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Video games for diplomats?

Published on 02 March 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024


Diplomacy is an art, where ‘art’ can be described as applying rules in a complex, ever-changing, and surprising context. It is an exercise in discernment, understanding what can and cannot be agreed upon, and possessing the wisdom to differentiate between the two. However, more fundamentally, or even the most important role of diplomacy, is distilling rules from the context in a never-ending emergent system of direct feedback. As I’ve mentioned before, diplomacy is where there are no rules – the rest is administration.

If humanity’s story for millions of years has been one of self-domestication of social groups, diplomacy charts the self-domestication of the state system. The belief that this self-domestication process is the outcome of generally adopting and enforcing transcendental principles (at the individual or state level) is dogmatism: a form of diplomatic religion. The self-domestication process is inherently a contingent outcome, an endless process of trial and error, and the exploration of the adjacent possible.

Diplomatic academies have emphasised the learning of rules in their curricula. The compendia of such rules have reached Talmudic proportions (see Compendium pour la protection des droits de l’homme by Christoph Spenlé and Arthur Mattli). Codification is ongoing and, in fact, is undergoing an inflationary phase. The question is how best to teach this material without overwhelming budding diplomats with innumerable codices and compendia or leaving them hamstrung in the infinite virtual world of sources.

Rules-based learning is, in any case, a poor way to teach discernment, since discernment is pragmatic. At best, it becomes a scholastic, self-regarding exercise with less than edifying outcomes. One only needs to observe the news from a few current diplomatic hotspots to see the damage caused by rule-toting diplomats in shining self-righteous armour.

How, then, can we bring discernment into teaching diplomacy now that apprenticeship alongside senior diplomats has become impractical? The answer may lie in video games.

I pause here to let the few readers following this blog take a moment. Video games have a notorious reputation, which I have studiously avoided. However, better video games have evolved from their primitive bang-bang/kill-kill phase, honing limited visual/dexterity skills (bounded games), to games of strategy and principle, and more importantly, of probing the environment in which the strategy is to be applied. This leads players to develop a ‘probe, hypothesise, re-probe, re-think’ mentality (see Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson), reminiscent of the scientific method.

There is a whole world here, which I won’t delve into at this moment to avoid detracting from the core message: well-designed video games can become virtual apprenticeships in diplomacy (see Why Gaming Could Be the Future of Education by Alan Gershenfeld). This form of apprenticeship could be superior to the old hit-and-miss method of having a third-secretary diplomat observe and take mental notes from the ‘old foghorn’ on the diplomatic floor. Rather than being anecdotal, many possible outcomes can be explored, confronted, and weighed against each other. Repetition reinforces a sense of possible outcomes for the diplomat. The process of choice becomes more conscious, deliberate, and goal-seeking – some might call it smart.

The relentless application of rules through trial and error in a realistically simulated context is the best teacher: memorisation becomes multidimensional and often incidental to the game, sometimes even unconscious. In video games, one can safely make mistakes, which is probably their greatest advantage, given that we remember errors more readily than successes. Experience acquisition through video games is rapid, as they can eliminate the lag between cause and effect: in a video game, one can simulate ten world wars within an hour of gameplay. Or, consider a video game on diplomatic protocol, quickly exposing the player to all imaginable faux-pas, accidents, and unforeseen events, from a president fainting at the dinner table to the head of state abandoning his spouse a week before a state visit to Curlandia.

In a well-designed video game, one learns to balance options and rules and to uncover what lies cunningly hidden in plain sight. What video games teach, first and foremost, is a mentality of engaging with reality, even if it’s only a virtual one. It’s akin to providing a map and teaching the driver how to use it, rather than offering a set of verbal instructions on how to get from here to there, the opposite of GPS-led driving.

Video games also transfer information massively. Verbalisation, which is necessarily linear, is a slow and very imperfect way of communicating, requiring narrowly focused attention on text at the detriment of context. Video games, on the other hand, engage all senses and interact with the brain at different levels simultaneously and in many collateral ways, even unconsciously. Video games 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: video games portraying reality are inherently multidisciplinary, solving the ‘silo syndrome’ of discipline-based teaching in one stroke. Video games are, by necessity, problem- and not discipline-oriented.

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

Rule-setting has taken decision-makers into abstractions; video games may take them for play in the Garden of Eden of virtual reality in order to better equip them when facing tomorrow’s 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? (Gamestar Mechanic is a school video game that 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.) I suspect that the military has put a lot of effort into them already. After all, exposing soldiers to virtual death in a mock battlefield many times over and drilling into their ‘best practices’ 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 only beginner errors, this approach saves a lot of lives. I suspect other sectors are 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 the 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 in the overall design of video games, ranging from psychology to cognitive sciences and computing. The main task would be to harness subject-specific expert knowledge. The industry has developed methods for ‘downloading’ expert knowledge from its key actors before they retire. Video games 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 video games 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 emphasised 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 video games. Alas, this suggestion may be an adjacent possible too far.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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