How Games And Simulations Will Save Us From Disaster

“Were you the one that said I was a super-villain?” It’s not the most auspicious question to be asked during an interview. But when I first saw Justin Lyon speak, at the GaME14 conference at London’s Imperial College, I thought he had a lot of the ‘90s corporate supervillain about him. Something of the Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies. After all, he’s handsome, waspishly-smart and wears the standard-issue accoutrements of a corporate overlord. And his company is called Simudyne, which sounds like Cyberdyne. And they mainly work for governments and huge corporations. And their slogan is ‘Engineering reality’. Even their logo looks evil.

So, Simudyne has the accoutrements of a 1980s villain company. But do they do evil? Well, no. They create simulations. Do people do evil in their simulations? Well, no, not intentionally. Looking at their carefully-anonymised case studies, you can see that they do it for all sorts of people, many of whom are either working for good, in government or in big business. (There may be some crossover there.) From a quick scan, I can see simulations covering disaster management for the port authorities of the Western US, training banks in counter-terrorism, managing deepwater oil drilling, and a recreation of one of Microsoft’s headquarters office blocks for simulating physical and cyber attacks.

Not Justin Lyon.

The reason that they’re making these simulations is because the heads of corporations and governments get things wrong, badly. “They’re serious men — usually men.” says Lyon. “They’re serious men doing serious things and they don’t have time for these rigorous games. Yet you look at the spreadsheets and the tools that they’re using that the consultants built for them, and it’s a joke mathematically. Lots of detail complexity, but the mathematics literally, and I say this repeatedly, literally the ancient Egyptians would understand it if we could get past the language barrier. It’s an illusion of understanding.”

Yet when Lyon was playing Civilization he’d feel like the game was helping him gradually grasp the whole of a complex system, rather than simplifying it. It also helped him learn about managing it. “You would compress thousands of years into two or three days of intensive play. Then you restarted and you would get better and better. Now, I had meetings with very senior politicians, and you’d go into the mayor’s office, or any major corporation’s, or even to a Prime Minister’s. You look at the tools they’re using and they don’t have the ability to experiment safely. They don’t have a Civilization for Great Britain. They don’t have a SimCity for Chicago. You say “Why not?” This was built in 1991, surely we can do better than red, amber, green power points in the 21st century.” And that’s Simudyne’s aim.

To create these simulations, Lyon was inspired by Jay Forrester’s System Dynamics, the same field that inspired Will Wright to make Sim City, but throwing in a soupçon of complexity-science and agent-based modelling. “Whereas Will Wright was inspired to use this mathematics for safe cities to build a game, I was inspired to do exactly the same thing, but for real cities.”

To make these simulations, Simudyne employs a small development team who rapidly iterate a model, then create a UI for the client to explore it. “We use a combination, I suppose, of mathematics to capture the physics of how the real world works and then put it in pictures, 3D like The Sims, or 2.5D like Sim City or Farmville or maybe even like 2D like Pokémon or Donkey Kong. They’re not games, but they look a lot like games.”

And that’s why we’re talking to Lyon, because the things his company makes look very game-y, though he balks at the phrase ‘serious games’. What Simudyne makes are simulations of real world situations that have appropriated the design and UI of games to make them intelligible to modern executives. Not because these executives are gamers, but because game UI is so far ahead of UI in any other field, and executives are not always the most technical people. “In the early days of Simudyne, our models and our simulations were very difficult if you were not trained. We would struggle because the insights were absolutely profound, yet because they looked like spaghetti diagrams to executives, they were unable to connect with the insights.”

So Simudyne started building simulations that were explicitly game-like, with four specialised employee types to make systems, pull in real-world data and then make it accessible. “Engineers are the humans that in conversation with the client, listen and then translate that into diagrams, mathematics. The programmers then quantify that into the code on our Simucore system on the cloud, so that the computer can understand it. The designers make a pretty picture so that the humans cannot get bumped down by all the math. The integrators are just grabbing the data from all different data sources and pulling that into the simulation.” These teams consist of between 3 and 15 people. In a couple of months, much like an indie developer, they build a simulation using off-the-shelf tech and assets that the business can use to test and make important decisions.

