Friday, November 2, 2007

The Power of Positive Feedback

Just a quick note of thanks for two folks who have mentioned recently that they have found this blog useful. I have some more posts in the works, and hope to be posting regularly again very soon. The feedback has really been a strong motivation to get back in the habit, and I sincerely appreciate it. It's nice to know someone is finding value in this. Keep checking back.

Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III - A Wargame Scenario

I really wanted to like this book.

An ex-Air Force wargamer, the editor-and-chief of Aviation Week, and a published author of techno-thrillers teamed up to produce Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III - A Wargame Scenario. Their goal was to publicize the threat of space attack in an unusual format, drawing from actual wargame scenarios that have been played out over the years by the Air Force. By publishing this book as a novel, I imagine they were hoping to reach a broader audience.

Unfortunately, the choice of format more or less dooms the book from the outset. They seem to have had a laundry list of points to make, and arranged the story, such as it is, to cover the list, nothing more. Admittedly, I am not the normal target audience for techno-thrillers. I haven't read one in years, though I did enjoy the first five or six Tom Clancy books back in the day. Even given that characterization is not the strong suit of the techno-thriller, in Space Wars the characters are such ridiculous stereotypes that it's hard to see them as anything but mouthpieces for the points the authors want to make.

Perhaps this material would have been better suited for a movie of some sort. Dirty War was an HBO/BBC production about a dirty bomb attack in London that quite successfully presented a number of very real issues in the context of a gripping story. For the most part, the policy issues are integrated into the broader story quite well. I was at a screening at the Kennedy School of Government, with Graham Allison and Richard Clarke (and possibly Rand Beers?) in attendance, and when asked after the movie what they thought of the portrayal of the issues involved, the consensus seemed to be that it was pretty much on target. No one would make that comment after reading Space Wars. Space Wars would have been a lot harder to film than Dirty War, but maybe decent acting could have stood in for characterization, and maybe the film medium would have made it easier for the creators to show their main points rather than have their characters deliver them in stilted dialog ("show, don't tell" is a cliche, but a useful one) . A movie format would also have forced them to edit out whatever didn't fit in a fairly compact script.

There is a lot of information packed into the book, but it could have been expressed in a nonfiction book in a more engaging manner. The potential events the authors describe are scary, but they should have resisted the urge to pile them all into a single storyline that becomes progressively more strained as the book goes on. It was difficult to finish.

The most frustrating aspect for me was the treatment of wargaming. The authors clearly have a great deal of respect for the practice of wargaming. So much so that they set up a wargaming group within the story that produces most of the important insights and decisions that take place. The lead wargamer character even convinces his superiors to integrate the battle staff of USAF Space Command into the wargame he is running, to use the game as a real-time decision support tool. It looks like a case is being made to use wargames in this fashion in reality, but there is so little information in the book about what actually goes on in the game (besides having characters pop up every so often with another idea or insight gained from the exercise) that it is impossible to see how this vision of wargame-centric planning would work. Somehow it's related to Taoism, apparently, but what that means is never explained. Without more explanation of just how the wargame is supposed to be operating, and given the book's highly unrealistic account of higher-level decision-makers essentially abdicating their responsibilities to independently consider choices by accepting virtually every recommendation that comes out of the game, it's hard to see what the value of this depiction is from the standpoint of advancing the stature of gaming as a tool.

Regardless, I'm sure I would enjoy sitting down and talking with the authors about these issues and about the role of wargaming in particular. Maybe they have ideas that could be extremely valid and useful. You just wouldn't know it from this book. Read this article instead for a brief summary of one of the wargames they apparently drew from.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

WaPo article on gaming a withdrawal from Iraq

The Washington Post ran a piece this week describing several recent games on potential courses that U.S. disengagement from Iraq could take.

The piece illustrates one of the problems about reporting on gaming exercises. Games are not terribly good at predicting outcomes, but the natural question that occurs to a journalist writing about an exercise is: what did it "show?" Lincoln Bloomfield made a wonderful statement on prediction in gaming which I can't lay my hand on at the moment, to the effect that what is often forgotten when discussing games as predictors of events is that the defining predictions have already taken place in the writing of the scenarios involved. Without seeing more information from the games, like the initial scenarios and the final game reports, it's hard to know just what the comments in the article about the lessons of the games are based on. Wargamers are generally pretty careful when it comes to ascribing a predictive basis to their exercises, so it seems likely that the reporters are responsible for giving that impression.

Thursday, May 3, 2007


I've been busily working on my thesis since my last post, but I hope to get back to posting regularly.

Here are a few online bibliographies that have been useful during my research:

The Air Force War College maintains an extensive wargaming bibliography, broken down by subject. This link is to the main page, but the politico-military gaming page and the scenario page are particularly relevant. The bibliography was compiled in 1999, so there is nothing more recent listed.

The Army War College Library put together a wargaming bibliography in 1994, which is available in pdf or html format. As far as I can tell, it remains the most current listing of Army War College Library material related to wargaming, at least that is accessible by internet.

Sharon Ghamari compiled a bibliography covering the use of wargames in the 1950's and 60's for a book on Herman Kahn. The articles that appear on this list that are not on the others mentioned above seem to be primarily of historical interest, but I haven't made my way through them all by any means.

I haven't had the chance to track down everything on all of these lists, but much of what I've already profiled here appears somewhere in these bibliographies. Good stuff. With search engines and online library catalogs the value of a good bibliography has been somewhat obscured. But for a subject like political-military gaming, with its terminological and definitional ambiguities, it can be difficult to come up with the appropriate search terms to find the most useful articles and books without being overwhelmed by irrelevant material. That, at least, has been my experience. A bibliography, even an old one, provides some names and terms and titles that can help narrow searches. That has been my experience, at least. If anyone reading this knows of any other useful bibliographies, please let me know.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hanley: On Wargaming

John Hanley's 1991 poli sci dissertation at Yale (On Wargaming: A Critique of Strategic Operational Gaming) is one of the best single sources I have found.

Unfortunately, this dissertation is not available online. It might be difficult to get a hold of via interlibrary loan, as well. I had to order it from the University of Michigan's dissertation express site, and have it printed from microfilm and shipped to me. But for me it was worth it, and I highly recommend this dissertation to anyone serious about studying pol-mil gaming.

Particularly helpful are Hanley's chapters analyzing the Naval War College's Global War Game from its debut in 1979 through 1990. I'll write some more about the Global War Game soon. Hanley provides a lot of information about how the games were organized and structured, what the critiques at the time were, and how the objectives of the games changed over time. This is in contrast to most publicly available game reports, which often focus on substantive results rather than the methods employed during the game. This can be a major frustration for those of us who would like to learn more about the way these tools are employed. There is much, much more to this dissertation, which will hopefully show up from time to time as I go forward with this blog.

