As the virus spread across the world and authorities started imposing lockdowns, problems became obvious. There was resistance to the closure of religious services, few people were keen to postpone weddings and funerals could not wait. Young singles wanted to party. Many people disliked wearing masks. And parents were tearing their hair out as schools closed.

None of this is news. But it was news in 2008, when all these events occurred inside a simulation game, Superstruct, which 10,000 people played online, imagining how they’d respond to a respiratory pandemic. The game was created by Jane McGonigal and her colleagues at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. A follow-up simulation, Evoke, threw in wildfires and a QAnon-style conspiracy group called “Citizen X”. That was in 2010.

In a new book titled Imaginable, McGonigal argues that games can teach us something about the future. She wouldn’t be the first person to believe that games offer important lessons about the world, as Jon Peterson attests in his meticulous history of war-games and role-playing games, Playing at the World. Whether these lessons really are important depends on the game. Consider chess. Although superficially a war game, it is far too stylised to teach anything but the broadest ideas about military tactics.

Johann Hellwig, a mathematician and entomologist, bolstered the game of chess by adding complexity. His 1780 chess variant was played on a board of up to 2,000 squares and included pieces such as the elephant, the jumping bishop, the jumping queen, 30 knights and 40 pawns. Kriegsspiel, developed in 1824 by Georg von Reisswitz the Younger, added realistic maps and unpredictable damage to units. Then came “free Kriegsspiel”, an 1870s version that did away with much of the rule-based complexity and relied on a referee to use his judgment. These games were influential in the Prussian military as a way of teaching strategic ideas to young officers.

After the first world war, the US Naval War College went further, with full-scale simulation exercises. As Steven Johnson describes in his book Farsighted, one such exercise, 1932’s Fleet Problem XIII, clearly highlighted the vulnerability of US Pacific bases to attack from the west, nine years before the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor. “If the US military had successfully applied the lesson of Fleet Problem XIII, it is entirely possible that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would have failed,” writes Johnson, “or would have never been attempted.”

The next stage of war gaming, pioneered at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s, was to move into the theatre of the mind. Rather than moving counters, players tried to see the world from the viewpoint of the antagonist. Anything could be attempted, writes Jon Peterson. “Governments might mobilise armies, spread disinformation, issue threats to peers, raise money with bonds, anything that a real government might do.” Referees would adjudicate the outcome of such “moves”, but rules were minimal because rules made assumptions about what was and was not possible, and the point was to discover new probabilities.

As the cold war strategist and Nobel laureate economist Thomas Schelling put it, open-ended games were valuable because “one thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him”.

Such cold war simulation games prompted important realisations — for example, that there was no simple, direct, quick, tamper-proof way for Washington and Moscow to communicate. Schelling and others agitated for such a system, but the “hotline” was introduced only in 1963, after the Cuban missile crisis showed that the need for it was acute.

There are other benefits to gaming, wrote Schelling. Games are captivating and stimulating; they help people grasp ideas more quickly and memorise them; they give permission to propose crazy-seeming plans and to see things from the enemy’s viewpoint. By their very design, such games tend to puncture groupthink. Somebody has the job of pretending to be the enemy, and will inevitably find something sneaky to attempt. The fundamental advantage seems to be in populating Schelling’s list of things that would never occur. You cannot draw up such a list, but you might play your way into it.

No game will perfectly predict the future. But, as a way of vividly exploring possible futures, they are hard to beat. Life throws stuff at us that we might not have considered. Lots of people warned us about the risk of a pandemic, but few pondered the need to conduct religious services over Zoom, the plight of working parents or that conspiracy theorists would find fertile ground for lies and delusions. People playing pandemic games saw all these possibilities quite clearly.

As a life-long gamer, I am easily persuaded of the benefits of games, but they are no panacea, even when they do predict the future. Superstruct and Evoke did not prevent pandemic policy missteps; games at Rand did not deliver a Moscow-Washington hotline until after the terrifying near-miss of the Cuban crisis. Fleet Problem XIII foretold the assault on Pearl Harbor but did not prevent it. Still, even a little foreknowledge is worth having. And whether a game helps you imagine the future or not, it’s a lot more fun than extrapolating a curve on a graph.

Tim Harford’s new book is “How to Make the World Add Up

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