One of the simulations they’ve made was a simulation of how a port operates They linked up several of these simulations, got 200 port authority managers, coastguard and homeland security guys into a hotel, and put different teams in charge of different ports in different rooms. Then they destroyed one of the ports in an earthquake, and watched all the different teams struggle with the changed situation. (I want to play this simulation just to see if I can be Frank Sobotka.)

Using design principles learned from games has allowed Lyon’s teams to draw non-gamers into their simulations, so that they’re more willing to engage with them. “By having the beautiful user interface we can draw the humans into experimenting safely. The more you play a video game the more likely you are ‘win it’ or to navigate it more successfully if there’s no sense of winning. Correct? Similarly with the simulations we build, the more times the human plays it the more knowledgeable they’re going to be about a situation. What we found is in the past, if the simulation was boring or it was too mathematically heavy, then humans would only play it one, two or three times. They didn’t get the rich learning that we wanted them to get.”

Drawing them in is key because so many of the strategies and tactics thrown up by the engineers’ highly complex mathematical systems are counter-intuitive. “Now, (the executives) say ‘Well, no. The math must be wrong, the model must be wrong. My mental model is accurate.’ That’s because their mental model is based on flawed functions, because they’re limited by human cognitive biases… Humans over millions of years have evolved incredible pattern recognition skills. What we are unable to do is solve non-linear equations in our head. No one can. I don’t care how clever you think you are. You can’t do it. It’s only in this collaboration with our computers that we can overcome it.”

The obvious follow-up question to that, from anyone who’s grown up on a diet of Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, is why we still need people at all, beyond setting the criteria for a simulation. “It’s not computers versus the humans. It’s this robust and rich dialogue between the things that we’ve invented and the things that have evolved. It’s together that we can really solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, that’s what we believe.” Lyon thinks that humans in collaboration with computers make radically better decisions, and that either alone is inferior.

Though he only thinks the computers are inferior for now. “We can run tens of thousands of simulations and identify resilient and optimal strategy. It might take six months or a year for the humans to wrap their head around it and implement how to change management processes to actually execute. That’s unfortunate… at some point we won’t have the time to allow the humans to beat their head around what the right decision is. The computer will actually simulate, will actually execute.”

So his ultimate aim with Simudyne is for it eventually to be the spine to the data-centric world. He envisages natural-language processing programs like Siri to be the interface, that services like Wolfram Alpha will parse those queries into searches, and that Simudyne will run the simulations – “millions or trillions in the time it takes to snap your fingers” and provide the answers.

To do that, their simulations need to be interoperable, whereas the everyday sims we play are standalone, monolithic. This also means they have to be less perfect than you’d expect, only accurate where it matters. “The map is not the territory; our simulations are not trying to copy everything in the real world. It’s completely unnecessary and actually counter-productive. A good simulation tends to get simpler over time as you winnow away all of the extraneous aspects and focus in on the core physics. Once you’ve validated that then you start to connect it to other ones.”

He shows me a quick example video, of a simulation of a hospital they’ve made for a major American city. The simulation is used to test out evacuations in a variety of emergency scenarios – “They don’t practice that very often in the real world, if at all because it’s too dangerous. These are people that are on life support. They can’t move them to practice a drill.” – and then he shows me how this simulation is embedded in a wider simulation of the city, so you can see the fallout of that emergency across other systems and services. A power failure in the hospital cascades across all the other city’s embedded simulations.

So what’s Lyon ultimate aim? “Simudyne is about transforming how all decisions of consequence are made… an operating system for the world.” An operating system that ties together government and big business, and makes everyone think they’re playing games, to build a near-perfect sim, before ultimately handing control over to AIs.

Like I said – a supervillain. Albeit, a well-intentioned one.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the name of Simudyne’s founder as Justin Lyons, when it should have been Justin Lyon.

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  1. CookPassBabtridge says:



    Evil. Pure evil.

  2. jgthespy says:

    This is really cool. I think gamification in general is going to be a very powerful strategy as society moves forward. I’m putting my effort into gamifying math and science education but this is a great example of how powerful it can be in many different areas.

