Simulations in theory, simulations in practice

The SocialSIM14 team

I’ve had the great pleasure of spending the weekend with colleagues at the University of Freiburg, talking bout their SocialSIM14. The team – Mikko Huotari, Larissa Mogk, Antonio Farfán Vallespín and Judith Müller  – have secured funding from their university to design a large-scale simulation, as a structure within which students from a number of different disciplines (political science, social anthropology and sociology, with economics to join later) can site experiments and social research projects.

In part through the good offices of this blog, they got in touch with me and I’ve spent the last two days talking with them about their choices and their possibilities. Suffice to say that even many hours’ discussion and debate, we didn’t cover everything we could have and there were as many questions as at the beginning (even if not the same questions as before).

The simulation gameplay is a day-long event for 150 players, putting them into communities that can gradually build additional capacities in a number of different fields, each with benefits and costs, effectively creating new societies. In so doing, it asks players to recognise their responsibilities are not limited to themselves alone.

It’s not my intention to talk you through their game – I’m working on them to write that for us themselves – but I do want to consider some wider lessons that come from our debates, since it has generated some very big questions for me.

What’s it all about?

Perhaps the biggest take-home point for me was the need for clarity about the purpose of a simulation. A lot of our time this weekend was concerned with realising (me as much as them) that the large majority of specific points of interest depended upon the identification of that purpose for SocialSIM14.

As I’ve explained it to you so far in the opening lines – the simulation as a research platform – that might not seem to be a problem. However, the team wants to run the game with players not only from other parts of the university but also with non-students from the community. Thus it also has a social mission, not least in its gameplay, which offers the possibility of building new forms of society. These social and normative factors are not the same as the research one and the consequence is that they pull in rather different directions.

The acknowledgement of this already helped to unblock a lot of matters, by giving a more definitive way of judging the utility and impact. It also helped in starting to think about you communicate the game to players.

Importantly, it was a good demonstration of that way that we often end up creating simulations: we have an idea about doing something, and then work back to a justification for doing that. That’s fine, as long as you recognise that the justification is important in giving overall direction and focus.

I love it when a plan comes together

The second big area that emerged was the need for good resources.

The SocialSIM14 team have the additional hurdle that – while they are designing the game – they are not running it when it actually happens.

The upshot of this is that there can be no relying on on-the-go fixes when it happens, but instead they have to provide documentation to both players and organisers that is sufficient to cover every eventuality.

Obviously, they didn’t need me to tell them this, and they’ve been meeting regularly for some months already and will continue with that through to the summer: they know the organisers and have brought them into planning meetings as well. The paradoxical situation is that there is not much that is written down yet, because the team is small, cohesive and has all the info in their heads.

Sadly, “in their heads” isn’t where it needs to be, but in a form that can be shared. Partly as a function of the discussion about objectives, I suggested that they start now with producing three manuals.

  • The first would be for the players, to explain the objectives, the rules and all relevant practical information. It doesn’t have to include everything that the player will eventually have to know (for example, the team will be introducing more tasks during the day), but only what they need to get going;
  • The second would be for the organisers. The focus of this would be more on practical organisation and contingencies for various scenarios. This would be read with the first guide to give the organisers all the information that they might need;
  • The third would also be for the organisers, but would be a more reflective piece, of ideas for developments. SocialSIM14 is intended to be run repeatedly, which further exacerbates the disconnect of designers and organisers. However, it also raises the possibility of incremental change in the game.

My model in such things is “keep it simple” and this meant that at several points in the weekend I felt like a party-pooper, saying that perhaps the team should leave the more ambitious ideas for another time, and focus on the core game mechanics. The third guide is a way to preserve all those ideas (“maybe we have a news service”; “maybe everyone has an RFID tag, to produce real-time data collection”*) for future generations of organisers to consider and possibly to implement. Indeed, one would even insist that each new iteration of the game must have a new element to it, followed up by some kind of impact assessment.

Ambition and reality

If I’m honest, my main feeling as I left Freiburg on the airport bus was a certain sheepishness. The SocialSIM14 team have created a huge simulation, whose ambition is much greater than anything I have yet done. They have brought together a multi-disciplinary team, secured institutional funding and managed to keep their heads. Any one of those things would be an achievement, so to do them all is genuinely breath-taking. Their sense of what is possible has taken them a long way.

Handling a crisis in a systematic fashion

Ultimately, what gives me confidence about this not stopping SocialSIM14 is that they have a good team dynamic: to give a simple example, they very confidently handled the small crisis game I gave them to do. Having others with whom one can have thoughtful and frank discussions is still probably the most useful resource one can have in building a simulation, even if they are no more knowledgeable than you about it.

The Freiburg team and I have promised to keep in touch and look forward to seeing how it all plays out this August. We could all learn something from it.

* That last idea was mine and it sounds brilliant in what one might do with it, but I also recognise that it’s a very major project by itself and not really what this game needs. It’s also well beyond my technical means, so if you want to run with it, then be my guest.

6 thoughts on “Simulations in theory, simulations in practice

  1. Regarding the team not being able to run the simulation when it actually happens, and a (potentially catastrophic) disconnect between designers, operators, and participants: perhaps instead of voluminous documentation on every possible eventuality, the design could include an adaptive aspect that enables the simulation to evolve in response to the decisions of the participants.

    Of course I have little idea how to do this myself. Simulations are essentially exercises in systems modelling; getting the feedback loops right is always difficult. At one end of the spectrum there is the beer game (, which has a small set of static rules but many possible second order effects — and players have to alter their behavior accordingly. At the other end would be something like Dungeons & Dragons, where a more complex gaming environment can be changed on the fly by the dungeon master.

  2. Totally agree with that, Chad. The volume comes more from the need for things like checklists (what materials are needed? how many organisers, doing what, when?) rather than a ‘crisis book’.

    My thinking is more in line with something like the notion of Commander’s Intent (google it), which sets out the purpose to be achieved and allows flexibility in its achievement.

    Your more adaptive approach is also an option, although in this particular case it would depend very much upon some of the other choices that the team are making about the degree to which players can create radically different societies.

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