Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: gamification

simulations miscellany, 11 April 2013


Having now partially recovered from the 2013 Brynania civil war simulation (and the 13,148 emails that the participants made me read over that week), I’m now back to offering the usual periodic PAXsims assemblage of simulation-and-serious-games-related news.


GCN features an article on “Gaming moves to the forefront in government:”

As a learning tool, Hackathorn thinks games have no equal. “Games have a unique ability to engage people, to make them do things,” he said. “They can make a child do homework, or improve someone’s data entry skills.”

Hackathorn said that most of the current game-like efforts in government actually fall into the more general category of gamification, which is different from games. He explained that what makes games interesting to players are the elements in them, which can be broken down and applied to everyday tasks. “We can take game elements that we know players enjoy — like earning badges, getting names posted to leaderboards and reward schedules — and use them to help a player reach ‘flow,’ where time just stops,” he said. “And that can make learning effective, even for tasks that would otherwise be uninteresting” and thus difficult to teach.

President Barack Obama supports gamification efforts through the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  In 2011 he issued a call for more educational games as well as games that address national challenges during a speech at the TechBoston conference. “I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create…educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up,” the president said.

Part of that effort led to the formation of the Federal Games Working Group, which is affectionately called the Federal Games Guild by members, a name invoking World of Warcraft, where likeminded players organize themselves into guilds. Today that group has over 200 members representing 34 agencies, four White House offices and four other federal entities. The group regularly meets to discuss gaming strategy and share experiences.

Not surprisingly for a CGN website that is all about public sector IT issues, the piece all about digital gaming only. Somewhat surprisingly, it says nothing about the largest user of digital games in the US government: the US military and Department of Defence.



Michael Peck defends North Korea from the imperialist aggressors at Foreign Policy magazine.


The latest issue of  the US Department of Defense Modeling and Simulation Coordination Office M&S Newsletter (January-February 2013) is now available. At the moment the link on the M&SCO website is wrong, but with some guessing at the probable file name I found it here.


Want see what they’ve been up to lately in terms of online learning and simulations at the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace? You’ll find a video overview below.

First reflections on a brown bag lunch about “gamification” with Gabe Zichermann

The Knowledge and Learning Council (KLC) here at the Bank hosted a very interesting discussion on gamification with Gabe Zichermann, author of  Game-Based Marketing  and Gamification by Design – you can see his blog here.   Gabe’s presentation was really well done and very well received.  It was mostly a Bank audience (about 60 folks), though there is clearly some selection bias in who attended (people interested in games).  Gabe is a really engaging speaker and, despite his digs on economists, I was happy to act as a discussant for the presentation.

Gabe described the concept of gamification (the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences – see the gamification wiki here).  He explained why this is effective, concentrating on the feedback loop from challenge to achievement.  He focused a lot on incentives, status, access, power and “stuff” – which resonated a lot with the Bank audience.  He then proceeded to provide some really good examples of where incentive structures have been adapted – including lotteries tied to speed cameras to incentivize obeying the law in Sweden and virtual pets built into driver interfaces in hybrid cars.  I’ll link to his actual presentation once the KLC has it up, but a similar presentation is found here.

The "Singification" of work in the 1800s...

All that being said, I still find myself lost in vagaries in the ongoing discussions of gamification.  For all of my love of games, I wondered, during my role as a discussant, whether we aren’t just calling anything that makes work more engaging or in which incentives and feedback are better designed “gamification”.  This is not a new critique, I had the same concern after finishing McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken (Yes, I did finally finish).  This is exacerbated by the fuzziness around the definition of game and gamification which included even facebook in the discussion today.  The gamification concept reminds me of the “singification” that labor underwent in the 1800s, when we were working on the railroad… all the live long day.  What is different about gamification that isn’t just us making work more bearable?

On the flip side, maybe I am just too critical and this is just semantic.  It seems to me that the principles of gamification are right on – we should be looking at systems, teaching and processes and considering where our incentives, feedback and engagement can be improved to provide additional impact and effectiveness.