  3. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    When I worked at TfL there was a team that used agent-driven crowd simulations to plan the layouts for new tube stations and changes to the existing ones. That was interesting to watch. If you have even a passing interest in this sort of thing, look at the work of Chris Reynolds and steering behaviours.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      You might be interested in this talk about slime moulds being used to plan routes. You might just be interested in slime moulds, they are amazing:

      link to

      On a completely unrelated note RPS: you can’t just throw the adjective ‘handsome’ out there willly nilly when you’ve raised the bar by publishing photos of Jake Solomon.

    • vivlo says:

      hm, apparently the man is rather Craig W. Reynolds. :) link to

  4. Hillbert says:

    Huh. So it turns out I was sitting next to a guy who worked with these chaps on a project.

    I’m currently working on something similar, large scale simulation of regions of England (and ways of making them more sustainable and eco-friendly)

  5. Bart Stewart says:

    “Supervillain” is correct. Good intentions are irrelevant at that scale of impact on the lives of other people. (See _Colossus: The Forbin Project_ for a fictionalized version of this.)

    The problem I have with policy simulationists is that they frequently seek to substitute their personal beliefs for those of experienced practitioners by claiming their beliefs are scientifically proven. (“We can run tens of thousands of simulations and identify resilient and optimal strategy.”)

    It’s not a bad idea to have one’s assumptions challenged occasionally. A simulation designed to allow different solutions to emerge from simple rules can be a useful tool for exploring new ideas. But many “serious sims,” such as IBM’s City One, aren’t about exploring possibilities; they’re about replacing your beliefs with theirs. You only win if you agree with them.

    I would never trust any policy simulation that claims to have the right answer. That’s not a tool trying to help decision-makers pop out of local minima; it’s about some human deciding he knows The Answer and then building a model that “proves” his pre-determined belief. That arguably didn’t go well for McNamara and his Whiz Kids or for Jay Forrester, and I would hesitate before entrusting any large-scale policy to these latest “our computer says it’s right” simulationists.

    TL; DR: GIGO.

    A very good RPS article, though.

    • SuddenSight says:

      I agree that his end-goal of completely replacing the human overseers is too optimistic, at least for our life time.

      However, I fully support the increased use of simulations. The world is getting very complex, and more and more policies must be made quickly for untested techniques and technology, not to mention the difficulty of training people for disasters. Think about how many technical decisions we are asking of our politicians – a job whose primary requirement is giving good speeches. I hope these policy makers are playing with these simulations, because Justin Lyons is correct – there are a lot of nonlinear problems in the world, and no one can easily solve nonlinear problems in their head.

      That said, these models should not be taken as gospel. I sincerely hope more companies come along and start building their own models, because the best way to understand how slightly different assumptions can produce different results is by seeing how two groups of modelers can build the same model and come to opposite conclusions. Understanding the limitations of modelling techniques will definitely be an important skill for all sorts of occupations in the future.

      • Geebs says:

        Then somebody comes along and simulates a bunch of different simulations all simulating the same thing. After that you get an embarrassing paper where the premise is that some of the simulations were, in retrospect, accidentally right because some random numbers in the simulation happened to be consonant with what really happened.

      • egg-zoo-bear-ant will e 91 says:

        Its not just that. What about the different goals and priorities of different politicians? Mr Lyons assumes they only have different strategies.. Perhaps they do all agree on some things. They want the hospital to keep functioning, for instance, (one would hope) and they don’t want everybody dead or injured. But there might be various creative approaches that achieve that, as well as just a little prodding of systems into shapes that can be perceived as more libertarian or authoritarian for instance. I suppose this simulation he works on is best for answering questions of moving the numbers a little to the left or right in various technical components. But it could be a real boon to get inventive and see what the outcomes are.

        The problem the robots might run into is when the healthcare gets superb and gets people better quicker, the hospital will be more empty, serving its functions less. And so a horde of thug-bots will be sent out to injure and maim.XD

        His discarding of accusations of flaws in his modelling is the same attitude people running charities have about questions of spending the money wisely. It is critical to their mission and the righteousness of their position, so it should obviously be taken seriously, but it doesn’t look good to be a closed book as opposed to inviting people in to show them what makes you so sure their worries are unfounded. The way he didn’t dwell on how he learned a lot from Civ that he could feel certain about, despite knowing the game’s flaws, its inadequacies and its debateable assumptions about human behavior. How it is that despite all that it is safe to say the game is overall extremely helpful in so many ways.

