Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Parson: What Can you Learn from a Game?

Edward Parson contributed a chapter to a 1996 book (Wise Choices: Decisions, Games and Negotiations, edited by Richard Zeckhauser, Ralph Keeney, and James Sebenius, unfortunately not available online) [UPDATE: The chapter is available on Parson's website] on what sort of useful knowledge a game can produce. In his chapter he assesses the value of using simulation gaming (his term) for four different purposes: experimentation, instructing decision makers, promoting creativity and insights, and knowledge integration.

He found the technique to be unsuitable for most experimental purposes, primarily since simulation games cannot be easily replicated in controlled ways. This may be less true with simple simulations that highlight broadly applicable questions, such as basic negotiation simulations, but it is almost impossible to control for everything or repeat often in the case of a complex simulation game covering a specific, novel problem area.

As far as instructing decision makers is concerned, Parson has doubts as to whether simulation games can help much, though he acknowledges that he is concerned not with the informational value of bringing the right group of experts together (for which a simulation can provide a useful venue), but rather in actually using a simulation game to teach the details of a complex problem to decision makers themselves:
Seeking to use simulation gaming to instruct decision makers in the essential character of a complex policy problem is a much more problematic enterprise. This mode of instruction presumes that the simulation structure embodies insights into the essence of the problem that are true, important, relatively enduring, and not dominated in practical settings by other factors that the participants understand better than the analysts, and consequently that decision makers should understand them and would act differently if they did.
That's a great paragraph, and it identifies several real concerns about using simulation games in this manner. Those concerns are not necessarily impossible to overcome, though. Simulation games could be valuable just for encouraging a decision maker to focus on a problem or threat that he or she might otherwise not have paid as much attention to. That might be an example of a positive aspect to the simulation heuristic, as discussed previously. Of course, that assumes that the assessment of the given threat or problem is accurate.

Promoting creativity and insights is where Parson sees most of the value in simulation games that have been conducted to date. There is, in addition to the "get the right experts in the same room" factor as mentioned above, a well-structured simulation game can help participants think creatively about a problem and generate fresh insights. Some key points Parson mentions about this use of simulation:
Granting participants the standing to critique the relevance of simulation insights, and consequently the simulation design that conditioned them, implies an equality of standing between the simulation participants and designers that is not present in the experimental or the instructional model. Participants are not just experimental subjects or recipients of instruction; nor is the simulation reduced to a mere pretext for bringing them together.
[A] sober, critical postsimulation debriefing is an essential component of the learning effect of the simulation. It is here that the significance and legitimacy of the problem posed is explored, potential implications and consequences of decisions taken and plausible alternatives not taken are explored, and the practical applicability and generalizability of strategies and insights from the simulation is tested against the participants' knowledge and experience.
Use of simulations for the integration of knowledge is not a common practice, but it is one Parson feels has great promise. Creating an "integrated assessment" of a complex problem is a challenge under any circumstances. Simulation games could play a role where it is necessary to combine the technical or scientific details of a problem with the political, social, and economic aspects to arrive at a view of the whole. It's an interesting idea, but as he notes, few games have been conducted with this as a primary purpose. This chapter is 10 years old, however, so I will have to see if anything has changed in this regard.

Parson is an interesting perspective to read on simulation gaming, since he primarily works on environmental and negotiation issues. Though my own focus tends toward security issues, it is always refreshing to see someone using the same sorts of techniques in a field far beyond the traditional political-military focus of gaming.

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