The Social Sciences and Innovation in Gaming

By McCown, Margaret M. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2010 | Go to article overview

The Social Sciences and Innovation in Gaming


McCown, Margaret M., Joint Force Quarterly


This is a fascinating time to be a gamer, particularly one developing policy games. The types of problems to be gamed, the technical support available to do so, and the importance of exercises' findings all seem imbued with unusual potential and urgency. The security challenges that we capture and present in strategic games are increasingly characterized by transnational, networked, and multilevel domestic, national, and international factors, all of which require new or, at least, sharpened tools to represent and assess. At the same time, a range of new tools, from distributed computer gaming systems to virtual reality, has become available. This article argues, however, that for practitioners writing virtually any game, the social sciences--economics, political science, and sociology--constitute the single most important source of both substantive theory and methodological insight.

The simple explanation behind this assertion is that almost all strategic level policy problems are also social science problems; they concern how actors, whether individuals, groups, bureaucracies, social movements, or nations, make calculated decisions with respect to their interests and environment, construct social institutions and rules to further those goals, and compete for goods allocated in ways influenced by all of the above. This article briefly highlights some ways in which social scientists have theorized and tested hypotheses about how and why actors make and break rules, and the relevance of these efforts to gaming.

Game Theory Is Not a Theory of Gaming

Game theory is, of course, the social science tool mostly widely associated with gaming. Game theory is not a theory of wargaming, policy gaming, or strategic gaming, but rather a tool of applied mathematics used widely across the social sciences.

If one is writing and executing tabletop exercises, one is, in fact, doing almost the opposite of game theory--but it is useful to review the discipline nonetheless, for its approach yields concepts useful to gamers in both their parsimony and generalizability.

Game theorists create mathematical models of interdependent decisionmaking. These models represent how rational players make calculated decisions, anticipating other players' reactions on the basis of their preferences that yield certain outcomes. In other words, a game is some set of rules, giving a group of players choices that result in different payoffs. The "game" is for players to determine the choice that gets them the biggest payoff, taking into account the ways that they anticipate other players responding to them. (1) Taken together, these concepts--rational actors, rules presenting players with some set of choices, and outcomes with some payoffs--define the game.

In tabletop exercises, designers do not express these factors in diagrams or equations but rather in detailed scenarios rich in contextual detail. Even though the "rules" may be no more elaborate than a description of the state of the world within the game and the instruction that players should describe their best response to it, these key elements are embedded within every good scenario: some set of rules that shape the players' options--options that will have different potential payoffs and can be assumed to elicit some reaction from other players. Games may hold some factors constant (such as a game with only a blue team, in which the reactions of "opponents" are not explicitly projected) or just describe them cursorily (a scene-setting scenario that tells participants which sandbox they are playing in and the context that shapes their decisions but that may not restrict their decision options beyond that). But it is useful for gamers to keep in mind that an effective exercise will have all of these components explicitly or implicitly and, just as important, the postexercise analysis should address them and explain why they were instantiated as they were. …

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