Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Realism, Playability And Games In The Intelligence Classroom

A couple of weeks ago, I made a print-and-play version of my new game about collection management, Spymaster, available to anyone who reads this blog and would drop me an email (The offer is still open, by the way, in case you missed it the first time).

Since then, I have mailed out over 100 copies to everyone from the DNI's office to troops deployed in Afghanistan to academics in Japan to the Norwegian police forces!

Feedback is starting to trickle in and the comments have been largely positive (whew!) even from some very experienced collection managers (Thanks!).  In addition, I have received a number of outstanding suggestions for enhancing or improving the game.  Some of these include:

  • Making different collection assets work better or worse against different information requirements.
  • Increasing the point value of information requirements collected early.
  • Making some of the OSINT cards "Burn - 0" or impossible to burn.
  • Giving players a budget and assigning dollar values to each collection asset such that players had to stay within their budget as well.

I recognize that these suggestions may not make much sense if you haven't played the game but all of them (plus many more) are fantastic ideas designed to make the game more real.  And therein lies the rub...

One of the classic problems of games designed to simulate some aspect of the real world is the trade-off between realism and playability.  Playability is really just how easy it is to play the game.  Every time you add a new rule to make the game more realistic, you make the game more difficult to play and therefore less playable.  Its not quite as simple as that but it gives you a good idea of how the problem manifests itself.  Great games designed to simulate reality often give a strong sense of realism while remaining relatively simple but the truth of it is, like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the more you try to do one, the less, typically, you are able to do the other.

The problem of playability versus realism is analogous to the problem of feature creep in project management.  Most people have been involved in a project that started out simple but, over time, grew incredibly complex as more and more "good ideas" were added.  Each idea, in and of itself, was justifiable but, in the end, led to an unwieldy mess.

Figuring out where to draw the line is just as important in game design as it is in project management.  This constraint is even more strict when considering the modern intelligence classroom.  Here, unless the course is entitled "collection management", there is likely a highly limited amount of time to devote to a game on collection management.  

Consider the case of Spymaster.  I wanted a game which would replace a one-hour lecture on collection management for our intro classes.  To make this work, I would need to be able to set-up the game, explain the rules, play the game and then conduct an outbrief all within an hour.  That's pretty tough to do (at least for me) and still make the game meet your learning objectives.  It becomes a very careful balance of putting good ideas into the game while not running out of time to play the game in class.

The classic solution to this problem is to have a basic version and an advanced version (or several advanced versions).  These can be included in the rules from the outset or added later as expansion packs.  Right now, this is exactly what I am doing with all of the feedback I am receiving - scouring it for good ideas I want to put into more advanced versions of Spymaster!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Spymaster - Test My New Card Game About Collection Management!

Last year I was struggling with how to make the classroom discussion of collection management (you know... the allocation of collection assets such as spies and satellites in order to gather required information in a timely manner) more interesting.

Couldn't do it.  

Even people who find the job enormously gratifying (and there are many), seem to have a hard time explaining why they like it so much.  

So...I decided to make a game out of it.

I call the game Spymaster and I have been using it in classes and playing it in my weekly Game Lab for most of the last year.  It seems to work really well both as a game and as a tool for making the challenges of collection management more real to students and young intel professionals.

It plays fast - in about 15 minutes - and is a cooperative game.  For those of you unfamiliar with this term, a cooperative game is one where all the players are on the same side trying to beat the game.  If you have ever played the board games Pandemic or Forbidden Island, you have played a cooperative game).  You can even play it solitaire but I have found it works best with 4-5 players and works really well in a classroom.

I have spent the last week or so cleaning up the game and making it look pretty and writing down the rules and a brief tutorial.  Now I am looking for people who would like to take this "beta" version out for a spin.

If you are interested in receiving a print-and-play version of the game on the condition that you give me some feedback, drop me a line at kwheaton@mercyhurst.edu. If you just want to follow along as I develop the game, check out the Spymaster Facebook Page.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Reviewers Needed For The Visual Analytics Science And Technology (VAST) 2014 Challenge!

