PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 13/04/2022

Domaingue: Cultivating breakthrough thinking in serious games

Tabletop exercise – Wikimedia Commons.

This post was written for PAXsims by Robert Domaingue. Before retiring from the U.S. State Department, Robert Domaingue was the lead Conflict Game Designer in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.  He now works with local organizations to utilize serious games for solving community problems.


Serious games are used to provide insights into complex problems.  They help decision makers and staff test assumptions, examine strategies, and determine deficiencies in planning.  Many different government departments, businesses, and organizations utilize serious games to provide a safe environment to learn from failure.  These organizations can improve the design of their serious games by incorporating principles from experiential learning.

Experiential learning focuses on the learning that emerges from concrete experience and the reflection and application of that experience.  A frequently cited model of the experiential learning cycle comes from David Kolb’s 1984 book Experiential Learning.  He proposes a cycle that begins with Experiencing→ moves to Reflecting→ to Generalizing→ to Testing→ and starting over again with new Experiencing.  The learner proceeds through all steps in order to make sense of the experience and apply the insights.  There are similar earlier models from John Dewey: Observation→ Knowledge→ Judgement→ more Observation; and Kurt Lewin: Concrete Experience→ Observation and Reflection→ Formation of Abstract Concepts and Generalizations→ Testing Implications of Concepts in New Situations→ and continuing the cycle with new Concrete Experience.  All of these models highlight the importance of reflecting on the nature of the experience for general learning to occur.  Furthermore, John Dewey felt that experiencing something served as a linking process between action and thought.  But not all experiences lead to learning.  In his 1938 book Experience and Education, Dewey wrote “Any experience is miseducation that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience (p25).”  This is an important point I will build on.

One problem with these models is with the very first step of identifying the experience.  It implies that we actually understand that we are having an experience – that we “see it”.  E.M. Forster said that the only books that influence us are the ones we are ready for.  Likewise, we may only see what we already know.  We may not identify the experience because we don’t have the awareness to make sense of the experience, or our prior conceptual models block us from seeing the experience as it is.

“The blinders of our categories prevent us from seeing what is there.”

A way to highlight this act of “not seeing” what is in front of us is to explore two psychological experiments that examine “functional fixedness.”  Functional fixedness refers to not seeing the potential novel uses of something because of your narrow prior category of the object in your mind.  The classic “candle experiment” gave subjects a candle, a box of thumb tacks, a bulletin board, and asked them to attach the candle to the bulletin board.  Most people tried to use the thumb tacks to stick the candle to the board, which doesn’t work very well.  A second group of subjects was given the same instructions and materials, with one small change.  This time the tacks were removed from the box and placed next to the empty box.  While it was a small change, it was large enough for people to see a new way of solving the problem.  Subjects in the second group saw that if they tacked the box to the bulletin board they could then place the candle inside the box.  When the box was full of tacks the subjects’ functional fixedness prevented them from seeing other uses for the box.

Another experiment involved giving subjects a problem to solve in which a length of string could be used in the solution of the problem.  The string was hung from a nail on the wall, and most people figured out to use the string as part of the solution to the problem.  Other groups were given the same instructions, but this time the same string on the same nail was used to hold a picture.  In this case no one thought to use the string to solve the problem.  The subjects’ functional fixedness on the string as part of the picture prevented them from seeing it as a resource to solve the problem.  The blinders of our categories prevent us from seeing what is there.

How do we overcome “not seeing”, and what is the impact on serious game design?  When utilizing the experiential learning models to guide our game design we should change the first step to “Identifying the Experience”.  People do not necessarily understand the nature of the experience that they are expected to reflect upon and draw lessons from.  The game designer must have a clear idea of the nature of the experience that the game will be providing to the participants.  This does not mean that the experience needs to be clearly delineated for the players at the start of the game.  It can be, but there are times when ambiguity and uncertainty are valuable features of the game.  In these cases, the nature of the experience needs to be highlighted in the debriefing session at the end of the game.  Here the facilitator can direct attention to how the players made sense of the experience and what they got out of exploring that experience.  It is very important to look at the assumptions that players operated under as to what were viable and nonviable approaches to solving the problem.

