Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: MMOWGLI



MMOWGLI, the massive multiplayer online simulation experience developed by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), begins its next interactive program on January 20. This iteration is based on the impact of black swan events. Below, the write-up from the team. If you are interested in signing up to participate, go here. For PAXsims coverage of the previous 2011 and 2012 MMOWGLI Piracy games, check out Rex’s previous posts

The future is here – today’s trends and uncertainties are laying a foundation for tomorrow’s events. Innovation is at the forefront of the Department of Defense’s new technology strategy, as outlined in Better Buying Power 3.0. The blackswan Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) is a tool designed to foster innovation, and challenges individuals to adopt a new way of thinking about the future global landscape. blackswan MMOWGLI wants to explore this “futurescape” and determine how best to ensure our success.

Black Swan refers to events that are unexpected and have the potential for major impact, but with the benefit of hindsight, post-analysis can often lead to an “it was bound to happen” moment. The blackswan MMOWGLI is a massive multiplayer online wargame aimed at identifying potential black swans and technology ideas and/or concepts to mitigate them, should they become a reality. Over the next 30 years, we will experience new challenges on frontiers that exceed our current understanding and imagination of the world in which we live. The exploration and adaptation of new “mental models” will be essential to envisioning this space and devising strategies that help us prepare for the future.

We would like YOUR IDEAS: from your professional knowledge to your wildest imaginings. All of these could help us anticipate the next black swan event, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and examine transformative technologies that will shape our future.

What if you could…
…collaborate across borders?
…explore the potential of game-changing innovations?
…play the idea that sparks a hundred more?
Participation in blackswan MMOWGLI will be limited.
Join us now at to sign up to play. Also follow us on Twitter @MMOWGLI to stay updated.
Every idea counts. We hope you’ll join us. How will you play the game, change the game?
— The blackswan MMOWGLI team

simulations miscellany, Connections diaspora edition


The Connections 2013 interdisciplinary wargaming conference is currently underway, and I know that several PAXsims readers who weren’t able to travel to Dayton, Ohio are, like me, following it all by VTC or dial-in. For those of you who are interested in listening in, it may not be too late to contact Tim Wilkie for the remote connection information. You can also find the conference presentation slides here, and we’ll also try to recruit some participants to send in their own impressions.

The Connections conference extends through to July 25.

Meanwhile, in other conflict simulation and serious games related news:

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John Curry at the History of Wargaming project discusses why the UK Conference of Wargamers is the best model for a conference—and the worst.

* * *

The folks at MMOWGLI have prepared a couple of papers for the  NPS Acquisition Research Symposium, 2013, focusing on Innovating Naval Business Using a War Game and Improving DoD Energy Efficiency: Combining MMOWGLI Social-Media Brainstorming With Lexical Link Analysis (LLA) to Strengthen the Defense Acquisition Process.

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The latest issue of the Journal of Simulation 7, 3 (August 2013) is out, devoted to agent-based modelling. Of particular interest is an article by Xavier Rubio-Campillo, Jose María Cel, and Jose María and Francesc Xavier Hernández Cardona of the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre and Universitat de Barcelona. In it they used agent-based modelling to examine the development of new infantry tactics during the early eighteenth century—a rare application of this computational technique to military history:

Computational models have been extensively used in military operations research, but they are rarely seen in military history studies. The introduction of this technique has potential benefits for the study of past conflicts. This paper presents an agent-based model (ABM) designed to help understand European military tactics during the eighteenth century, in particular during the War of the Spanish Succession. We use a computer simulation to evaluate the main variables that affect infantry performance in the battlefield, according to primary sources. The results show that the choice of a particular firing system was not as important as most historians state. In particular, it cannot be the only explanation for the superiority of Allied armies. The final discussion shows how ABM can be used to interpret historical data, and explores under which conditions the hypotheses generated from the study of primary accounts could be valid.

Also of interest is previous work by these researchers on using agent-based models to support battlefield archaeology and using spatial analysis to better understand combined arms warfare in the Spanish Civil War.

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33AA651E-C639-481A-97EA-15E537446268_mw1024_n_sOne of the challenges that agent-based modellers have not yet turned their analytical attentions to is how to prevent Russian all-girl punk bands from conducting protests in Russian Orthodox churches. Fortunately, that challenge has been taken up by some Russian programmers, who have released the game Don’t Let Pussy Riot Into The Cathedral. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

A video game was showcased at a recent Russian Orthodox youth festival in Moscow that encourages players to “kill” members of the feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot.

In the game, “Don’t Let Pussy Riot Into The Cathedral,” players use an Orthodox cross to snuff out the balaclava-clad women before they enter a domed white church.

Throughout the game, Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer For Putin,” which some of them performed in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012, earning three of them jail terms, plays in the background.

When the Pussy Rioters enter the church in the game, they reappear atop the church with horns on. The building gradually falls into disrepair and ominous clouds gather.

A version of the game, which used the name “Inquisition,” was posted online late last year.

