts come amid controversy over whether NDU should focus solely on Joint Professional Military Education (JPME), which addresses military strategy and cooperation between the services, or whether it should also serve as a think-tank for strategic analysis. According to an internal Pentagon document, the Joint Chiefs of Staff want NDU to stick to JPME, and have recommended a long list of budget cuts that would slash other functions. But critics worry that narrowing NDU’s mandate will deprive the United States of big-picture thinking at a time when American planners are struggling to adapt to changing geopolitical and budgetary circumstances.

The budget cuts, including dozens of layoffs from NDU’s 800-strong workforce, are part of a long list of recommendations compiled by the Joint Staff, which works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JCS spokesman Richard Osial refused to comment on the grounds that the cuts are part of an internal staff document under review, but a copy obtained by Foreign Policy says the changes are intended to “align NDU organization and funding with [the] new fiscal reality.”

Some cuts were bound to come, of course, especially under the current US budget sequestration process that will see some $50 billion or so lopped from the DoD envelope in FY2013 (and additional cuts of a similar amount each year thereafter). Personally, I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing given budget realities, but that really isn’t an issue for PAXsims—at least, not until we expand our mandate from fragile and conflict-affected countries to include the even scarier world of American fiscal and budgetary politics.

Somewhat more of an issue for PAXsims (since both of us work professionally in and on conflict-affected countries) is the apparent view from the Pentagon, quite separate from DoD budget constraints but undoubtedly reinforced by them, that the US military needs to have its professional military education reduced to a much narrower vision. If anything, the last decade has highlighted the need for a highly interdisciplinary and interagency understanding of national security issues, and NDU has done a great deal to support precisely such an understanding internally, in its research activities, and through its outreach and networking. Now much of that seems to be at risk.

However, my main point in raising all of this is what the both the cuts and new direction at NDU could mean for the professional (war)gaming community. In recent years the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at NDU has played an enormously valuable role in bringing together the many people across the military, other agencies, the gaming industry, and various academic communities together to share and develop professional best practices. It has also provide an opportunity for those relatively new to the field to increase their knowledge of the art, craft, and science of crisis simulation and wargaming. CASL’s quarterly roundtables on innovation in strategic gaming have provided a forum that, quite simply, exists nowhere else in the world, let alone elsewhere in the US. CASL did an extraordinary job of hosting the last two Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conferences. It has also featured special lectures on wargaming, and pushed these out to a broader audience through online streaming. If professional wargaming does indeed comprise often isolated “archipelagos of excellence” as has sometimes been suggested, NDU has been an unparalleled bridge-builder between and among these.

Unfortunately, the recommendations compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff propose major cuts for CASL, as well as a narrow focus on supporting joint PME—with the attendant implication that outreach and networking activities across the broader gaming community is not part of what CASL should do:

Organization: Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL)
Way ahead: Re-orient and rescale to support JPME.
Rationale: Elimination of non-JPME efforts allows for a smaller organization. Resource savings: Reduced annual costs of approximately $1.02M direct and $0.5M reimbursable funding and a workforce reduction of 7 direct funded FTEs and 1 other. Four military officers become available for reassignment or return to the Services.

By my uninformed count, that would appear to be almost one-half of CASL’s current staff.

Michael’s piece in Foreign Policy ends with some pithy criticism of the proposed cuts and realignment from (understandably) anonymous NDU staff and associates. I am not now, nor have I ever been, associated with NDU. However, I—like many others in the professional/policy gaming community—have certainly been an eager beneficiary of their intellectual and professional outreach. A major diminution of CASL’s contribution in that regard would hardly serve anyone very well as we prepare to face the complex security challenges of an uncertain future world.

simulations miscellany: the 100,000 visitors edition!

