Wargaming does a number of things really well. There are two that are particularly important during catastrophic events. First, wargaming can do a very good job of implicitly teaching a mental model of the problem to people who knew nothing about the problem yesterday, but all need to know something about it today. Second, wargaming doesn’t just highlight the elements of the model, it also explores the relationships between them.
For example, the commercial board game, Pandemic, does an excellent job of conveying, in just a couple of hours, many of the major strategic elements associated with pandemics and pandemic response. This game comes from a relatively new genre of games called “cooperative games.” In a cooperative game, players have different roles and have to work together to beat the game. They either all win or all lose. Catastrophic events often require exactly the same kind of cooperation but talking about it is not the same as doing it. Winning or losing in the game ties emotion to that lesson and makes it more tangible. Other lessons, like how a highly connected world can accelerate the spread of a pathogen or how densely populated, poorly resourced areas of the world can become breeding grounds, are not just taught, they are lived, in a way, through a game such as this.
There are a few caveats, of course. First, wargaming typically teaches a model–the one that underlies the game. As such, it is always a simplified version of the real world. Additionally, it may not be the right, or even the best, one available. As good a game as Pandemic is, it was designed for playability, not for realism. Second, and particularly during catastrophic events, it might be hard to design and develop complex, realistic games to either educate staff or to help analyze various courses of action. Fast and frugal games designed to familiarize large groups of people about the essential elements of a catastrophe and some responses to it seem like reasonable goals, however.