Learn how social simulations foster positive changes

Learn how social simulations foster positive changes

In what way are social simulations different from educational games?

A game is commonly associated with rivalry and fun. Serious simulation games – developed by the Centre for System Solutions – are used in training and educational contexts and addressed to youth, students and professionals. The word “serious” which appears here suggests that such play, in addition to an entertaining component, contains yet another important element – a serious goal (or set of goals). Among such goals, there may be persuasion, message transmission or learning. The effectiveness of serious games makes them useful tools for education of both children and adults. Serious games are often used in a wide range of educational contexts, be it teaching science at school, acquiring skills required for customer service or surgical operations or developing management competencies. Experience with serious games has shown that they enhance the development of specific skills and knowledge of the participants. An example of such a serious educational game with elements of simulation is Green & Great – a game targeted at business managers who face the challenges of transformation towards sustainable development and socially responsible business. The game may be treated as a laboratory or training ground where the players acquire and consolidate new skills. Practicing through real events that take place in the virtual world of the game, the players gain valuable experience without bearing the cost and loss that would be entailed by their moves in the real world of business.

The purpose of social simulation is to trigger change. This change may affect attitudes, standpoints, our understanding of a given issue or – most desirably – the way we behave or act. Social simulation is supposed to make the process of positive change possible. To accomplish it, the participants of social simulations recreate a real life situation. During social simulation, a group of people meet in one place and time and accept new roles assigned to them for a while. In such a virtual world they are faced with a specific challenge – a problem which they often encounter in their daily life. Usually it may take months or even years for certain processes to happen. Meanwhile, in social simulation a whole group of people is able to gain valuable experience in a short time. They are given the opportunity to observe the relationships between different aspects of the situation and find out how other people see the same things. As a result, they may easily understand how they all affect their common goal. The common goal of people participating in our simulations is usually to solve a given problem. This problem is always related to sustainability issues and refers to the actual difficulties that the participants of simulation face in the real world.

How does social simulation work?

Let me give you an example: we have a problem related to energy transition. Climate change is a growing challenge, the main source of greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide from the burning of coal and oil. The solution seems easy – we should switch to renewable sources. However, it is not as easy as it seems: renewable energy sources are variable. Both the sun and the wind depend on the weather. States where energy transition processes are already very advanced (Hawaii or Germany) have learned that electricity is either produced in excessive quantities (which causes damage to home appliances) or fades out completely. The power supply network is not adapted to this type of variable and distributed energy sources. Moreover, every change entails costs which must be covered – mostly from taxpayers’ money. Such decisions inevitably lead to protests. At the same time, new challenges associated with investing in technology emerge. All these processes and relationships create a complex whole, which often cannot be embraced at once. Since it is difficult to understand the complexity of the situation, people tend to look for someone to blame.

Thanks to social simulations, such as e.g. Energy Transition Game (ETG), people may find themselves in completely new roles. For example, we may put someone in the role of startups managers who are trying to introduce innovative energy solutions and experience all the difficulties involved, such as uncertainty or lack of immediate effects. In the world of simulation, just like in the real world, energy stability is commonly demanded. At the same time, however, pressure is exerted to reduce the emission of harmful substances. In in this transitional, precarious situation, people acting as energy producers have to make difficult decisions whether to open new plants or not. The first return on investments would probably be generated in thirty or fifty years. Other people can play government roles. They are supposed to ensure constant energy supplies in various spheres of life both for individual consumers and businesses. Yet another roles may be responsible for creating policies that support the transition to renewable energy. As has been said before, these policies may have side effects – blackouts or energy surpluses. There are also non-governmental organizations and transmission grid operators, who have to negotiate with electricity producers, consumers, trade unions, and fickle weather.

Acting merely in their own business, these different roles quickly create chaos, which is experienced first-hand by the participants. Only when all these agents decide to stop for a while to understand both their individual and collective actions, some change is possible. But they have to start sharing information and consider potential decisions. Only then effective transformation can take place. Effective, that is, one that will reduce emission and will not bring about social unrest and unnecessary costs.

Social simulation offers unique experience

The uniqueness of social simulation lies in its simplicity. Social simulation acts like a mirror, reflecting problems and complexities that exist in the real world. It allows the participants to experience these problems in compressed time and space. In real life, understanding the nature of a problem and its in-depth, multi-faceted analysis, would take months or years. Simulation takes just a few hours. Normally we would have to carry out extensive research, and only a handful of scientists would be able to understand its outcome. Thanks to social simulation, all participants experience the problem in a very direct way, without analyzing complicated diagrams. The process of negotiating and coming up to solutions, may cause frustration but may also offer a valuable lesson.

Every simulation ends with a moderated discussion, called debriefing. During such a discussion, roles may reveal their motivations, air their views, and analyze all the existing dependencies, obligations and frustrations. In this way, all the participants of the simulation can understand the logic behind their actions. They obtain the full picture. The missing pieces of the puzzle are collected. They begin to understand the relationships operating within the system. Simulation always has to finish with debriefing. Only such a complete whole can offer unique experience. It allows participants to understand the functioning of the system in which their particular problem operates. Thanks to it, they gain better opportunity to work out solutions that may lead to a positive change in the real world.