I think almost all of the press reporting on this has it completely wrong—the game is clearly satirical, as evidenced by the overweight priests, luxury car, absolutions for sale, and the expensive watch that serves as the load screen (a reference to this). If the game was on display at the youth festival, either someone didn’t understand the humour or it was a very clever piece of performance art.

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At his Sources and Methods blog, Kris Wheaton (Mercyhurst University) discusses Hnefatafl, the ancient Viking game Every intelligence professional should play:

1001689_277186405754085_2142739834_nToday, only dedicated tabletop gamers have ever heard of it and many of them have never had a chance to play the game.  That is a shame for it’s an extraordinary game with a number of lessons embedded in it for the curious intelligence professional.  For example:

  • It is an asymmetric game.  As you can see from the board above, one side starts in the center and the other side surrounds it on all four sides.  One side outnumbers the other by about 2:1.  The sides even have different victory conditions (the player with the pieces in the center need to get the “King”, the large playing piece in the middle of the board, to one of the corners.  The other player is trying to capture the King).  It is not too hard to see a game such as this one incorporated into courses, classes or discussions of asymmetric warfare.
  • It is a conflict simulation.  Most historians agree that there were relatively few large-scale battles involving Vikings. Instead, most of the time, combat resulted from raiding activities.  Hnefatafl seems to reflect the worst case scenario for a Viking raider:  Cut off from your boats and outnumbered 2:1.
  • It provides a deep lesson in strategic thinking.  Lessons in both the strategy of the central position (hundred of years before Napoleon made it famous) and in the relative value of interior vs. exterior lines of communication are embedded in this game.

What makes this game even more fascinating for me is what it teaches implicitly – that is, what are the lessons it teaches the players without the players knowing that they are learning?  Furthermore, what does this tell us about the Viking culture?

But wait, there’s more! Kris will be producing a version of the game through his new company, Sources and Methods Games—a version featuring Vikings and… Cthulhu.

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Every wargamer needs a laser pointer. It is essential when discussing a map, and useful for those lengthy powerpoint presentations during the briefing and debriefing. Miniature gamers often use them to confirm line of sight on the table-top battlefield. Boardgamers can use them to keep the cat away.

Given that.. what could be cooler than pointers that look like sharks… with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads? Available at ThinkGeek.

simulations miscellany, Spring 2013 edition


As the northern hemisphere welcomes the imminent arrival of Spring 2013—evidenced by the view outside my front window this morning (above)—PAXsims is pleased to present another collection of conflict simulation and gaming news from around the internet.


Need a virtual continent? Look no further than “Missionland,” the four million square kilometres of politically-correct terrain data produced by the NATO Science and Technology Organization, Modeling and Simulation Group. You’ll find the full story at Defense News.


The folks at Reacting to the Past have announced the formation of a new “Reacting Consortium.”

Reacting Consortium is an independently chartered organization of colleges and universities committed to developing and publishing the “Reacting to the Past” series of role playing games and providing programs for faculty development and curricular change. Its broader mission is to promote imagination, inquiry, and engagement as foundational features of teaching and student learning in higher education. Institutions interested in exploring the benefits of membership should contact Dana Johnson, Administrative Director, at

We are already working to expand our outreach activities, as well as to strengthen our collaborative enterprise.  Several faculty workshops will be held in the coming months, including a Regional Conference at Pikes Peak Community College (Colorado Springs, April 19-21) and a special JALT Faculty Workshop at Sophia University in Tokyo (May 11-12).  Registration is also open for the Thirteenth Annual Faculty Institute at Barnard College (New York, June 6-9). Interested faculty are encouraged are encouraged to register early. For further details about the program, registration rates, and the call for proposals, please visit the institute web site.

Finally, the Reacting Consortium is developing a partnership with a new publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. Norton will be working closely with the Reacting Consortium Editorial Board to prepare revised editions of existing games and to publish new games, as well as to expand the resources available to instructors and students

You’ll find several forthcoming RTTP events and conferences listed on their website, including a RTTP Game Development Conference to be held at Central Michigan University on 18-20 July 2013.

This conference focuses on designing games for the pedagogical method “Reacting to the Past.”  We will play several Reacting-style games that are currently in development, discuss game design principles and processes, and work to expand and explore ideas for new games.

For further information, please visit the conference web site.


The latest issue (March 2013) of Simages—the newsletter of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association—has been published, with NASAGA news, several articles, and information on the 2013 conference. You can download it here.


At Forbes, Michael Peck comments on “Al Qaeda’s Goofy Video Game.” Technically it’s not really an al-Qaida game at all, but rather a game by a couple of AQ wannabe game designers, but he’s right that it isn’t very good. You’ll also find coverage at Foreign Policy magazine, Kotaku, and Globalpost.


What have the folks at MMOWGLI been up to lately with their Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet? You can find out at DoD Live.


Kris Wheaton (Institute for Intelligence Studies, Mercyhurst University) offers more thoughts on game-based learning and intelligence at his Sources and Methods blog. What’s more, he’s also formed a gaming company!


