Participatory planning towards inclusive & sustainable futures using strategic gaming | CANSEE Fellowship Paper 2022

This brief paper was the recipient of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics 2022 Fellowship Program Best Paper Award (Audience Choice)

“It’s better to be surprised by a simulation than blindsided by reality.” – Stuart Candy

Introduction:

Strategic gaming is a relatively new participatory analytical tool used to explore complex policy and business questions. Strategic games are “dynamic simulation exercises that often include structured role-play and elements of chance to help uncover the action-reaction sequence that leads to an outcome” (IMF, 2021). When paired with strategic foresight (the systematic exploration of multiple plausible futures to inform present-day decisions), strategic gaming may be able to help us anticipate possibilities and understand desirable futures, as well as pitfalls. Most importantly, I believe this practice may build an understanding of complex systems as well as empathy for other people while unveiling pathways to desired futures in the transdisciplinary context of ecological economics.

My research vision is based on insights from my recent professional work designing and facilitating strategic games for energy transition planning and my master’s research on modelling ecological economics in video games. In that research, I identified that games can be a helpful medium for understanding ecological and economic relationships and processes. I intend to research how it might be possible to combine strategic gaming with participatory planning to design policy and other social innovation interventions. Of particular interest here are just low-carbon transitions and inclusive circular economies.

The term strategic gaming is a neologism extracting the methodological meaning from traditional “wargaming” while removing its military connotations for civil purposes. Historically, wargaming is a valuable tool for improving decisions under time and resource constraints, developing insights about competitive (and, potentially, collaborative) behaviours, and anticipating market or environmental changes. However, the “strategic gaming” term is prominently used by Global Affairs Canada for their practice in the area, while other groups like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) prefer the term “policy gaming”. Other organizations, like the World Energy Council and various corporations, are also using this emerging technique under various names. 

Regardless of the naming conventions that distinguish this method from its military roots, the modern usage of strategic games “works as a form of intellectual cross-training, forcing analysts and decision-makers to think about a familiar problem from new perspectives and in new ways.” (Brynen, 2020). Games often involve roleplaying that simulates scenarios, with a set of rules to set the boundaries of the system and structure of analysis. There is an opportunity with strategic gaming to play out scenarios and potential stakeholder responses (as part of a stakeholder engagement process) while allowing players to “show their work” in “stimulating a much broader discussion of how a future might come to be” (Brynen, 2020). 

I am interested in a particular type of strategic game: “matrix games”. A matrix game is an open-ended, turn-based, discussion-based game not unlike Dungeons & Dragons. They were originally used by militaries but now are used in the public and private sector to explore and activate strategic foresight. They can run the spectrum of analytical to purely educational. The goal is simplicity and accessibility that can reveal novel results. There are few preset rules limiting what players can do.

The use of gaming for ecological economics-inspired planning and systems change seems to be relatively uncharted, but exciting. This summary paper gives context to what a matrix game is and lays the foundation for further steps in research connecting it as a part of participatory planning.

Participatory planning of inclusive circular economies & just low-carbon transitions:

The hybridization of strategic foresight and gaming enables strategists to “anticipate moves and countermoves and foresee their consequences.” (Schwarz et al., 2019). These are the key definitions of the component parts:

Strategic foresight is the ability of an organization to constantly perceive, make sense of, and act upon  different ideas of the future emerging in the present. Governments worldwide are using strategic  foresight to get early warnings of oncoming disruptions, to build resilience and future-proof their plans,  to reframe and enhance the effectiveness of their strategies, and to generate shared language and  visions of success. Times of rapid change, unpredictable uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity highlight the  limitations of traditional forecast-based planning. Foresight helps policy makers to challenge and  overcome current assumptions about the future and prepare for a broader set of possibilities” (OECD, 2021)

Strategic Gaming or policy games are dynamic strategic simulation exercises where participants engage in role-play by  adopting the perspectives of different actors. They leverage the power of stories but add role-play. In the  context of an initial scenario, each game begins with a starting shock. The various stakeholders then  iteratively respond to the shock and one another, attempting to achieve their objectives. There are  successive rounds of shocks and actions. Role-play is sometimes combined with traditional game  elements such as competition, chance, and props… Policy games stimulate out-of-the-box ideas, combat groupthink,  uncover blind spots, support contingency planning, and enhance agility. Policy games can generate  previously unforeseen and complex interactions among stakeholders and unearth comparative  advantages and critical weaknesses by helping teams avoid “wishing away” potential issues.” (IMF, 2021)

This hybridization could be an impactful, popular practice for approaching inclusive ecological futures, especially in system leverage point mapping, orders-of-operation, and iteration of circular economies and just transitions. I believe there is a strong opportunity for games, strategic gaming and game thinking to be used as part of engaging, impactful and rapid participatory planning processes in these fields. Strategic gaming may help to develop and articulate actionable policy and innovation options from ecological economics foundations in a way that makes sense to and educates a broader audience. There appears to be an opportunity to use strategic gaming and foresight to help develop policy options and interventions in a collaborative way. 

