Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: zombies

Armchair Dragoons: Megagaming a pandemic?



The s podcast has an interview with me on (not-so-serious) megagaming of pandemic response—in this case, the zombie apocalypse.

Rex Brynen takes some time out of his academic pandemic survival preparations to chat with us about megagames as a whole, but with a specific focus on a recent one that was (conveniently!) played in a former Canadian government nuclear command bunker and dealt with….

wait for it…

international response to a global pandemic!

And of course, Tim Horton’s factors prominently into the crisis response.

Rex also takes the time to talk with us about planning megagames, what sort of subjects make for good ones, and adopting them to distributed play.  Looking for more information about megagames?

You can listen to it here.

Facing the apocalypse

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Arriving in the morning to set up.

Last week, (simulated) federal and provincial officials and members of the PAXsims team met in a top secret nuclear bunker outside Ottawa to respond to the grave threat of global pandemic. This wasn’t COVID-19, however, or even African Swine Fever. This was the zombie apocalypse.

The occasion was the decidedly not-serious Apocalypse 2 North megagame and the location was the “Diefenbunker”—Canada’s former Cold War government command centre in Carp (about 20 minutes west of Ottawa), now a museum. The game was organized by the Ottawa Megagames group, many of whom had helped us run Apocalypse North at McGill University last year. This time there were 56 participants.


Mobilization Control arrives with a plentiful supply of coffee.

Let me start by saying that the Diefenbunker Museum may well be the most awesome place on the entire planet to run a game. The bunker is big—with four underground floors and three hundred rooms, it was designed to withstand a 5 megaton nuclear detonation 1.1 miles away and thereafter support 535 civilian and military personnel for a month or more. The place is also remarkably intact, filled with 1960s-80s decor and equipment from its days as CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Carp. The Prime Minister’s bed, for example, is the original. If you are ever in the Ottawa area, make sure you visit!



We even had a red telephone.

We utilized large parts of the 300 level, including the War Cabinet Room, the Emergency Government Situation Centre, the Military Information Centre, the Prime Minister’s Office and Suite, the CBC studios, and various other offices. The staff were extremely helpful and even let us use the bunker’s PA system to make game announcements. Players also had access to other areas of the complex and ate lunch in the cafeteria there.


Briefing the players.

The game started with a briefing—appropriately enough, in the Military Information Centre. There had been a strange rash of unexplained attacks in Atlanta, home to the Centers for Disease Control. These soon started to spread across the United States. As violence grew, thousands of fearful Americans sought refuge in Canada.


Players consult the national map. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.


The Windsor (left) and Niagara (right) maps. Picture credit: Matt Stevens.

Some of those refugees were infected, however. Other zombies crossed the border or washed ashore. Very soon, southern Ontario found itself under attack from growing hordes of undead.


Things begin to deteriorate in the Niagara area. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.


The Windsor map. Several Tim Hortons doughnut stores in the Windsor area have been closed, underscoring the severity of the crisis. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

The federal government quickly declared a national state of emergency. Military units were mobilized, as were additional civilian resources. The US Embassy offered what help it could, and some American police and military units fled to Canada and joined the fight.


Federal officials meet.

No Canadian crisis would be complete with constitutional complications, of course. However, federal-provincial cooperation was generally excellent.


The Prime Minister and Premier of Ontario meet, as a CBC reporter lurks in the background.


Military mobilization underway. Picture credit: Matt Stevens.

Unfortunately, at one key point Ottawa was left undefended. It was soon infected, forcing the cabinet to go into lockdown.


Ottawa under siege! Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

The Prime Minister, who had been making a speech to the nation, was trapped at the Ottawa CBC studios until evacuated by RCMP helicopter. Shortly thereafter, RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police teams liberated the capital.


The Prime Minister communicates with the cabinet by walkie talkie while awaiting rescue.

Things looked bad in Québec too, with much of the province overrun.


Zombies enter Montreal. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

Fortunately the situation there was soon addressed by units from the 2e Division du Canada out of CFB Valcartier. Later, some of these units travelled south to assist Vermont and New York National Guard units in establishing a safe zone around Burlington.

In Ontario, much of initial burden of dealing withe the zombie hordes fell on police. Those in Windsor were especially effective. Later they were reinforced by local Canadian Armed Forces reservists and regular units from CFB Petawawa.


Federal, provincial, and local officials consult.


The Prime Minister discusses the crisis with Canada’s First Nations.


Casualties mount. Hospitals like these would soon find themselves overstretched.


Medical and scientific professionals were key to fighting the zombie virus pandemic.


Much of southwest Ontario is being overrun. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

Rumours swirled that the Tim Hortons doughnut chain was somehow responsible for the  apocalypse, and their headquarters was raided in a joint RCMP-OPP operation. It turned out, however, that they were a secret zombie-fighting organization.


Tim Hortons is raided by police. Picture credit: Matt Stevens.


All of our map controllers and zombiemeisters possessed first-class pointing skills.

First Nations leaders provided another critical part of the puzzle, revealing that the zombie virus was endemic to North America, and had been responsible for past outbreaks in pre-colonial times. This information, together with technical assistance from the World Health Organization, allowed the Public Health Agency of Canada to first develop more effective treatment protocols and later a vaccine. With this, the tide began to turn. Canada would be saved!