We missed this one before: an academic paper by Nina Kollars and Amanda M. Rosen  on “Arming the Canon: Reviving the Foundation of International Relations through Games—another of the many game/simulation papers presented at the recent 2013 APSA Teaching & Learning Conference.

This paper attempts to add a layer of conceptual clarity to the study of simulations and games in international relations by classifying simulations and games according to their unit of analysis and the number of sources they attempt to incorporate. We present this classification and note the advantages and disadvantages of such a model with particular attention paid to the potential misuses of topic-based and multi-source games. We introduce a new unit of analysis, the question- or problem-based approach, and offer a new game to illustrate the potential benefits of such an approach. Ultimately we conclude that a large part of the answer to whether or not simulations are effective in advancing learning may depends on how a particular game is framed and executed.

piracy returns to MMOWGLI

MMOWGLI—the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet, developed by the Naval Postgraduate School—is relaunching their piracy game on June 18, with naval personnel, NPS students, and other professionals and subject matter experts from around the world involved. As Don Brutzman reported last month on the MMOWGLI blog:

This week we had an excellent meeting at Oceans Beyond Piracy headquarters near Denver Colorado.  Together we have prepared an excellent game plan for the upcoming relaunch of a long-running piracy MMOWGLI game.  We will be examining and challenging the Lines of Effort found in their Independent Assessment Report on maritime piracy.

Our Piracy 2012 Call To Action video illustrates the importance of these topics.  We will be asking professionals to spend 30 minutes each week considering key questions facing the anti-piracy community.  Details are kept up-to-date on the Piracy MMOWGLI Games page.  The first weekly Line of Effort is Naval Operations.

The “slow start” exercise this past month was useful.  The next phase of activity will be more dynamic as we prepare the foundation for long-term community efforts.

For those interested in the development of the crowd-sourcing platform, you may want to have a look at this overview and status report presented by members of the MMOWGLI team to a January 2012 US Navy Maritime Liaison Office (MARLO) symposium, as well as the PAXsims archives for our previous reporting on the project. In addition to having previously examined the Somali piracy issue in earlier games, MMOWGLI has also been used to explored the challenge of naval operations in an era of increasingly scarce (and expensive) fossil fuels.

MMOWGLI update

Don Bruzman (MOVES Institute, Naval Postgraduate School) recently delivered a presentation on the current status of the MMOWGLI crowdsourcing/wargame project to the CENIC 2012 conference (“Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California”). You can access it here.

On a side note, I must say that I’m pleased to see that Don’s presentations still feature idea cards from the almost-immortal Finius T. Stormfroth. When he’s not leveraging the internet to discuss the serious policy and operational challenges of Somali piracy in MMOWGLI playtests, the redoubtable ship’s captain is also my somewhat deranged character in our local D&D campaign.

simulations miscellany

FP Gets Its Game On

We’re very happy to report that Michael Peck, US editor at the Training & Simulation Journal and some-time PAXsims contributor, will now be writing on games and simulations at Foreign Policy magazine too. As Michael notes:

I am now the Games Editor at Foreign Policy magazine. I’ll be doing a column – possibly a weekly column – on games as they relate (or as I relate them) to foreign and defense policy. It will a fun column with a serious purpose, which is to show that games can make a difference in this world and still be enjoyable. The fact that games will be covered by such an influential magazine is extremely significant.

Publishers and designers that think their games might be of interest can contact me. And I look forward to seeing the comments from the gaming and simulation communities on the Foreign Policy site. It’s important that you make your voices heard.

Given the very wide readership of Foreign Policy magazine, this is really great news for the simulation community. We look forward to seeing what he has to say, and certainly encourage PAXsims readers to pass on story ideas to him.

Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran

Michael’s recent pieces at Foreign Policy magazine and Wired’s Danger Room about the boardgame Persian Incursion has stimulated considerable virtual discussion (including a lively discussion on the milgames discussion list as to when wargaming may not be the best way of exploring policy options, an issue about which I’ll blog soon). Among the recent contributions is a two part series of reflections by Charles Cameron at Zenpundit on wargaming a strike against Iran. Worth a read.


MMOWGLI (the “Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet”) recently ran a couple of games, sessions “Alpha” and “Bravo”.  You can track some of the results, and keep up on other MMOWGLI news, at their game blog.

Mmowgli vs peak oil

Having recently completed a brief replay of one turn of their Somali piracy simulation, the folks at MMOWGLI will next be using their crowd-sourcing/wargaming/social media platform to examine the issue of energy dependence and US naval operations. According to a press release from the Office of Naval Research:

09:30 GMT, October 17, 2011 ARLINGTON, Va. | The Office of Naval Research (ONR) will launch a second scenario for its online wargame to address energy-related problems, officials announced Oct. 14 at the Naval Energy Forum.

ONR’s Office of Innovation will use its Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) platform as a means to bring together players to reduce the U.S. Navy’s heavy reliance on a finite, expensive and unreliable supply of fossil fuels.

