Process v. outcome in simulations

Chad's simulations were becoming a bit too realistic...
Chad’s simulations were becoming a bit too realistic…

Very occasionally, different parts of one’s life collide with each other, often after you’ve had a bit too much to drink, which further contributes to the further unrolling of the evening.

Any way.

In this case, no drinking (except of cups of tea) was involved for me this week, when I attended a ‘wargame’ of the British renegotiation of European Union membership. Run by Open Europe, the day had two parts, each intended to cast some light on what might happen in, respectively, the current renegotiation and then in the event of a ‘no’ vote in the referendum.

This was a high-rent production. Fancy City venue, live-streaming of the entire event, plus (most importantly) roles being played by People (former ministers and ambassadors): The British were represented by a former Foreign Secretary, Maclom Rifkind, and a former Chancellor, Norman Lamont. All of this built on a previous event in 2013 and given the number of TV camera crews from across Europe, it was not your usual event.

For all that, it was also a very strange affair.

From a simulation perspective, it was deeply unrealistic. While there were people representing eight of the key member states, plus a former Commissioner to represent the Commission, there was not specification of this being a recreation of any particular institution or debate. There was a moderator, who kept things moving along, but who wasn’t part of the debate. There were no rules or procedure, nor any formal text to be debated. Indeed, apart from Lamont – who seemed to relish speaking for a post-Brexit UK – no one seemed to be ‘playing’ their roles: much of second half was taken up with why Brexit should never be allowed to happen.

As someone who spends a lot of time around simulations, this was all very frustrating. What made it even more so was the vague suspicion (also voiced by others watching) that the organisers had set things up to particular ends (I’ll write about that on Thursday for my other blog).

So was it a waste of time?

Not at all, because it made me reflect on what was happening.

The moderator, who also designed the wargame, kept coming back to an observation that all of the basic dynamics and issues were being presented in the sessions: the attitudes and the positions. In short, the object wasn’t to produce texts of tentative agreement, but to allow for the airing of views and the casting of some light on the basic contours of the debate. Put differently, this was an opening conference, rather than a closing one.

I can buy that, because I have to admit that it did raise some points that I’d not really considered too much so far, as well as giving me some ideas for my podcast – A Diet of Brussels, since you ask. Given that no one was still an insider to the renegotiations, the demonstration of how accommodating other member states might be now, as compared to their much less friendly approach post-Brexit, served its basic purpose.

Since I tell people not to get hung up on labels, I can’t really very well complain that this wasn’t a simulation, or even a wargame in the conventional sense. It was more like an extended roundtable format than anything else, but I guess that sounds less exciting than a wargame.

Which brings us to the underlying tension between process and outcome in any simulation-type approach.

Typically, simulations pull together these two basic elements into a whole, helping participants and observers to understand a complex issue, or set of issues, through the process of discussing and debating it; the outcome is a function of the process.

By contrast, simulations that are heavily outcomes-focused are quite rare. The closest I can think of at this point would be the poverty games that Amanda’s reviewed here: whatever you do, you can’t escape from your basic situation. But even here, that message is reinforced by letting you experience the futility of your actions.

This wargame is a bit different again, in that regardless of whether there was an agenda (and there’s always an agenda in all our games), it wasn’t trying to expose the negotiation dynamics directly – there was no negotiation at any point during the day – but instead to show what there was to be negotiated.

Whether that’s appropriate or not is, as always, a function of the intended learning objectives. It’s a bit boring to say this, but it’s still clearly the case: the wargame did what it set out to do, regardless of whether it was what I wanted it to be. Open Europe doesn’t have to make me happy – indeed, they’ve already got a huge pile of tweets and this blog post out of it already, plus the other one that’s coming – it only has to get me talking about their product.

For those of us not working for a think tank, this might seem of scant interest, but it’s much more fundamental than that, since we all have to consider this aspect to our work, whatever situation we’re in. If you don’t have a clear sense of what you want to achieve, you are not going to achieve it, so next time you’re putting together a simulation, or a wargame, or whatever, make sure that is foremost in your mind.