A little help from the crowd, please?

A groundbreaking game designed by the Institute for the Future could find the answers to some very complicated questions.

It isn’t your typical war game, video game or even virtual training exercise. When the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group, launched the test version of its Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) in June, it opened the door to a new way of solving complex, global problems: by asking around.

The institute designed the game for the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Postgraduate School. In the test, about 800 players were asked for their ideas for resolving the problem of Somali pirates attacking ships in the Gulf of Aden. No magic-bullet solution came out of the exercise, but that wasn’t the point. The goal was to use crowdsourcing to bring in ideas and perspectives from around the world and up and down the chain of command.

The project was a success, according to lead researcher Jason Tester. In a conversation with staff writer Amber Corrin, Tester discussed how MMOWGLI works, what its implications are for training and how it could demystify the search for good ideas.

FCW: Tell me about the MMOWGLI pilot exercise.

Tester: It was originally an experiment, and what we were testing was the question: Could we use games to discover novel ideas that we can apply to major, global problems? Could the use of games motivate more people to participate and get ideas that could be contributed and build off each other, more than any one person or any one way of thinking would be able to?

Our pilot project was run over three weeks in June. The scenario was Somali piracy, with the situation at a stalemate. We asked the players, “What can we do to turn the tide?” We wanted to find novel tools, strategies and technologies that we weren’t thinking about, that were on no one’s radar.

The players were people in the military, in other parts of the federal government or in foreign governments. We had people from NATO and Europe. We had some academics, people following African issues or Somali piracy specifically.

FCW: How was the game played?

Tester: Over the three weeks, we took them through three different chapters of gameplay. The first took place in the year 2012, under the premise of an elite anti-piracy conference convened to think out of the box. This was a safe space to bring ideas that may otherwise seem a little crazy or a little silly on the surface — or not applicable.

For the second [chapter], we advanced the calendar to 2014. Here we assumed that some of the efforts of the first chapter had been successful and piracy as we know it had partially declined. We tweaked the geopolitics, with Yemen and Somalia linking forces. It wasn’t quite piracy in a black-and-white way. It was these two countries trying to exert economic terror over ships passing through those same straits. We kept the situation a bit ambiguous, which is reflective of real-life Navy problems.

In the third chapter, it took place in the same year and the same idea of the Yemen/Somalia union, but we asked people to play the other side — and we gave them a lot of freedom as to what the other side was. A lot of people took the perspective of a militia member of the union. In traditional war games, it’s called red teaming, trying to poke holes in the strategy you just developed. But we opened it up to people to kind of assume the lie.… We made it more expansive than traditional red teaming.

Across those three chapters, people came up with about 5,000 ideas. This is how the game is actually played: We asked people to play cards. A card is a 140-character idea. In that sense, it keeps a low barrier to participation, and people can’t bring a manifesto.

The players start with these half-ideas, kernels of ideas to build up something much larger, much more developed, one card at a time. The idea is they have more chances to interact with others and communicate. The connections become idea chains. In an idea chain, you see a player come into the game with the beginning of an idea, and they play that as a card. And then others play cards to build onto that idea, expanding an idea or even applying it in another direction. Then 25 cards later, the idea has become many different flavors, each one a variation on the idea before it and a different potential viable step to pursue.

FCW: What do you do with all those ideas?

Tester: A big takeaway from this experiment for us was just seeing all these conversations take place. In a way, MMOWGLI really is an engine to promote ideas, but it’s also to get people talking about these big problems and particularly to get people talking who might not have talked before.

We did get a lot of ideas that we’re presenting to people in the military. We got ideas about new technology, new ways to apply them, new economic models. Some of these ideas may be the kinds that get discussed at the deepest levels of the Pentagon or in a naval academic journal. But in a game like this, they’re taking on more life. You can think of MMOWGLI as a sandbox or a workshop, in a way.

In terms of putting these ideas into action, we’re still figuring out that part. That comes next in this experiment. We’re still going through the ideas, a lot of which have been posted on the MMOWGLI blog throughout the exercises. We also post awards there, and our criterion really is, “Which idea had the most interestingness?” It’s not necessarily what’s the most right, but what’s interesting, something we haven’t heard before. It may be that 90 percent of the ideas we have heard before or aren’t the most plausible. But in a way, that’s kind of the foundation for that 10 percent of ideas that are really intriguing, that are novel and show a new way of thinking.

That’s innovation right there. That’s how you get to some breakthrough ideas and the strategies that can fix some long-standing problems.

FCW: How can that approach be used in training, particularly in the broader federal government?

Tester: We know that MMOWGLI appeals to younger people. We did have some younger military personnel involved in the pilot. It can be kind of a snapshot of what they’re thinking about these problems. What are their current attitudes about what the Navy is doing? The more we understand about the younger generation of officers, the more the curriculum and training can be tailored to those ideas and mind-sets.

In the federal government particularly, there’s the potential that someone who may have the best idea or a creative answer to a problem wouldn’t be tapped to be part of that conversation. This would bring the best and most creative people to the table, at any part of the government. If you cast a wide enough net, you can get people to speak up who wouldn’t normally, who under the status quo or because of bureaucracy you wouldn’t hear from. That’s the potential here for the broader government: the ability to break down some of those traditional silos and bring new perspectives into the conversation.

FCW: How do you think this crowdsourcing approach will evolve?

Tester: I think MMOWGLI in the future becomes a lot more fluid as people get used to it. Rather than being a heavily designed, heavily facilitated big event, it becomes more subtle. In the same way that on Facebook a friend asks for movie recommendations, there’s an idea of someone wanting to turn to the crowd for some more creative ideas to a problem — maybe in a ship at sea or a particular department in the Navy. Maybe MMOWGLI becomes a more frequent experience. For younger generations, it’s something that’s very much in their lexicon.

As we learn more about innovation, we’re finding that there’s a real science behind good ideas, and I think we’re at the forefront of that. And we’re trying to change some mind-sets as we go.

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