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Video-games for diplomats?

Published on 02 March 2014
Updated on 06 December 2023

Diplomacy is an art – where “art” may be described as applying rules in a complex – ever changing, and surprising – context. Diplomacy then is an exercise in discernment: an understanding of what can be agreed, what cannot be, and the wisdom to discriminate between the two. But this is not enough, or even the most important role of diplomacy: more fundamentally, it is an exercise in distilling rules from the context, in a never-ending emergent system of direct feedbacks. As I’ve said before: diplomacy is where there are no rules – the rest is administration.

If humanity story since millions of years is one of self-domestication of social groups, diplomacy charts the self-domestication of the state system. The idea that this self-domestication process is the outcome of general adopting and enforcing transcendental principles – at the individual or state level – is dogmatism: diplomatic religion. The self-domestication process is inherently a contingent outcome, an endless process of trial and error and exploration of the adjacent possible.

Diplomatic academies in their curriculum have stressed the learning of rules. The compendia of such rules have reached Talmudic proportions[1]. Codification is ongoing, in fact it is undergoing an inflationary phase. The question is how best to teach this material, short of stoning budding diplomats with innumerable codices and compendia until they are buried under them; alternatively hamstrung in the infinite virtual world of sources (in the web-based avatar).

Rules-based learning is in any case a poor way of teaching discernment, for discernment is pragmatic. At best it is a scholastic, self-regarding exercise. The outcome is less than edifying. One only needs to follow the news in a few of the current diplomatic hotspots in order to witness the ravages wrought by rule-toting diplomats in shining self-righteous armor.

How is one to bring discernment to teaching diplomacy, now that apprenticeship at the side of senior diplomats has become impractical? The answer may be – videogames.

I’ve put in a pause, so the few readers that follow this blog may swallow, and then again. Videogames have an awful reputation, and I have studiously avoided them. Better videogames, however, have evolved from their primitive bang-bang/kill-kill phase honing limited visual/dexterity skills (bounded games) to games of strategy and principle, and even more, of probing the environment in which he is to apply the strategy. This leads the player to develop a mentality of “probe, hypothesize, re-probe, re-think.”[2] You may recognize the “scientific method” of old.

There is a whole world here,[3] which I don’t want to go into at the moment, for it would distract from the core message: well-designed videogames can become virtual apprenticeships in diplomacy.

In many ways this kind of apprenticeship would be superior to the old hit-and-miss affair of having the third-secretary diplomat observe the “old foghorn” dance on the diplomatic parquet and take mental notes. Rather than being anecdotal, many possible outcomes can be explored, confronted, and weighed against each other. Repetition does it, yielding a sense for the population of possible outcomes. The process of choice becomes more conscious, deliberate and goal-seeking – some call it “smart.”

The relentless application of rules by trial and error in a rather realistic context is the best teacher: memorization is multidimensional and often incidental to the game, even unconscious. In videogames one can safely err – which is probably its greatest advantage, given that we remember errors more readily than success. Acquisition of experience through videogames is fast for one can abolish the lag between cause and effect: in a video-game one can simulate ten World Wars breaking out, within an hour of playing. Or, just think of a videogame on diplomatic protocol, where one is exposed quickly to all imaginable faux-pas, accidents, unforeseen events one can imagine, from a President fainting at the dinner table to the the Head of State abandoning his wife a week before his state visit to Curlandia.

In a well-designed videogame one learns weighing options and rules, and learns to discover what lies cunningly hidden in plain sight. What videogames teach, first and foremost, is a mentality of engaging with reality – even if it is just a virtual one. It is akin to providing a map and teaching the driver how to use it, rather than a set of verbal instructions on how to get from here to there. It is at the opposite end of GPS-led driving.

Videogames also transfer information massively. Verbalization, which is necessarily linear, is a slow and very imperfect way of communicating, requiring narrowly-focused attention on text at the detriment of context. Videogames, on the other hand, engage all senses and interact with the brain at different levels simultaneously and in many collateral even unconscious ways. Videogames teach mentalities – it is the “how to do things” that comes with “learning by doing”: it is a collateral (and often unintended) result of the primary transmission of knowledge.

