Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Inklewriter

Building a (simulated) refugee camp


This year, as in previous years, some of the students in my POLI 450 (peacebuilding) course at McGill chose to write an interactive “choose your own adventure” story using Inklewriter, rather than a conventional group research paper. One of these concerned establishing and operating a refugee camp.

You can play through it here.

w506_9293656Much of this was built upon the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Camp Management Toolkit, as well as manuals from international agencies and initiatives such as the UNHCR, the SPHERE project and the World Health Organization. From these they extracted issues, procedures, and best practices and embedded them into a fictional story.

In their accompanying “developers’ diary” they noted:

The objective of this report is to provide an overview of the development of our interactive story, “From Settlements to Shelters: An Exercise in Refugee Camp Establishment.” This story is intended to demonstrate different aspects of the decision-making process throughout the construction of a refugee camp. This includes situations such as the reorganization of self-settled refugee groups, the selection of a site, setting up basic camp facilities, registering refugees and camp-facilitated food distribution.

The protagonist is a newly-hired member of the Norwegian Refugee Council. His first assignment is to monitor the developing refugee situation along the border of the fictional Republic of Khourafiyya and the Western Sahara. The Western Sahara, a non-self-governing territory annexed by Morocco in 1957, has erupted in violent confrontations. Long-standing tensions between armed Western-Saharan liberation groups and those willing to accept Moroccan sovereignty have come to a head. As a result, hundreds of refugees have fled over the territory’s eastern border to the Republic of Khourafiyya (Jamhouriyya Khourafiyya) and have begun setting up clusters of makeshift camps along the border.

The Khourafi government is displeased by the growing numbers of unmonitored refugees gathering at the border and fear possible overflow of the conflict into the country. The government has adopted a neutral stance to the conflict, advocating a diplomatic solution between the two warring groups. As such, they fear the overflow of refugees, many of whom are sympathetic to the liberation movement, may jeopardize its relationship with the Moroccan government. The Khourafi government signed onto the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means the refugees are protected from refoulement, or forced return to their country of origin. Therefore, a new refugee camp must be built in Jamhourriya Khourafiyya to accommodate the growing numbers of refugees. The player, as a member of the NRC and the Camp Management Agency, has to participate in the decision-making process and coordinate with the UNHCR and other camp agencies to successfully build the camp and ready it for the refugees.

They found Inklewriter fairly easy to work with, but warned of its habit of occasionally losing saved work:

On the whole, we found Inklewriter to be fairly intuitive and easy to use after working through the provided tutorials. There were some more powerful features, such as the use of counters that can gauge the quality of progress, which we decided were not necessary for the type of story we wished to tell. In general, we felt that direct value judgements can often be difficult to quantify in the murky situations that often arise during humanitarian crises, so we felt it more apt to use direct consequences for certain choices that would only be felt in later stages of the game as well as in the ending reached by the player. This felt more “true-to-life” than supplying an overall score, as on an actual humanitarian tour it is rare to actually know how much of an impact you had after you have left. Realizing this, we also chose to have the consequences of some decisions not reachable within the scope of the game. While the software itself did not pose many problems, the site on which the Inklewriter software is hosted still seems to be quite buggy and would sometimes fail when it attempted to auto-save our work. Since there is no way to save manually, there were two occasions when a significant amount of work was lost and had to be redone. We would also warn future groups doing this project that Inklewriter can behave unpredictably if the story editor is open on multiple computers or browser windows simultaneously, so to prevent problems no more than one person should have it open at any given time.

Overall, they found the assignment more time-consuming than a regular research paper, but worthwhile:

We would suggest that students considering the narrative option should be encouraged to start far in advance. In our case, we started working on the project in late January, focusing on planning and discussion. By mid-February we had completed our research and begun storyboarding, which continued until early March. After nailing down our narrative, it took a further two weeks to get everything set up in Inklewriter, followed by a week of polishing. As can be seen, completing this project required consistent work over the entirety of the semester, in comparison to an essay which could potentially be churned out over an uncomfortable week or two. Perhaps there could be a deadline to have a narrative topic and rough outline approved in order for the option to be allowed, which would require that groups start working earlier than those doing the essay. However, despite the additional work the project requires, we would still encourage other students to attempt the narrative over the essay. We were able to cover a wide range of material, while at the same time exercising our creativity. Further, where traditional essays can often feel somewhat abstract, we were instead forced to ground our thinking in reality as much as possible.

inklewriterpicsthanks: Ella Nalepka, Doron Lurie, Zoha Azhar, Anas Shakra 

Student interactive simulation-writing in political science

A storyboard in development.

