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05 September 2008

Forecasting through games

There is a long history of modeling, simulation, and gaming within the intelligence community, dating back to the Prussian General Staff’s Kriegsspiel, wherein the intelligence of the day, such as it was, would be used to determine the enemy strength and disposition to be set for the initial conditions of the map board. (An early American adaptation of the wargame – itself arising out of the intense interest in military professionalization in the latter half of the 19th century - can now be found in the digital stacks. It is worth a glance for those inclined toward matters historical but lacking either access to the original text or the German language skills with which to comprehend it.)

One can trace a direct lineage from such explicit gaming structures through the modern evolution of many forms of exercise and drill. Such efforts are increasingly reflected in new training and education efforts within the IC, such as the recently publicized virtual incarnations of several analytic exercises at DIA. The exercise materials themselves have a far longer history in more prosaic incarnations. The tanker war exercise that is the heart of Vital Passage, for example, has been used for teaching analysis of competing hypotheses for years using nothing more than paper and pen. The new immersive formats are clearly of value in capturing the attention of those students who have not yet been caught the more abstract means of envisioning crisis. It also serves as a good transition towards the application of the methodology in more complex, non-deterministic problems – particularly given the new emphasis on using assistive software to help track larger scale issues. (We unfortunately continue to encounter a number of younger analysts –products of the civilian university - that are unable to distinguish between ACH as an analytical methodology and the software used to automate that methodology. But that is another matter, and points to a failure of instruction at certain institutions rather than flaws in computer aided analysis or exercise).

For too long, though, gaming has stagnated essentially unchanged from its earlier incarnations. It has been left to the jesters and the speculators to push the boundaries of the tool, pointing the way to new directions and new uses. The most provocative of these suggestions – as is frequently the case – came from a jester at the futurists’ court, examined the potential utility of an alternative reality game structure as a recruiting and coordination mechanism for HUMINT operations involving unwitting participants.

A more immediate implementation has also now appeared, attempting to use massively multiplayer structures for long term analysis challenges. The Institute for the Future will launch its new project, Superstruct, on 22 September, which will attack what appears to be a catastrophic scenario using an alternative reality gaming architecture for distributed participation. It is a unique approach, described further through a FAQ here, and we can already see the benefits that the transparent and free form ludic design brings to the table. (We would note this to be a distinct difference from other crowdsourced analytic projects that we have recently seen attempted). We also have high confidence in the intellect and insights of the team that is executing the Superstruct project, having followed their work for some time, as well as having attended a fascinating discussion with other ARG designers from the original "I Love Bees" team at a Second Life salon hosted by The Electric Sheep Company a number of years ago.)

We have long been on record as highly skeptical of the efforts to use the intelligence community as the instrument by which to assess the uncertainties of future climate change, and have debated the issue with others of discernment who hold differing views. Yet the IC responded to the requirements levied upon it by Congress – as it always should. The resulting assessment, and public testimony, is a model of intelligence professionalism in the face of intense politicization. We find Dr. Fingar’s responses during questioning – clearly outlining the uncertainties of the scientific data, and the limitations of the IC’s resident expertise on the topic – a perfect teaching example of effective intelligence communication.

We think however that efforts such as Superstruct may be a better venue for exploring these questions, at least until the window of likely impact falls within the long range horizons of the intelligence community’s estimative views – be that fifteen, thirty or fifty years hence. It is also a fascinatingly cross-account and interdisciplinary issues – as well as a frankly lower priority intelligence problem – that is perfectly suited to experimentation with new analytic methodologies, novel analytic outreach, and new distributed production models.

We wish the project good fortune, and look forward to the after action assessment for any lessons learned that might be applied to future analytic tradecraft.

h/t Smart Mobs, and the Business & Games Blog

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