Scientists and health ministers and others celebrate the discovery of a vaccine.


The Prime Minister holds a press conference announcing the discovery of the vaccine.

It was a terrific day—perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had at a megagame. We look forward to holding additional events there once the (current, real world) pandemic is under control.

To contribute to global efforts against the COVOD-19 pandemic, please consider making a contribution to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. For each comment left below PAXsims will make an additional contribution.

Gaming the apocalypse: Northland edition


A few hours ago the world’s first ever “wide-area megagame” ended. Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos concerned a growing zombie apocalypse in a fictionalized United States. It involved some five hundred or so players in 11 cities in five different countries: London, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, Southampton (UK); Brussels (Belgium); Nijmegen (Netherlands); New York, Austin (US); and finally our small band in Montréal. The games were simultaneous (which meant a 6:30am start time for us) and linked (so what happened in one game affected the others). While subject wasn’t a serious one, many of the game design elements could certainly be applied to more serious topics.

While the rules were generally identical across games, there were a number of innovations in the “Northland” (Montréal) game, as befitted our status as the neighbouring country. Communications between games was by email and a centralized website for local and national news. Our own game had three components: a strategic game involving federal and provincial players, and two city/regional games, one depicting the Windsor/St. Catharines area (adjacent to Buffalo) and depicting the London/Windsor/Sarnia area (adjacent to Detroit or “Romero City”) .


The peaceful streets of St. Catharines, Ontario, on the eve of the apocalypse.

The day started off with growing numbers of refugees from South of the Border arriving in Windsor and Niagara, as well as other areas on Ontario from Sault Ste-Marie to Cornwall.[1]


In Ottawa, PM Trustin Judeau photogenically ponders the growing crisis.


Windsor police—outside a Tim Hortons doughnut shop, of course.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the federal government immediately declared a nationwide state of emergency, which speeded the mobilization of federal and provincial assets. Prime Trustin Judeau was dispatched to London to cheer up hospital patients with smiling selfies.


Trustin Judeau at London Health Sciences Centre.

In Niagara, local authorities quickly established a quarantine center and refugee camp. Newly-arrived refugees were screened and escorted to the camp, while zombie infestations were cordoned off until they could be dealt with.

In southwest Ontario, however, things quickly went from bad to worse. A light aircraft crashed at London airport, causing several casualties and closing it for more than 8 hours. Failure to screen arriving refugees led to several outbreaks, and other zombies started to float into coastal areas of Lake Erie. Local authorities were slower to establish cordons, which allowed the virus to spread. It didn’t help that conditions were equally bad, or even worse, in neighbouring Romero City (Detroit) and much of the rest of Mishigamaa (Michigan):

Mayor Mayhew tried to rally his troops:

Mayor Callum Mayhew, speaking at London City Hall today, praised municipal preparations to combat the zombie menace, and encouraged city workers to “hold your ground!”

The Mayor went on to say “Sons and daughters of London, of Windsor, my brothers/sisters, I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men and women fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.”

He added, “An hour of undead and shattered riot shields, when the Age of Persons comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight. By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, municipal employees of southwest Ontario!”


Floaters! Undead abominations wash up on the northern shores of Lake Erie. The Munsee-Delaware (marked by the symbol in zone #49), Chippewa, Oneida, and other First Nations would do an admirable job of keeping their areas zombie-free.

When a small group of survivalists arrived by boat near Owen Sound and proceeded to shoot up the Bruce nuclear generating station, Acting Prime Minister Aaron Brennan ordered the closure of Canadian airspace to civilian traffic, and deployed Coast Guard units and Ontario Provincial Police helicopters to Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron to interdict unauthorized boats trying to enter the country.[2] the importance of doing so was highlighted the next day when a lake freighter docked in a Northland port—only to disgorge a cargo of zombified crewmen. Only a quick response by the Northland Armed Forces prevented disaster.


PM Trustin Judeau confers with Ontario provincial officials in Toronto. To the northwest, a small group of foreign survivalists fleeing from South of the Border asserts its so-called “Second Amendment right to loot nuclear power stations.”


A classified map from the Pentagon, obtained after the crisis. Areas have been coded 1-5 for severity. As can be seen, large areas of Mishigamaa have been marked as lost.

Infected refugees led to a zombie outbreak in Sault Ste-Marie, but this was quickly suppressed by the timely arrival of elite JTF2 special forces and 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, operating from Ottawa and NFB (Northland Forces Base) Petawawa. Other outbreaks occurred elsewhere from time to time, but were quickly dealt with.

Despite interdicting some would-be arrivals, Northland did not turn its back on its southern cousins. A refugee camp and quarantine site was established at the Cornwall, Ontario border crossing, in cooperation with the Northland Red Cross. This was opened to displaced persons of all nationalities. The Northland Public Health Agency contacted federal officials South of the Border, and offered their assistance with research—including a sample of the Pithovirus Sibericum B zombie virus that had been isolated by pathologists at the Niagara Health Services hospital.

Perhaps most important, as soon as the mechanized infantry of the 1e battalion, Royal 22e Régiment had formed up at NFB Valcartier they were ordered to the border south of Montréal. Northland then offered to deploy these forces to assist the state of Adirondack, which had suffered serious zombie infestations in Albany and elsewhere. It took a while for federal and state officials to sort out the necessary permissions and command protocols, but the Northland contingent was eventually dispatched to secure Plattsburgh and support efforts to liberate Albany.