“Energy efficiency is very important to the warfighter, yet it’s usually one of the last things we think about,” said Dr. Larry Schuette, ONR’s director of Innovation, whose office is managing the project. “The fewer times a truck, tank, ship or airplane needs to be refueled, the greater the operational tempo. At the end of the day, it’s all about warfighter effectiveness: the greater the energy efficiency, the higher the effectiveness.”

Potential scenarios for the second storyline, titled EnergyMMOWGLI, include working toward efficient power conversion, portability, durability in harsh environments and lower costs. Players can register online at:

The 2011 Naval Energy Forum, being held Oct. 13-14 in Washington, D.C., brings together leaders from the Department of the Navy, industry and academia to examine ways of achieving the Secretary of the Navy’s energy goals and to emphasize the importance of energy security and independence.

The MMOWGLI pilot launched in June 2011 with a fast-paced piracy scenario set off the coast of Somalia. Round two of the original scenario is expected to resume game play later this fall. Its 16,000 pre-registered players will be developing strategies for combating pirates operating in seas around the world.

Sadly, this will provide far fewer opportunities for PAXsims to use pirate lingo to discuss the project, although we did find a rather appropriate cartoon of the oil tanker MV Sirius Star (hijacked by Somali pirates in 2008) to mark the thematic transition…

Yarrrr, MMOWGLI Turn 2

This past week, the Naval Postgraduate School ran a prelaunch playtest of Turn 2 of the MMOWGLI crowd-sourcing platform. Building on the earlier Turn 1 anti-piracy scenario, this time they advanced the clock to 2014 when a “Yemeni-Somali Union” had emerged to sponsor piracy in the area.

But now, in 2014, the situation has changed. The Yemen-Somalia-Union (YSU) is a powerful, ambiguous new alliance in the Gulf of Aden–needed economic revenue say some; to others, an amplified form of illegal piracy. The YSU militia has leapt beyond skiffs: fast vessels, geo-mapping tech, even automatic IDs to collect their tolls.

Unlike the quick 120 character tweets that characterized Turn 1, in Turn 2 participants could collaboratively author longer and more sophisticated “action plans,” which others could then rate.

While my own participation was limited by intermittent internet access, I did have a few quick impressions to offer.

  1. I’m not sure how the relationship between Idea Cards and Action Plans is supposed to work. Why (other than generating a higher score) would one post an action card, when it often seems easier and more useful to comment on a plan directly? Moreover, as the discussion becomes more detailed and sophisticated, the character restrictions of the Idea Cards seems ever more limiting. As old Idea Cards are pushed to the bottom of stacks and forgotten, many of the new ones seem repetitive.
  2. I’m not sure the gamification/scoring system contributes anything—indeed, I think it may actually be counterproductive at a couple of levels. First, it may encourage gaming-the-game, rather than placing emphasis on quality inputs and discussion. Second, confusion as to how scores are generated might actually demobilize participants. As we’ve noted before, there is some scientific literature that suggests that extrinsic in-game rewards might actually be inversely related to the quality of participation. For professional purposes of the sorts that MMOWGLI is directed towards, I would have thought that creativity and substance would be sufficient rewards in and of themselves.
  3. In terms of the pirate scenario, there was inadequate information available upon which to base any serious action. This was especially true with regard to the political character of the YSU, which was merely described as “ambiguous.” Was it an alliance of non-state groups—and if so, what was the domestic political situation in the two countries that allowed this? Was the YSU an interstate group? Was it a credible claimant to state authority, or have ambitions to secure international recognition? Did it have any ideological goals or character? What are its relationships with key regional actors? If it is “powerful,” what is the source of its power? Who might oppose it within Somalia and Yemen? How had the Middle East, the Horn, and East Africa changed by 2014? Etc, etc. Too many participants seemed willing to propose a military-based solution without any clear information on who they were fighting.

The first and second of these points are fairly substantial conceptual challenges to MMOWGLI as it is currently designed. The third, by contrast, is a content issue that would easily vary from game to game. In a current, real-life scenario players can do outside research to inform their game ideas and proposed actions. In a future scenario, however, it is often necessary to provide substantial detail. In the case of non-state armed groups, failed states, and piracy such background material is absolutely essential, since context is everything. (In the fictional Carana simulation I have just finished observing, which also included a small piracy dimension, participants are provided with between 19 and 42 pages of background material depending on their role—plus an initial video.)

That having been said, the whole point of MMOWGLI is to explore crowd-sourcing in a structured way. It continues to be a very interesting experiment, with considerable potential.


Live from Nairobi, it’s… simulations miscellany!

We’ve been a bit lax on posts the past few days because both PAXsims editors are currently in Kenya. One of them is doing loads of work as part of the team delivering the World Bank’s core operations course on fragility and conflict (including the Carana simulation). The other one is watching everyone else do loads of work while in the comfortable role of observer.

Selfless global humanitarians that we both are, we also found time to save most of the world from the scourge of global Pandemic, aided by Tusker beer (pic right). Note that if you live in North America and aren’t genetically immune to the “blue virus,” you might want to consider selling up and moving.