The only journal article to cite Hanley's dissertation, as far as I can tell, was Robert Rubel's piece I discussed here. To date, it appears that no one has cited the Rubel article in a journal. In part, both Hanley's dissertation and Rubel's article aimed at starting a certain type of conversation about epistemology and methodology within the gaming community. That doesn't seem to have happened yet, at least not in magazines and journals. Why is that? I have some thoughts, but I'll save them for another time.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Orbis Forum on Political and Military Gaming

In 1984, the journal Orbis published a series of articles on the state of political-military gaming. The exchange is unfortunately not available for free online, but it appeared in the winter 1984 issue, which is probably widely available at university libraries. As a group, these articles are an excellent source of reflections on gaming by some prominent practitioners and theorists.

This is a long post, and it covers four separate articles. If I had known it would take me so long to get around to finishing it, I would have split it up. Lesson learned.

Lincoln Bloomfield was a pioneer in political-military gaming, particularly in his work organizing research-oriented political exercises (referred to as POLEXes) for senior-level decisionmakers at MIT in the late 1950's and throughout the 1960's. All of the POLEX research results are apparently unclassified, but I can't find any reference to them on the web. In his Orbis contribution, Bloomfield discusses the history, practice, and realism of political gaming, based on his own experience. His explanation of how free-form gaming requires experienced participants in order to generate useful policy results is particularly well laid out:
No satisfactory model yet exists of the national security decisionmaking system of the United States (or any other country), nor of the larger system of interactions and perceptions that connects them. Thus one either specifies a crude, oversimplified model or relies on the complex model inside the heads of experienced professionals. How successfully a simulation emulates reality depends on the extent of the players' knowledge of the structures, routines, and probable responses of decisionmakers. Great pedagogic, but little policy value results from putting inexperienced individuals in the shoes of decisionmakers.
Even today the national security decisionmaking process is not sufficiently understood as to negate the value of free-form gaming. I would suggest that it never will be. (More on this in a future post.) There has been some debate over issues related to the last part of Bloomfield's remark above, and in the 50's and 60's several researchers (Guetzkow and Hermann are the two I can think of offhand) used inexperienced participants in games to study various aspects of crisis behavior, then tried to generalize conclusions based on a number of runs of the same game. Whether or not those efforts are considered to have produced valid results, exercises designed as experiments in that way bore little resemblance to the high-level games Bloomfield is basing his conclusion on. It is reasonable to agree that given Bloomfield's type of political game, he is correct in asserting that inexperienced participants who do not have carefully calibrated internal models of the world situation would not produce particularly meaningful policy-oriented results.

Among the points Bloomfield makes that have a special relevance to the epistemology of gaming is this:
Games do not predict future events or policy outcomes and can be misleading for specific contingency planning purposes. But they can indicate in detail how a future situation might develop and, even more important, why. A little-noticed fact is that in such games he controlling prediction has already been made: the situation the players face is not of their making, but rather is decided by the game designer. Both MIT and government games relied on scenarios prepared by experts asked to depict a specified future situation in a way that would be accepted by other experts as plausible. A prediction was thereby made that partially determined the game results. Thus, such POLEXes have been biased by game designers, whether for experimental, bureaucratic, or merely frivolous reasons.
These remarks remind me of some of H.A. DeWeerd's concerns about the contextual basis for scenarios, previously discussed here.

Although Bloomfield argues that "In a properly designed POLEX, a knowledgeable non-national can often approximate the policy options likely to be considered by another country's decisionmakers," he also notes that:
Given our national tendency to ascribe Western "rational" mindsets to others, crossing cultural barriers to investigate probable foreign reactions is a valuable and neglected use of gaming. A comparable value derives from putting military officers in the shoes of civilians and vice versa. (A survey of several hundred officials who participated in MIT games reported "role-exchange" as the most useful aspect of the games.)
I suppose that the idea here is that worthwhile results can be generated by non-nationals playing a country's decisionmakers, but only if there is an attempt to understand the cultural context in which those decisionmakers would operate. That may be an element, in Bloomfield's thinking, of proper POLEX design.

Paul Bracken (professor of both political science and management at Yale) contributed an article titled "Deterrence, Gaming, and Game Theory." Among other things, this article includes a short discussion of the distinction between gaming and game theory. This is an issue, because there is a tendency to lump the two together, which is part of the problem with gaming terminology. While Bracken's distinction relies on a rather specific definition of "gaming," it illustrates the difference between the two very well:
Gaming and game theory are sometimes confused with each other, because of their similar names. Gaming refers to an exercise in which opposing teams of human players are confronted with a situation or problem and work out responses to the problem and to the moves of the opposing team. The use of human players to simulate specific political or military decisionmakers is the key to gaming. Such role playing gives the game its richness while distinguishing it from a mathematical model or computer simulation. However, models and simulations often are included in political-military games as supporting tools to facilitate human decisionmaking. When there is extensive use of such models and simulations in a role-playing game, or when computerized communication and control systems are included, the entire exercise is sometimes referred to as a "man-machine simulation."

Game theory is a body of primarily mathematical theory concerning decisionmaking. Although often applied to real problems, game theory needs no justification of practicality. It offers a useful vocabulary for making subtle distinctions and precise definitions about phenomena that arise in gaming and decisionmaking.
Despite this important distinction, Bracken highlights the ways in which gaming and game theory can support each other as analytic tools. Both are tools dealing with the study of strategic interaction, and it is no accident that game theorists like Thomas Schelling and Martin Shubik (and presumably Bracken himself) were drawn to the study of gaming.
When many interacting moves are extended over time, the details of information processing, communication, decentralization, and sequencing are of the highest importance in carrying out a strategy. Gaming, especially with a large number of participants on each side, can make this process transparent. This is less likely when strategic analysis is compacted into verbal stories that rely on a handful of words like "counterforce" and "countervalue."
Specifically, Bracken recommends large-scale games that can encompass the complexity of interactions within the nuclear command and control structure: "The play of a large political-military exercise points to the importance of process, informational patterns, and institutional structure." These are precisely the points he felt needed most examination within the deterrence context. Today's context is greatly different from the nuclear confrontation of 1984, but the utility of large scale games for examining organizational/institutional factors would seem to remain. Bracken was skeptical of pol-mil crisis games that only included a few participants for their lack of emphasis on institutions, at least if they resulted in overly complicated or intricate plans for nuclear warfighting that did not take communication and organizational issues into account.