These insights are fundamentally based partly on my Master’s research, where I found implications for the modelling of ecological economics in popular video games (Evamy Hill, 2021). I saw potential in the use of economy-building games for crowdsourcing economic system design potentialities and solutions among a variety of stakeholders. I suggested that a simplified simulation played by dozens, or hundreds of stakeholders could generate future-focused ideas within parameters and give realistic feedback from the simulation. End states (both preferable and not), as well as transition sketches, could be crowdsourced. For example, Fold.it (Fold.it, 2022) is a protein folding crowdsourcing game to help scientists identify novel and useful proteins for new drugs. There is potential that this work could be useful for the field of immersive, participatory futures in strategic foresight in other domains like open strategic planning. I noted, given the nature of my work, that our assumptions, biases and ideologies can be baked into these “consumer-grade simulations”. The difference between those insights at the time of writing and my thinking now is that low-fidelity, tabletop or pen-and-paper games are generally more accessible and easier to produce and reproduce than digital games. Therefore, their use could be more widespread in an inclusive planning process.

Matrix Games for Participatory Planning

How might we generate stories of potential futures that reflect the base realities of the systems they will arise from? This is the power of the “matrix game”, a discussion-based, roleplaying simulation game on the premise of: “If you can say “This happens, for the following reasons…” you can play a Matrix Game” (Mouat, 2022). Matrix games facilitate the weaving together of a narrative that explores contingencies and educates. 

The study of matrix games for participatory planning forms is the basis of my research as I have the most experience from running these types of games in a professional context. I am also interested in their connection to wind-tunneling (or, stress-testing) policy.

Matrix Games are a style of hobby strategic game that have now been used extensively for military and civilian purposes. Note the continuum below which compares other wargaming approaches (top) based on key attributes (left). In this table, approaches are ranked by their relative strengths/intensivity in various areas. A matrix game offers advantages by combining the structure of traditional wargames and the creativity of more open seminar-type workshops. These games will elicit insights on action/reaction sequences that can be extremely valuable to a client in the context of scenario planning work. Matrix Games are the lightest on game design expertise and labour, while the most intensive in terms of facilitation.

(Adapted from Brynen, 2020)SeminarMatrixFree or Rigid Kriegsspiel
SummaryProfessional seminar war games may be conducted where no deep analysis is expected or required.Matrix games allow for simulation of many actors with both complementary and competing goals and places an emphasis on argumentation and discussion.Think board games or “moving ships or troops around a map with rules” There are rigid and “free” approaches . This has been practiced since the Prussians in the 1800s.
Creativity#1(highest)#2 (middle)#3 (least)
Predictability#3#2#1
Rigor#3#2#1
Rule Understanding Required#3#2#1
Potential for Automation#3#2#1
Labour/expertise Intensivity (design)#3 #2#1 
Labour/expertise Intensivity (facilitation)#3#1#2

Matrix games were invented by Chris Engle in 1988. They are notable for being fast and easy to design and play. There is an emphasis on player debate and discussion rather than pre-designed rules. This allows players to develop strategic insights, as well as options and to surface tacit knowledge. Together with scenario planning (or, strategic foresight) and matrix policy gaming can be applied in a single complementary framework (Schwarz et al., 2019). This involves perceiving (trend auditing), prospecting (scenario planning), and probing (policy gaming). 

Matrix games can harness the power of collective intelligence, also known as crowdsourcing or the wisdom of (diverse) crowds (Mouat, 2019). Roleplay also can give insights into the strategies, action-reaction sequences and irrationalities of a system (Mouat, 2019). These games are best when they balance creativity (generation) and robustness (making novel but realistic connections) of the group and help bring that out of participants & make them feel comfortable. Matrix games are ideal for facilitating high-level debates and developing insights and options for an organization’s most pressing strategic problems. This means that the diversity and knowledge of people in the room is essential to build useful and accurate common mental models.This emphasis on debate and discussion also makes this type of game fast and easy to play, with whole scenarios being  able to be completed in an afternoon. Overall, matrix games are an excellent pairing with scenario planning to develop strategic insights and options while surfacing implicit knowledge of a group.

