Learning to handle complexity in social systems

Experimenting with complex adaptive systems

Gaming has proven to be a powerful combination of ideas, constructs, and methods in dealing with both complex and unique issues, including value orientations among the actors (stakeholders) involved. Therefore, gaming is fruitful to experiment with various forms of organisation (complex adaptive systems).
Gaming provides a powerful frame for combining the social-human domain with the physical, technical and economic domains and offers a shared language for communication between the natural and social sciences. Moreover, it enhances bridging multiple perceptions and positions in managerial and political realms.

Games are used to simulate business processes in competitive markets, to model existing forms of organization, or to develop new forms of organization. Gaming is being used to make organizations (complex systems) more visible to themselves, and to enhance learning and improve competency in handling such complex systems. Games are thus models of existing or imagined social systems. Their generic form consists of three interrelated building blocks: actors, rules, and resources, see figure below.

To be able to deal with the emerging properties of complex adaptive systems, policy makers and managers need support to make the organization more visible to itself, without jeopardizing the ongoing affairs.

Central theme

Games are:
* social systems;
* complex adaptive systems;
* autopoietic that is, self-reproducing systems. (Playing the game changes it.)

The notion of organisation 

Complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty are basic notions related to the term “organisation”. The diversity of appearances of organisation depends on the circular reciprocity between the parts and the whole, on differences in the number and interrelations of its participating agents. Emergence is a basic property of organisation. It has a new quality that arises once the system is constituted. The idea of emergence connects quality, product, globality (because it is indossoluble from the global unit), and innovation (because it is a new quality with respect to previous qualities of the elements). What can be said in systemic terms of the direction of emergence?


Human organisations (social systems) exist through the reproduction of practices of its members. They produce a certain structure. That structure is also the medium for reproducing the organisational structure. Through recursive processing of ideas and meaning, actors continuously enact their collective structure. Underlying this approach to social systems are notions about autopoiesis (self-reproduction), self-reference, reflexivity (self-awareness), and self-organisation. They refer to second-order concepts. Social systems are partly structured by external information they receive from their environment, and partly by their internal system of interactions. The (meta-)cognitive structures used by these systems are constructed (produced) by the systems themselves. Wrapping up these theoretical notions, the core question is, how can managers learn to cope with complexity and complex adaptive systems? To address that question I present gaming as a suitable interactive learning environment.

Gaming: enhancing handling the complexity of social systems

Practitioners will ask: “How can we train people to improve their capacity to handle complexity and to improve innovation”? The theoretical reflection on complex systems brings forward a need for coherent experimental, empirical and experiential systems research. Paying attention to the realm of social systems places us in a double position. On the one hand we study systems without intervening in their behavior, on the other hand, we try to change behavior patterns, by improving self-transformation processes. The first approach focusses on cognitive aspects from an outside position, the second one pays attention both on cognition and action from an inside position. It would be helpful if a comprehensive approach is available to link both approaches. Gaming both in theory and practice offers such an opportunity.

In Chapter 11 of the book:
The Magic Circle: Principles of Gaming & Simulation, a general management game is described that illustrates how such interactive learning environments enhance self-organisation in complex systems. A typical gaming session is sketched to show emergent properties of the social systems involved. It should be realised that circulatory, recursive interaction patterns, emerging during game sessions, represent on a conceptual level the complexities and intricacies of adaptive social systems.