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Tag Archives: McGill University

Save the date: McGill megagame 2020

The 5th annual McGill megagame will be held at McGill University, Montréal on Sunday, 16 February 2020.

The 2020 McGill megagame will be ATLANTIC RIM.

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A mysterious meteor shower has struck the Atlantic coast of North America. Many coastal communities, including parts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, have been devastated by the resulting tsunami.

Police, fire departments, medical services, municipal workers, Canadian Armed Forces personnel, and the Coast Guard are mobilizing to address the emergency. Roads are damaged. The electrical grid has been shattered. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Survivors are fleeing to safety.

Can local, provincial, and federal officials coordinate an effective response?

Will Atlantic Canada rise to the challenge? And are they prepared for what might now be lurking in the Grand Banks?

Registration information will be posted to PAXsims in November/December.

McGill end-of-term gaming update 2019

Classes are now over for the Winter 2019 term at McGill University, and it is exam-and-grading season. I have also now had a chance to review the various projects produced in my conflict simulation course (POLI 422). There are many very interesting and well-executed game designs.

The course was supported this year by Dr. Ben Taylor from Defence Research and Development Canada. The students and I were very grateful for his assistance.

 

ADVANCED OPERATIONS

Advanced Operations is a two map blind/closed game of tactical urban operations at the platoon level. The map depicts an urban neighbourhood, including vantage points, doorways, fields of fire, street clutter, and multi-story buildings. The basic combat system is straight-forward, intuitive, and quite effective. The Blue player can equip themselves before a mission with a range of new technologies and capabilities in order to assess their impact on urban tactics, ranging from small drones to power-assisted armour to robots (all based on weapons in development of field-testing).

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CARTEL

Cartel is a multi-player game examining the drug trade in Mexico, focusing on the era of large criminal syndicates. Players generate money through smuggling drugs from Central/South America into the United States and from other illegal activities. To move drugs through the country, however, they need to establish control and influence over a chain of key cities, and once the drugs have been delivered need to launder their illicit proceeds. The winner is the drug lord who amasses the most luxury items. However, be careful: as your notoriety grows, you become more of a target (and might even be arrested and extradited to the United States).

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FALLEN REPUBLIC

Fallen Republic is a semi-cooperative game in which South Korea, the United States and China struggle to stabilize North Korea after the collapse of the communist regime there. To do so they need to provide security, deliver food and medical supplies to needy populations, build local public administration, restart the economy, and win local popular support. Asymmetrical and semi-secret victory conditions can make it difficult to cooperate, while a fourth player—Chaos, representing all the fog, friction, and wicked problems of stabilization operations —wins by preventing the others from achieving their objectives.

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INTELLIGENCE COLLECTION

Intelligence Collection explores the ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance) and HUMINT requirements of counterinsurgency campaigns. It is a three map closed game, meaning that players only know the location of their own assets and enemy assets they have detected. Various Red actions, such as training insurgents, bomb-making, and smuggling—all have detection probabilities attached, which in turn are affected by patrolling, HUMINT collection, and other Blue actions. Interrogation of captured insurgents may also reveal information, such as who recruited them or where they were trained.

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LITTLE GREEN MEN

Little Green Men examines the war in Ukraine, and Russian hybrid warfare. The game combines both map-based area movement/combat with card-based policy initiatives. Russia needs to be careful that it’ support for opposition forces doesn’t become too obvious, or it risks stepped-up NATO assistance to the Kiev government.

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MELTDOWN

As the Arctic ice slowly melts, Canada, the US, Russia, the Scandinavian countries, and China are faced with new challenges and threats. Should new oil, mining, and fisheries resources be exploited? How should this be balanced against environmental management? What are the implications of transpolar shipping? Meltdown is both competitive and semi-cooperative—at the end of the game, the more heavily the Arctic is being exploited, the larger the chance of ecological collapse. The game allows for players to collectively change the game rules during play, through the mechanism of the Arctic Council. The map mechanic is cool too—as the ice melts you remove blocs of it from the game board, revealing the now-accessible resources beneath.

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MISSION RECONSTRUCTION

Mosul has been liberated by ISIS control, and the Baghdad government must reconstruct the areas of northern and western Iraq ravaged by the extremist group. However, ISIS seeks to disrupt such efforts, mobilize new recruits, rebuild its forces, and undermine local security. In MISSION RECONSTRUCTION the two sides each select their actions from a menu of options each turn. Event cards may also produce other crises that must be resolved if the stability of the country and the legitimacy of the government is to be enhanced.

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This is the first time I’ve taught the course as a lecture course, with 31 students—last year it was run as a seminar with only nine, which gave me more opportunity to work with a smaller number of game projects. It is also ambitious to fit it all into one term—Phil Sabin’s former wargaming module at King’s College London was a full year graduate course. Nevertheless, I think things generally worked well.

This year the teams were groups of five. Next year I think I’ll reduce that to four. While larger teams means more human resources to work on game design and playtesting, it also aggravates coordination and communication problems. I’ll also introduce a system whereby student evaluate the relative contribution of other team members. I have never been fond of these since they can be abused, but I think it will be worthwhile on balance. While most groups worked well, there were a few that generated complaints that a member wasn’t pulling their weight.

Despite constant nagging from me that the teams needed to move rapidly to prototyping and hence playtesting, I think all but one of the groups wished they had started on their project earlier than they did. Indeed, some did not do so until shortly before their interim “status report” was due. Next year I’ll require two such reports, with one of them even earlier in the term.

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that the 2019 Defence Research and Development Canada wargame design award (awarded by DRDC to the best project in the class) went to the team that produced ADVANCED OPERATIONS. Well done!

 

McGill gaming (Winter 2019 edition)

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The view from outside the Education Building today, where POLI 450 meets.

This time of the year is always a busy one for gaming activities at McGill University—so busy, in fact, that I’ve been a little remiss in updating PAXsims with all of our goings-on.

