Pandemic response matrix game
The following report was provided for PAXsims by Dr. Ben Taylor, Strategic Planning Operations Research Team, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Centre for Operational Research and Analysis (CORA). His research interests include the utility of games to support strategic planning.
On 1 March 2019 Global Affairs Canada hosted a matrix game in Ottawa as part of a research effort into the utility of games to inform policy development. The chosen topic was to explore issues surrounding preparedness for a natural catastrophe, exemplified by an influenza pandemic. A second goal was to explore how a game could capture gender-based policy making. The game was set 20 years into the future.
The game was designed over a series of teleconferences with the author working with the game sponsor and external academic subject matter experts. A fairly conventional matrix game structure was used but some innovative features are shared here:
- To avoid players getting distracted by real-world details we used a map of the world from ca 200 million years ago divided into generic regions: Westland (advanced liberal democracies), Eastland (centralised authoritarian states) and Southland (disadvantaged developing states). Selected real-world cities were placed in appropriate locations within this geography, essentially “playing themselves” to provide players with familiar anchor points.
- The three regions were represented by nation state actors and these were supplemented with proxies for the World Health Organisation and Médecins sans Frontières and also a private medical research foundation associated with a major pharmaceutical company. Players were provided with briefing sheets explain their resources, aims, sensitivities and relationships with other actors.
- The first turn was taken up by an international disaster preparedness conference set some years before the pandemic. This allowed the players to get into their roles and to start discussions between themselves. At the end of discussions each actor was allowed one standard matrix argument about an outcome from the conference. This mechanism effectively gave the players the opportunity for a precursor argument before the crisis struck, although at this stage they didn’t know what was going to happen, or where.
- Some volunteer players were brought in who had some experience of matrix games, if not expertise in the game subject. They were distributed among the teams, which typically comprised three players.
- The spread of the outbreak was largely pre-determined with maps prepared in advance showing the state of the pandemic in each turn. Adjustments could be made if player actions were deemed to have significantly altered the course of events. Each turn was also supported with a collage of news stories and social media messages to provide context and to subtly remind players of issues that they could be taking into consideration. Some humour was injected into the new items, with Ottawa’s (currently in 2019) delayed light rail system deemed to be still behind schedule in 20 years’ time.
Overall the game elements worked as intended. A few participants had first-hand experience of health emergencies and suggested that the behaviours of the teams and the priorities that they selected were very realistic. A number of participants also commented upon the quality of the role-play and the utility of the news injects and briefing materials in keeping the players in-role. The presence of some experienced players paid dividends as most teams were quickly able to express their actions in the matrix game argument format. This is frequently the biggest challenge for first-time players and the combination of subject matter experts and gamers working together was effective. As designer and facilitator the most reassuring feedback was the palpable sense of disappointment in the room when it was announced that there was to be no next turn after some six hours of activity.