Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: simulation and gaming miscellany

simulations miscellany, 14 June 2012

For no particular reason at all, it’s the lolcat edition of simulations miscellany—with recent news on games and simulations that may be of interest to our readers:

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The folks at NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning offer a “demo strategic game” online, in which players can choose a course of action in response to a terrorist threat. (It may have been on their CASL website a while, but I’ve only just noticed it.) Go give it a try.

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Volko Ruhnke’s long-awaited boardgame of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Colombia, Andean Abyss, is likely to be shipped by GMT Games next. While you’re anxiously awaiting your chance to play a drug lord or right-wing paramilitary, you can have a look at the final version of the rulebook and playbook on the GMT Games website.

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Also on the insurgency/counterinsurgency theme, over at Grogheads Christopher Davos has posted the second part of his “developer’s diary” for The Long War, a strategic card-driven game about the current war in Afghanistan. There’s also a forum to discuss the game concept.

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It’s an old thread (2009) but a good one: if you’re thinking of using the classic board game Diplomacy in the classroom, have a look at this informative post (and subsequent discussion) at BoardGameGeek.

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Speaking of games of nations, Reddit user “Lycerius” has been playing the computer game Civilization II (1996) for ten years—that is to say, the same game of Civ II over 10 years:

I’ve been playing the same game of Civ II for 10 years. Though long outdated, I grew fascinated with this particular game because by the time Civ III was released, I was already well into the distant future. I then thought that it might be interesting to see just how far into the future I could get and see what the ramifications would be. Naturally I play other games and have a life, but I often return to this game when I’m not doing anything and carry on. The results are as follows.

  • The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.
  • There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.

-The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

-As a result, big cities are a thing of the distant past. Roughly 90% of the world’s population (at its peak 2000 years ago) has died either from nuclear annihilation or famine caused by the global warming that has left absolutely zero arable land to farm. Engineers (late game worker units) are always busy continuously building roads so that new armies can reach the front lines. Roads that are destroyed the very next turn when the enemy goes. So there isn’t any time to clear swamps or clean up the nuclear fallout.

-Only 3 super massive nations are left. The Celts (me), The Vikings, And the Americans. Between the three of us, we have conquered all the other nations that have ever existed and assimilated them into our respective empires.

-You’ve heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war. The three remaining nations have been locked in an eternal death struggle for almost 2000 years….

The epic game has provoked much discussion online, both in terms of strategy for ending the war and with regard to the situation that has developed on his virtual earth after a decade of game play.

(Interestingly, part of the fascination here is that the game is a digital one, where the “half-life” for continuous play is expected to be quite low due to the eventual obsolescence of software or the lure of upgraded editions or subsequent more sophisticated competing games. By contrast, there would be quite a few manual pen-and-paper role-playing games that have been going for two or more decades without attracting attention from NPRThe Guardian, The AtlanticForbes, news agencies, and hundreds of electronic gaming and technology publications and blogs.)

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Tiltfactor is “a conceptual design lab that researches, designs, launches, and publishes games and interactive experiences related to technology and human values” founded by Mary Flanagan. It produces some very interesting games, including POX—a game that educates about vaccination and group immunity. Now they are introducing ZOMBIEPOX, a zombie-themed variant of that same game. The reason for doing so isn’t just because they’ve seen the blood-spattered writing on the apocalyptic wall, but rather to see whether reconfiguring a health education game with a zombie theme will affect the way players accept and learn from it:

…ZOMBIEPOX is an evolution of POX: SAVE THE PEOPLE®, which was originally conceived as a game of disease control that came out of a partnership with the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative to stop the spread of misinformation concerning the effects of vaccination.

Previous research at Tiltfactor has found that players can apply concepts and systems thinking learned through playing POX: SAVE THE PEOPLE to problems outside the game. Currently, Tiltfactor is conducting research to examine the gameplay and learning outcomes of ZOMBIEPOX and how the zombie narrative compares with the original POX: SAVE THE PEOPLE game….

simulations miscellany, 4 May 2012

Some recent items that might be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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There’s been yet another public wargame of a possible Israeli strike on Iran, this time conducted by the national-religious Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon. According to one account of the game:

The simulation was carried out with the participation of former Government Secretary Yisrael Maimon as a member of the “Octet” of trusted ministers and Home Front Minister; Iran expert Dr. Eldad Pardo as the Iranian regime; Maj. Gen. (ret.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu as a senior member of the Octet; Begin-Sadat Center Chairman Prof. Efraim Inbar as the Prime Minister; Dr. Mordechai Kedar as “the Palestinians,” Hizbullah and the Arab countries; journalist Amit Segal as Israeli and world press; journalist Ofer Shelach as Preient Barack Obama and Makor Rishon journalist Amnon Lord as game administrator.

