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High School Student Plays "Real World" Games in National Security Analysis

SSimkins TStright
APL mentor Scott Simpkins with student mentee Travis Stright

Anxious to move on to a world with more challenges than high school—and without homework—Travis Stright was fortunate enough to find a great opportunity. As part of an APL mentoring program for select high school students from the local area, Stright began spending after-school hours with an analyst in the Joint Advanced Systems and Concepts Group of the National Security Analysis Department (NSAD). What he found was more challenging than he had imagined. This is his account of working in “the real world.”

“So, what is it that you all…do?” I asked with great anticipation and extraordinarily high professional expectations. The answer: “We play games.” Raising my brow and faking a smile, I welcomed myself to the “real world.” However, I quickly learned that wargaming is really about modeling and simulations dealing with serious international issues.

When designing games, NSAD staff aim to model realistic scenarios in which players can interact. The ability to observe and discuss the potential effects of strategic movements makes wargaming a useful tool for training and research or platforms for discussion. My mentor taught me the basics and included me in development meetings for the Green Country Wargame (GCW) project. APL’s Independent Research and Development program funded the project, which included building a platform that integrated a playable wargame with a social model designed to simulate behavior and outcomes based on game actions. This has potential value for APL sponsors studying the political and cultural consequences of actions.

During my mentorship, I created my own wargame as a demonstration of concept. I constructed a multi-dimensional cost/benefit critical-thinking assessment wargame focused on corruption management. The game involves taking strategic actions while managing resources and time to combat multiple facets of corruption hypothetically occurring within a state. The element of time is incorporated by allowing the player to decide on the length of the game and the timing of certain actions to achieve the best results. An algorithm tracks effects over time from turn to turn and carries over effects for enhanced game control and greater realism.

In the summer, I worked full time on the GCW. To enhance the product, I researched similar game designs and proposed modifications to the mechanics. I became interested in a scaling method for generating relative wargame effects by balancing the probability and impacts of actions. Realism is a key component of any valid simulation. To reflect reality, a wargame must mirror historical trends, and the results must be judged to be plausible by experts. One of the most critical elements of realism is the effect of player actions. Carefully constructing effects is feasible and worthwhile but requires special attention.

When it comes to distributing the effects of actions, “relative” is the magic word in terms of proportionality. Impacts from actions must match the location, size, and probability of occurrence for each respective element affected. In the GCW, actions impact affinity, hubris, influence, resources, and regional characteristics. Attempting to balance realism and the interrelatedness among these elements was a daunting task. A good option is to create a master proportion control system (in a program such as Microsoft Excel) linking all results to a modifier so that all of the variables will change proportionally when the user adjusts the weight. After assigning numerous subjective variables, play-tests are essential to check for inconsistencies, desired game play, and plausibility of results.

One element of the GCW includes the option for a player to ask permission from a Non-Player Actor (NPA) to perform an action or ask an NPA to take an action for them. In determining whether permission is granted, many variables such as affinities, hubris, fear, and benefits are taken into account. This highlights the subjective political science side of wargames. Based on the order of importance of such factors, I created permission and proxy spreadsheets that automatically computed the permission probability and the NPA’s answer based on all influencing factors. The spreadsheet also made editing and validation easy because every modifier was connected to a control variable for easy adjustment of the scale. To “validate” the mechanism, I performed case studies to examine realism and adjust modifiers as needed.

Presentation and production must also be managed. Presenting players with the proper amount of information is critical. Too little or inadequately presented information confuses the player, and too much information overwhelms. Over 50 actions are available to the player in the GCW. Therefore, I provided categorized descriptions of similar actions and created a “Quick Reference Guide” that summarizes each action’s cost and main outcomes. I also worked with graphic designers to develop a map of the game board. The practical game map of Nigeria was laminated for dry-erase use, with placeholders for vital game information and removable tokens that display player status.

At the end of the summer, we gathered an APL team of players and evaluators and ran an all-day event to play through the game. This proof-of-concept event revealed ideas for improvement and possibilities for professional applications. The GCW was started as an APL independent research project, but the goal is to convert the prototype concept into a sponsored task. In a world with an exponential rate of technological and cultural interconnectedness, handling the resulting dangers will rely on our ability to understand complex relationships, which modeling and simulation will aid by promoting creativity, innovation, and insight into associations and the repercussions of our choices.

Author’s Note: My experience was exceptionally valuable because I not only learned about some of the work of APL but actively participated in it from start to finish. Working on this project enhanced my critical thinking and collaboration skills. Observing the entire process allowed me to understand that efficient development requires quality collaboration, dedication, and a leader who encourages the team to accomplish goals to produce a successful project. I want to thank Natalie Kelly, Atholton High School’s distinguished intern/mentor teacher; Connie Finney, APL’s Community Relations and Education Outreach Coordinator; and Scott Simpkins and his colleagues in NSAD’s Joint Advanced Systems and Concepts Group for providing me with this opportunity.

I highly recommend intern/mentor programs. These programs give students the opportunity to explore interests and learn about the professional world but cannot thrive without caring professionals. So reach out and help a student transition to the real world. Your advice and guidance, no matter how small, will be greatly appreciated.