Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 12/03/2010

empowering creative geniuses everywhere

As we have in the past, PaxSims is pleased to present a guest post by Skip Cole from the United States Institute of Peace—where, among other things, he’s been working on the USIP Open Sim Platform. Comments are welcomed below, or Skip can be reached directly at rcole (at)

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What if anyone who wanted to create a simulation could do so? Would it change the world for the better, or for the worse? What would get created? How would people spend their time?

Very soon we will find out. The world is moving quickly in this direction. The cost of creating simulations is going down precipitously, and soon creating a simulation will be as easy as writing a book. Not that writing a book is particularly easy, but it is something that pretty much any human can do. (Just perusing a bookstore is enough to convince one of that.)

I spend my days trying to bring us to this future. But many other people are also helping us get there. A similar (and you are going to have to bear with me a bit on this) effort has just come to fruition in the creation of Gratuitous Space Battles (GSB). At first blush, our two efforts might seem completely different, but at a deep level we do have a lot in common.

Let me first describe both tools. In GSB you create a fleet of space ships, and then send them off to die in glorious battle. GSB is about mindless diversion and heavy weaponry. It is about maximizing unreal destruction and the creation of beautiful visuals, most of which involve interstellar clouds being lit up by laser fire and things being atomized.

The simulation creation tool that we have created, the USIP Open Sim Platform (USIP OSP), is designed to help people in peacebuilding missions do a better job. Some decisions, such as where to dig a simple well in a village, can become surprisingly important, and getting them wrong can lead to a cascade of problems. Figuring out where to dig that well is almost never a matter of hydrometry. It is a matter of figuring out who to talk to and how. These are tricky, sticky and at times very tedious problems. But what can be at stake are many real lives. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them.” We allow the students to experience the truth of our lessons Without anyone actually dying.

OSP screenshot—click to enlarge.

So, sure there are a lot of superficial differences between the USIP OSP and the GSB: Ours is open source, their’s is for sale. Ours is strategic, their’s is tactical. Ours is ‘serious,’ their’s is fun. We use human intelligence, they use artificial intelligence. Their’s is about war, our’s is about peace. They have excellent, excellent visuals, and we . . . don’t.

But for all of the differences, both tools empower the simulation author to create a virtual experiences. The author creates, pushes a button and then things go. In both cases the simulation author can then learn from the experience. In fact everyone exposed to the simulation will learn from the experience and the be able to go on and build better simulations. “A world of simulation builders! You say. You must be mad Cole, Mad!”

But yes, that is exactly what we are coming to, and the sooner the better. Human in the loop simulations will expand our collective understanding of how people are and how they interact. The more of this understanding that we all share, the more sophisticated we all become. And finding ways to extricate ourselves from the serious problems that we have managed to get ourselves into will require all of that sophistication and then some.

So Rock On GSB! I salute you and your virtual ships. You are the harbinger of greater things to come. And if we ever do get into a planetary war against evil bug like creatures, I am sure you will show us the way. But if those bug like creatures ever decide to talk and negotiate, we will have your back.

Skip Cole

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