Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Natasha Gill

Simulating the Arab-Israeli conflict: to what ends?


Last month The Forward published two articles dealing with Arab-Jewish dialogue, and the particular contribution of negotiation simulations in promoting empathy and understanding. The first, by Sam Kestenbaum, describes a negotiation simulation at CUNY’s Queen’s College:

On a recent afternoon in Queens, Secretary of State John Kerry sat with Israeli and Palestinian representatives, chatting amiably. “It’s great to see you two side by side,” Kerry said to the delegates. “Now, have we agreed about these land swaps?”

The Israeli and Palestinian smiled and nodded — a historic agreement had been reached; it seemed there might be an end to the crippling decades long stalemated conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

But then the class period ended.

John Kerry, peeling off a nametag, introduced herself as Rachel Olshin, a Jewish student at Queens College. The Israeli delegate revealed herself as a young Muslim named Amer Ashraf. The Palestinian delegate was a Jew and onetime soldier in the Israeli army, named Jeremy Pitts. The three students were participating in a semester-long simulated peace process at City University of New York’s Queens College, one of a number of measures taken on that campus to ease religious and political tensions.

Around 2005, Rosenblum developed a curriculum and course called “America and Middle East: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds.” The next years saw slightly different iterations, culminating in the conflict-resolution simulations.

McGee, who has now taken over Rosenblum’s class, said students are often uncomfortable with the material. And that’s the point. They’re asked to assume characters from “the other side” of where they are coming from.

Students broke up into small groups in different parts of the classroom, peering over maps of the region. Some had difficulty finding Gaza and Tel Aviv on the map. One student struggled to pronounce Bahrain and Kuwait correctly; a young woman in a hijab leaned over to correct her.

A whole range of characters was cast: Amos Yadlin, IDF military attaché to Washington; Salaam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority; Samantha Powers, United States ambassador to the United Nations, and Turki Al-Faisal, from the Saudi royal family.

If a character is simply beyond the pale for a given student — for example, taking on the role of a Hamas representative, or an Israeli settler — McGee will let that character take a more backseat role. One student confided in a private message to McGee earlier this semester, “It’s really important for me to understand the Palestinians, but I’m terrified.”

The other piece, by David Makovsky and Gaith al-Omari, describes a negotiation simulation at the University of California Santa Barbara:

…the most unique feature of our UCSB program is the mock negotiation exercise, where we ask students who self-identify as pro-Israel to play the role of Palestinian negotiators and vice versa. It’s all too common in such a highly emotive conflict for partisans to dismiss the views of the other as mere posturing or as unfounded propaganda. Rather than simply spelling out the various parties’ positions to the students, we challenge these students to articulate the logic and sets of interests that lead each side to adopt its position.

This is not an emotionally easy process for students who feel a strong affinity to one side. As facilitators, we can see in the students’ facial expressions and body language clear signs that many of them struggle to argue for the very same positions they have grown accustomed to criticizing. So it’s important for us to ensure that they are not made to feel uncomfortable with their views or pressured to abandon them. Instead, we hope that students leave this exercise with a greater understanding that the positions of the other side are based on a set of facts, interests and narratives that need to be understood, even if they are not adopted, by anyone who seeks to end this conflict.

As the exercise progresses, we see the participants becoming more comfortable with the idea that people can have their own narratives and that often, although not always, these different narratives do not come from a place of malice. The participants begin to understand that this conflict is not a morality play, as they may hear from some of their teachers in the classroom.

In the end, we believe that the effort is worth it when students — often those who were most skeptical at the start — tell us that they leave the exercise understanding that the conflict is more complex than the bumper stickers or fliers on campus suggest it is, or that they now appreciate that both sides believe they have justice on their side. Our hope is that students will use the knowledge they gained to promote dialogue and practical forms of coexistence rather than engage in BDS or other forms of divisive, mutually delegitimizing activities.

In a sharp rejoinder, however, Natasha Gill is rather critical of the approach:

Despite what many people may believe, humanization between individuals does not resolve conflict between groups. And yet against all the hard evidence, most conflict management or simulation exercises still put this forward as their primary objective.

