What is the NSDM Game? An Interview with Capt. Mark McDonagh

Captain Mark McDonagh, USN/Ret. is a 30-year veteran of the US Navy. A qualified submarine officer with 12 years’ experience between the Naval War College and Navy Warfare Development Command, Captain McDonagh is a co-founder of the National Security Decision Making Game, Inc., a non-profit educational organization established to apply professional-grade, modeled games and simulation.

Daily Dragon (DD): Did being submarine officer help you develop the NSDM game?

Mark McDonagh (MM): Yes, it helped a lot, but I also spent several years at the Naval War College and it’s more based on the things done there such as seminar gaming and free-form gaming. It’s more about getting people away from the telephones and getting people of different areas of expertise so they can start talking about a core. They may get together in a month to deal with a crisis, but today they’re worrying about getting their ship ready to go to sea or getting a group of people trained. When the stuff hits the fan, it’s a little too late to start thinking about the longer term stuff. To me, that’s the value of the war games—putting people into those situations, but have them thinking about it now, so they can come out with their lessons learned, come up with their processes and procedures, procure equipment they didn’t know they needed before, etc. My background as a submariner got me into the door, my brother is on staff at the Naval War College, and I came in both as active and reserve capacities for a week here and there for various things. Together we came up with this as a civilian version of those games.

DD: Why is this important for non-military people?

MM: For one thing, I think we try to stay away from issues that are boring, but we like to think that people come away from our games with a better understanding of the conditions and hot spots around the world. We will, for example, put together a game with an Iranian cell, a US cell and an Israeli cell. This includes putting people into the Iranian cell with motivations to push their nuclear weapons program at some level. People in the Israeli cell were given roles to see how they felt about that. Some people come in knowing all about it. They’re well read, and are up to date on all the issues. Other people come in and the first thing they have to do is look to see “Where is …oh, that’s where Iran is! And that’s where Israel is!” If they understand the news reports coming out of the game better than they did going in, then I think we’ve achieved something. Primarily though, we want to entertain, and who doesn’t like a good war? The audience seems to react better to crisis scenarios.

Our first debut was at Dragon Con in 1990 and that point, Saddam Hussein was getting ready to invade Kuwait. It started to take off from there. The excitement the Iraq war brought helped fuel our early years. The first game we had was “The world as we know it… You guys are the US. You are the Soviet Union,” because in 1990, there was still a Soviet Union. Though, nobody predicted there’d no longer be a Soviet Union in 6 months.

Teaching geography, teaching the nature of these crises, teaching who the power bases are, and who is fighting for what within a cell, and teaching something about the internal structure and decision-making process that will bring another country either to negotiate or to combat is important. These are things I think we can teach something about. There’s no way to simulate a nation of 80 million people with a room of 20. This creates some limitations. For example, we can’t simulate an Adolf Hitler—someone with that much of a grasp of how to move and sway people, to better or for worse. We’ve talked about trying to put together a 1930’s game, but decided against it, because we’d have to put a motivation into someone’s hands that would be horrifically anti-Semitic. We can understand doing so for academic reasons, but it’s unlikely that a player would be able to portray that effectively. The issue would be either too sensitive, or too brittle, which would degrade the game over all. We have to avoid things like that.

We demonstrated a game with military facilities where a group wanted to see us do it because they didn’t know how we handled the dynamic gaming. In a military game, everything is laid out. In a week, this is where you are on Day 1, this is where you are on Day 2, etc. and if the players want to do something off-road, you pretty much have to drag them back because you have months of preparatory material to prep them on the next day. With us, players would get disgusted if we tried to drag them away from the action they’ve chosen. So we have to be ready to move in a bunch of different directions. In a lot of games we have an idea of where we want to take them, but if players are marching off in some other way we have to be ready to accommodate them.

DD: What are the basics of the game?

MM: The basics of the game are that we put together a national structure of a real-world nation. We have our Contemporary game, we have a Cold War game, we have a few ’60s crisis-model game such as the Cuban Missile Crises, we have a US secession crisis leading up to the Civil War, and we have a 1914 “The Games of August” preparatory game leading up to World War 1. But our primary game is our Contemporary game.

