Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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“Getting serious about video games”—and some caveats

Over at Tom Ricks’ “Best Defense” column at Foreign Policy magazine, Peter Bacon recently examined the possible contribution of video games to improving understanding of history and international relations, enhancing military training and preparedness, and sharpening the ability of even civilian policymakers to address key foreign policy challenges:

…In the foreign policy arena, video games can and should serve as a powerful tool for educating civilian and military personnel about war and foreign affairs.

Video games can serve to help bolster America’s glaring deficiency in one crucial discipline: history. Video games focused on war and IR provide refreshing bursts of information about often-overlooked leaders and wars. These games can offer descriptive backgrounds of leaders or events (e.g. Age of Empires’ description of Genghis Khan or the Crusades). These methods can sometimes provide a deeper and more-engaging understanding of history than just a textbook or lecture.

A subgenre of games, so-called “serious” games, goes further by explicitly trying to educate gamers about historical or political issues. For example, Niall Ferguson in 2007 played the World War II serious game Making History and played out some of his WWII counterfactual scenarios, such as war breaking out over German seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938. His experience led him to conclude that his counterfactual historical scenarios “weren’t as robust as [he] thought.” As a result, Ferguson ended up advising this series. This episode, forcing critical re-examinations of events, anecdotally illustrates the range of useful educational experiences gleaned from games like Making History or other, current games such as Global Conflicts: Palestine or the future-themed Fate of the World: Tipping Point that can help civilians better understand history and policymaking, thereby making better choices when voting or arguing politics.

All of the above is great for civilians, but what about actual warfighters and policymakers? Games cannot finely simulate actual combat or crises, yet can provide training related to the planning and responses needed for tactical and strategic decisions. Indeed, military officers have engaged in a modern form of Kriegsspiel by using tactical warfare games for their training: for example, the Close Combat series proved so popular that in 2004 the developer released Close Combat: Marines explicitly for military training. Other games, such as the tank-simulator Steel Beasts or the situational training tools of WILL interactive, have been used by the military for realistic simulations of warfighting and decision-making.

Civilian practitioners, however, have not embraced gaming as readily as the military: while think tankers or civilian politicians outside the Pentagon may play games in an unofficial capacity, official efforts like the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative have petered out. In stark contrast, DOD policy practitioners embrace video games even in non-kinetic planning: Michael Peck’s article on a DOD budgeting game shows how policymakers can prepare for things as prosaic as the budget with games. Hopefully civilian policymakers in the future will use games, both serious, educational games and fun strategy games, to prepare for the decision-making necessary during times of crisis.

It is good to see more and more attention to serious gaming within the policy community and among those who think about building greater capacity in this regard—after all, that is what this blog is all about. However, I can’t help but play devil’s advocate on some of these issues too.

Video games are just one subset of games, and it is important we not lose sight of the contributions of non-digital serious and educational gaming. Certainly computer-based gaming can deliver computation modelling, complexity, immersive audio-visual experiences, systematic monitoring of student performance, greater content standardization across courses and instructors, and a wide range of other benefits. On the other hand, they can also suffer from inflexibility (it is usually much easier to reconfigure a BOGSAT, role-play, or cardboard game), “black boxing” (whereby outputs are rendered believable by the technology used to produce them, while the modelling assumption are hidden from users), rapid obsolescence (in either software or the platforms necessary to support it), and high development costs. Digital games have, and will continue, to transform gaming. However, they are only part of the gaming universe, and focussing on them exclusively only serves to obscure the contributions that can be drawn from other dimensions of gaming. Ludology doesn’t presuppose a mouse (or joystick).

Undoubtedly the military, and the US military in particular, games and simulates more than anyone. However, there are a great many relevant examples of games-based training and education out there that the column misses, even just in the Washington DC area itself. There is all the gaming, for example, that is done at NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning—most of it explicitly interagency, and involving civilians from various government departments, Congress, state and municipal governments, and others. Moreover, while most of this gaming enjoys electronic supports, it is technologically-enhanced role play rather than video gaming. The United States Institute of Peace offers myriad courses on conflict and conflict resolution to government, NGO, and academic audiences that include a simulation/gaming component, and while some of this is computer-based (SENSE) or computer-facilitated (Open Simulation Platform), much of it is also of the BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) variety too.

Organizations like the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, UNHCR, the World Bank, ICRC, IFRC, and others also use some games-based training for their personnel. Again, however, it tends to be of the non-digital sort, both because they lack DoD-size acquisition budgets and because they often find more traditional gaming and simulation methods more effective, especially when teamwork, diplomacy, negotiation, coalition-building, and group facilitation are important parts of the skill set to be enhanced.

It is also important to underscore that effective teaching, training, and capacity-building is rarely delivered by a game in and of itself, but rather is a function of how that game is used and embedded in a broader curriculum. You don’t just sit students (let alone policymakers) in front of a game console and expect the learning to begin. In an educational settings, links to other course materials and components are essential. In all settings, the briefing and debriefing are of critical importance: even a good game can deliver little (or be counterproductive) without an effective debrief and discussion, while even a quite poor or unrealistic game can be used to surprisingly positive effect if discussion of its deficiencies to stimulate creative and critical thinking.  Similarly, in policy settings a great deal of attention needs to be devoted to how serious gaming and simulation might maximize its contribution to productive policy-making.

