Understanding the complexity of energy systems with a simulation game

This post is by Dr. Émile Chappin, Assistant Professor of Energy & Industry, Delft University of Technology, and a Visiting Researcher at Fields of View. Dr. Chappin worked with us on developing a simulation game to understand to complexity of energy systems. These are his thoughts about the complexity of the sector and how a simulation game helps in understanding it.

 

Vibrant Electronics City sets the scene for three weeks of intensive research on serious gaming. We are driven by the need for stability and affordability of our energy supply – they are essential for flourishing societies. That’s the reason to deal with the nitty-gritty of typical European electricity markets in which billions of Rupees or Euros are at stake but where megawatts and megawatthours are easily mixed up. The key is not only in the details: electricity markets are complex systems, of which the performance is the result of the transactions in the market, the responses to the influences from outside, such as (proposed) policies, the evolving institutions and rational or irrational expectations.

 

This is where we start: how can we really learn to understand the essential workings of this system? The pure nature of complexity tells us that we can’t, really. But that’s not a satisfactory answer. We should do something that helps us – students, researchers, policy makers and companies – to gain better understanding of these systems. We need to start learning how we can somehow manage the system as a whole throughout the coming decades. Not in the classical sense of management, which presumes that some form of direct control is possible. We need to find new ways of shaping the system in a (more) desired direction. How? Join us in the world of simulation games!

We would like to share four insights we learnt from complexity and developing and using simulation games and models:

  1. The notion of optimality is void. There is no perfect outcome of this system/problem. Such judgments of the system state are observer-dependent, time-dependent and cannot be predicted. One can only speak of trajectories that appear desirable or not, given a set of strong assumptions, a time-frame, a set of objectives and a delineated system.

  2. Simulation and gaming should be used as tools for discussion. Because the system we’re observing is complex, any model we make and any simulation we run is definitively wrong. That, however, does not make them useless: they can be used as a digital laboratory, our laboratory in silico. By applying many modeling and simulation techniques capturing parts of the real-world system and its problems, and using those in a variety of relevant contexts, we may get a glimpse of understanding what patterns may emerge and how we can contribute in shaping the system [1]. That is the approach for TU Delft’s Energy Modeling Laboratory [2].

  3. Experience and involvement leads to deeper understanding. The complexity in the real-world system works in counterintuitive mechanisms and leads to patterns that are hard to really understand. Our experience shows that grasping some of these patterns by experiencing them in a serious game really helps to build an intuition for the consequences of the system’s complexity [1]. That in itself implies that lessons learnt – or patterns observed – may well contribute to understanding the complexity of the real world system and any effort in shaping the system accordingly. An example in our game is the understanding that ‘simple’ economic laws such as the notion of marginal cost bidding really work (at least to a certain extent). Other examples are the irrational response to soft information of future developments, the almost unbelievable developments on world markets for fuels, the wicked trade-offs between short-term profit, market share and the reliability and affordability of energy supply in the long run.

  4. Managing is the art to use the mechanisms that drive change. Understanding and exploring what the mechanisms are that drive our societal system is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Let’s consider this management that, making use of that, an art, an “attempt to bring order out of chaos” [3]. How to know what decisions matter, what actors matter and what outcomes matter? How to measure performance? How to measure change? To answer such questions, we need to bring together theory from various fields (history, engineering, multi-actor systems, complexity, economics, policy, design, etc.) and knowledge from application domains (energy, water, transport, IT).
    We hope that simulation and gaming contributes to this process. By doing so, we make the theory operational in specific domains: we ask questions such as how we can develop and maintain an affordable electricity sector which is both decarbonized and in which supply is secured. It helps us to define what change and stability really means and how we can measure it. That way we hope to find out how we may bring about changes that put our systems on a more desired trajectory. If we can manage our precious infrastructures – the backbones of our society – that may be how.

How can a three week trip to Bangalore help gaining insight in the Dutch electricity sector? Which countries – including their energy sectors – are more different than the Netherlands and India? Well… despite the fact that the Indian and the Dutch culture are fundamentally different, both societies show many communalities. Both India and the Netherlands are quite busy: at least traffic is a pain. The fraction of the Indian population that resides in Holland may not be so far apart from the fraction of Dutch people that are in India. What Indian food is, is impossible to define, as it is for Dutch food (although for different reasons). It is easy to complain about the weather – umbrellas are a requisite in your backpack. Dutch and Indians can express themselves in peculiar ways in English. Indians like chocolate and ‘stroopwafels’ as least as well as the Dutch. And… more often than not, we can meet each other in humor.

These commonalities show that the complexity of our societies does not mean we cannot try to understand and improve them. It means we need to find new ways of doing so. The mechanisms and laws probably do not work as we expect them to! There is only one way forward: dive in the deep, experience new things, debate with an open mind, challenge all assumptions, indulge in to cultural diversity, and… embrace complexity!

 

Literature

[1] Chappin, E. J. L. (2011). Simulating Energy Transitions, PhD thesis, TU Delft, the Netherlands. http://chappin.com/thesis

[2] Energy Modeling Laboratory, TU Delft. http://emlab.tudelft.nl

[3] Stephen Sondheim, composor and lyricist, 2005.