Garry Brewer (another professor of political science as well as management at Yale) contributed an article titled "Child of Neglect: Crisis Gaming for Politics and War." As might be expected from the title, this is a defense of the crisis game as an analytic tool, and a call for its increased use after a decade of very limited application.
These games never prove anything in a narrow scientific sense. They help to portray the complexities of international conflict; their role-playing aspects provide insights into the special problems of command and control; and they are important educational experiences, providinng participants an opportunity to become aware of facts associated with possible conflicts. Discovery is emphasized and highly valued. Positions, expectations, perceptions, facts, and procedures typically are challenged and improved as the game proceeds. Controllers and referees, who are often experts in particular areas, may question a decision or prevent individuals from making certain moves, but their actions are also open to challenge and debate. Thus, imagination and innovation play central roles in the drama of the manual game. The game also allows players to challenge the initiating scenario, including its explicit and implicit assumptions.
In discussing the original pol-mil crisis games of the 50's and 60's, Bracken notes that:
Political-military games directly addressed a number of important questions:
1) What political options could be imagined in light of the military situations portrayed, and what likely consequences would each have? How, in other words, is force related to political ends?
2) Could political inventiveness be fostered by having those actually responsible assume their roles in a controlled, gamed environment? Would the quality of political ideas stimulated be as good or better than those garnered by more conventional means?
3) Could the game identify particularly important, but poorly understood, topics and questions for further study and resolution? What discoveries flow from this type of analysis that might not from other forms and methods?
4) Could the game sensitize responsible officials to make potential decisions more realistic, especially with respect to likely political and policy consequences?
The flexibility and transparency of the scenario and its relevant assumptions in the crisis gaming technique is particularly important to Bracken:
It is not widely appreciated, but all computer-bassed models and games have embedded scenarios and associated assumptions. The technical problem, however, is that changing scenarios or assumptions means changing many complex instructions contained in the model's embedded codes - something no model builder relishes, especially considering the probable headaches he has already suffered in getting the device to run.
Finally, Bracken makes a necessary point about maintaining a broader view of analysis, incorporating whatever techniques best suit the material, while remaining open to alternative approaches:
A fundamental purpose of manual gaming is to encourage creative, innovative thinking about problems that defy treatment with more conventional analytic approaches and methods. This basic goal has not been achieved to the extent that it could and should be. Furthermore, political-military crisis games are best perceived as key elements in a generalized problem solving process. At present, the analytic community shows an unfortunate tendency to believe that a specific model or analysis will provide answers to a given problem. This is unfortunate for several reasons. The most essential: any given analysis or model can represent only one version and vision of reality. More is needed, and the inherent strength of the manual game in this respect calls it to our attention.

Lloyd Hoffman, Jr. worked at the War Gaming and Simulation Center at NDU, which I assume was replaced by the National Strategic Gaming Center (discussed previously here) at some point, but I haven't looked into the history. Suffice to say, there is no entity with that name at present. His contribution was titled "Defense War Gaming," and it provides a survey of what sort of gaming activity was going on in the Defense Department in 1984. While this is of great historical interest, I won't quote him at length here on that subject. Hoffman covers a wider scope of war gaming than the other authors in the series, delving into field exercises, tactical models, and other such areas.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lempert and Schwabe - Transition to Sustainable Waste Management

Another RAND monograph, but this one deals with an application of gaming techniques to a domestic public policy question (available in pdf form here). The goal was to investigate what factors might turn out to be important in the shift from a product packaging industry that primarily used "virgin" materials and generated large amounts of solid waste to a system based on recycling of packaging material. Participants from government and industry were assigned roles within the context of a model, and were asked to make decisions on investment or regulation related to packaging. Based on these decisions, the model then worked out the market clearing prices and quantities for each type of product or service, established profits and losses for the simulated activities, and presented the results to the participants for another round of regulation and investment.

This paper provides a detailed look at the way a model can provide the structure for a game, as well as showing the value added that gaming out a model can produce.

Monday, March 12, 2007

DeWeerd: Political-Military Scenarios

Another RAND monograph on scenario design by H.A. DeWeerd, but this one is available for free online (through the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC)'s Scientific and Technical Information Network (STINET)) , unlike the one discussed previously here. Written in 1967, this one is a very basic primer on scenario construction, discussing some of the details a designer needs to consider. The Peter DeLeon piece I described here is still my favorite single scenario design article, but this is a useful look at the process.

Two key concepts in this piece are credibility and relevance, and DeWeerd describes the tension that can arise between them when a game is intended to shed light on a specific research question. At times, it may be necessary to favor relevance to research objectives over scenario credibility, though DeWeerd recommends that in any such circumstances the designers make clear to participants what sacrifices in terms of credibility have been made.

Friday, March 9, 2007

CIA "red team" exercise on Iraq

Here's an article about a (relatively) recent Red Team exercise conducted by the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) at the CIA. Red Teaming is when analysts/experts/whoever gather in a structured way to consider weaknesses and vulnerabilities of their own side that could be exploited by current or potential enemies. In this case, the exercise was meant to shed light on what the reactions of Al Qaeda and other terrorist actors would be to a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. If there was a "Blue Team" at all, it was probably directly managed by the control cell, since the focus of the exercise was on considering "Red" actions. I'll write more about Red Teaming in the future, but this is an interesting application of the technique.

Monday, March 5, 2007

DeWeerd: A Contextual Approach to Scenario Construction - and - Schwartz: The Art of the Long View

A bit more on scenario design.

H.A. DeWeerd wrote A Contextual Approach to Scenario Construction while he was working at RAND, for submission to the journal Simulation and Gaming. It was printed in the December 1974 issue (Vol. 5, No. 4), but it does not appear to be available for free online, either from RAND or the journal itself. It's only 10 pages of text, so it's not worth buying, but DeWeerd is an expert in scenario development (and is cited as such by his student, Peter DeLeon, in the piece I wrote about here).

DeWeerd's main point is that the way scenarios for games, research, or thought experiments are frequently designed back-to-front, with the desired problem or crisis as a starting point, working backwards to fill in contextual details to make the scenario as plausible as possible. DeWeerd contends that a better way to develop scenarios would be to construct the context first, based on current trends, and then look for the most likely scenarios that could take place in the posited context.

This approach is not too far removed from that described by Peter Schwartz in The Art of the Long View. Schwartz developed his techniques for scenario-based planning at Royal Dutch/Shell, and later started Global Business Network. His basic idea is that by developing alternate scenarios of future developments, the possible consequences of present day decisions can be evaluated under a range of conditions. When Schwartz refers to a scenario, he is essentially describing what DeWeerd would call a context.

While Schwartz's method works for considering present day decisions, DeWeerd's proposal for contextual-based scenario design is somewhat more problematic. As he notes, most scenario design is done with a specific problem in mind. As applied to gaming, this is almost always the case. The sponsor of a game has something they want to explore, and they describe it to whatever group organizes the event. Unless the context development takes place on the sponsor's side, before the problem for the scenario is selected, there is very little opportunity for the gaming group to follow DeWeerd's advice. Instead, the retroactive assembly of contextual details to bolster the credibility of the scenario is the only option. Is there another way? Perhaps if the gaming process were integrated well into a broader strategic planning process.

Friday, March 2, 2007

More on the Harvard Symposium on Preemptive Action

I attended the symposium at Harvard Law School I mentioned in the previous post. The panels were great, with high-powered speakers and interesting discussions. However, I was disappointed in the scenarios presented. My guess is that they were written by as legal hypotheticals by law school students, who perhaps then ran them past Richard Clarke to see if they were vaguely realistic. The scenarios were short and handed out to the audience, so I'm going to reprint most of both of them here, to illustrate.

Scenario 1: A high-profile Al Qaeda leader begins operations in Yemen in mid-2006. He is very generous and has been paying local militias to defend and work for him, so the local government is aware that he is there. In general, due largely to bin Laden's fiscal generosity, the local government has been supportive of him. The Yemeni national government, on the other hand, has no idea that he is in the country.

