We at PAXsims believe that serious games are a very useful tool in the analytical or educational toolbox—if we didn’t, we wouldn’t put so much effort into this website and all of our other game-related activities. However, I often find myself warning about the limits of games too. They aren’t magic bullets. In some cases, moreover, they’re not even an especially useful tools.
I have been thinking about this quite a bit in relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic. PAXsims has tried to be helpful by making a number of gaming resources available. Others have done the same, notable the King’s Wargaming Network, which is offering to support appropriate gaming initiatives.
As we collectively grapple with the unfolding global crisis, however, I thought it prudent to also highlight some the risks of serious pandemic gaming. As I will argue below, while serious games have a great deal of utility, they can also be counterproductive. We thus all have a moral responsibility to make sure (as they say in the humanitarian aid community) that we DO NO HARM with our work.
First of all, there’s the modelling problem. We have to be very humble in assessing our ability to examine some issues when so little is known about key dynamics. Related to this is the “garbage in, garbage out” problem. Our data is often weak. The excellent epidemiological projections published by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team have been very useful in spurring states to action, but in the interests of avoiding confirmation bias we also need to recognize that some epidemiologists are raising concerns about the adequacy of the data used in such models. We need to make the robustness of our game assumptions to clear to clients and partners. Be humble, avoid hubris, make assumptions and models explicit, caveat findings, and don’t over-sell.
Second, playing games with subject matter experts (SMEs) can pull them away from doing other, more important things. I’ve done a lot of work on interagency coordination, where there is a similar problem: coordination meetings are great, but when you add up the time that goes into them they can actually weaken capacity if you aren’t careful. Of course, you can run games with non-SME’s, but then the GIGO problem is exacerbated.
Any gaming generally needs to be client-driven. Do the end-users of the game actually find it worthwhile? What questions do they want answered? This isn’t a universal rule—it may be that gaming alerts them to something that they hadn’t considered. But do keep in mind the demands on their time, institutional resources, and analytical capacity.
We also have to recognized that the much-maligned BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) is sometimes preferable to a game, when the former is run well. For a game to be worth designing and running it has to be demonstrably superior to other methods, and worth the time and effort put into it. There is a reason, after all, why the CIA’s Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis warns that gaming techniques “usually require substantial commitments of analyst time and corporate resources.”
We need to debrief and analyze games carefully. The DIRE STRAITS experiment at Connections UK (2017) highlighted that the analytical conclusions from games are often far from self-evident, and that different people can walk away from the same game with very different conclusions.
Messaging for these games matter. The public is on edge. Some are dangerously complacent. Some are on the verge of panic. One wrong word, and suddenly there’s no toilet paper in the shops. If you don’t consider communication issues, reports from a game could feed either a “don’t worry it’s not that bad” view or a “my god we’re all going to die” response in the media and general public.
We also have to beware of clients with agendas, of course [insert everything Stephen Downes-Martin has ever written here.]
We need to be careful of both uncritical game evangelism and rent seeking—that is the “it would be cool to a game/games solve everything” over-enthusiasm, or “here’s a pot of money, let’s apply for it.”
In short, in a time of international crisis, we need to do this well if we do it. In my view it generally needs to respond to an identified need by those currently dealing with the crisis—or, if it doesn’t, there needs to be a good reason for that. They’re busy folks at the moment, after all.
UPDATE: I did a short presentation on this for the recent King’s Wargaming Network online symposium. My slides can be found here: DoNoHarm.
For more on gaming the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.