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Northland Armed Forces units wait for a green light to assist local Adirondack officials across the border. The Cornwall Refugee Reception Centre can be seen to the west. Local OPP, SQ, and RNMP police units stand ready to screen new arrivals and escort them to the camp. Members of the Joint Incident Response Unit, based out of NFB Trenton, have established quarantine facilities there to prevent infections spreading among the refugees. (The misspelling of “Plattsburgh” was a cunning ruse to fool zombie cartographers. Given the absence of zombie maps after the crisis, it appears to have worked.)

At Owen Sound, an Ontario Ministry of Health HAZMAT team responded, and—working with local engineers—was able to seal a small breach at the Bruce NGS that had vented some radioactive steam. On two occasions aircraft ignored the closure of Northland airspace, and attempted to land anyway. On both occasions the government decided not to shoot them down. The first, landing in Ottawa, turned out to be a young family in a desperate search for safe refuge. The second, arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, was a group of armed survivalists. They refused to surrender their weapons and opened fire on airport security personnel, but were soon brought under control by reservists from the 48th Highlanders and Royal Regiment of Northland. The airport was closed for several hours as a result of this incident.

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Infected refugees lead to a zombie outbreak in Kitchener, Ontario—but it is soon dealt with by reservists from the Royal Highland Fusiliers. To the east, a large concentration of refugees can be seen at the Toronto Refugee Reception Centre, guarded by an OPP SWAT team. At the top left an Ontario Ministry of Health HAZMAT team checks radiation levels at the Bruce nuclear power plant, following the incident with survivalists there.

Meanwhile in southwest Ontario, increasingly concerned municipal authorities took the drastic decision to have firefighters to refill their tankers with gasoline from the Sarnia refinery, and turn this on the undead hordes.


The London Fire Department warily try their new weapon, as Mayor Mayhew and Chief Islam look on approvingly.

This worked about as well as one might expect: a few hordes were singed, several firefighter units suffered serious casualties, and a lot more fires erupted—including one at the Sarnia refinery. This promptly exploded, causing a fireball and column of smoke that could be seen in neighbouring Mishigamaa. Mass panic gripped the city.

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Grrrr, arghhh

In Windsor, all seemed lost. Large numbers of refugees had gathered here from Romero City, their onward route to Toronto blocked by the zombie packs that prowled large sections of Highway 401.[3] Police units had become cut off. Small children cried as undead abominations crept ever closer. Although loud Nickelback music[4] succeeded in driving back the zombies in some areas, it was only a matter of time before Windsor was completely overrun.

Then they heard it. First came a series of loud explosions, as CF-18s of 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron began airstrikes on the largest concentrations of animated abominations. This was then followed by the dull thud of helicopters in the distance. Led personally by General Daryl Cartier, Chief of the Defence Staff, Direct Action Company A of the Northland Special Operations Regiment and 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron undertook an airmobile assault to secure Windsor airport. Soon thereafter, the remainder of the regiment arrived, transported by CH-130s of 436 Transport Squadron.[5] They quickly took control of area and started to push back the undead.


General Cartier looks on as reinforcements arrive to secure Windsor, Ontario.


Pretty much everything in Sarnia is on fire (left) and airmobile Northland special forces secure Windsor (right).

In London, advance elements of Royal Northland Dragoons and Royal Northland Regiment started to arrive in the city, supported by reservists from 31 and 32 Brigade. As municipal police, fire, and reserve military forces (notably from the locally-based Windsor Regiment, Essex and Kent Scottish, and 1st Hussars) formed a cordon around the largest outbreaks, heavily armed regular troops began the counterattack. Additional mechanized infantry forces, this time from 2e battalion, Royal 22e Régiment, arrived a few hours later and began to push down the 401. Drawing upon the benefits of international research collaboration, a HAZMAT team from the Northland Public Health Agency began field trials of a new cure for the zombie virus. The early results were encouraging.


The NPHA mobile lab deploys the experimental cure as the Mayor looks on (or, perhaps, at the fire down the road).

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A convoy of Vandoos advances down the 401 from London to Windsor, escorted by local police

It came not a moment too soon. NORAD and the Pentagon urgently informed the Northland government that Russian Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack nuclear-armed bombers were airborne, and might be headed southwards. All aircraft were re-tasked to intercept. In a tense call over secure communications, the Deputy Prime Minister and Chief of the Defence Staff agreed: the order would be given to engage any hostile armed aircraft entering Northland airspace…


CF-18s of the Royal Northland Air Force streak northwards to intercept possible Russian bombers, “loaded for Bear”…


We had far fewer players than we had initially planned for. A 6:30 am start on a national holiday (July 1 is Canada Day) is, it seems, a hard sell. However, everything went very well indeed. There were some communications issues—the central news website wasn’t always available due to server bandwidth problems (I couldn’t access it three-quarters of the time), and the email system could have functioned better. Busy players probably meant that not all of the information that could have flowed between games did flow between games. However, it was the apocalypse, so what do you expect?