In January, based on reliable human intelligence, the United States uncovers this information. however, it appears as if the Yemeni government does not have a lot of control over the region in which he is located. The United States would like to intervene militarily to capture the Al Qaeda leader, but believes that if it tells the Yemeni government about the intervention, the local government will find out and tip him off so that he can escape. Moreover, the United States is not entirely sure that Yemen would be willing to cooperate and permit military action.
This scenario was followed by a brief comment about the 2002 Predator drone Hellfire missile attack on a car in Yemen carrying six Al Qaeda members (including one of the leaders of the group responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000), which was undertaken with the approval of the Yemeni government.

Although this was labeled scenario #1, the panel started its discussion with the scenario listed below instead:
Scenario 2: On February 27, 2007, seven Americans (tourists, businessmen, etc.?) were taken hostage on the border between Colombia and Ecuador by an unknown terrorist/rebel group. Last night, on March 1, the responsible group broadcast online a beheading of one of the hostages and threatened that more beheadings would follow if the United States did not agree to stop funding coca eradication programs in the region. The group provided no other relevant information and its demands are thus far relatively vague.

Although both Ecuador and Colombia have expressed public outrage at the hostage situation and have demanded the release of the hostages, neither government is willing to take action. Ecuador is hesitant to move in because they say the group is actually in Colombia, and Colombia refuses to move in because they think the group is technically in Ecuador. In reality, neither country has total control over the jungle region. Additionally, each is probably incapable of safely rescuing the American hostages. For a variety of reasons, both countries object to allowing American troops to intervene. In each country, the domestic political situation weighs heavily against permitting American intervention. Moreover, both countries claim that allowing American troops to rescue the hostages would constitute a violation of their sovereignty.

There is no evidence that either government is actively supporting the terrorist/rebel group nor is there any evidence that either government has extensive knowledge of the group. The United States has reliable intelligence about the location of the hostages and thinks that a military intervention to rescue them would be successful.
The last paragraph of the scenario talks about the "variety of interesting questions related to preemptive action and international law" that the hypothetical situation raises. In fact, there appeared to be very few interesting questions raised for the panelists by this scenario. They basically agreed that international law did not prohibit the U.S. from using military force without the consent of the two countries (though for different reasons, the discussion of which was interesting), and the precedent of the Entebbe Raid was discussed at length.

Beyond that, the panelists all stressed that this sort of decision would not be made by international legal experts, but by policymakers concerned with much more than just what international law did or did not allow. That was a valuable point, and the panel emphasized it during their discussions of both of the scenarios. That makes sense, since the chair of the panel, Antonia Chayes, teaches a well-regarded class at the Fletcher School on just that subject (one which I wish I had found time to take during my time there).

Several panelists suggested that there would be tremendous public pressure on the administration to "do something" in the Colombia/Ecuador scenario after the kidnapping and the beheading video. What the scenario did not mention is that there are a number of American citizens currently held hostage in Colombia already. Three contractors working under the Department of Defense were taken captive by the FARC in 2003 after their plane crashed. A Colombian colleague and another American citizen were shot, execution style, and their bodies were left at the crash site. While it didn't pack quite the punch of an internet-broadcast beheading of a tourist, in the event there was little public outcry. In the last two years, about 18 American citizens have been kidnapped in Colombia, mostly by terrorist groups. While the beheading would be a new wrinkle, and might generate more attention, the idea that there would be a massive public outcry in the wake of the scenario just doesn't seem likely.

Another issue that the panel rightly addressed was the offhand way the scenario assures that "the United States has reliable intelligence about the location of the hostages and thinks that a military intervention to rescue them would be successful." The panel in general urged skepticism about any claims of this sort, given how difficult it is to make a meaningful and accurate assessment of intelligence data, and given the challenges posed by mounting an operation deep in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon rainforest that the scenario suggests is the location of the hostages is an incredibly impenetrable area. The canopy foliage in the rainforest can be so thick that GPS will not function through it. Locating anything or anyone from the air is ridiculously difficult, and getting from the air to the ground through the dense foliage presents its own challenges. The scenario tried to wish away such concerns in the interest of focusing on the legal issues involved, but it did so in such a ham-handed way that the panel was obliged to comment on their skepticism of any such confidence. And what no one mentioned but I found very odd about the scenario was that if the U.S. had sufficient intelligence data to know where the hostages were, presumably they could generate map coordinates for the location sufficient to prove to Colombia or Ecuador on which side of the border the terrorists were holed up.

It is true that both in the case of Colombia and the case of Yemen, there are areas within the country that are not under the control of the central government. In Colombia, history and geography are the main reasons why, with a combination of a state that has historically never truly controlled its borders or territory and nearly impassible terrain that makes it extremely difficult for any central authority to assert itself in large portions of the country. I know much less about the situation in Yemen, but my understanding is that there are areas over which, for reasons largely related to tribal dynamics, the central government exerts authority in name only. It was in such an area where the Predator drone attack in 2002 took place.

A term that comes up occasionally in gaming literature is the tendency of participants to "fight the scenario" at times. This is usually held up as something to be avoided, both through careful scenario construction (with an eye towards credibility) and through explicit requests to the participants themselves to refrain from such activity and simply try to play the game as written. This is one of the reasons a debriefing session is so important after a game: participants who had objections to certain aspects of the scenario can raise them at the debrief, where they will still be considered by the group. In a short session like this panel discussion, however, it was precisely the right time to fight this sort of scenario, which the participants did to some extent. It was still a high-quality discussion, thanks to the panelists, but it could have gotten off to a better start with a better set of scenarios.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Harvard Symposium: Legal Perspectives on Preemptive Action

Here's an event that I'm planning to attend tomorrow afternoon at Harvard Law School. The key paragraph from my perspective:
We are working with Richard Clarke to create two unique hypothetical situations for the second panel of the day. Using the same format as the first panel, this panel will address preemptive strikes against non-state actors without the approval of the sovereign nation in which the non-state actors are located. Although the scenarios have not been finalized, they will have to do with a counterterrorism strike against an unwilling sovereign and will be as realistic as possible. An information sheet outlining the scenarios will be circulated before the panel.
It will be interesting to see how they structure the scenarios. Two professors from the Fletcher School will be on the panel, Antonia Chayes and Michael Glennon, both of whom are fascinating speakers. I realize the odds are slim that anyone will read this in time here and decide to attend, but what the heck.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

DeLeon: Scenario Designs, an Overview

More from RAND. There has been surprisingly little written about scenario design, and the best piece I have found so far is Peter deLeon's Scenario Designs, an Overview. It's not even 20 pages, and it was written in 1973, but it covers a lot of important ground. And it's available for free online in .pdf format.

Some points I found particularly relevant:
"Although the political/military game can portray a nation's response as the result of the interplay between a number of actors... it cannot hope to capture the full richness of the bureaucratic models that have been increasingly coming to the fore... [he specifically mentions Graham Allison's Models II and III, the Organizational Behavior and Governmental Politics models from Essence of Decision, which I hope to discuss in more detail in a future post].... However, it can help isolate the decision process from extraneous bureaucratic noise."