The Visual Analytics Community and their member organizations (including the Department of Homeland Security, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency), in coordination with the IEEE, sponsors a visual analytics challenge each year at the IEEE conference for students and researchers.  
In order to judge the output from the participants, the challenge organizers asks for analysts to participate as reviewers of the submissions.  Kris Cook, who is on the contest committee, has asked me to put the word out that the contest needs reviewers for this year’s challenge.  
This is an unpaid, all volunteer effort to assist a non-profit sponsored contest.  Kris’ note to me is reproduced below with additional links.  If you are interested in participating or have any additional questions, please contact her directly.  
For what it is worth, taking a look at the VAST entries is a very interesting and rewarding way to learn what is happening in the world of visual analytics.
Begin text of note:
We invite you to be a reviewer for this year’s IEEE Visual Analytics Science and Technology (VAST) Challenge.  The VAST Challenge poses interesting problems that contestants solve using visualization-based software tools that support analysis of complex data sets.
We are soliciting reviewers for three mini-challenges and a grand challenge this year. 
  • Mini-Challenge 1 challenges participants to identify the current organization of a fictitious terrorist organization and how that organization has changed over time, as well as to characterize the events surrounding the disappearance of multiple people.  Participants will use visual analytics to analyze the specified data.
  • Mini-Challenge 2 challenges participants to describe the daily routines of employees of a fictitious company and to identify suspicious behaviors. This task focuses on the analysis of movement and tracking data and is thus primarily a spatiotemporal challenge.
  • Mini-Challenge 3 challenges participants to identify a timeline of significant events in a fictitious city and identify important participants, locations, and durations by monitoring real-time data feeds. This task poses a streaming analysis challenge.
  • The Grand Challenge asks participants to synthesize the discoveries made across the three mini-challenges to form a high level description of the entire scenario. This task focuses on the identification of who disappeared, who was responsible, and the underlying motivations. Significant information gaps will also be addressed by the participants.
More specific information about the tasks may be found at http://vacommunity.org/VASTChallenge2014.

As a reviewer you will be responsible for reading 3-4 submissions and providing written feedback for the committee and the submitters. Each submission consists of an entry form describing the submitter’s software, their technical approach, and their answers to the mini-challenge questions, as well as a short video showing an example of the analytic processes used by the submitters. 
This year, the reviewing period is as follows:  Entries will be available for review by July 12.  Your reviews will be due by July 28.
All review materials will be accessible over the internet. Reviews will be conducted using the Precision Conference web-based reviewing system. Reviewers will be registered in the Precision Conference system and will submit their reviews using Precision Conference web pages.
If you are interested in reviewing please respond to vast_challenge@ieeevis.org no later than July 1.  Please indicate which mini-challenges you would be most interested in reviewing and how many entries you are willing to review. 
Thank you for your time and consideration!
VAST Challenge Committee

Kris Cook, Georges Grinstein, and Mark Whiting, co-chairs

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Visa-free Access: Who Has The Best Passport?

Having to get a visa is a hassle - just ask anyone who has gone through the process.  Likewise, being able to travel into and out of countries without a visa is a real benefit.  Who then, has the "best" passport?  Which country offers its citizens the most possibilities for visa-free travel?  The answers, in the infographic below (from Movehub), are interesting (H/T to Jeremy!):

World Passport Power

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New Version Of "How To Get A Job In Intelligence" In the Works And I Could Use Some Help...

A few years ago, I published a series of posts called "How To Get A Job In Intelligence".  It was, without a
doubt, one of the most popular series I have ever written.

Well, I am about to put out an updated version of that series as an e-book on Kindle.

I have been working with my research assistant, McKenzie Rowland, for the better part of three months to update the info and improve the advice (more articles, more links, more hints and tips, more inside info) and I am getting close to launch.

But I could use your help.

I am looking for feedback from people who found some use in the original series.  If you read the original series and found it helpful or informative, I would appreciate it if you would drop me a line:  kwheaton at mercyhurst dot edu.  I would like to talk to you about what worked for you and what did not.  

Thanks!