08 9 / 2012

Dear Lazyweb: RPGs as Decision Support?

So i’ve made a couple posts here now (and made a last minute decision to migrate from Posterous to Tumblr), but I might as well just take a stab at what I’m thinking, and use the Lazyweb to help me find if it’s out there already.

Here’s the current stated topic of this brand new research blog:

"How can role-playing games be used to support organisations and communities in democratic decision-making and the collaboration that follows."

First, here’s what I already know:

  • I’m aware of FoldIt and Nasa Clickworkers and the like, but the wicked problems I’m interested in solving don’t seem to be vulnerable to these kinds of brute force crowdsourcing methods - they’re less amenable to the scientific method because they are hard to reproduce and test.
  • I know Game Theory has been influencing decision-makers for decades now, but my knowledge stops shortly after zero vs. non-zero sum, and I’m pretty sure it’s not at the heart of my interest.

What I’m following is a specific intuition about role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (and, to a lesser degree, tabletop strategy games like Risk) can be expanded into something more formal, more robust, or more directly tied to the real world.

If you aren’t familiar with RPGs, it’s worth highlighting some of their unique features.

  • They are non-zero sum. In fact, it’s hard to say whether there’s any ‘sum’ at all. Each player in the game controls a Player Character (PC) with particular attributes, and they decide what that character does in the game world. The players of the game tell a story together. Throughout the story, their characters face challenges, overcome them and grow.
  • The game is controlled by a Gamemaster (GM). The GM controls every aspect of the world in which the PC’s story unfolds. The GM designs the story and challenges in advance, and controls all of the enemies and other characters with whom the PCs interact.
  • The GM and PCs are bound by a set of game rules. These rules are usually written by game developers at gaming companies, and published in thick books. The rules bring a sense of realism and balance to the game. It is the rules that determine whether your character is successful or unsuccessful when they attempt a difficult action in the game. Dice are usually used to bring an element of randomness to the gameplay.

Thus, the framework of rules provides the space in which the imagination of the players interacts with the imagination and judgment of the GM. No one really wins, but the experience can be so immersive that the players feel genuine emotions in line with how their characters might feel. It can be deeply satisfying to work together to defeat a common enemy, even a fictional one, especially if you did it in some creative way.

But beyond all this awesomeness, what amazes me about RPGs is how they combine breadth and depth. You can spend hours in this immersive experience, but with a great deal of freedom as to what your character does. This is thanks to the rule systems created by the game designers which cover off a wide range of possibilities.

The following things are covered by the rules of the Pathfinder RPG I play:

  • flying an airship in a hurricane to besiege a floating palace
  • doing a backflip over your demon-possessed comrade, you that you can trip then subdue him safely before performing an exorcism
  • converting an evil character to a good one through a series of constructive discussions (thought this one raised some uncomfortable associations with “conversion therapy”)
  • learning crafting skills that allow you to create rare goods, then using your ability to teleport to exploit global markets

The possibilities are endless, and even when the rules fall down, a smart GM can fill in the gaps.

So what does this all have to do with complexity and decision-making?

It strikes me that it would be possible to generate rulesets based on our current scientific understanding of the real world. Then, we could use role-playing games as a tool to help decision-makers model the impact of, say, a particular policy or strategic plan on the social and environmental ecosystem.

Certainly I’m sure this is already happening in some places. But I’ve spent enough time in government to know that most policy is decidedly *not* evidence-based.

Still, presumably some policy is based on real hard evidence, data, and theories about the likely behaviour of agents in the system. Presumably some decision-makers run simulations to understand scenarios that might unfold as a result of their decisions.

And I imagine that such an exercise is very expensive, requiring lots of research, lots of smart facilitation, and the coordination of dozens of people to make the exercise worthwhile. Wargames, which appear so often in military fiction, seem an obvious example of this.

The possibility I’m seeing is to leverage games and the gaming industry as a way to democratize this capability, and to make it more engaging and educational for less well-funded and well-supported decision makers and citizens.

I can imagine a game which leverages open data provided by governments and institutions, and an open source ruleset, to enable many more people to take part in simulations. The unbelievable graphics and user-interfaces that power today’s massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) could be used to make running simulations easy and fun.

The key difference I could see would be the addition of the Gamemaster into the digital mix. Most MMORPGs scale well because very few humans are needed to monitor the situation. But I can imagine combining those tools with a GM-to-PC ratio closer that of traditional tabletop games (about 5-to-1). The business model would be different, but the technology would be largely the same.

So what?

If you’ve followed me so far, then there’s hope. There would be a lot of big jobs to do to make something like this real, but I think there’s a lot of ground to be gained in the short term by building up the practice through rapid prototyping.

Furthermore, I’m already convinced that these sorts of practices are already popping up elsewhere, and indeed my early research has revealed some compelling examples. Additionally, the massive and growing gaming industry and audience is full of passion, talent and technology which could be repurposed to this end.

So this blog is all about collecting stories and ideas around this, and then I’ll write 50 pages or so to synthesize it all in about a year.

Please send me what you know, or what you think, and I’ll curate it here. I can’t wait to find out what’s out there!