Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Moral dilemmas , gaming, and the Kobayashi Maru

Rex Brynen at PaxSims has an interesting post up wondering whether it would be helpful to provide training to peacekeepers in the form of Kobayashi Maru-like scenarios (scenarios for which there is no "good" answer, no way to win, and no way to avoid a severe negative outcome), as a way of preparing them for the wrenching moral choices they might encounter in the course of their work:
Science fiction fans will immediately recognize this as a reference to a Starfleet training simulation featured in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the Kobyashi Maru scenario, trainees were faced with impossible choices in an unwinnable situation: did they answer a distress call from a damaged frieghter, only to find their ship destroyed? Or did they ignore the call, only to see the freighter destroyed? It was meant to be a test of character, and an evaluation of how would-be officers confronted such dilemmas.

Now, readers who haven’t the slightest interest in Star Trek needn’t worry that this blog post will slip into excessive Trekkism. Rather, it occurs to me that there may be some value in designing peacebuilding/humanitarian assistance operations in which participants are confronted with situations that truly have no good answers. I mean this, moreover, not simply in that they face resource shortages and hence opportunity costs associated with actions (something that the Carena simulation does very well), but rather that no matter what they do, they are forced to confront gut-wrenching moral choices.
  • Does one—for example—pull humanitarian workers out of a dangerous area, knowing locals will die? Or does one keep them there, knowing that no matter what security precautions are taken there is a significant risk of staff being killed?
  • Do you authorize an airstrike against a high-value insurgent leader, knowing that there is a near-certainty of significant civilian casualties?
  • Do you pay “taxes” to a local militia to enable access to a needy population—knowing that the doing so strengthens their capacity to engage in such predatory activities?
  • Do peacekeepers fight in to protect civilians from massacre, even if they believe they lack the capability to win and might thereby be slaughtered as well? (Yes, I’m thinking here of Srebrenica, although it could equally be applied to some of the choices that MONUC has made in DR Congo.)
…and so forth. The point would be not so much which particular choice was made, but how it was made—providing an opportunity for participants to reflect on the the moral and practical calculus involved.

This got me back to thinking about the potential role of gaming in preparing participants for difficult moral challenges by means of acclimating them to decision-making in that sort of environment (something I looked at a bit in my thesis). In their 1977 book, Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment, Irving Janis and Leon Mann described a similar phenomenon they called "outcome psychodrama," which would involve a sort of "emotional inoculation" for decision-makers ahead of time to better prepare them for the emotional states they might experience under a decision-making situation. They believed that gaming might be a particularly appropriate tool for outcome psychodrama "[f]or group discussions whose consequences are highly dependent upon the reactions and countermoves of other people." In contrast to the way most games are run, Janis and Mann suggested running the similar scenarios multiple times with the same participants, examining likely, favorable, and worst case results for each of the available alternatives.

As an example of the danger in ignoring the emotional factors in decision-making, consider Bernard Brodie’s description of the U.S. decision to defend South Korea in 1950 after having announced that it outside the U.S. defensive perimeter in the region just months earlier:
“President Truman and his Secretary of State had endorsed the well-known and obviously rational opposition of the military to becoming involved on mainland Asia. When the crisis came, all, including the military, immediately reversed their position. Apparently few had asked themselves: How will we feel, and how will we in consequence respond, if there is a flagrant attack upon this state and this government that we have ourselves set up and all but recently withdrawn from on the now disproved assumption that they were no longer in danger? Will we really stand by and let them go down?” (Bernard Brodie, War and Politics, 60-61)

Brodie suggested that this was the result of "the tendency of people in office to use formulae rather than imaginative rumination to in projecting their own behavior into the future." "Imaginative rumination" is something that free-form gaming can offer the opportunity to pursue. This goes further than the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario, but seems like it could have significant value. I am not aware of games having been built for this purpose, but John Hanley discussed a number of participants from the Global War Game who reported having experienced powerful emotions surounding the sorts of "gut-wrenching moral choices" Rex proposes. In the Global War Game, these often revolved around the use of nuclear weapons. Hanley mentioned some participants reporting that "[e]ven simulated momentous decisions cost them some sleep."

1 comment:

sharecropper said...

At least one game in the Reacting to the Past series (which you reference in another post) has a no-win situation. It is a game about the independence of India and the centripetal forces that will tear India apart are essentially irresistible. This depresses lots of students -- particularly those from the subcontinent. Unfortunately, the length of the game does not really allow for multiple iterations, which would be ideal.