A storyboard in development.

A few months back we mentioned Inklewriter here on the blog, a ” free tool designed to allow anyone to write and publish interactive stories.” This term I had a chance to try it out for class assignments, specifically as an alternative option for the group research paper assignment in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course at McGill University. Usually this paper takes the form of a “best practices” analysis of a common peacebuilding challenges, such as dealing with the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, or donor coordination. For those who decided to go the Inklewriter route, they were told to develop an interactive story or adventure that would serve to illustrate best practices, explore particular sets of operational challenges, or otherwise illuminate the material we had covered in class in an educational way. Because of the experimental nature of the assignment, they were asked to submit both a development diary documenting the design process, as well as the Inklewriter project itself. They were also given a two-week extension.

Four groups (about 15% of the class) opted to try their hand at Inklewriter. All, I think, did a very good job—especially since they were working in uncharted territory for the course. All four groups volunteered to have their projects posted to PAXsims, so you’ll find each of them below, together with their design notes.

One of the storyboards in development.

Another storyboard in development (and gradually taking over someone’s room).

All groups found storyboarding  a complex yet illuminating plot line with multiple decision points to be a challenge—especially since the various choices presented to the reader/player had to be subtle and non-obvious. After all, there’s little point in an interactive story if the decision points are all a choice between something obviously sensible, and something obviously stupid. There were some minor quirks in the software which, at times, made it a little difficult to work with—although everyone overcame these without any help from me. The biggest challenge, I think, was having to write interactive stories about field operations in fragile and conflict-affected countries when few if any of the students had spent any time dealing with such issues in real life. Experienced aid workers, diplomats, and peacekeepers might therefore have some quibbles about how particular institutions or processes portrayed in each assignment (and these are the raw assignments too, as submitted for grading and without any subsequent tweaks). The bigger picture here is the way in which this medium can be used to create vignettes and scenarios, and the ways in which the generation of these encourage students to undertake research, think about causal relations and critical junctures, and portray them in interactive form. None of the students had any prior simulation-writing experience.


Humanitarian Negotiation with Armed Groups (design notes)

  • by Tiphaine Monroe, Toader Mateoc, Taylor Steele, and Bushra Ebadi 

This project explores the difficult of securing humanitarian access in areas of ongoing armed violence, building upon the Guidelines on Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups (2006) developed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. One interesting innovation by this group was introducing an element of chance into the outcomes. Since the software doesn’t allow for it, they achieved this through the simple solution of occasionally having the reader roll a six-sided die.

In this simulation, you are a senior member of the OCHA, and you have the task of developing and implementing a proposal to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in the United Federation of Petrichor, a nation riven by civil discord on the continent of Northern Tiffleton.

Petrichor is a former Western colony that has enjoyed independence since 1956, but due to simmering ethnic tensions stemming from colonial times, the country has fallen into periodic chaos. Currently, the country is suffering from episodic fighting with occasional breaks in the violence, mostly between the government led by President Martin Steed-Asprey, leading industrialist, and the rebel group Minabwa led by Damocles Lafleur, son of a farming family that had their land confiscated by the government in an earlier episode of ethnic tension.

The colonial power only dealt with the President’s rebel group; as such, the rebels’ original motivations were to have increased political representation and to have more equitably distributed economic growth, but the conflict itself has led to further deep-seated racism and enmity between the two groups. Further adding to complications, the two groups are also divided by separate religions, though this does not form the basis of the conflict. You will discover more information after you make contact with your intermediary throughout the following adventure.

