PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: University of St. Andrews

Conducting a multi-week, remote crisis simulation

This article was written for PAXsims by Felipe Cruvinel, a PhD candidate at St Andrews. He is currently writing a thesis on applying data analysis to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He designs and produces wargames and simulations for the school and undertakes tabletop design and hobby gaming in his own time. Find Felipe on Twitter at @FCruvi 


Building on the work already carried out on a simulation in early 2020 (previously described at PAXsims by John Hart), a further simulation, to build on the lessons learned from the first was carried out in February of this year. While seeking to provide students with a practical, engaging, and immersive experience, the reality of the substantial changes that have taken place in the year since due to the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated additional redesign work to carry out the simulation in an entirely online environment. 

Map 1: The Disputed Islands in the Scenario

While remaining within the geographic Eastern Hemisphere, the new scenario was centred on China-Taiwan-US dynamics rather than on the multipolar tensions of the South China Sea. The reduced number of groups and players was leveraged by a new design structure, whereby each Country Team is divided into three distinct “Departments”: Executive, Defence, and Economic (thereby applying a finding of the previous multiweek simulation and the previous one day event). These three distinct inter-team groups provided not only a distinction between responsibilities and capabilities, but further provided a real source of inter-team friction through the use of public and secret objectives. 

Figure 1: Country and Department Structure for a 12 Player Simulation 

Each department is thus provided with a public and open objective which they may share openly, whether with other members of their team or with other participants within the game. These are meant to reflect real-world stances and policies which states publicly acknowledge and advocate for. Defence and economic departments, however, were also provided with secret objectives. These consistent of considerations and concerns which when addressed, are likely to come in conflict with their own public objective, or with that of the Executive department. The Executive department was not provided with such a secret objective in order to serve as the centre of gravity and pivot point for the team to focus on. Their objective is the state’s objective, and they must rally their teammates in order to effectively accomplish their objective and prevent them from letting their secret objectives endanger more important goals. 

Design Aims and Structure

The primary objective for this simulation was to gather insight on intra and inter-team friction in an international crisis setting. Fundamentally, this iteration on our previous simulation was meant to assess whether the added inter-team friction made conflict and resolution more or less likely. Understanding the processes and challenges of negotiations between disparate group of actors while subjecting them to internal pressures covers the majority of the secondary aims guiding our design choices. Given such constraints and objectives, three country teams were settled on rather than the previous four, in order to avoid stalemates through static alliances or overwhelming advantages.  

Figure 2: Likely Balance Outcomes in a Three Country Scenario

The task of maintaining a dynamic environment is rendered much simpler in a three country scenario given that only likely outcome #1 has to be avoided. Secret objectives conflicting with one’s own public and state level ones were meant to induce internal drift and tension which would make any stable alliance and bloc harder to maintain. Beyond this, the design of the objectives themselves, both public and secret, also made sure to highlight and stress the differences in strategic and political outlook between Taiwan and the United States. 

For the purposes of running and conducting the Simulation itself, MS Teams was used as both a meeting point for general weekly meetings and intra-country meetings, and as a repository and delivery channel for intelligence reports, breaking news, and any additional information or noise to be conveyed by the control team. While we initially began with 12 participants, external factors reduced the total participant count to 10 over the course of the four weeks during which the simulation was carried out. A two-hour bloc from 4pm to 6pm on Wednesday afternoons was settled on as the general meeting time for every week, during which teams were provided with new information and opportunities to communicate in official or unofficial settings within the scenario. Participants were still allowed to carry out actions and communications outside of the general meeting time, and information was received and provided on a 24/7 basis for the first week of the simulation. This information took the form of reports from civilian and state agencies, communications from other states, fabricated news articles and fabricated breaking news videos. A curfew on information provision and new developments was implemented from week 2 onwards to reduce workload on participants. 

Challenges Faced

The central challenge that emerged was that the ongoing process of engaging with and between participants throughout a timeframe of several weeks increases the commitment requirements of both those participating and members of the control team. There is certainly greater realism in such a 24/7 approach, but its demands in terms of time commitment can quickly grow to become unsustainable for both participants and the control cell. As a solution to this particular issue, proper expectation setting is of the utmost importance. Participants must be made fully aware of the time and involvement demands to be expected, and when or how such commitments might change. 

Additional observations were made throughout the course of this simulation will certainly inform future iterations. Behind the scenes negotiations for instance, took place far more frequently than in our previous simulation. It is unclear if this was a consequence of the ease of secret and informal communication in an online environment versus in-person, or because the division of responsibilities, means, and objectives in our structure also incentivizes individual team members to explore options away from their country team. 

The added friction from team divisions and separate objectives was also seen to have an effect on the control team’s role, necessitating far more engagement in order to keep track of various lines of argument and both public and underhanded agendas. It further increases the “black box” of inter-participant discussion which sits outside the control team’s vision, as it is virtually impossible to control every exchange between participants in an informal setting, and it may in any case be undesirable. Establishing that such behind the scenes conversations are indeed acceptable within the simulation boundaries may be a useful preparatory step in the future. 

The final conclusion to be carried forward was that competitive interaction between and within teams improved engagement and participant experience while providing learning motivation. Participants appeared highly receptive to new information and often made their own independent plans for action in both cooperative and competitive methods, while taking the opportunity during debriefing to express their interest in future simulations.  

International relations crisis simulation at the University of St Andrews

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by John Hart.