        I feel our understanding of non linear systems is intuitive and learned through trial and error, though there is not much trial and error but what can be glimpsed through history, so it is all very rough… It can’t be discarded. The maths papers and these simulations are extensions of our imaginations, with a hell of a lot more RAM, than our percolating brains. It seems we basically evolved imaginations because they are accurate prediction makers. When we set them up with a ruleset and let it all play out in our heads. Anyway.

        I think the only hope he has to persuade the utter humbugs is to make the company better at showing off how the simulation works as it runs, without the sea of spaghetti-maths. Which he is already doing, but he should see an ignorant criticism of the simulation as a criticism of this aspect of the show and tell. Anything like, use a 3D printer to make a fully physical miniature model of the port, animate it with electrics. Anything to make it more tangible and easy to trust. It can’t just be a patronizing, mysterious recommendation pasted over the screen.

        I wonder where he draws the line with working for corporations. The supply line efficiency of mercenaries? Does he have answers to the problem of future employment as outlined in this video? link to

        In spite of my foibles I am damn glad someone is doing this work. I see a clear divide between people that have played SimCity and its ilk, and those that have not.

        I like the flow of your writing Dan. I liked that you asked an Asimov inspired question, and wish you had kept hammering from that angle.

        TL;DR: Robots! And he ignores the political spectrum isn’t just about different strategies, its different priorities.

        EDIT: Paragraphs! Bad Italics. The too long didn’t read..

  6. hotmaildidntwork says:

    The road to the Robot Apocalypse is paved with good intentions!

  7. PopeRatzo says:

    I’m so grateful not to have to try to rationalize being an adult playing computer games by making them out to be something important.

    Life is already plenty gamified. If it helps you to make a game out of doing/making/learning something, I’m all for it. It’s the only way to fly.

    • jgthespy says:

      Yeah using strategies that are successful in your regular life to attempt to solve bigger problems is totally just rationalizing an embarrassing hobby.

  8. Fnoros says:

    I hope they are careful in making their simulations accurate and based on reality instead of idealizations or overly cynical interpretations of it. For example, he mentions the Civilization games as being helpful in learning, but they make certain core assumptions about human behavior and governments that are incorrect, or at least open to debate and interpretation, and sometimes incentivize atrocious crimes against humanity.

  9. manny says:

    I would have liked to have known what off the shelf tech they use to make their simulations.

  10. Premium User Badge

    DrollRemark says:

    Why is the Shard to the east of Bank?


    • Renegade says:

      Because it isn’t the Shard it’s the Leadenhall Building also known as ‘The Cheesegrater’

  11. P.Funk says:

    “We can run tens of thousands of simulations and identify resilient and optimal strategy. It might take six months or a year for the humans to wrap their head around it and implement how to change management processes to actually execute. That’s unfortunate… at some point we won’t have the time to allow the humans to beat their head around what the right decision is. The computer will actually simulate, will actually execute.”

    I am always baffled by the idea that the solution to all our problems is to take the human being out of the decision making cycle. Wasn’t this kind of thinking the high water mark of the craziest of the crazy in the cold war?

    Isn’t there something to be said for solutions needing to be accepted and internalized? This seems like a very undemocratic ideal. Dialogue and compromize are obsolete and a nuisance, instead we have the Decisiotron 3000, rendering your free will and political activism irrelevant.

  12. Opellulo says:

    My (very short) experience with real-life simulations is that they lack a key factor: human behaviour.
    It’s like all the simulation games around: people are reduced to a series a like/dislikes and act according to that simple programming. The problem is that, in real life, people act in a more erratical way and, especially when they are in group, a series of other things come in like pack mentality, affinity, panic, stampedes and all that kind of things.

    I would love to try/play a more complex simutaion with this kind on interactions; maybe supervillain simulator is not that far anymore.