Aleksandra Solińska-Nowak

Aleksandra Solińska-Nowak

Piotr Magnuszewski

Piotr Magnuszewski

20 min read


Learn how social simulations help navigate complexity

In what way are social simulations different from educational games?

What is a social simulation?

A social simulation is similar to a multiplayer serious game in which direct communication between players is strongly highlighted. The word “serious,” which appears in the definition, suggests that the focus of such a game is not on entertainment (although social simulations are often fun) but on a serious goal (or set of goals). How you define a serious goal would depend on your specific need as a game user, but it may be, e.g., awareness raising, professional training, strategy development or learning. Here, at the Centre for Systems Solutions, we develop social simulations that may be applied to as diverse settings as education, business or organization management, social projects, policy-making and many more. Also our audiences vary significantly, embracing school children and students, educators, NGOs’ staff, CEOs or public administration employees, to name just a few.

Green & Great

A serious game targeted at business managers who face the challenges of transformation towards sustainable development and socially responsible business – is an example of a serious educational game with elements of simulation.

How do social simulations work?

Social simulations combine many elements of both formal science and humanities, including systems analysis and simulation techniques, storytelling, group scenario building, and role-playing. Most importantly, social simulations give room for confronting people from different professional and personal backgrounds in a simulated setting that mirrors the dynamics of real-life challenges. How? By recreating a complex net of social relationships via roles and problem cards, and building a fully operational in-game world, whose elements (boards, tokens, etc.) mark its borders. As a result, a realistic representation of a challenge emerges (e.g. players striving to undertake the transition to renewables or preventing negative impacts of a forecasted flood), and a group may engage in a collective action of analyzing and exploring it from a number of perspectives. The safe environment of simulation makes it possible for them to brainstorm and come up with and pre-test various solutions and strategies.

A special type of social simulation, a strategic simulation (also known as a policy exercise), may also be designed and applied to collaboratively diagnose, analyze and solve a specific real-life problem requiring strategic decision-making. In this type of activity, the effort is directed not on simulating any abstract problem but on collecting and organizing real data to engage participants (e.g. policy-makers or company employees) in a collaborative process of building a model which is adequate to their specific context. Therefore, unlike social simulations, which may be applied to many contexts and played by various groups of stakeholders, strategic simulations are always problem-specific and user-tailored, and their success is measured by the emergence of a collaboratively negotiated, realistic and doable strategy to overcome an identified obstacle.

Why are social simulations effective?

Facilitating multi-party experience, such as social and strategy simulations, is the capacity to collect relevant information, prepare a model and design a process in which different groups of people are able to share and contest their knowledge, ideas, values and perspectives. This effort pays off because, unlike traditional top-down planning-implementation models, social simulations offer space for joint practices, experiments and communicative processes during which the participants:

Gain a better cognition of complex problems

When faced with a problem, each person approaches it from their individual perspective, highlighting different aspects of the same input. A pioneer of systems thinking, Russell Ackoff, once provided a good anecdote to illustrate this cognitive bias. A group of people were chit chatting in one of the flats in a townhouse when a tragic message reached them: while climbing the stairs, their elderly neighbor got a fatal heart attack. Devastated as they were at the news, their started to quarrel about the misfortunate event. The first speaker blamed it all on the road service; the city was congested and the ambulance must have got stuck in a traffic jam. The second was firmly convinced that the problem lay in the underfinanced health care – there were not enough ambulances, so the help was delivered too late. Yet another person drew attention to the fact that the accident wouldn’t have happened if there had been an elevator in the building. In fact, all of them were right, but they didn\’t manage to put together the scattered puzzle pieces of information to reveal the “big picture.”

Bouwen and Taillieu (2004) describe such a failure to “gather the pieces” using the kaleidoscope metaphor: Often it happens that people look at the same elements, yet they all have their particular view and are convinced that it is the only perspective possible. Social simulations offer a solution here. By simulating real situations, they act like a mirror, reflecting challenges existing in the real world. However, in real life, grasping the complex nature of a problem requires in-depth multi-faceted analysis and the collaboration of many experts. Meanwhile, simulation compresses time and space, giving room for testing strategies, taking decisions and experiencing their impacts. In this way, previously obscure interdependencies become displayed and the totality of the problem revealed.

Come in contact with a variety of stakeholders

Complex problems require insight, tacit knowledge, cooperation and expertise from a number of independent specialists. Let’s take energy transition, for example. With growing climate risks and scarcity of fossil fuels, most of us realize that the world must switch to sustainable energy systems soon. However, little is known how to handle this task fast, effectively and – most importantly – globally, across countries with different economic, political and environment systems. Examples from places where energy transition is already very advanced (for example Hawaii or Germany) have shown that the process entails a lot of interdependent challenges (blackouts, excessive energy production, costly investments in innovations, taxpayers’ protests, etc.).

