“Serious Games” and Global Challenges

Serious games are those where the primary purpose is to hone a skill, rather than to entertain. Serious games can be used in a large number of areas including healthcare, teaching, diplomacy, and obviously, the military. The skills in these experiences can either be for educational or analytic purposes.

The main distinction between the two types are that educational games are intended to convey an already-existing body of knowledge. The game is designed to help players learn that knowledge. In other words, a “right answer” exists for the game in a general sense and the organizer of the experience is helping participants understand that answer at a deeper level.

Analytic games are different – they are intended to help generate a new body of knowledge on the challenge being examined during the game. The game is designed to help players experiment with different approaches – some of which might be “right” and others that are “wrong.” The organizer of the decision simulation (or wargame) is helping participants explore those solutions and capture the best ideas for further analysis.

Clearly, each of these functions are needed to build higher degrees of strategic competence in organizations that are using serious games. In this article, we’ll explore the important role each of these functions play in creating strategic competence in an organization as well as discuss how WarPaths can help bring these roles into strategic wargames.

“Serious Games” and Education

In the introduction, we pointed out that educationally-focused serious games have an existing body of knowledge they intend to convey. This also means that there is a definite ending: the game concludes when the information is conveyed to the best ability of the platform. So, we can say that the game ending is “closed.”

The most common application for such games is in teaching organizational procedures. These procedures can range from how an individual handles sensitive information up to how an international firm will implement continuity of operations in the event of an emergency. Responses to cyber events are another common example.

Another type of application for such games are in conveying more general knowledge in academic settings. For example, an advanced degree-level course at a university might use a serious game to teach the dynamics of crisis negotiation. The end state of this type of game is not as clearly defined as the one in the previous paragraph. Each student’s experience may vary (even with each iteration of the same game) and the depth of understanding will differ, as well.

Across all of these applications, we can imagine a spectrum from highly-structured knowledge being conveyed, to lightly-structured knowledge. On the extreme high structure side, the type of information can be assessed with multiple choice responses. On the other end of the spectrum, the lightly-structured knowledge might require verbal exchanges, essays, or other qualitative approach.

In between these two extremes are the opportunities for “gamification,” where game designers are able to inject more entertaining content to encourage a greater degree of immersion in the material which can speed the learning process.

The most important design challenge for this type of game is in determining the best way to ensure understanding and retention of the information. As the type of information changes, so too does the optimal way to encourage involvement with the material.

“Serious Games” and Analysis

The design challenge for analytic games is much different. Keep in mind while reading this section that the intent behind these games is to discover new information, rather than deliver known information to new recipients.

Game formats must be built to help participants explore new territory, so must balance the flexibility to accommodate unconventional approaches in the game with the necessity of structuring interactions to keep the game on topic. This is not a simple task.

Similar to the categories of information being delivered in a training experience, analytic games can also be seeking either highly- or lightly-structured information.

Some examples of highly-structured information being sought in an analytic game might include:

  • A logistics game being run to determine how many cargo jets are required to support an operation within tolerable risk levels
  • An innovation game being run to determine what levels of investment are needed to keep pace with market competitors
  • A market penetration game being run to determine which untapped markets might return the best ROI based on competitor actions

In each of these examples, the outcomes trend more toward quantifiable information. But, it is CRITICAL to remember that precision is not the same as certainty. Analytic games can only indicate potentialities, not provide a definitive “answer.”

Lightly structured information being sought in an analytic game might include:

  • How well a new or proposed SOP functions during an emergency
  • How changing technology might impact a firm’s comparative advantage in the market
  • What actions an adversary might take during an international crisis

This information is not quantifiable as meaningfully as the examples above. But, the degree of uncertainty might more faithfully represent real life situations as ideas are stress tested and exposed to critique in the game.

Enhancing “Serious Games”

There are a number of methods of enhancing the information utilized within an analytic game. Depending upon the application, they can help fill in gaps that result from a limited number of players, limited time, or an unknown set of competitor actions. They include:

Simulations. Simulations are most easily leveraged in situations where numbers are needed as an important aspect of the game. Examples might include probabilities of success, investments levels required to achieve objectives, etc.

Artificial Intelligence. AI is beginning to fill the gap between quantitative information (that can be created by simulation) and unconstrained qualitative information (that can only created by thinking humans). Its applications in serious games and wargames is still in its early stages, so it is difficult to predict what role it might reliably (and cost effectively) fill.

Expert surveys. In some situations, the course of the game may depend upon complex information not familiar to the participants. In these cases, the game may benefit from including a panel of experts or leverage surveys conducted ahead of time on topics you know are likely to become sticking points in the game progress.

Crowd sourced information. Surveys conducted among the participants during the game are another way to bring in new information to the game’s progress. Anonymous surveys are one method of ensuring honesty in responses can surface important info from players reluctant to speak up. This puts a bit of additional responsibility on the white cell (or game controllers) to identify topics that deserve a quick canvas of the players.

Adversaries. This is an aspect that typically comes “built in” to wargames, but it warrants mention. When games are structured to identify challenges and problems to a plan or strategy, the quality of the information that results from the process is higher than if they are conducted to simply validate an already-held belief. One way to do this is to run the game with players that simulate adversaries. Creative approaches taken by sufficiently staffed opposing teams, who are motivated to win the game, is a great way of stress-testing plans.

“Serious Games” and WarPaths

WarPaths provides several functions for conducting serious games in your organization. It is important to note that it is primarily aimed at lightly-structured information as discussed above. In other words, it is ideal for exploring situations such as:

  • Potential adversary actions in an international crisis or negotiation
  • Weaknesses in an existing strategy for dealing with a civil war
  • Teaching the dynamics of war termination bargaining
  • Exploring the international response possibilities during a pandemic

WarPaths allows you to conduct these wargames synchronously or asynchronously, on a combination of laptops and smartphones. Specific features that help with serious game play include:

  • A complete history of the game moves/arguments to review upon completion
  • Note functions to capture thoughts and recommendations that are spurred by the game
  • The ability to include three distinct team-types (friendly, adversary, and neutral) with unlimited teams in each category
  • Unlimited background slides to focus teams on the issues you want to address with embeddable videos and documents

Want to learn more about how WarPaths can help conduct serious games? Reach out below!