We take a block of people, say 15 to 20, and say “You are the US cell”. We designate different political factions, and they’ll either be President of the United States or take Cabinet positions. We’ll designate a military structure—“You’re Chief of Naval Operations. You’ll be the Commandant of the Marine Corps. You’ll be Air Force Chief of Staff, you the Army Chief of Staff, and most likely the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” They’ll have a policy and budget sheet they fill out detailing who gets what money, who loses money, where policy is and how it shifts. Everyone has an agenda, a motivation, saying, “This is what you’re fighting for, and this is what you believe in, now try to move policy and money in your direction.” They’ll be in one room, with their structure and game running, and in another room we’ll stand up another nation, Chile, China, with another structure. “You guys are the Communist Party, you are the Ministry of State Security, you are the People’s Liberation Army, you’re Hong Kong entrepreneurs, you’re secessionists,” and they’ll go through their own process, structured after how a Communist system does things and modified as much as best we can to how the Chinese have their hybridized system running. We tell them, “This is how your economy has grown in previous years. This is how much money you have to spend. How do you want to direct that?” We get the people to try to make deals and push their initiatives and agendas. So, that’s essentially two games running in parallel, the US and the Chinese. Then we’re sitting here outside the cells, running between the two, trying to make them believe they’re on the same world. What happens in China affects America, what happens in America, affects China. The Secretary of State and the Foreign Minister will talk about how things here affect things there. That’s a third game that’s over-arching the first two games.

We’ve had five cells, but those are rare, as they take 80 to 90 people. We’re unlikely to have that here, as we’re running in two rooms, and we have a limited staff. At another Con, we had an 84-person and an 86-person game running. These were the two largest games we’ve yet run. We queued up four large cells, and we had, I think, about 14 people – staff – running back and forth. We used procedures we’d had on the books for years, but had never needed because we’d never had that size game before. The more cells we have, the more nations we can queue up, the more interesting it gets. There’s a higher player-on-player interaction. As the game goes in, the player learns that the Democratic Party of Japan and the National Party of Japan aren’t that different from the Democrats and Republicans. It helps teach people about different party bodies and party politics, and it broadens their perspective.

We’ve also run this at universities in the History and Political Science departments, and they enjoy it.

DD: How do players handle things like communist structures being different from democratic ones? Do you let people play them however they like?

MM: There are definitely different power bases, and we do factor that in. In China, we usually put together a triad between the Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, and the Ministry of State Security, what the Soviet’s used to call the KGB. We try to keep it one-person-one-vote, and to keep the number an odd one so there’s never a lock up. Each of them will fight to see who will become the elected representative of the Politburo. The Politburo is one person from each of the branches, plus a general secretary and an ideologue. Amongst them, they’ll then fight to see who replaces one of the top two positions. You can climb your way to the top, but it’s within a communist structure. The non-government actors of the country, the entrepreneurs, the people driving the Chinese economy, will have their own means of exerting power, helping people within the party structure for their own ends. The push and shove between the private sector and the government comes out in that. It’s due for an overhaul. Over the last couple years, we overhauled the Russian cell, established a new Saudi Arabian cell, and two new Israeli cells for our Cold War game and our Contemporary game. We’ve been looking at what’s stale, what needs to be upgraded and changed. We have a staff of about 10 contributors that feed something in now and then, who are distributed from Ottawa to Dallas. I’ll get to see some of them here at Dragon Con. Normally we communicate over email or Skype; I only get to actually see them here. It’s a very distributed project.

DD: When you’re playing with the War College or with people who are experts on the geopolitical issues, do you find a vast difference between them and those who play for the entertainment value?

MM: Yes. For one thing, here we need to be more basic in our presentations, less nuanced. We put on a few games as a Marine Corps Intelligence activity. The first one went over very nicely. The second one didn’t. They were different crowds. In the first game we had the mid- and low-level analysts, and they were happy to believe and do what I told them to. The second was for the more upper-tier management people, and they pushed back more. We normally have an avid gamer run each cell to help keep things moving along and we should have reversed it for that game, and put our more advanced people in there, just to add more credibility.

This, here at Dragon Con, is as whacky as we get. We don’t have a fantasy/science fiction genre. Instead, we’re going to change 2 current games. We’re going to take the Cold War game, 1962, and we’re going to let technology develop in a way that it didn’t, historically; things that looked promising in 1962, but didn’t pan out. We’re going to reset the random number generators and let them see where they go. A few years ago, we changed it so that in 1962, the Soviets had a report of a crashed satellite. The Soviets would have loved to get their hands on an American satellite back then. It turns out, however, to be a Nazi orbital plane that’s dropped out of orbit after 17 years. A plane that no one ever knew about. The crew’s dead inside, mummified from years in space—that’s the sort of thing we’re going to try here.

At a university we’d normally do something like we did a few years ago, and simulate an Ebola outbreak. Most of the kids who played that game would probably have more of a feel for what Ebola would do, as has been reported recently.

DD: What about something more radical, say, a Starfleet Federation versus the Klingons?

