Harald Warmelink, PHD
May 7, 2024

It’s Monday, 6 May 2024, just after 2pm. I’m sitting in my home office, wrapping up my work for BUas, for the Cradle R&D lab, for the MSP Challenge simulation platform. Just contemplating what’s happened over the past 7.5 years. The things we’ve achieved, the things we didn’t achieve (yet). Things such as the 15 software releases, the 47 individual contributors (with small or large contributions) to the software, the 26 distinct projects co-funding it. But also things such as the never-ending ‘wish list’ of features we wanted to add or improve but never got around to (yet), or turned out to be just bad ideas. The bad ideas we actually did implement. The project proposals that were rejected. The ones that I didn’t really want to see approved but got approved anyway (not saying which!)… The beautiful and not-so-beautiful places I’ve been for project meetings and game sessions.

Yes…. All those game sessions. Let’s zoom in on those for a bit. Throughout the years I’ve kept a list of all game sessions that I knew had taken place (mostly because I organised them). Discarding the pure demos from that list, I’m left with 58 full-on game sessions since January 2018, of which 51 (co-)facilitated by me. This means that I have been co-facilitating an MSP Challenge game session every 6-7 weeks on average for more than 6 years. That’s crazy to realise… It has also been truly rewarding, as every session typically involved about 20-25 participants. You do the math.

I was thinking about what I’ve learned from those 51 MSP Challenge sessions about how to facilitate simulation game sessions. Here’s my – quite practical – list of five particular lessons:

  1. Start with a playful exercise. This is something I regrettably did not do much at all actually. Professor Igor Mayer loves doing these. Before playing the actual simulation game at hand, he likes playing short ‘warm-up games’: little playful exercises (typically 20-30 minutes) that you can do with a group to wake them up, break the ice, get them into a playful mindset, and make them more appreciative of simulation gaming to begin with. A lot of the exercises he uses are related to systems thinking and complexity theory, so there’s always a good substantive lesson to learn from them as well. In hindsight, I should have done these more often.
  2. Combine the physical and the digital. When you use the MSP Challenge simulation platform, all you really really need is a computer. Handy, yes, but also a bit risky. Your participants can get ‘sucked into’ their computers completely, ignoring everything and everyone around them, losing opportunities for learning and getting energy from social interactions and more hands-on work. So it’s good to get all your participants in the same (big) room and have some other materials at the ready. I’ve liked using paper maps of the sea area in question (printed out on A3, nice and big), whiteboards or flip charts, and maybe some role badges and country team signs, as complements to the digital experience.
  3. Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold. The topic of MSP is complex. So many variables, aspects, perspectives… The whole playful experience benefits greatly if you make it scaffolded. As in, define levels or chunks of gameplay, during which you focus on just one or a couple of aspects, before taking a break and then moving on to the next level of chunk. For Master’s students at the University of Gothenburg, Andrea Morf and I took a whole week for an MSP Challenge game session. The first day was purely about getting to grips with one’s role and learning the basics of the software. The second day was purely about defining objectives. Developing actual spatial plans only started on day three. You get the idea.
  4. Promote a playful mindset. This is a multi-faceted one. For me, a playful mindset is one that’s open and explorative. It’s a mind that’s trying things out, evaluating, re-trying, and enjoying it all along the way. I’m not just talking about the participants, but about the facilitators too. A playful mindset is never self-evident, but especially not when you’re playing a simulation game, constantly referring to real-life in all its seriousness. But it’s so important. To promote this, there are three things I have learned to do throughout the years.
    • First, I just explicitly talk about this in my opening remarks or presentation, very frankly. I explain that this is what makes games hard rather than frivolous fun.
    • Second, whenever I get questions from participants about the game and how to play it, I force myself not to immediately answer them (assuming I can), but to explain how they could find the answers themselves. This includes pointing them to other players who appear to already know the answer.
    • Third, I try to keep spirits high. When everyone is in a playful mindset, things will go wrong. We should be able to laugh about that, be a bit self-deprecative even, without bringing us down. And then we move on, we try something else.
  5. Plan your session, but stay flexible as you execute. I’ve always spent quite some time preparing a game session upfront, together with the other facilitators or teachers. It’s good to have a plan for the different days or phases of the game session. Think of defining introductory, main game-play, and debriefing phases, for example. Think of how to present each phase, what to set up for it and when, and how to conclude it. Get to know your target audience upfront as you think of all these things, make your assumptions about them explicit. What do they know already? What do they want and need to learn? And then, as you actually execute your plan, keep ‘reading the room’. Keep checking and reflecting on what’s actually happening. Not going according to plan? Adjust accordingly, on the spot.

It’s been a blast. I am very thankful for the experiences I’ve had, the million different things I’ve learned, the wonderful people I’ve met and worked with. I wish my soon-to-be former colleagues as well as the entire MSP community all the best in the world. And I hope the MSP Challenge simulation platform and all its derivatives and spin-offs will one day end up being this amazing game-based marine planning support system we’ve been dreaming about. Maybe, somehow, it already is.