According to the game’s premise, on October 14 and 15, four independent and reliable Mossad intelligence sources indicate that Iran has begun transferring its strategic nuclear equipment to underground sites in Qom. Military Intelligence, meanwhile, determines that Iran was ready to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lulls the press into complacency by maintaining a seemingly regular schedule in Jerusalem. In the pre-dawn hours of October 16, the IDF launches Operation Yahalom (“Diamond”). The nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak are bombed, as are several other nuclear plants and research centers. Ten IAF jets are shot down….

I’ve added this game to my ever-growing list of Israel-Iran-(US) wargames at the Wargaming Connection website.

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PAXsims gets a shout-out in a new CNA study by Will McCants on Science and Technology for Communication and Persuasion Abroad, prepared for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office, Emerging Capabilities Division. The report addresses “social interaction technology” (social media such as Facebook or Twitter), persuasive technologies (such as digital gamification), and “immersive virtual environments and simulation gaming.” In the latter case, it takes up a suggestion that we’ve made in the past about the value of extending military simulation expertise to a broader professional audience (emphasis added, for footnotes see original):

The U.S. military is in its development of immersive technology and simulation games, particularly for training purposes. Indeed, the US military is so proficient in creating immersive virtual environments it could use that proficiency and its gaming capabilities to build ties to non-military institutions. For example, the US military might offer the NGO (non-governmental organization) community assistance with training exercises, crisis simulations, and so forth. Such assistance would foster positive attitudes toward the military, better acquaint the military with NGO needs and dynamics, and prepare both parties to deal with sudden crises.

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The On Violence blog has a post entitled” “Wargaming or: Men Are Not Blocks of Wood” that draws upon Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem John Brown’s Body (1928) to contrast the difference between the antiseptic process of wargaming and operation planning and the lived, emotional, life-and-death experience of soldiers on the battlefield.

If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
To move, when they start they take too long on the way –
The General loses his stars, and the block-men die
In unstrategic defiance of martial law
Because still used to just being men, not block parts,

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A fairly new blog—Game Thesis—describes one graduate student’s efforts to develop a serious game on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers as a Masters thesis project:

I have been working on creating a rough outline for the story. My starting point was crystallising much of the research I have been conducting about asylum seekers and refugees into a set of common misconceptions about them which help to shape the goal of the game.

  • Asylum seekers are not ‘queue jumpers’: many only get the choice between losing their life or leaving their home via illegal channels. Following the protocols to become an official refugee is often not an option.
  • Asylum seekers do not ‘have it easy’ when they arrive at a host destination: some are professionals unable to work, most will have to go through years of applications and appeals the be allowed to reside at a host destination.
  • Asylum seekers are not ‘criminals’ or ‘terrorists’: some are sick, others have been through unimaginable trauma, it is not appropriate to treat them as criminals by default.

However, instead of using actual refugee stories as originally intended, I am abstracting some of the many themes I gathered from these stories to make a story that is not specific to any real culture, race or nationality. This gives me more freedom as I am not pointing fingers at any one government or system. Some of these themes are as follows: having to leave one’s home due to religious, political or ethnic persecution, leaving family behind, going on a dangerous and illegal journey, resettlement in an unfamiliar and potentially hostile environment.

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The NGO Right to Play reports on the use of children’s games to reduce ethnic tensions among Sudanese and Congolese refugees in the Rhino Refugee Settlement in northern Uganda.

simulations miscellany, 6 March 2012

Some recent gaming news that caught our eye here at PAXsims…

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At Foreign Policy Magazine, Michael Peck offers five reasons why video games are lousy propaganda. His piece spins off from the ongoing saga of American ex-Marine/ex-game designer Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, whose espionage conviction (and death sentence) in Iran has now been sent for judicial review, but the issues he raises are much broader:

Who could blame a CIA spymaster for pondering whether games could be used to demonize Iran or vilify Venezuela? And who says that only governments could do this? One can imagine interest groups surreptitiously funding a game in which environmentalists are portrayed as lunatics or ecoterrorists, or where characters casually mention that America needs to drill for oil. With product placement already a feature of video games, political messaging is inevitable.

Yet before gamers see men in black lurking behind every virtual shadow, let’s put down the Mountain Dew and take a deep breath. Video games have significant drawbacks as purveyors of propaganda.