I teach two courses with a significant gaming components during the Winter term. POLI 450 is a course on peacebuilding, exploring topics ranging from forced displacement and humanitarian assistance through to negotiation, peacekeeping and stabilization operations, DDR (demobilization/disarmament/reintegration of ex-combatants), reconstruction, coordination, transitional justice, and a host of other issues. There are 87 students in the class, plus another six in the POLI 650 graduate seminar. Over the term they will experience a few short, in-class simulations, an optional tournament of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, and the massive, week-long “Brynania” peace operations simulation in late March/early April.

POLI 422 is a “selected topics” course on conflict simulation design with 31 students. This is the first time I’ve taught a full lecture course on the topic, although last year I did teach a very successful seminar on conflict simulation and a shorter professional course on serious games (at Carleton University), and a few students have previously undertaken independent studies courses with me that involved game designs on topics such as the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war. Moving forward this will be a regular course, taught annually at McGill from now as POLI 452.

Lectures so far have focused on the history of wargaming, the principles of serious game design, and modelling conflict through game systems. The course text is Phil Sabin’s book Simulating War, developed from his experience teaching a graduate wargaming course at King’s College London.

Students were also asked to come up with game proposals. Ten students chose to make a pitch, on topics ranging from Chinese-Vietnamese naval conflict to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Dr. Ben Taylor from Defence Research and Development Canada joined the class on presentation day to help assess them all, and in the end six were chosen as our projects for the year:

  • Fallen Republic (stabilization operations in a future collapsed North Korea)
  • Cartel (Mexican drug cartels)
  • Conquering the North Pole (Arctic cooperation and conflict)
  • Little Green Men (Russian interference in Ukraine)
  • Operation Breakpoint (impact of new and emerging technologies on asymmetric warfare)
  • Collateral (intelligence collection and high value targeting)

The various team leaders then formed groups of five students to work on each project. I’m quite pleased with the way we did this. First, students were each asked to fill out a “game design CV” detailing their areas of expertise and interest (gaming experience, graphic arts skills, research and documentation, rules-editing). Team leaders were then given a copy of these CVs, plus $1 million in fictional “game designer dollars.” Each team leader made secret bids for those they wished to recruit to her or his team. Unclaimed students were assigned by me based on skills and interests. No one was informed how much they had attracted in bids, of course—I didn’t want anyone to feel bad if they hadn’t been bid on. The result is that the teams each seem to include an appropriate mix of skills, and most people ended up in a project they wanted to work on.

Ben will be coming back to the class on February, to offer advice on game design, and then will help pick the winner of an informal DRDC design award for the best design at the end of the term.

In addition to class lectures, POLI 422 also features a series of optional games and other course activities through the term that contribute to course participation grades.

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1812: Invasion of Canada is a very good introduction to wargaming for neophytes: it is easy to play, does a nice job of illustrating the general contours of the conflict, and is an effective introduction to both area movement and card-driven mechanics. We Are Coming, Nineveh is a block game first developed by my students last year, examining the 2017 liberation of West Mosul by Iraqi security forces. Not only is it a terrific game (and one that will be commercially published), but because it was a student design it is a real inspiration to other students. The STRIKE! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame is in the mix because it is both a very straightforward hex-and-chit tactical game, and also because it was developed by serious folks at Dstl for serious training applications in the British Army. Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? is used to demonstrate card-driven political-military games, and Urban Operations is another tactical game that features mixed hex/area movement as well as some modelling of 3 dimensional urban terrain. Black Orchestraa is included because I think it is a really beautifully-designed cooperative design, while ISIS Crisis and A Reckoning of Vultures help to demonstrate matrix games. Students can also gain activity credits for playing certain digital games, attending certain events, or organizing their own gaming sessions.

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1812: Invasion of Canada

Speaking of We Are Coming, Nineveh, it is 99% done, including the solitaire system. The latter allows a single player to play against Daesh, with the actions of the latter determined by a card draw. We continue to do more playtesting, but this really only results in slight tweaks of cards and rules for clarity. We were especially pleased to learn last month that, along with a number of previously published commercial games, Nineveh will be examined as part of a Dstl-supported project on modelling urban warfare.

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We Are Coming, Nineveh!

Part of the reason things are so busy at the moment is because we have the Connections North (serious) wargaming conference coming up on Saturday, February 16. It looks like we’ll have about sixty people attending Connections North, about one-third professionals and two-thirds university students (including a group coming up to Montreal from Tufts University).

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The following day, on February 17, about a hundred of us will be engaged in some rather less serious wargaming: the APOCALYPSE NORTH megagame. While the zombie Armageddon isn’t a terribly plausible national security threat, the actual game is a pretty solid emergency management simulation, which models pretty much every Canadian Forces regular and reserve component in southern Ontario and Quebec, as well as emergency services and other relevant assets. The federal-provincial politics of it all should also be fun, and rather distinctly Canadian. If all goes according to plan—and it might not, since it depends on IT and AV things working as they should on the day—we should even have a (simulated) CBC television studio live-streaming reports to the players and beyond.

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In early March, I’ll be joining fellow PAXsims editor Major Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK) in Norfolk, Virginia for a week, as we will co-teach a wargaming course at NATO Allied Command Transformation. You will get a PAXsims report on that after the week is done, of course.

Late March will see me tied up in the recurrent civil war in Brynania, reading 10,000+ emails, and monitoring dozens of simultaneous chatrooms and Twitter. After that comes the end of term in mid-April, along with final exams—and game projects—to grade.

 

 

McGill gaming seminar: three projects

This week the students submitted their game projects for my POLI 490 game design seminar, finally bringing the term to an end. One lesson I learned this year is the need to force students into building a prototype earlier, and therefore allowing more time for play-testing. Constant exhortations weren’t enough, and I think all three teams were surprised to discover how long the play-test/revise/play-test/revise cycle can be, and how many bugs there can be to work out.

Still, I was very happy with the results. The conceptual foundations and core game mechanics of all three games were excellent—indeed, there are some potential commercial designs in here. All three teams want to continue to development over the summer and beyond, and possibly show them off at Connections US and/or Connections UK. What’s more, Brian Train has offered to assist with game development—pretty much a dream come true for neophyte political-military game designers.

