Pete Adey’s recent post on this blog about security-oriented video games has made me think more broadly about the role of “games” in how we think about geopolitics and security issues. While video games are all the rage now (in popular culture, but also in critical IR / critical geopolitics studies), there’s a much longer history of security studies people using “games” to think their way through situations, from the formal modelling techniques of game theory through the looser scenario modelling exercises practiced by international relations professionals and military planners.
In this post, I want to turn specifically to the latter kind of game: the simulation scenario. Geopolitical analysts are trained early on in the simulation scenario. In the US, for instance, the final component of the Foreign Service exam involves a real-time decision-making scenario game in which several applicants are placed in a room, told that they are the staff at an embassy, and given a crisis scenario to which they are collectively instructed to devise a response. The candidates are observed through a one-way mirror where they are graded for their ability to comprehend the scenario, devise creative solutions, listen flexibly to others, and persuade others to support their proposed plan of action.
I’ve recently become involved in an online international conflict scenario exercise managed by the security consulting firm Wikistrat. Wikistrat’s business model involves putting together a stable of “analysts”, giving them access to an online, proprietary discussion-board website, and asking them to design and model scenarios around a specific topic. Although Wikistrat makes its money from performing modelling exercises for paying clients, they populate their list of potential consultants by staging mock scenarios in which individuals with an interest in the topic can participate as volunteers. These mock scenarios (actually, mock scenarios of mock scenarios, to be precise) give Wikistrat a chance to test-drive its software while also providing potential consultants an opportunity to advertise their services to the Wikistrat managers who are looking on. You earn points for each comment that you make on the online discussion board, and I imagine that the Wikistrat managers make other, more qualitative notes as well, much as instructors do when they mark students who are required to participate in online discussion boards (or even in-class discussions).
To encourage wide-ranging thinking, Wikistrat lets analysts design their own scenarios within the modelling exercise. The current exercise is called How the Arctic Was Won, itself an interesting title since it assumes that there is a competition, that the current situation is not good, and that eventually there will be a winner (and presumably a loser). Just as indigenous people in the Americas 500 years ago were likely surprised to find out that their land needed to be “discovered,” I imagine that indigenous people of the Arctic will be surprised to find out that their land (and sea) needs to be “won.” Proposed scenarios have ranged from one in which the Arctic Council claims territory to one in which China sends an aircraft carrier group to the Arctic. So far as I can tell, only two of us (myself and Arctic law scholar Timo Koivurova) are from outside the security studies world and are unaccustomed to these sorts of “games.” We keep asking questions like, “How do you get from the situation today when the Arctic Council doesn’t have any security responsibilities to your proposed scenario where the Arctic Council is claiming territory?” and “Why has China chosen military action as the best way to achieve its objectives in the Arctic?” The responses to our protests have been revealing, as they’ve ranged from indicators of ignorance regarding the details (some have implied that their expertise is in geopolitical scenario modelling with whatever data is given to them, and that lack of specific knowledge of the Arctic shouldn’t be an impediment to good Arctic modelling) to reminders that the whole point of a modelling exercise is to begin with acceptance of core assumptions about rational choice and the behaviour of individuals and states.
As an experiment, I played my own game with the gamers. When one suggested a scenario wherein Russian geoengineers developed global warming technologies and applied them to the Northern Sea Route, I responded by suggesting a scenario wherein the G-77 countered with a technology (developed out of a collaborative institute in Singapore) to refreeze the water, starting a new kind of cold/hot war of climate modification (I confess: I was inspired by Ice-9 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle). I earned points for my insightful suggestions. Yikes!
In case it’s not obvious, I find these kinds of exercises in what ultimately are applied microeconomic rational choice models deeply frustrating. If one establishes a framework wherein ANYTHING is possible, then the only constant which can be used to guide scenarios are pre-social things: namely “man’s” “naturally” aggressive instincts and the “tyranny” of landscape (the unchanging arena in which these aggressive instincts are applied). This is Robert Kaplan run amok. I also question whether such exercises could truly be useful to potential clients who want advice on how to respond to possible real-world situations. So, I am highly suspicious of the “game” as an exercise for gaining perspectives on reality. At some level, every game is dependent on reifying abstractions about choice and opportunity (after all, that’s what goes into the algorithms that limit/enable individuals’ responses). As a result, such attempts at appreciating the world’s complexity and open-endedness tend to end up just masking that complexity.
At the same time, we do need to think “outside the box,” and games can help us do this. In fact – somewhat ironically – Timo and I are preparing to engage in our own simulation exercise of sorts, designing a framework for a model law of ice, even though we acknowledge that the world currently is far from a political situation where such a law might be applied to the world’s frozen regions. The difference, I hope, is that we will never fully bracket the social conditions that make it possible (or, perhaps, impossible) to get from Point A to Point B. When you add a truly social element to scenario modelling the game might become a bit less fun….but it becomes much more useful for understanding reality and for imagining aspirational, but potentially realizable, futures.