Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gaming foreign policy (at GAC)

I spend today in Ottawa, where I delivered a talk at Global Affairs Canada on “Gaming foreign policy.” About thirty folks attended, mainly from GAC, but also from the Department of National Defense, Defence Research and Development Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the intelligence community, and elsewhere. Indeed, it may have been the largest all-of-government meeting on analytical gaming in Canadian history! The session was sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Division.

You’ll find the slides I used in my presentation here—although many of them aren’t all that self-explanatory.

GAC gaming.jpg

The talk was broadly similar to those that I have given previously to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the US State Department. There were, however, a number of really interesting questions raised by participants, not all of which I had time to fully answer because of the duration of the event (and a delay in starting due to a faulty VGA cable):

  1. What contribution can serious gaming make to forecasting (i.e., likely outcomes over the next 3 to 6 months, 12 to 18 months)?
  2. Can gaming help us to identify or explore possible “black-swans” and high-risk, low-probability events and scenarios?
  3. How can games address cross-cutting and multidisciplinary issues (i.e., requiring a “whole of GAC/Government of Canada” approach, coordination and coherence
  4. Can gaming explore sequencing questions (security, humanitarian, development, political and governance) and challenges associated with addressing non-linear, complex interactions and actions (such as but not limited to intercultural understanding between different world views and approaches)?
  5. How can serious gaming techniques help us to develop resilient and adaptable systems that can cope with the unforeseen?
  6. How do we address issues of apparently “irrational behaviour” by foes (or friends)? Are any actors truly irrational, or do they simply have other interests, objectives, and worldviews?

As I head back to Montréal on the train, here are some initial thoughts or additional comments on these:

  1. Most (war)gamers are inclined to protest that “games are not predictions.” It is certainly true that no single game can be considered to reliably predict the future, and they should not be held to this standard. We also know that once we go much beyond 6 months out, the accuracy of predictions (both inside and outside the intelligence community) begins to drop off sharply. Still, I have always thought that “we don’t predict” caveats are a bit of a dodge, intended to shield game designers/facilitators from criticism when reality turns out differently, as it often will. Most games, after all, are only useful to the extent that they describe a plausible set of future outcomes, and the assessment of plausibility is inherently a predictive endeavour. A well-designed game can certainly help to illuminate such questions as how an actor or actors might act under certain set of circumstances; what variables might affect outcomes; what indicators might provide an early warning of important developments; and what trends should be watched carefully.
  2. By definition, true “black swans” cannot be predicted since they lie outside our prior experience. However games can help us to identify low probability/high impact actions or events, and the circumstances under which they might come to pass. They can also be used to “stress test” capabilities, policies, and programmes to understand how they might fare when faced with such challenges, and what might be done to enhance resilience, adaptability, and agility.
  3. Games can be outstanding at exploring the challenges of policy coordination. The Brynania peacebuilding simulation I run at McGill each year does this, and it is the central theme of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. In addition to modelling and illuminating the problems of interagency, interdisciplinary, and coalition action, the process of playing interagency games with interagency participants can build networks of contacts, rapport, and understanding that can be very useful when a real crisis hits.
  4. The challenge here is one of what you are trying to do. It is hard to model very complex systems, especially when the underlying causal connections are poorly understood. For that reasons, there are real limitations to the validity of game findings. On the other hand, games (and, even more so, the discussions that games generate during and after) can enhance insight into the sorts of issues that might arise, and how these might be better addressed. Again, I think there is quite a lot of this in the Brynania simulation.
  5. This is another variation of the question “How can games help us to predict the difficult-to-predict (#1-2) and develop systems and approaches that might respond to foreseen and unforeseen policy challenges (#3-4)?” It was probably the single biggest theme running through the question and answer period. I think it is possible to train for agility, and to encourage personnel to think through possible second- and third-order effects of what they do. This isn’t reflexive “if X happens, do Y” training, but rather “if faced with a new challenge, this is how we might develop the required analytical frameworks and institutional capacities necessary to deal with it” preparation.
  6. Watch this space. We’ve already started a discussion on gaming unpredictable opponents and unreliable allies here at PAXsims, and I hope to write something substantial on it soon. It is perhaps telling that a significant number of participants in the discussion today felt this issue was of renewed urgency in light of recent global developments.

It all seemed to go very well.

There was a great deal on interest in follow-up and continuing the discussion. I’ll be speaking with a number of GAC colleagues and other son this in the days ahead, and who knows—we may even have some games to run in a few months as a result.

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