We’re pleased to report that PAXsims reached its 100,000th visitor today. Of course, that’s not a huge number in the world of the interwebs—indeed, a blog by a nine year-old Scottish girl about her school lunches has over 6.8 million hits now—but we’re quite pleased with it nonetheless. We would like to think all of our contributors, commentators, and regular readers who have made it such a pleasure to work on this project. Onwards to the next 100,000!

We’re also pleased to report that a special issue of Simulation & Gaming devoted to “simulations and games to build peace” is now working its way through the production process at SAGE. In addition to an introductory article by us, it will feature contributions by  Elizabeth Bartels, Margaret McCown, and Timothy Wilkie on level of analysis, scenario and role specification in peace and conflict exercises; Richard Powers and Kat Kirkpatrick on teaching conflict resolution through simulations and games; Julian Schofield on classroom modelling of nuclear war fighting; Tucker B. Harding and Mark A. Whitlock on  leveraging web-based environments for mass atrocity prevention; Roger Mason and Eric Patterson on wargaming peace operations; Sean F. McMahon and Chris Miller  on simulating the Camp David negotiations; and Peter Landwehr, Marc Spraragen, Balki Ranganathan, Kathleen M. Carley, and Michael Zyda on integrating games, social simulations, and data in the “Sudan Game.”

Finally, in other recent simulation news:

  • The second annual Serious Play conference will take place 21-23 August 2012 at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington.
  • In his “Best Defense” column at Foreign Policy magazine, Tom Ricks has been discussing possible cuts and constraints at the National Defense University. Among the alarming news (in this case, reported by an anonymous NDU staff member) is this: “The research, gaming, and publications arms of the university — a major part of the big-think, future concepts and policy business here — will be cut to somewhere between half and a third of their original sizes.” This would indeed be both short-sighted and a tragedy—the Center for Applied Strategic Learning is a true centre of excellence in the policy gaming field, and has been immensely important in building a broader gaming community that reaches outside the military to include interagency folks, academics, commercial game designers, and others.
  • Over at Defense News/Training & Simulation Journal, Michael Peck reports that military budget cuts will increasingly force the US Army  to rely more heavily on simpler, lower-end simulation exercises.
  • The video game company Valve has hired an economist to study in-game virtual economies. He has a blog too.
  • A reminder, once again, that the Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference will be held on August 23-26 at NDU in Washington DC. If you haven’t done so, register soon.

NDU CASL Roundtable on Strategic Gaming (26/6/2012)

Yes, it’s that time again—the announcement has gone out for the next iteration of the regular quarterly series of roundtables on strategic gaming at the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University:

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) is pleased to announce another session in our quarterly series of Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming. The event will take place on June 26 at the NDU campus, located at Ft. Lesley J. McNair in SW DC. Details of exactly when and where will be provided to those who RSVP (see below).

Our speakers for this session will be Michael Wasserman of the Intelligence Community Simulation Center and CDR Phil Pournelle of OSD Net Assessment.

Please RSVP to by June 22 if you would like to join us in person or remotely via audio streaming (and please specify one or the other or both, if you need to keep your options open). We will be using the NDU streaming service, so if you would like to listen in please follow the link and watch one of the saved events to make sure this service works on your computer. You will still need to RSVP to receive the speakers’ slides.

Please note, this stream of the roundtable will NOT be saved or archived for later access, unlike the events in CASL’s Lectures on Strategic Gaming series, which are maintained for future download. The Roundtable series is meant to stimulate ongoing professional discourse within the gaming community, while the goal for the Lectures is to gradually create a set of saved presentations for journeyman gamers to have available for reference.

Whether you are a newcomer to the roundtable or a veteran participant, we hope that you will be able to join us in person or online. Our goal of creating a regular forum for gaming practitioners to meet and discuss issues in the field is being realized and it is thanks to you, the gaming community, and your continued interest.

These are excellent meetings, and well worth attending (in person or online) for those with an professional interest in strategic gaming. I’ll certainly be watching and listening to the livestream.

