Scenarios don't have to be about the future. We can learn from the examination of past experiences, exploring how alternative options may have played out. These are often referred to as "counter-factual" exercises, as they are intended to play out in ways contrary to historical fact, giving participants insights into both how decisions are made and the complexity of events. Pax Warrior, a computer simulation-documentary on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, is designed to be just this sort of counter-factual exercise. In Pax Warrior, the player is given the role of a UN Peacekeeping commander in Rwanda, and is asked to make a series of increasingly-difficult decisions about how to respond to evidence that something awful is taking place.
There isn't an obvious "right answer" in the simulation; seemingly-correct choices can have unforeseen (yet utterly plausible) results, as the text in the image here shows. The goal isn't necessarily to stop the genocide (although that would obviously be an ideal outcome), it's to educate players about the complexity of managing humanitarian situations. A Canadian team began working on the project in 2002 in coordination with academic and activist specialists on human rights and genocide, and a beta version of the software is now available.
As with all simulations, cause-and-effect are driven by the insights and biases of the programmers. While the response to Pax Warrior from those in the humanitarian aid community has been generally positive, it's important to remember that the choices offered to players are limited. Players may come up with novel solutions to problems which the software has no way to handle. There's little room for innovation in computer simulations; cause-and-effect are hardwired, and the behavior of other actors in the scenario are scripted. This doesn't mean the simulation will be bad, just that it will be limited. I've asked to participate in the beta program, and hope to be able to give a more fully-fleshed out evaluation soon.
James Gillespie High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, recently ran a lengthy exercise with Pax Warrior, as a way of teaching the students about what happened in Rwanda, and about the complexity of peacekeeping. The student responses, as quoted in the BBC, are telling:
An informant tells the students, who play the role of UN officers, that hidden arms caches are about to be distributed to Rwandan government militiamen who may commit genocide.The students have several choices. Do they risk confrontation and raid the arms caches? Or should they ask for advice from UN headquarters in New York?[...] Every choice that's made has consequences for the rest of the simulation.I asked one student, Niall Dolan, why he chose to fax New York to ask for advice."Our mission is not to promote violence," he says."And does this simulation relate to your ordinary lives?" I ask."The decisions we have to make here are much more extreme than any we'd have to make as teenagers," says Astrid Brown."But this makes you aware that your decisions can have many more effects than you realised.""And no matter what your good intentions are," says Jude Purcell, "certain decisions you have to take are going to have bad consequences."
This is a difficult but important realization -- sometimes, there are no good options. But that doesn't mean some choices aren't less-bad than others. If counter-factual scenarios are well-constructed, they can show us how we can make better choices in the future, and allow us to look anew at whether and how we could work to change the results of decisions already taken. At the same time, we should recognize the limitations of counter-factual scenarios. Our real-world choices are not limited to an established set of A through E options; sometimes solutions emerge when we approach the situation in innovative ways, whether we're talking about humanitarian emergencies, political struggles, or responses to climate disruption. Pax Warrior, like all counter-factuals, is best thought of as a trigger for discussion, as a way of prompting the "what haven't we thought of here?" questions. It's a catalyst for thoughtful conversation about humanitarian problems, and we can certainly use more of those.