The Forward recently ran two articles about conflict negotiation simulations dealing with the Israel/Palestine dispute. Both mention the challenges and rewards of role-reversal, in which participants take on the part of their adversary during the course of the simulation.

But by citing the troika of dialogue and peace projects — humanizing enemies, encouraging an understanding of “the other” and developing mutual empathy — both models appear to be driven by the same unquestioned assumption that has ushered Palestine/Israel reconciliation movements into oblivion: that there is a relationship between mutual understanding among individuals and the end of violence or the achievement of peace between groups or nations.

As one of the first to devise Israel/Palestine role reversal negotiations over a decade ago, inspired and trained by Barnard College historian Mark Carnes’s highly successful “Reacting to the Past” method, I have found that the emphasis on dialogue, empathy and humanization is misleading. In reality, the most powerful component of these modules is that they offer a unique space where adversaries can face each other without being pressured prematurely into friendship or asked to feel each other’s pain, and where their anger and hatred can be accepted, even respected.

In the end, such simulations do compel participants to better understand their adversary, but not out of any sense of moral responsibility, virtuousness or respect for “the other.” Instead, they do so in order to take stock of their own options and the realities that their own people face . As a result, participants might rethink their approach to the conflict even when they do not change their mind about their enemies’ motives, rights or actions. They’re likely to query the effectiveness of their own strategies and goals, and closely analyze whether these are achievable. And they will often recognize the beliefs of their adversaries as facts on the ground that have to be addressed, no less powerful than any that can be seen or touched.

The results of this process are quite different from those that emerge from many peace and dialogue groups — not because the latter are not meaningful for individuals, but because whereas personal encounters may open hearts and minds, participants in these programs are rarely given tools to address their adversaries within the context of the conflict itself .

And the results are certainty different from the kind of work done by advocacy groups, where intra-community debate is subject to stringent rules of censorship, and where the goal is generally to learn only enough about your enemy’s stated positions so as to design a set of counter attacks and talking points. That’s a staggeringly superficial and ineffective strategy whose only success has been to deprive otherwise intelligent individuals of the insight they need in order to be effective advocates for their own cause.

In contrast to these approaches — both of which, for different reasons, avoid a confrontation with reality — a well designed simulation plunges participants into the heart of the conflict, where they analyze in great detail the social, economic, political, territorial, diplomatic and psychological obstacles to peace, from the perspectives of all parties that have a stake in its outcome.

Natasha is well known for her work on integrative simulations to teach conflict, negotiation, and mediation, and has been a contributor here at PAXsims. Like her, I have been critical of many of the “people-to-people” initiatives that flourished in the heyday of the Arab-Israeli peace process. These typically placed too much emphasis on changing attitudes within a very small section of the grassroots while overlooking more hard-edged political and  structural challenges. That being said, I think she’s being a little unfair to the two projects described, since both clearly have student socialization as an important goal, as well as seeking to educate participants about the conflict. On campus, classroom friendships and empathy can play a powerful role in changing broader community dynamics, even if they have no impact whatsoever on the actual conflict—a point noted by the authors of both pieces.

She and I also partly disagree on the potential value of “fictional or futuristic scenarios, which can be uplifting for participants but misleading for all involved.” Certainly there are badly-designed fictional or future simulations, and understanding of current problems is usually best served by setting a simulation in the here-and-now.

Depending on what you are trying to do, however, there are sometimes very good reasons to liberate participants from the tyranny of the present if you are trying to identify future challenges or develop innovative approaches. This is a point that Sean McMahon and Chris Miller have made from a critical studies perspective. At the other end of the spectrum, many professional national security simulations utilize such settings because they allow you to set initial conditions in a way that best suits analytical or experimental needs.

Indeed, the most successful and influential Arab-Israeli simulation I have ever been involved in—one that led directly to several international meetings attended by diplomats and technical experts, briefings in multiple national capitals, and two follow-up simulations in direct support of on-going negotiations—was set in a future scenario rather than a current one, and this setting was critical to its success. It was certainly realistic and engaging enough that we had to stop one group of participants from consulting their (real-life) national leader’s office to obtain (simulated) negotiation instructions.