NDU: Phil Sabin on “The Continuing Merits of Manual Wargaming” (9/5/2012)

Professor Philip Sabin (King’s College London) will be giving a talk on “The Continuing Merits of Manual Wargaming” at National Defense University in Washington DC on 9 May 2012. PAXsims recently reviewed Phil’s excellent new book, Simulating War.

For further information, contact Ellie Bartels or Tim Wilkie.

NDU: Peter Perla on “The Way of the Wargamer” (April 4)

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University  is launching a series of bimonthly lectures on strategic gaming. Unlike their quarterly roundtables (which are largely aimed at established pol-mil gamers), the new lecture series is especially intended for the “journeyman” (or “journeywoman”) gamer who is relatively new to this area. the first such lecture will take place on 4 April 42012 via teleconference:

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) is pleased to invite you to participate in our new series Lectures on Strategic Gaming. These lectures are designed to provide gamers in the early and middle stages of their career with an understanding of key concepts, methodologies and introduce them to leading thinkers in the field. Regular lectures will be held in a live teleconference format where participants will have the opportunity to listen to a presentation by experienced members of the field and ask questions. The presentation and associated resources will be maintained on the CASL website, and over time will form a resource library for the gaming community.

This endeavor seeks to preserve the field’s historic and cross-institutional memory in order to enable gamers to break into the field outside of the dominant “mentorship” training methodology. The library will help to bring gaming expertise and lessons-learned out of isolation and ensure they are accessible to a wider community.

The first lecture of the series will feature Dr. Peter Perla of the Center for Naval Analysis, and author of The Art of Wargaming. We invite you to participate in our opening lecture via teleconference, or to visit our website ( at a later date to access the lecture and supporting materials.

What: Lectures on Strategic Gaming: “The Way of the Wargamer” by Dr. Peter Perla

When: Wednesday, April 4th from 1100-1200

RSVP: Please email to receive instructions on accessing the teleconference line as well supporting materials for the lecture.

For more information about this program, please contact Ellie Bartels ( or Katrina Dusek (

It is difficult to think of anyone who could provide a better introduction to wargaming than Peter, so we strongly urge those interested in serious gaming to (virtually) attend. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with a link to the piece that Peter and Ed McGrady published last year in the Naval War College Review (Summer 2001), Why Wargaming Works.

CASL roundtable summary: October 2011

On Wednesday, the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University held the most recent of its quarterly roundtables on strategic gaming. I was only able to listen to part of it online, but Gary attended the whole thing and will be providing an account on PAXsims soon.

In the meantime, our good friend Archipelago Annie has sent us a report of the previous CASL roundtable, held in October 2011. We’re pleased to present it below.

* * *

CASL Strategic Gaming Round Table

Summary of Oct 25, 2011 Meeting

Joe Lombardo “Gaming in support of the Civilian Response Corps”

Games can play a critical role as part of a course by enhancing learning, however the game must be designing to compliment and reinforce the broader objectives of the course.  Mr. Lombardo spoke on two games designing in support of courses to training the Civilian Response Corps (CRC), and addressed key lessons learned.

For both games, the fact that they supported short courses that were run repeatedly over a several year period allowed for refining of game mechanics and elements over time.  Because these revisions were conducted in close conversation with course instructors and administrators, it was much easier to insure that changes to the course objectives were reflected in the games, and that the game elements were fully embedded in the course.  Both games also relied strongly on the use of rolls: in one highly scripted roles were used to simulate the tensions of the interagency process, in the other, teams took on the role of a red team to critique their own strategic document.