Despite that, we do have a few bits of simulation-related news:

1. Online registration is now open for the Connections 2011 wargaming conference, to be held on 1-4 August  at the National Defense University in Washington DC. You’ll also find the provisional conference agenda online too. Both Gary and I should be there. (If folks with a .gov or .mil address are having trouble with the first link, try this one instead.)

2. MMOWGLI is now undergoing a prelaunch playtest of Turn 2, when participants are asked to develop action plans to combat Somali piracy. I’m not sure whether time and a dodgy internet connection will allow me to participate, but if so I’ll try to bring you another report. Given that I’m actually 500km from the Somali border at the moment, any action plan I do develop really ought to get bonus “thumbs up,” don’t you think?

3. The Military Operations Research Society is currently holding 79th MORS Symposium (June 20-23rd) at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California. There will certainly be lost of interesting wargaming and simulation stuff discussed there, but you have to be a US national with a SECRET clearance to attend. Hypothetical Canadians with a TS/SCI are right out, of course, either because Washington still secretly harbours ambitions to implement War Plan Red, and/or because they know that Brian Train and Brian McFarlane were asked to update our very own Defence Scheme No. 1.

MMOWGLI update

Don Brutzman at the Naval Postgraduate School has provided an update on the phased roll-out of the crowd-sourcing/simulation platform, via the mmowgli game blog:

The MMOWGLI team is hard at work preparing for the next moves in the game.

Game Move 1 was successful, thanks to everyone who played! There were many interesting results, and they will be reported soon when the initial winners and awards are announced.

Game Move 2 is planned for the initial early-adopter population. We will test new capabilities for even-deeper collaboration to Take Action.

  • Planned dates for Move 2 are Tuesday-Thursday June 21-23, invitations will be sent out when ready
  • Planned dates for Move 3 are Tuesday-Thursday June 28-30, invitations will be sent out when ready

Additional work to “scale up” and bring in many more players is progressing well.  If you have already signed up, please stand by while we continue working hard to ensure an excellent game experience. If you haven’t signed up yet, please register and stay tuned.  Thanks!

The playtest will continue to explore the challenge posed by Somali piracy, so prospective participants should remember PAXsim’s handy collection of resources for simulated pirate-hunters.

Reflections on mmowgli (Game Turn One edition)

Over the past few days I had a chance to participate in a game turn of MMOWGLI (the Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet), in a scenario that addressed the challenge posed by Somali piracy. As we’ve discussed before in PAXsims, MMOWGLI isn’t a wargame in any traditional sense, but rather a crowd-sourcing and brainstorming platform. The playtest only got as far as Turn 1, meaning that participants were limited to 140 character “tweets” in which they could suggest new ideas and approaches, or comment on those put forward by others. In later turns, however, players are asked to develop more detailed action plans, which other players can then comment on and evaluate. At the moment, the GameMaster Blog is accessible online here, with useful information on the experiment.

Some quick thoughts, based on my very limited experience:

  1. The interface is generally very clean and neat (ship-shape, even!), and certainly more intuitive than EVOKE. There are a few tweaks that could be suggested, however. It wasn’t clear to me what determined the appearance of the “innovate” and “defend” cards on the front page—at times these seem to be old ones, other times the newest. Latency is a potential problem. I suspect some users could become impatient if the response is too sluggish, especially in an era when people are used to Facebook and Twitter speed of use.
  2. The Turn One scoring system encourages players to post lots, regardless of insight and quality. Indeed, one strategy is to spam the platform with comments, in the hopes that they seed longer threads. (It might also be strategic NOT to comment on the posts of rival top scorers, which presumably is not something that the game system would want to encourage). Also, at one point in the playtest the scores all seemed to change—I’m not sure if that was a bug or a feature. Or perhaps pirates just ran off with some of the loot. Arr!
  3. The playtest involved a few hundred. I’m not sure mmowgli works well with a crew larger than 100 or so, as ideas rapidly get buried under other ideas and an inevitable degree of repetition results. I can’t imagine it working with the 14,000 or so who signed up online.
  4. I understand they want to encourage brief brainstorms in the first phase of the game, but really: only 140 characters? Shiver me timbers! In a complex situation that is all about nuance, this risks prioritizing simplistic “sound bite” solutions. Indeed, there’s a danger of suggesting that complex problems have short, innovative solutions. Some times they only have complicated, messy, partial mitigations—Somali piracy being a probable case in point.
  5. Part of the appeal of a platform like mmowgli is its value in generating innovative out-of-the-box policy ideas from folks other than the “usual suspects.” This needs to be balanced against the complexity of the problem and the value of relevant knowledge, however. Some of the discussion seemed to hinge on inaccurate caricatures of Somali or regional politics; a poor understanding of pirate tactics and techniques; little familiarity with current best practices, shipping patterns, or maritime law; or fascination with (expensive, impractical) technological fixes. The Turn One scoring system doesn’t necessarily encourage deep thinking or research.
  6. It would be very helpful if the system automatically shrunk and embedded urls in posts, so that participants could more easily cite supporting evidence and data.
  7. Apparently, a lot of people haven’t yet met a problem that they didn’t want to resolve kinetically. Make them walk the plank, or kiss the gunner’s daughter! That’ll fix it.
  8. I hereby propose to ban the word “epic” from game-related discussions.
  9. For the gaming geeks out there, it was perhaps also a little amusing that one of the major threads in the playtest on the need to shut down pirate “ports” seemed to be a variation on “All your base are belong to us.” (Incidentally, pirate “ports” are often little more than beach camps like the one at right.)
  10.  I don’t think the mmowgli Turn One game play necessarily generated more useful and innovative ideas than could be achieved in a three-hour BOGSAT with a dozen bright Naval Postgraduate School students. On the other hand, it did allow a substantial number of people to be involved despite geography, time zones, and work schedules.
  11. Overall, I thought it was a very interesting experiment with some intriguing potential. I’m particularly interested to see how the transition to Turn Two would work, since I suspect that’s where the real analytical and innovative pay-off is to be had.
In reading all of the points above, it is important to keep in mind that this was a short, preliminary playtest of a platform that is still in development. Moreover, the piratey playtest in which I participated only extended (so far?) to Turn 1, and not to later stages of the game when participants are called upon to develop more detailed action plans. It is far too easy for a scurvy bilge rat like meself to nitpick an experiment. Given that I thought it all has some intriguing potential, therefore, I hope the comments above will be taken in the spirit intended: as constructive input into further development.
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Yes, I’m well aware that Somali pirates don’t talk at all like 17-18th century privateers. However, with International Talk Like a Pirate Day (an annual event in my classes) only a few months away, it seemed as good as opportunity as any to get some practice.