Our small group had an absolutely terrific time. Unlike the other UNSOC sessions we had no elections subgame, but rather a competition to earn smug self-righteousness cards (“Smuggies”). Mayor Jano Bourgeois of Niagara and Acting Prime Minister Aaron Brennan were tied at the end, and so shared the trophy for the most outstandingly nice Northlander.


Mayor Bourgeois (left) and Acting PM Brennon (right).

However a dispute erupted when the Mayor discovered one more Smuggy which he had forgotten about. The issue was resolved with a traditional hockey brawl, and then everyone made nice again and finished off the Timbits.


Federal and municipal officials discuss the recent crisis.

I was very happy with the way that our Northland modifications (zonal maps, refugees) worked. Indeed, in addition to being a lot of fun, it had the real feel of an emergency management game. I might even use a modified version of UNSOC: Northland in my teaching on humanitarian crisis response next academic year.

The tokens and stickers we used for units were based on the MaGCK system that Tom Fisher, Tom Mouat and I are developing. The stickers are removable, so all the tokens can be reused.  It took maybe two hours to print and assemble 200 components. Total cost: probably $10 or so for the printing. While we’ve designed MaGCK for matrix gaming, it clear has some megagame applications too!



WAMCOM Kevin Farnworth (left).

Particular gratitude is due to my CONTROL team counterparts, Tom Fisher (who ran not one but two city maps simultaneously) and Kevin Farnworth (who served both as WAMCOM, interacting with the other games, and as the Northland press). Of course, none of this would have been possible at all without the megagame design and organization skills of mad genius Jim Wallman, who put the wide-area megagame together.

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City CONTROL, Tom Fisher. Note the relative calm in Niagara/St. Catharines (foreground) as local police, reservists from the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, and a Northland Border Services Agency K9 unit meet refugees crossing the Niagara River, preparing to escort them to the nearby refugee camp and quarantine centre. A SWAT team patrols the Queen Elizabeth Way. Meanwhile, firefighters deal with a small fire east of Welland, while St. Catharines police respond to a robbery in progress.


The heroes of Northland.


[1] Refugees were a major component of the Northland game. They could be regular refugees, armed survivalists (prone to looting), or infected (who might turn into zombies). Police and military units could screen these and escort them, otherwise they would all slowly head towards Toronto or Montréal. Refugee camps could be established to hold them, and these could be upgraded with security and medical quarantine facilities.

[2] In the Northland game, the flow of refugees could be slowed by interdiction efforts in the air and by the use of Coast Guard and other assets on the Great Lakes.

[3] While most of the UNSOC games used a hex grid, we used zonal maps overlaid on Google Map images. The various major highways provided a much faster route than the city streets or rural roads. Also, our London/Windsor/Sarnia map was on a larger scale than others, with movement allowances scaled accordingly.

[4] Among other Northland-specific special action cards, our game featured Tim Hortons, support from First Nations communities, an emergency telephone conversation with the Queen, polite neighbours, the War of 1812, and local hockey teams with protective gear and sharpened zombie-killing hockey sticks.

[5] The Order of Battle in the Northland game accurately mirrored the actual deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces, with every single combat unit in 2 Mechanized Brigade Group, 5e Groupe-brigade mécanisé, 31, 32, 33, 34, and 35 (reserve) Brigade Groups, and the 1st, 3rd, and 8th Wings of 1 Air Division represented at the Company or Squadron scale. Representation of Royal Northland Mounted Police, Ontario Provincial Police, and the Sûreté du Québec generally reflected their actual deployment and organization too.

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Simulation and gaming miscellany, 9 November 2014


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious games that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

* * *

A newly-released video game, Liberation of Palestine, challenges players to organize political and military resistance to Israel. Game play includes establishing refugee camps, building homes, buying weapons, preparing camp residents, forming alliances, scoring attacks, and conducting prisoners swaps. It is clearly designed to emphasize the greater value of paramilitary action over diplomatic negotiation.

As Ha’aretz notes:

A new computer game developed in Gaza, “The Liberation of Palestine,” invites players to liberate Palestine by all means at their disposal, including force.

In a promotional Arabic-language video trailer that was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the game is depicted as teaching players that force is preferable to negotiations. Players are also required, however, to forge diplomatic alliances within the region and arrange prisoner swaps.

The game’s broader aim, the developers say, is to develop “a spirit of resistance among Palestinian children.”

Games dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have aroused a great deal of controversy. During last summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza, Google removed from its Play Store several downloadable computer games featuring the bombing of the Gaza Strip. Among them were “Bomb Gaza” and “Gaza Assault: Code Red.”

The controversy over these games initially surfaced in the late 1980s. In one intifada game, players had to disperse demonstrations in the West Bank or Gaza Strip without killing any protesters, so that an overly left-wing government would not be elected in Israel. The game prompted objections in Israel and abroad.

In the 1990s game “Conflict: Middle East Political Similator,” participants played the role of Israeli prime minister and had to stay the course until all the surrounding countries collapsed.

A number of other games followed, some taking a more serious approach than others. “Peacemaker,” for example, in which participants were also placed in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister (or the head of the Palestinian Authority), was more oriented toward achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Games reflecting the Palestinian or Arab point of view have also made headlines. Among them were “Under Ash,” a shooting game that opens in Syria in which the player is a Palestinian fighting the Israel Defense Forces; and “Special Force,” which was developed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite militia.