In terms of policy development, gaming takes time and energy, and it can be difficult to get civilian policymakers in a room long enough to do it properly. Having worked in a foreign ministry policy planning shop for a while, I can think of surprisingly few cases where the substantial opportunity cost of a lengthy game would have made it the best approach to take, compared to more traditional (non-gaming) methods of fostering productive policy discussions.

Finally, part of the reason for the slower take-up of serious gaming and simulation in the diplomatic, development, and academic communities is that an awful lot of the serious foreign policy games out there just aren’t that good. Unfortunately, the serious gaming community (of which I would consider myself part) has some real problems with what might be termed “hypertechnoludovangelism”— which is to say, uncritical acceptance of too much of its own hype about the transformative effects of (digital) gaming. Perhaps we PAXsims folks are a little curmudgeonly, but to date we’ve probably found more serious digital and online games that we didn’t like than ones that we did (even though we’re course instructors with whole rooms full of games at home, and enough computers to run a small space program).

In summary, asking “why aren’t more folks in the defence/diplomacy/development/policy/NGO/academic worlds using more games?” is a good one. Indeed, there are all sorts of organizational, cultural, generational, and other barriers to game adoption, and it would be worth exploring more fully what those are and how they might be overcome. However, at the same time we should also be asking the questions like “what might folks be doing that does not fall within digital gaming, narrowly understood?” and “why aren’t people making games that more practitioners find useful?” and “how should games and simulations be used to maximize their potential?”.

Pic above: Simulating the typical policy process.

Returning Fire: video gaming and war-fighting

The Media Education Foundation has recently released a new documentary, Returning Fire: Interventions in Video Game Culture, that explores the possibly blurring lines between ever-more-realistic military-themed videogames, and the technological content of war:

Video games like Modern WarfareAmerica’s ArmyMedal of Honor, and Battlefield are part of an exploding market of war games whose revenues now far outpace even the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. The sophistication of these games is undeniable, offering users a stunningly realistic experience of ground combat and a glimpse into the increasingly virtual world of long-distance, push-button warfare. Far less clear, though, is what these games are doing to users, our political culture, and our capacity to empathize with people directly affected by the actual trauma of war. For the culture-jamming activists featured in this film, these uncertainties were a call to action. In three separate vignettes, we see how Anne-Marie Schleiner, Wafaa Bilal, and Joseph Delappe moved dissent from the streets to our screens, infiltrating war games in an attempt to break the hypnotic spell of “militainment.” Their work forces all of us — gamers and non-gamers alike — to think critically about what it means when the clinical tools of real-world killing become forms of consumer play.

The trailer is posted below. On the Media Education Foundation website you’ll also find a low-res preview version of the entire film, as well as a transcript, and study guide.

There are two very interesting issues here. The first of these concerns the possible social and political consequences of immersive military entertainment gaming, especially first-person shooter (FPS) games. Might they make war look more fun, more acceptable, than it really is? Might they skew perceptions of conflict among gamers in ways that affect their behaviour as individuals, citizens, voters, and potential warfighters? The glorification and gamification of war is hardly a new thing, of course: chess, toy guns, and tin soldiers are all earlier examples of this. Are video games more of the same, or does the technology alter the effects?

A second issue concerns the use of games, an in particular massive multiplayer online games, as a vehicle or venue for social and political protest. Two of the three activists interviewed in the film use this approach, finding ways of inserting their politics (or performance art) into game play in America’s Army and Counter-Strike. The third uses the internet to enable people to remotely fire a paintball gun at a person, thereby exploring issues of violence.

Ironically, as fascinating as both of these issues are, I found that the particular intersection of them in the film rather unsatisfying. After 45 minutes, neither topic seemed to be adequately explored.


When I wrote the comments above, I hadn’t noticed this particular gem from the “study guide” for Returning Fire:

In 1930s Germany, Nazi youth were raised on war games. Research these games, and compare them to the war games currently played by American youth. According to historians, what sort of effect did war games have on young Germans? Do you see any parallels with the influence of war games on kids today?

Leading (study) questions, anyone?

There is, of course, a long and sometimes sophisticated debate in the psychology literature as to whether violent video games encourage violence. At the moment, the preponderant opinion seems to be that they can increase the likelihood of violence in those with other risk factors predisposing them to violence, but have little negative effect on the majority of the population. Indeed, there may also be some positive effects. As Christopher J. Ferguson (Texas A&M International University) has put it “Violent video games are like peanut butter. They are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems.”

What of the possible political effects of the “military entertainment complex”? It is an interesting and important area to explore, but really folks—let’s spare the rhetorical excess, Nazi parallels, and exaggerated scare-mongering, and engage in actual research, with… you know, actual evidence?

Oh, and in the interests of full disclosure: I play wargames. I’ve never been a Nazi. I’m allergic to peanut butter.

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