Before you begin, we recommend that you have on hand both the OCHA manual on humanitarian negotiations with armed groups, specifically the worksheet for mapping characteristics of armed groups, as well as one six-sided die.

At certain points in this game, despite your best efforts, the result will be at least partially up to chance, much like real life. We wish you patience and success as you navigate the complex field of humanitarian negotiations!


Hard to Handle: A DDR Story (design notes)

by Daniel Stysis, Jess De Santi and Kegan Chang

This simulation addresses many of the challenges of disarmament, demobilization,  and reintegration programmes, including cheating, female combatants, and the need to find suitable civilian employment for ex-combatants. It also captures some of the never-ending meetings, coordination challenges, stakeholder consultations, and confidence-building requirements of peacebuilding by forcing the player to meet with many different actors—often more than once—before achieving their goals.

The country of Badnok has recently been the subject of a major civil war. The Gand, a minority ethnic group in the country, founded a resistance movement against the dominant ethnic Lothan ethnic group. Naming themselves the Gand Liberation Front, they fought the regular army for nine bloody years, with both sides committing major human rights violations. Now, however, mutual exhaustion by both sides has allowed a peace treaty to be brokered, and it will be necessary for aid agencies and the United Nations to help set Badnok on the road to peace.

You are the head of cantonment camp 18, located outside of Basin City, a mid-sized city located somewhat inland from the coast. As part of the peace agreement, armed groups are voluntarily surrendering themselves to the process of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration.

Your responsibilities entail the running of the camp itself while securing possible avenues for employment for the demobilised soldiers at your camp. You must also attend coordination meetings with other NGOs operating in the area and as part of the service delivery team at your own camp. Finally, you must report back to your superiors at headquarters.

Aleppo: The Mother of All Battles (design notes)

by Tracy Atieh, Alexander Arguete Iskender, Thibault Charpentier, and Louise Duflot

Here the reader/player is just trying to survive, as the Syrian civil war rages around them. It isn’t always clear what the best choice: flee, or stay in place? Join a side, or stay neutral? When death comes, it comes as suddenly, and finally, as a sniper’s bullet.

You have chosen to play under Ahmad Munzer, also known as Abu Omar. You are married with Leila and are the father of three children: your elderly son Omar age 12; your daughter Nour age 10, and your youngest Karim.

You live in the Eastern district of Tariq al-Bab, and work in the Souk al-Madina market, the largest covered market in the world, where you sell clothing. As 80% of Aleppo’s population, you are part of the Sunni majority.

The uprising began on 15 March 2011 with popular demonstrations that grew nationwide by April 2011, but Aleppo remained largely uninvolved in the anti-government protest. However, you can feel the tension escalating around you. You know it´s getting closer… All you can do is continue with your daily life


You have chosen to play with the Haddad family living in Homs, in the Hamidiya neighbourhood. Your name is Rida, you are 43 years old, you are Christian. You have 2 children (1 daughter of 13 years old named Yasmina and 1 son of 17 years old named Zein). Your wife’s name is Sima.

Like every morning, you drive your children to school before going to work. You have two ways to get there, the fastest and the safest, which one do you choose?


Chaos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (design notes)

by Kushal Ismael, Joya Mukherjee, Regan Johnston

In this simulation, the player/reader must try to deal with various challenges arising from M23 militia activity in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reader is given the option of playing through the story as two quite different characters. Also, the simulation recognizes that perfection is rarely achieved in the field: a player needs to only succeed two out of three times for the mission to be deemed a “success.”

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been plagued by decades of violence. Millions have been displaced or have died as a result of the conflict between the Congelese Government and various groups of rebels. 5.4 million lives have been lost since 1998. 2.4 million people have become displaced and 1,152 women were raped daily (2012)….

The history of this story begins in 2008 when the violence intensified and a new rebel group, M23, formed.

One of the main IDP camps in region is Mugunga III, run by the UN in North Kivu, a few kilometers west of the large city of Goma. 30,000 IDPs reside in the camp, with more coming in each day as they flee the violence. The camp’s demographics include thousands of rape victims, ex combatants, and former child soldiers. Conditions in Mugunga III are deplorable as rebels have broken into the camp several times, stealing the limited food rations that Mugunga III has.