The website for the game is here, although at the time of writing requires log-in credentials.

For additional discussion on “video game wars,” see my 2012 report for World Politics Review (via CNN).

h/t Julie Norman

* * *

The Guardian has a sympathetic profile of, and interview with with Call of Duty game designer Dave Anthony, whose appointment to Atlantic Council to explore the future of war has been previously discussed at PAXsims and elsewhere.

To some, a writer of video game fictions may seem an unlikely candidate for a role that exists to “help to provide ideas to protect the United States from future attack.” Anthony, who has been writing and programming games for twenty years, deals in the realm of jingoistic military fiction, which, in the case of the Call of Duty series, features a protagonist who single-handedly conquers unending waves of anonymous terrorist enemies. In this way it has as much in common with the rhythm and spectacle of a Rambo movie as it does with the docudrama verisimilitude of a Zero Dark Thirty.

But push aside Call of Duty’s bluster and the appointment isn’t so incongruous. Modern combat games compete on authenticity; their creators must gather props and detail from the realm of fact and arrange them into believable fiction.

During his recent talk Anthony showed videos depicting a US drone that had been hacked by Iran to attack Americans, an idea that first featured in Black Ops 2’s storyline. “In Washington, there is a tangible fear of suggesting controversial ideas, rocking the boat or moving outside of the established system,” he says. The fear is perhaps understandable for the career-minded Washington-ite. In the business of military prophecy, one doesn’t want to be marked out as an eccentric.

But Anthony believes that his entertainment background frees him from the incentive to limit his imagination. “As a director and writer, my job is to break expectations and established thinking without fear of failure in order to create new and fresh ideas,” he says. “It’s timely as the threats we face today don’t play by established rules. Our enemies are starting to use our own technologies and systems faster and more efficiently than we are.”

There are similarities to the stultifying rhetoric of the Cold War era: the race to master technology before the other guy, the fear of the unheralded catastrophe, a disaster from an unknown source, foes under our noses. But one thing is different this time: in video games the military is able to try out its theories, to simulate its strategies, to set a devastating domino run in motion and see where the pieces land, without consequence. Anthony believes that, for all their historical ties, perhaps games and war aren’t close enough after all. “I would like to see more collaboration with the military and game developers,” he says.

War is Boring also feature an interview with Anthony, in which again emphasizes his role as an outsider challenging comfortable Washington orthodoxies:

Anthony was not well-received. Critics took to Twitter to chastise the game director. Blogs pointed out the creepy implications of his ideas about proactive defense.

But Anthony wasn’t fazed. He knew that Beltway types would be loathe to listen to “a video-game guy.”

“When you’re working on something like Call of Duty, you’re at the top of your field,” he admits. “Everybody wants to bring you down.”

The criticism of his talk didn’t bother him. He’s heard far worse from gamers.

Anthony’s hope is that people will openly discuss his ideas—no matter how wild they may seem at first. He says fear and media spin are the main obstacles to the free exchange of ideas.

“All [the media and politicians] are looking for is sensationalism,” he says. “You can see that with the Ebola thing right now. Yes, we have to be cautious, but the way it’s presented is fear-based. It’s extremely frustrating.”

“Everything in the media is 90-percent fear-based,” he continues. “The government needs to find a better way to communicate with people, to try and educate people to the nature of threats and even consider ways in which people can help overcome those threats.”

However, among those that I’ve discussed the issue with criticism of Anthony hasn’t been that he’s a “video-game guy” at all, but that he doesn’t have a very good grasp of modern conflict and warfare and that he himself tends to focus on the sensationalist. I also think the notion of a Beltway community unwilling to address new security challenges is somewhat misleading. On the contrary, security punditry is full of (and probably oversupplied with) those who emphasize all manner of emerging threats, from drones to EMP, transnational terrorism, WMD proliferation, access denial weapons, cyberattacks, and robot swarms—not to mention buzz phrases like asymmetric conflict, hybrid threats, and 3rd/4th/5th/whatever generation warfare. Finally, strategy is about balancing costs, risks, and benefits—something that so far has been absent from Anthony’s presentations and interviews.

* * *

The Active Learning in Political Science blog has a piece by Simon Usherwood exploring cultural specificities in simulations:

The question that occurred to me was what impact does [cultural experience] have on one’s general understanding of the kind of simulations we run, re-creating political interactions?

Precisely because participants are bringing their personal experiences to a simulation, it can sometimes be hard for them to bring the experiences of the roles that they are playing. This can cause any number of problems when trying to recreate a real-world scenario.

To that just one example, when I ran a game that asked students to play different agencies of the US federal government in putting together a foreign-policy document for an in-coming president, they all worked on the basis that all Americans want the same things, and so didn’t really get into the differences that obviously (to us) exist.

A couple of solutions to this present themselves, one inward-facing, the other outward.

When we want to make sure that participants are representing external cultures within our games, then we need to ensure that they have sufficient opportunity to internalise that culture. This is easy in larger games, where you can ask them to produce essays/papers or negotiating briefs that reflect the real-world actor’s dispositions, on which you can provide feedback. In smaller exercises, it’s more difficult, but you could either provide some key points on attitude (rather than policy per se), or else mark out red lines that effectively require a particular approach.