Our simulations strive to recreate the reality as accurately as possible. The development of social simulation referring to sustainable development may take months. Before game designers start their work on game mechanics, experts have to provide us with comprehensive and detailed research in the given area. We employ consultants from all over the world. But only such a long process may result in effective simulations, such as e.g. ETG. The Estonian ministers who had the chance to participate in ETG simulation, referred to the experience gained during the session. This helped them to find more adequate solutions to the real problems they have to deliberate on in the real life.

Well designed simulation …

teaches a multi-faceted approach to problems
offers understanding of the system and correlations
helps understand the motives behind actions

Well designed simulation may enable us to experience different aspects of the same problem. Experts talk only about things they know. To gain a full picture of a situation, we would need to consult many experts. Meanwhile, simulation forces participants to go beyond their area of ​​expertise and pay attention to other aspects. Our cognition is subject to ambiguity, which means that each of us may interpret the same situation differently. Russell Ackoff provides a good anecdote to illustrate this aspect. A group of people are sitting at the meeting in a townhouse when a tragic message reaches them. While climbing the stairs, their neighbor got a heart attack and died. Each person in the room focuses on a completely different aspect of the problem. One person says that it is the road service that should be blamed; the city is congested and the ambulance must have stuck in the traffic jam. Another person blames the underfinanced health care – there are not enough ambulances so the help was delivered too late. Yet another person draws attention to the fact that there is no elevators in the building where elderly people live. In fact, all of them are right, they just offer a different view on the same situation. Taking these different perspectives into account allows us to see the full picture of the problem. Such an example enables us to understand how simulation can help with real problems which inevitably engage many stakeholders. Usually during a meeting, stakeholders tend to outshout one another. Sometimes facilitation can help, but social simulation offers a better solution. Thanks to this experience, the participants may gain a multi-faceted view on the problem. It is more effective than just discussing the facts and trying hard to draw conclusions.

allows you to identify and name the problem
equip you with discussion tools 
provides direct experience of a difficult situation

To talk about the problem, you need to identify it. A complicated situation requires good understanding (it may take one-week long training focused on problem exploration). Otherwise our understanding will be rather superficial. Meanwhile, the simulation gives us experience, which offers the starting point for discussion. As a result, most people involved in the simulation acquire a discussion tool. Let me give you an example. We held a workshop with the Energy Transition Game involving the Department of Energy, this time in Poland. It turned out that most people do not understand the mechanism of climate change. In simulation, this mechanism is reflected by the emission path (the bigger amount of gases accumulates, the greater the damage). Many participants of the simulation found it shocking that although they switched to renewable energy sources and the emission of gases was limited, they were still subject to climate disaster. Why?, they asked. Because these changes are irreversible. In simulation such mechanisms are revealed so that the participants may experience the “aha” moment. A social simulation workshop enables participants to experience cognitive dissonance, which provides an opportunity to revise their views and, as a result, leads to mindset change.

provides motivation for change

The Arbinger Institute, a consulting company, coined the term “outworld mindset”. The institute works with people who can perceive the problem not only from their perspective, but also from the perspective of others. Such the change of perspective can be enhanced by the experience of well-designed simulation. It is because it forces us to observe that problems are caused not only by people “from outside”. Me and “my people” also contribute to it. When organization faces an impasse or conflict, the simulation may provide motivation for change. It is followed by enthusiasm, commitment and willingness to work out solutions. What’s important – this change, which was initiated by us, embraces the whole organization. Only such a holistic view and willingness to cooperate can lead to the change we all expect. Social simulation, which is built around the real problem, makes such changes easier. It allows us to understand and find our strategy to overcome obstacles.

allows you to predict the future

In 10 years our world may look completely different. 25 years ago, there was no Internet. Nobody dreamt about bioengineering, automation or artificial intelligence. Today it is all possible and can trigger a revolution. Due to uncertainty we don’t know what will happen in the future. In order to prepare for potential changes, simple statistical econometric models are not enough. They can only help us predict the existing trends. Meanwhile, we have to be ready to anticipate all sorts of, so called, black swans (very difficult, unexpected changes). Social simulations offer such opportunities. Thanks to them, we can look into the future. We still cannot fully predict it, but at least we are able to recognize the possible scenarios, which prepares us better for change. Without such “look to the future”, we cannot function properly on any level, be it individual, organizational or national one. Analytical models are not enough. The key is the involvement of the people that create societies.

“Social simulations must be well-researched and based on transparent sources. They help us understand each other and allow us to leave the cage of our opinions and views. Their aim is not to impose opinions on people but to help them come up with new solutions via self-reflection.”


The Scientific Director
at the Centre for Systems Solutions