These are just some of the notable problems you will have to deal with in your adventure.


UN Field Officer: You are the head of Mugunga III, responsible for reporting to UN headquarters in Kinshasa on the conditions at the camp. You have worked here since 2009 and you hope to finish your service on good terms. You are responsible for coordinating relief efforts between the various NGOs that work at the camp as well as ensuring that relations with the local government remain on good terms.

Radio Okapi Journalist: You are responsible for writing stories from Mugunga III to broadcast on Radio Okapi. You are one of 200 staff of Radio Okapi, which is funded by the United Nations and Hirondelle, a Swiss news agency.

 * * *

What did students think of the assignment? The feedback I received was  overwhelmingly positive:

We definitely think that it should be an option for future classes. Maybe there should be a few more constraints around the project, just make sure groups are working along the way and together. We had a great experience working on the game together and we learned a lot. We know that future classes would definitely enjoy this project and perhaps even find new software that could enhance the conflict simulation further.

All in all, I’d recommend it as an option – I think that it’s entirely possible a group will be able to come up with a better project if they can learn from our mistakes. The only recommendation I would really make is just ensuring that they have a chance to look through the projects this year for an idea of what to expect.

I think the assignment was a very engaging and thorough learning experience, it took us a long time but really deepened our understanding of the situation and was therefore very insightful so keeping it as an assignment option for the course would be a great idea since the format is also very flexible and any kind of games can be created.

Regarding the option of having this as an assignment option, I highly recommend it. It gives the students the opportunity of approaching civil conflicts from a different point of view.

In comparison with the group paper, the games really gives you the opportunity of working together and not just dividing the parts. Because of the nature of the software, constant communication is needed because:

  1. Even if in theory it coud be used in several computers at the same time, the software glitches.
  2. The software doesn’t give you the opportunity of adding new parts.

I learned a lot from this assignment. It required not only the ability to solve problems relating to conflict, but also an understanding of how conflict in and of itself might arise. I believe that students in future classes might gain quite a bit from this.

 I think offering the project to future students would be useful (it may be best to make them choose a narrow topic and have them start at the very beginning of the semester). I don’t know if other options are available, but a more friendly software could make the process more efficient.

Working on this game was very exhilarating, and although the software wasn’t easy to use from time to time, I’m sure the four of us were able to gain a lot from it. Just like in the class SIM, we really identified to our character, and – in a way – his fight for survival became ours.

I really believe you should offer this assignment option to future poli450 students. It gave us the opportunity to be creative – something we generally don’t find in other polisci classes.

Given the quality of the output and the feedback I received, I certainly will be making this an option for future classes.

h/t Many thanks to POLI 450 students for making their assignments available for the blog.

Inklewriter and interactive (simulation) authoring

At the Chronicle of Higher Education today, Anastasia Slater has an article/review of Inklewriter, a free online app for interactive story-writing:

Last week, Inkle Studios released “Future Stories,” a curated collection of stories produced with its interactive story development tool. This slick iPad app features the tech behind Frankenstein, an interactive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel by Dave Morris. Play through any of these stories for a while and you’ll see everything from straightforward choices of action to complex moral dilemmas and experiments. You can also check out many experiments on the web, including Emily Short’s Holography–she’s also written some thoughts on inklewriter as a platform.

While Inform 7 (as discussed last week) uses a parser interface based on interpreting a broad range of user actions (get lamp, open door, look at book, etc.), Inklewriter uses an interaction model similar to ’80s Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, which recently came back into print and made the transition to eBooks. However, it goes beyond any of the simple page-shuffling models of those past books in part because it can keep track of decisions and variables from the user’s actions.

The resulting story is web-based, but you can pay a small additional amount ($10) to have the interactive story exported to a Kindle ebook with embedded links.

Having played around a little with it online, the system would have considerable potential for building serious educational and training modules, making it relatively easy to build text-based versions of something like the Inside the Haiti Earthquake with a series of branches choices that allows users to explore first, second, and third order consequences of various strategic or operational choices.

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