 

One Belt One Road

One Belt One Road is a semi-cooperative game that examines Chinese grand strategy, focusing on its current efforts to deepen trade and investment ties in Asia, Africa, and onwards to Europe. Players represent the Ministry of Finance and Commerce, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the People’s Liberation Army.  Using financial, diplomatic, and military resources they seek to improve China’s bilateral relations, develop trade agreements, secure military facilities, and—most important of all—secure trade and investment opportunities. An events deck constantly generates new challenges to be overcome, however. Moreover, the three players have slightly different interests, which can impede cooperation.

 

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OBOR Game materials.

 

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Players have a menu of game actions they may take each turn, plus they may also support projects and respond to event cards.

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A game underway.  Eligible projects can be seen at the bottom, current events in the top right. The country displays show current relations with China. India doesn’t seem to be very happy!

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Sample event cards. 

 

 

The Logic of Atrocities: The War in Darfur

This is a mixed area/point-to-point wargame with a twist: the game is designed to show how and why governments and insurgent groups might engage in war crimes, and what might constrain them from doing so. In the game, atrocities can aid military operations, or impede rebel recruitment and resource generation through terror and forced displacement. However atrocities can backfire too. Refugees might themselves become a new source of rebel recruits. Moreover, there is a risk that they could provoke international condemnations, sanctions, or worse. Certain event cards, if triggered, are moved to the “Warn” and “Action” boxes, and if these fill up international action becomes possible. The intended audience here is those interested in mass atrocity prevention. the current version of the game is for two players (Sudan and Darfuri rebel groups), but a planned three player variation will introduce a United Nations player too.

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Game materials for The Logic of Atrocities.

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Sudanese Army (green) and pro-regime Janjaweed irregulars (white) commit atrocities as they advance towards rebel JEM forces that have just seized the town of el-Geneina.

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Sudanese war crimes have provoked condemnation from the United States and African Union—but no real international action action (yet).

 

We Are Coming, Nineveh

The third game is a tactical/operational wargame of the battle for West Mosul in February-July 2017, pitting the Iraqi security forces (and coalition support) against the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS). It too uses a mix of zonal and point-to point movement. Before the game starts, each player invests in capabilities and defensive preparations. On the ISIS side these include such things as tunnel networks, human shields, makeshift drones, primitive chemical weapons, IEDs and VBIEDS, bomb factories, weapons stockpiles, enhanced media capability, spy networks, improved training, human shields, and so forth. Units are depicted by blocks, thus providing for some fog of war, and blocks are rotated to show losses and reduced combat capability. Iraqi headquarters units enable loss recovery, additional movement, or combat bonuses. The terrain is both shaped and coded for urban density, which affects stacking and combat: armoured units, for example, are very effective in open areas, but cannot penetrate the narrow alleyways of the Old City. Major roads provide for faster movement—but only if you’ve cleared the neighbouring areas.

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Game materials for We Are Coming, Nineveh. The Iraqi government offensive has just begun.

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ISIS preparations for this game include human shields, tunnels, improved training, and simple chemical weapons.

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The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (Golden Division) advances towards the Old City while elements of the 9th Armoured Division try to clear the major roads and flank ISIS positions to the west.

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Amnesty International raises concerns that coalition drone strikes are causing excessive civilian casualties.

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Meanwhile, advancing Iraqi forces are harassed by makeshift ISIS drones.

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Iraqi forces begin to break into the Old City along the southern bank of the Tigris River (right), while the 9th Armoured Division continues its flanking operations to secure the major roads and cut off ISIS supplies (left). ISIS fighters continue to appear in Iraqi rear areas (bottom), where they are engaged by troops and police.

McGill gaming update

Previous McGill gaming updates for the Winter 2018 term can be found here (March 22) and here (February 3).


The regular school term at McGill University ended on Monday, and final exams are just starting. At the moment I am in the process of grading ninety or so student debriefs from our recent week-long (April 4-11) peacebuilding simulation in POLI 450/650. They are always interesting to read, encourage students to reflect on the simulation experience, and often contain insights from the game that had not otherwise occurred to me.

This year’s conflict in Equatorial Cyberspace saw months of tortuous negotiations between the government of Brynania and the Popular Front of the Liberation of Zaharia, finally resulting in a ceasefire and agreement on principles for a future peace deal. A small United Nations peacekeeping/observer mission, composed of Ethiopian, Indian, Canadian, and German personnel, was deployed to monitor and support the ceasefire at the most critical flash-point, the contested southern port city of Mcgilldishu. In the north, a ceasefire was also agreed with the diamond-smuggling warlords of the self-styled “Free People’s Army.” Elsewhere in the country, however, conflict continued: in the south, the radical Zaharian People’s Front conducted a series of successful hit-and-run guerilla attacks against government forces near Diku, while the western city of Aiku was seized by Icasian paramilitaries. A bloody, urban-type fight to recapture it followed, looking very much like the recent  Iraqi campaign to liberate Mosul.

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The government of Brynania and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Zaharia sign a peace agreement. Left to right: brutal defence minister, genocidal dictator, nice lady from the UN, scheming insurgent, ruthless guerilla.

The result—a ceasefire and preliminary peace agreement, supported by a UN force—has been the most common outcome we have seen over the 17 years I have been running the peacebuilding simulation at McGill, although certainly not the only one. Military casualties were the highest yet, however, due to the intense fighting around Aiku and with the ZPF. Civilian casualties were also very high, with the aid community slow to respond to the complex humanitarian crisis in the south.

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More than two hundred thousand refugees fled the area during the seven months the simulation covered, although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees did well in addressing their immediate needs—inspired, perhaps, by a real message of support sent by the actual High Commissioner of UNHCR at the start of the simulation (thanks again, Filippo!).

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Students and CONTROL alike were active on Twitter throughout—sometimes seriously, sometimes less so. One of the nice things about running this game in a university setting is that the participants can be very witting in their public statements (and Titter trash-talk), without in anyway distorting the fundamental dynamics of game or undermining the learning experience.