Taken together, the pieces by Kestenbaum, Makovsky and al-Omari—together with Gill’s critique— raise some valuable questions about how we run simulations, to what purpose and with what effects, and how greater understanding might best contribute to conflict resolution.

h/t Neil Caplan 

Review: Gill, Inside the Box

Inside_the_Box-GillNatasha Gill, Inside the Box: Using Integrative Simulations to Teach Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation. Zurich: Center for Security Studies, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), 2015. Free to download.

Natasha Gill (Track4) has written an outstanding guide on how to use role-play negotiation simulations to explore issues of conflict and conflict resolution. What’s more, it’s free!

Gill’s “integrative simulations ” or “IN-simulations” ideally involve around 12-15 participants engaged role-playing negotiations of a real-life conflict over a period ranging from two days to several months. Participants are provided with substantial background material, and coaches with topic knowledge and negotiation experience help advise participants throughout the process. Her book provides an overview of organizing an IN-simulation, from preparation to implementation and aftermath; discusses what participants learn, and how and why they learn it; addresses some of the potential problems and criticisms of simulations as pedagogical tools; discusses how to handle potential problems that may arise; and offers a clear how-to manual and sample role packet/background material.

It is clear that the author strongly prefers her own IN-simulation model to others (p. 18):

The distinctive nature of an IN-simulation is best highlighted by contrasting it with:

  • Brief skill-building role play exercises that take place over the course of a few hours or one full day, are based on loosely structured or fictional scenarios, and include roles that are generalized or invented;
  • Modules that are longer and include detailed strategies and intricate gaming aspects, but are run with a large number of participants or moderated through the internet;
  • Modules that run on auto-pilot, with little feedback or monitoring from instructors.
  • Varieties of the above modules that include intensive input from instructors, but where supervision tends to focus on ensuring the game remains on track and participants are following the general rules, rather than on offering personal feedback to individual participants relating to their skills development, or their strengths/weaknesses in various areas.

While these and other types of simulations can be exciting for participants and offer a variety of insights and learning experiences, they often miss out on some of the most crucial learning experiences that emerge from being immersed in a structured, intimate and realistic negotiation.

She is critical of “war games” and crisis simulations (pp. 145-146) for generating an intense and chaotic decision-making environment in which players are unable to appropriately contemplate their positions. Fictional conflicts, Gill argues, cannot generate the appropriate degree of emotional commitment to roles. She very much favours teaching participants as the game unfolds. Her emphasis is generally on learning rather than policy analysis, and think-tank games come under particular criticism (pp. 51-21, 132).

Her commitment here to a single model provides the book with admirable coherence and clarity of focus. On the other hand, some may may feel that she pays inadequate attention to other ways of doing things. In my own work I am more inclined to take a “toolkit” rather than “model” approach, one that emphasizes that different simulation and gaming tools may work better in different contexts or to explore different aspects of conflict.

  • If you want to encourage deep reflective thinking and interchange, then integrative simulations clearly have a great deal  to commend them. However, they tend to also work best with small groups who can invest substantial time in the process.
  • Many role-play negotiations do not accurately model the disorganization, time pressures, and chaos of many real-life talks. The 2000 US-Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David are a case in point: despite their calm, bucolic setting, they were, in the words of one Israeli participant, “the worst organized negotiations I had attended in my professional life.” There was little pre-negotiation, technically knowledgable advisors kept at arms length, poor negotiation records were kept, and the parties were surprisingly ill-prepared.
  • In some cases, key parties never meet face-to-face, or stakeholders never get a seat at the table but rather make their views felt in other sorts of ways. In such cases other game mechanisms can be used to model this. In the Syrian refugee simulations I’ve conducted, for example, the refugees are engaged in a quite different (but interlinked) “survival” simulation while the higher-level refugee policy negotiations are underway.
  • If you can find the human resources to provide coaches, and you’re running very small simulations in which the facilitator can give everyone face-to-face time, that’s great—but it isn’t always possible. Moreover, in some cases there is value in letting participants make mistakes and learn from their consequences, rather than coaching too much.
  • Simulations may have wholly legitimate analytical purposes too, not just experiential ones. On the issue of think-tank games, a  previous PAxsims exchange between Gill and Devin Ellis (here and here) explores this issue in further detail.

