Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: World Bank

World Bank: Gaming for peace


The World Bank blog features a new article by Laura Bailey on how games can be used to explore the challenges of peacebuilding, stabilization, and reconstruction. Part of the piece discusses the Carana simulation used by the Bank to teach staff about fragile and conflicted countries.

The Carana simulation was a central element in the World Bank Group’s original Core Course on Fragility and Conflict for its staff around the world.  It did not only embed experiential – more engaging and interactive – learning as the core pillar of the Bank’s deepening focus on staff learning on fragile and conflict situations (FCS); it also took the accumulated wisdom of then-cutting-edge analytics on FCS and built those principles into the rules of the Carana game.

We’ve discussed Carana here at PAXsims too.

The second part of the article looks at the iOS game Rebel, Inc.

Enter mobile technology, with a deceptively simple proposition by a gaming studio called Ndemic Creations: make commercially successful games about wicked world problems – such as contagious disease and war – that can be played on your smartphone or tablet.  If the game is good enough, players around the world – as many as millions of them – can learn how to solve pressing development challenges while they’re busy having fun. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control were so interested in Ndemic’s first game Plague Inc. that they invited Ndemic founder and lead designer James Vaughn to chat with their scientists.

In May 2019, at the annual Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, I moderated a deluge of questions from a packed room in a conversation with James about Rebel Inc., a simulation game launched in December 2018 that is engaging over four million players worldwide on the issue of post-conflict stabilization.

It’s an excellent game too, as you can read in our PAXsims review.


Report from Caranas #39, 40 and 41

Just returning from another delivery of Carana in Nairobi – our 13th delivery of the core course and 14th class of Caranas (or our 39th, 40th and 41st parallel universe Caranas). We had a very good group of students, the whole range of expertise and seniority in the Bank, from junior staff on their first assignment to some managers and senior team leaders, resulting in a tremendous amount of exchange between students. This is an important feature of the success of the course – our course participants often don’t realize until the end of the week how we’ve tricked them into helping us to teach their peers through the simulation and other group work. If we were to ask them in advance to teach their peers, we’d get a few hours (if we were lucky) of powerpoint dumps of varying quality, but for the course we just stick the participants in the fictional (yet fairly realistic) world of Carana. In the simulation, the participants need to apply their knowledge and they can actively debate policy and practice with just a bit of guidance from us – ending up training each other very intensively for four days.

The recovery plans for this group of Caranas were basically “okay” – no major missteps, no massive failures, one of the teams resorted to using the military to break the coal strike, a few lingering security issues persisted that could go horribly wrong, one group completely ignored the threat from the Presidential Guard despite repeating warnings. For this delivery, our fearless troupe of SimMasters (Marcelo, Anne, Alys, Sarah and I and Khadija in training) agreed that we got a particularly technocratic response to the issues – basically the teams ignored a lot of the ethnic tensions, their roles’ own personal motives (patronage networks they represent, personal incentives) and the history of the country (that got Carana into the civil war) in favor of recommending the kind of blanket solutions we, the international community, often push – demobilize to hit some target, often with disregard for the composition and purpose of the resulting army; treat elections as a milestone to hit rather than a national discussion and opportunity for reconciliation; provide health and education for “development as usual” and build roads and get the infrastructure repaired so that the economy can get going again, regardless of who benefits (again, often ignorant of the drivers that led to the conflict). This happens a lot in Carana – while we give people roles with backgrounds that connect them to particular ethnic groups or even personal incentives for malicious behavior, we rarely can replicate in the simulation the kind of cross purposes or even antagonism that we see in real life. In that respect, I think we fall short a bit in our simulation in tapping some of the real power of “role-playing”.
As we rarely get a “really good” plan, these outcomes generally serve as teaching moments. Even with the best of intentions and cooperation, this kind of work is difficult.

