Who wants to play?: Social simulation exercises can raise awareness for the use of science in diplomacy

Posted on Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Author: Hubert Brychczyński, Marie Franquin, Sumedha Sachar, Paalini Sathiyaseelan and Uzma Urooj

Centre for Systems Solutions

External Relations Officer, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA); Internal Director, Science & Policy Exchange 

Medical Writer; Treasurer, Science & Policy Exchange; Chair Grants Committee, Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC)

SPE café coordinator, Science & Policy Exchange; PhD candidate, Simon Fraser University 

Advisor, Science Strategies, Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR); Chair Evaluation Committee, Canadian Science Policy Center (CSPC)

On November 16, 2020, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) and the Centre for Systems Solutions (CRS) co-organized Helping Societies Address Cascading Climate Risks from Outside Geopolitical Boundaries: Case Study on the Arctic (Interactive Policy Simulation) at the annual Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), which offered a unique experience: a narrative role-playing serious gaming titled the Arctic Future Policy Simulation.

A total of 30 participants and 15 support actors represented various nations, countries and cultural groups. After logging into "Impacts", a fictitious diplomatic social network, they traveled in time to the year 2034, to become officials from Arctic and near-Arctic. By then, the North Pole had become ice-free in the summer. Elsewhere, as a result of widespread crop failures and food shortages, insurgents seized and blocked both the Suez and Panama canals. The tension led to an international summit. In 90 minutes, participants decided on the future of world transport and negotiated an international treaty for maritime shipping in the Arcticwhile being cognizant of the impact it would have on societies and the environment.

A survey administered after the event revealed enthusiastic responses to the experience. Participants reported a plausible representation of reality that led them to feel like actual diplomats. Efficient moderation, combined with the immersive, engaging, fast-paced, and challenging nature of the game made the experience both entertaining and educational. It gave scientists an opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of policymakers and participate in the process of decision making. Participation in this simulation provided trainee and early career researchers (ECR) with a chance to learn about complex diplomacy concepts that are often difficult to conceptualize in words, such as fast-paced decision-making, the pressures of negotiating partnerships, and the key role of the media. 

Participants clearly identified diplomacy challenges hindering policy implementation. For example: how to involve science in multifaceted high-stake decision-making, lack of inter and intra-communication of different departments and bustling activities on the media front were some of the challenges identified through this exercise. Participants acknowledged that, under time constraints, they felt rushed to be acclimatized with their new role, form alliances and convince others to buy into their recommendations. They had little time left to take a step back and ask the right questions. If this experience reflects real-life diplomatic negotiations, the question on everyone’s mind was how do we do better?

Despite the challenges, simulations are a great way to develop and test out strategies to ensure that they address the reality on the ground. Building a body of evidence through a systems approach can help identify challenges and solutions through a multifaceted perspective. This evidence, in turn, could resolve difficult trade-offs and conflict of interests between multiple stakeholders. Scientific evidence, additional negotiation time, clear communications and transparency can help build resilience on organizational, national, and international levels, and prepare for future crises. 

Going forward, in the post-COVID world, leveraging the role of science in the international diplomacy landscape will be crucial for responsible communication of scientific evidence. Playing serious games offers an opportunity for emerging scientists to learn how science can influence decision makers. The role-playing aspect also serves to emphasize that science-based evidence and advice is only one of the many perspectives at the negotiation table.


  • Experiential learning opportunities for the next generation: Trainees and early career researchers need interactive platforms to experientially learn and grasp how scientific advice can be utilized for global decision-making to address pressing global challenges.
  • Exploit the benefits of serious games: Serious games provide a quick and efficient learning experience, offering a rapid and in-depth understanding of the nuances of diplomacy and the critical role of key players in negotiating and addressing global challenges through effective diplomacy. 
  • International Collaboration: Online gaming platforms have a potential to promote collaborative participation from a diverse pool of interested and emerging trainees and scientists from all across the globe by offering peer-based learning, bringing the diplomatic simulation to a next level.

Words most used by support actors to describe their experience (Monkeylearn.com) 

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