Each party entering into such a collaborative problem solving process obviously wishes to address the situation, but at the same time, each has its own way of framing it (Bouwen and Tallieu 2004). Environmentalists are interested in long-term environmental impacts, factory owners perceive the problem from their ‘profitability’ standpoint, whereas politicians would contribute from their ‘public exposure of political action’ frame, etc. (Bouwen and Tallieu 2004). All the stakeholders thus rely on their particular interest and expert knowledge connected to a challenge, and the most difficult task is to make them notice, understand and appreciate this variety of inputs and accommodate them to form a shared understanding. If they don’t find a common language, they most surely start to shift the blame onto somebody else; it was the prime minister who decided to close the factory and left thousands people unemployed or it was the energy provider who caused blackouts…,

Social simulations help overcome such communication problems. A social simulation is “a hybrid, ‘multilogue’ (as opposed to a dialogue) communication form, … a language for complexity for the future, allowing many persons with different perspectives to be in contact with each other, using different forms of communication in parallel” (Guerts et al. 2007). During a simulation, strangers, opponents, experts and laymen are made to interact with each other in a shared, safe environment. They are not bound to any particular mode of communication. On the contrary, they are free to rely on whatever interaction pattern they believe matches their current need (be it pairwork, open group discussion or temporary allies with a couple of players). In this way, they may confront opposing views, exchange experiences and perspectives. This face-to-face contact with other people helps them bridge gaps and build the trust required to come up with a common definition of a problem, which becomes the starting point for developing a negotiated, shared strategy.

Release their creative potential

As part of bigger systems, such as families, corporations or states, people tend to assume social roles that, to a certain extent, determine our expectations of what appropriate or desired behaviour is. For example, a father of three should, most certainly, work hard to support his family rather than spending his day in front of the TV.
Social roles are useful because they help us recognize our tasks and responsibilities. However, the limiting borders of what we assume is expected from or imposed on us by society may negatively affect our creative capacity, bounding us to ineffective yet already tested strategies.

Meanwhile, playing liberates. Entering an in-game world in new, fake roles, players can break free from their “shoulds” and “musts” and open their minds to creative exploration of solutions that they hadn’t previously been aware of.

Social simulations trigger creativity and provoke stakeholders to test it in practice. The simulated reality does not entail fatal consequences, thus even the most revolutionary hypothesis may be verified and its consequences become instantly evident. Although not always satisfactory, each result triggers novel alternatives, challenging role-players to reach beyond what has already been tested and explore new pathways into the unknown. In this way participants discover that the productive potential required for any change is already in them, and all they have to do is find courage to use it.

Learn how to make consensus

Taking on a new role has yet another advantage, as it enables role-shifting and triggers empathy for others. Need an example? Let’s look at one of our simulations, the Energy Transition Game (ETG). Imagine that you have no experience whatsoever in leading a transformation process. And your regular job is, let’s say, in accounting. But now, as a technological startup manager, you find yourself negotiating a subsidy with the government representative and deliberating on your country’s future energy mix. Neither of you know the future and you both may feel uneasy investing in expensive innovative technologies that may not generate returns anytime soon. Yet, the game mechanics require you to take a decision or you hinder your fictional country’s development.

Role-shifting often helps people step out from their regular framework and better understand other people’s perspectives. I know it is hard but we have to decide on something or I will share my budget to support your idea, if you decide to reduce emissions. During such a framing-reframing process, participants actively experiment with new ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives, which sets the stage for negotiating a consensus among different parties.

The consensus we are talking about does not mean that everyone will necessarily find the solution completely satisfying. It means, however, that it has been negotiated and accepted by all parties with the acknowledgement of each other’s independent worldviews, interests, inputs and responsibilities.

Thanks to social simulations, such as e.g. Energy Transition Game (ETG), people may find themselves in completely new roles.
Become motivated to act

Games and other activities allowing self-expression, such as music, painting or telling stories, are intrinsic to our culture (Zimmerman 2013). Why? Because they rely on inquisitiveness. Children don’t have to be encouraged to play – they do it out of their inborn curiosity, which tells them to take an object and explore its functions and mechanisms until they learn all about it. Consequently, by tinkering with “transitional objects”’, such as toys and games, people get to know the environment they live in (Guerts et al. 2007).

Yet, games play one more key role in human life. Since ancient times, they served as rituals to challenge fate and to dispel anxiety about things yet to come. The symbolic act of collective fighting against the ‘ghosts of the future’ helped ancient people strengthen social ties, create a sense of solidarity and realize that they all have certain responsibility in ensuring safety and wellbeing to their community (Geurts et al. 2007). Social simulations build on this tradition. By testing different scenarios and approaches to a problem, participants take a “virtual look into the future”, exploring potential adversities or obstacles on their way. As a result, they gain a better understanding of their specific challenge and their responsibility towards it, realizing that they have enough experience, knowledge and determination to face it in real life (Guerts et al. 2007).

Social simulations must be well-researched and based on transparent sources. They help us understand each other and allow us to leave the cage of our opinions and views. Their aim is not to impose opinions on people but to help them come up with new solutions via self-reflection.