Connections Conference 2020 – An AAR

Armchair Dragoons Public Affairs Office, 19 August 2020

Wargaming professionals since the beginning of the pandemic have had to learn how to practice their art — or science — of designing and conducting serious games under social-distancing conditions and lock-downs. This week’s Connections Global conference was an opportunity for those experts, enthusiasts, and newcomers to virtually come together and present their ideas about the nature of wargaming, fundamentals of practice, and lessons learned over 2020.

The Connections-series of wargaming conferences was founded by Lt. Col Matt Caffrey, who as a Research Associate for Wargaming at the Air Command and Staff College’s (ACSC) School for Advanced Air Power Studies (SAAS) in 1993 as a forum for wargaming professionals to develop best practices for the field. This year’s event, sponsored by CNA, is somewhat different than the Connections US that has been traditionally held during this time of year. In a year without pandemic-induced social distancing and travel restrictions, other Connections wargaming conferences would take place in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Oz (Australia), and Canada. While some of those may still be in the offing, Connections Global featured attendees from the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, Japan, Indonesia, Australia and others.

This asymmetry between us and others on ROE for AI systems is the actual thing that matters – it is how we will be always behind the power curve on autonomous systems.
— chat comment

The theme of this year’s Connections Global focused on the emerging role of artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential opportunities and drawbacks for wargaming. Of the more than 50 presentations and panels during the conference, at least five discussions and a working group specifically focused on the issue and each of the key notes offered their perspectives.  The chat windows of the different presentations were equally enjoyable, with nuggets such as Dr Yuna Wong sharing a link to this paper from 1983, discussing how the US Army was looking to the future of robotics & AI at the time.

The conference broke out into two different rooms, each with separate chats that would refresh/clear (for you) each time you left the room. In addition to the fantastic key notes by Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, Professor Phil Sabin (formerly of King’s College London and now happily retired to South America with all of his wargames), Col. Brad Boyd (not related to THAT Boyd), and Major Tom Mouat (British Army).

Under the guise of being “flexible,” we too often rely on SMEs/adjudicators to plug the holes in an otherwise shaky or incomplete game design. While you may not be able to anticipate everything, the game shouldn’t turn into a Night at the Improv.
— chat comment

Other truly notable presentations included:

  • Dr. Ed McGrady on adjudication (cliff notes: US subs are awesome)
  • a panel led by Georgetown University’s Prof Sebastian Bae on wargaming within the university setting
  • Peter Pellegrino’s presentations on pandemic gaming and a taxonomy for distributed gaming
  • Sale Lily’s discussion of wargaming in the private financial sector offered insights into an area that we rarely hear about.
  • CNA’s Sawyer Judge gave an outstanding discussion of the “wargaming guild” (which Rex Brynen discusses on his PAXSims blog) and Marc Gacy gave a thoughtful presentation on conscious and unconscious bias in gaming.

The organizers intend to have the slides posted on their site and each of the sessions was recorded for eventual placement on YouTube.

There were a few underlying threads that were likely unintentional, but nonetheless were noticeable across multiple presentations.

First, there were any number of attempts to define and scope the limits of the various terms, from the ever-present “what is a wargame?” to “what counts as an AI?”  When describing future technologies, or game theory, or the definitions of “adjudicator” vs “referee”, there was inevitably a near-argument that would break out in the chat windows. What was obvious from these interactions is that many of these definitions were very good about capturing the center-of-mass of the intent of the user, but the further from the center-of-mass exemplar one got, the ‘squishier’ the definition would get.  It was not unlike watching someone try to define “the media”: it’s easy to put TV, magazines, newspapers, and radio at the center of the target, but would inevitably start to struggle once you got to greeting cards, homemade mixtapes, board games, or Skype.  Arguing over definitions might seem unnecessarily pedantic until it’s time to put very detailed and specific expectations, limitations, and outcomes in front of sponsors intending to sink millions of dollars into specific courses of action based on your outcomes.

instead of thinking that other actors will behave “rationally” according to our own assessments, we don’t think of what’s “rational” to them
— chat comment

Second, the idea of AI acting as an ‘independent thinker’ was a common thread, as would be expected at a conference that was focused on AI throughout.  One of the constant refrains was the idea of trying to get the AI to act “rationally” or within some nebulous expectations that would approximate human behavior.  However, as several audience questions and comments pointed out, the cultural “lens” through which the AI was programmed to act was of enormous – and undervalued – importance. What is considered “rational” or “normal” or “expected” to one culture might be evaluated very differently by another culture.  How an AI might evaluate varying courses of action available to different actors within a wargame could be dramatically impacted by the cultural assumptions built into the menu of options available to the AI.
Connex-web
Neither of these points were front-and-center among any of the presentations, but both of them popped up throughout the week in the audience chat or in the Q&A sessions.

