Is there such a thing as a simple simulation?

I was involved in a discussion the other day (no names, no pack drill) with someone who offered to provde a working simulation which required only ten lines of prose to state. (No technology, no website, just 10 lines of prose.) I havent seen it, but I confess I am sceptical and have been worrying about it ever since.

Firstly, the simulation industry has now reached a stage where most simulations are very complex. Take for example the effort put in to modelling different types of soil in military tank simulators. This is not to say that complexity is a good thing in itself, but it is certainly the way the worlds largest simulation user (the US military) is going.

Secondly, look at the large number of superficial so-called simulations practised in schools or political lobbies. These take a small subset of huge ideas, play around with them, and pronounce the outcome as important. I can see a small argument for using these things in schools: it makes the pupils think about what the UN does, for example. On the other hand, it generally gives only a superficial idea of what are the actual rules of the game. An essay in JASSS makes short work of the idea that simulations can predict, but I would argue that they cant even teach meaningfully if they dont state the rules clearly. They also run the risk (see Axel Stockburgers comments) of introducing dangerous biases presented as objective truth. They run the risk of several types of simple error.

I once took part in a simulation called Red Teamer in which we pretended to be the various authorities coping with terrorist incidents in London. Of course none of us were police officers (etc) and none of us were aware of the extensive plans and resources the police have to respond to these things, so the effect, despite some reasonably realistic graphics and maps, was of a set of people furiously improvising ways of crossing the Atlantic without having learned to swim, or even that there are boats that will do this for you. Similarly, giving children a simulation of the UN does not really help them to understand much about the dynamics of international diplomacy.

Maybe Im a simulation snob. Better people should at least approach the problem than throwing it all in the too difficult basket. On the other hand, our ability now to collect, store, and handle in real time massive datasets does make it possible to do really valuable simulations of really complex problems.

Anything less than this looks more and more to me like an intellectually pretentious party game, the sort of thing you do to break the ice between people or to provide a teaching gimmick to make lectures more memorable. I confess I did once give a talk about the value of simulation, at the start of which I arranged for an actor friend to heckle me loudly and abusively. He did this so well that members of the audience rounded on him and told him to shut up, tempers were raised, etc. I am sure this helped people to remember my talk, and it also made the point that simulation can produce a feeling of reality – in this case embarrassment – that is much more effective than mere description. There was a tangible sense of relief when I revealed the secret, he got a round of applause, and people still mention it to me. However, I did this as an integral way of proving a point. (It also took far more than 10 lines of prose to set out, and some hours to prepare.)

I do fear that the word simulation is much mis-used. It has been used for things which are trivial, pretentious, deliberately misleading, or just plain naive. Im not accusing my interlocutor of any of these. He is a rightly respected expert in his field and I would like to be convinced that what he offers really works. However, Im afraid I really do beleive that simulation requires complexity and that ignoring our newly-won ability to handle complexity (the Galilean revolution of our age) is a retrograde step.

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