Online asynchronous simulations – challenges and opportunities

For the past month I’ve been running my first online, asynchronous simulation, as part of the INOTLES project. We’re now coming into the final stretch of the game, so I’m thinking about how it went.

The game itself has a set of states who have to find a modus vivendi between themselves. They look a lot like the EU, some East European places and Russia, but with various things changed, so we don’t just reproduce those places and their relations. Players are given a state, some basic stats and interests and then are left to it. Weekly cycles require everyone to post positions and/or actions by Friday lunch, and if I need to intervene, then I’ll post on Monday morning.

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One option I didn’t model…

The practical experience has been rather salutary for me.

Beforehand, I knew that getting participation was going to be the real issue and so it’s proved. The closest participant is about 200 miles away and the furthest is more like 1000 miles distant: teams for states were deliberately mixed up, so anyone playing has had to invest quite some time, just to get their team active. It would be fair to say that not all teams managed this.

I’ve not pushed very hard on this, partly because I have little scope so to do, but also because I’m running this as part of a training trainers exercise, so I want the players to think about how they are going to handle similar situations themselves. It’s a bit jujitsu, but there’s enough there for it to work.

The second big issue has been the asynchronisity/asynchronousness/not playing all at the same time. A week might make sense from the perspective of busy people trying to sort out positions, but it means that in four weeks we’ve not moved very far, or very fast. That reinforces the problems of engagement and participation: without a pressing problem, who’s going to feel a urgent need to react?

And this feeds into a final issue, the very open-ended nature of the game itself.

I’ve kept away from IR-type games, because it seemed like there was a lot I was less comfortable with, plus the notion of trying to capture all that international actors can do to each other was a bit daunting, especially in a made-up scenario. However, colleagues in the project had expressed interest in a sim about the European neighbourhood, so in I plunged.

The paradox seems to me to be that by saying to players that they can do pretty much anything, they end up doing little. Perhaps if I’d limited it to diplomatic exchanges then that might have focused minds some more, but that doesn’t necessarily help in building understanding of the complex interplay of factors. Indeed, I almost feel like using the real-world case would have generated more buy-in, even if it would come at a price of heightened emotional factors.

In short, it’s not easy, building games, especially when you’re trying something new, regardless of how much you’ve done it before.

Once I finish the sim, I’ll debrief the players and use that to inform some redesigning (which is also why I’ve not posted any materials yet). In addition, I’m also getting my students here at Surrey to play the game, all through to Christmas, so I’ve got some scope to try out a couple of ideas on them.

By treating a sim as being in a state of permanent beta, I can live with the uncertainty, and I can plan for it. In part that’s possible because I’m as interested in the process of negotiation and of sims as I am in the substance of the game itself, but it requires a bit of fore-thought and a willingness to adapt on the hoof.

3 thoughts on “Online asynchronous simulations – challenges and opportunities

  1. “The paradox seems to me to be that by saying to players that they can do pretty much anything, they end up doing little.” — You’ve reminded me of the perennial problem with research papers. Let the students choose any topic they want and the result is superficial treatment of a non-question like “Is the constitution good or bad?” Conversely, the narrower the topic the deeper the exploration. So maybe the same applies to simulations.

  2. You don’t say what software you were using to permit play of the game, but if/when you do this again you may be interested in the Open Simulation Platform (OSP). It is an open source project that was developed by Skip Cole at the United States Institute for Peace, and is meant to support precisely the kind of asynchronous role-play exercises and games such as you describe. Skip has left the USIP and now operates Sea Change Simulations (http://www.seachangesimulations.com/) and helps groups and institutions get started with the OSP, but the source code is freely available and there are many examples of groups using it by themselves. You may be interested.

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