To give some more context about what a matrix game looks like, I will outline some of the rules for these games. Matrix Games summarized by their creator, Chris Engle, involve: 

“Start with a problem. Say what happens next. There is no order of play. Anyone can add to or alter what  happens. All players may ask a player to roll if they don’t like what they said. Roll two 6-sided die. If the result is 7 or more The action happens and cannot be altered. If 6 or less, it does not happen and cannot  happen in the game. The game ends when the problem is solved.” (Engle, n.d.)

Typically, a shock (based on strategic foresight scenarios) is announced to the players. In a series of rounds, the various players (as their roleplay stakeholders) then iteratively respond to the shock and one another, attempting to achieve their objectives outlined in a prior briefing. There are successive rounds of shocks and actions. The rule set of “established facts” emerges from the expertise or knowledge in the room determining an evolving narrative. Sample procedure:

  1. The current player announces an ACTION and its intended EFFECT.
  2. The current player offers a series of PRO arguments as to why the ACTION would be successful.
  3. Other participants offer PRO and CON arguments.
  4. The ACTION is resolved based on the balance of arguments put forward (probability or vote).

Role-play is sometimes combined with traditional game elements such as competition, chance, and props. Common or individual dashboards, or indicators, could also be used to track progress.

Of course, matrix games and their constituent stakeholder analysis are not the single source of truth, and must be taken as part of a larger engagement process. While games allow us to explore scenarios and possibilities when not all stakeholders can be present, this has its dangers. Our norms and biases impact what we explore so we must avoid stereotyping. The stakeholder analysis should be iterative and collaborative. Another challenge is the degree of facilitation expertise that is involved for a successful matrix game. There are other game formats that could be used more efficiently for the desired outcomes of participatory economic planning.

Related Topics & Next Steps:

Matrix games and their relation to participatory planning for just transitions and circular economies is something I intend to investigate with feedback from the Academy. While I generally believe that low-fidelity is better for flexibility and accessibility, in future (or in contrast) I would also like to investigate the use of digital games and their potential ability to dovetail with digital twins for participatory planning. I believe that this could be used as a collective intelligence simulation for continuous planning processes (Lee & Perez-Arriaga, 2022). In future, I also intend to build on my master’s research to explore how economic games like Factorio could be modified at a large scale as a basis for building popular understanding about circular economies.

Strategic gaming may help to develop and articulate actionable policy options from ecological economics foundations in a way that makes sense to a broader audience. There appears to be an opportunity to use strategic gaming and foresight to help develop policy options and interventions in a collaborative way.

Word Count: ~2250

Key References:

Anticipatory Innovation. (n.d.). Observatory of Public Sector Innovation. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://oecd-opsi.org/work-areas/anticipatory-innovation/

Behar, A., & Hlatshwayo, S. (2021, December 22). How to Implement Strategic Foresight (and Why). International Monetary Foundation. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/analytical-notes/Issues/2021/12/22/Strategic-Foresight-at-the-International-Monetary-Fund-463660

Brynen, R. (2020, July 15). Leveraging Games for Strategic Insight. Connections North 2020, McGill University.

Derby House Principles. (2020, June 16). PAXsims. https://paxsims.wordpress.com/derby-house-principles/

Free Engle Matrix Games. (n.d.). Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://sites.google.com/view/free-engle-matrix-games/home

Hill, G. C. E. (2021). Rethinking Economy-Building Video Games: How might designers inspire new economic models through video game mechanics? [MRP]. OCAD University. http://openresearch.ocadu.ca/id/eprint/3557/

Lee & Perez-Arriaga (2022) Imagining the ‘Google’ of electrification: How digital twins and computational systems for continuous planning can reinvent century-old practices. (n.d.). Energy For Growth. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://www.energyforgrowth.org/memo/imagining-the-google-of-electrification-how-digital-twins-and-computational-systems-for-continuous-planning-can-reinvent-century-old-practices/

Mouat, T. (2019, October 3). Practical advice on matrix games . PAXsims. https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2019/10/03/practical-advice-on-matrix-games/

Schwarz, J. O., Ram, C., & Rohrbeck, R. (2019). Combining scenario planning and business wargaming to better anticipate future competitive dynamics. Futures, 105, 133–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2018.10.001Solve Puzzles for Science | Foldit. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2022, from http://fold.it/

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