 

Of games, gaming simulation and piracy in games

One of my fellow researchers shared the following game with me:

http://www.greenheartgames.com/app/game-dev-tycoon/

Game Dev Tycoon™ is a business simulation game available for Windows, Mac and Linux as well as on the Windows 8 Store. In Game Dev Tycoon you replay the history of the gaming industry by starting your own video game development company in the 80s. Create best selling games. Research new technologies and invent new game types. Become the leader of the market and gain worldwide fans.

He found it really interesting,

“What happens when pirates play a game development simulator and then go bankrupt because of piracy?”: http://www.greenheartgames.com/2013/04/29/what-happens-when-pirates-play-a-game-development-simulator-and-then-go-bankrupt-because-of-piracy/
They ran an experiment where they released a pirated version of the game and saw how people reacted when during the simulation they ran out of money – because of piracy!

Interesting, yes. But the limitation of such games is that it is a game, as against a simulation.  An example of this effect is; most tycoon games simplify external effects as the more it is a simulation the less fun it can be. The tycoon style game play is a very popular design for  management/financial games (A close cousin is “Diner Dash” or “Farm Frenzy” which sheds light on logistics and functional parts of an organisation). Consider this, if you have played The Sims, you can find a job by simply using a computer in less than 20 seconds. But one can make an entire game out of the context of finding a job (in effect simulating the entire experience). Would you still be interested in playing The Sims if it simulates all the frustrations you experienced while finding a job?

Game Dev Tycoon simplifies the issues surrounding piracy and how it can be tackled to a great extent. Often the high price for ‘good’ games makes it inaccessible to a large audience. Some reasons for a high price may be:

  1. The game was developed using unrealistic targets. (Example: Duke Nukem Forever, no pun intended 🙂 )
  2. Games developed in mainstream  studios  Vs Indie studios

Some innovators in the field tackle piracy in the following ways  (instead of  slapping on a restrictive DRM):

  1. FTP (Free To Play) models offer a glimpse of the game before asking us to pay. The payment is usually a continuous nominal subscription versus a one time payment. The jury is still out on this. Example: LOTRO, Dungeons and Dragons, host or other games. Premium content for the players (enhancing their game-play and/or in game status) are also offered by such games.
  2. Innovative DRM systems in marketplaces  such as Steam and Uplay instead of an always on system (Example: The latest SimCity).
  3.   A low/high priced game followed by high/low paid DLCs (Downloadable Content). Example: Skyrim,  The Sims (Some DLCs for The Sims 3 is more expensive than the base game!).

Currently in Steam,  the beta version of the game is available at a lower price. The players test the game as they play beta versions and then get access to the full version for free when it is released. A very interesting experiment in reducing costs in the game development process and using the “crowd” for both testing and funding.

City Game session with kids from Tara Trust at IIIT, Bangalore

City Game session – TARA Trust from Fields of View on Vimeo.

 

We played the city game with 13 children from Tara trust who were at IIIT-B for 17 days for a summer camp. These kids were from under privileged areas of Goa and Bangalore. Amar Chadgar (Photographer and Observer), Akhil Sukumaran (Observer), Vardhan Varma (Note-taker) and Bhagyalakshmi (Note-taker), Juhi from Tara Trust and I (game-master) were also a part of the game session.

 

The game was an interesting experience for us because just that morning we had a game session with kids from Sri Kumaran Children’s Home. We were excited to see the differences in the these two cities. We began the game with a round of introductions and said that we would do a trial round. A mixture of Kannada, English and some broken Hindi were the main languages used to communicate. After the trial round, we just continued the game to the 2nd round.

 

They sat around in a circle and put in a lot of factories, big bazaars, mountains, drinking water (separate for humans and animals),  Majestics [sic] (3 of them), Infosys, speed breaker, road, Chinnaswamy stadium, community TV, animals, solar company, Agra Taj Mahal, Mysore palace, Mysore zoo, an IIT,  Indian ocean river [sic] to name a few that were interesting! In between they started placing aspirations such as ‘I want a beautiful city’ and ‘save water’, but we asked them to replace these with actual places.

 

After 13 rounds of the game, when asked if they wanted to live in this city, all of them said they would like to live here. It was a crowded, clustered space with almost everything one could think of. We then asked them what is missing in this place that they need to live. A few pointed out there was no poultry, farm or milk – where would they eat? Then one of them said we could source all of these through the malls they had. One of them pointed out fire stations were missing. They also said there was no place they could buy gold or a place to cut their hair, or even a place to buy spectacles!

 

This game was a special one for us, as these children built a city of their experience. Some of these building came up as a result of their experience at the summer camp and a few were from back home. They said since this place had a lot of factories, the city could hold up-to 2 crore people.

 

As a facilitator, this to me was an ideal use of the game where we actually saw their perceptions brought out so clearly through the game. The city that they built looked like a perfect mixture of Goa and Bangalore. Here is how Go-Bangalore, which is what the kids called it happened – https://vimeo.com/64564481

City Game session with Sri Kumarans Children’s Home, at IIIT-B

City Game session at IIIT-B from Fields of View on Vimeo.