At the other end of the process, we can work with participants to draw out their personal reflection on the impact of their culture on their approach to a simulation. The obvious place to do this is in the debrief and feedback after the game, where we can build on their comments to strengthen their self-reflection.

Again, cultural elements are always going to be part of simulations, both because our participants have culture and because we want them to recreate cultural objects: the key thing is to be alive to this and to help them see how this works.

In by own comment at the blog, I noted the need to understand “culture” in a broad way:

The question of (war)gaming cultures was the primary focus of the Connections conference this year. In my own presentation I argued against the danger of seeing “culture” as a homogenous thing based on ethnic or religious identity–there is substantial evidence to show, for example, that the differences between (say) military officers and students or economists and everyone else are at least as substantial as those between (for example) Turks and Americans. In other words, Turkish and American military officers may behave more like each other than they do Turkish and American diplomats.

* * *

Zombie-Apocalypse1We’ve discussed zombies quite a lot at PAXsims, both because of our commitment to preparing the world for the impending apocalypse, and because the zombie genre has increasingly been used in disaster simulations and classroom teaching. In a forthcoming article in Politics, however, Erin Hannah and Rorden Wilkinson warn of the possible pitfalls of such an approach:

The zombie genre is quickly becoming a feature of International Relations (IR) classrooms and pedagogical toolkits as scholars enthusiastically embrace the undead as a vehicle for teaching the discipline. This article offers a cautionary note on a generally positive move to embrace the use of zombieism in IR. It shows how an uncritical use of a zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for teaching IR can reinforce existing divisions in the field, essentialise country positions, crowd out heterodox approaches, reinforce gender stereotypes and dehumanise people. To guard against these problems, the article shows how Zombie IR can be better used to think critically and normatively about world politics.

Specifically, they raise several sets of concerns:

Our worry is that zombies are being used merely as a means of teaching students about existing theories of IR rather than as a vehicle for developing critical and normative thinking. If this is the case, not only are we letting slip an engaging way of teaching students about the contours and problems of world politics, we risk underscoring existing divergences in the IR canon that obfuscate our capacity to engage with each other. A second, and related problem, is that by limiting our use of zombies to teaching students how existing approaches would respond to an outbreak of the undead we avoid getting them to push forward thinking about how to solve the most pressing global problems and to come up with alternative ways of organising the world. We see a third danger in the use of an IR of the undead that essentialises country positions, reinforces gender stereotypes and dehumanises people in ways that limit the possibilities for cooperation and legitimises certain forms of violence and attitudes towards adversaries in conflict. Ultimately, we believe that zombieism – particularly if engaged with ‘actively’ (i.e. through role-play, scenario and problem-solving exercises) – is an important tool in our pedagogical armoury. Yet, it is not one that we are utilising fully. Thus, we explain why we believe the answers to the questions we set out above are currently insufficient, present the potential dangers of this insufficiency and offer a way forward that may be more fruitful in making better use of this popular cultural resource.

A few of these concerns were also raised by David Romano in a recent piece at PAXsims.

While their focus is on zombies, some of what Hannah and Wilkinson have to say applies to other scenario-based teaching too. It is a thoughtful article, and very much worth reading.

Pentagon’s secret counter-zombie plan revealed

Move over, Edward Snowden—at Foreign Policy magazine, Gordon Lubold has blown the lid on what is undoubtedly the national security secret of the decade, namely CONPLAN 8888—the secret Pentagon plan to defend American citizens against the zombie apocalypse.

CONPLAN8888The thirty page plan was actually developed as a training tool:

(U) CONPLAN 8888 DISCLAIMER: This plan was not actually designed as a joke. During the summers o f2009 and 2010, while training augmentees from a local training squadron about the JOPP, members of a USSTRATCOM component found out (by accident) that the hyperbole involved in writing a “zombie survival plan’· actually provided a very useful and effective training tool. Planners who attended JPME II at the Joint Combined Warfighting School also realized that training examples for plans must accommodate the political fallout that occurs if the general public mistakenly believes that a fictional training scenario is actually a real plan. Rather than risk such an outcome by teaching our augmentees using the fictional “Tunisia” or “Nigeria” scenarios used at JCWS, we elected to use a completely-impossible scenario that could never be mistaken as a real plan.

Because the plan was so ridiculous, our students not only enjoyed the lessons; they actually were able to explore the basic concepts of plan and order development (fact, assumptions. specified and implied tasks, references etc) very effectively.

We posted this plan because we feel it is a very enjoyable way to train new planners and boost retention of critical knowledge. We posted this to Intellipedia after reading about the benefits of crowd sourcing phenomena in the business management book “The Starfish and the Spider”. Our intent was to place this training tool “in the wild” so that others who were interested in finding new and innovative ways to train planners could have an alternative and admittedly unconventional tool at their disposal that could be modified and updated over time. We also hoped that this type of non-traditional training approach would provide inspiration for other personnel trying to teach topics that can be very boring. Finally we figured that an entry like this would not only be instructive, but possibly entertaining for personnel deployed away from their families supporting military ops abroad. If this plan helps illustrate how JOPP works and brings a smile or a brief laugh in the process, so much the better,

If you suspend reality for a few minutes, this type of training scenario can actually take a very dry, monotonous topic and turn it into something rather enjoyable.

