On February 15, McGill University hosted the annual CONNECTIONS NORTH interdisciplinary conference on conflict simulation and other professional/serious gaming. This was the fourth such conference—and the largest yet, with 79 registrants. Of these, over half were a mix of national security professionals, game designers, and researchers, and the remainder were university students (mainly from my POLI 452 Conflict Simulations course). Participants came from Canada and three other countries this year (US, Japan, Finland), and just over one-quarter were women. Some of the slide presentations are linked in the summaries below, and the full conference programme (and presenter biographies) can be found here.
Following weldoming remarks by Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) we started off with a panel reviewing the past year or so in Canadian (war)gaming.
In the military domain, Scott Roach (Canadian Joint Warfare Centre) provided an overview of the work of the JWC’s small but growing wargaming section. This included joint wargaming (a series of a capability-based planning wargames, as well as games for the Canadian Joint Operations Command), joint experimentation (notably concerning information operations, electronic warfare, cyber, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and joint simulation (using KORA, MASA Sword, JCATS, and others). He noted that they hoped to expand their staff, establish a resource/data library, and move towards more digital gaming. Jonathan Evans (Canadian Army Simulation Centre) spoke about the work of CASC, together with Brian Philips (Calian). CASC is headquartered in Kingston, with distributed locations in CFB Gagetown, Valcartier, Petawawa, and Edmonton. It provides support to the Canadian Army (both digital simulation and tabletop and other exercises), as well as Canadian Joint Operations Command, the RCAF, and other organizations. The major activities of CASC include support for Divisional Simulation Centres, UNIFIED RESOLVE, the Army Operations Course and Canadian Army Command and Staff College, and the Army Experimentation Centre. He also provided an overview of current Canadian Army simulation capabilities: ABACUS, JCATS, and VBS3, linked together and to command and control systems through the Virtual Command and Control Interface (VCCI). Murray Dixson (Defence Research and Development Canada) presented on gaming force planning scenarios, reviewing the work that DRDC had done with the Joint Warfare Centre on capability-based planning. This took the form of five wargames conducted in the spring and summer of 2019 to support Department of National Defence strategic planning. Three of these were conducted as matrix games (stabilization, peace enforcement, and peer combat), one as a combination seminar and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) game (humanitarian assistance), and one as a seminar game (domestic security and pandemic operations). He also discussed future work by DRDC’s Centre for Operational Research and Analysis (CORA), which includes continued support to strategic planning, as well as gaming for concept development and developing a DRDC wargaming community of interest.
In the foreign policy field, Anna Bretzlaff (Global Affairs Canada) discussed several games that GAC has run in recent years (on topics ranging from diplomacy in the South China Sea to global pandemics), as well as outreach efforts within GAC. The response within the department, she noted, had been very positive: this was clearly a foresight and analysis technique that officials wished to make use of. Finally, I added a few comments about gaming at McGill University, as well as some other PAXsims initiatives, including game development with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada on the African Swine Fever threat.
Subsequent discussion addressed how to better connect up the various gaming initiatives and interests across the government of Canada.
After a coffee break (kindly supplied by local serious game developer Imaginetic), our next panel explored methodological reflections on wargaming.
Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College) presented on reversal effects and wargames—part of his “malign wargames series” whereby he seeks to inoculate game designers and participants against game-distorting techniques. Here he argued that the outcome of a game could potentially be distorted to suit analytical or policy preferences at the outbrief and after-action review stage. One way of doing this, he suggested, was to use insights from psychological research into probability, risk assessment, and loss aversion. Framing game outcomes in different ways could subtly render options more or less appealing. Because of this, he suggested, just “playing the game” was not good enough. It was important to also be familiar with social science and psychology theories, discuss subjective likelihoods of success using “high” through “low” text scales, describe alternatives in terms of advantages and disadvantages, use both selection and pricing techniques when framing outcomes, use both gains and losses, and identify biases of participants. Next, Andy Lee (McGill University and DRDC) reviewed methods of adjudication in matrix and seminar games. His presentation was based on a review of the available wargaming literature, together with interviews with a range of practitioners. Multiple systems were assessed (umpired, weighted probabilities, probability, voting, consensus, rigid) and he offered an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Finally, David Redpath (Canadian Joint Warfare Centre/BI-5 Inc.) offered extensive thoughts on refining wargame methods, focusing on four essential “problem” areas: fog of war and situational awareness, player level and expertise, and the orders they can give in the game; move/countermove and turn order; and who loses—and why. He argued that in all four of these areas, many hobby and professional games alike suffered from serious deficiencies. He then offered a series of suggestions and techniques whereby each might be addressed.
