What can the UN learn from a game about aliens?

watch the skies Confession: I am a game addict who is fascinated by international relations, and I have a tendency to conflate the two.

Back in my FT days, while covering the run-up to the Iraq conflict, I spent my evenings in a game called ‘Medieval Total War‘ – which involved lobbying the pope to grant divine legitimacy to princely conquests. I began to see the UN Security Council’s deliberations as the same thing. In war-torn Baghdad, I would wind down by playing ‘Civilization‘, battling oil powers and insurgents for silicon supremacy.

I’m convinced that games can bring insight to real world politics. This is because to be effective in international affairs, you need to understand not only what you want, but what the other guy wants, and games are one of the most powerful tools I know to achieve that insight.

So when I heard about Watch the Skies 2, the Megagame of Alien Terror, I was ridiculously excited. It was everything I enjoy rolled into one. alien

Here’s the premise: the year is 2020, and unknown aliens are visiting earth to abduct, investigate, and subvert. Participants roleplay the planet’s response. So far so normal, except this is a megagame, and it does so with breathtaking scope.

300 players, representing 30 countries, half a dozen corporations, media groups, religions, the United Nations, aid agencies, and, of course, the aliens, who are riven by factions and competing philosophies.

The nations of the earth are a seething mess of bickering politicians, diplomats, scientists, and generals – all with their own regional ambitions and personal hunger for recognition. I was the science minister of Iran, driven by service to my nation and religion, but also to get my discoveries in the papers. This was not always in tune with national policy…

The event quickly descended into glorious semi-controlled chaos. (Try organising a kid’s birthday party of 12. Now imagine a room of 300 buzzed up role-playing gamers.)

And yet, it was magnificent. Europe became a frenzy of ancient rivalries, even as the alien presence drew closer. A mysterious super-plague broke out, and insurgencies threatened the stability of Africa. A paralysed UN Security Council was abducted and shown the error of its ways upon the moon, while the aliens brokered a peace agreement between Japan and an embassy of whales.defend the nation

Faced with mutual annihilation, the Middle East overcame centuries of hatred to give the Palestinians an independent homeland, and brokered an Israeli-Iranian deal to jointly advance the cause of science. Hooray!

So what’s all this got to do with teaching people how to be real-world United Nations officials, you might ask? A lot.

This is the Model UN on steroids. I know no other one-day event which better approximates the realpolitik of a time-pressured, chaotic and uncertain international crisis – and which offers so much distilled insight into the world inhabited by the UN and its agencies.

The UNHCR (Refugees) and the World Food Programme spent the entire day desperately trying to raise funds to deploy their crisis-reducing tokens: a delightfully cynical take in which they were reduced to pawns begging for attention in a much bigger game. Sound familiar?

News Chronicle

I particularly enjoyed the write-up from this participant, who played the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and who appears to have stumbled across some deep truths about humanitarian aid:

The WFP guy never showed up so I ended up doing both roles as a sort of generic ‘humanitarian aid’ thing as they overlapped considerably. Given the overlap one suggestion for future games would be to make a generic ‘aid’ token from the UN, as it was unclear what the difference between the WFP and UNHCR tokens were in game terms (indeed it was unclear if they were even doing anything).

As the ‘humanitarian’ guy, I went around the room fund raising. I think I hit up everyone for money all day long. Things I learned;

  1. Walking up to huddles of people and yelling their country’s name is a totally ok thing to do.

  2. People liked giving funds affecting crises in their region, but were generally pretty generous.

  3. Corporations are stingy. 

Basically, the UN had very little real political power, so we just continued to focus on aid and making ourselves look good/relevant.

Couldn’t have put it better myself. south africa The corporation players were charmingly surprised to discover they had way more cash than any of the hard-pressed nations they were dealing with, and quickly gravitated to the most lucrative pots. 

One recalled in his blog:

Two things had become apparent. We were more minted than anybody else and the countries were poor, poor, poor. The best move we had made in the game was pivot dramatically to establish the USA as a Most Favored Customer and then relocate our HQ there. Their generals and spy agencies were a great source of business.

But as a communicator, my favorite part of the game was the crash course it offered in media relations.

At first the journalists seemed remote, quietly tapping away on their screens at the other end of the room. Most players were too busy pursuing their narrow objectives – research the tech, deploy the tanks etc – to pay them much heed.

As the game advanced, however, it became apparent that there was a huge amount going on which you didn’t have the slightest clue about, and yet which could have a profound impact on your success.

GNN 300 players with divergent desires created a volcano of world-changing shenanigans, and as an individual it was impossible to track them.

The news-sheets and twitter feeds I originally ignored became a lifeline, an anchor to understanding the universe I had entered.

Why the heck was the Australian scientific establishment being so friendly to me? It made no sense. And then I learned that there was a giant asteroid hurtling towards Antarctica, and they wanted our nuke. Ah… I should have read the papers!

(A side point here: you soon discover that if you want any influence in this labyrinth of agendas, you’d better bring something real to the table. People have no time for flim-flam.

Iran began life as a convenient whipping boy, a unifying force for the US and Saudi and Turkey. But then we got our nuke, and we were everyone’s best friend, doing deals all over. That, and our pioneering desert agriculture, which I hawked around the world for PR credits.)

Back to the media… thepress

As its importance grew amid the hubbub, people learned its ways. Individual reporters were too harassed to focus on anything more than the most simple statements; nuance and technicality got lost in the rush to write and tweet headlines.

So the first team to say something simple and newsworthy won the narrative. There was no time in game for the reporter to seek the other side.

One of the press players bemoaned: There wasn’t really a single moment that I got time to myself to actually write down the news I had (that’s to blame for all the typos, as I was half-typing, half-listening). I had to be very cut-throat about who I even let speak to me, which did feel rude, and I’m sure I missed out on a lot of the flavour by only being able to listen to the salient points.

To which I say, yup, sounds pretty much like being a hack to me.

not bribes

The best operators figured out how to announce fast and early, and their version of the truth became history.

We were shocked to discover my Supreme Leader’s hard fought and visionary deal over Palestine was reported as an Israeli initiative.

They’d got to the media first. ‘Can’t they print a correction?’ a member of the Iranian cabinet asked. Yeah right. The next turn Tokyo was nuked from orbit. Try beating that for the front page.

Am I serious in thinking that a game like this can provide genuine insight for would-be UN officials? Mhm. I am.

Most of our lives we beaver away in tiny silos, with little sense of the vast complexity we form such a small part of. And then we wonder why our magnificent achievements gather so little attention.

Why are media people so insistent on reducing subtleties to blunt catchlines, and so aggressive in demanding the information right now? Why are pet projects put on ice, while meaningless side-initiatives leap to the top of the agenda?

If you’ve ever asked these questions, wondered at the apparent insanity of decision-making, or sworn at the evening news, try playing a megagame. In a single day, it can offer more insight into the realities of international relations than a year of academic study or hectoring by your PR department.

Even better, it’s hilarious fun. Join in!

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