John is part-time PhD candidate at the University whose research is titled ‘What Band of Brothers? An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis into the Meaning of Individual Motivation and Group Cohesion in Non-flying Royal Air Force Personnel.’ He previously served had a 25 year career in the British Army and Royal Air Force during which his role required his participation in both the management of, or participation in, many military exercises and simulation events. 


Introduction

Crisis simulations have been run in recent years in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, one form was based on an exercise model that has been run previously in the United States.[1] This took a scenario based on a contemporary international issue – the proliferation of WMD – and allowed the teams, representing 3 major countries, to seek resolution to this crisis through internal decision making as well as interactions with other teams. This simulation was a one-day event with each of the 3 country teams themselves subdivided into leadership, diplomatic and military sub-teams. Supervision of teams was undertaken by staff mentors and outside subject matter experts, whilst the exercise play, including intelligence feeds and scenario development, was managed by a PhD candidate-led simulation Control Cell.

Since this one-day event, the team developed a different format in running a game. Instead of an intensive one day the event was split over four weeks and combined in-person and online (remote) engagement. It is the design, outcomes and challenges that I reflect on here. 

Background: Design Aims

The South China Sea Crisis simulation was held in early 2019 with the scenario being a fishing vessel disappearing in mysterious circumstances in the region. This crisis simulation was an evolution from the previous simulation, but differed from the one-day events in 4 key respects:

  • it was held largely remotely;
  • played over a longer period (4 weeks);
  • more state teams (4 countries: Vietnam, Philippines, China, the US) and,
  • no division into internal sub-teams  (diplomatic, military or executive).

The design aim of the simulation was largely identical to that previously, with the overarching objective being to expose the teams to the complex environment of international crises. This included their use of intelligence and media sources of information, managing risk, negotiation and decision making. In addition to the simulated interactions of competition and/or cooperation with other states, the simulation also replicated the internal challenges of managing internal decision making within states. However, the four key differences in structure of the game meant slightly different objectives/skill could be sought. The remote/in-person structure, meant that managing information, arranging meetings and overall team management was largely down to the teams’ own control. The absence of rigid internal divisions in the cells (between diplomatic, military and the executive) meant that the teams didn’t generated the same in-group frictions.

A key feature of the simulated crisis was the use of uncertainty. The use of multiple teams, and other 3rd party states, provided each other with opportunities or limitations to achieve their aims via negotiation. Also, multiple information/intelligence sources were used to inject a degree of complexity into the simulation.

Structure and Game Mechanics

The simulation was largely run remotely, with a single in-person session per week. The Control Cell consisted of 2 staff and 2 PhD-candidates overseeing 15 players. Gmail accounts were set up for each team and Control to facilitate group communications. This ensured that there were clearly understood mechanisms of communication to facilitate intelligence/information feed to teams. The design also included specified forms and processes for teams to request information or communicate actions to the Control Cell. 

With an outline of the crisis scenario was agreed within the Control Cell, this permitted generation of supporting simulated intelligence, diplomatic reporting or media stories on the crisis to teams. This feed included added ‘public’ noise – e.g., information provided that may have been, true and relevant; relevant possibly not true; not relevant. This was to allow participants to distil the relevant and true information from the stream of incoming material. Notably, the Control Cell capitalised on contemporary social media feeds – with Trump then in power – using his Tweets.

It was entirely left up to the players to self-organised internal or bilateral meetings. Once a week, however, a Control Cell-organised session was conducted to wrap-up the week’s round of play. This was held under the auspices of a meeting of an international organisation e.g., UN or ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This weekly session was often enhanced by simulated 3rd party nations, using pre-briefed additional participants.

Simulation Challenges

The teams’ internal dynamics were inherently more difficult to monitor during this simulation than the previous one-day, on-site exercise. The remoteness of the simulation gave more autonomy for organisation and internal decision making to team members, but this also gave the Control Cell fewer insights into the internal dynamics.[1] Anecdotally, there were fewer intra-team interactions, but the Control Cell did facilitate an opportunity during the weekly meeting. The Control Cell did possess, however, a good sense of inter-team dynamics and discussions due to access to teams’ email accounts.

A key difference (that may be considered a challenge) was that in the remote setting teams preferred to seek to defuse tension through accommodation and negotiation. One possible explanation is the time pressures of the single simulation induced greater tension and uncertainty into play. Another explanation is that the  participants in the multi-week simulations were composed of teams that were naturally more risk adverse. 

Future Design Considerations

A future consideration is to re-establish the internal elements within each country team. In the remote simulation, each team acted as a unitary actor, setting collective objectives and a common strategy negotiated between the players. However, this does not make it possible to understand the friction between various groups internal to states.[2] This reduced the agency of individual players replicating the internal ‘friction’ of domestic policy formulation and decision making. Separate sub-teams should induce greater internal ‘behind the scenes’ negotiations.

The use of pre-briefed contributors/participants/third parties to multilateral meetings – e.g., UN meetings, was a good enhancement. It injected another dynamic into the 3-country game and permitted the Control Cell another lever to obtain responses from teams, or to test their policy decisions. The weekly UN/ARF meeting was also a good forum to resolve a week’s play, create a realistic ‘arena’ for disputes and permitted insight for the Control Cell to prepare the following week’s development.


 

[1] Hunzeker, Michael A., and Kristen A. Harkness. “The Strategy Project: Teaching Strategic Thinking through Crisis Simulation.” PS: Political Science & Politics 47, no. 2 (2014): 513-517.

[2]  Such was the internal friction during a previous, in-person exercise that the on military team conducted a ‘coup d’état’ against its own executive.

%d bloggers like this: