How ethical are ethical simulations?

The UN World food programme has launched a free game intended to teach children aged 8 to 13 about food aid, and to “help us work towards a world without hunger”. It looks sensible and well-written and will be tested shortly by my in-house team of 8 to 13 year old games enthusiasts.

There are several similar games or simulations: some perhaps more ethical than others. Some say more about the motives of the simulators than anything else; on the other hand some may be a genuinely useful way of learning.

Perhaps the oldest was invented by Buckminster Fuller : his World Game. His descriptions of it are written in such tense prose that I find it impossible to evaluate them.

The game, he says, “is an organization of computer capability to deal prognosticatingly with world problems. It is played with the information contained in the six volumes entitled, “Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs,…” {written by himself>. It is intended to show that humanity can cooperate and that “our resources could really be stretched to do much more with much less of everything” and to break away from zero-sum assumptions. It is based on his own experience of “World War gaming, as played by the United States Navy…” and was played long-hand in the late 1920s, and later on using computers, since it is “..a precisely defined design science process for arriving at economic, technological and social insights pertinent to humanity’s future envolvement aboard our planet Earth. The processes consist of mathematical procedures not only as incisive and complex as those involved in celestial navigation, or astro-ballistics, or the space program, but even more so…”

Buckminster Fuller seemed to assume that “World leaders will be invited to play the game and to introduce any new data they deem to be missing and the computers memory banks will retain all the data ever fed into it as well as remembering all the plays that have been previously made and their respective outcomes.” He adds, modestly, that: “A number of such hopefully initiated “World Game Seminars” have made it clear that individuals not properly led by myself soon become aware of their own inadequacy of experience and thought…”.

The Game now seems to be operated as the Global Simulation Workshop by a US company, o.s.Earth, Inc.. which “provides experiential, simulation-based learning and training about world resources and issues.” ( An Optimal Standard World Game for 20-100 players costs: $3,500, including expenses. For this the company supplies materials and a facilitator.)

Other games that have been in the news recently have included Pax Warrior, “a product for the educational and training markets that extends the nascent “Interactive Documentary” form to incorporate decision based simulation and collaborative learning tools…” and uses a scenario based on UN intervention in Rwanda as “an engaging way to learn about history, civics, citizenship, social studies and current events”.

Theres also games on the PETA website which includes games designed to promote vegetarianism etc. For an example of a simplistic and dull game with an oversimplified message and zero educational value, see Make Fred Spew, which PETA ascribs to an anti-dairy products website. Another PETA game, provided by an anti-KFC website , is similarly low on entertainment and high on propaganda.

Whatever you may think about the issues, the fact is that games are increasingly being used in education, especially in the USA. (Eg According to the Chicago Maroon, a student newspaper, the “Model United Nations of the University of Chicago (MUNUC) hosted a high school United Nations simulation…. Some 150 Chicago students sacrificed time and sleep to teach thousands of high school delegates that, unlike the Bush administration’s policies, diplomacy and debate can work.”)

Simplistic simulations based on one-sided models of the world, like PETAs, are easy to spot. The assumptions behind the more complex games are more difficult to critique. Since the subject is a political controversy on which reasonable and intelligent people can legitimately disagree, is it right to teach high school delegates that the Bush administrations policies dont work?

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