Peter Perla “Separating Sudan”

The Joint Irregular Warfare Analytic Baseline Project (JIWAB) has been developed by a team based out of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) to produce a scenario for use in future irregular warfare planning.  The team has developed an interdisciplinary process to produce the final set of baseline products. This process includes scenario development via general morphological analysis, counterfactual reasoning, structured scenario fusion, and stakeholder analysis.  Separating Sudan gamed the scenarios developed during this process to flesh out the consequences of each scenario for use in later stages of the JIWAB.  The game itself involved several innovative mechanisms for gaining participant buy-in, including prolonged interaction with key experts and a role auction.  The game also subscribed to the philosophy of using the players as adjudicators whenever possible. The JIWAB team also applied Dr. Stephen Downes-Martin’s technique to analyze the control group as if it were another player.  That analytical team created an ethnography of the game, which pointed to the critical role of buy-in and experience in the gaming process.  The analysis also highlighted the role of the facilitator in drawing out specific actions participants would take, then eliciting the reactive actions of other players representing other stakeholders in the region.  While these techniques may not be generally reproducible, Separating Sudan was an “interactive story living experience” that was able to create a rich world for participants to think though consequences and futures.

Selected points of Discussion from the Q & A

Role of Emotion in Games

  • Trust, both between participants themselves and the participants and the staff, was a critical force as it allowed participants to fully inhabit the roles.
  • Players often needed to use break time to differentiate the choices being made in the game from their personal preferences, particularly when ethnically trick decisions were being made.  This often causes more conservative play then we might expect in reality and is worth noting in game analysis.
  • Self-censorship in asynchronous games can mask the very emotions we look for in face to face exercises, suggesting the need for an alternative paradigm.

Value of Asynchronous Play

  • The value of asynchronous play was agreed to vary based on what you want out of the game.  Generally, if the environment being simulated is asynchronous it makes sense that the game should be as well.  However, by its nature gaming is going to require more artificial limits then reality, and often will need forcing functions such as meetings to insure deliverables are done.  The big advantage might be logistical, but asynchronous games will almost always require more time to play then the same event run face to face.

“Getting serious about video games”—and some caveats

Over at Tom Ricks’ “Best Defense” column at Foreign Policy magazine, Peter Bacon recently examined the possible contribution of video games to improving understanding of history and international relations, enhancing military training and preparedness, and sharpening the ability of even civilian policymakers to address key foreign policy challenges:

…In the foreign policy arena, video games can and should serve as a powerful tool for educating civilian and military personnel about war and foreign affairs.

Video games can serve to help bolster America’s glaring deficiency in one crucial discipline: history. Video games focused on war and IR provide refreshing bursts of information about often-overlooked leaders and wars. These games can offer descriptive backgrounds of leaders or events (e.g. Age of Empires’ description of Genghis Khan or the Crusades). These methods can sometimes provide a deeper and more-engaging understanding of history than just a textbook or lecture.

A subgenre of games, so-called “serious” games, goes further by explicitly trying to educate gamers about historical or political issues. For example, Niall Ferguson in 2007 played the World War II serious game Making History and played out some of his WWII counterfactual scenarios, such as war breaking out over German seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938. His experience led him to conclude that his counterfactual historical scenarios “weren’t as robust as [he] thought.” As a result, Ferguson ended up advising this series. This episode, forcing critical re-examinations of events, anecdotally illustrates the range of useful educational experiences gleaned from games like Making History or other, current games such as Global Conflicts: Palestine or the future-themed Fate of the World: Tipping Point that can help civilians better understand history and policymaking, thereby making better choices when voting or arguing politics.

All of the above is great for civilians, but what about actual warfighters and policymakers? Games cannot finely simulate actual combat or crises, yet can provide training related to the planning and responses needed for tactical and strategic decisions. Indeed, military officers have engaged in a modern form of Kriegsspiel by using tactical warfare games for their training: for example, the Close Combat series proved so popular that in 2004 the developer released Close Combat: Marines explicitly for military training. Other games, such as the tank-simulator Steel Beasts or the situational training tools of WILL interactive, have been used by the military for realistic simulations of warfighting and decision-making.