 

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The Brynania simulation is something of a labour of love: it took up around 18 hours a day of my time for a full week, during which I read or sent 6,438 simulation emails and simultaneously monitored 118 Facebook or other online messaging forums/chats—plus Twitter. You will find a couple of video documentaries on Brynania SIMs here and here.

My POLI 490 seminar in conflict simulation has also wrapped up, although the game projects are not due until the end of the month. The seminar this year was a practice run for a full class I’ll be teaching on the topic next year, and one thing I have learned is to add some graded milestone reports to the evaluation schema to make sure that each of the design teams gets a prompt start on developing a physical game prototype and playtesting it.

This year, there are three teams, one working on a game of the Darfur conflict, another developing a semi-cooperative game focusing on China’s One Belt One Road economic initiative, and a third exploring Iraqi military operations against ISIS in west Mosul in 2017.

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The game board for One Belt One Road.

Yesterday I was involved in a playtest of the Mosul project (“We Are Coming, Nineveh”). It is simple and elegant to play, but there is a lot built into the game design:

  • pre-game planning and capability investments (especially for ISIS, which needs to decide how to defend the city before the Iraqi assault)
  • fog-of-war via blocks and dummy counters
  • area movement that coincides with actual neighbourhoods and street grids
  • terrain types (open, urban, Old City) with effects on combat, and major thoroughfares (which allow for more rapid movement if cleared of enemy forces)
  • IEDs and VBIEDS
  • coalition UAVs (and ISIS modified quadricopters)
  • snipers
  • artillery and air support
  • bunkers and fortifications
  • tunnels
  • command and control issues, including coordination difficulties between different Iraqi units and organizations
  • combined arms
  • hastily-trained ISIS recruits and child soldiers
  • information operations, propaganda, and public opinion
  • civilian casualties/collateral damage

We will see how they all pull it together when it is finished—as they are finding out, there is a lot of detail to be ironed out before a game concept becomes a polished, final reality.

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Playtesting We Are Coming, Nineveh. At McGill University, our conflict simulation course teaches the pointing skills so essential to serious wargaming.

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Advancing forces of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services towards the IED-strewn alleys of the Old City.

At our final POLI 490 seminar meeting last week, we explored the issue of “in-stride adjudication”—an issue that will be examined in detail at this summer’s Connections US professional wargaming conference in Washington, DC. Since the students have acquired considerable experience this term participating in games with some degree of in-stride adjudication (Brynania is primarily adjudicated that way; February’s DIRE STRAITS megagame involved large doses of it, and they’ve all played in matrix games that often involve a subtle sort of in-stride adjudication by the game facilitator) I thought it would be useful to get player perspectives on the issue. It turned out to be an excellent discussion, and one of the students has offered to write it all up as a white paper for the Connections conference.

Now, back to grading papers!

 

McGill gaming update

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Looking forward to the eventual arrival of Spring at McGill.

At McGill University, the annual, week-long Brynania peacebuilding simulation is fast approaching. Most of the role assignments have been made, and materials will be distributed to members of my POLI 450 peacebuilding class on Monday. The actual simulation will run from April 4-11, and during that period I’ll pretty much vanish—I will be deep in the Brynania CONTROL bunker in suburban Montreal, fuelled by endless coffee as I monitor the activities of almost one hundred participants.

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Yes, Galasi (the capital of Carana) looks suspiciously like a remodeled Copenhagen.

Two weeks ago, I ran the “Crisis in Galasi” simulation at a conference on the urban dimensions of religious conflict organized by Prof. Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). This seemed to go well, with participants welcoming a break from the usual academic workshop process to periodically assume the roles of actors in a fictional scenario of rising religious and political tensions. The simulation saw sectarian rumours circulate on social media; a protest march that turned violent, with barricades, arrests, and mysterious gunfire; and splits between soft-liners and hard-liners in the cabinet, resulting in a political crisis and the formation of a new coalition government. At the end, there was some effort by local Catholic and Muslim officials to find a way forward that might be acceptable to all sides, but the situation remained fraught and fragile. The Matrix Game Construction Kit was used to support the simulation.

This Tuesday, I took part in a simulation run by the folks at the ICONS Project, examining corporate response to potential armed conflict in their area of operation. I can’t share the details, but the event seemed to go well.

Finally, my POLI 490 seminar on conflict simulation design continues to be a pleasure to teach. This month we’ve looked at the design of negotiation simulations (drawing upon Natasha Gill’s excellent book on the topic), as well as best and worst practices in professional wargaming (using the UK Ministry of Defence/DCDC Defence Wargaming Handbook for the former, and CNA’s 2004 study of wargaming pathologies for the latter). Students have played Islamic State: The Syria War, and Brian Train’s recently published game Chile ’73.  Next week we will look at matrix game design, and we’ll play through the Reckoning of Vultures scenario from the Matrix Game Construction Kit. Since this (like Chile ’73) is also a game about coup plotting with pre-coup and coup phases, it will provide an interesting opportunity to contrast the relative strengths and weaknesses of more rigid, rules-based approaches and more free-form techniques.

 

McGill gaming update

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It has been a good week for McGill University gaming-related activities.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a very enjoyable (and, I hope, very productive) couple of days at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Alexandria, VA. Much of the time we were discussing the ethics and crisis management simulations IFES is developing to bolster the capacity of election commissions, with the view that it is best to practice these sorts of issues in a safe-to-fail game environment. I also had time to make a more general presentation on the use of simulations and serious games (pdf here). They are a terrific group of skilled and dedicated folks at IFES, and kept me well supplied with coffee and sugary treats.  As you might expect, any place that names its conference rooms after the murder locations in the board game Clue is going to be simulation-and-gaming friendly.

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Wednesday was my weekly conflict simulation design seminar at McGill. We discussed aspects of game design (drawing heavily upon Phil Sabin’s excellent book Simulating War), and the students provided an update on the three group projects they are working on:

  • A wargame examining urban warfare in Mosul (2016-17). We had considerable discussion of how best to represent urban terrain, building types and density, urban population, transportation routes, ISIS defences (tunnels, fortified positions, various types of IEDs, human shields), and other elements in the game.
  • A wargame of the war in Darfur. This is intended to educate human rights workers, diplomats, development workers, and military personnel about the political and military logics of mass atrocity, with an eye to developing appropriate ways to deter and respond to them.
  • A strategic diplomatic/economic/military game of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. This is shaping up to be a semi-cooperative game, in which players represent different Chinese actors (for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Liberation Army, state-owned enterprises, and the Chinese private sector).