Another question that concerns me when thinking about gamification is the cultural bias we have/enjoy about games – especially at the Bank.  Gabe is Canadian (and Rex!), I am American – but I am conscious of the different perspectives other cultures have about games – ranging on the spectrum from foolish childsplay to evil gambling.  While we might agree with the principles of gamification, the concept or the language might need to be adapted to context if we want to be effective in different cultures.

Lastly, I still find myself brought back to Gladwell’s three qualities of rewarding work: autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward.  I wonder how many people play games or browse blogs or update facebook at work because they simply are bored or aren’t challenged by their work.  Gabe was brutally honest about how boring and banal many jobs are today (and I thought economics was the dismal science!).  It raised the question, though, about competition for our engagement.  Are the benefits we get from increased engagement due to gamification only because of competition for our limited attention?  If this is the case, then we can expect diminishing returns from gamification as it we would expect to see a ratcheting up of competition for our attention from other sources.  Are there limits to how much engagement we can give?

MMOWGLImania and some thoughts on purposive social media

The impending online playtest of MMOWGLI (the “Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet,” developed for the Office of Naval Research) continues to draw considerable media coverage. One of the most recent contributions is an article in yesterday’s Washington Post:

To combat Somali pirates, the U.S. Navy has relied on warships, snipers and SEAL teams. Now, it is turning to the heavy artillery: Internet gamers.

This month, the Office of Naval Research will roll out the military’s first-ever online war game open to the public, crowd-sourcing the challenges of maritime security to thousands of “players” sitting in front of their computers.

The project — named MMOWGLI (the acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet) — is a video game for policy wonks. It aims to replicate a traditional military strategy session on an exponentially larger scale, bringing together a diverse mix of government and outside experts that would be impossible even in the largest Pentagon conference room.

Through virtual simulation and social media tools made popular on Twitter and Facebook, players will work together to respond to a series of make-believe geopolitical scenarios set off when private ships are hijacked off Somalia’s coast.

“We live in an echo chamber,” Lawrence Schuette, the naval research office’s innovation chief, said of the military. “The challenge is you always want to have an audience that’s diverse in background, diverse in thinking. It’s those intersections where you see creativity occurring. The advantage of online crowd-sourcing is obvious: You have many more intersections and many more diverse backgrounds.”

Thanks in part to pre-launch publicity, more than 7,000 people have signed up for MMOWGLI, far beyond the 1,000 that developers had anticipated for the $450,000 pilot project. Programmers from the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif., that is making the software, have postponed the launch date to be sure the game has enough capacity.

There are, of course, the inevitable comparisons with the World Bank’s EVOKE online development education project. PAXsims gets a mention in the Washington Post article too, specifically in connection with the challenge of “crowd-sourcing” ideas in a way that encourages useful innovation rather than trendy (but potentially unrealistic) internet populism:

But as anyone who has spent time in an online chat room knows, moderating the debate against online bullies and sifting through thousands of comments to find quality ideas can be nearly impossible. During the EVOKE project, players coalesced around proposals that were unsustainable, such as floating greenhouses that would produce food 25 times too expensive to afford, said Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal who blogs on strategic gaming.

“There was not enough quality control,” Brynen said of EVOKE. “Trendy development ideas that appeal to the 15- to 30-year-old age demographic catch on because they’re trendy, not because there is proof they would work.”

The quotes make me sound somewhat more negative than I am about the potential of crowd-sourcing, and certainly very more negative than I am about the remarkable innovative potential of the 15-30 demographic. Rather, my major point would be that a “build it and they will come” approach to purposive social media is a potentially self-defeating: one needs to think not only how one will hook in participants, but also how to best utilize their energy and ideas towards a clear goal. A key part of this, in turn, is thinking very strategically about the explicit and implicit reward structures and filters that might encourage high quality contributions in a way that empowers creativity but keeps it reasonably grounded in reality. In this regard, technology and flashy interfaces can be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In the case of EVOKE, while the approach has considerable potential, I did not feel that it had been executed as well as it might have been. (The World Bank Institute’s own evaluation, which you’ll find here and here, was understandably more positive. Also, have a look too at the game designers’ own reflections here.) Hopefully Season 2 of EVOKE will build on the successes of the project while addressing the weaknesses.