Civilian practitioners, however, have not embraced gaming as readily as the military: while think tankers or civilian politicians outside the Pentagon may play games in an unofficial capacity, official efforts like the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative have petered out. In stark contrast, DOD policy practitioners embrace video games even in non-kinetic planning: Michael Peck’s article on a DOD budgeting game shows how policymakers can prepare for things as prosaic as the budget with games. Hopefully civilian policymakers in the future will use games, both serious, educational games and fun strategy games, to prepare for the decision-making necessary during times of crisis.

It is good to see more and more attention to serious gaming within the policy community and among those who think about building greater capacity in this regard—after all, that is what this blog is all about. However, I can’t help but play devil’s advocate on some of these issues too.

Video games are just one subset of games, and it is important we not lose sight of the contributions of non-digital serious and educational gaming. Certainly computer-based gaming can deliver computation modelling, complexity, immersive audio-visual experiences, systematic monitoring of student performance, greater content standardization across courses and instructors, and a wide range of other benefits. On the other hand, they can also suffer from inflexibility (it is usually much easier to reconfigure a BOGSAT, role-play, or cardboard game), “black boxing” (whereby outputs are rendered believable by the technology used to produce them, while the modelling assumption are hidden from users), rapid obsolescence (in either software or the platforms necessary to support it), and high development costs. Digital games have, and will continue, to transform gaming. However, they are only part of the gaming universe, and focussing on them exclusively only serves to obscure the contributions that can be drawn from other dimensions of gaming. Ludology doesn’t presuppose a mouse (or joystick).

Undoubtedly the military, and the US military in particular, games and simulates more than anyone. However, there are a great many relevant examples of games-based training and education out there that the column misses, even just in the Washington DC area itself. There is all the gaming, for example, that is done at NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning—most of it explicitly interagency, and involving civilians from various government departments, Congress, state and municipal governments, and others. Moreover, while most of this gaming enjoys electronic supports, it is technologically-enhanced role play rather than video gaming. The United States Institute of Peace offers myriad courses on conflict and conflict resolution to government, NGO, and academic audiences that include a simulation/gaming component, and while some of this is computer-based (SENSE) or computer-facilitated (Open Simulation Platform), much of it is also of the BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) variety too.

Organizations like the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, UNHCR, the World Bank, ICRC, IFRC, and others also use some games-based training for their personnel. Again, however, it tends to be of the non-digital sort, both because they lack DoD-size acquisition budgets and because they often find more traditional gaming and simulation methods more effective, especially when teamwork, diplomacy, negotiation, coalition-building, and group facilitation are important parts of the skill set to be enhanced.

It is also important to underscore that effective teaching, training, and capacity-building is rarely delivered by a game in and of itself, but rather is a function of how that game is used and embedded in a broader curriculum. You don’t just sit students (let alone policymakers) in front of a game console and expect the learning to begin. In an educational settings, links to other course materials and components are essential. In all settings, the briefing and debriefing are of critical importance: even a good game can deliver little (or be counterproductive) without an effective debrief and discussion, while even a quite poor or unrealistic game can be used to surprisingly positive effect if discussion of its deficiencies to stimulate creative and critical thinking.  Similarly, in policy settings a great deal of attention needs to be devoted to how serious gaming and simulation might maximize its contribution to productive policy-making.

In terms of policy development, gaming takes time and energy, and it can be difficult to get civilian policymakers in a room long enough to do it properly. Having worked in a foreign ministry policy planning shop for a while, I can think of surprisingly few cases where the substantial opportunity cost of a lengthy game would have made it the best approach to take, compared to more traditional (non-gaming) methods of fostering productive policy discussions.

Finally, part of the reason for the slower take-up of serious gaming and simulation in the diplomatic, development, and academic communities is that an awful lot of the serious foreign policy games out there just aren’t that good. Unfortunately, the serious gaming community (of which I would consider myself part) has some real problems with what might be termed “hypertechnoludovangelism”— which is to say, uncritical acceptance of too much of its own hype about the transformative effects of (digital) gaming. Perhaps we PAXsims folks are a little curmudgeonly, but to date we’ve probably found more serious digital and online games that we didn’t like than ones that we did (even though we’re course instructors with whole rooms full of games at home, and enough computers to run a small space program).

