Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

A Simple Manifesto: Simulation Technology should be Invisible

A guest PaxSims blog post from Skip Cole at the United States Institute of Peace:

A Simple Manifesto: Simulation Technology should be Invisible

When putting together my paper for SimTecT this year, a couple of thoughts crystallized in my mind. And I’ve come to realize that I really only have one professional mission in life: to turn simulation technology invisible. That is it. I’m really just a one trick pony, and that is my only trick.

What is an ‘invisible technology’?  It is a technology that has become so built into our lives that we don’t even see it or think about it. Like power lines or telephone poles these technologies fade from view, and only become noticeable when they are absent.

Word processing is an invisible technology: One does not get a blank stare when one says something like “Send me the Word document.” We all just assume that everyone has a word processor on their machine and can receive and edit documents. The list of invisible technologies is quite prodigious and can be daunting: slide show presentations, elevators, pasteurized milk, air conditioners, heavier than air flying machines, etc. Most of us don’t know how most of these things work, but we use them every day.

But simulation technology? Can that ever be invisible? Isn’t it far too complex for that?

I don’t believe so. Ultimately simulations are created by humans for humans. So we have to be able to understand at least the basics of what goes into them. Creating them should not be much more difficult that writing the scripts for the simulations we now employ, and we are getting close to that mark.

Still it has been a lot of work, and we do have a long way to go. So you might be wondering “Why do this?” I do this because I truly believe that when people can learn and even ‘play out’ ideas in a safe environment, then human decision making will improve. And when human decision making improves, we will be able to resolve many of our problems more efficiently and even more equitably. We have all seen the cost of bad decisions. Preventing even a few bad decisions now and then can prevent the enormous cascade of bad events that follow from them.

This is really what I’m all about, and I have to admit, it feels nice to have this clarity. The world has so many interconnected problems; it is hard to know even where to start in addressing them. I start with the assumption that if we help people make better decisions, then they will be better equipped to solve their own problems.

We do have a long way to go, but we do get closer every day. If you would like to join our community in this journey, please just drop an email to

3 responses to “A Simple Manifesto: Simulation Technology should be Invisible

  1. Skip Cole 03/04/2011 at 5:40 pm

    Very good points from very good people :-)

    Rex, you are correct in that what I had in mind right now are ‘Technology Enhanced Role Plays’ or TERPs.

    Of course, it will be nice when everyone has a ‘holodeck’ or entrance to ‘The Matrix’ in their back office. But even then, events transpiring in a simulation frequently need to be ‘time compressed’ to be of value. (We can’t put diplomats in a Matrix version of Kosovo for 6 months preparing them for a 6 month deployment to Kosovo – the player’s time is too valuable for that.) And because time is frequently compressed in a TERP, the fourth wall, the divide between reality and fiction, becomes distinctly not invisible, from time to time.

    I do agree that with other types of simulations, UAVs and flight simulators in particular, that divide between reality and fiction can all but completely disappear. I haven’t read Ender’s Game, but from my understanding, we are getting closer and closer to the world depicted there.

  2. Rex Brynen 02/04/2011 at 1:19 am

    Good point, Elyssebeth! I think this is particularly true of simulators and virtual worlds, in which advances in interface, processing power, AI, and graphics can lead us to forget about the in-built assumptions in the game design.

    On the other hand, I think Skip is very much talking about what he’s previously called “technology enhanced role-play,” in which the content is largely brought to the setting by the players (and their briefing materials), and simulation software is simply a form of communications support for their interactions.

  3. ELyssebeth 01/04/2011 at 7:40 pm

    Regarding ‘simulation as invisible technologies’ i have a caveat! all users/players/managers of simulation must NEVER forget they are in a ‘fictional’ environment, and that what happens within it is a ‘replicant’ of the real – but not ‘real’ as such.
    While ‘invisible technologies’ can enhance the sense of ‘temporary realism’ we must be able to bring the players ‘back out’ of the experience so that they can do useful comparisons between ‘simulation’ and ‘real’.
    ‘The Matrix’ could be considered a representation of ‘absolute invisible simulation technologies’ – and the theme of inappropriate control and problems arising from immoral/corrupt, is very telling.
    Problems arising from blurring of the ‘real’ and the ‘fiction of simulation’ are very real and can be deadly. Our Air Force has one example in particular when a simulator could do what the ‘real’ could not – and we lost 11 people when the ‘real’ attempted to replicate the sim!
    so while i support the concept of making the experience ‘as real as’ possible i caution against ‘making the technology disappear’.

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