We also heard a student presentation on gaming international humanitarian law. This largely looked at efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to promote greater IHL compliance in video games, including the partnership between ICRC and Bohemian Interactive which saw the release of IHL-themed downloadable content for the ARMA series of tactical first person shooters.

At the end of each seminar, we play a game (or at least part of one, since there is rarely time to finish). This week it was the 3 October 1993  “Lead the Way” scenario from Urban Operations, in which US Rangers and Delta Force personnel try to fight there way through hostile Somali militias to secure the crash site of Super 61 of “Blackhawk Down” fame. The game does a terrific job depicting urban terrain using a combination of hexes (for outside areas) and polygons (for buildings), which is why I had selected it as a demonstration game.

While all seemed to be going well at first for the Rangers, angry Somali crowds began to slow the Americans and growing numbers of Somalia National Alliance militia began to engage US forces. The Combat Search and Rescue team grimly held on at the crash site, using the helicopter wreckage to fortify their position as they drove back waves of attackers. Eventually they started to take casualties and run low on ammunition. Overhead, AH-6 Little Birds provided much-needed fire support, but found it increasingly difficult to get a clear shot at gunmen as the streets grew more crowded with angry local residents. Finally, Somali forces closed in on the Rangers from the west, and a lucky RPG shot took down one American platoon commander and forced the rest of his unit to take cover well short of Super 61.

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The Rangers advance towards the crash site, harassed by angry crowds and SNA gunmen. Minutes later, however, additional militia reinforcements would arrive from the west (left), engaging the rear of the American force.

This week we also finished the annual McGill AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament. This was a optional activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course, and 28 of them chose to take part as one of four teams. There are class participation bonuses for taking part, for being part of the highest-scoring winning game, and for being a member of the highest scoring individual team. In order to provide a similar level of challenge, and also to optimize teachable moments, the Event deck was prepared before each game to present an identical sequence of challenges and opportunities for each group.

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The results of the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

This year, two of the games were wins, one was a narrow loss, and other was a more substantial loss. This is the third year I’ve run the game for the class–you’ll find last year’s results here.

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This year’s winning team at work in the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

Finally, we’ve sold most of the tickets for the DIRE STRAITS megagame at McGill on February 25 (although there are still some available, if you’re interested). The scenario video for the game was posted earlier today here on PAXsims.

DIRE STRAITS: the video

On February 25, McGill University will host its 3rd annual megagame: DIRE STRAITS, a game of crisis and confrontation in East and Southeast Asia. The video we will be using to introduce the game scenario is below—assuming, that is, that no one starts a real nuclear war on the Korean peninsula in the next three weeks.

While most of the tickets for the event have been sold, there are some remaining via Eventbrite. We hope to see you there!

UNSOC Northland

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No, it’s not the latest UN peacekeeping force. Rather, UNSOC is Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos, the latest megagame from the fevered mind of mad genius Jim Wallman.

UNSOC is nor ordinary megagame, you see—instead, it is the world’s first wide-area megagame, with interlinked games being played simultaneously in eleven cities in five different countries. In Montreal, we’ll be playing the peaceable country of Northland, faced with a sudden and terrifying menace spreading from South-of-the Border:

Northland is a generally nice (if sometimes smug and self-righteous) place, known for its cold winters, hockey, doughnut shops, poutine, and polite do-gooders prone to apologize for the slightest transgression. As the country celebrates its birthday on July 1, however, this peaceable place may face its greatest threat ever.

South of the Border, something is happening. There are reports of violence, chaos, and panic well beyond the violence and chaos of daily life there. Military units are being mobilized, and this time not to invade some foreign country. Some even claim that undead hordes have taken to the streets in search of human brains—or, at the very least, free national health care. How much longer will it be before the urban nightmare moves north?

The game happens to fall on Canada Day, so that’s appropriate. Our game will be rather smaller than our last two games (New World Order 2035 and War in Binni). However it should be just as enjoyable for those many Canadian gamers who enjoy the complex interplay between federal-provincial relations and an impending apocalypse.

In the Montreal area on Canada Day, and interested in participating? Email me for more details, or buy a ticket at Eventbrite. We’ll be getting an early start, of course, to synchronize with the various European games.

Reflections on (another) McGill megagame

Last year (in)famous megagame designer Jim Wallman made a trip to frozen Montréal to run New World Order 2035 at McGill University, with some one hundred or so players taking part. It was a big success.

Last week Jim made a return visit for War in Binni, this year’s McGill megagame. Again, approximately one hundred persons participated in the day-long event, most of them McGill students. The event was cosponsored by PAXsims, the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill (IRSAM), and the McGill Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA).

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War in Binni has been run several times before elsewhere, notably at last year’s Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London. The theme of a civil war in a fictional country in West Africa was of particular interest to students, including those in my POLI 450 and POLI 650 peacebuilding courses. We’ll be running our own even larger, week-long Brynania civil war simulation later in the term. However, unlike the Connections/KCL version, the game at McGill included a significant “weird science” component, with a touch of both Lovecraft and Indiana Jones. The event was held in excellent space New Residence Hall, including a large ballroom, two conference rooms, a foyer (and cloakroom), an integrated audio and data projectors. The staff were helpful as ever.

I should also note that almost half (41%) of our our participants were women—and, moreover, they all paid to participate. This was similar to last year. Those who argue that women are somehow uninterested in political-military gaming clearly have no idea what they are talking about.


We started off with a basic orientation to the game from Jim. Rules and maps had been posted online before the game, and individual role briefings had been emailed to all players about a week beforehand.

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Action at the map table, as the Clewgists celebrate a victory.

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Map Control (me), pointing.