In summary, asking “why aren’t more folks in the defence/diplomacy/development/policy/NGO/academic worlds using more games?” is a good one. Indeed, there are all sorts of organizational, cultural, generational, and other barriers to game adoption, and it would be worth exploring more fully what those are and how they might be overcome. However, at the same time we should also be asking the questions like “what might folks be doing that does not fall within digital gaming, narrowly understood?” and “why aren’t people making games that more practitioners find useful?” and “how should games and simulations be used to maximize their potential?”.

Pic above: Simulating the typical policy process.

NDU seeking Senior Research Fellows

The National Defense University is currently advertising for a couple of Senior Research Fellows, to be employed at NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning. According to the advertisement, the duties of the positions would be:

  • Responsible for leading the planning, implementation, and management of programs dealing with interagency coordination, national security crisis management, humanitarian assistance, and stability and reconstruction operations.
  • Responsible for leading in the research, design, development, and implementation of experiential learning initiatives (including national-level educational exercises/ simulations and conferences, symposia, and workshops) conducted by the Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL).
  • Supervises and conducts research and analysis focused on the development of national security exercises concerning security issues with national or international implications.
  • Oversees CASL teams that are developing and implementing national and homeland security exercises and other experiential learning activities, with a particular emphasis on subjects related to stability operations, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and emerging national security threats.
  • Directs the organization and execution of exercises, symposia, conferences, workshops, and other CASL activities in support the full range of CASL clients by serving as one of two Division Directors in CASL.
  • Provides authoritative advice to the staff, faculty, and students of NDU and other Senior Service Schools and the wargaming centers in order to develop programs, curricula and simulations to support academic goals and requirements.
  • Collaborates with other national security experts from the government and private sector to share information on a broad range of national and homeland security issues.

Only US citizens are eligible to apply, and the closing date for applications is 2 December 2011.

Incumbent must have at least five years of experience in national-level policy formulation, planning, implementation, and management of nation security-related programs (e.g., humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, or stability and reconstruction operations).  Incumbent must also have significant management and supervisory experience. Accredited master’s degree and or PhD degree preferred, but extensive relevant practical experience may be substituted for this preference.

Additional information (including application procedures) can be found at the USA Jobs website.

NDU Roundtable on Innovation in Strategic Gaming (25/10)

Yes, it is time again for everyone’s favourite quarterly professional wargaming event, the NDU Roundtable on Innovation in Strategic Gaming:

National Defense University’s strategic gaming group, the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, would like to invite you to participate in the eighth iteration of our series of roundtable discussions on gaming. We hope to continue to build on the success of our previous sessions and create a regular forum for practitioners and scholars to exchange ideas and compare notes about issues relating to game design, the use of games for analytical and teaching purposes, and interesting projects in the field.

Each roundtable invites a few speakers to present short, informal, talks on some aspect of strategic-level games to spark discussion among the group. The meetings last two hours and are held quarterly. Please feel free to circulate this invitation to interested colleagues – we’re hoping this will be a means of getting to know and building lasting professional connections between gamers.

The next roundtable will be held on the afternoon of 25 October 2011 at NDU, and will feature two presentations:

Speakers: Peter Perla of the Center for Naval Analyses (and author of The Art of Wargaming) will present on the gaming component of the Joint Irregular Warfare Analytic Baseline (JIWAB) project.  Joe Lombardo of JFL Consulting (and until recently on-site at CASL) will present on an Afghanistan-themed game that was built into a course on strategic planning for reconstruction and stabilization in an interagency context.

Attendance is by invitation only, however, and limited to those with professional interest in the field. If you would like an invitation, please contact Tim Wilkie or Elizabeth Bartels.

%d bloggers like this: