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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How video games could help us plan Iraq (and learn from our mistakes)

Historian Niall Ferguson likes to think counterfactually - imagining what the world would be like if certain historical events turned out differently. And he's recently discovered that a video game simulation led to deeper thinking about the possibilities in World War II:
For example, he'd often argued that World War II could have been prevented if Britain had confronted Germany over its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. France would have joined with Britain, he figured, pinching Germany between their combined might and that of the Russian army...But when he ran the simulation in Making History, everything fell to pieces. The French defected, leaving Britain's expeditionary force to fly solo -- and get crushed by Germany. His theory, as it turns out, didn't hold water. He hadn't realized that a 1938 attack would not leave Britain enough time to build the diplomatic case with France.
The simulation game allows players to try and see how different historical events might have turned out different. The game's creator, Muzzy Lane, envisions the game helping to model current global conflicts with Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Iran.

When we think about historical events, we have 20/20 hindsight -- so we forget how confusing and uncertain they were at the time. In 1943, nobody really knew how strong Germany was, or what Stalin was thinking. In modern conflicts, we often have a similarly false sense of surety -- too much confidence in our ability to predict the outcome of major events.

When we play with sims, they knock us off our pedestals -- because crazy things usually happen we don't predict. Yet the chaos is useful, because we can run the same situation again and again, changing one little thing each time, until we've war-gamed it deeply and understand it better than ever.

The United States used to be champions at this sort of strategic thinking, Ferguson notes, until Iraq came along. Much of America's failures in Iraq have been due to the overly rosy predictions of administration heads. They didn't have the healthy respect for chaos that was the original animating genius of conservatism -- the thinkers like Edmund Burke, who distrusted aggressive tinkering with economies, states or cultures, because they shuddered to think of what genies might be unleashed. (emphasis mine)

Solution? Video games for Republicans!

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