As fascinating as the individual presentations were, maybe the most important part of Connections Global was the opportunity for new and experienced gamers to “connect”, interact, share ideas, and form plans for further collaboration after the conference. An in-person Connections event usually features at least one or two social events (the Connections UK 2019 event was fittingly sited at a nautically-themed pub off Trafalgar Square) and Connections Global had “formal” and informal social events organized through Discord and other venues.  Dr. Yuna Wong organized two meetings to discuss her Women’s Wargaming Network initiative that allowed some guided discussion on diversity and inclusion in the community. By the end of the week the Conference’s Discord server was robust and multiple side rooms had been stood up.

Contributors to this report included BB, MT, & AS. 

 

Armchair Dragoons also reached out to the audience as a whole for their feedback and thoughts, and here are what some participants had to say:

Connections 2020 was a fantastic opportunity to gain insight into the issues and challenges facing the wargaming community, as well as an opportunity to gain exposure to different forms of wargames. In the past, I have played and hosted National Security Decision Making seminar wargames – Jim Sterrett’s hosting the after hours tabletop wargames and the opportunity for “hands on” experience with those other types of wargames was my favorite part of the conference.

I would consider adding more sessions/discussion to address the sponsor/proposal development side of the wargaming cycle, and considering other resources for individuals who are interested in incorporating the methodology but not necessarily hosting a game themselves.

As expected and appropriate, there were highlight sessions focused on improving the wargaming discipline – incorporating AI/ML to drive additional insights, relationship with simulationists, ensuring the craft weathers through the wicked list of injects control has drawn up for C.E. 2020, and even a heated discussion over wargaming art/science.

But part of why I attended the conference was as a potential sponsor, with a pot of money and a compelling research interest in hosting a game, who got “stuck” finalizing a design proposal that was sufficient to convince skeptical higher leadership to host a game. I would consider adding more sessions/discussion to address the sponsor/proposal development side of the wargaming cycle, and considering other resources for individuals who are interested in incorporating the methodology but not necessarily hosting a game themselves. All that being said, I appreciated the Connections 2020 team making the effort to deliver a fantastic conference online and would like to attend and/or support future conferences.

—  Jud Crane


As a newcomer, only expecting to listen to talks about TRADOC related fields, I was blown away by the level of detail that the SMEs went into in their keynotes about various different fields making me want to learn more about their area of expertise.

Promoting the Derby House Rules was helpful in trying to stem some of the negative assumptions of wargaming related to discrimination by promoting inclusivity through sensitivity and informing people about discrimination. The online nature of this year’s connection was really helpful to  getting more people into this event so a suggestion for the future would be to record the speakers like CSIS did for 2017.  I found the lecture on the basics of wargaming really helpful for understanding the rest of the conference’s speakers by giving a background for me to understand wargaming in the military usage.

—  Thomas Dudley


What went well – good mix of presentations, speakers and keynotes; good format and timings for the events and strong interactions in chat windows. Some tasteful humour as well.

What could be better – I wish we had more women presenters and at least one female keynote in order to normalize diversity rather than just talk about it or consider it.

The icebreaker on day one seemed to be dominated by a group of old friends telling war and personal stories.  This detracted from the ability to create & explore discussions, involve everyone, introduce new participants and broaden engagement. Of note was the lack of affirmative action during the ice breaker when some felt the subject was not entirely appropriate – regardless of one’s perspective, the response should have been “this is an uncomfortable subject let’s move on” rather than trying to justify any perspective held.  I wish I could have had some interaction in more than one working group and on more than one occasion. It was not clear if the working groups were open to participation throughout the conf or only on Thursday afternoon. I also wish the slides were available before the presentations so that I could review them prior and select which talk to attend or be able to focus on specific material for which I had input or questions.

Biggest takeaway – Ai is very ‘squishy’ There are so many perspectives, definitions, interpretations, experiences etc that IT cannot be uniformly be debated in terms of its applicability to wargaming. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of all other fields however the conference could have benefited by proposing upfront a/one perspective from which we could all then orient upon

— David Connell


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Connections Conference 2020 – An AAR

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