Resources for simulated pirate-hunters

With a MMOWGLI crowd-sourcing/simulation platform playtest currently underway, I thought I would provide a quick list of resources on Somali piracy and counter-piracy operations as a resource for participants.

And last, but by no means least (from Wired magazine)::

MMOWGLI almost ready to sail

An email from the MMOWGLI team went out today to those who have signed up for the forthcoming playtest, indicating that the Office of Naval Research’s experimental crowd sourcing/simulation experiment will launch next week:

Dear mmowgli player,

Thank you for your interest in mmowgli-a groundbreaking experiment in collective intelligence. You’re officially on our team of pioneers and early adopters as the first people to see mmowgli in action.

mmowgli officially launches next week with a lightning round of fast-paced gameplay.

What will YOU do to turn the tide of Somali piracy? Contribute as much as you can, but of course the more you play, the more you can change-and win-the game.

Watch your email early next week for the exclusive launch time and online invitation.

With best regards,

The mmowgli Team

Public playtesting had been delayed by the sheer number of people who had signed up to participate—more than 14,000 at last count. Indicative of the public attention all this has received, Rear Admiral Nevin Carr, the Chief of Naval Research, was on MSNBC yesterday to discuss the launch.

In fact, the Moves Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School is currently running a pre-public playtest of MMOWGLI at the moment. The game’s interface is a refreshingly clear and intuitive one, and the feedback and scoring system is designed to reward the most stimulating contributions (although whether those turn out to be the most thoughtful ones remains to be seen). The first stage of the game is all about generating short, tweet-sized micro ideas:

In later stages of the game, players will develop more detailed action plans, which other players can rate and comment upon. These too will be scored. Throughout, the game moderators have the capability of issuing rewards for particularly good ideas, which should help with quality control.

There’s also a leader board that allows you to monitor other player’s scores. There’s a risk that it might generate metagaming, however—not collaborating with a rival because you might push up his/her points total?

The biggest challenge, however, will be handling the potential traffic on the server. I don’t think any of the IT folks will be getting much sleep the day it launches publicly…

MMOWGLImania and some thoughts on purposive social media

The impending online playtest of MMOWGLI (the “Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet,” developed for the Office of Naval Research) continues to draw considerable media coverage. One of the most recent contributions is an article in yesterday’s Washington Post:

To combat Somali pirates, the U.S. Navy has relied on warships, snipers and SEAL teams. Now, it is turning to the heavy artillery: Internet gamers.

This month, the Office of Naval Research will roll out the military’s first-ever online war game open to the public, crowd-sourcing the challenges of maritime security to thousands of “players” sitting in front of their computers.

The project — named MMOWGLI (the acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet) — is a video game for policy wonks. It aims to replicate a traditional military strategy session on an exponentially larger scale, bringing together a diverse mix of government and outside experts that would be impossible even in the largest Pentagon conference room.

Through virtual simulation and social media tools made popular on Twitter and Facebook, players will work together to respond to a series of make-believe geopolitical scenarios set off when private ships are hijacked off Somalia’s coast.

