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 Vault.com)
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.