Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 03/06/2011

Reflections on mmowgli (Game Turn One edition)

Over the past few days I had a chance to participate in a game turn of MMOWGLI (the Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet), in a scenario that addressed the challenge posed by Somali piracy. As we’ve discussed before in PAXsims, MMOWGLI isn’t a wargame in any traditional sense, but rather a crowd-sourcing and brainstorming platform. The playtest only got as far as Turn 1, meaning that participants were limited to 140 character “tweets” in which they could suggest new ideas and approaches, or comment on those put forward by others. In later turns, however, players are asked to develop more detailed action plans, which other players can then comment on and evaluate. At the moment, the GameMaster Blog is accessible online here, with useful information on the experiment.

Some quick thoughts, based on my very limited experience:

  1. The interface is generally very clean and neat (ship-shape, even!), and certainly more intuitive than EVOKE. There are a few tweaks that could be suggested, however. It wasn’t clear to me what determined the appearance of the “innovate” and “defend” cards on the front page—at times these seem to be old ones, other times the newest. Latency is a potential problem. I suspect some users could become impatient if the response is too sluggish, especially in an era when people are used to Facebook and Twitter speed of use.
  2. The Turn One scoring system encourages players to post lots, regardless of insight and quality. Indeed, one strategy is to spam the platform with comments, in the hopes that they seed longer threads. (It might also be strategic NOT to comment on the posts of rival top scorers, which presumably is not something that the game system would want to encourage). Also, at one point in the playtest the scores all seemed to change—I’m not sure if that was a bug or a feature. Or perhaps pirates just ran off with some of the loot. Arr!
  3. The playtest involved a few hundred. I’m not sure mmowgli works well with a crew larger than 100 or so, as ideas rapidly get buried under other ideas and an inevitable degree of repetition results. I can’t imagine it working with the 14,000 or so who signed up online.
  4. I understand they want to encourage brief brainstorms in the first phase of the game, but really: only 140 characters? Shiver me timbers! In a complex situation that is all about nuance, this risks prioritizing simplistic “sound bite” solutions. Indeed, there’s a danger of suggesting that complex problems have short, innovative solutions. Some times they only have complicated, messy, partial mitigations—Somali piracy being a probable case in point.
  5. Part of the appeal of a platform like mmowgli is its value in generating innovative out-of-the-box policy ideas from folks other than the “usual suspects.” This needs to be balanced against the complexity of the problem and the value of relevant knowledge, however. Some of the discussion seemed to hinge on inaccurate caricatures of Somali or regional politics; a poor understanding of pirate tactics and techniques; little familiarity with current best practices, shipping patterns, or maritime law; or fascination with (expensive, impractical) technological fixes. The Turn One scoring system doesn’t necessarily encourage deep thinking or research.
  6. It would be very helpful if the system automatically shrunk and embedded urls in posts, so that participants could more easily cite supporting evidence and data.
  7. Apparently, a lot of people haven’t yet met a problem that they didn’t want to resolve kinetically. Make them walk the plank, or kiss the gunner’s daughter! That’ll fix it.
  8. I hereby propose to ban the word “epic” from game-related discussions.
  9. For the gaming geeks out there, it was perhaps also a little amusing that one of the major threads in the playtest on the need to shut down pirate “ports” seemed to be a variation on “All your base are belong to us.” (Incidentally, pirate “ports” are often little more than beach camps like the one at right.)
  10.  I don’t think the mmowgli Turn One game play necessarily generated more useful and innovative ideas than could be achieved in a three-hour BOGSAT with a dozen bright Naval Postgraduate School students. On the other hand, it did allow a substantial number of people to be involved despite geography, time zones, and work schedules.
  11. Overall, I thought it was a very interesting experiment with some intriguing potential. I’m particularly interested to see how the transition to Turn Two would work, since I suspect that’s where the real analytical and innovative pay-off is to be had.
In reading all of the points above, it is important to keep in mind that this was a short, preliminary playtest of a platform that is still in development. Moreover, the piratey playtest in which I participated only extended (so far?) to Turn 1, and not to later stages of the game when participants are called upon to develop more detailed action plans. It is far too easy for a scurvy bilge rat like meself to nitpick an experiment. Given that I thought it all has some intriguing potential, therefore, I hope the comments above will be taken in the spirit intended: as constructive input into further development.
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Yes, I’m well aware that Somali pirates don’t talk at all like 17-18th century privateers. However, with International Talk Like a Pirate Day (an annual event in my classes) only a few months away, it seemed as good as opportunity as any to get some practice.
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