Why Games (for transportation research)?

There are a lot of dimensions in transportation research. Every January the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) hosts a conference with 10,000+ attendees, and more than 4000 presentations. Just about everything that you can imagine is covered, and some things you can’t: urban planning, mass transit, vehicle technologies, road engineering, rail, freight, developing world transportation issues, and so on. But other than myself there is little discussion of gaming as a high level policy planning support tool in transportation.

It is understandable. There is a common perception of games as toys or as entertainment, not a means by which people explore serious policy propositions. Even in the military, where war-gaming has a rich history in everything from small unit training to global war planning, the notion that games could be used for generating real-world improvements in combat effectiveness was not easily accepted. As in any bureaucracy there is an entrenched interest in keeping things as they have been (and this is not an entirely bad impulse, as large systems require an internal predictability to work efficiently). War-gaming did not become an accepted methodology for military planning until Prussian Field Marshall Helmut von Moltke the Elder proved its effectiveness by repeatedly routing historic enemy France with a numerically inferior army.

Von Moltke used war-gaming to gain insights into the hard boundaries of likely conflicts. He would take his army to a likely future battlefield, split them into two groups and have them attack and defend on the terrain. This allowed him to learn about things like the carrying capacity of the local roads and strategic features of the terrain. The competitive nature of the games gave his officers a venue to show their skills and raise their status. What I mean by hard boundaries is that he was able to discover the undeniable truths of a system that would play a substantial role in determining the outcome of an actual conflict.

Serious games are a powerful tool for discovering the hard boundaries within systems that are otherwise unavailable for study, e.g. the future. The history of war-gaming is full of prescient games but these sorts of hard boundary insights have also extended to games on non-military topics. Two games on utility deregulation for example, UTILITIES 21 and Infrastratego, found that the deregulated market was extremely vulnerable to gaming, prior to the Enron scandal . Indeed in the age of post-moral capitalism the notion that a systematic vulnerability will be exploited in correlation to the value of the system is not a critique but rather an objective description. I saw the same result in my Autopia games: fuel producer players were keenly aware of the power they had in the game market as the seller of a necessity commodity and would routinely attempt to engineer market squeezing strategies to increase profits.

The idea that the success of war-games for military planning suggests that games would be useful for transportation planning is further supported by the fact that logistics is a central concern in modern war planning. “An army marches on its stomach” said Napoleon, and keeping an army supplied with food, ammunition, fuel and other necessities is a big a challenge as any for the military. In comparison, everyday the world runs a massive logistics campaign in which billions of people and mega-tonnes of freight are transported, with an astonishing degree of success. Given that games have proven themselves as a tool for war planning it makes sense to explore them more deeply as a tool for transportation planning.

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