Players bring prior experience and preconceived ideas with them to the game, and a novel experience that challenges pre-held beliefs may not even be seen.  The game designer must be aware of the dangers of misinterpreting the nature of the experience by the players.  It could easily lead to learning the wrong thing from the experience.  If, however, the facilitator with the help of the players can identify examples of functional fixedness that occurred when approaching the problem, then they have identified fruitful topics to develop additional games around.  These new iterative games could provide breakthrough thinking for approaching the problem.  The insights are so valuable that the game facilitator must be continually searching for opportunities to explore them when they arise.  Spending the time designing and playing serious games can be enormously useful for organizations if sufficient attention is given to framing the experience and guiding the learning that results from exploring that experience.

Robert Domaingue

PlaySecure 2022

The 2022 PlaySecure conference will take place online on 15-18 June.

Play Secure explores the overlaps between play and security. Finding and looking at ways that games can be used in modelling real life scenarios to help in decision-making, anticipating upcoming issues, or in discovering new ways that systems of all types can be manipulated.

From D&D-styled incident response exercises to sessions on the psychology of play in creativity. Four interactive days of talks, games, and workshop sessions devoted to play and security.

Global and online-first, community focused, with a wealth of content on security, gaming, and the areas in between; you won’t find anything else like this.

Non-exhaustive examples are: * Tabletop incident pre-enactments as attacker, defender, and stakeholder teams * CTFs * Threat modelling card games * How to find the fun in Security by Design * Security Poker * What can MMORPGs can teach us about security and business crisis management? * How a board game can teach network security and DDoS mitigations? * How can gamification be made to work, and how can it fail? * Anything that brings together play and security… we’d love to see what you come up with…

The conference website and call for papers can be found here. The deadline for proposals is May 13.

MORS: Designing tactical wargames

The Military Operations Research Society is offering a three day online course on designing tactical games on 3-5 May 2022.

In this class, we will focus on building tactical games. Such games require us to represent the details of battle. Whether we do this using computer or manual techniques, it demands no small degree of simulation. We need to simulate the interaction of forces, the effects of human factors and technology, and the effects of the environment on combat. We also need to understand how tactical elements are commanded, and how to incorporate representations of command into our games. Any good wargame strives to produce realistic adjudications and outcomes, but the realism of tactical games is tested even more stringently because the players can more easily relate game mechanics and adjudication to their own, personal, experiences.

All of this can make designing tactical games different—and even more challenging—than designing operational or strategic games. This class will examine some of these challenges and their possible solutions in both theoretical and practical terms.

We will address the subject according to the different combat domains: ground, naval, and air. For ground combat we will discuss how good design must address basic concepts such as mission, time, space, forces, and command relationships. How do you bring all these variables together to create a realistic tactical environment for players to engage in ground warfare? We will review the development of different ways of representing ground combat based on a wide range of commercial and professional games and explore future challenges and innovative approaches.

Naval and air tactics are even more technically complex and interactive, involving systems from space to cyber and beyond. Games must represent not only putting ordnance on the target, but also the entire kill chain from identification to battle damage assessment. We will also explore requirements for gaming ground tactics primarily using manual games. Although these sorts of games lend themselves to digital simulation, digital simulations can limit designer and player creativity in the game design and execution processes. We will focus on designing exploratory games—games to create or test new tactics, weapon systems, or operational concepts. Our discussion of naval and air games will focus on the mid-to-high tactical level—more concerned about formations of multiple units and systems rather than individual ships or aircraft. This will allow us to examine games that incorporate multiple tactical options for the players and integrate the joint kill chain.

Participants will be able to influence the topics and detail covered depending on their interests and desires.

For example, we can go beyond traditional ground, naval, and air to delve into less common types of tactical games, such as tactical special operations games, requiring the representation and simulation of actions by individual operators. As part of these, we expect to draw from concepts in miniatures gaming to examine the challenges of micro-detailed games. We could consider as well the tactical issues in emergency response, cyber operations, technology assessment, humanitarian assistance, and disease response.

The course will be taught by Ed McGrady, Peter Perla, Phillip Pournelle, and Paul Vebber. Additional details and registration at the link above.

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