“We live in an echo chamber,” Lawrence Schuette, the naval research office’s innovation chief, said of the military. “The challenge is you always want to have an audience that’s diverse in background, diverse in thinking. It’s those intersections where you see creativity occurring. The advantage of online crowd-sourcing is obvious: You have many more intersections and many more diverse backgrounds.”

Thanks in part to pre-launch publicity, more than 7,000 people have signed up for MMOWGLI, far beyond the 1,000 that developers had anticipated for the $450,000 pilot project. Programmers from the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif., that is making the software, have postponed the launch date to be sure the game has enough capacity.

There are, of course, the inevitable comparisons with the World Bank’s EVOKE online development education project. PAXsims gets a mention in the Washington Post article too, specifically in connection with the challenge of “crowd-sourcing” ideas in a way that encourages useful innovation rather than trendy (but potentially unrealistic) internet populism:

But as anyone who has spent time in an online chat room knows, moderating the debate against online bullies and sifting through thousands of comments to find quality ideas can be nearly impossible. During the EVOKE project, players coalesced around proposals that were unsustainable, such as floating greenhouses that would produce food 25 times too expensive to afford, said Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal who blogs on strategic gaming.

“There was not enough quality control,” Brynen said of EVOKE. “Trendy development ideas that appeal to the 15- to 30-year-old age demographic catch on because they’re trendy, not because there is proof they would work.”

The quotes make me sound somewhat more negative than I am about the potential of crowd-sourcing, and certainly very more negative than I am about the remarkable innovative potential of the 15-30 demographic. Rather, my major point would be that a “build it and they will come” approach to purposive social media is a potentially self-defeating: one needs to think not only how one will hook in participants, but also how to best utilize their energy and ideas towards a clear goal. A key part of this, in turn, is thinking very strategically about the explicit and implicit reward structures and filters that might encourage high quality contributions in a way that empowers creativity but keeps it reasonably grounded in reality. In this regard, technology and flashy interfaces can be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In the case of EVOKE, while the approach has considerable potential, I did not feel that it had been executed as well as it might have been. (The World Bank Institute’s own evaluation, which you’ll find here and here, was understandably more positive. Also, have a look too at the game designers’ own reflections here.) Hopefully Season 2 of EVOKE will build on the successes of the project while addressing the weaknesses.

Since MMOWGLI has been developed to spur the development of innovative policy ideas, and since its first playtest addresses a form of hybrid warfare and emerging security threat (maritime piracy), there is another point of comparison that ought to be made, one that has yet to be raised in the media and tech commentary: Small Wars Journal. SWJ is an online community which integrates traditional online publication with a blog, discussion fora, and limited social networking tools. It does so, moreover, in a way that flattens hierarchies and encourages everyone to participate: corporals and colonels are listened to equally, and their contributions judged on the merits.

SWJ, however, does NOT have a particular trendy interface. It has no “gamification” to it at all—no built-in systems for gaining thumbs-ups, for winning avatars, or for earning status points. Despite this, the website has been widely recognized as having had substantial effect on thinking about insurgency, stabilization operations, and similar issues, within the US and around the world. SWJ even made it (together with Lady Gaga) onto Rolling Stone’s 2009 Hot List, despite having the rear end of a donkey as the focal-point of its logo.

I’m not aware that anyone who studies online communities and crowd-sourcing of policy ideas has yet looked systematically at what makes SWJ works (attention graduate students: thesis topic!). As a fairly frequent participant there, I think it has an awful lot to do with the quality of the moderation. Trolls are soon banned. Most of the participants are respectful, and the bounds of productive and unproductive dialogue are fairly well understood. Plus, of course, the “Small Wars Council” discussion forum at SWJ has Ken White. Really, what more do you need? Certainly there are weaknesses with SWJ. As they’ve expanded their publication (and received ever more contributions) they’ve had to work hard to maintain quality. Some discussions can get a bit repetitive (suppressive fire, anyone?). The participant community is not as diverse as it could be (more NGO folks, diplomats, and journalists would be useful, as would more contributors from outside NATO countries). Overall, however, it is hard to see SWJ as anything other than a success.

I think MMOWGLI is a really interesting experiment. They’ve clearly done some thinking, and I hope it works out well. In assessing its contribution, EVOKE—for all its technological parallels—is probably the wrong comparison, given its very different (educational) goals. Rather, the question that needs to be asked is how does MMOWGLI fare in generating ideas compared to a more conventional face-to-face workshop, such as the recent NATO experiment on countering hybrid threats? How does it fare compared to the more traditional online model of SWJ, or the various elements of the policy blogosphere more broadly? How do we measure this, especially given that “cost per clever idea” seems a very difficult metric to generate? And how can the project be used to further advance our understanding of leveraging the internet for purposes of policy discussion, debate, and innovation?

We’ll be following the MMOWGLI experiment with interest.

