Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

John Dentico: There Are Still Things Computers Can’t Do!

John Dentico of LeadSimm LLC contributed the following piece for PAXsims. John’s reflections on simulations and leadership development can also be found on his website.

As usual, comments are encouraged.

* * *

A computer has never won a Medal of Honor, nor a Distinguished Service, Air Force, or Navy Cross.  If this introduction seems a bit factious, it is designed to make a point—There are still things computers can’t do!

In a recent blog post on PAXsims, Mike Peck provided an overview of the current state of military war gaming as it exists today.  He laments (that is what I get out of it) the brushing aside of paper/table top games and venues for the ultimate power of the wafer, gigabits of RAM and the all important mega colors of HD graphics.

Mike writes: “Gaming today is perceived as computer games, and shooter games for the most part. That’s too bad. For all the clunkiness of cardboard, a paper game can incorporate sophisticated concepts in two paragraphs of rules where software would need a million lines of code. You can also change the rules with a pen instead of an army of contractors.”

As someone who has spent 33 years in gaming and simulation work, let me remind you—There are still things computers can’t do!

As someone who embraces all the capability, efficiency and capacity computers and electronics media affords us, there are five factors (probably more) that paper/table-top/interpersonal simulations hold over computer based simulations, at least as far as my research and experience has shown.

 Stories as the Meaning Makers

The most important factor associated with any simulation be it paper or computer based is the narrative or story that forms the basic scenario.  Cognitive Psychologist Jerome Bruner of NYU tells us that the narrative mode of thinking engages people in a “gripping drama” where meaning emerges from one’s interaction with the story.

Think of it, if we had no stories, we would have no culture because stories are the repository of culture, they are the meaning carriers.  Military organizations are steeped in stories of conflict from the time history was first recorded and those narratives form the foundation of what and who they are.

So methodology aside, it is the stories or scenarios that are the meaning carriers that provides the real “go” power of simulation methodologies especially in an environment where as Mike points out, the goal of the immersive experience allows the player to suspend disbelief so he actually “learns something that keeps him alive on a real battlefield” i.e. you can have a really great computer based system and a hard to believe or ridiculous scenario and guess what?  Bad simulation.

Computers Can Mislead—Convincingly!

All war is fought on the basis of probability.  The name of the game is to get the odds in one’s favor.  More specifically, the idea is to “load the dice” so that they roll out for the good guys—Everytime. I often refer to the simulator’s creed when speaking about simulations, as “The Best Surprise is No Surprise!”

Computer based simulation do offer a wide array of advantages in terms of providing training, that is of course, if the fidelity of the internal structure of the simulation itself is sound and verified.  Computer based simulations are a “blended soup” of ingredients that include look up tables, data bases, algorithms, user interfaces (considered critical), graphic representations, speed et. al all with one goal in mind; creating a realistic contextual practice field where an authentic decisional environment is represented.

The question for many who understand the goal is: Where do the numbers come from?  Are the numbers real and verified using operational data or are they fabricated based on best guess?  The problem here is that no matter what the numbers are, they remain transparent to the participants because they lie hidden in the soup.  More importantly, unverified simulations could subtlety be reinforcing bad data and thereby creating bad habits and bad beliefs.  Which would you rather have, no training or bad training?

Even commercial gaming has seen a quiet but resolute rebellion in the development of some of the most popular PC based games.  This rebellion is known as the “Modding Community”, a group of ad hoc gamers who have taken it upon themselves to develop game mods that by many accounts are more realistic, more difficult to play, with more realistic probabilities of detection and engagement than their commercially developed parents.

Paper/Table Top games more times than not have a built in warning system that alerts participants to unrealistic events or elements.  It is known as the person or persons who while playing the simulation, stands up and says “Hey, there is something wrong here, this is not how it is done or not how it really is.”  Funny thing, it seems to work well.

Process vs. Content.

Some years ago I was preparing to direct a computer based simulation as a member of a Naval Reserve unit in San Diego.  That morning, the computers decided they didn’t want to play and went down hard.  We didn’t want to waste training time so in an hour or so we switched to a seminar format and conducted a very similar scenario.  I noticed something. In the seminar format people became much more involved in the process of actions and decisions made. They wanted to know the why and how of the actions taken.

This was a bold difference from the computer-based games where people waited for an input or stimuli and then pressed a button in response waiting to see what happened.  It occurred to me that there were two predominate activities going on within the confines of each simulation method, process and content.