DeLeon also describes two ways the control team can involve the participants in the action of the scenario. The first, which he calls the "scenario goad," utilizes the scenario to place the teams in a decision setting where they are in effect forced to act. This forecloses options the teams might have had earlier in a crisis, and posits the building crisis as a part of the scenario itself. The second, which he calls the "control goad," turns decision making over to the teams in the earlier stages of a crisis, allowing them more freedom of action. However, if a team proves to be too "reticent or cautious" this requires the control team to "structure and manipulate the game environment in order to provide... incentives" for the team to act in such a way as to advance the game situation. I suppose the literary analogy here is that the "scenario goad" is starting the participants' game experience in media res, while the "control goad" is more of an ab ovo beginning. DeLeon sees the "scenario goad" as a more useful tool for less skilled or less knowledgeable participants (he mentions university students), while more skilled/knowledgeable participants (professionals) might "bring enough prior knowledge to the game that they can promote their own actions and, with the prompting of control, intensify the crisis."

One possibility DeLeon mentions is providing "a menu of options or actions that a team might choose to exercise while playing the game. The explicitness of these 'handles' is largely dependent upon the sophistication of the players. However... the scenarist must be careful not to bias his scenario unconsciously so as to make some options more attractive than the others. Also, such a menu might possibly limit a team's capability and incentive to devise new and novel options. That is, the scenario should present a situation that permits - indeed, encourages - the exploration of a wide variety of levers, old and new."

For a short paper, there's a lot here.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Jones: On Free-Form Gaming

Another RAND note, this time from 1985. William Jones wrote On Free-Form Gaming based on his decades of experience working on gaming at RAND.

This is a 55 page document, but it is so dense with practical insights into gaming procedures that it is almost impossible to summarize adequately. Anyone looking for a better understanding of gaming techniques is well advised to find a copy somehow. It is not available for free online at this time, but it is available through interlibrary loan for those with access. The price at RAND is steep for 55 pages ($20.70), but quite possibly worth it.

Jones focused mainly on two-team games, like the classic crisis games (mentioned previously here and here, but his suggestions and insights pertain to any team structure, and he discussed several alternative structures in the course of the note. One interesting detail is that his vision of free-form gaming involved set move periods, requiring each team to produce a comprehensive set of instructions by the end of the move period. There was no opportunity to take action on the part of the teams (besides making specific requests for information to the control team) during the move period, meaning that "game time" effectively did not advance during the teams' deliberations. After the move period, the control team would assess what the timeframe and situation would be at the start of the next move period. That required them to assemble all of the teams' move papers, decide what the results of the requested actions would be, decide on when to advance the game time until (based on their view of the next interesting point for study), and produce new scenario papers for the next move period.

In contrast, using computer systems (like the ICONS project's web-based software, but more on this another time), exercises today can more easily allow teams the option for action during moves, implicitly or explicitly advancing "game time" during the move period. That probably creates a very different atmosphere within the teams. It also opens the door to diplomatic interaction between teams, something very difficult to manage if move orders are only processed at the end of each move period.

This is an excellent paper. Rather than try to go into further detail now, I'll refer to it when discussing things in the future, since there is something related to almost every aspect of pol/mil gaming.

UPDATE: Alert reader persis notes in the comments that this paper is now available for free download at RAND. Go get it!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Groupthink and gaming

Irving Janis' classic book Groupthink deals with the distortions that can enter a group decision making process when members of the group edit their participation in deliberations out of concern (conscious or subconscious) for preserving the cohesion of the group. His hypotheses have relevance to gaming in three ways: identifying potential pitfalls for gaming exercises meant to produce usable policy insights, suggesting methods of utilizing gaming to avoid some of the problems of groupthink within a decision making process, and presenting challenges in group dynamics that can profitably be studied using gaming techniques.

Janis posited three "antecedent conditions" for the emergence of groupthink in a given decision making context:

1. The decision makers constitute a cohesive group
2. Structural faults of the organization (such as insulation of the decision making group from outside information/experts)
3. A provocative situational context (such as high stress from external threats combined with lack of hope of finding a better solution than the leader's, or low self-esteem on the part of group members as a result of recent failures)

Janis grouped the resultant symptoms of groupthink into three broad categories: overestimation of the group, closed-mindedness, and pressures towards uniformity.

These symptoms can lead to defective decision making characterized by premature consensus without appropriate consideration of all relevant alternatives, objectives, and risks. Defective decision making will presumably lead to lowered probability of success.

There has been so much consideration of the groupthink phenomenon in the past 20 years that a 2002 book even suggested that some organizations have gone too far with their concern about groupthink, to the point of making substantive agreement difficult or impossible, deadlocking the decision making process, or at least not providing optimal results. (Paul Kower, Groupthink or Deadlock) I haven't read this yet, but it sounds like an argument for moderation in the pursuit of a groupthink-free decision making process. That sounds like something Janis would approve of, as he mentions the risks of not considering the costs of measures designed to reduce groupthink.

I will return to the topic of groupthink soon, but as for using gaming techniques to study the phenomenon of groupthink, by its very nature groupthink requires small group decision-making exercises not too far removed from the policy gaming exercises I'm trying to blog about. While the focus of study, the relationship between game controller and participant, and the subject matter of the exercises are all different, in each type of game there is an interest in both the decision making process and the results of that process. Psychological research through gaming requires an attempt to turn the exercises into controlled experiments, which is generally not possible in policy gaming.

Wikipedia on Groupthink.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Wargame blog

(For future reference, comments, suggestions, links, etc., are always welcome.)

Matt Kirschenbaum runs "Zone of Influence," a blog about board-and-counter wargames. While that's a little removed from my own interest in political/military gaming, some of the same issues are relevant in terms of game design. Here are a couple of his posts dealing with two famous recreational wargamers, H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson. I haven't read either of H.G. Wells' books on the subject (Little Wars and Floor Games), but the article about Stevenson he links to is wonderful.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Desert Crossing

In 1999, Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni commissioned Booz Allen Hamilton (a government contractor with a large gaming shop) to produce a wargame (titled Desert Crossing) to examine the issues that would surround US intervention in Iraq. The after-action report and some related documents were declassified late last year, and much of it is available through GWU's National Security Archive website. Prior to declassification, Gen. Zinni mentioned the game in several public contexts, and Tom Ricks included a brief description of the game in his book Fiasco.

There were a number of mentions of Desert Crossing in the press when the documents became publicly available, as well as some attention from the blogosphere. Many of these comments were directed specifically at the number of troops the game participants assumed would be necessary to occupy Iraq, in contrast to the number that were actually used four years later. But the game is much more interesting than a simple question of troop numbers, and the troop number issue is a bit of a red herring compared to the broad insights that emerged from the game. The game was run to identify problem areas for future consideration, which it did. Despite the fact that the scenario was largely directed at internal Iraqi events that might require/precipitate an American intervention (rather than dealing with the sort of invasion action actually undertaken by the US), the interagency group of participants produced a list of challenges the US would face that looks fairly prescient, given current events. Unfortunately, the exercise itself never made much of an impact. In 2003, when the then-retired Gen. Zinni called CENTCOM to recommend that they look at Desert Crossing again, they didn't know what he was talking about.