 

We played a session of the City Game with kids of class 10 and 12 from Sri Kumarans Children’s Home, as part of IIIT-B’s excITe program. We had 40 students participating, who formed 10 groups of 4 each; and the two teachers formed the eleventh group. In this game, the students were asked to build their city by taking turns to place blocks that were representative of buildings. This was the first time we played this game with a group as large as this (42 people!).

Like most other cities, this city had markets, business places, stadiums, amusement parks, residential areas, resorts, Vidhan Soudha and a High Court. However, this city also had a solar power plants, a flyover from a residential area to an IT park, “to let” buildings, nuclear power plants and even 2 dams! The groups used the wooden blocks creatively; for example, the cricket stadium was 6-8 blocks in a circle with 4 other blocks forming the floodlights! This is in stark contrast to many other game runs where the blocks are merely indicative of a building/place/road etc.. One of the teams decided they wanted to be the government. They built the Legislative Assembly, and even passed a law! This was the first time anyone assumed a role in the game. However, none of the teams followed the law, and one of the teams even opposed the way that this particular team “decided” to be the government.

Every team except one said they would not like to live in the city that they built; the reasons mostly being lack of adequate residential areas, lack of planning and lack of other basic amenities such as hospitals and markets. The general consensus among the teams was that this was a city with a population of 2-3 lakh. One of the teams said that this city looked like an island city for tourism, with a population like the Vatican City.

Unlike other sessions of the City Game, we asked the teams to choose for a winner, based on whatever criteria they thought was important. Two teams voted for the team which took the initiative to be the government, and three teams voted for the team which took the initiative to oppose the undemocratic manner of the other team becoming the government!

All in all, a great session of the city game. I’ll stop here, the video is more explanatory!

A brief note on Serious Games for Training

Games have a vast history and have been an integral part of societies for a long time. All around the world, games are a popular means of recreation. Games exist in various forms; board games, sports, table top games, etc. With the advent of computers, another form of games, virtual games, are now used widely. The non-confrontational, yet realistic environs of gaming provide for a space where multiple ideas can co-exist, participants can learn from each other, experiment the consequences of their actions and learn from it. These, along with the immense popularity and appeal of gaming have been leveraged to help in training and education.

 

Clark Abt, in his seminal work, Serious Games (1970) defines them as games that have an “educational purpose and not intended to be played primarily for amusement”. However, using games for training is not something new. Serious games have been used for a while in the field of warfare to explore, plan, test and train military strategies and operations. War-gaming as it has been referred to in published literature has provided an ideal test bed for gaming methods as an exploration space. There are multiple other instances of serious games being used to train personnel:

  1. Institutions like Dubai Police, Lockheed Martin, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems use the CryTek 3 Game engine to develop serious games for training.
  2. OLIVE (Online Interactive Virtual Environment) by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), has been used to develop multiple virtual games for training.
  3. Supervisor is a simulation built in close cooperation by Shell and Delft University of Technology. It is a serious game in which the player plays the role of a supervisor on a drilling site and is expected to handle hazardous situations, watch over personnel and take care of health safety and environment requirements.
  4. The e-adventure game engine has been used to develop various check list based training games.
  5. SafeWork SA is South Australia’s occupational health, safety and welfare (OHS) agency. They use both virtual games and table top exercises to train and educate students.
  6. Virtual Reality Technologies develop virtual reality based training to train coal miners.
  7. 3DiTeams is a first-person, multi-player virtual game developed by Virtual Heroes in collaboration with Duke University Medical Center. It is used for medical education and team training.

Players tend to experiment and explore more  in a game environment. Often, not following safety procedures and protocols results a very costly error, in the form of loss to human life, monetary losses and environmental losses. In a game, the players experience such losses in a realistic manner, thus sensitising them to the consequences of their actions, however small. Here are some examples where serious gaming based training has improved the adherence to protocols, performance and decision making capabilities of personnel:

  1. The Rosser Top Gun Laparoscopic Skills and Suturing Program, or Top Gun, is a training program for surgical residents in laparoscopy. Surgeons who played video games in excess of 3 hours per week showed 37% fewer errors and 27% faster completion, thus indicating a clear correlation between video game skill and surgical skill.
  2. The Office of Naval Research and Raytheon BBN Technologies have collaborated with University of Southern California to test, evaluate, and provide quantified research findings about the effectiveness of game-based training.  Damage Control Trainer (DCT), a 3D first-person game was tested with the US Navy recruits in November, 2008. Decision making errors were reduced by 50%, communication errors were reduced by up to 80%, and situational awareness and navigation skills were improved by 50%.
  3. Mining accidents are a common phenomenon and have for long been using virtual environments to train people in safety procedures. On an average ten haul truck accidents lead to fatalities, a virtual training environment was designed to investigate and train the drivers. After training, the control group had only drivers making non-fatal errors. Filigenzi et al. describe the results from the training simulation in this paper.

At Fields of View, we are working on designing and developing games for awareness, training, and planning. You can read more about how we use games here, and more about our games and the various other projects here.