Map of the 8th Continent

Map of the 8th Continent used as background “color” in Carana deliveries

That is, despite the tendency of people to “play nice” in the Carana simulation and work well together to come up with a plan, even the most technocratic and cooperative solutions are often inadequate to resolve the issues. I think this is partly by design (everything is a priority and there are insufficient resources to do everything), but also partly because a really good plan requires a deep understanding of the underlying drivers of conflict in the simulation. In effect, a cooperative and congenial atmosphere often results in the players ignoring the deeply divisive issues the plan is meant to resolve. Rarely do players step back and consider the ramifications of their interventions. Will their plan result in continued disenfranchisement of the West and South? Have they resolved the tensions around control of the diamonds and timber that were the principal source of financing for the rebels? Have they neutralized the threat of coup from the ousted president who still has links to loyalists in the military? Even after 40+ Caranas, we’ve yet to see a recovery plan that really considers these types of questions and provides “real” answers.
More than 400 people have visited Carana (not including the UN, African Union or AusAID deliveries), and we have extremely positive responses. I continue to believe it is a valuable teaching tool and intend to use it for many more courses to come, but I’m concerned that we’re still missing the mark on simulating the kind of contentious environment that exists in a post-conflict or fragile, highly corrupt and unequal society, where priorities and planning are driven by patronage and personal interests. I’m not disposed to creating “victory conditions” or other artificial incentives for people to play their part, but I am still looking for something to encourage participants to roleplay and replicate the more realistic friction that exists in these environments. Any ideas?

World Bank = gaming geeks?

One might be excused these days from thinking that the World Bank is becoming the Games Workshop or Electronic Arts of international financial institutions. They have the Carana simulation on fragile and conflict-affected countries (which my PaxSims co-conspirator Gary Milante moderates). They have the award-winning Evoke game that Jane McGonigal designed, intended to “encourage [African] students to engage in local communities and develop innovative solutions to local development challenges.” There is SimSIP, a “set of user-friendly simulation tools that make it easier to conduct policy-oriented empirical work on a wide range of social indicators and poverty.” The World Bank is also using a role-playing simulation to help build national capacities to address problems of money laundering and corruption (designed, in this case, by another good friend and gaming buddy Tommy Fisher —which helps to explain why we haven’t been able to play D&D, 40k, Labyrinth, or steampunk Victorian zombie adventures in weeks, since he’s off travelling the world).

Now the World Bank Institute has issues a request for proposals for two new (computer) games to address processes of political coalition-building (with an initial focus on the issue of procurement reform) and urban development:

Both products are intended to enhance existing multi-national training programs and activities that emphasize the key role of coalition building in leadership. These digital games would be added to traditional materials WBI is utilizing in its leadership workshops. Preference will be given to a vendor who has already developed similar game simulations and can re-purpose an existing technology and game structure to serve this project. Each game is conceived of as a single player strategy game. Relevant examples include Executive Command and Peacemaker. The interface is expected to be simple and accessible, with easy to use game mechanics, targeted at non-gamers.

If anyone is interested, they’ll find the full RFP here. The closing date is 28 February 2011.


You’ll notice that the World Bank’s RFP suggests that game designers “re-purpose an existing technology and game structure to serve this project.” Well, in that case, what better lesson could there be in the importance of coalition-building stakeholder consultation—or, more accurately, the costs of failing to do those things—than World of Warcraft’s legendary Leeroy Jenkins?

It’s all there. Shared interests. Teamwork. Coordination. Dragon eggs. Chicken. They just need to somehow integrate that part about “Procurement Reforms – from legislation (passing the law) to law implementation and acceptance.” How hard can that be?

Reflections on EVOKE

On May 19, the first iteration of EVOKE—the World Bank’s pioneering online social networking project/game on social entrepreneurship—came to an end. Some top players will receive online mentorhsips, seed money for projects, and a travel scholarships to an EVOKE summit in Washington DC. Others will get certificates for participating. A second run of the project is planned for 2011.

The Numbers…

According to the World Bank Institute:

By the time the EVOKE adventure ended on May 19, 19,324 people from 150 countries registered to play. Players had submitted over 23,500 blog posts (about 335 each day), 4,700 photos and over 1,500 videos highlighting challenges and solutions to the development issues featured each week.

