Megagames explained

Picture a hotel conference room full of people. At each of many tables in the room, a few people sit together. A sign on the table identifies that the people sitting there constitute the Refugee team. One of the Refugee team has just returned from a meeting with the Humanitarian groups team at a nearby table. The Refugee team is happy for the other groups’ verbal support, but they need something more concrete. Is it time for the Refugee team to speak to people at the US Congress table?

This is an example of what it’s like to play a megagame. These large role-playing exercises divide the participants into teams, each representing a specific group that has an interest in what’s happening in the game. If the megagame were about a chemical spill in a major city, the teams might represent the mayor’s office, the fire department, the police, FEMA, and other groups. During the course of the game, these groups will take actions on their own: For example, the police department might want to cordon off the area as quickly as possible. A group may take these actions on their own, or in conjunction with other groups. The police team might check with the mayor’s office before setting up roadblocks, or it might decide that there wasn’t enough time.

Once the teams decide what to do, the umpires who are coordinating the game determine what happen. In our chemical crisis example, the police might discover that setting up roadblocks is harder than expected, as panicked crowds flee the spill. The umpires set up the situation, determine the results of player actions, and occasionally through in new twists into the story.

Incidentally, the example isn’t fictional. Governments often use these sorts of role-playing exercises to test emergency preparedness. In the same fashion, military and civilian officials test their strategies for dealing with national security crises in much the same fashion. For instance, if you wanted to see what would happen if Iran were to interfere with oil shipments through the Persian Gulf, you would have teams representing Iran, Iraq, the United States, and other interested parties.

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Megagames have a long history, particularly in both the public and private sectors. “Business wargames” are another way in which to use these exercises. Companies use them for corporate training, risk identification and response, competitive analysis, and other purposes.

The most important part of the megagame comes at the end, during the de-brief. The umpires reveal what really happened in the game: just as in real life, from the standpoint of any one person or group, it may be impossible to know everything that happened, and why it happened. The participants and umpires discuss the lessons learned from the experience, and identify any next steps that they might take. In the case of a environmental disaster game, the next steps might be to take measures to improve coordination among first responders, who might have struggled during the simulation to collaborate and coordinate with each other.

Confusingly, megagames go by many different names. You may have heard about them, or even played in them, under the mantle of crisis games, wargames, government simulations, role-playing exercises, or other terms. The essence of the megagame is the same: Learn from vicarious experience what you can do better in real life.