A Tale of Two Games


By David Steven

David Steven was a Senior External Adviser to the United Nations-World Bank study, Pathways for Peace, and a co-author of the final chapter, Pursuing Pathways for Peace: Recommendations for Building Inclusive Approaches for Prevention. He wrote a box for this chapter comparing prevention to the games, Tetris and Snakes and Ladders. It survived numerous drafts and caused many arguments, before being cut from the final version. It explores why crisis is so attractive and why it is so hard to sustain prevention over the long periods needed to achieve results.

(1) The Tetris Effect

Tetris was the first video game to conquer the world. Inspired by an ancient Roman puzzle, it proved immediately addictive when first played in a Soviet Union computer lab in the early 1980s.

Hundreds of millions of people have grappled with the challenge of sorting shapes as they fall from the sky. A failure to place one ‘tetrimino’ efficiently gives less time and space to deal with those that follow. At some point, the failures cascade and a jumble of blocks fill the playing space.

The game’s appeal lies in its psychological dimension. As shapes fall faster, players panic. Cognitive horizons narrow, squeezing out space for foresight, planning, and rational thought.

As Tetris demonstrates, crisis exerts a powerful and self-reinforcing attraction. