Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: disaster preparedness

Review: Gaming Disease Response

ED McGrady and John Curry, Roll to Save: Gaming Disease Response (History of Wargaming Project, 2021). 143pp. USD$20 paperback, USD$7.92 Kindle.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the value of serious gaming for supporting health sector preparedness and government policy response. Indeed, in my own case, during the past year I have found myself designing games on pandemic-related food security issues, working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Department of National Defence in red teaming Canada’s national vaccine roll-out plans (including a major national tabletop exercise), and I’m currently working with the READY Initiative on digital games-based training for epidemic disease preparedness and response in the humanitarian sector.

All of that is to say that I wish Roll to Save: Gaming Disease Response had been published a year ago, because it is a very useful resource indeed for anyone working in this area. Some of the chapters address general design issues, including the value of serious games; gaming at the strategic (policy), operational, and “tactical” levels of disease response; and important considerations in professional game design. Other chapters discuss particular game designs, addressing topics as wide-ranging as vaccination/prophylaxis; bioterrorism (anthrax, melioidosis); particular epidemic outbreak scenarios (ebola); mental health support; and pandemic recovery (COVID-X). It also contains brief chapters discussing some of the basics of infectious diseases, epidemiology, public health planning, outbreak investigation, and the importance of information, politics, and the media. My only disappointment was the bibliography, which lists some of the sources cited in the book but which doesn’t provide a wider reference to the substantial literature on medical and emergency preparedness gaming.

Above and beyond the very considerable value of this publication for those designing disease response games, it also stands as an excellent example of how serious gaming should be undertaken. McGrady not only has extensive experience in designing and implementing serious games on a wide range of national security and policy issues, but also has keen insight into what works in what context. He thus underscores the importance of designing a game around not only the topic, but equally the game objectives, available resources, participants, and client/sponsors.

Review of the Canadian Humanitarian and Disaster Response Training Program SimEx 2013

June McCabe is an MA student in political science at McGill University, whose research interests including peace operations, humanitarian assistance, and simulations. She participated in the Canadian Humanitarian and Disaster Response Training Program in May, and offers these reflections on the experience.


Recently, there has been a growing trend in humanitarian response to use simulation exercises to train personnel for work in the field and improve organizational capacity by familiarizing humanitarian aid workers with protocols and standards for effective provision of aid. Simulations can be useful not only in research and knowledge creation but also as a method to teach in a practical way that is difficult to get from classroom experience alone. Moreover, simulation can help to provide a strong foundation for future aid workers pre-deployment so that when arriving on scene in a real crisis they have the personal and professional skills to cope. The Emergency Capacity Building Project has identified three distinct types of simulations used in humanitarian response: skill drills, where specific skills and knowledge are utilized and tested; functional simulation, where participants act in a role they could fulfill in a real crisis; and table top simulations, which involve discussion and problem solving of an aspect of a real or hypothetical crisis (Barnhardt, Bulten, Hockaday, Sitko, Staples 6).

HTIprogramFor over 10 years, the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard has offered a highly regarded training program, the Humanitarian Studies Initiative, which employs all three of these simulation methods to train both university students and aid workers in the basics of humanitarian response. This May, I participated in the first ever Canadian Humanitarian & Disaster Response Training Program conducted by the Humanitarian Training Initiative, which emulates the original Harvard program including the three day simulated humanitarian crisis called the SimEx.

By the end of the 10 day course, my knowledge of humanitarian aid had been greatly expanded. I now feel ready to consider aid work with a grasp on how it must be to work in the field. The sim showed some of us that we never want to do humanitarian aid work, while others of us found it invigorating and are preparing for deployments to the DRC. The simulation was the part of the course that brought what we had learned during the long classroom tutorials into focus. It challenged both our abilities and our ideas about being an aid worker. In the end, the SimEx was one of the most multifaceted and complex learning experiences I have ever had.

The SimEx Scenario

During the first week of the course, we learned about the cluster system, the Sphere core standards, as well as ethics and the history of humanitarian aid. Lectures were supplemented by table top exercises culminating in a mock aid project pitch where we created a project with short and long-term goals, a timeline, materials projections and budget estimates for an IDP camp in Côte d’Ivoire. The last three days of the course, the SimEx, took place on a campground at Sparrow Lake, Ontario made into the fictional country of Simlandia. The SimEx placed students in the midst of a complex emergency scenario where aid workers struggled to reach populations affected by a tsunami while dealing with tight military controls as well as rebel activity in the area. The simulation scenario itself touched on some of the most challenging aspects of a complex emergency including child soldiers, government manipulation of aid flows, celebrity appearance and of course, high security risks to NGO personnel.

THTIhe SimEx was built on both functional simulation and skill drill components. Upon arrival at the camp, students were broken into NGO teams (i.e. Oxfam, World Vision). Within the team, each student was assigned a cluster specific role (i.e. WaSH, Shelter, Security). During the day, NGO teams would rotate through different “stations” performing skill drills relating to a specific cluster. Each station challenged the students to employ knowledge of Sphere standards and skills learned during the first week of the course. Information collected at these stations also contributed to an overall picture of the developing humanitarian emergency. In contrast, the functional aspect of the sim focused almost entirely on the emotional and physical demands of being a humanitarian aid worker during the first day, week and then month of an emergency (time conversion on Days 1, 2 and 3). How to work as a team and communicate while being hot, hungry and tired was one of the most fundamental lessons the sim was designed to teach us.

Overall Assessment

Overall both the functional and skill drill portions of the simulation were educational and illuminating. The skill drills allowed students to utilize the training materials and information that we had learned during the previous week and carrying this out successfully was very motivating. The functional part of the simulation really allowed us to experience the stress and fatigue that can occur during a deployment immediately following a disaster. The most valuable and rewarding part of the functional portion of the simulation was learning how to work as a team and to rely on teammates for emotional and physical support. The course as a whole also provided a great networking opportunity for students trying to enter the humanitarian aid sector. The SimEx facilitators were very high caliber founts of knowledge, one of the program’s strongest points. Being able to work with such experienced and knowledgeable people like Dr. Kirsten Johnson and Dr. Hilarie Cranmer was a great learning opportunity.

While the simulation was largely constructed and executed well, the combination of skill drills and functional simulation as well as the short time allocated for debriefing post-simulation were areas in need of some improvement. The following sections will elaborate on these challenges and provide suggestions for future iterations of the SimEx.

Organizational Difficulties between Functional and Skill Drill Components

One of the primary reasons for including the SimEx in the humanitarian training program is to allow students to experience the stages of a humanitarian emergency scenario without the actual loss of life and accompanying emotional stress. However, the stress of trying to manage one’s team objectives, deal with the media, and function in the woods with little rest and food is still a difficult task in and of itself. These team objectives, coordination, report writing, lack of food and rest can all be considered part of the functional simulation component. The skill drill stations were interspersed with other big-picture events such as meetings with UN OCHA. Teams were often unprepared or unaware of what would happen at the next station because these big-picture functional events took so much time and focus. In the worst cases, the skill drills actually functioned in opposition to larger team objectives. For example, while trying to coordinate a food distribution in an IDP camp, we were brought as part of a skill drill to a meeting that ICRC had set up between my team and the local rebels, who happened to be child soldiers. We had not planned this meeting, nor did we understand the larger objective. In the end the meeting went poorly and we lost valuable time to plan the food distribution. In future years, the SimEx could be improved by tying the skill drills more closely to the larger scenario events and allowing teams more freedom to decide when, where and how they would attempt a skill drill. Although it is reasonable to have both functional simulation and skill drills in the same scenario they need to be integrated more smoothly for the students to truly benefit from them. A slightly less contrived station rotation would also help to maintain suspension of disbelief. To achieve this may require fewer skill drills or fewer events and assignments in the functional component. Students will continue to feel the stress of the scenario even with far fewer events to complete.


Another critical aspect to simulation is the debriefing portion. Due to time constraints, debriefing was quite short in the SimEx. The Emergency Capacity Building Emergency Simulations Administrators’ guide recommends a debrief period equal to the time of the exercise itself (Klenk 50). Three whole days of debrief may be unnecessary, but a much greater emphasis should have been placed on debriefing after skill drills as well as the different stages of the functional simulation. It could be constructive to utilize the “experimental learning cycle” which breaks activities into stages of concrete experience, reflection, generalization, application and then a return to experience (Klenk 57). It would help students in the future to practice a skill drill or a specific event or scenario, debrief and then attempt a similar event utilizing the same skill. Debriefing in the middle of a scenario can disrupt the realism, however it is better to do so than not debrief. Perhaps this presents another difficultly in trying to integrate skill drill and functional simulation methods into the same scenario.


The program certainly achieved its goals to improve disaster preparedness of humanitarian aid workers attending the course. Through coordination of organizations like HTI, the long-term goal of improved operational capacity of NGOs and inter-sector communication seems quite possible. Students from these programs are receiving a standardized education of the field and the Sphere project, creating a common language that can be used during a crisis. The SimEx is an incredibly valuable learning tool and opportunity for growth. The specific goals of the SimEx were also met; the vast majority of students came out of the experience with a greater understanding of a humanitarian aid operation and whether they would like to participate in one in the future. Finally, as the Canadian training program expands and matures, hopefully some of the first time difficulties we experienced can be reflected on and used to improve the SimEx in the coming years.

June McCabe


Barnhardt, Daniel, Odile Bulten, David Hockaday, Pamela Sitko and James Staples. “Simulating the worst to prepare the best: a study of humanitarian simulations and their benefits.” ECB Project Case Study May 2013: Web. July 2013.

Humanitarian Training Initiative. “The 2013 Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program. ” 8-9 May. Web. August 2013.

Klenk, Jeff. “Emergency Simulations: Administrators’ Guide.” ECB Simulations Project 2007: Web. July, 2013.

Simulations and their use in the humanitarian sector


This guest post has been written for PAXsims by David Hockaday of the Emergency Capacity Building Project.

Simulations and their use in the humanitarian sector

The Emergency Capacity Building Project (The ECB Project) [1] is a collaboration among six of the world’s largest International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and is specifically designed to improve the skills and competencies of the national staff of the six participating agencies and other stakeholders at the national level. This skills improvement process is called “capacity building”. The ECB Project has been working over the past six years to build the capacity of national staff to carry out faster and more effective emergency responses.

There are many approaches to capacity building national staff which the ECB Project has used. This includes training on a specific standard or tool, hosting learning workshops or learning events, and organising real time evaluations, after action reviews and simulations.

Simulations and drills are used in all walks of life to test and prepare specific skills and competencies – whether it is for the emergency services, health professionals, military or airline pilots – and the humanitarian sector is no different. Simulations provide an excellent opportunity to build relationships, test individual competencies and provide a safe learning space for participants to try out new behaviours or approaches.

ECB-Project-case-study-simualting-the-worst--front-cover_cropped89118The ECB Project recently finalised a collaborative simulation case study with other key stakeholders in the humanitarian sector, which yielded some interesting conclusions.

Perhaps of most significance was the implicit finding that simulations are increasingly recognized by NGOs, the United Nations (UN), donors, governments and the broader humanitarian community as a highly effective and engaging way of increasing disaster preparedness and building staff capacity.

As a result significant progress has been made in the humanitarian community in the way that simulations have been resourced, prioritized and used as a preparedness tool – from the creation of the ECB Project’s Simulation Administrators Guide, to the development of the United Nations Inter-Agency Emergency Simulation guidebook (UN-IAES) and the more recently drafted Local Government simulation piloted by the Philippine National Disaster Management Agency with assistance from the World Food Programme.

In addition, the United Nations Inter Agency Standing Committee (UN-IASC) developed a roster of trained simulation experts which is available for use by others within the humanitarian community.

These are all good examples of how the sector is increasingly professionalising, codifying and sharing resources and guidance on simulation design and implementation.

The most interesting finding from a human resource perspective was that across the board and without fail, simulations present an excellent opportunity for relationship and trust building. Relationships and trust are so critical in humanitarian responses and can be the difference between failed and successful coordination, and in turn can determine the ultimate success or otherwise of the overall response. The fundamental objective of the simulation in a humanitarian context is to ultimately pre-position relationships, in the same way that I/NGOs might try to pre-position vital stocks of mosquito nets, water purification equipment or sanitation kits.

The study found that there were four common reasons or objectives for holding a simulation:

  1. To identify the skills of an individual staff member that need to be strengthened before an actual disaster occurs.
  2. To develop and practice preparedness and contingency plans.
  3. To develop and practice organisational preparedness and relationships.
  4. To build organisational capacity.


While the stakeholders and organisations involved across the six simulations varied greatly (for example from a simulation held in Madagascar at the national level involving national government officials, UN officials and other key stakeholders, to a simulation held in a disaster vulnerable community in the Philippines, with community members and local NGO staff) the study revealed that successful simulation designs shared four common key elements:

  1. Trained and skilled facilitators.
  2. Injects [2] to help move the fictional scenario along and to test different components of planning, preparation, and coordination.
  3. A debriefing session held after completing the simulation where the key lessons from the event are captured.
  4. The development of an action plan, (individual, organisational or institutional) that outlines how the capacity or skills gaps identified during the simulation and debrief, will be addressed.

The study also revealed four common lessons about implementing successful simulations.

  1. Choosing the right simulation for the context (i.e. simulating a cyclone response in a cyclone vulnerable location helped to provide realism),
  2. Ensuring the right people and stakeholders are in the room,
  3. That good planning improves a simulation
  4. And that management commitment and appropriate budgetary support are also key factors in a successful simulation

kenyasimFor managers within the humanitarian community there are valid concerns about increasing frequency of disasters [3] and growing impact on human life and economic systems [4]. This means that being well prepared for an emergency response in a timely and effective manner is even more critical for reducing the impact of the disaster, saving lives, and ensuring a smoother recovery.

In this respect simulations offer humanitarian managers an excellent tool to develop staff skills and capacity, test procedures and contingency plans, build relationships and trust and bring a greater degree of predictability into humanitarian planning and response.

To see the full case study in detail, please click this link ECB Project Simulation Case Study: simulating the worst to prepare the best. For more information and resources on ECB Project simulations please visit

[1] The Emergency Capacity Building Project is a collaboration, now nearing the end of its second phase (2008 – 2013), between six of the world’s largest International Non-Governmental organisations CARE, CRS, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision. The purpose is to improve the speed, quality and effectiveness of emergency response through targeted staff capacity building initiatives.

[2] A “direct inject” is a stimulus or catalyst provided by the simulation administrator to provoke a response or reaction from simulation participants. Direct injects can come from e-mails, telephone calls, situation reports, disaster data, role players and actors. An “indirect inject” is catalysed by participants following their preparedness plans, contingency plans or standard operating procedures

[3] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Session Concept Paper “World Conference on Disaster Reduction.” January 2005. Pg 1.

[4] Guha-Sapir D, Vos F, Below R, with Ponserre S. Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2011: The Numbers and Trends. Brussels: CRED; 2012


UPDATE: The report is now also available in French and Spanish.

Serious gaming the challenges of humanitarian preparedness

Pablo Suarez (associate director of programmes at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre) was kind enough to drop us a note highlighting some of the work that they have been doing over the past few years using serious games to highlight and address the humanitarian consequences of climate change and extreme weather events. Some of this work has been done in conjunction with the PETLab at  the Parsons—The New School for Design, who have also put together a website (here) devoted to this particular case of “developing public interest games for better crisis-decision-making.”

* * *

Weather or Not is a simple game where participants are given the probability of a major storm, and then must decide whether or not to pre-position relief supplies. If they DO and there IS a flood (or if they DON’T, and there is NO flood) all is good. However if they DO and there is NO flood (or if they DON’T and there IS a flood) they are punished for over-reacting or failing to prepare. The game can been seen in use in the video below, with a graduate class at Columbia University: 

The best game strategy here seems rather blindingly obvious (prepare if the chance of a flood is above 50%), so presumably this would best be used to either familiarize people with probability estimates or to spark a larger discussion of the emergency preparedness.

* * *

Before the Storm is a card-based game where groups of participants are given a series of weather forecasts (at 10 days, 48 hours, and 12 hours) and are asked to select the appropriate preparedness measures from the deck. They can also develop their own ideas, and summarize them on their own card. This seems to me to be a much richer use of a game mechanism, with participants not only encouraged to weigh the pros and cons of various options but also challenged to think of new approaches of their own. In the video below the game can be seen being used in Senegal. In this case, once the game had been played and new various options had been generated, the group visited a flood-prone village to get community feedback on their ideas.

* * *

Spreading the Word is a version of the party/children’s game telephone, used to highlight problems of communication between scientists, relief workers, and local communities. You can see it at work here (at 04:00 to 17:45 in the video) in a workshop in Bangladesh. While the outcome isn’t surprising to anyone who has played the game before, it does seem a very entertaining way of highlighting the point in a lecture or workshop setting.

* * *

Choices in a Changing Climate looks at the twin challenges of flood and drought (longer version here). Again, the game is as important for the way that the game mechanics stimulate and facilitate discussion as it is for the lessons built into the game rules themselves.

* * *

Dengue, Catch the Fever! is designed to teach primary school children (and, secondarily, their parents and other stakeholders) about the risk factors for Dengue Fever, and the way these relate to issues of climate change. You’ll find an overview of the game here, and the game instructions here. Very clever, and it looks fun to play!

* * *

The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Change Centre also has links to other serious games used by national Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies:

  • Goose Escalera, a Spanish-language snakes-and-ladders type game for children (board, instructions) used to highlight environmental and climate change issues in Colombia.
  • Earth Savers, an Arabic-language boardgame on climate change for children, this time prepared by the IFRC for use in North Africa.
  • A Syrian computer game on the same theme.
One also shouldn’t forget a couple of other browser-based games with somewhat similar themes that we’ve discussed before at PAXsims, namely Stop Disaster (developed for the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction) and Inside Disaster (an interactive videoclip game on the Haiti earthquake). I’ve used both of these with students with great success.

Overall, there is a lot here to spark ideas as to how similar approaches can be used to address other humanitarian and developmental issues.  Moreover, as the work of IFRC and PETlab shows, you don’t need to make these complicated or electronic to get the basic point across. From a gaming perspective,it  is also easy to think of a number of existing card and boardgame techniques that might be applied to the issue of disaster preparedness. It would be interesting, for example, to design a cooperative card-driven game somewhat akin to Pandemic that whereby event cards generated disaster risks, forcing players to adaptively switch emphasis and limited resources from longer-term mitigation strategies to shorter-term emergency preparedness and response.

(Coincidentally I spent part of the holidays designing and play-testing a disaster response game. On the plus side, it was a hit with my local gaming group. On the other hand it may not be of much practical use, since it involves a future zombie apocalypse. Even without prodding from the IFRC, however, we did work climate change into the basic game setting!)

Zombies and simulating disaster response

In recent years we’ve seen a creeping infiltration of decaying abominations shambling into the academic and professional classrooms of the world, in search of fresh brains to prey upon. I’m not speaking of tenured professors, of course, but rather those ravenous creatures of the undead: zombies.

In social sciences, for example, Daniel Drezner has used the perils of zombie apocalypse to illustrate contending theoretical approaches to the study of international relations (a treatment that has, of course, provoked a paradigmatic riposte from within the field). Scholars have brought zombies into the classroom (well, the course curriculum that is—not actual carnivorous cadavers feasting on undergraduates), while my McGill colleague Steve Saideman has mused about the implications of animated corpses for university hiring, departmental politics, and academic publishing. In the military, the book World War Z has been used on at least a few occasions as a basis for small classroom or staff exercises.

However, according to an article last week in Emergency Management magazine, it is—not surprisingly—in the area of disaster preparedness that zombies are really rising from the dead:

The popularity of zombies has been rising in mainstream culture thanks to a recent influx of books, TV shows and video games. And agencies that cater to emergency preparedness are jumping on the undead bandwagon by encouraging the public to prepare for the zombie apocalypse.


Preparing for a zombie attack requires the same planning as emergencies like natural disasters — from putting together a disaster kit to creating an emergency plan.

The piece highlights perhaps the best known case of this, namely the Center for Disease Control guidelines for dealing with a zombie apocalypse posted earlier this year on the CDC website. The CDC guidelines, unfortunately, were clearly put together by bureaucrats with little actual field experience in surviving decomposing hordes of hungry zeds. In proposing that citizens “pick a meeting place for your family to regroup in case zombies invade your home,” for example, the CDC website appears to suggest regrouping on the street by the mailbox (actual CDC picture at right). However, nothing says “grrrarghhhnomnomnomnom..sluuurp” more than a group of succulent, defenceless young children milling about in the open, waiting for dad.

Above and beyond the value of publicizing the zombie issue to promote general disaster preparedness, Emergency Management also underscores the value of zombie scenarios in professional training:

For those interested in additional undead-related information, Doug Johnson, manager of the University of Florida’s e-Learning Support Services, created a disaster preparedness simulation exercise for responding to a zombie attack. The mock exercise was created in 2009 when the university was planning for the possibility of closing its campus in response to the swine flu. The document cites sources including the movies Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later and provides an infected co-worker dispatch form.

Such simulation-based training is, of course, dear to PAXsim’s heart. The link immediately above is well worth checking out for those of you who might want to develop scenario-based instructional materials based on the scourge of  what the University of Florida tactfully describes as “Zombie Behavior Spectrum Disorder.” Certainly, there are no end to the serious games and printed material available on the topic to underpin any such pedagogical efforts.

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