Friday, July 9, 2010

Perception and misperception in gaming

Jon Alterman has written a short and thought-provoking piece for a CSIS newsletter about his experience on the U.S. team in a recent multi-cell policy game. Worth reading in full, but here's an excerpt:
The U.S. team swiftly leapt into a series of actions intended to direct the actions of its allies and blunt the efforts of its foes. In the second move, things got worse, and the U.S. side tried even harder to marshal its forces, artfully deploying its military and diplomatic assets. By the third move, the situation continued to worsen in many respects, but the U.S. team saw light at the end of the tunnel. We had a plan, and our allies were looking to us for leadership. Equally importantly, they were all acting precisely as we had hoped, abandoning the troublesome sorts of freelancing that had marked their earlier moves. We thought we had played the game well.

When we all gathered after the final move, however, it was clear how much we had misjudged the situation. Opponents talked about how easily U.S. moves were blunted or ignored. Allies were beside themselves that the United States had missed numerous opportunities to consult with them and raised tensions needlessly. But most importantly, they charged that the U.S. team had fundamentally misjudged the motivations of their actions. The U.S. team had congratulated itself on its ability to integrate all of the instruments of national power—in contrast to allies that could either convene summits or issue statements or host American military forces, but rarely more than one of those and almost certainly not in a sustained, purposive and coordinated way. Yet allies explained that perceptions of their own national interests drove their decisions, and that U.S. actions rarely shaped those decisions. It is true, the U.S. team had moved military aircraft and issued statements to and fro, but the other players did not find it very impressive. They had their own calculus. In their telling, it was as if the U.S. team was trying to take credit for the sun rising in the East. If anything, they said, the U.S. team’s actions had made it harder for them to comply with U.S. wishes.
There's a lot here. First, this is the sort of discussion that is missing in many public depictions of gaming events. Alterman was constrained by the event sponsor's desire to keep details of the scenario private, but the generalized insight he describes is probably of at least as much value to him and the other participants as any specifics of the game outcome.

My sense is that games are a largely unexploited avenue to bring participants to a better understanding of their own perceptions and misperceptions. In Alterman's example, the stark contrast between the U.S. team's sense of agency and the view of other actors will likely stick with him to a greater extent than hearing someone lecture about the pitfalls of psychological decision-making biases. Thomas Schelling viewed the RAND crisis games of the 50's and 60's as a tool uniquely suited to examining perceptual factors (discussed briefly here), but I'm not aware of much work since then on the subject, nor have I seen much application of social psychology to gaming, with a couple of exceptions that I should blog about sometime.

The role of the debrief session is key in all of this, as it was for Alterman's experience. Unfortunately, it's much easier to say how important debriefing is than it is to concisely define what it is about a debrief that makes it effective. How would you set up a game and the subsequent debrief to address perception and decision-making biases directly? Multiple cells, for starters, would be a key factor, as Schelling would have said, with closed information conditions. The debrief would have to be substantial enough to give each cell the opportunity to understand what was going on in each of the other cells, and the debriefer would need to be focused on drawing out the differing perceptions of the participants. Beyond that, I'm really not sure.

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