The point is not that the game predicted anything. Games don't predict very well, and generally should not be used for that purpose. What Desert Crossing did was bring together the right group of people in the right setting with the right procedural setup to allow them to thoroughly examine the right questions. But Desert Crossing is also an example of the difficulty of assimilating the results of such a game into an organizational context.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Parson: What Can you Learn from a Game?

Edward Parson contributed a chapter to a 1996 book (Wise Choices: Decisions, Games and Negotiations, edited by Richard Zeckhauser, Ralph Keeney, and James Sebenius, unfortunately not available online) [UPDATE: The chapter is available on Parson's website] on what sort of useful knowledge a game can produce. In his chapter he assesses the value of using simulation gaming (his term) for four different purposes: experimentation, instructing decision makers, promoting creativity and insights, and knowledge integration.

He found the technique to be unsuitable for most experimental purposes, primarily since simulation games cannot be easily replicated in controlled ways. This may be less true with simple simulations that highlight broadly applicable questions, such as basic negotiation simulations, but it is almost impossible to control for everything or repeat often in the case of a complex simulation game covering a specific, novel problem area.

As far as instructing decision makers is concerned, Parson has doubts as to whether simulation games can help much, though he acknowledges that he is concerned not with the informational value of bringing the right group of experts together (for which a simulation can provide a useful venue), but rather in actually using a simulation game to teach the details of a complex problem to decision makers themselves:
Seeking to use simulation gaming to instruct decision makers in the essential character of a complex policy problem is a much more problematic enterprise. This mode of instruction presumes that the simulation structure embodies insights into the essence of the problem that are true, important, relatively enduring, and not dominated in practical settings by other factors that the participants understand better than the analysts, and consequently that decision makers should understand them and would act differently if they did.
That's a great paragraph, and it identifies several real concerns about using simulation games in this manner. Those concerns are not necessarily impossible to overcome, though. Simulation games could be valuable just for encouraging a decision maker to focus on a problem or threat that he or she might otherwise not have paid as much attention to. That might be an example of a positive aspect to the simulation heuristic, as discussed previously. Of course, that assumes that the assessment of the given threat or problem is accurate.

Promoting creativity and insights is where Parson sees most of the value in simulation games that have been conducted to date. There is, in addition to the "get the right experts in the same room" factor as mentioned above, a well-structured simulation game can help participants think creatively about a problem and generate fresh insights. Some key points Parson mentions about this use of simulation:
Granting participants the standing to critique the relevance of simulation insights, and consequently the simulation design that conditioned them, implies an equality of standing between the simulation participants and designers that is not present in the experimental or the instructional model. Participants are not just experimental subjects or recipients of instruction; nor is the simulation reduced to a mere pretext for bringing them together.
[A] sober, critical postsimulation debriefing is an essential component of the learning effect of the simulation. It is here that the significance and legitimacy of the problem posed is explored, potential implications and consequences of decisions taken and plausible alternatives not taken are explored, and the practical applicability and generalizability of strategies and insights from the simulation is tested against the participants' knowledge and experience.
Use of simulations for the integration of knowledge is not a common practice, but it is one Parson feels has great promise. Creating an "integrated assessment" of a complex problem is a challenge under any circumstances. Simulation games could play a role where it is necessary to combine the technical or scientific details of a problem with the political, social, and economic aspects to arrive at a view of the whole. It's an interesting idea, but as he notes, few games have been conducted with this as a primary purpose. This chapter is 10 years old, however, so I will have to see if anything has changed in this regard.

Parson is an interesting perspective to read on simulation gaming, since he primarily works on environmental and negotiation issues. Though my own focus tends toward security issues, it is always refreshing to see someone using the same sorts of techniques in a field far beyond the traditional political-military focus of gaming.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Simulation Heuristic

I finished another RAND monograph recently (Implications of Modern Decision Science for Military Decision-Support Systems), which is too long and too dense and too useful to sum up in a single post. It's available for free online, but I wound up buying a copy from Amazon after realizing how relevant it was for me (Amazon was cheaper than buying it through RAND this time).

The first section deals with the history and development of decision science. It's a great, concise summary of the psychological aspects of decision-making theory, including a description of the split between what the authors refer to as the Heuristics and Biases Paradigm and the Naturalistic School of decision science. More on this in the future, but something that struck me was the description of what some call the simulation heuristic, and which the monograph refers to as "imaginability" (as a subset of memory biases) or the "availability heuristic". The basic idea is that people see things as more likely if they can visualize them more easily. That echoes Robert Levine's criticism (referred to here) that a game could lead participants to believe that the events depicted were probable, as opposed to merely plausible. In the simulation heuristic formulation, it is the very act of making it easier to imagine an event that increases the perception of its probability.

In a sense, that might not be a bad thing, in that one of the benefits to simulation and gaming can be to make a given circumstance seem more real, for the purposes of spurring people to action, or taking a threat seriously, or provoking more thoughtful analysis. But Levine's point stands to a certain extent; what about the other, unsimulated, ungamed possibilities that are accorded less priority because the simulated case is assigned a higher probability than is warranted? The simplest answer I can see right now is that rather than doing less gaming, perhaps the simulation heuristic should in fact lead to doing more gaming, as a tool of exploratory analysis, with an eye towards keeping in mind the vast multitudes of possible futures (more on this sometime soon, I hope). Another answer might just be that gaming is not necessarily by itself a good indicator of the likelihood of a given set of events. That seems like a no-brainer, but perhaps it's difficult to keep that in mind when presented with a realistic game. How do the pros deal with this issue?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Why "A Horse of Peas?"

Anyone who has wondered enough about where the name of this blog came from has probably already found this site through Google:

Dear Word Detective: My roommate from Ohio insists on saying "It's a horse of peas" meaning "It's the same thing, one way or another." After hearing him use this random saying over and over, I finally called him on it and asked him if he didn't mean it was "a horse apiece"? He is adamant about his pea horse (I imagine a green horse consisting entirely of English peas) and won't hear any different. Please enlighten us with your expertise. -- Allison Paige, via the internet.

"Horse of peas"? I'm going to put this one at the very top of a file I keep labeled "Conclusive evidence that Ohio is actually a lost colony of Martians."

In any case, you are correct and your roommate is a victim of a "mondegreen," or a mishearing of a popular phrase or song lyric. The term "mondegreen" was invented in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child had heard the Scottish ballad ''The Bonny Earl of Murray" and had believed that one stanza went "Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands, Oh where hae you been?, They hae slay the Earl of Murray, And Lady Mondegreen." It turned out, as Wright later learned, that the line actually ran "They hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green." Oops, no Lady Mondegreen, but Wright did have a good name for the phenomenon.

"A horse apiece" means, as you supposed, "more or less equal" or "six of one, half dozen of the other." Field researchers for The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) first heard "a horse apiece" in 1980, but the phrase is undoubtedly much older. A similar phrase, "horse and horse," dates back to at least 1846.

According to DARE, the logic of "a horse apiece" may come from an old dice game called "horse" in which two players who have each lost a turn are said to be "a horse apiece." Or it may just be a variant of "horse and horse," describing two horses racing neck-and-neck down a racetrack.

