The real power of role-playing

When I highlight the same point several times, I figure that it’s time to write a blog point about it. In the conversations I’ve been having with people about the megagame, the point is that role-playing exercises like this one can build enormous empathy in unexpected and powerful ways. Since one of the major goals of the Refugee Megagame is not just increasing knowledge, but also understanding — of the refugees themselves, the officials struggling honestly with what to do about them, and people who have different opinions about this topic than your own.

One of my first experiences running a megagame occurred during graduate school, when I was a teaching assistant in a course on US foreign policy. I ran a typical crisis simulation in which the players included the President and the Cabinet, Congress, the Joint Chiefs, and other parts of the US national security apparatus. We scheduled the exercise for a Saturday, as a voluntary activity. I was very surprised and grateful that everyone showed up.

The student who played the President was a loud critic of American foreign policy. Having grown up in Berkeley, CA, his opinions may come as no surprise. The United States was a ham-fisted hegemon, ready to pull out a massive military gun at the first provocation. Americans treated their allies as subjects, and everyone else as actual or potential enemies. Hard power was the American way, when soft power could accomplish far more.

When this student took the mantle of our fictional President, all those opinions went out the window. During the crisis, he was ready to use military force practically immediately. He actually said, “Why have all these weapons, if we don’t use them?” If there had been a big red button on his desk, I was sure that he would have pushed it.

What happened? During the pressures of the crisis simulation, aspects of the role took over his perceptions and actions. Even though everything in the simulation was completely fictional, the role became more real to him than his former opinions. He saw threats to the United States, and he was ready to take swift action to deal with them.

To be fair, he was not the only person in this simulation to undergo a transformation. We had spent weeks discussing the do’s and don’ts of national security decision-making, and the students succumbed to many of the don’ts. Groupthink, confirmation bias, rushing ahead without building any domestic political support, letting capabilities drive decisions more than objectives — very smart, very studious students drove straight into this pitfalls.

And we got it all on videotape. Then we played it back, and talked about the event.

Once the students recovered from their embarrassment, they expressed some sympathy for people in their real-life roles. The tone of the last several weeks, in which we dissected the inner workings of US foreign policy, had been something between a detached intellectual exercise and occasional astonishment at how so very many smart people could, at moments like the Bay Of Pigs invasion or the Vietnam War, do such silly things. After the crisis game, they gained a greater appreciation for how hard it is for people straddling the gigantic national security bureaucracy and the messy US political system, under enormous pressure to deal with a regular stream of apparent threats, with imperfect information, to avoid making any serious mistakes.

In other words, they had a profound moment of empathy — including the simulated President. “I don’t know what happened to me,” he said during the debrief. My answer was, “The role happened to you.”


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