When the virus spread around the world and the authorities began to impose quarantine, the problems became apparent. There was resistance to the closure of services, few wanted to postpone weddings, and funerals could not wait. Young single people wanted to have fun. A lot of people didn’t like wearing masks. And parents tore their hair out when schools closed.
None of this is news. But that was news in 2008 when all of these events took place inside the Superstruct simulation game that 10,000 people played online, imagining how they would respond to a respiratory pandemic. The game was created by Jane McGonigal and her colleagues at the Palo Alto Institute for the Future. The subsequent simulation, Evoke, caused wildfires and a QAnon-style conspiracy group called “Citizen X”. This was in 2010.
In a new book called ImaginableMcGonigal argues that games can teach us something about the future. She won’t be the first to believe that games provide important lessons about the world, as Jon Peterson confirms in his meticulous history of war games and role-playing games. game in the world.
How important these lessons are depends on the game. Consider chess. Although outwardly a war game, it is too stylized to teach anything beyond the most general concepts of military tactics. Johann Helwig, a mathematician and entomologist, enhanced the game of chess by making it more difficult. His 1780 chess variant was played on a board of up to 2,000 squares and included such pieces as a bishop, a jumping bishop, a jumping queen, 30 knights, and 40 pawns.
Kriegsspiel, designed in 1824 by Georg von Reiswitz the Younger, added realistic maps and unpredictable unit damage. Then came the “free Kriegsspiel”, an 1870s version that did away with much of the rule-based complexity and relied on a referee to use his judgment. These games had an impact on the Prussian army as a way of teaching young officers about strategic ideas.
After World War I, the US Naval War College went even further with full-scale simulation exercises. As Steven Johnson describes in his book farsighted, one such exercise, Fleet Problem XIII of 1932, clearly showed the vulnerability of US Pacific bases to attack from the west nine years before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. “If the US military had successfully applied the lesson of Naval Problem XIII, it is quite possible that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would have failed,” writes Johnson, “or never have been attempted.”
The next phase of war games, first started at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s, was the move into theater of the mind. Instead of moving pieces around, players tried to see the world from the point of view of the antagonist. Anything could be tried, writes John Peterson. “Governments can mobilize armies, spread disinformation, threaten colleagues, raise money with bonds—anything a real government can do.” Judges were supposed to judge the outcome of such “moves”, but the rules were minimal because the rules made assumptions about what was possible and what was not, and the point was to discover new probabilities.
As Cold War strategist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling put it, open-ended games were valuable because “the one thing a man cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis, or how heroic his imagination, is is to make a list of things that will never cross his mind.” Such Cold War simulation games led to important realizations—for example, that there was no simple, direct, fast, and tamper-proof way for Washington and Moscow to communicate. Schelling and others campaigned for such a system, but the hotline was not introduced until 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis showed the urgent need for it.
Schelling wrote that games have other advantages as well. Games are exciting and stimulating; they help people grasp ideas faster and remember them; they allow you to propose crazy plans and see things from the enemy’s point of view. By their very design, these games tend to destroy groupthink. Someone has the task of pretending to be an enemy and will inevitably find something sneaky to try. The fundamental advantage seems to be filling Schelling’s list with things that will never happen. You can’t make such a list, but you can play it.
No game can accurately predict the future. But as a way of living exploration of possible futures, they are hard to beat. Life throws things at us that we may not have suspected. Many have warned us about the risk of a pandemic, but few have thought about the need for Zoom services, the plight of working parents, or that conspiracy theorists will find fertile ground for lies and misconceptions. People playing games with the pandemic saw all these possibilities clearly enough.
As an experienced gamer, I am easily convinced of the benefits of games, but they are not a panacea, even if they predict the future. Superstruct and Evoke didn’t prevent pandemic policy mistakes; games at Rand did not provide a hotline between Moscow and Washington until the terrible failure of the Cuban crisis. Fleet Issue XIII predicted the assault on Pearl Harbor, but did not prevent it.
However, even a little foresight is worth it. And whether the game helps you imagine the future or not, it’s much more fun than extrapolating a curve on a graph.
Written and first published in Financial Times April 22, 2022.