You’ll also find some positive reporting of the data on InfoDev. While I haven’t yet seen how those numbers broke down, earlier statistics posted on the EVOKE website on March 20 give some idea of who was participating:

  • Total number of Agents (as of March 20): 11,474
    • by gender:
      • 2990 women (26.1%)
      • 8484 men (73.9%)
    • by location
      • United States: 5656 (49.3%)
      • Canada: 944 (8.2%)
      • South Africa: 871 (7.6%)
      • United Kingdom: 436 (3.8%)
      • Other: 3567 (31.2%)

While the totals were much almost twice as high by the time the project ended it May, presumably the gender and location distributions would have been roughly similar.

What do those numbers mean? Since EVOKE was especially aimed at African youth, critics are sure to point to the fact that the vast majority of participants were in the US, UK, Canada, and likely elsewhere in the OECD countries.

I’m not sure this is a terribly useful criticism. It was clear from the start that any web-based English-language educational initiative would suffer from this bias, given the financial, technical, and linguistic barriers to internet access in Africa. The real issue is how many non-Western participants were engaged at what cost per capita, and since I haven’t seen a detailed budget for the project I’m not really in a position to comment on its cost effectiveness. However, if the project did engage significant numbers in the developing world at a reasonable cost, the participation of those outside the primary target group isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Presumably, it represents a contribution to both development education and cross-cultural dialogue, as well as contributing substantive content in terms of EVOKE blog-posts.

The reported number of blog posts per agent suggests that many participants took a tour of EVOKE but soon found their interest waning. The Edutech report suggests that 10-20% of participants could be categorized as “active,” which seems about right to me, and not at all bad for a project of this sort. According to the EVOKE Class of 2010 “graduation” data available via Googledocs, some 4,733 Agents graduated (by completing at least one of the various missions, objectives, and quests), with an average of 3.2 missions, 3.9 objectives, and 2.5 quests per agent by my calculation.

Personally, I think that EVOKE’s sometimes rather awkward interface was a barrier to fuller participation. It was one of the less intuitive and effective social networking or online discussion forums that I’ve used.


Finally, what of the content? Number crunching, site statistics, and cost-effectiveness data really doesn’t tell you what participants may—or may not—have learned from the process.

Here, I’ll admit, my initial concerns were largely sustained throughout the project. EVOKE itself consisted of several main content components:

  • The central comic-style storyboard, which told the tale of the shadowy EVOKE group that worked to alleviated global development problems in 2020 through innovative action and social entrepreneurship.
  • Initial links to outside materials.
  • The blog entries, pictures, videos, comments, and links contributed after the launch by the EVOKE mentors.
  • The “evidence,” blog entries, pictures, videos, comments, and links contributed by ordinary participants.

The storyline itself, which was intended as the spark for each week’s discussions among agents, was usually rather weak.

  • Episodes 1-2 saw a famine in Japan, due—apparently—to food shortages. The famine, however, seemed confined to Japan, which suggests that either 1) global trade had collapsed (otherwise, why not import food?), or 2) Japan had suffered a severe economic crisis which had drastically reduced household purchasing power. There was no discussion of this, however. Instead, the heroes of the story, dispatched from the secret EVOKE HQ in Senegal, were sent to Japan to construct rooftop gardens and floating greenhouses in Tokyo Harbour. Problem solved! From a development economics point-of-view, it made no sense at all, and there were few helpful links to expert websites on food security issues. Since I’m a teacher, I would have to assign it a failing grade: F.
  • Episode 3 concerned brownouts and electrical shortages in Rio de Janiero. The EVOKE heroes promoted power-generating windmills, solar balloons, and even a piezoelectric disco dance-floor as the solution. There was no discussion of the major issues in the energy sector (most of which aren’t resolvable through small scale social entrepreneurship). The only saving grace of the episode was the failure of one local community to take up the windmill initiative, which nicely highlighted the need for community and individual buy-in to development projects. Grade: C.
  • Episode 4 dealt with a future London where heavy rain had overloaded the sanitation system, resulting in severe clean water shortages. Cholera in Southwark! How could the EVOKE team warn the public where and how to get safe water? Those of you who might have said “public service announcements in the media” are apparently under the misapprehension that the Britons of 2020 still spend hours watch Big Brother, Dr. Who, or football on the telly. Instead, giant organic LED displays are required used to display images on buildings (presumably capitalizing on that quaint English custom of standing outside during torrential downpours staring at, well, the sides of office buildings). Yes, good development practice suggests that you do something complicated, expensive, and untested instead of something easy, cheap, and proven. Grade: F
  • Episode 5 saw the collapse of the post-communist banking system in Cuba, apparently spurred by  the crash of the US dollar. The answer: print an alternative local currency (apparently backed by nothing) on old printing presses! Call it the Somalia solution.  There’s also a lot of discussion in the episode of community banking and microinvestment, but not really enough for the average EVOKE reader to make much sense of. Grade: D

