We gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of a showdown that brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. In November 2022, University of Leicester students, staff and guest experts gathered to simulate the Cuban Missile Crisis. Borne from the team’s sheer interest, this extra-curricular event had two goals: 1) to gain new perspectives on the historic crisis; and 2) to kindle interest in conflict simulation amongst a new generation.
A simulation cannot hope to replicate every aspect – some variables necessarily loom larger in the design construct than others. For our game, we emphasised the limitations of communications technology in 1962. This meant that players could only talk in person if they arranged meetings, with appropriate delays added for travel or bureaucratic wrangling. Otherwise, players were reliant on telegrams (and telephone calls, but security fears kept teams from using the phone on the day) – readers will recall that the Washington-Moscow hotline was not established until after the crisis.
Beyond communications technology, we structured the game with a full-fledged Cuba team, reflecting recent literature that revealed the heavy influence of Castro’s government in shaping the crisis. For the curious, the result of our simulation was a sort of limited Cuban “victory.” The Cuban team successfully played the superpowers off against each other to finish 1962 with newfound prestige and independence.
In our post-game discussion, however, our participants were convinced that Cuba could not have maintained this fragile “win” for long into 1963 or 1964 because of the irreparable damage to Cuba’s trustworthiness enacted by its double-dealing. Our game managers were especially pleased to see emergent gameplay dynamics. That is, politically credible choices and knock-on effects that were not directly due to the game mechanics, but rather from the interaction of players with one another (within the scenario’s restraints). We saw aspects of nuclear deterrence and risk management in player decisions, who tended to assume the worst-case scenario would be the result of their own provocative responses.
A broader question for anyone in the conflict simulation community is whether nuclear politics can be usefully simulated at all. In reality, players know that in the game the fate of their loved ones, fellow citizens or country is not actually resting in their hands. The weapons themselves can be difficult to manage under a crisis scenario, so the game designers’ decisions on how (or whether) to simulate these aspects powerfully and subtly also shape the game result. Nevertheless, the emotional engagement that a game can provide through immersion did capture a convincing sense of the historical crisis as relayed in the literature.
Regarding our objective of drawing in a new generation of crisis and war gamers, we polled our participants and found that they had a new sense of confidence in creating simulations for themselves. Our academic faculty now has a core group of simulation-savvy students eager for the next step, and those of us at the Third Nuclear Age project will be continuing to do our part to support the next generation of experts and practitioners.