While the government, various rebel groups, and regional actors vied for territory and influence, shady international arms dealers sold weapons to the highest bidder, the UN Security Council met in emergency sessions, and humanitarian aid workers struggled to cope with a growing flood of refugees.

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The United Nations Security Council meets.

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Heavy fighting takes a heavy toll on civilians, forcing many to flee.

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The Clewgists mourn the destruction of their sacred grove by a rival militia.

Three archaeological digs were also at work in the war-torn country. These soon uncovered increasingly unusual findings. These included evidence of alien technology, and various occult items with mysterious powers.

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An archaeologist briefs the French ambassador.

Little did the players know that, hidden among the participants were a small group of secret cultists. This group managed to obtain key objects from the digs, perform a dark ritual, and summon an Elder God of unspeakable power. The huge creature appeared atop Mount Clewg, and began to rampage through the country, destroying everything in its path.

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An extradimensional creature appears atop Mount Clewg.

The international community responded with a barrage of cruise missile attacks and bombing strikes, but these did minimal damage. Researchers at McGill University utilized one of their archaeological finds to slow the thing’s progress. Regional powers revealed that they had all been secretly researching WMD, and unleashed chemical weapons and radiological missiles. However it was the Kingdom of Gao, in alliance with Christian and Muslim rebel groups and the local Clewgist tribal insurgents, that inflicted the most damage, severely damaging the creature with an alien death ray before a suicidal charge by the Clewgists destroyed the evil abomination.

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Militias (and Gao) unite to destroy the terror.

As all this was happening, the government of Binni—afflicted by plummeting domestic political support and the assassination of the President—finally agreed on peace terms with the main opposition alliance. Peace had come… but at what cost? And what does the future hold for Binni?


Overall I thought that Binni went even better than NWO 2035. There were, perhaps, several reasons for this.

First, everyone seemed to internalize their roles very quickly, and game play was generally credible and “realistic” (or as realistic as it can be in a game featuring alien technology and an Elder God).

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The Global (later, Galactic) News Network at work.

Second, our Global News Network team did a terrific job of getting information out to the players. The GNN website contained a few in-depth stories, most of which had been written in advance by the Control team to be released during the initial game turns.  Most news was carried on the GNN Twitter feed. Special “breaking news” announcements were made over the audio system, sometimes only a few seconds after the event had occurred. The GNN team also did an excellent job of investigative reporting, using covert reporters and in-country teams to considerable effect. They resisted the temptation to report rumours as facts, or believe or print everything they were told.

I know from previous large games how important the media role is. It also requires players who understand their importance in the game process (acting, in some senses, as an element of the Control team), and enjoy acting as journalists: verifying, investigating, uncover secrets, and breaking important stories.

Third, War in Binni had fewer rules than NWO 2035, and game systems were generally more simple and straight-forward. This allowed players to focus on role-playing and interaction rather than understanding rules, and facilitated the sort of creative, emergent gameplay that is at the heart of a successful megagame.

We’re already thinking ahead to next year’s game…

“Simnovating” in the health care sector

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These past two days I have been fortunate to participate in some of the very successful Simnovate 2016 conference on health care innovation, organized by the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Innovative Learning at McGill University.

Yesterday I presented a very brief overview to the conference of the role that gaming can play in stimulating and encouraging innovation (Powerpoint). That was really just a warm-up, however, for the two-hour workshop I facilitated today on serious games for policy analysis (Powerpoint). Together with my gaming colleague Vince Carpini, we discussed both the insight that can be derived through gaming techniques and the essential questions that need to be addressed in designing and implementing such a game:

  1. What is the topic and purpose of the game?
  2. Who are the participants (and audience)?
  3. Which roles and functions need to be represented?
  4. Which general game approach will you use (and why)?
  5. How will you foster reflection and analysis? Collect data? How will this be used?
  6. What resources will you require?

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The participants then broke into four groups, and each group worked collaboratively on developing a game idea. These were then briefed back to the session. Although my presentation had focused on gaming for policy analysis, groups were welcome to work on other types of ideas as well—after all, we didn’t want to stifle their innovative spirit!

  • The first game idea sought to develop empathy and communication skills in medical personnel. It did this through a system of briefing cards that could be used either in quick classroom games or a more complex role-play exercise. To avoid distorting their behaviour, players would initially be told that the simulation was intended to sharpen and assess clinical skills rather than interpersonal ones.
  • The second game group proposed an online multiplayer emergency management game to train staff on the steps involved in handling mass casualty incidents. Linked by voice and text, participants would manage everything from initial triage, treatment and referral at the incident site through to handling and treatment of incoming patients in the hospital
  • The third game proposal was designed to pre-test ideas for reducing emergency room crowding and wait-times. Participants would be drawn from hospital management, ER staff, non-ER ward personnel, and others. The idea here was to use a game mechanism to identify potential second and third order effects that could result from changes in facilities or procedures.
  • Finally, the fourth group developed a proposal for a social impact game. This would be an app playable on a smartphone in which the player would triage and treat patients in a fictional ER. The game itself would be fun and engaging, with cartoon-like characters and setting. However it would be intended to serve an educational purpose by sensitizing the public to ER procedures, helping them to understand wait times for non-urgent cases, and encouraging the use of other facilities (clinics, GPs) for non-urgent, non-serious cases.

As you can see, the participants generated some great ideas. Everyone seemed to be very engaged throughout the workshop, and I was certainly impressed by the energy and innovation that emerged from each of the groups.

Reflections on a megagame

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On February 20 more than one hundred participants gathered at McGill University for Montréal’s first ever megagame: New World Order 2035, designed by Jim Wallman. NWO2035 wasn’t a serious game, to be sure: during almost seven hours of play, this particular future involved—among many other things—a nuclear attack by terrorists against New York, aided by a rogue Turkish defence minister; a multinational corporation willing to threaten the world with space-based bioweapons; a secret Brazilian hunter-killer satellite programme based in Antarctica; genetically reengineered dinosaurs; an Australian plot to influence the UN Security Council with mind-control drugs; a global warming treaty; a hyperactive Vatican, solving major global problems; the launch of the USS Trump, one of two American orbital battlestations; and Japan’s creation of a sentient artificial intelligence. The latter, known as Mycroft, promptly hacked the world’s high-tech militaries in an effort to end war, and/or possibly enslave humanity.