  • Episode 6 addressed empowering women through the story of a woman activist kidnapped by retrograde jihadists who opposed female participation in the public sphere. Fortunately, one hacker is able to identify her location and enable a military rescue (how very Special Forces of the World Bank!), while others promote a venture capital fund to assist female entrepreneurs. Sadly, gender empowerment is a little more complicated than that. Grade: C+
  • Episode 7 concerned a fire in the future Los Angeles that leaves 300,000 homeless. The team uses the Ushahidi crowdsourcing technologies to facilitate emergency communications, and helps resolve the immediate emergency housing situation with hexayurts. The lesson here is urban resilience and the remarkable capabilities of disaster-affected populations, two very important things that media coverage of disasters often obscures with its focus on external aid. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that theme was very effectively communicated. Grade: C+
  • Episode 8 highlighted the value of indigenous knowledge—again, another important development lesson. The EVOKE team discouraged slash-and-burn agriculture in favour of more sustainable agricultural practices, as well as promoting ecotourism (to reduce poaching) and highlighted the value of indigenous botanical medicines (again, all useful things). What was lost, perhaps, was the need to embed this within broader context. After all, you need transportation infrastructure and marketing expertise to expand the agricultural sector, and tourist infrastructure to support ecotourism. While perhaps I’m adding too many layers, it is precisely this sort of interplay of complexity that make development work interesting. They are certainly things that social entrepreneurs need to take into account. Grade: B-
  • Episode 9 sees an outbreak of River Flu in China. The EVOKE team helps network researchers and clinicians, and microfranchise pharmacies and clinics. With the public bombarded with inaccurate rumours that that threaten to create mass panic, they also help to broadcast more useful information via (very sensibly) TV and SMS. Grade: B+ for the SMS usage, but D for the franchise clinics and pharmacies—as a longer term initiative perhaps, but as a rapid response to an epidemic and public panic? Hardly. Plus this is China, with a massive public sector to be mobilized for localized emergencies.

Running against the backdrop of all these adventures are the activities of Citizen X, a hacker who seems to want to publicize the EVOKE team’s secrets at any costs. At the very end, a shadowy figure called Alpha appears, and threatens to destroy EVOKE. Perhaps they’re both anti-globalization protesters. Or one might be Paul Wolfowitz, bent on revenge.

The Discussion

Despite a suboptimal user interface, EVOKE did generate some 23,500 blog posts—a not inconsiderable number of reflections, dialogues, and ideas on development and social entrepreneurship. Moreover, the dialogue (or, more accurately, the “multilogue”) went beyond this in many cases, to the formation of friendships, collaboration, third-party wikis and websites, and enduring off-site contacts and networking. Much of this was undoubtedly a very positive thing. (Those interesting in the impact of all this would do well to have a look through the discussion at, a website intended to “leave a trace of EVOKE’s social experiments, fails and wins,” as well as EVOKE Forever)

Some of the blog postings on EVOKE were outstanding: thoughtful, original, contemplative, and thought-provoking. Many were good best efforts, as participants sought to engage the subject matter. Still others were innocently inaccurate, misleading, or distracting. A few had particular viewpoints that they wished to evangelize. The peer review process built into the system provided some degree of quality-check, in that Agents could “vote” approval of ideas posted by others. However, such net populism doesn’t always assure that what receives approval is all that sensible or grounded in international development experience. (Had it been, there would have been an EVOKE revolt at the silly storylines featured each week.) There were also mentors who posted ideas, or who might comment on the ideas and issues raised by others. However they were too few to guide or facilitate many of the discussions.