In fairness to Gill, however, she is clear that the purpose of her book is not to survey the broad range of simulation approaches, but rather to discuss how her IN-simulation approach works. By all appearances it works very well when applied in the way she suggests to certain types of negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution issues. Moreover, in the course of discussing the approach she has much to offer more broadly on learning, integration onto curriculum, assigning players, dealing with difficulties, and a range of issues beside. The insights that she offers are substantial, and this book should be required reading for anyone working in this field or who wishes to use such techniques for conflict resolution training or in an academic classroom.

Simulations and gaming miscellany, US marriage equality edition


PAXsims is proud to present its readers with an inclusive rainbow of recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming.


Inside the Box: Using Integrative Simulations to Teach Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation
, a book by Natasha Gill of Track4, has recently been published by the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. As Simon Mason notes in a blog post about the book:

Inside_the_Box-GillCritics of role plays and simulations have argued that while participants have fun and get enthusiastic about negotiations, the actual learning is superficial, as the process is too far removed from reality. Another common criticism is that simulations lead to the stereotyping of actors in conflict, rather than a deeper understanding of the various players and dynamics. It is also said that emotional tensions between participants at times spill over into the real world, as participants find it difficult to shed the perspectives they adopted and the feelings they experienced during the simulation. Many of these criticisms, however, do not necessarily reflect on the approach per se, but rather point to the low quality of some role plays and simulations, particularly in how they are designed and run. Furthermore, most supporters of simulations do not argue that these modules are magic bullets that should replace other forms of learning. Well-designed role plays may miss their target if they are not well embedded in the overall training program and complemented with other forms of learning.

In her new book “Inside The Box: Using Integrative Simulations to Teach Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation” Natasha Gill helps negotiation and mediation trainers design and run simulations that avoid many of these pitfalls. Based on more than a decade of experience, her method is tested through practice in both the academic environment as well as in professional negotiation and mediation courses. Negotiation simulations can professionalize mediation if the way they are designed and run is also professionalized. Natasha Gill’s book is a useful guide for achieving this goal.

The book is available for free download here. We’ll be reviewing it soon at PAXsims—and, having read a preproduction copy, I can already attest that it is well worth reading.


In the bah humbug department, comes this piece from the Daily Telegraph telling us that children’s “card games and board games are dying out, and it’s no great loss.” Most are “deeply dull” and”an exercise in killing time.” Many, the author suggests, are “badly designed, with too many pieces, rules, and faff.” Consequently, “so many of the games are tortuously complicated or ridiculously simple and not conducive to family bonding.”

Certainly most kids find video games more engaging. And there are also some badly-designed children’s games out there too. However, there are many, many excellent ones. Moreover, sales statistics show robust growth in the sale of both children’s games and (teen and adult) hobby games.

Making the point, the Guardian—which has run several recent articles on the renaissance of board gaming—has another piece on that theme this week, this time highlighting how such games can bring families together:

[Games] teach useful lessons about taking turns and handling defeat. They provide an outlet for tension and rivalry. They require family members to sit down and interact with each other – increasingly important in a world where we spend much of our time in separate rooms, triple-screening and arguing over Skype about whose turn it is to change the toilet roll. But perhaps best of all, they remind us how to play.

The Times of India reports on the growing number of boardgaming devotees in India too, within the growing middle class—including new games clubs, a gaming pub, and the rising popularity of boardgaming among Bollywood stars.



Speaking of children’s games, a prototype of a Osama bin Laden-themed snakes-and-ladders designed by Donald Levine for the CIA for potential information operations in the Muslim world was recently auctioned, selling for a mere $625:

Prototype of board game featuring prominent terror leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, intended for use in Arab countries in order to persuade children from idolizing terrorist world leaders. This prototype was covertly designed for the CIA by Donald Levine (the creator of the iconic G.I. Joe doll) in 2005 for an ”influence operation”, intended to strategically distribute scary or perhaps comical depictions of Bin Laden and Hussein to children, ideally to dissuade them from joining a terrorist group such as Al Qaeda. The project was discontinued after the prototypes were developed. Board game has blue cardboard playing surface with numbered grid and small photographs of Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda printed. Includes two white and black die and white cup with blue, red and yellow game pieces. Game board Measures 16” x 16”. Fine condition. With an LOA from Neil Levine.

h/t: ludic geopolitics


The Providence Journal reports on a recent disaster simulation exercise held at Brown University:

A Category 5 hurricane has hit the island nation of Pwong, somewhere in the Pacific, and four days later the imaginary nation’s disaster management director has opened a single runway at the airport, allowing 40 international aid workers to arrive.

