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Why the CIA is using games to train its operatives

Why the CIA is using games to train its operatives

March 15, 2017 | By Alex Wawro

March 15, 2017 | By Alex Wawro
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More: Serious, Design

"The greatest power of simulation games is that players have to operate these games themselves and know the rules."

- Volko Ruhnke, game designer and CIA analyst, speaking to Ars Technica about why the CIA uses board games to train its personnel.

The South By Southwest festival is happening in Texas this week, and there are some odd games on display there from a source you might not expect: the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Members of the Agency were at the show to showcase some of the board games used for training and educational purposes inside the organization. Two of them, CIA analysts David Clopper and Volko Ruhnke, spoke to Ars Technica about why they design and use board games to teach CIA operatives; for game makers, it offers a fascinating look at how the medium's strengths are being embraced by the intelligence community.

"People playing a game, together they're experiencing the designers’ mental model of insurgency in Afghanistan and sharing that model," Ruhnke, who has won awards for his board game design work outside of the CIA, told Ars. "They are learning it, very quickly, because they’re inside, operating in it. Pushing levers, pulling cords, seeing what happens. Stories are very sticky, and they’ll remember their own stories. "

Clopper says that he began pushing to integrate custom board games into CIA training as early as 2008, and that it's now paying off by inspiring players to approach problems in new ways.

"People would come up to me after [a session] and say, 'David, I learned about something I didn't know existed before,'" Clopper told Ars. "'I think we can use this on a real intelligence problem I’m tracking.' It’s a game, but it had real mission impact."

You can learn more about the tabletop training games the CIA brought to SXSW in the Ars Technica article, which is worth reading in full.

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