Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 04/01/2012

Simulating spooks? The CIA, simulations, and analyst recruitment

While many might associate the CIA with dissimulation as much as simulation, the Agency uses serious games and simulations in a number of ways. They are used, for example, in analyst training at CIA University (indeed, one well-known game designer teaches there). They are also sometimes used as an analytical technique, whether directly or through intelligence contractors and outside experts. Some argue they aren’t used enough—one CIA tradecraft primer warns that they are “advanced analytic methods” that “usually require substantial commitments of analyst time and corporate resources.”

A winning paper in the 2007 Director of National Intelligence “Galileo” essay competition (and subsequently published in Studies in Intelligence) suggests that skills in this area are unevenly distributed within the intelligence community, and proposes a “National Security Simulations Center” (somewhat modelled on both the Gaming Department at the Naval War College, and the Centre for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University) to act as a sort of IC center of excellent to “strengthen the accuracy and insight of intelligence analysis, improve IC collaboration, and create a testing ground for new analytic tools and methods.”

Be that as it may, I wanted to flag another area where the CIA’s use of simulations has certainly been expanding dramatically in recent years: specifically, the use of crisis simulations as part of its outreach and recruitment efforts at American college and university campuses. Initially, these exercises seem to have formed part of individual campus recruitment visits. Last year, however, they were expanded to become multi-school competitions. The November 2011 competition at Georgetown University, for example, included teams from twelve colleges and universities in the Washington DC/Virginia/Maryland area. According to a press release by the CIA, by the end of 2011 almost  one thousand students across the US had participated in several dozen CIA simulations.

In a typical session:

Each five-person team was presented with the CIA-authored scenario: Printouts containing raw intelligence surrounding a fictitious—but plausible—developing international crisis. They had three hours to sort through the information and prepare a cogent half-page brief outlining the situation and suggesting a course of action for the United States.

Each team was also assigned an Agency mentor, to observe and offer advice

At the end of the simulation, the analysts reviewed the written briefs from all eight teams. The top two teams in each group engaged in a “brief-off” in front of the entire CIA contingent.

Further accounts of these simulations by some of the participating institutions and students can be found at the following links:

h/t Google

First reflections on a brown bag lunch about “gamification” with Gabe Zichermann

The Knowledge and Learning Council (KLC) here at the Bank hosted a very interesting discussion on gamification with Gabe Zichermann, author of  Game-Based Marketing  and Gamification by Design – you can see his blog here.   Gabe’s presentation was really well done and very well received.  It was mostly a Bank audience (about 60 folks), though there is clearly some selection bias in who attended (people interested in games).  Gabe is a really engaging speaker and, despite his digs on economists, I was happy to act as a discussant for the presentation.

Gabe described the concept of gamification (the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences – see the gamification wiki here).  He explained why this is effective, concentrating on the feedback loop from challenge to achievement.  He focused a lot on incentives, status, access, power and “stuff” – which resonated a lot with the Bank audience.  He then proceeded to provide some really good examples of where incentive structures have been adapted – including lotteries tied to speed cameras to incentivize obeying the law in Sweden and virtual pets built into driver interfaces in hybrid cars.  I’ll link to his actual presentation once the KLC has it up, but a similar presentation is found here.

The "Singification" of work in the 1800s...

All that being said, I still find myself lost in vagaries in the ongoing discussions of gamification.  For all of my love of games, I wondered, during my role as a discussant, whether we aren’t just calling anything that makes work more engaging or in which incentives and feedback are better designed “gamification”.  This is not a new critique, I had the same concern after finishing McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken (Yes, I did finally finish).  This is exacerbated by the fuzziness around the definition of game and gamification which included even facebook in the discussion today.  The gamification concept reminds me of the “singification” that labor underwent in the 1800s, when we were working on the railroad… all the live long day.  What is different about gamification that isn’t just us making work more bearable?

On the flip side, maybe I am just too critical and this is just semantic.  It seems to me that the principles of gamification are right on – we should be looking at systems, teaching and processes and considering where our incentives, feedback and engagement can be improved to provide additional impact and effectiveness.

Another question that concerns me when thinking about gamification is the cultural bias we have/enjoy about games – especially at the Bank.  Gabe is Canadian (and Rex!), I am American – but I am conscious of the different perspectives other cultures have about games – ranging on the spectrum from foolish childsplay to evil gambling.  While we might agree with the principles of gamification, the concept or the language might need to be adapted to context if we want to be effective in different cultures.

Lastly, I still find myself brought back to Gladwell’s three qualities of rewarding work: autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward.  I wonder how many people play games or browse blogs or update facebook at work because they simply are bored or aren’t challenged by their work.  Gabe was brutally honest about how boring and banal many jobs are today (and I thought economics was the dismal science!).  It raised the question, though, about competition for our engagement.  Are the benefits we get from increased engagement due to gamification only because of competition for our limited attention?  If this is the case, then we can expect diminishing returns from gamification as it we would expect to see a ratcheting up of competition for our attention from other sources.  Are there limits to how much engagement we can give?

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