Any experienced teacher knows that classroom discussion is a good thing. However, they also know that if you leave a class to discuss issues without any support, they’re at significant risk of accepting trendy stereotypes or allowing inaccuracies to go unchallenged. Sadly, I saw a fair share of this in EVOKE discussions. I’m not suggesting here that EVOKE ought to promote a particular set of “truths.” I am suggesting that far more effort needs to be put into how the initiative can encourage participants to develop a critical yet well-grounded understanding of development issues.

Final Thoughts

There has been some significant discussion of EVOKE in the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, much of this has been filtered through ideological lenses: since the World Bank is behind the project, it must be a cunning PR ruse to brainwash the masses into blind acceptance of structural adjustment, privatization, and the Washington consensus. This sort of criticism is certainly evident in the satirical INVOKE site that was set up as a parody to EVOKE (see typical panel below—it’s witty, biting stuff, and often better written than the real website). Similarly, the content of EVOKE has also been criticized for promoting a sort of philanthrocapitalism that fails to challenge market systems.

I’ll leave those sorts of debates for those who prefer to see the complex challenges of development in starkly black and white terms. However, even within the context of the development community mainstream I think that EVOKE’s basic storyline is, for the most part, dysfunctional. In promoting social entrepreneurship—a worthy goal—it usually fails to highlight the real-life challenges of bring ideas to fruition and having a positive impact. Many of the sorts of fixes that the EVOKE team adopt are typically simplistic, gimicky, unsustainable, and divorced (and devoid) of broader social, economic, political, and cultural context.

It could be argued, of course, that things needed to be simplified for the target youth audience. While this is true, I’m not sure that complexity can’t be made interesting and engaging. Certainly readers can be encouraged to ask questions, consult stakeholders, and pretest ideas.

It could also be argued that the EVOKE story was simply a mechanism designed to encourage initial discussion and later activism—a prod to social networking and action, rather than educational content in itself. This, I think, is a much more substantive response to my concerns. After all, the website is built around the idea of participation and discussion. It also repeatedly emphasizes the “ten powers” needed to change the world—collaboration, courage, creativity, entrepreneurship, local insight, knowledge sharing, resourcefulness, spark, sustainability, and vision—all of which are obviously good things.

However, I think they’ve underestimated the extent to which students can absorb the wrong lessons, and overestimated the ability of many participants to separate the valuable lessons from the more misleading blog posts and comments. It also doesn’t answer the question why the World Bank—with more possibly more smart, experienced technical and aid professionals than any other development institution on the planet—couldn’t have come up with content that more accurately describes what real-world development looks like.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that the “medium is the message,” suggesting that form is more determinative of social impact than is content. In some ways, this idea seems deeply embeded into the design philosophy and visual imagery of EVOKE, which very much puts emphasis on edgy style and social networking and pays rather less attention to providing a supportive knowledge base.

However, McLuhan was at best only half right. The message is the message too, and on this critical dimension the first iteration of EVOKE fell short. Perhaps a second version will address some of these shortcomings. After all, good social entrepreneurship honestly assesses its impact and shortcomings, and tries again.

* * *

Rex – having had nothing to do with Evoke, yet working at the Bank, I have to say I think this is a fair assessment – Evoke was awful flashy and the teaching seemed undirected at best (an afterthought or nonexistent at worst).  I had signed up as a Mentor, but my instructions were to click on people’s walls and tell them what was good – it could’ve used a lot more direction and much clearer objectives.  In my opinion, simulations are best when they are designed with clear teaching objections and then the participants are tricked into learning, often without realizing it until after the fact.  I hope evaluations like this are heard by the designers as constructive criticism and are useful in their next attempts, because successful learning in environments like these would be a great step forward for development practitioners and those interested in these topics. – Gary

EVOKE update

A few more discussions from about the net on the World Bank’s EVOKE project, and the broader use of serious social networking games:

Games like World of Warcraft give players the means to save worlds, and incentive to learn the habits of heroes. What if we could harness this gamer power to solve real-world problems? Jane McGonigal says we can, and explains how.

As of the afternoon of March 16, over 9,800 participants from over 130 countries have registered to play.  This figure is almost double what we had projected for the entire 10 weeks of the game.  Just under 20% of total visitors to the site (50,457 unique visitors) have registered to play….