It was then subsequently posted to Intellipedia, the online data sharing platform used by the US intelligence and defence communities.

This isn’t the first time zombie scenarios have been used as the basis for training exercises—we’ve covered several past cases here at PAXsims:

And, somewhat less seriously:

h/t Sean Anderson 

New horizons in online zombie apocalypse preparedness

We at PAXsims are, of course, longtime advocates of simulation-based training for the impending zombie apocalypse. Indeed, we’ve provided games-based training to McGill University graduate students on how best to survive the ravenous murderous hordes, and have worked closely with members of the UK National Health Service to develop state-of-the-art training tools to assist medical staff in coping with the collapse of civilization. Consequently, we are pleased to see that the data analysis firm company Qualtrics has made available an online tool intended to assist members of the public in assessing their own prospects for survival when the dead walk the streets.

Click the image below to enter the Qualtrics survey. I would apparently last 82 days—feel free to post your own results in the comments section.


NHS zombie preparedness

From time to time we at PAXsims get emails from readers who would like some advice on educational or policy simulation design. However, one email that I received during the summer was particularly unusual:

Dear PAXsims:

I’m a child nursing student in the UK, and I have a bit of an odd request. We recently played a game in class on running a hospital ward that I found particularly interesting and useful. I also rather like zombies, and have played a few zombie-themed games.  Is there any way to combine these two interests? After all, the National Health Service—which I hope to join soon as a nurse—needs to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse.

Well, how could I resist a challenge like that? It became even more interesting as we discussed the design requirements. No one could get hurt in the game—after all, the patients are children. Instead, zombies simply cause “regrettable incidents” (which require that appropriate NHS paperwork be filled out). Nurses themselves can attempt to deescalate the shambling undead, and send them to the waiting room downstairs. The various patients in the ward have different, randomly-generated needs related to their general medical conditions. Some of these can be addressed directly by nursing staff, but others require searching the zombie-infested hospital for medication, equipment, or supplies. Part of the game system is inspired by, and helped shape, the system I used for my humanitarian crisis game.

The final result is Zombiton NHS. The game rules, map, and cards are all available for download below. As for my co-designer, she has since graduated and is soon to join the staff of a major children’s hospital–where she’ll no doubt both look after paediatric patients AND, if necessary, keep the undead at bay.


If the rules are unclear, email me for clarification. I’ll post a rules update and/or FAQ if necessary.

The zombie humanitarian fiction challenge


We here at PAXsims have been in the forefront of advocating advanced simulation methods as a way of preparing for the impending zombie apocalypse (such as here, and here, and here). We’ve highlighted innovative design competitions that have sought to address the potential scourge of the mindless, murdering undead. We’ve pointed to the challenge that zombies pose for modern stabilization missions, as well as their potential impact on hemispheric international relations. Heck, we’ve even convened regular zombie preparedness exercises.

With all that in mind, how could we refrain from mentioning the humanitarian zombie fiction-writing contest that was announced last week at the Humanitarian Fiction blog? Sharpen your pencils, boot up your laptops, and start writing!


Zombies and stabilization operations

A distant village in a war-affected country. The Visiting Foreign Official meets with village elders, as his nervous personal security detail scans for threats.

Then it happens. An IED explodes. Moments later the village is assaulted by ravenous hordes of hungry undead….

Yes, that’s how it unfolded at the recent HALO Counter-terrorism summit in San Diego, with the zombie action provided by Strategic Operations, Inc., which specializes in “provides Hyper-Realistic™ training environments for military, law enforcement and other organizations, using state-of-the-art movie industry special effects, role players, proprietary techniques, training scenarios, facilities, mobile structures, sets, props, and equipment.” All that was missing was for FOX News to blame the Obama Administration for security lapses and a “craven willingness to compromise with radical undeadism” in what it what its commentators would soon dub the “Zombiegate scandal.”

Remember folks: head shots. Use gunfire sparingly—it attracts herds of walkers. An armoured SUV may be expensive at the gas pump, but it can be a very effective counter-zombie weapon, used properly. And always, ALWAYS double-tap.

h/t: Michael Peck, “Zombies Battle Navy SEALs for Afghan Village,” Forbes, 1 November 2012.

Zombie Safe House Competition

No one would doubt that the zombie apocalypse is likely to be rather conflictual, and design challenges are almost a game, so on that admittedly tenuous note PAXsims once again indulges its fondness for zombie preparedness exercises with a pointer to the annual Zombie Safe House Competition, sponsored by Architects Southwest. As a recent article in The Economist notes:

THE streets are full of lurching, brain-hungry zombies and humanity faces extinction. Should you run for your life or stand your ground? Luckily, bespectacled men and woman who stare at blueprints have already started thinking about it. Architects are designing zombie-proof housing for Zombie Safe House, a design competition, now in its third year. It was originally devised by a trio of designers at Architects Southwest, an architectural firm in Louisiana, as an informal platform for colleagues to showcase their creative talents in a “pragmatically unconstrained format”, says co-founder Shea Trahan. It now attracts hundreds of students, practicing architects, industrial designers and artists from around the globe looking for an inventive way to boost their portfolios.