I say "a horse apiece" quite frequently. I picked it up from my parents, but my wife has never heard anyone use the expression outside of my family. One day, she searched for more information about the phrase, and came up with the article quoted above. She thought "a horse of peas" was hilarious, and so did I. She even designed a T-shirt for me (available at her CafePress store here) as a Christmas gift. So now I not only have a ready-made blog logo, I've already got merchandise available! Not bad for 10 posts into a new venture.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Schwabe: An Introduction to Analytic Gaming

William Schwabe wrote an entry on gaming for the Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science in 1994 that was also released as a RAND paper. Unfortunately, the entry/paper is not available online at this time. It's only 2 or 3 pages in the encyclopedia, and the RAND paper is only 7 pages long (double spaced), but it does a good job of laying out the basics of gaming as a policy research tool. It's a bit short to quote at length, but here are several points:
Few methods have been so inadequately named, prompting ridicule from skeptics and attempts by adherents to call it something more serious sounding or descriptive, such as "operational gaming," "simulation gaming," "free-form gaming," and, in defense analysis, "war gaming" and "political-military gaming."

Unlike many other techniques of analysis, gaming is not a solution method. The output of a game is not a forecast, solution, or rigorous validation. The output of a good game is increased understanding.

Gaming has often not been as well integrated into studies using other methodologies as might be warranted. Gaming is but one form of analysis to inform policy, managerial, or operational decisions.
In addition, Schwabe quotes Clark Abt's 1970 book, Serious Games, in his definition of a game in his first paragraph. It's a book I'll have to pick up at some point (and apparently it was just reprinted in paperback in 2002), but for now:
Clark Abt (1970) defines a game as "an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context."
Note the importance of multiple decision centers, just as Schelling noted (as mentioned previously here). Schwabe quoted some of the same portions of Schelling's section in Crisis Games 27 Years Later that I did in his description of what games can produce that other research methods cannot.

For a very basic look at gaming as a research tool, this is a remarkably successful 7 pages. I have the RAND report, not the encyclopedia entry, but I believe they are about the same. It wouldn't be worth the $18 RAND is charging for the paper, though, and it shows the importance of checking the page count before purchasing thinktank reports online. I got mine through interlibrary loan, and I expect that the encyclopedia is widely available at university libraries.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

More on Crisis Games

To continue the thoughts in the previous post, Crisis Games 27 Years Later contains a number of criticisms of the gaming form by Robert Levine, to which Thomas Schelling and William Jones respond.

Some of Levine's concerns:

Gaming could lend a sense that a plausible scenario is in fact probable. This could take place by virtue of the chosen, simulated scenario becoming more "real" in the minds of the participants than all of the other, unexplored possibilities. (More on cognitive biases like this one in another post soon, once I finish the paper I'm reading now)

A combination of "ersatz history" (in the form of scenarios that depart greatly from present day events) and "ersatz people" (since game players do not share the same characteristics as the individuals they are simulating) introduce biases to the gaming process that compromise its utility in generating worthwhile hypotheses.

The results of games may be used as evidence, even when they have no evidentiary value. Specifically: "If a game result appears in language which can be read as a confirmed policy conclusion, there is a substantial chance that it will be so read."

For a more recent view of some similar issues, Robert Rubel's "The Epistemology of War Gaming" (mentioned in this previous post) talks about a broader category of games, and also has steps in mind to try and address some of these methodological challenges, rather than simply advocating that gaming be abandoned as a research tool.

Rather than enumerate Schelling and Jones' replies to these and other arguments point by point, here are a few examples of their ideas (the paper is well worth reading in its entirety):

Schelling defines games as necessarily involving "at least two separate decision centers... neither of which is privy to the other's planning and arguing, neither of which has complete access to the other's intelligence or background information, neither of which has any direct way of knowing everything that the other is deciding on." This definition excludes many of the exercises we would categorize as games, and includes many that do not appear to be games at all, but this is because Schelling is focused on the strategic interaction between the two (or more) decision centers:
"What this mode of organization can do that can not otherwise be done is to generate the phenomena of understanding and misunderstanding, perception and misperception, bargaining, demonstrations, dares and challenges, accommodation, coercion and intimidation, conveyance of intent, and uncertainty about what each other has already done or decided on. There are some things that just cannot be done by a single person or by a team that works together."

"One is to judge how 'obvious' something is. An analogy is the 'hidden face' in the picture. If I draw a face with a hidden picture, there is no way for me to tell how hard it is to see the face except to show the picture to somebody. I can't not see the picture because I put it there, and the hidden face has the quality that once you've seen it it is awfully hard to recapture your innocence and not see it."

Jones responds to the charge of "ersatz history" thus (keep in mind that he was writing in 1964):
"[P]erfectly plausible, useful, and not improbable game scenarios of a situation three or four years in the future can be had by simply initiating a game using today's newspapers -- interjecting only tomorrow's equipment. Arab-Israeli controversy has existed for some time and it seems probable that it will be in existence in 1970. Turkey and Greece have not seen eye-to-eye on the Cyprus situation for a considerable period and, unfortunately, this controversy is likely to persist.... Notice here that I am not saying that games, played from scenarios which are extrapolations of today's problems, are perfect for determining tomorrow's force posture and weapons characteristics. I am saying that I can think of worse procedures (re-fighting the last war, for example) and I know of no other way in which I have even such a limited amount of confidence."

There is a good deal more in this paper than I can tackle in a blog post, but many of the ideas and concerns expressed resonate today, which is why RAND reprinted it in 1991, 27 years after it was written.

Crisis Games and RAND

In 1964, Robert Levine, Thomas Schelling, and William Jones circulated a series of drafts through the RAND Corporation internal mail system, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of crisis gaming. In 1991, feeling that the issues laid out remained relevant, Levine republished the entire exchange as a RAND paper: Crisis Games 27 Years Later: Plus C'est Deja Vu. RAND has released this paper (along with some others from their 50 years of research and policy memoranda) for free in pdf form. It's well worth reading in its entirety. Thomas Schelling won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005, and his defense of crisis gaming as a technique is fascinating.

RAND did a lot of pioneering work in crisis gaming, which seems to have come on the scene during the Cold War as a way of examining the issues surrounding crises between the US and the USSR (I will confirm this at some point in the future, but the earliest references I have seen so far to crisis gaming date to the 1950's). The study of crisis was a priority, given the risks of nuclear war that attended a misstep. The various Berlin crises, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the surprise attack that began the Korean War were all influential in shaping the view that crisis management was an important skill to develop. Cold War crises had some very appealing features when it comes to gaming: there were two main adversaries whose interactions (due to their superpower status) were much more important than the roles of any other states (whose actions could be devised by the control team), the stakes in any given confrontation were high and the time frames often short (due to the presence of large nuclear arsenals), which ensured that the highest level decision makers would be involved, superseding normal policymaking structures, and the novelty of the nuclear standoff, with unprecedented destructive power involved, which gave a sense to policy theorists that all bets were off and that this type of crisis event needed to be studied outside the context of previous conventional military confrontations. This last point was also a major argument made by the newly ascendant civilian policy analysts in favor of rethinking conflict in ways opposed by the military establishment.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Gaming and Public Health

The Washington Post has an article today about a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) exercise simulating a flu pandemic. The contractor that designed and executed the scenario was MPRI (Military Professionals Resources Inc.), is largely staffed by former military, and the leader of the design team used to work on wargames at the Pentagon. This is an example of the recent increase in attention being paid to the public health applications of gaming techniques. Booz Allen Hamilton, another large contractor in the simulation/wargaming business, has moved into public health simulations in a big way as well: (from the Booz Allen response to a survey from
Over the past several years, Booz Allen has transferred its strategic simulation (also called "wargaming") capabilities from the government sector to the public health arena. The firm has conducted a variety of games to help various constituencies understand the implications of different health crises, including HIV/AIDS and a potential influenza pandemic.

