Roleplaying, Policymaking and Game Masters….
Hello dear readers. Having taken a detour into state formation in fantasy worlds, I’m now going to bring fantasy into policy making. Perhaps a week or so ago, I noticed that Sully brought up an article that suggested policy-makers should regularly play some sort of roleplaying game. In this context “roleplaying game” of course, means an actual Pen and Paper style experience. You have to sit down, pretend you’re someone else and deal with a scenario set by a referee (a “dungeonmaster” in D&D parlance). The not so secret fact here might be that real policy makers and policy makers in training at policy schools already do extensively involve themselves in roleplaying.
As League readers are aware, I am currently an “all but internship” (ABI?) masters degree candidate at a public policy school. While we are given different names for our assignments, in the end almost all of them are some sort of roleplaying. Some are more explicit than others. There are actual “simulations” or “case challenges” where we’re given a scenario, precise roles and unfolding situations. Others are implied. We write memos pretending to be members of the state department or a NGO, we do case analysis on real datasets to present our take on a problem and we make research proposals that might have an impact if carried out in detail in the real world. All of this is to say that yes, “playing” in a roleplaying game is essentially what policy makers do. (And one might argue is why I got into the field to begin with.)
Let’s unpack this argument a bit. In the real world, policy makers are often not the most direct decision makers. For the most part, analysts serve to gather data, unpack arguments then present them, preferably in one (or at most two!) page memos to our principals. We work within circles of decision making that privilege the ability to think in the shoes of whoever we are working with. Lobbyists may use financial incentives often, but these are buttressed by persuasive arguments that are thought out from the perspective of the lawmaker. Consultants must take the role of the group they are advising. Legislative aides, law clerks, and bureaucrats must all consider how their arguments will stand within the context of the organization they work for. In addition to this, of course, are actual explicit simulation exercises where scenarios are tested for responses. The State Department and the Department of Defense both regularly use simulations as part of their policy-making toolset.
A lot of what policymakers do is learned on the fly. In many respects even public policy schools are a form of improvisation. The data and facts you learn aren’t as important as the methods. In short, the goal of policy training is to teach you “how to think” not what to know. Now some fields and types of data require actually handling them to learn how to think in that language. Econometrics, geographic information systems, or even how history relates to policy can be helped by classroom experiences, because they often provide much greater context and breadth than we’d get on the job. The question then becomes, why isn’t this applied more broadly to scenario building and simulations?
The “Crisis Simulation” is something of a capstone for global policy students at the LBJ School. As part of our required curriculum, it’s meant to test the skills gained in two years at the school. Unfortunately the broad range of our specializations (ranging from security, law, diplomacy, to international finance and development) make running such a simulation in a rewarding manner for all participants difficult. When I took this simulation last spring, I was dissatisfied with the nature of the actual simulation, and the fact that the actual development of our own scenario came as a bit of an afterthought.
A quick scan of other schools’ course offerings suggest a similar trend. While courses might offer simulations as part of the course, or as part of a specific security curriculum (the former at the Kennedy School, the latter at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service), they don’t really go beyond the narrow scope of that specific specialty or into conceptualizing developing these games beyond that level. In short, while there’s an actual study of war-games or business based crisis-management, they’re compartmentalized. If we should be taught how to think, perhaps thinking like a cosmic gamemaster might be a good idea.
Imagine if you will, a world in which D&D only sold class specific or setting specific DM guides, but not the actual Dungeon Master’s Guide. In many respects that’s the state of simulations and policymaking today.
We’re taught how to play, but not how to DM. A more integrated method of simulation and scenario development might be something to consider.