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Setting up at 8am.

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Jim gives the pre-game briefing.

Overall I thought it went very well indeed, and I certainly had a great time. Feedback from most participants has been very positive too.

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The game underway.

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Science!

NWO2035 also provided some insight into the challenges of running mass-participation games:

  • The Control team was key. Ours was outstanding, and we couldn’t have done it without them. Many thanks are due to Kaitlyn Bowman (UN), Claire Sinofsky (Americas/Pacific), Karen Holstead (Europe/Central), Ruth Gopin (Africa), Isabelle Dufresne-Lienert (Media), Merouan Mekouar (Corporate), Vince Carpini (Science), and Tom Fisher (Economic).
  • Megagames are chaotic by nature, the rules are flexible, and player creativity is encouraged. We saw that at NWO 2035 too. However, I think we might have done a slightly better job of adapting the game to the audience. Most megagames have a very high proportion of hobby gamers (who are perhaps more inclined to study the rules and briefings in depth before the game), and a significant proportion of veteran megagamers who know what to expect. By contrast, fewer of the participants were hobbyists, most were students, and almost none had played in a megagame before. Consequently when we next run a  game like this for a similar audience, it would be worth spending more time orienting players, and streamlining some game mechanisms to make them easier or more intuitive.
  • Turn length will shape not only game pace, but the entire atmosphere of the event. We deliberately ran a quite fast clock, with turns taking a maximum of 40 minutes, and the various phases usually lasting 5-10 minutes. Had we made the turns longer we would have had more thoughtful and coordinated actions, perhaps—but at the cost of the frenetic buzz that characterized almost all of the game. Personally I rather liked the hectic nature of it all.
  • The media role is an essential one, but presents particular challenges too. In NWO2035 I thought that the Global News Network did an outstanding job, reporting simulation news via blog, tweets, and live announcements. However, some of the media team felt that they weren’t full participants, but instead were largely limited to rebroadcasting press statements provided to them by the players. We should have been clearer that they were under no obligation to report everything, and that they were free to set their own journalistic agenda. We might have also explained more fully the various investigatory tools they had available to them to uncover the many secrets and conspiracies in the game. I also know from more than a decade of running the equally large Brynania civil war simulation that the press role is one that isn’t for everyone: some participants love breaking an important story, while others would prefer to do the sorts of things that states and other overtly political-military actors do.
  • Be prepared for technical problems. We encountered dodgy VGA cables, a data projector that would randomly shut down, and a wireless mic that ran out of batteries part way through the game. Fortunately spare cables, a flip chart, and shouting allowed us to overcome those problems. I forgot to properly charge my GoPro too, which was annoying.
  • The staff at New Residence Hall were extremely helpful throughout. We couldn’t have asked for a better venue.

I’ll encourage other members of the “Control Illuminati” to post their own reflections. If we run another McGill megagame next year we’ll also be sure to announce it first here at PAXsims.

You’ll find further reflections here:

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GNN at work.

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Post-game debrief.

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“New World Order 2035” megagame at McGill

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On February 20th, McGill University will be hosting New World Order 2035, a day-long megagame in Montréal by none other than (infamous) game designer Jim Wallman:

It is the year 2035… and it is no longer the Earth that we once knew. Countries around the world face resource shortages, the social and political challenges presented by new technologies, population pressures, migration and refugee crises, and rapidly accelerating global warming—as well as an alarming breakdown of international cooperation.

Up to one hundred participants will assume the roles of national decisionmakers, international organizations, scientists,  corporations, journalists, rebels, organized crime, and others. While they may or may not chart the future course of human civilization, it is sure to be a engaging day full of political intrigue, conspiracies, and crisis.

For those new to megagaming you’ll find a report on one such game in the British newspaper The Independent here, and a video report at the blog Shut Up & Sit Down here (and here and here). No prior experience is required, beyond a willingness to enjoy yourself with 100 scheming people in several large rooms while confronting the most pressing global issues of the 21st century

Space is limited, so you’ll need to buy your tickets soon via Eventbrite. Registration costs $35 for McGill students, and $60 for others (+ticketing fee). Boxed meals are available to those who purchase one in advance, or participants are welcome to bring their own lunches.

New World Order 2035 is coorganized by PAXsims and the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill, and cosponsored by the Political Science Students’ Association and International Development Studies Students Association.

The NWO2035 Facebook page can be found here.

 

 

Simulating the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon

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Last month I had the pleasure of running a classroom simulation on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon at the University of Exeter with Prof. Mick Dumper for his POL 2046 course on The Refugee Crisis in the Modern World. Gamers extraordinaire Tom Mouat and Jim Wallman came down for the day to assist, along with graduate student Abigail Grace. Today I ran the same simulation at McGill University for some of the students in Prof. Megan Bradley‘s POLI 359 course on the international refugee regime, together with a few from my own POLI 450 course on peacebuilding. This time ICAMES graduate research fellow (and teaching assistant) Ecem Oskay was there to help.

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The Exeter Control team, complete with empty sack of goat food.

Both simulations involved around two dozen students. Both simulations went very well, I thought.

A variety of roles were represented in the simulation:

  • The Lebanese Prime Minister, plus various cabinet ministers (from the Future Movement, Phalange, Hizbullah, Free Patriotic Movement, Progressive Socialist Party) and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This gave some differentiation in terms of portfolios and responsibilities, and also recreated some of the political and sectarian tensions between the “March 8” and “March 14” coalitions within the Lebanese government.
  • Various UN agencies (UNHCR, UNRWA, UNICEF, and World Food Programme)
  • A (fictional) local charitable association.
  • Human Rights Watch.
  • The European Union ambassador (representing the donor community more broadly).
  • The refugees themselves. Each of these had a different back story in terms of geographic origin, occupation/social class, family needs and situation, sectarian affiliation, and political views. One was a female-headed household.  Two of the refugees were secretly opposition organizers, for the Free Syrian Army and ISIS. Some were Palestinian refugees from Syria, rather than Syrian citizens.
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The Lebanese cabinet makes a joint announcement, hoping to dampen down sectarian tensions. (Exeter)

In designing the simulation I wanted to avoid a simple seminar-type negotiation exercise in which the stakeholders all sit down around a table and try to achieve an agreement on something. For a start, such an approach wouldn’t generate the sense of overbearing crisis that Lebanon feels, a small country hosting some 1.2 million refugees from the bloody and dangerous civil war in neighbouring Syria. In addition, it would also misrepresent the dynamics whereby refugee policy emerges. Refugees do not, as a rule, play any sort of direct role in policy formulation. Instead, their actions and coping strategies provide the context.

