Connections 2012: The Reflection

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to attend and present at the Connections conference held at the National Defense University in Washington D.C.  You may remember that Matt Kirschenbaum wrote a summary of his experience at the 2011 Connections conference, and I hope to add to that venerable tradition by sharing my own thoughts of the conference and what I took away from it all.

First off, for those scratching their heads as to what ‘Connections’ is all about I should add that this is a yearly gathering of those interested in wargaming from both the military and civilian (read: hobby designers & academics) perspective.  Begun in 1993, the conference’s primary goal is to bring increasing perspective between the commercial and military worlds of wargaming, two worlds that are often siloed far more than might be assumed.  It was clear from the first day that many attendants were old friends or colleagues, although I would be remiss if I failed to mention the warm atmosphere encountered everywhere.  These are dedicated people, many of whom have spent their entire careers focused on either designing, improving, or discussing the validity/applicability of wargames methodology in contexts outside of strict ‘red vs. blue’ offensives.  Did I just lose you there with the ‘red vs. blue’ reference?  You’re in good company, as one other thing I quickly learned while at Connections was that this is a world replete with its own jargon, some of which is not intuitive to a relative wargaming outsider like me.  (Red vs. Blue simply means ‘Us vs. Them’ or ‘Good Guys vs. Bad Guys’)

On the first day, I attended a lecture by Matt Caffrey on ‘Wargaming 101’, or the history of wargaming up to the present day.  I’ve done some background reading in this topic, mainly Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming and Philip von Hilgers’ War Games: A History of War on Paper, but Caffrey’s presentation was a tour-de-force of historical analysis on how wargaming developed and how each nation has a unique wargaming style that directly impacts their wartime operations.  For example, Caffrey said that the Soviets/Russians tended to wargame a single move in a simulation and then receive feedback on their move a few days later from the referees in a room with bleachers and a sand table.  This could explain, according to Caffrey, why the Soviet armies would make huge offensive moves and then ‘stall out’ during campaigns of the Second World War- quite simply, they moved only as far as they ‘gamed’.  Indeed, I would discover over the next few days that wargaming, even among the branches of the US military, serves very different purposes and is executed using very different methods and expected outcomes.

While the first day of the conference was intended to act as an icebreaker and introduce wargaming to attendees whose experience in the field was lacking, the second day of Connections kicked off the more in-depth panel presentations.  Because there were multiple presentations scattered across three rooms, I attended only a few of the total available panels.  Luckily, the day began with keynote presentations by four distinguished personalities; Erik Kjonnerod of the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, Robert Rubel, Dean of Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College, Phil Sabin, Professor at King’s College in London, and Dr. William Lademan, Director of the Wargaming Division at the USMC Warfighting Lab.  While I knew of Phil Sabin before Connections (through his work at King’s College with wargame design and also his new book Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games), Kjonnerod, Rubel, and Lademan were new to me.  Kjonnerod opened the session with a few remarks on the current budget constraints many military wargame programs face and the need for the profession to expand and make ‘connections’ with groups outside of the narrow military clique.  Both Rubel and Lademan discussed the need for wargame design to expand and model more ‘non-kinetic’ factors (read: social interactions, not just bullets flying through the air).  Lademan discussed how wargaming is a substrate for innovation, and not necessarily innovation in and of itself.  Sabin touched upon many of the arguments found in his Simulating War, such as the increasing usefulness of manual games in the classroom, the need to see wargaming as an art and not a science, and why more scholars should utilize wargaming in their own research interests.

After the keynotes, Rex Brynen explained the goals of an ambitious experiment, the ‘Connections Game Lab’, where participants would discuss what would go into a playable model on the humanitarian response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake.  I actually found this aspect of Connections to be one of the most interesting and valuable, from a relative ‘outside observer’ position, and will discuss more about this experiment further below.

After Rex finished discussing the Haitian simulation effort, the first panel presentation of the day began.  Titled ‘Needs Pull: Defense Decision Support Wargaming Today’, discussions centered on how various branches approach wargame design/purpose, in addition to guidelines wargames should follow when integrating technology into their models and how wargaming is essential for contingency planning.  I would love to discuss this panel in more depth, but honestly this was a case where I was lost in the weeds.  The military wargaming community definitely has their own jargon, acronyms and methodology towards analyzing and addressing issues of design and execution.

Presenters were discussing the workings of high level wargames and I, having never participated in such an exercise, found it difficult to grasp the finer details.  Nevertheless, I was able to grok the larger themes of each talk.

Shawn Burns, on his discussion of the various wargames employed by the US military, pointed out the diversity of design goals (educational, analytical, etc…) each service branch emphasizes in their specific implementation.  Paul Vebber and his presentation on ‘Science & Technology Decision Making in Wargames’ provided one of the best observations I took away from Connections: Simulating tells you how system ‘A’ compares to system ‘B’, while gaming explores situations where those system differences could become meaningful.  Westy Westenhoff, retired Air Force colonel, focused his presentation on how wargaming provides an effective aid to contingency planning.

After lunch, various wargame demos were on display ranging from manual (board) games to the latest in computer assisted graphical displays.  It’s probably no surprise that I headed off to the manual games demo room, and I was both happy/surprised to see a playable copy of Robert Hossal’s ‘Operation Fardh al-Qanoon‘ COIN game on display.  (I mentioned Robert’s game, at that point in ‘beta’, on a previous PtP post ‘Validating Model COINs‘)  None other than Peter Perla was giving the demo, and I could tell through his animated explanation that he was quite impressed with the work Robert produced.  In many ways, this represented the true spirit of Connections- a community branching out and bringing in new blood, new ideas, for contemplation and examination.