Yes, good content is important to any simulation exercise because it comprises the scenario, which as mentioned above, is the driver of the total experience. But, as people we are a “WHY” driven specie, we like to know why we are doing something.  In my opinion, process dominant simulations should precede content driven simulations because it is important to know the how and why of something before the what.

Paper/Table-top simulations afford participants the opportunity to communicate, collaborate, question and discuss the motives and ideas associated with particular actions.  Moreover, they provide a natural antidote to something I refer to as “computer camping.”

Computer Camping.

There is a term used in commercial online FPS (first person shooter) or RTS (real time strategy) games known as camping.  Camping occurs when one side chooses to pick a location on the map to defend and then sets up a defense to protect that part of the map and of course, their forces.  In commercial games camping is frowned upon.

There is another type of camping (computer camping) where a player sits behind his or her computer screen and as long as no stimuli or input is provided to them they sit and wait.  In fact, during this time their training and or learning experience is minimal at best because they are not required to think or do anything.  After all nothing is appearing on their screen.

Face-to-face Communications

There appears to be an emerging hole in our cultural norms most notably in our ability to communicate face-to-face.  Oh yes, technology is great and it has allowed us to link up with people from around the planet. We know more people today than we ever thought possible. The question is, do we really “KNOW THEM.”

As one who has conducted numerous leadership development and table-top simulations for Law Enforcement across the US, where the goal is to create an interlocking network of relationships to fight crime some of the comments I have heard from law enforcement officers have become disconcerting.  It seems that the closer together we become in an electronically mediated socially networked world, the more we may very well be growing apart.

The texting/email culture most represented by the younger generations is masking a growing lack in their ability and savvy to conduct one-on-one, face-to-face interviews with perhaps, witnesses at a scene.  Wait a minute; I think I hear Joe Friday turning over in his grave!

They somehow seem to be unable to connect to others face-to-face because this is not how they are used to communicating. I assure you this is not a slam against the younger generations at all it simply is a case of what IS.  Paper/table-top/interpersonal games provide the natural impetus for one on one interaction. In fact, people powered simulations truly enhance the power of people to do a myriad of things.

Yes I know, I am an “old schooler” but I still believe that if you put a group of well meaning, well intentioned people around a table and give them the opportunity to use their imaginations—Magic Happens!  Why? Because there are still things computers can’t do!

John Dentico

4 responses to “John Dentico: There Are Still Things Computers Can’t Do!

  1. ELyssebeth 25/07/2011 at 4:54 pm

    Well said.
    Effective learning in simulation and games needs both/all formats and a greed deal of understanding of the story and the process.

  2. Brian Train 25/07/2011 at 5:39 pm

    Bravo John!
    Well said.
    Michael Peck may have been correct in what he wrote, but that didn’t make it right.

  3. Skip Cole 25/07/2011 at 5:49 pm

    Excellent post!

    I would add though that I think there is frequently space for computers in the loop, particularly in situations where the complete set of ‘rules’ to the game are not really know. I group these into the cases below

    A computer in the loop can be used:

    a.) as a realistic method of communication (email, chat, etc.) between some players *,
    b.) to help the players seek out information *,
    c.) to present multimedia reports – for added emotional impact,
    d.) to Transparently adjudicate some calculations, or
    e.) to record, concretely, many of the communications and agreements between the players to aid in reflection, debrief and in improving the simulation.

    * As they would be using the computers in real life.

    We refer to these computer-in-the-loop simulations as ‘Technology Enhanced Roleplays’ as TERPs, and I think they are the next generation in the venerable art of roleplay. When we run these, the players are communicating frequently face to face, and frequently via the network. As networks and computers have become integral into our lives, including them in some regards seems quite appropriate for some cases.

    And I agree with you completely that we don’t want to get an Army of Contractors involved in creating these things. There is generally neither time or money for that. For that exact reason, we have created a free and open tool to generate these TERPs (the USIP OSP.)

    Thank you very much for your post!

  4. John Dentico 25/07/2011 at 6:02 pm

    Thanks Elyssebeth, Brian and Skip for the kind comments. I would agree with you Skip, that using computers in the loop as you describe (email, chat) and to facilitate communications or to use as a mock up news room where everyone is watching the collective TV channel is real and I have no objection with this at all. My concern is that when all is said and done it is the people gathered together working through the challenges creating synergy where the proverbial rubber meets the road! Thanks again.

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