I’m not entirely sure I agree. Leaving aside the Hekmati issue (which we’ve discussed before at PAXsims), I do think that digital games can play a potential role in politically influencing a player in ways intended by a designer. I don’t necessarily think, however, that the way to do this is through major software releases with high development costs, but rather through something rather less expensive and ambitious.

A case in point might be the online “budget simulator” that the government of British Columbia has released in order to inform citizens about the challenges of balancing the provincial budget. That simulation has subsequently been criticized by some for its presumptions and the editorial comments it offers on player choices, with political opponents labelling it as a “propaganda exercise” intended to build public support for the government’s preferred fiscal approach. (h/t to Brian Train for pointing out both the simulation and the subsequent criticism for us.) I rather liked the simulation, but it does seem unlikely that the BC government would have sponsored it if they didn’t feel it would work to their political advantage. Total cost of the simulation: $18,630.

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While on a Michael Peck-related theme, I should mention that Michael had a piece back in January at the Training & Simulation Journal on military simulations in an era of budget cutbacks that we forgot to link to, as well as (another) review of the boardgame Persian Incursion in February. We just can’t keep up with him.

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A GrogNews, Brant Guillory offers some thoughts on the perennial debate over games versus simulations, and their contribution(s) to education and training—complete with diagrams, no less! It is all very sensible too.

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Paul Vebber asks the question “how long does it take to put on a wargame?” at Wargaming Connection. Jon Compton then nails it with the right answer in the comments section: “it takes as much time as you have….”

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Electronic Arts has made it official: SimCity will be back. The trailer for the forthcoming version was announced at the 2012 Games Developers Conference this week. You absolutely should never judge a game by the pre-release cinematics, of course—but if they are anything like the eventual game play, it looks great. The game is slated for release in 2013.

simulations miscellany, 8 February 2012

Some recent items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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Kotaku Australia (16 January 2012) has an interesting piece on “The Fun and Games of the FBI.” The article focuses almost exclusively on avatar-type tactical and RPG serious digital games to teach procedure, however, and says very little about the myriad other possible uses of serious games (not all of them digital) to teach analyst skills, investigative techniques, etc. I would suspect that law enforcement training can involve quite a bit of old-fashioned role-playing and BOGSAT-type scenario exercises, so in many ways the article also implicitly points to the problem of treating new/technological approaches to simulation and game-based training as something wholly different from earlier (non-technological approaches). To me it seems rather like treating new-fangled pens and old-fashioned pencils as if they were wholly different items with wholly different approaches and purposes.

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One of the points made in the FBI piece is that “serious learning” should not be “seriously boring.” This issue is examined in greater detail by John Ferrara in an article on “Why Games Should Be Designed to Be Games First” at UX Magazine (7 February 2012). Discussing the rise of serious games, he notes:

All of a sudden, products labeled as being “games” have started to appear everywhere. Unfortunately, many of these products have shown an insufficient regard for the quality of the player experience. They’re too often designed first and foremost to serve their designers’ objectives, and not to be enjoyed for their gameplay. They contain none of the joy, fascination, and complexity that make games the beautiful interactions they are. In the worst cases, they demonstrate an impoverished, cynical, and exploitative view of games and of the innate human drive to play.

He’s right, of course—one of our biggest criticisms of many so-called serious games here at PAXsims is that while they address interesting and important issues, they are sometimes really, really dull to play. If enjoyment is supposed to be a key hook to engage the player with a particular social or educational message, this is a real problem.

Ferrara also suggests that at present we’re moving into the “trough of disillusionment” in serious game design (following Gartner’s famous technological hype cycle), and that soon we’ll be progressing on to the “slope of enlightenment”.)

Key to this, he suggests, will be the realization that “designers who are creating games must be centrally concerned with the quality of the player experience.” Given the point I’ve made above, its hard to disagree with this. However, I would also add that this needs to occur with very close attention to the serious purpose of the game itself, otherwise one can end up with a popular product that badly teaches its lessons, or teaches the wrong ones entirely. Rizk, for example, was a beautiful, charming game on climate change that was fun to play—but it was a real challenge to derive lessons on climate change from the game itself, and I doubt that 90% of ordinary players did so. The World Bank’s Evoke social platform was regarded as trendy and widely praised in the serious game community, but did as much to confuse as illuminate key development issues. In short, if a game claims to be serious, it needs to seriously address the issue of communicating its subject matter.

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Finally, Michael Peck—who has apparently been cloned by alien beings as part of a nefarious scheme to populate the world with serious game commentators—is now also writing a column for Kotaku, in addition to his gaming columns for the Training & Simulation Journal and Foreign Policy Magazine. His first contribution, entitled “Fun is Good, Useful is Better,” explores the simulation and gaming requirements of military training.


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