I recently had the pleasure of attending the “Smart Tools for Smart Power” event at USIP. This was an all day event on virtual worlds and simulations used for peacebuilding. Altogether I thought the event was really interesting and informative, touching on quite a few of the areas we try to touch on in our ongoing conversation here. As promised in an earlier post, following are a few more reflections on the event.
Keynote: The event was opened by an invigorating speech/advertisement for the Obama administration by Beth Noveck, US Deputy Chief of Technology. Early on, Beth invoked World of Warcraft a few times earning cred with those in attendance and demonstrating that Things in the White House had Changed. More importantly, she brought up a few more salient points about virtual worlds and simulations that would resonate with the rest of the days conversation, making for a particularly relevant keynote speech (uncommon in DC). In discussing virtual worlds, Beth mentioned the importance of the avatar as a learning tool – citing research that when you “see yourself reflected back, it changes behavior.” This is definitely a topic worth exploring farther – along with other elements associated with virtual worlds and avatars raised below. I am still a little wary of officials invoking the use of simulations for “national priorities” and the day often blurred the boundaries between military simulations and “peacebuilding”, but I definitely believe it is progress to have these conversations with administration officials and military professionals.
The rest of the day consisted of nine presentations on various platforms/innovations/simulations. Time permitting I’ll return to the topics below, but here are some brief thoughts on each:
SENSE Simulation: Developed by IDA – this is the same simulation taught by USIP (thought the acronym stands for something different). I’ve observed this simulation in action and this was an nice overview. The simulation itself is a massive 40 to 60+ person economic simulation of a small economy, accomodating government, international and private sector players. It is supposed to be a post-conflict simulation, thought it is really a macroeconomic simulation and my “sense” of it (sorry, couldn’t resist) is that the “post-conflict” element is really brought by the participants and their interactions outside of the economic model. It is not clear how much of the grievance, post-conflict distrust and limited space for credible commitments the simulation brings in. There is very little, if any, of the missing data/fog of post-conflict reality included – participants can click on a variety of reports for real time information on education, health and the environment. There are some new, interesting developments – the SENSE folks are introducing hooks with corruption and some regional elements in the new version, the kind of elements that really make post-conflict development messy – this is a small step in the right direction in my opinion.
Virtual Worlds Labs: The next presentation was an introduction to Lockheed Martin’s Virtual Environments and Virtual Worlds Labs. The presentation included a little tour of the Mall in Washington DC – nearly photorealistic and explorable with avatars. Someone in the environment was shooting a gun of some sort, which prompted the requisite jokes about realism in a DC simulation. Notwithstanding the missing trees (which are what really make the Mall lovely), the photorealistic environment demonstrated the difference between a mirror world and a virtual world. A nice discussion followed on the usefulness of such environments: sure they are beautiful and they can provide interesting meeting spaces, but how can these be useful for peacebuilding policy or training? We returned to this question throughout the day and expect we will for some time.
ICONS: On the other end of the “tech” spectrum is a mostly text based interface called ICONS program at University of Maryland, which can accomodate multiple users taking on roles in pre-scripted simulations. The ICONS platform is probably closest to the type of simulation that Rex and I both run – a loose framework simulations which involve a lot of role-playing and can accomodate innovative problem solving and improvisation, mostly designed to introduce participants to a particular environment, teach them about different perspectives of actors in these environments and let them get their hands dirty in an environment where real people won’t get hurt. The ICONS platform has been around for over 20 years and they have a lot of experience in house developing and running simulations.
A Force (Even) More Powerful: We had a very interesting presentation from the documentarian Steve York who made a Force More Powerful, the documentary and Ivan Marovic, the designer of AFMP, the game. Most of the presentation was about their new project, a sequel with a different name, about non-violent resistance. My review of AFMP was less than glowing and so I was looking forward to hearing what would be new in the next version. Three new innovations are intriguing, including 1) a scenario builder; 2) an option for violent resistance through an expansion and 3) the option to play The Regime (figure out how to put down peaceful resistance – demonstrating how difficult truly peaceful opposition can be to suppress). They are beginning beta testing right now, ( for only two months), I hope this will be an open process with lots of feedback from gamers and that the designers will be listening to their playtesters this time – I would love to see a really playable, interesting game on nonviolent resistance come out of this shop.
Second Life: No discussion of virtual worlds and simulations would be complete without visiting Linden Labs’ Second Life. We had an interesting, though, honestly, slightly tedious show and tell marred by slow connectivity from the government accounts manager (liason/ambassador?), Scott Sechser, who demonstrated the use of avatars, books, pictures and meeting spaces in the virtual world. He glossed over what might have been the most useful component of Second Life – real time text translation – while describing a visit to the Yamamoto replica. I wish we knew more about how this translation worked and is used in Second Life.
Army War Colleges Simulation: I was green with envy when Colonel Philip Evans described his yearly schedule of simulations and training at the Army War College. This guy has a staff of (yes, he said, “only”!) 9 people devoted to simulation development, the budget to run simulations for 350 students in 7 simulations a year – he flies in senators and aides to play parts, videoconferences when he can’t get people in role in person and has video teams making mock news shows for him in real time. The presentation was fascinating because the Army, like ICONS, has been doing this stuff for 20 years and they are still doing role-playing simulations in real time, teaching people how to problem-solve in complex environments with other human actors. I think this confirms my perspective on the integration of technology in teaching: I don’t doubt that we will someday be able to create holodecks (see the discussion on USIP’s open sim platform below) – but I think they will only be useful for training if we program interesting and compelling simulations that can respond to improvisation and problem-solving.
IBM and EBay: There were some presentations from IBM and EBay – neither of which was really relevant to peacebuilding (EBay was about online dispute resolution – could be interesting to someone working on developing governance and rule of law interfaces in cyberspace… the IBM site and game is pretty). During the ebay session I learned about an interesting forum for online dispute resolution – probably the best thing to come out of either session.
Open Sim Platform: A thoughtful presentation by Skip Cole at USIP concluded the day (or should’ve) by introducing the Open Sim Platform and summing up where we are and where we are going in developing simulations for learning, especially for peacebuilding. The Open Sim Platform (OSP) is kind of like ICONS, allowing users to take part in simulations designed mostly around text, prompts and decision trees, although it is open source, so anyone can design a simulation on the platform and invite anyone to come and use it (or run a simulation from a library). Skip described how the OSP is a step toward integrating interfaces like virtual and mirror worlds, avatars with the frameworks of simulations like scenario design and development. It was a compelling presentation and a good challenge to end the day – reminding us all of where we are and how far we have to go.
This presentation combined with thoughtful moderating by Sheldon Himmelfarb of USIP and Lisa Schirch of the 3D Security Initiative made for a very interesting and insightful day. The conversation on these topics is just beginning, inspired by the prospect of more events like this at USIP, I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us next.