Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation

Simulations miscellany, 8 September 2013


Some recent items on games and simulations that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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gaming-research-2The folks at GrogHeads have started a new monthly column for academic-focused research on games and wargames:

Hobby games and gamers – especially in the strategy gaming and wargaming world – have rarely been the subjects of much serious published research inquiry.  And yet, some of us know from personal experience that such research is, in fact, being conducted in graduate schools and academic institutions all over.  Distinct from marketing analyses in that they are not focused on improving commercial performance, these studies are frequently conceptualized and executed by members of the broader gaming community who are seeking to fuse their love for the hobby with an academic persuit in the social sciences or humanities.

Although there are a few academic outlets for such research – the journal Simulation & Gaming springs to mind – not every paper was written with the intention of journal or conference submission.  Nevertheless, the research is still interesting and useful, and for GrogHeads everywhere it is certainly relevant.  Papers shared may inspire better research by later investigators, and the ideas discussed may help designers and developers craft better games.

Here at GrogHeads, we’re kicking off a new monthly series on Research and Gaming.  The first of these papers was published in early August, and we plan to follow with one each month.  And we’d like you to submit your research to us.  We’re not a peer-reviewed journal, but we do have some academics on our staff and among our “Friends of GrogHeads” network that include PhD’s in history, political science, and business, as well as other grad degrees in social sciences and the humanities.  So if you’ve got something interesting that you want to share, here’s your chance.  Email us your papers at research-at-grogheads-dot-com . Make sure you include all of your citations and footnotes in the document, and attach any graphics as separate files.  We will also need a short bio from you about who you are and how people can contact you.  One great way for people to contact you is to create an account in our forums, so that you can join any discussions of feedback that go on there.  We even have an area dedicated to references and research.

A few caveats, of course:

  • Do not send us something you’re hoping to see presented at a conference, or in a peer-reviewed journal
  • Do not send us something you expect to try to claim on a CV when you’re hunting for a future academic job
  • Do not send us blatant marketing, political, or religious tracts
  • Do not expect detailed, in-depth critiques of your work from our advisory team, but do expect a lot of questions from our audience, many of whom do not have a great academic background, and for whom there will need to be some gentler discussion of the finer points of how your research got to where it is.

So please send us your tired, huddled research projects yearning to breathe free, and let’s share them with the wider gaming audience.  Who knows what great insights they may spawn for someone else to build on, what feedback you’ll get to improve your own work.  Either way, it’ll be in the public and being discussed, which sure beats languishing on a digital shelf somewhere, next to the Ark of the Covenant.

Their first piece, by Brant Guillory, examines “Entrepreneurship in the Hobby Games Segment of the Publishing Industry.”

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The various slides and presentation recordings from the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference are now online at the Connections UK website.

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JDMSAn article by Andrew Collins, John Sokolowski, and Catherine Banks  on “Applying Reinforcement Learning to an Insurgency Agent-based Simulation”  will appear soon in the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology.”

A requirement of an Agent-based Simulation (ABS) is that the agents must be able to adapt to their environment. Many ABSs achieve this adaption through simple threshold equations due to the complexity of incorporating more sophisticated approaches. Threshold equations are when an agent behavior changes because a numeric property of the agent goes above or below a certain threshold value. Threshold equations do not guarantee that the agents will learn what is best for them. Reinforcement learning is an artificial intelligence approach that has been extensively applied to multi-agent systems but there is very little in the literature on its application to ABS. Reinforcement learning has previously been applied to discrete-event simulations with promising results; thus, reinforcement learning is a good candidate for use within an Agent-based Modeling and Simulation (ABMS) environment. This paper uses an established insurgency case study to show some of the consequences of applying reinforcement learning to ABMS, for example, determining whether any actual learning has occurred. The case study was developed using the Repast Simphony software package.

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Strategic Crisis Simulations, a student-run organization at George Washington University, will be conducting “Shattered Resolve: A Simulation of Conflict and Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula” at GWU from 11:30 AM – 5:00 PM on 14 September 2013. You’ll find registration details here.

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How might a  zombie elf help you get to college? The New York Times explains.

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The University of Denver sponsored an international humanitarian crisis simulation exercise over the 2013 Memorial Day weekend. You’ll find a very good video of the event below.

simulations miscellany, belated 2013 New Year’s edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agent-based modelling and the US troop surge in Afghanistan

The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation 9, 2 (April 2012) is now out. Most of it is devoted to technical discussions of “Resuability, Interoperability and Composability in Air Warfare Simulations,” but it does also feature an interesting and well-written piece by John Sokolowski, Catherine Banks, and Brent Morrow on “Using an agent-based model to explore troop surge strategy.”