“When you all arrived from the airport,” the man playing the disaster management director told the students playing the aid workers, “I was the first person standing there, and you all walked right by me.”

The students, posing as representatives of aid groups Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Oxfam, the Islamic Relief Organization, World Vision and Care International, fanned out across the stricken nation, actually just the bamboo-lined Starr Plaza behind the Watson Institute at Thayer and Benevolent streets, interviewing about 20 volunteers from the Brown community who pretended to be Pwongians.

The students had a mission in this simulated disaster: to assess needs so their agencies could provide relief. But their mission in real life was to gain experience from the chaos, pressure and conflicting priorities after a disaster.


According to the Military Times, the Us Department of Defense recently wargamed the future of military recruitment and retention challenges.

[A cadre of tech experts] joined in a first-of-its-kind “war game” focused on military personnel issues. The two-day event held in late June in the Washington suburb of Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, brought a team of Silicon Valley pioneers and computer-science experts together with current and former Pentagon officials and military experts from think tanks across Washington.

The rare brainstorming session, sponsored by the Defense Department, was designed to tackle some of the military’s most vexing long-term challenges in building a force for the 21st century and recruiting and retaining the talent it will need in the years ahead.

The event was the latest sign of soul searching inside the Pentagon’s personnel directorate, sparked in part by the advent of cyber warfare and widespread concerns that building an effective cyber force will require skills, management styles and institutional structures that are rare in today’s military.

That anxiety is fueling a broader push inside DoD to modernize the entire military personnel system. The newly appointed undersecretary for personnel and readiness, Brad Carson, has vowed to seek “revolutionary change” in the way the military manages its people.

Carson wants to modernize the Pentagon’s antiquated, paper-based personnel system and its promotion rules that prioritize seniority and stability over performance and innovation. He has promised to draw up a slate of reforms by August that will include far-reaching policy changes and proposed laws for Capitol Hill to consider.

Carson spoke to the war game’s nearly 100 participants and urged them to “pursue disruptive innovations.”

“Don’t settle for incremental reforms that are politically feasible,” he implored.

It isn’t clear from the description how much of an actual wargame this was, and how much of it was an extended scenario-driven discussion and brainstorming event. From the description it looks more like the latter than the former.


Devils+Den+Battle+3The nationwide American backlash that followed the June 15 shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina led many US retailers to stop selling Confederate flags—and for Apple to temporarily withdraw some American Civil War games from its iTunes app store.

Most, however, have now been reinstated:

Though Apple originally said it would only remove apps from the store that used the Confederate flag in an offensive ways, even games about the Civil War that included it to be historically accurate were removed.

“We accept Apple’s decision and understand that this is a sensitive issue for the American Nation,” Games-Lab said after its game was removed. “We wanted our game to be the most accurate, historical, playable reference of the Battle of Gettysburg.”

An Apple spokesperson later said that the company would reinstate some games that were wrongly removed, and given the news about Ultimate General: Gettysburg, it seems like it is.

Policy simulations and high-level participants

Mr. Punch’s Victorian Era: An illustrated chronicle of the reign of Her Majesty the Queen, Volume 2 (1888), via Google eBooks.

Two months ago a discussion began via PAXsims on simulation design when Natasha Gill (TRACK4) posted a guest contribution on “Happy endings, doomsday prophesies, and the perils of think tank simulations,” responding in part to earlier comments I had made on a Syria simulation at the Brookings Institution. Devin Ellis (ICONS Project) then offered some reflections on Natash’a’s points and the “Dance of the Simulation Designer” (to which Natasha, in return responded).

Today we offer round three of this valuable discussion, as Devin addresses some issues and questions raised by Natasha and myself, and offers more thoughts on policy simulations and high-level participants.