I spent too much time around the board games and arrived to the second set of panel presentations late.  Because cell reception at NDU was less than stellar and there was no available wi-fi (for security reasons) I wasn’t able to tweet as much as I wanted to of the panel presentations, but my late arrival facilitated grabbing a seat in the back, next to a power outlet, and I was able to get a few thoughts out using my phone.  Alan Zimm, the first presenter, talked about how wargame modeling could use more development of command & staff functions, intelligence preparation, and overall communications issues.  John Prados spent his time discussing how current wargame models fail to account for ‘blue on blue’ or ‘blue on green’ interactions.  This was another instance of jargon flying over my head, but luckily I was sitting next to Brian Train, noted game designer, who explained to me that ‘blue on blue’ meant incidents of friendly fire while ‘blue on green’ meant incidents between a main force and its supporting partners (think Coalition forces and Afghanistan forces interacting together).  Paul Vebber ended the panel by tackling the question of ‘computer gaming’ and how this medium fosters innovation.

At this point attendees were split into three groups for the ‘Connections Game Lab’ and I ended up taking notes for the second working group led by Brian Train.  As I said above, this was the most interesting session of the conference (for me) because each group contained a diverse audience that brought differing perspectives to the discussion at hand.  My group jumped right into debating the intended audience and goals of a ‘humanitarian relief’ game about Haiti.  We quickly came to the decision that our planned model wouldn’t provide a means to solve the Haitian problem- i.e. there would be no ‘correct’ way to play the game- but it should instead guide players towards understanding the minds and attitudes of other actors depicted.  After much debate on which actors could be ‘played’ and which ones could be turned into game mechanics (Haitian Government, playable.  Role of Social Networks, Private Sector- event mechanism), the group began to outline a very skeletal frame for building a future design.

At the end of the Game Lab discussion, I wandered back over to the board game demo room to check out Volko Rhunke & Brian Train’s new COIN design about the recent and ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, A Distant Plain.  It looks very promising and since I was able to score a spot on the playtest roster one could reasonably expect an updated ‘Validating Model COINs’ post from myself in the future.

Day three was when the panels put together by Matt Kirschenbaum (including PtP’s very own Anastasia Salter, Elizabeth Bonsignore, Henry Lowood and myself) presented to the Connections crowd.  I am happy to report that our two sessions were well attended and prompted great questions from the crowd.  My presentation addressed how board games and history can more meaningfully interact using ‘knowledge handoffs‘ found in both the process of game design and the final design itself.  Anastasia Salter talked about the diverse operation and construction of narrative in games by players and/or designers.  Elizabeth Bonsignore discussed Alternate Reality Games (ARG’s), demonstrating through her examination ways in which wargame design could incorporate the pedagogical methodology and mechanics found in ARG’s.

Matt and Henry comprised the second panel and their theme centered on the process behind preserving and analyzing materials created in the making of a game.  With pictures displaying some of the contents found in the Cabrinety Collection of Videgogames at Stanford University, Henry Lowood showed how wargames held a prominent place in early videogame history.  He also discussed the archiving process for other military simulations materials , like the the papers and audio recordings that reveal details behind the design and implementation of the 73 Easting sim in addition to cataloguing all the maps of Russian territory made by the German army during the Second World War.  Matt Kirschenbaum talked about the legendary computer game by Larry Bond, Harpoon.  Breaking down the means of curating this complex and multigenerational title, Matt made a convincing case for why designers should be saving their work and archiving it for future analysis.  (You can see some fruit from Matt’s work in his Rough Cuts essay, Choreographing the Dance of Vampires)

Our panel groups broke for lunch, and by the time I returned the afternoon sessions were in progress.  I snuck into the breakdown session for the ‘Connections Game Lab’ experiment in which everyone participated.  The consensus was that the Game Lab was a success, as people really enjoyed the back and forth debate between participants.  Whereas most of the conference was the standard panel to audience presentation style, the Game Lab actually let people have a more free form exchange and feel like an actual product was being produced.  From my perspective, it was interesting to see how a ‘designer’ viewpoint meshed against a ‘military’ or ‘state’ viewpoint.  This ended the third day of the conference and while the fourth day provided a recap of all that was accomplished and what could be done in the future, I ended up spending the day getting ready to head back home to the West Coast and spending time with the family friend who put me up in his house.

What were my impressions of Connections?  Even though there were moments when I felt out of my element, I can safely say that many presenters and attendees were more than happy to talk about any questions I had, or go over terminology I found unfamiliar.  But I could also understand why the organizers of Connections wanted to branch out and include more ‘academic’ panels this year- there is clearly fertile ground for cooperative learning and research amongst the wide spectrum of potential games inhabit, yet one gets the sense that the level of communication between those who design wargames for the military and those who design wargames for the market (not to mention the growing number of us who use wargames in our own research) could be better.  As one of the younger attendees, I was keenly aware of the persistent lack of wi-fi or good cellular reception as these factors made it much more difficult to ‘share’ what I was hearing with a larger audience via Twitter.  Yet portions of the conference were livestreamed and eventually there will be a depository of the accumulated power point presentations given.  One idea I would add for future conferences would be to not only livestream panels, but also audio record all presentations for future reference.  If the organizers want to reach a larger audience, then there should be a serious push to make available more media from the conference presentations.

Overall, I felt that Connections was a worthwhile and engaging trip.  I definitely look forward to going again next year.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this rich and detailed write-up Jeremy. I’m especially interested in what others on PtP think, including the “connection” between cultural heritage gaming and games (“serious,” art, tactical, recreational, or otherwise) that model current events/the global situation (what Bogost, for example, calls “newsgames”).

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