Following lunch, Tom Fisher (Imaginetic) chaired a session on gaming civilians in conflict. He briefly reviewed the enthusiasm for gaming techniques in evidence at the recent Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week in Geneva. Matt Stevens (Lessons Learned Simulations and Training) then talked about serious games for humanitarian capacity building, offering an overview of a current research project being undertaken by Save the Children, Lessons Learned Simulations and Training, Imaginetic, and Kaya. This research asks whether serious games contribute to training for local humanitarian aid workers, exploring the extent to which digital or in-person tabletop exercises prompt changes in behaviour and/or attitude. They are also examining the potential barriers to engagement with mobile-based and tabletop serious games as a learning tool, as well as the practical requirements necessary to roll-out mobile and/or tabletop serious games to learners working in an emergency setting. To do this, they have undertaken experimental workshops in Amman and Nairobi using both manual games (AFTERSHOCK, The Day My Life Froze) and digital games. Participants were very positive about the use of games for humanitarian training. Manual games were preferred by participants, but it is not yet clear which is the better learning tool. He also noted that “digital games cause digital problems” (interface, bandwidth, system incompatibilities, and so forth).
Patrick Robitaille (Laval University) then presented on the annual SimEx humanitarian field exercise organized by Laval University. He discussed how they challenge and assess participants, and changes they have made over time.
The keynote address at Connections North this year was provided by Yuna Wong (RAND), who spoke on “gaming and the unknowable future.” She addressed the challenges of gaming the future, and the difficulty game participants have in imagining the truly new. In the end, she suggested, we had to recognize that the futures we game are unlikely to come to pass in quite the way that we play them, although that does not invalidate games-based reflection and exploration.
Our final panel of the day addressed an important and sensitive topic: expanding the community. It was chaired by Matt Caffrey (US Air Force Research Lab), the founder of the worldwide Connections conferences, and the man who has probably done more than anyone to build global networks amongst professional wargamers. Many of the presentations focused on the challenges facing a field that has historically been dominated by middle-aged (and increasingly older) white males drawn from the military and wargaming hobby. Yuna Wong highlighted her own experiences as a woman and visible minority whose background was in the social sciences, not hobby gaming: while many veterans in the field have been generous with their time and support, she said, all too often she still encounters subtle biases and presumptions. Brianna Proceviat (PAXsims)—who recent graduated from McGill University and who will soon be joining the wargaming team and the Canadian Joint warfare Centre—dressed in pink to ask the rhetorical question “what does a wargamer look like?” She highlighted how subtle gendered pressures during childhood (for example, steering young girls away from conflict-themed toys and games) could leave them having to catch up with male counterparts who had a different experience of childhood socialization. Matt Shoemaker (Temple University) explored the history and design of war games in relation to gender. Independent game designer Roberta Taylor then followed up by discussing a game that she and Matt are developing which depicts the final military conflict in the French conquest of the Kabyle region of Algeria (1854-1857). This will look at the dynamics and effects of war across the entire local (Amazigh) population, and will also reflect the key role played by resistance leader Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer.
The discussion that followed was especially interesting. Several conference participants noted that the wargaming hobby—which is, surveys suggest, is more than 98% male—has had trouble reaching out to younger and more diverse demographics. A few even detailed incidents of outright misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in online (hobby) wargaming communities. Several students made the point that they would not have even been aware that wargaming—and especially professional wargaming—existed, had they not encountered it in the classroom or through events like Connections North or megagaming. A few noted the popularity of model UN (which takes place on an impressive scale these days: the annual McMUN at McGill University involves more than two thousand participants and X days of programming—all organized by students). Several experienced professional wargamers even went so far as to say the hobby was increasingly less important as a source of new talent for professional wargaming. What was needed, they suggested, were those with social sciences backgrounds, familiar with both POL-MIL issues and rigorous analytical methods.
And this the conference came to a close. As I was busy chairing sessions and otherwise conference organizing, I’m afraid that I never did get around to taking pictures. If you attended and had any to pass on, please send them on! Feel free to many comments below too.
The following day, February 16, was our annual McGill megagame. That was a separate event, but many participants stayed on for it. A report will follow shortly!