More broadly, the competition highlights how these kinds of scenario-based exercises can be used as a way to encourage innovation and creative thinking:

By using the apocalypse as a thought experiment competitors can identify the issues that impact all architectural design, and plan for real-world disasters, such as surviving when power, water, or sewerage is cut off. “The designers have to stretch their imaginations to see what kinds of design might be required for extreme circumstances”, says Michael McClure, a professor of architecture at the University of Louisiana and a judge on last year’s panel. “This takes the ideas of ‘off the grid’ and ‘sustainability’ to great lengths”, helping to push the boundaries and envision how we might live if our modern conveniences were stripped from us. “Sustainability is currently a huge issue due to concerns about climate change and rising energy costs,” says Mr Jordan. If humans can be shown to be self-sufficient in a design such as Look Out House then “certainly we can reduce energy consumption in the here and now,” he says.

You’ll find the website for the competition here, with the winning 2011 entries featured. Information on the 2012 edition will be released shortly—for more information, visit the competition Facebook page. (Image above: The 2011 winner, by Austin Fleming).

Zombie Preparedness Week in British Columbia

Like the Center for Disease Control and some others before them, the province of British Columbia is using the threat of zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for communicating real information about emergency preparedness. Grrrr, arghhhh!

Prine does zombies!

Over at his website Line of Departure, investigative reporter, mil-blogger, and fashion aficionado Carl Prine has an interview with James Ian Burns (of the Dragons and Dragoons game shop in Colorado Springs) on “the growing popularity in board games amongst the troops and defense intellectuals.”

The piece is entitled “Brain-eating Xmas Zombies Attack!” because it contains some discussion of the game Zombie Dice. However, it also has the very considerable advantage that it also allows me to use “Prine does zombies” as a title for a blog post. How could anyone who knows Carl could possibly pass up that opportunity?

Zombie emergency preparedness follow-up

Well, there’s even more zombie-based disaster training going on than we first suspected

For a start, the Center of Disease Control has issued a zombie comic (right) for kids designed to encourage emergency preparedness. You can never start too young!

McGill University’s Emergency Measures and Fire Prevention Office organized its own zombie event to highlight the importance of workplace safety.

Finally, if you live in Columbus County, Ohio you can sign up this Halloween to play the role of the animated undead in their forthcoming Zombie Hazardous Materials Exercise, organized by the Delaware County Office of Homeland Security And Emergency Management, The Delaware County Local Emergency Planning Committee, and the Delaware County Hazmat Team.

Know of any other zombie-based training in this or related fields? Post it below!

Zombies and simulating disaster response

In recent years we’ve seen a creeping infiltration of decaying abominations shambling into the academic and professional classrooms of the world, in search of fresh brains to prey upon. I’m not speaking of tenured professors, of course, but rather those ravenous creatures of the undead: zombies.

In social sciences, for example, Daniel Drezner has used the perils of zombie apocalypse to illustrate contending theoretical approaches to the study of international relations (a treatment that has, of course, provoked a paradigmatic riposte from within the field). Scholars have brought zombies into the classroom (well, the course curriculum that is—not actual carnivorous cadavers feasting on undergraduates), while my McGill colleague Steve Saideman has mused about the implications of animated corpses for university hiring, departmental politics, and academic publishing. In the military, the book World War Z has been used on at least a few occasions as a basis for small classroom or staff exercises.

However, according to an article last week in Emergency Management magazine, it is—not surprisingly—in the area of disaster preparedness that zombies are really rising from the dead:

The popularity of zombies has been rising in mainstream culture thanks to a recent influx of books, TV shows and video games. And agencies that cater to emergency preparedness are jumping on the undead bandwagon by encouraging the public to prepare for the zombie apocalypse.


Preparing for a zombie attack requires the same planning as emergencies like natural disasters — from putting together a disaster kit to creating an emergency plan.

The piece highlights perhaps the best known case of this, namely the Center for Disease Control guidelines for dealing with a zombie apocalypse posted earlier this year on the CDC website. The CDC guidelines, unfortunately, were clearly put together by bureaucrats with little actual field experience in surviving decomposing hordes of hungry zeds. In proposing that citizens “pick a meeting place for your family to regroup in case zombies invade your home,” for example, the CDC website appears to suggest regrouping on the street by the mailbox (actual CDC picture at right). However, nothing says “grrrarghhhnomnomnomnom..sluuurp” more than a group of succulent, defenceless young children milling about in the open, waiting for dad.

Above and beyond the value of publicizing the zombie issue to promote general disaster preparedness, Emergency Management also underscores the value of zombie scenarios in professional training:

For those interested in additional undead-related information, Doug Johnson, manager of the University of Florida’s e-Learning Support Services, created a disaster preparedness simulation exercise for responding to a zombie attack. The mock exercise was created in 2009 when the university was planning for the possibility of closing its campus in response to the swine flu. The document cites sources including the movies Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later and provides an infected co-worker dispatch form.

Such simulation-based training is, of course, dear to PAXsim’s heart. The link immediately above is well worth checking out for those of you who might want to develop scenario-based instructional materials based on the scourge of  what the University of Florida tactfully describes as “Zombie Behavior Spectrum Disorder.” Certainly, there are no end to the serious games and printed material available on the topic to underpin any such pedagogical efforts.

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