A Low-Tech Game's Lessons For the High-Tech World

By Mike Musgrove
Friday, March 10, 2006

No, those cheering and moaning crowds over in the Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. booth at the FOSE government tech trade show this week weren't playing craps.

They were playing the consultant's new CIO Wargame. And while some people might have enjoyed the game, please know that the thing is actually a serious attempt by the big-time government contractor to impart some Very Important Lessons about project management to tech workers.

Booz Allen is pushing the CIO Wargame as a tool to get its clients thinking in new ways about how to get organized; the firm hopes to start taking this game to its customers, the government agencies and major corporations that helped Booz Allen bring in $3.5 billion in revenue last year.

The consultancy isn't alone in its interest in the use of games as instructional tools, of course. There's a whole "serious game" movement afoot in which organizations including the United Nations and the Defense Department are starting to use games for training or education purposes. It's not enough to show up with a PowerPoint presentation and a laser pointer anymore, apparently.

While the CIO Wargame will probably not replace Texas Hold 'Em in the hearts of the nation, it was entertaining enough to keep about 170 FOSE attendees diverted for multiple hour-long sessions at what can be kind of a tough show for those of us who don't understand the poetry of firewalls, bandwidth and IT architecture. (Full disclosure: PostNewsweek Tech Media is a major sponsor of FOSE.)

If the game is accurate, being a government agency's chief tech guy is fast-paced and stressful -- and the rules are unclear half the time. But that's not a thumbs-down. All the tech-worker folks I talked to who tried the game had a similar response, yet they all gave the game some props.

"It helps get you thinking about what projects give you the most bang for your buck," said Kenneth Viola, a tech guy for the Internal Revenue Service who played on the same team I was on yesterday.

The game, set up inside a repurposed craps table, plays like a faster and more complicated version of a board game like Monopoly.

To win, teams of players try to work together to rack up "mission points" that are amassed when the team's fictional company or agency successfully completes a "project." Players are given a table full of projects that they can choose to fund -- but only a limited number of resources, in the form of chips representing money and workers.

Projects range from "Software License Management" to building a financial data reporting warehouse. While choosing projects wisely will help a team win more points, projects can be slowed down or derailed with an unfortunate roll of the dice. Roll too high and your team might have to draw a "Risk" card -- which docks your cash or personnel or otherwise wreaks havoc on your team's outlook.

Our team racked up a few bad rolls, some from my own hand, and got a steady stream of penalty cards as a result. "The technology you purchased for this project is no longer viable," read one. "The project has been hacked," read another. Ouch and ouch.

With 124 points, my team -- with Washington Post freelancer Daniel Greenberg, a couple of guys from the IRS and a fellow from the office of the secretary of Defense -- came in 6th of 20 teams that played the game this week. The winning team, with 169 points, was made up of tech workers from the Social Security Administration; the FBI; the National Defense University; and Government Computer News, a sister publication of The Washington Post.

Penny Stoever, a Unix administrator for the Social Security Administration on the winning team, played the game twice. "I was lying in bed last night thinking of strategies," she told my colleague Ellen McCarthy as she drove her team to victory on her second go.

The game's designer, Bob Ryer, has been designing games and simulations for Booz Allen for 18 years; he designed board games for a living before coming to work for the consultancy.

One of Ryer's current projects, called Under Heaven, is a board game he's building on commission for the Department of Defense and based on the writings of military philosopher Sun Tzu. The point of the game is to familiarize its target audience with Chinese modes of thinking.

Whether or not Ryer's game instills players with a new way of looking at how to tackle problems in their day-to-day world, it's hard to miss one point in the CIO Wargame. Chips representing contractors -- or "specialists," in the parlance of the game -- are worth twice as much as those for government workers.

And one government worker, Igor Bosnjak, said he saw another, larger point of the exercise: "Everybody is talking about the game," he said. "Booz Allen wins."

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