MM: We’ve considered that, and we’ve had a lot of fun with it. We’re going to have something similar to that; it’s going to have some Star Trek themes, say, a first contact scenario. We’ve talked about making a variation of the geopolitical game applicable to Star Trek, but we’re really not Trekkies and the second people walk in, they’re going to star tearing us apart as soon as we open our mouths. That’s one of the reasons we’re reluctant to do that. We’re much more at home looking at the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, because we’ve got people on staff who could 100 percent take on anyone who walked in the door. Anyone who walked in the door who knew more than we did, we’d be perfectly willing to sit down and say “Let’s talk this out and figure out what the truth is.” We don’t want to have to deal with someone saying “Well, that’s not what the Star Trek Compendium said!”

DD: How do our Dragon Con players rank against other Con players?

MM: They’re a little more interested in the technology aspects. There are a lot of transplants from other cons to here, so it’s often the same type of game. However, since the science fiction games we ran here went over so well here last year, we’re considering expanding it to other cons. We still have to make a decision about that. The other conventions are primarily gaming conventions, so that plays in. In general, it’s much the same audience. The people here have better, wackier, costumes, though.

DD: What made you have the first NSDMG at Dragon Con in 1990?

MM: In 1990, I was in graduate school. My brother was on the staff of the War Game department at the Naval War College. Dan is considered the “father” of the NSDM game. At the time, the Origins convention was the national gaming convention. The Origins moved around from city to city, piggybacking on another convention. That convention became the That/Origins convention for the year. In 1990, the convention that was piggybacked was Dragon Con. My brother was approached by a man, who was an active gamer and is still a vendor, about putting together a war college lecture series, and trying to bring in professional speakers from the various War Colleges. My brother said “I’d like to try put on a demonstration game to show what sort of games we run at the War College.” So he modeled and put together one, and it was extremely successful, and it started to run from that point on. So, to answer your question, we got invited in to put together war college lectures and the game developed from there.

DD: What has been your best experience here at Dragon Con?

MM: These Friday morning lectures are exciting. Dragon Con said we’d get 3 years here to see if we could get a following. This is the third year. We’ll see if our numbers are good enough.

I’m sort of a natural introvert, but I get a thrill when I get up in front of a crowd when I know my topic and I’m comfortable with it. First thing I do when I do something is get a bunch of books. When I’ve read these and I can start integrating them, I know I can talk about it. So, two years ago, we’re going to back at Dragon Con. We know it is science fiction-y, lots of technology and science. I’d been wanting to talk about electro-magnetic pulses, EMPs. I decided I’d take the opportunity, so I read a bunch of books, and I got back up to speed on it and made a lecture for it. I was a little nervous, so I scheduled myself for the first hour of the first day. I figured I’d have 7 people, 8 people. 74 people showed up. They were sitting on the floor, trying to haul in chairs. I was thinking “Oh my gosh! What happened here??” We did a split track where I was talking on this contemporary topic while my colleague was talking on a historical topic in another room. Mine was the peak number, but we were still in the 50s and 60s all morning in each of the tracks, and we were excited about that. Saturday was a little low, but Sunday peaked again. We tried to figure out why we’d done so well on the Friday. Was it the topic? Was it that I was a retired naval captain with 12 years’ experience at the war college, who had a Masters in physics and who was able to separate fact from fiction in this thing that’s become something of a boogeyman in contemporary science fiction? We decided that whatever it was, we’d do it again. I said last year that I’d talk about nuclear reactor disasters because the Navy considers me to be a nuclear submarine engineer and I could talk about nuclear reactors after a little bit of brush-up, and we were in here, and 98 people showed up. So, whatever it was, it worked. To me, that’s my best experience – seeing so many people show up to hear me speak on a topic I’m comfortable with. For me, that’s sort of a shot in the arm.

DD: What does the future hold for the NSDM game?

MM: This year, we’re excited about the size of the games we’ve been able to run. We’ve been able to run larger and large games and they become much more interesting. We’re gearing up to run larger games in the following year. I’d like to see us run more of those. We’ve only got half the staff here we do elsewhere, so we’re also looking to streamline communications.

We’re going to be watching how the US national policy changes over the coming year, as we want to explore that. We’ve just revised Russia and Iran, we have a new Israeli cell that we’re going to be incorporating, and we’re looking at revising the British cell. Whatever direction the US policy will take, we’ll know more about the Iranian nuclear deal by then, and we’ll see how we’ll go as we keep ourselves updated. So, revising cells, updating science fiction themes and developing and refining our techniques for running large games.

DD: Thank you for your time!



Author of the article

After a lifetime of science fiction and fantasy influences, the last twenty of which have been spent in IT, Geoff Termorshuizen is applying for his Ph.D. in Strategic Security after finishing a B.A in Political Science and M.Sc.'s in Cyber Security and MIS. He currently works as a technical consultant for ACI Worldwide, supporting security and financial payment systems. You can find him at Con either at the the DailyDragon room, or via the EFF track where he has presented panels on digital forensics, privacy, cyberwar, surveillance and technology related politics.