And now for the killer-argument: videogames portraying reality are inherently multi-disciplinary, solving at one stroke the “silo-syndrome” of discipline-based teaching. Videogames are by necessity problem- and not discipline-oriented.

Looking beyond the realm of the diplomatic academy, videogames might be spread through the educational system prior to recruitment. 7-year olds may become fascinated with playing diplomats: training begins well before the candidate enters the diplomatic academy in a gush of naïve idealism. At the other end of the training spectrum, videogames could be part of the on-the-job training as well as assessment of diplomats as they move through their career. We do not allow pilots on larger planes before they have exercised in the corresponding flight simulator, do we?

Rule-setting has taken decision-takers into abstractions; video-games may take them for play in the Garden of Eden of virtual reality in order better to equip them when facing tomorrows’ raw and ever more complex reality. Of course, it is not the “real thing”, but much better than the current thin warmed-up gruel of boiled rules, or learning the monotonous game of “agent” awaiting instructions from the “principal” on-high.

Can such games be developed?[4] I suspect that the military have put a lot of effort into them already. After all, exposing soldiers to virtual death in a mock battle-field many times over and drilling into them ‘best-practice’ when seated at a console, is better than sending them out into the battlefield to find out the rules of engagement for themselves. Even if one eliminates beginners’ errors only, this approach saves a lot of lives. I suspect other sectors to be currently moving into this new world as well – I can see this happening in surgery on a grand scale. Generally speaking, as high-tech products come on stream, one is confronted with the choice of either dumbing down their commands to allow manipulation by low-skilled users (all knowledge inside the black box), or upgrading skills of the manipulator – by using simulations virtually to immerse him in the complexity of the machine as it functions. The latter approach has the advantage of making people smarter, rather than redundant, in the medium term.

Who could write such games? There is an industry out there already, with great skills on the overall design of videogames, ranging from psychology to cognitive sciences, and computing. The main task would be to harness subject-specific expert knowledge. Industry has developed methods for “downloading” expert knowledge from its key actors before they retire. Videogames simply go one (immense) step forward in embedding such expert knowledge in virtual reality scenarios. Tapping the experience of the “old farts” before they wane might be the best investment a diplomatic service might make. They would probably do it for half-pay…

It has not escaped my attention that training with videogames would counter the current casuistic trend in international relations – the unbridled rule of the rule – and also reduce the role of my other bugbear – precedent.


Is my suggestion realistic? I’m not sure. Education and training have emphasized the acquisition of vertically structured, discipline-based knowledge. It was no great success, for this model was proposed just as knowledge exploded. Faced with too much and relentless knowledge, people escaped into approximation, as this carried no penalty. As a reaction to notion-based knowledge, education now seems to go in the direction of enabling autonomy – the development of a “creative personality.” But this is a meta-skill, just like liberty is a meta-value. Meta-skills are of no direct use in a complex world. The halfway house could be teaching problem-solving through videogames. Alas, this suggestion may an adjacent possible too far.

[1] See e.g.: Christoph A. SPENLÉ – Arthur MATTLI (2013): Compendium pour la protection des droits de l’homme. Receuil des sources juridiques pour la Suisse. Stämpfli Editions, Berne, 1884 pp. => 1.8 kg on my scale.

[2] Steven JOHNSON (2005): Everything bad is good for you. Why popular culture is making us smarter. Penguin, London; p. 45

[3] See e.g. Alan GERSHFELD (2014) : Mind games. Video games could transform education. Scientific American 310, 2. The author has presented his work on games for social good at this year’s Wolrd Economic forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

[4] Gamestar Mechanic is a school videogame, which introduces children to game design. 500’000 original games, which have been played over 15 million times in 100 countries have been docked. Surely, this kind of game can be adapted…

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