Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Influence, Inc.

Influence, Inc. Curious Bird, 2022. Game designer: Amanda Warner. USD$11.99 via Steam and Humble, for Mac and PC.

As a political scientist, influence games have always interested me. Information management, message framing, propaganda and disinformation figured prominently in the Brynania peacebuilding simulation and in many of the megagames I’ve designed or helped run. Last year I was involved in several influence games being conducted by or for NATO members, variously swaying elections, undermining democracies, and supporting all sorts of nefarious activities as a leader of the Red team. Most of the matrix games I’ve been involved in—whether exploring the war against ISIS or the dangers of African Swine Fever—have had messgaing and influence as a central game dynamic. Even as I write this review, I’m involved in two game design projects that have information as a central elements: the second phase of the READY project on infectious disease response (which will focus, in part on, risk communication and community engagement), and a newsgathering simulation for CNN Academy.

I’m also impressed with Amanda Warner’s work as a game designer. For those reasons, I was excited to play her latest game, Influence, Inc.

In Influence, Inc. you are a senior executive in advertising/social media firm, seeking to influence public perceptions to support your clients. Some of this is quite benign, for example adding clout to a new product launch. Some of it is a little more dubious, like helping public figures recover from scandals. And some of it is downright nefarious, working for political leaders and governments to defame opponents, undermine (or support) popular protests, and influence elections—often covertly, in a way that provides your client with a degree of plausible deniability. It’s all very Madison Avenue meets Cambridge Analytica.

To do all this, you have access to a network of social media accounts (“online persona” or bots) to insert and signal-boost messages. You can use your team to turn boring press releases and other information into potentially viral content and memes. You can target social media advertising at selected demographics. On the darker side, your “compromiser” can dig up dirt on selected targets, and you can leak information to various media outlets if you would prefer to insert it into the public domain through an intermediary.

Throughout, you’ll have access to information on what content is trending, opinion polling, and the status of petitions. The objective of the game is to earn as much money as possible by accepting and completing contracts within specified periods of time. Be careful which contracts you accept, however, or you might be messaging against yourself!

I though Influence, Inc. was lively, witty, and addressed key elements of modern influence operations and social/media ecosystems. Anyone designing an influence game—including manual ones—would be well advised to play it for inspiration.

I also see the game having potential instructional value as a homework “play” assignment for courses on the media or modern information technology. My only caveat here is that, despite a tutorial mode that explains game controls and options as they become available, some students will feel overwhelmed by the plethora of information, choices, and interface options presented to them—despite everything you hear about Gen-Z “digital natives,” a quite significant proportion of contemporary students still struggle when asked to play an unfamiliar game. Here, I recommend you explain the main interface items in class before sending them off to play it at home. You should also urge students to make liberal use of the pause button to stop the clock as they decide what to do. In the longer term, an instructional guide addressing core game components and interface, key assumptions and game dynamics, and debrief questions to consider after the game is over would be very useful.

Give it a try yourself!

No shadowy foreign interests, bots, media leaks, or covert funding were involved in the writing of this review.

2 responses to “Review: Influence, Inc.

  1. Rex Brynen 15/07/2022 at 10:32 am

    There is a quite large and constantly growing literature on using IR simulations for classroom teaching, but little of this examines the underlying validity of the model. Rather, a particular approach is often “baked in” for instructional purposes. On using games to explore broader issues in international relations and social science, there’s been some interesting work done at KCL, by the SIGNAL project, and by folks like Ellie Bartels, Brandon Valeriano, Jackie Schneider, Reid Pauly, Erik Lin-Greenberg (and I’m sure several that I’ve forgotten). In my own work, I’m too busy designing to write much up on methodology at the moment, and I don’t really use games for hypothesis testing, etc.

  2. Timothy Smith 15/07/2022 at 9:53 am

    Rex, looks like an interesting and informative game. And I like your ‘benign-dubious-nefarious’ spectrum of organizational morals. But it was your intro that sparks some thinking. As a poli sci/IR undergrad, I was steeped in basic concepts and models of IR dynamics: realism vs. idealism; deterrence vs security spirals and inadvertent escalation; leader vs. polity vs. anarchic/IR-systemic levels and origins of wars, etc. HK, Waltz, Allison, Jervis, Levy, George, the Holstis, etc. (that generation — and, although I’ve lost touch, the paradigm seems alive and well in curricula today).

    All of these distilled mental models posed well-formed hypotheses amendable to testing, and all seem apt for instantiation in sim models/games. HK, Allison, Jervis, George and Levy are/were especially careful to articulate their propositions in Popperian terms (refutable conjectures) and to amass extensive inductive evidence illustrating cases.

    So I’ve often wondered if any extant commercial products might be suitable, such as GMT’s many card-driven pol-mil games — Here I Stand, Virgin Queen, Imperial Struggle, Triumph and Consequences, etc. (I lean toward tabletop myself; need time off the computer; also, it creates a more lively, heads-up social arena for student interaction). (One disappointment: still no good game on the origins of WWI.) I do not list Twilight Struggle since it’s a resource-allocation Eurogame vice an historical simulation and unsuitable for exploring real-world diplomacy and grand strategy.

    I’ve always found in my SimBAT/sim-based strategic/defense course design that the real learning comes through the course wrap, with the game simply being the lab, in which the model ‘concretizes’ the structural/functional concepts and the sim experience unfolds potential consequences of alternative choices within the ‘IR system/world order’ the game’s model establishes. I’d like to explore the same approach to diplomacy and IR theory.

    Does your work address these issues? (I know you tend to focus on hands-on crisis-management.) Have other IR scholars explored sim-based instruction with regard to these or other global/world-order concepts? If so, can you point me to any materials/writings?

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