In October of 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and replaced the Taliban government. Since its overthrow, the Taliban has pieced together and waged an insurgency to retake Afghanistan, and that insurgency has gained momentum and grown in strength while the United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) effort shrank in size to about 55,000 troops in 2007. A wide range of factors contributed to the insurgency, ranging from socio-cultural to economic to political. This research applied an in-depth study of Afghanistan to an agent-based model to determine if a military troop surge emphasizing a focused security effort could be successful in battling the growing insurgency within Afghanistan. An agent-based model was created and validated against the strategy and situation on the ground in Afghanistan that existed in 2007. Three experiments were conducted representing surges of 50%, 200%, and 400%. The results indicated that a surge of 200% or greater of the existing size force would be necessary to reduce the size of the insurgency, but that a surge of only 50% (50,000 more troops) would not bring about any significant changes as compared to the existing strategy. These model results provide insight into the potential success of various sized troop surges in Afghanistan that implement a focused security effort.

The piece is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, so you’ll need a subscription to JDMS to access the while thing. The core political-military dynamics of their model, however, are captured in the diagram on the right (click to enlarge). These in turn provide the context for the pseudo-tactical model, in which the insurgent and coalition agents fight it out, with detection ranges, a version of the usual Ph and Pk (probability of hits and kills), and probabilities of collateral damage (which in turn affect local attitudes) all modelled. Unlike some of the work done in the technical M&S field, the piece is written in language that is likely to be clear and accessible to those working in very different, non-quantitative areas.

A number of questions might be raised about the model that the authors have developed. One could endlessly quibble about the key variables they have identified, and in some cases whether the relationships always have the directional values they impute to them (for example, deployment of the Afghan National Army—and even more the highly corrupt Afghan National Police, which they don’t model—can sometimes have negative effects on local attitudes, in cases where they are either seen as abusive and predatory, or because they attract Taliban attacks in areas that might otherwise be quiet). However, those criticisms hold true for any game design, and in general my own general reading of conflict dynamics in Afghanistan suggests that quite a bit of it sounds intuitively right.

The authors do validate their model, using open source reporting of changes in Taliban numbers and adjusting the model until it fits the historical record. I’m not sure that their estimates of insurgent “density” are robust enough to provide much validation, however. Moreover, to increase calibration they manipulate only a few of the variables and relationships in the model in order to provide a match against this single indicator. To my mind, that doesn’t provide very strong validation of the underlying model itself.

The simulation attempts to draw conclusions about the relationship between an increase in coalition troop strength in Afghanistan (“the surge”) and the strength of the insurgency. In this, the authors are refreshingly realistic about the limits of agent-based modelling in illuminating policy questions (emphasis added):

The purpose of this study was to provide a means of assessing if the implementation of a military troop surge designated toward a focused security effort strategy might reverse the trend of the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. The strategy using the United States/coalition/Afghan National Army troop strength of about 101,000 soldiers has failed to defeat or even stop the growth of the Neo-Taliban insurgency. This research sought to add some insight into whether or not a surge with a specific role could work within Afghanistan.

…The results of these experiments indicated that a surge of 400,000 or 200,000 troops will reduce the size and strength of the insurgency, but a surge of 150,000 troops would not. These results are not definitive or absolute, but give insight into the possible outcomes of a surge of the given size based on a model built using careful research. This research represents a tool for analysis in the decision process to determine if a surge should occur. It is not the answer to the question of whether a surge would be effective.

In my view, however, they’ve both overstated and understated the value of their analysis. Given the great many assumptions built into the model, I’m even more doubtful than they appear to be that the outcome of the experiment provides useful policy guidance. On the other hand, I think they could do far more to highlight the potential contribution of the experiment as a heuristic device—that is, as a way of helping decision-makers think about a large, complex, wicked problem. As Gary once put it, the article would be even more interesting for a broader audience interested in insurgency and counterinsurgency  if there was less seer and more sage in its approach to the material. The model might offer some insight, for example, in why a limited surge might not work; what key indicators and metrics might be useful in assessing the effectiveness of increased coalition troop strength; or even what variables or nodes seems to have an especially important effect on outcomes. In other words, I think the article would be all the more interesting if rather than simply reporting experimental results, it also highlighted what the construction of the model itself may suggest about conflict dynamics (or our understanding of conflict dynamics) in Afghanistan. It would have also have been useful to report some of the more detailed simulation findings about how particular variables changed under different coalition troop strengths, or which relationships other than troop strength seemed to be most important to outcome.

Still, for the many readers of PAXsims who are interested in such issues but are rarely exposed to either agnet-based modelling or work in the M&S community on political-military issues, it is certainly worth a read.

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