Carnegie Mellon University

War games acceleration course

May 25, 2021

Russian disinformation, white supremacy, and COVID-19: Students faced them all in a war game

By Bill Brink

At the highest levels of the German government, confusion reigned.

“Why are they being so dodgy?”

“This information would have been really nice an hour ago.” 

“Maybe it’s time for sanctions already, then.” 

In came a call from Google’s Jigsaw unit, an arm of the tech giant that tracks and confronts online threats to open societies, from disinformation to violent extremism. 

“We would like any information related to misinformation by AFD domestically,” the Germans tell Jigsaw.

The student playing the Jigsaw representative considered this.

“I see. Specifically disinformation from AFD?”

And off he went to consult with his team and decide upon their next move in a war game designed to teach students how governments, the intelligence community, and international organizations make decisions with limited information and time. 

This spring, the Institute for Politics and Strategy held a micro-course called Acceleration: A Global Security War Game in the Age of Pandemic. For four days, students received briefings, news reports, and memos, and took action to address a white nationalist settlement in Indiana, the filling of a dam in Ethiopia, a new COVID-19 strain in Cairo, and COVID lockdowns in Germany. Valens Global, an international strategies and security consulting firm, produced and ran the war game.

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“In the real world, you always operate in the absence of complete information,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the founder and CEO of Valens Global. “You interact with characters who, like those we created, are very three-dimensional. They’re not just pure bad guys or good guys or corrupt.”

The Acceleration micro course, taught by Drs. Madison Schramm and Alma Keshavarz, represents one of the ways in which IPS bridges the gap between theory and practice in the study of foreign affairs. IPS curricula routinely include the study of current events – great-power competition with Russia and China, proxy conflicts in the Middle East, the intersection of terrorism and social media – and the department’s course offerings include classes like “Concepts of War and Cyber War” and “Space and National Security.” This spring, IPS also offered a mini-course on nuclear non-proliferation in cooperation with the Brookhaven National Laboratory that allowed students to play the role of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

To create a war game realistic enough to run with universities and governments, Valens Global creates characters with plausible backstories and draws from the issues of the day. They consult with Max Brooks, the author of “World War Z” and a Hollywood world builder. This particular war game included tweets from real-life terrorism scholars and media personalities, Angela Merkel hand-selecting her replacement, and the Wagner Group, a Russian proxy force, operating in Egypt.

“We had no idea you had any of this going on,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.

“Well,” said the other student, “we are Google.” 

The parties hammered out a deal: Google would work with the UNHCR to track COVID hotspots, and earn public recognition for doing so, while simultaneously and covertly providing anonymized data on migrant movements. Elsewhere, the US intelligence community tried to leak disinformation that the AFD was planning a terrorist attack and the Justice Department considered submitting an anonymous op-ed to The Washington Post by “an official close to the Attorney General.”

Gartenstein-Ross was up at 3:30 a.m. reviewing the moves submitted the previous day, and his team had the responses and new information up and running by 7. The truncated timeline made the game more challenging, but it also more closely mimicked reality.

“When you look at how they did versus how they could be expected to do, they did a phenomenal job,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “… The length of time that you’re given for any one move, how time-pressured it is, makes a big difference in terms of how well you play the game.”

The CMU students uncovered that one of the characters was working as an agent for the Russian SVR, and they managed to identify and stop an assassination plot. Despite this, they missed the full scope of Russian activities designed to sow chaos on American soil.  

“With characters that aren’t two-dimensional and with information which is often ambiguous,” Gartenstein-Ross said, “that mimics the way we reason things through in the real world.”