Urgent Evoke is shaping up to be the most popular game of its type by far, which is a testament to its message and marketing power. At the rate it’s growing, it could have up to tens of thousands of players by the time it’s finished. A big reason why Evoke is popular is because of its simple and attractive Obama-like promise: “You can become a superhero. You can change the world.”

  • Invoke—The Game A discussion of both EVOKE and its INVOKE parody, at the Persuasive Games blog.

The World Bank EVOKEs the power of social network gaming

The World Bank is also getting into the use of online games to engage youth (especially in Africa) with EVOKE, a newly-launched social networking game.

This isn’t entirely a game in the usual sense, although it has objectives and puzzles and rewards. Rather, it seems to be using those mechanisms to get young people engaged in a sort of online conversation, to exchange views and ideas, and to interact with more experienced “mentors.” The website integrates blog posts, videos, background materials and a graphic novel style story-telling.

World Bank Institute Launches Online Game EVOKE, a Crash Course in Changing the World

Winners to earn mentorships and scholarships

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2010 – The World Bank Institute has launched an online multiplayer game, EVOKE, designed to empower young people all over the world, but especially in Africa, to start solving urgent social problems like hunger, poverty, disease, conflict, climate change, sustainable energy, lack of health care and education.
Over 4,000 participants from more than 120 countries and territories pre-registered to start playing on March 3. They will be challenged to complete a series of ten missions and ten quests — one per week, over the course of the ten-week game.
“EVOKE helps players learn 21st century skills to become the social innovators who shape the future,”said Robert Hawkins, a Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank Institute, and Executive Producer for the game. “Top players will also earn real-world honors and rewards, namely mentorships with experienced social innovators and business leaders, and scholarships to share their vision for the future at an EVOKE Summit to be held in Washington DC.”

Players who successfully complete ten online missions in ten weeks will also be able to receive a special distinction: World Bank Institute Social Innovator – Class of 2010.
The project began as a response to African universities’ desire to engage students in real world problems and to develop capacities for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial action that will be the engine for job creation now and in the future.
“An evoke is an urgent call to innovation,” says the game’s creative director, Jane McGonigal. “When we evoke, we look for creative solutions and learn how to tackle the world’s toughest problems with creativity, courage, resourcefulness and collaboration.”

Set in the year 2020, the game’s story follows the efforts of a mysterious network of Africa’s best problem-solvers. Each week, as players unravel the mystery of the Evoke network, they will form their own innovation networks: brainstorming creative solutions to real-world development challenges, learning more about what it takes to be a successful social innovator, and finding ways to make a difference in the world.
“In the world of the EVOKE graphic novel, the people most prepared for the problems of the future are the ones who are grappling with them today,” says EVOKE story director Kiyash Monsef. “And that’s exactly what our players are doing by participating in this game. They’re preparing for the future.”


For more information, please visit
Watch the game trailer at:


  • The game is free to play and open to anyone, anywhere.
  • The game begins on March 3, 2010 and runs for 10 weeks.
  • Developed by the World Bank Institute, the learning arm of the World Bank (, and sponsored by InfoDev ( and Korean Trust Fund on ICT4D which funds cutting edge projects supporting ICT and sustainable development.
  • Directed by Jane McGonigal, award-winning alternate reality game director (
  • Developed by Natron Baxter Applied Gaming (
  • Art for the graphic novel is by Jacob Glaser (

While it is certainly innovative, on a quick few minutes of play-through I found it all rather complicated, lacking in either engaging competition in a game sense, or a fluid and obvious social networking interface. Of course, I’m not the target audience, and perhaps it works better when combined with some offline instructional support. Then again, I’m not exactly a social networking neophyte or RPG newbie either. As for the message on innovation and social development, I’m not sure that jazzing it up in clothing of secret future superheroes fighting global problems informs more than it distorts and confuses. As for Japan facing a famine in 2020? It is certainly a nice role-reversal on the Africa-in-peril theme, but it all seemed a bit of a stretch.

It will be interesting to see what the reaction to this one will be.

%d bloggers like this: