Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Arrrr mateys, here be MMOWGLI…

The MMOWGLI (“Massively Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet”) crowd-sourcing/simulation platform being developed by US Navy and the Institute for the Future will launch a live online playtest next week. As Wired has reported, the playtest will encourage participants to suggest new and innovative ways of dealing with the challenges of maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa:

Starting on Monday, the Navy will host one of the least likely online games ever: MMOWGLI, its Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet, something it’s been building since 2009. In a literal sense, the game is about counterpiracy, as the game encourages players to offer about their best suggestions for clearing the seas of the resurgent maritime scourge. But the real point of MMOWGLI — pronounced like the Jungle Book protagonist — is a social experiment.

“We want to test this proposition: can you get a crowd to provide you with good information?” Larry Schuette, the director for innovation at the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s mad scientists, asks Danger Room. “Is the wisdom of the crowd really that wise?”

What do you do? Two text boxes pop onto the screen. The first reads “Innovate,” and asks: “What new resources could turn the tide in the Somali pirate situation?” The second reads “Defend” and asks: “What new risks could arise that would transform the Somali pirate situation?” Beneath either are two boxes to import and record your brief answer: 140 characters.

“You’re tweeting, basically,” Schuette explains.

Then comes the crowdsourcing. During the first week of the game, your fellow players will vote on your suggestion. If they think it’s noteworthy, they can tweak it. New cards allow players to Expand (“Build this idea to expand its impact”), Counter (“Challenge this idea”), Adapt (“Take this idea in a different direction”) or Explore (“Something missing? Ask a question”).

Players are awarded points based on the number of affirmations their ideas get from their peers. “Based on that, we invite you to the next round,” Schuette says. There are three rounds, with each lasting a week, so the ideas can marinate. “People with good ideas will win.”

Fast Company also has a report on the project, as does the DoD’s own “Armed with Science” blog.

We’ve reported a little on MMOWGLI in the past, and will be interested to see how it all works out. The initiative certainly raises several interesting questions about using crowd source techniques to generate and refine creative ideas and analytical approaches:

  • How do you promote quality output rather than a sort of ill-informed internet populism (what we’ve previously called “massive multiplayer online stupidity”)? MMOWGLI proposes to use an intrinsic system of evaluation whereby players essentially rate the contributions of others. That can work well with a thoughtful group of participants. It doesn’t, however, in itself assure that the best ideas secure support. One of the problems with the World Bank’s EVOKE project, for example, was that while the gamified interface encouraged participant feedback, most of the well-intended but inexperienced participants were in little position to really evaluate the practicality of each other’s idea.  (Of course, it is also important to recognize the differences in purpose too: MMOWGLI is intended to harness existing expertise in new ways to generate potential new ideas, whereas EVOKE was intended in part as an educational tool.)
  • What are the effects of flattening hierarchies? The MMOWGLI approach allows anonymized junior members of organizations to offer ideas as easily as more senior ones, while protecting them from the ramifications of challenging conventional thinking. That can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing: when participants are anonymized it is difficult to evaluate the information and operational expertise that might inform their analyses. Should the opinions of Navy SEALs or freighter captains have no inherent added weight on maritime issues compared to those of net surfers who get seasick in a dinghy?
  • Can appropriate policy responses to complex social/political/economic/security issues really be reduced to short posts of 140 character tweets? Indeed, does this send a dangerous signal, namely that all that stands between a problem and its solution is a soundbite?

At the outset, it might help to tighten up the MMOWGLI pirate scenario a little. According to the screen shot that Wired features (above), the initial setting/orientation seems to involve a few things that don’t entirely make sense. What is “humanitarian aid for rig workers”?   How could three pirate ships hold the world “hostage”? After all, while the Somalia pirate problem is very serious (according to the World Bank, the worldwide cost of piracy losses and anti-piracy measures may be between $5.7 and $11.2 billion), we are a very long way away from a situation where “merchant ship movement through the area is blocked”. Providing good baseline information and links to additional resources can very much enrich the quality of simulations, role-play—and, one suspects, online crowd-sourcing of innovative policy ideas. Some of the early conceptual material on MMOWGLI suggested that it would include this sort of supporting data—hopefully it does, and it hasn’t been lost during the development process.

Quite coincidentally, I’m attending a NATO conference at the moment that is attempting a sort of crowd-sourcing of policy ideas on combating “hybrid threats,” including maritime piracy. Here too the organizers have brought together a range of perspectives and expertise, are using scenarios to promote new ideas, are encouraging open discussion, and have deliberately sought to flatten hierarchies (no uniforms or ranks, generals using their first names, and so forth). Of course, the conference organizers have also had to go to the effort of bringing scores of participants from a dozen or more countries to Estonia, set up conference facilities, and manage the whole thing—something that MMOWGLI attempts to do more cheaply and easily via online means. It will be an interesting natural experiment to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches.

Finally there seems to be one key problem with MMOWGLI’s pirate scenario that they have somehow failed to anticipate—namely this: the solution is already well known. Ninjas. Any geek could tell you that you fight pirates with ninjas (and vice versa) Really, one wonders where the US Navy is getting its policy advice from these days…

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Update: a few additional links added above, and more MMOWGLI discussion here.

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