Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Video games for diplomats?

Published on 02 March 2014
Updated on 06 May 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, the most fundamental, or even the most important, role of diplomacy is to distil 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, whether 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.

The limitations of rule-based learning

Rules-based learning is fundamentally a poor method for teaching discernment, which is inherently 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.

Diplomatic academies have emphasised the learning of rules in their curricula. The compendia of such rules have reached Talmudic proportions, as seen in works like Compendium pour la protection des droits de l’homme by Christoph Spenlé and Arthur Mattli. Codification is not only ongoing but also experiencing an inflationary phase. The challenge 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.

diplomacy board game
The Diplomacy board game

Learning through video games

How, then, can we incorporate discernment into teaching diplomacy, now that apprenticeship alongside senior diplomats has become impractical? One intriguing answer may lie in the use of 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, which honed limited visual and dexterity skills (bounded games), to games that emphasise strategy and principles, and more importantly, probe the environments in which the strategies are to be applied. This leads players to develop a ‘probe, hypothesise, re-probe, re-think’ mentality, reminiscent of the scientific method (as discussed in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson).

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 serve as virtual apprenticeships in diplomacy. As Alan Gershenfeld suggests in Why Gaming Could Be the Future of Education, this form of apprenticeship could be superior to the traditional 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 relying on anecdotal experiences, 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-oriented – some might even 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. Consider a video game on diplomatic protocol that quickly exposes 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, often requiring narrowly focused attention on text to 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’; this is often a collateral (and sometimes 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 could be introduced throughout the educational system prior to recruitment. Seven-year-olds may become fascinated with playing diplomats, starting their training well before entering the diplomatic academy in a gush of naive idealism. At the other end of the training spectrum, video games could form part of the on-the-job training and assessment of diplomats as they progress through their careers. We do not allow pilots to fly larger planes before they have trained in the corresponding flight simulators, do we?

flight simulator

Rule-setting has led decision-makers into abstractions; video games may immerse them in the ‘Garden of Eden’ of virtual reality to better equip them for facing tomorrow’s raw and ever more complex reality. Of course, it is not the real thing, but it is much better than the current approach of reheating a thin gruel of boiled rules or learning the monotonous game of ‘agent’ awaiting instructions from the ‘principal’ on high.

Video game development

Can such games be developed? Gamestar Mechanic, for example, is a school video game that introduces children to game design. It has inspired the creation of 500,000 original games, which have been played over 15 million times in 100 countries. Surely, this kind of game can be adapted. I suspect that the military has already invested significantly in such developments. After all, exposing soldiers to virtual death on a simulated battlefield and drilling ‘best practices’ at a console is better than sending them directly into the battlefield to learn the rules of engagement first hand. Even if this approach only eliminates beginner errors, it saves many lives. I suspect other sectors are moving into this new world as well. For instance, in surgery, as high-tech equipment becomes available, one faces the choice of either simplifying commands to accommodate low-skilled users (keeping all knowledge inside the ‘black box’) or enhancing the skills of operators through simulations that immerse them in the complexity of the machinery. The latter approach makes people smarter rather than redundant in the medium term.

Who could develop such games? There is already an industry out there with robust 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 key actors before they retire. Video games simply take one immense step forward in embedding such expert knowledge in virtual reality scenarios. Tapping into the experience of seasoned professionals before their expertise fades could be the best investment a diplomatic service could make. They might even do it for half the usual compensation.

It has not escaped my attention that training with video games could 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. This approach was not a great success, particularly as it was proposed just when knowledge was exploding. Faced with too much relentless information, people have turned to approximation, as this carried no penalty. In reaction to notion-based knowledge, education now seems to be moving towards enabling autonomy – the development of a ‘creative personality’. However, this is a meta-skill, just as liberty is a meta-value. Meta-skills are of no direct use in a complex world. The halfway house might be teaching problem-solving through video games. Alas, this suggestion may be an adjacent possibility too far.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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