Arrrr mateys, here be MMOWGLI…

The MMOWGLI (“Massively Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet”) crowd-sourcing/simulation platform being developed by US Navy and the Institute for the Future will launch a live online playtest next week. As Wired has reported, the playtest will encourage participants to suggest new and innovative ways of dealing with the challenges of maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa:

Starting on Monday, the Navy will host one of the least likely online games ever: MMOWGLI, its Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet, something it’s been building since 2009. In a literal sense, the game is about counterpiracy, as the game encourages players to offer about their best suggestions for clearing the seas of the resurgent maritime scourge. But the real point of MMOWGLI — pronounced like the Jungle Book protagonist — is a social experiment.

“We want to test this proposition: can you get a crowd to provide you with good information?” Larry Schuette, the director for innovation at the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s mad scientists, asks Danger Room. “Is the wisdom of the crowd really that wise?”

What do you do? Two text boxes pop onto the screen. The first reads “Innovate,” and asks: “What new resources could turn the tide in the Somali pirate situation?” The second reads “Defend” and asks: “What new risks could arise that would transform the Somali pirate situation?” Beneath either are two boxes to import and record your brief answer: 140 characters.

“You’re tweeting, basically,” Schuette explains.

Then comes the crowdsourcing. During the first week of the game, your fellow players will vote on your suggestion. If they think it’s noteworthy, they can tweak it. New cards allow players to Expand (“Build this idea to expand its impact”), Counter (“Challenge this idea”), Adapt (“Take this idea in a different direction”) or Explore (“Something missing? Ask a question”).

Players are awarded points based on the number of affirmations their ideas get from their peers. “Based on that, we invite you to the next round,” Schuette says. There are three rounds, with each lasting a week, so the ideas can marinate. “People with good ideas will win.”

Fast Company also has a report on the project, as does the DoD’s own “Armed with Science” blog.

We’ve reported a little on MMOWGLI in the past, and will be interested to see how it all works out. The initiative certainly raises several interesting questions about using crowd source techniques to generate and refine creative ideas and analytical approaches:

  • How do you promote quality output rather than a sort of ill-informed internet populism (what we’ve previously called “massive multiplayer online stupidity”)? MMOWGLI proposes to use an intrinsic system of evaluation whereby players essentially rate the contributions of others. That can work well with a thoughtful group of participants. It doesn’t, however, in itself assure that the best ideas secure support. One of the problems with the World Bank’s EVOKE project, for example, was that while the gamified interface encouraged participant feedback, most of the well-intended but inexperienced participants were in little position to really evaluate the practicality of each other’s idea.  (Of course, it is also important to recognize the differences in purpose too: MMOWGLI is intended to harness existing expertise in new ways to generate potential new ideas, whereas EVOKE was intended in part as an educational tool.)
  • What are the effects of flattening hierarchies? The MMOWGLI approach allows anonymized junior members of organizations to offer ideas as easily as more senior ones, while protecting them from the ramifications of challenging conventional thinking. That can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing: when participants are anonymized it is difficult to evaluate the information and operational expertise that might inform their analyses. Should the opinions of Navy SEALs or freighter captains have no inherent added weight on maritime issues compared to those of net surfers who get seasick in a dinghy?
  • Can appropriate policy responses to complex social/political/economic/security issues really be reduced to short posts of 140 character tweets? Indeed, does this send a dangerous signal, namely that all that stands between a problem and its solution is a soundbite?

At the outset, it might help to tighten up the MMOWGLI pirate scenario a little. According to the screen shot that Wired features (above), the initial setting/orientation seems to involve a few things that don’t entirely make sense. What is “humanitarian aid for rig workers”?   How could three pirate ships hold the world “hostage”? After all, while the Somalia pirate problem is very serious (according to the World Bank, the worldwide cost of piracy losses and anti-piracy measures may be between $5.7 and $11.2 billion), we are a very long way away from a situation where “merchant ship movement through the area is blocked”. Providing good baseline information and links to additional resources can very much enrich the quality of simulations, role-play—and, one suspects, online crowd-sourcing of innovative policy ideas. Some of the early conceptual material on MMOWGLI suggested that it would include this sort of supporting data—hopefully it does, and it hasn’t been lost during the development process.

Quite coincidentally, I’m attending a NATO conference at the moment that is attempting a sort of crowd-sourcing of policy ideas on combating “hybrid threats,” including maritime piracy. Here too the organizers have brought together a range of perspectives and expertise, are using scenarios to promote new ideas, are encouraging open discussion, and have deliberately sought to flatten hierarchies (no uniforms or ranks, generals using their first names, and so forth). Of course, the conference organizers have also had to go to the effort of bringing scores of participants from a dozen or more countries to Estonia, set up conference facilities, and manage the whole thing—something that MMOWGLI attempts to do more cheaply and easily via online means. It will be an interesting natural experiment to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches.

Finally there seems to be one key problem with MMOWGLI’s pirate scenario that they have somehow failed to anticipate—namely this: the solution is already well known. Ninjas. Any geek could tell you that you fight pirates with ninjas (and vice versa) Really, one wonders where the US Navy is getting its policy advice from these days…

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Update: a few additional links added above, and more MMOWGLI discussion here.

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