Consequently, this simulation was really two linked simulations in one.

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The Lebanese Armed Forces questions refugees, looking for evidence of militants and paramilitary activities. (McGill)

At one level, refugees were tasked with simply trying to survive. Each hour they would have to make choices about how to try to earn money (beg? work illegally in Lebanon? try to cross back into Syria?), where to live (a squatter camp? a squalid flat? a middle class apartment?), and what additional goods did they want to buy (basic durables? medicine? forged papers?) Choices had consequences–they might be arrested, deported, or shot crossing the border, or their children might get ill from poor accommodations.

The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)

The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)

The refugees were also given tarps, ropes, cardboard, old carpets, and other materials and were required to construct their own makeshift shelters in the classroom—which at one point were then torn down by angry Lebanese farmers seeking to reclaim their fields. They were required to undertake manual labour, representing the sort of unskilled jobs refugees typically take: in Exeter this consisted of endlessly moving furniture from one end of the classroom to the other and back again, while at McGill they had to carry heavy bags up and down four flights of steps. In their spare time they might beg, or protest, or even smuggle weapons.

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Refugees build shelters near the United Nations compound as a member of the Control team looks on. (McGill)

Each hour a random event card would be drawn. Some of these were good: relatives in Europe might send money, or a refugee might reconnect with old friends. Many others were negative: agonizing moral choices, sexual assault, sickness. Refugee resiliency was tracked with tokens. If refugees ran out of these their coping skills were sharply diminished, or they were instructed to just sit and sob in their shelters until someone offered them some help. Throughout, all of the refugees kept handwritten diaries of their experiences.

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The Lebanese Army arrests a refugee. (Exeter)

Everyone in the simulation was provided with lunch—except the refugees, who were expected to “buy” it with their meagre simulation income. Depending on their luck and decisions, some didn’t eat for hours, and others not at all. Refugees were also prohibited from sitting in chairs or accessing their telephones or laptops unless they “paid” to use these too. Their rooms were often plunged into darkness, unless they illegally connected to the Lebanese power grid. In Exeter we opened the windows on what was a cold and damp day to increase the refugee discomfort level (it was -18C in Montreal, which didn’t really make that a viable option).

This unfortunate refugee didn't make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)

This unfortunate refugee didn’t make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)

The aid actors had some resources (cash, food, other items), but not enough. The UN in particular had to register the refugees and undertake a needs assessment to make sure that the most vulnerable received priority.

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Angry refugees protest their treatment. (McGill)

At another level, this was a more traditional policy simulation. The UN team was tasked with drawing up a comprehensive refugee strategy to which the Lebanese government might agree. The Lebanese government was concerned not only with this, but also with a number of other challenges that cropped up (a bomb attack, jihadist suspects hiding in a Palestinian refugee camp, complaints that the Syrians were pushing Lebanese workers out of jobs, crime, illegal electrical connections, a measles outbreak among the refugees—among others). The EU sought to promote a more effective response to the refugee crisis, and had some funds to support this. Human Rights Watch tried to raise human rights issues with Lebanese policymakers and the international community. The refugees were largely absent in any direct sense from these discussions and negotiations, although their choices or even protests fundamentally shaped the policy environment.

All of the policy actors were expected to take notes and minutes, and prepare formal presentations or reports that were submitted during the simulation.

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Officials listen to a presentation by Human Rights Watch. (Exeter)

In both the Exeter and McGill simulation runs, the Lebanese grew increasingly concerned at the economic, political, and security challenges presented by the refugees. The UN proposed an integrated refugee strategy after several hours of consultation, but in both cases the Lebanese government rejected the proposal and called for further discussions.

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The Lebanese cabinet poses for a photograph, shortly after rejecting UN proposals and calling for further discussions. (McGill)

In both simulations, despite significant local and international aid, the refugees felt they largely had to fend for themselves, and grew resentful that more wasn’t done to help them. In the debrief, many of the well-meaning internationals were rather surprised to hear this.

In the debrief session we were careful to identify the artificial aspects of the simulation—for example, more simulated than real refugees were involved in paramilitary skullduggery, and real refugees would be less likely to organize protests for fear of arrest or deportation. But there were also many, many realistic outcomes that we could point to and discuss. The refugees in particular got a sense of marginalization and vulnerability, but also how refugee communities could organize to help each other in sometimes small but important ways.

This was not a simple simulation—it was 6-7 hours of intense activity, involving a 3-4 person control team. However, those who participated seem to find it well worth the time spent.

2014-15 Disaster and Humanitarian Training Response Program

The Humanitarian Studies Initiative has announced the general details for their 2014-15 Disaster and Humanitarian Training Response Program, to be held at McGill University in Montréal. This consists of weekly classes starting in October, and a three day field exercise in May 2015:

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A review by June McCabe of the May 2013 version of the SIMEX (field simulation/exercise) was published by PAXsims here, and covered in a CBC news report here. Some of my other students took the May 2014 version, and also came back with glowing reports (“incredible,” “wonderful,” and “fantastic” were among the terms used). The price hasn’t yet been announced, but in 2013 the cost was $1,075 for the course and and additional $850 for the SIMEX.

This is not a formal McGill University credit course. However, current McGill students (only) in political science or international development studies can arrange to take the full course for credit as POLI 490 or INTD 490. Contact me by email for details.

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