The global HIV/AIDs epidemic is at the intersection of public health, political policy, and corporate interests, confronting all of humanity with the greatest challenge of our time. In October 2003, Booz Allen brought together experts from all over the firm to focus on this complex issue, hosting a groundbreaking HIV/AIDS strategic simulation event in India. Working with the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS and the Confederation of Indian Industry, Booz Allen led more than 200 government, business, and nonprofit leaders in a three-day simulation that underscored the need for new public/private partnerships, many of which were born during the simulation itself.

Eighteen months later, Booz Allen and the Global Business Coalition partnered again to host the Joint Summit on Business and AIDS in China. Rates of infection are still relatively low in China, and both the Chinese government and the business community have demonstrated significant leadership since coming together to address the issues at the summit.

In July 2005 and January 2006, Booz Allen brought its health-focused strategic simulation expertise to two senior audiences: at the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival in Colorado, where attendees dealt with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India and developed approaches to building stronger public/private partnerships; and at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where attendees were confronted with an influenza pandemic and had to address the challenges for delivering essential services during a widespread outbreak.

For more on some of these events, see also: Booz Allen's "HIV/AIDS Epidemic Strategic Simulation" in India and "The Global AIDS Crisis" run at the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival in 2005 (page has a link to a brief after-action summary as well)

One interesting feature of public health gaming is the lack of a real "enemy." The strategic interaction that is the focus of most wargames is not present, although the spread of the disease in the CDC example above would presumably depend in some way on the steps taken by the government to deal with it. In this sense, they share a lot of common ground with the incident response drills run by the Department of Homeland Security, relating to the aftermath of terrorist attacks or natural disasters. In any such exercise (especially in the case of trying to prepare for bioterrorism), public health would be a critical component.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Why aren't there more hobbyists doing this?

Besides the Megagames of the previous post, and the National Security Decision Making Game (a U.S. group that runs large-scale international simulations at gaming conventions) I'm not aware of anyone else doing this sort of thing for recreation. That's excluding, of course, model U.N. groups in high school and college, some of which (such as the University of Chicago's MUNUC and ChoMUN) make a point of producing high-quality, innovative simulations. But why so little interest in this sort of thing after college? Here are a few thoughts:

Preparation time: Putting together something like a Megagame or a scenario for a NSDMG takes a long time. There are no published supplements, and everything is pretty much done from scratch. College students might be able to spend this kind of time, but it takes a devoted hobbyist to do so out in the "real world." There's also the question of preparation for the individual participants; there are frequently background papers or rules to read beforehand (though not for NSDMG).

Lack of expertise: This is the sort of thing one learns by doing. While there are a lot of model U.N. survivors out there, perhaps not many of them really feel comfortable designing an event of their own.

Playing time: NSDMG and Megagames are usually about 8 hours long. Many model U.N. conferences run for four days. That might be more than many people can schedule.

Location, location, location: Just finding a space large enough and with the proper setup to hold one of these events is tricky. NSDMG uses gaming conventions, which are usually held in convention centers or large hotel conference areas, while Megagames apparently use a variety of venues, ranging from schools to boats and more. High schools and colleges can often use classrooms and auditoriums. But for a general recreational interest, without a connection to a college or the budget to rent conference space, finding a site would be challenging.

Lack of familiarity: People aren't used to this sort of thing. And hanging around with a hundred strangers immersing themselves in a political simulation doesn't necessarily sound appealing. Megagame Makers have the advantage of having built up a cadre of loyal fans, and NSDMG benefits from staging events at gaming conventions with a high number of wargamers in attendance, who are a more receptive audience than the general public.

I'll revisit this issue again. A lot of these issues seem to be manageable, so long as a small group is willing to put in a fair amount of time taking care of the substantive and logistic issues. At the very least, it doesn't seem impossible to develop some kind of constituency for this sort of thing.

Thursday, February 1, 2007


Megagame Makers is a UK-based group that creates and runs very large scale wargames for entertainment purposes, usually based on military conflict represented on boards or maps, but sometimes dealing with negotiation simulation. See the description of their Washington Conference simulation (which they will be running again in November 2007) for an example of a negotiation simulation not too far removed from the seminar-style games I'm trying to focus on here at A Horse of Peas. Their downloads page also offers the basic handbook for their Congress of Vienna game, another interesting negotiation simulation. This group has been around for a while, and looks well worth checking out for anyone in the SE England area.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What Can We Learn From War Gaming?

"The Epistemology of War Gaming" - This article from the Spring 2006 Naval War College Review addresses the question of how one can assess the knowledge gained from a war game. Can you extract valid knowledge that will be of use in future, while avoiding drawing unsupported conclusions? This is a fascinating piece, and it ends with a call for a "guild" of war gamers to professionalize the discipline. The author, Robert Rubel, was head of the War Gaming Department at the Naval War College when he wrote this, but has moved up to the position of Dean of Naval Warfare Studies.

I can't find much else on the internet referencing this article, or anything that provides any indication of whether this has prompted the debate that Rubel wanted to start. It's a worthwhile discussion. As I have noted previously, "war gaming" encompasses much more than the seminar-style games I am focused on, but most of the points made here are very relevant to games at the strategic level.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Here's a Joint Forces Quarterly article from 2005 about the National Strategic Gaming Center, one of the premier gaming shops. The NSGC is part of National Defense University, located at Ft. McNair in Washington, DC. This is a pretty good summary of the types of games that most interest me: strategic-level policy-oriented foreign affairs simulations conducted in person (not computer moderated or "distributed simulations").

Friday, January 26, 2007

Gaming and Simulation

Welcome to A Horse of Peas. I hope to use this space to explore and examine the use of gaming and simulation in studying international relations. Specifically, my interest is in the seminar-style, political/military games of the kind organized by various entities within the U.S. Government, as well as some government contractors. Part of the problem in looking for information on this type of exercise is that different groups use different terminology. "Wargaming," "strategic simulation," "crisis gaming," "policy-level gaming" and "operational gaming" are all examples, with the problem being that the terms are often either vague or overly broad. For example, wargaming covers a wide range of activities, many far removed from the kind of exercise I am primarily concerned with. Hopefully, I can use this space to refine my description and my understanding of this interesting analytical tool.

On a personal level, maintaining this blog will require me to overcome my tendency to avoid sharing my ideas until they are fully developed. This could be a rocky process. An explanation of the title of this blog will eventually appear, but it has nothing to do with gaming, simulation, or the topics discussed here in general.