Since MMOWGLI has been developed to spur the development of innovative policy ideas, and since its first playtest addresses a form of hybrid warfare and emerging security threat (maritime piracy), there is another point of comparison that ought to be made, one that has yet to be raised in the media and tech commentary: Small Wars Journal. SWJ is an online community which integrates traditional online publication with a blog, discussion fora, and limited social networking tools. It does so, moreover, in a way that flattens hierarchies and encourages everyone to participate: corporals and colonels are listened to equally, and their contributions judged on the merits.

SWJ, however, does NOT have a particular trendy interface. It has no “gamification” to it at all—no built-in systems for gaining thumbs-ups, for winning avatars, or for earning status points. Despite this, the website has been widely recognized as having had substantial effect on thinking about insurgency, stabilization operations, and similar issues, within the US and around the world. SWJ even made it (together with Lady Gaga) onto Rolling Stone’s 2009 Hot List, despite having the rear end of a donkey as the focal-point of its logo.

I’m not aware that anyone who studies online communities and crowd-sourcing of policy ideas has yet looked systematically at what makes SWJ works (attention graduate students: thesis topic!). As a fairly frequent participant there, I think it has an awful lot to do with the quality of the moderation. Trolls are soon banned. Most of the participants are respectful, and the bounds of productive and unproductive dialogue are fairly well understood. Plus, of course, the “Small Wars Council” discussion forum at SWJ has Ken White. Really, what more do you need? Certainly there are weaknesses with SWJ. As they’ve expanded their publication (and received ever more contributions) they’ve had to work hard to maintain quality. Some discussions can get a bit repetitive (suppressive fire, anyone?). The participant community is not as diverse as it could be (more NGO folks, diplomats, and journalists would be useful, as would more contributors from outside NATO countries). Overall, however, it is hard to see SWJ as anything other than a success.

I think MMOWGLI is a really interesting experiment. They’ve clearly done some thinking, and I hope it works out well. In assessing its contribution, EVOKE—for all its technological parallels—is probably the wrong comparison, given its very different (educational) goals. Rather, the question that needs to be asked is how does MMOWGLI fare in generating ideas compared to a more conventional face-to-face workshop, such as the recent NATO experiment on countering hybrid threats? How does it fare compared to the more traditional online model of SWJ, or the various elements of the policy blogosphere more broadly? How do we measure this, especially given that “cost per clever idea” seems a very difficult metric to generate? And how can the project be used to further advance our understanding of leveraging the internet for purposes of policy discussion, debate, and innovation?

We’ll be following the MMOWGLI experiment with interest.

Gamifying (online) Jihad?

A recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The World of Holy Warcraft” examines the increasing gamification of online jihadist forums and websites through the use of various incentive mechanisms (achievement badges, avatars, the ability of users to rate postings, and so forth):

Gamification is purely an appeal to psychology, the principle that competition matters more than fun. When knowledge or experience is given a point value, it can be measured and compared through giving out badges and levels, statuses and prizes.

Hard-line Islamist sites have been increasingly building in gamified elements to their forums. “Reputation points” are the most common of these. Users can now earn status for the messages they post and the quality of the messages as judged by other members. In many of the forums, members can only receive points after they have posted a certain number of messages, enticing users to post more messages more quickly. Points can result in an array of seemingly trivial rewards, including a change in the color of a member’s username, the ability to display an avatar, access to private groups, and even a change in status level from, say, “peasant” to “VIP.” In the context of the gamified system, however, these paltry incentives really matter.