* * *

Policy Simulations and High-Level Participants – Continued

Devin Ellis, ICONS Project

Natasha Gill wrote a very thoughtful response to my spur-of-the-moment comments on her initial post, and I promised Rex that I would continue the dialogue on high-level participants (I think I’m going to give up and go for an acronym – HLP from here on in). I have been distracted by my day job for the past month, but I am hoping to answer Gill’s question(s) and further clarify some of the points in our discussion. I am doing a lot of think tank work right now, watching much more of it as an invited guest, and I have kept this discussion firmly at the forefront of my mind. Assessing what I thought was valuable and not valuable about what I’ve witnessed the past few weeks sharpened my thinking on this subject.

Gill asked:

My question to Ellis is this: he writes that the purpose of the exercise is to “explore possible policy reactions to a crisis” but in the same sentence admits that “no one…believes the purpose of a well designed and run wargame is to predict the ‘real future’ in a complex policy environment.

I think this means that although facilitators and participants are well aware that the details of the future can’t be known, the responses of various players to a crisis might be generally predictable in a simulation, in such a way as to be informative or useful for policy makers.

But upon reflection, if this is what Ellis meant, I’m not sure it makes sense to me. If a simulation can’t predict the future, then how much is it really telling you about possible ‘policy reactions’? And how much of what it does tell you about these actually useful (rather than merely interesting) to real policy makers?”

Gill is almost right about what I meant. I did not originally frame it this way, but I stand by the idea that a think tank simulation can tell you a great deal about possible policy reactions without having to be predictive of the one specific future – indeed the well run policy planning simulation should do exactly that.

She also, however, throws in the existential dilemma for all of us in this business: how much of what you get out of this is actually useful to policy makers vs. merely interesting? My answer to this two part question is that I believe there are a lot of circumstances under which think tanks should not do policy simulations. But if they do them it should be with HLPs, and they should not attempt to get them out of their own background and experiences. I argue that this very formula can be what gets your desired outcome: a set of possible courses of action which are useful for planning.

My answer raises two questions: 1) What does a ‘good’ think tank simulation need to deliver? 2) Why do HLPs help get you there? Here we go…

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s the Saban Center!

The think tank simulation is a different beast from an in-house policy planning exercise for an agency or office. It is also very different from a simulation used for training. Usually the objective is not to give the participants in the exercise new insight into the issue – if they get it, bully for them, but that’s secondary. The objective is to influence current and possibly future policy makers who are almost never, themselves, participants.

In Stephen Downes-Martin’s talk this year at Connections, he emphasized one of his key questions to the client: “When do you rotate out of here?” He asks that (and we all should!) because with an in-house program you want to make sure that client is served by the time frame of your exercise and the recommendations that emerge from it. For a think tank, your recommendations often go public, and even when they don’t your client is usually an SME, not an SES/O-8-O-9er. This has implications.

As a think tank, you need to be able to defend your conclusions to:

  1. The current decider
  2. The next decider
  3. Their numerous opponents and critics.

What does this mean? The content of the simulation needs to be either non-partisan or bi-partisan in significance; it’s best not to assume any specific political agenda or personality for the actors in major democratic powers (the U.S.); the more your exercise focuses on core thematic and structural issues, the longer its shelf life and the wider its acceptance. In short, you benefit from less – not more – situational and personality specificity.

My first question to the think tank interested in running a crisis simulation is: “what do you want this exercise to tell you about policy planning options?” If the answer is “I want one exercise to reveal the hidden truth of how we are going to untangle the mess in Syria” then I will try and get them to re-think their agenda. If the question is: “I want to better understand what courses of development might face us in the event that US decision makers are confronted by scenario X,” then a good simulation might just be for you!

Admiral, if you could put down the putter for just one moment please…

On doing what we do, I could not say it better than Peter Perla:

Wargames, on the other hand, focus precisely on human behavior, particularly on human decision making. The learning that comes from wargames comes both from the experience of making decisions (playing) and from the process of understanding why those decisions are made (game analysis)… Wargames do not do very well at producing quantitative measures because they are often little more than a single realization of a complex stochastic process. Instead, the value of a wargame lies in qualitative assessments of why decisions are made.