“The real reason I implemented [reputation points] is so we can weed-out useful posts from useless,” explained an administrator of the Islamic Awakening forum who goes by the username “Expergefactionist.” Virtually every Islamist hard-line forum now has adopted a points-based system, as have some non-Islamist hard-line forums: On Stormfront, for instance, a popular white supremacist forum, users earn points for their posts that can add up to earned statuses ranging from “will be famous soon enough” to “has a reputation beyond repute.”

Given that the piece is by Jarret Brachman and Alix Livine—both excellent analysts of online jihadist social media—it is certainly well worth a read. There’s also an interview with Brachman on the same subject at Fast Company.

While I think the article usefully highlights the ways in which technology and innovations in interface design can be used by Warhammer enthusiasts, counter-insurgents, owners of Siberian huskies, and the supporter of violent non-state armed groups alike, I must admit that it also spurred a few nagging concerns about the broader excitement out there in the games and social media community about “gamification.”

Nagging Doubt #1: Are incentive mechanisms always best thought of through the lens of “games”? When I take part in a panel discussion and the audience nods in agreement (or laughs at a joke) I certainly take it as a positive and encouraging gesture. There may even be a competitive element with other panelists. But is it a game? Or simply a much deeper part of collective social interaction? Are all positive feedback loops “games”—even when participants aren’t particularly thinking of them in a competitive fashion? Does labelling this “gamification” in the context of social media actually risk missing or distorting some of what is going on here?

Nagging Doubt #2: Is there much comparative research on the effects of incentive mechanisms on participation in online fora? Does gamification count for much, or is its effect rather marginal compared to other things, like graphic design, intuitive layout, policing by moderators to weed out the trolls, the quality of participants, the quality of supporting materials (data and other resources), and so forth? I regularly participate in three professional fora and a half dozen game and hobby-related ones, and certainly in my case there is absolutely no correlations between the “gamification” of the site and the frequency of my participation.

Nagging Doubt #3: When terms like “gamification” become this trendy I worry a little. I can’t help it—I’m an iconoclast at heart (which probably explains nagging doubts #1 and #2).

Clearly, the increasing use of formalized incentive structures in online discussion fora or other social media raises a number of interesting questions. However, Judd Antin and Elizabeth Churchill have noted, the topic has been studied very little to date in any rigorous sort of way:

Although badges are in widespread use in social media, relatively little research has been devoted to understanding how or why they are valuable and useful. While badges can be fun and interesting, these qualities do not inherently produce social engagement or enhance motivation.


We must begin by examining the premise that badging systems are engaging and motivational for all. Evidence suggests that badges are not universally appreciated, understood, or attended to. For example, Montola and colleagues implemented badges in a photo sharing service and found that many users did not appreciate them and were worried that badges would create counterproductive usage patterns. Our own in- progress research on FourSquare indicates that most users find only some types of badges interesting or motivational. Furthermore, just as some have questioned whether badges are actually counter- productive as game mechanics, the “corruption effects of extrinsic incentives”  could make some badges harmful to intrinsic motivation.

Together, these findings demand a program of systematic research into the dynamics of badges in social media systems. [References removed—click the link above to read them.]

Chris Hecker raised the question at GDC 2010 (discussed here and here) of whether achievement awards could in some contexts actually be harmful to game design (and, presumably, social fora too) by leading participants to focus on extrinsic rewards (such as winning a new badge, title, or “thumb-ups” for other forum users) rather than intrinsic ones (in the case of jihadist forums, discussion for its own intellectual and political value). Certainly there is a literature in social psychology that suggests that extrinsic rewards can either encourage or discourage intrinsic motivations, and might even result inferior output over time. Given that translating online discussion to militant jihadist action presumably requires quite high degrees of intrinsic motivation, the cognitive complexities at work here are quite important.

None of which is to say, of course, that I think Brachman and Livine were wrong to flag the issue. It is certainly interesting, and it might even be significant. It is to say, however, that evidence of increasing gamification in social media is not, in and of itself, evidence that such gamification is having any particular effect.

h/t Ora Szekely

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