The think tank’s sim has to work for multiple real world audiences, so the specificity of things like political leanings and psychology that would make role sheets for a simulation examining a very specific set of parameters so vital are instead counterproductive. The think tank’s sim is looking for a very particular type of outcome – it’s an exercise in identifying problems and options which can be generalized.

Rather than trying to break the HLPs out of their shells, I am in fact looking for those instinctive, experiential elements they bring. Their professional background – if not their political party or personal feelings – is usually representative of their near peers. When you analyze the thought processes they went through, how they decided what to do, and what they did, you can draw inferences about how a real world administration would likely be advised of its options. Doing so can show you both areas where they are presenting good ideas, and also areas where you can point to problems with myopic thinking, lack of creativity, and constraints on policy choices which should be addressed BEFORE the crisis happens. If a good think tank sim can do these things, it is well worth the time spent on it.

Go Ahead, Kill the Messenger

It will come as no surprise, given the proceeding, that I don’t do role sheets for HLPs in a think tank simulation. As I said, what I’m looking for are their real life assumptions, reactions, and ingrained knowledge. It would be total hubris for me to assume I know more about the gritty details of each of their specialized realms than they do, and the last thing I want is to impose a filter. Also, from a purely practical standpoint, most HLPs are not going to read all their materials if you give them more than half a dozen pages. I love the ones who will, but I plan for those who won’t.

What does this mean? Your scenario has to be superb – it has to withstand the critical glare of your participants, and it has to drive the key elements you want them to focus on in the simulation. Part of my problem with many think tank simulations and wargames is that scenarios are often not rigorously enough vetted for both realism AND their ability to elicit the responses you are most interested in examining in your exercise. Additionally, I am in 100% agreement with Gill on the deleteriousness of throwing endless, seemingly unconnected injects at your participants to stir things up (“let’s see how they’ll react to this! And now this! Etc”). Stick to your story.


Rex raised a good point: for the think-tankers to sell their conclusions, it helps to have those big names attached. Many good ideas only make the leap from academia to policy after a big name policy shop has written them up with the implicit endorsement of beltway heavy hitters. Of course it cuts both ways, and plenty of trash has been given marketing sparkle by former cabinet members. Garbage in, garbage out – at all levels. I think it’s up to the savvy consumer to look at the simulation product much the same as he or she would any other think tank product.

Happy endings, doomsday prophesies, and the perils of think tank simulations

Having recently commented on the dangers of poorly designed crisis simulations, we’re pleased to feature this guest contribution by Natasha Gill of TRACK4: Simulations in Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation. This piece is an excerpt adapted from a forthcoming book by Natasha entitled Integrative Simulations: An Apprenticeship in Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation, (Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich).

* * *

Happy Endings and Doomsday Prophesies: The twin hazards of simulations run in policy centers and think tanks 

Some of the most influential and publicized simulations are run in think tanks and policy centers, due in part to high-level participants and respectable host institutions. Yet many of these modules appear to produce self-fulfilling prophesies rather than facilitating a deeper understanding of a conflict or developing robust policy recommendations.

With crisis-oriented or futuristic scenarios, thin role descriptions that allow participants to draw mostly from their own knowledge-base, and a host of intervening external events that drag the scenario into spirals of urgent decision-making, these war-game type modules miss out on key simulation-opportunities. They often seem to provide evidence for a series of assumptions that are embedded in the very structure of the simulation itself, and thus produce predictable outcomes that confirm rather than challenge the views of participants. Even more problematically, it appears that participants are trusted to accurately represent the characters at the table based on their own knowledge, in the absence of strict role instructions or ‘role reversals’ that challenge them with unfamiliar positions. This is the equivalent of playing chess alone and believing you can inflict on yourself a surprise checkmate.

Crisis Simulations versus Conflict/Negotiation Simulations

Whether or not the time is ‘ripe’ for negotiations in the real world, a negotiation simulation that faithfully reflects the positions of real players and the impasses between parties is likely to produce more profound insights and realistic outcomes than a crisis simulation based on a future scenario or driven by dramatic external events.

A complex simulation structure is most valuable when it relates to a nexus of concepts, interests, concerns, positions and inter- as well as intra-factional tensions, rather than gaming devices relating to impending crises. Interventions such as bombings, assassinations and terrorism, while crucial variables in the real world, are highly problematic when inserted into a futuristic scenario where the context, players or calculus of the leadership are likely to be different. Further, after several such interventions the simulation is catapulted far outside the orbit of reality, and outcomes begin to take on an aspect of the absurd. Participants might learn something about what could occur in one of many possible parallel universes in which each of these events took place in the precise sequence they did in the simulation: they will have gained little insight into the current impasses, position and options of key players or their likely responses to events.

On the contrary, this kind of simulation allows participants to mistake the heart of a crisis with the heart of a conflict. They must make urgent decisions based on critical events rather than delving deeper into the motivations of various players – the psychological, cultural, historical, political and personal baggage they bring to the table. Such scenarios also tend to highlight the divisions between adversaries rather than offering a nuanced view of the internal divisions and pressures that influence the decision-making of key players.

Bringing the Emotions Into the Room

One of the most problematic aspects of crisis games or loosely structured simulations is that they leave a key player outside the room: emotion. As a result, while participants might experience adrenalin-driven emotions – the stress of leadership or challenge of decision-making under crisis – they have the option to sidestep some of the entrenched beliefs, fears and resistances that grip the actual parties.

This can lead to two equally problematic outcomes: in one case, participants sacrifice a deep understanding of key impasses for a premature leap into creative problem-solving or deal-making, and produce elegant (but ultimately unimplementable) proposals; conversely, they might caricaturize the other side, or allow the process to be driven by their own personal fears, resistances and ideological positions. In this case, the outcomes will reflect these fears rather than those of the individual they represent in the simulation. In both scenarios, participants are likely to come away with an unrealistic notion of the circumstances under which parties can or cannot make compromises.

In contrast, a more ‘integrative’ simulation module will incorporate the emotional, visceral and relational elements of a real encounter, bringing to the fore the human and psychological dynamics between parties and within factions. This pushes participants into a direct encounter with the seemingly ‘irrational’ responses that sustain a conflict and make ‘rational’ solutions so elusive. As a result, they experience (rather than objectively analyze) the concerns, resentments and preconceptions that key players bring to the table, and begin to adopt the logic of the positions they represent.

Confirming the assumptions of participants rather than discovering more about the interests of the actual parties

Paradoxically, the tendency to obtain false or weak outcomes from a simulation is more likely with participants who know the issues well than with novices. The former can, consciously or not, leap over the instructions provided in their role sheets, bringing their own interpretations to the table rather than learning from the simulation process. As a result, the simulation will confirm the assumptions of the participants rather than provide them with new insights.

In simulations run with high-level participants, facilitators might intervene in the sense of planning and bringing in crises and external events; but they will not always monitor the way participants interpret their character, or question the approach of participants who are considered specialists. The most productive outcomes, however, will be met if facilitators show respect for the knowledge and experience of participants while still holding them to account with an intricate role packet that pushes them beyond their current knowledge-base, and provides them with a detailed worldview, portfolio and set of strategy objectives. Where possible, participants should be encouraged to take on roles that are unfamiliar to them or do not correspond with their personal background/experiences, underlying beliefs, political/ideological positions or natural dispositions.

Aims without Goals

A conflict simulation can have several aims: help participants refine their understanding of a conflict (in particular, the core issues and positions of a wide variety of parties); enable a direct experience of the dynamics between parties and divisions within factions; reveal distinctions between apparent and genuine areas of impasse; and, based on a scenario that mirrors ‘reality’, help participants anticipate the responses of various parties to a conflict, or manage a conflict or crisis.

In order to achieve these aims, a simulation need not be overstuffed with critical events that lead to an escalation of otherworldly responses and outcomes. In fact, although the process itself should be carefully designed to focus on specific issues and ends, its effectiveness is not measured by a series of elaborate crisis outcomes. On the contrary, participants can storm out of a negotiation, remain stalled for hours in separate rooms and with little apparent movement, utterly fail to prevent an escalation, and yet still achieve an extremely productive result. The simulation will have been a success if participants have increased their ability to assess the motives and potential actions of key parties, anticipate likely dynamics that will emerge between players, or re-asses their view of how to manage a conflict.

Natasha Gill  

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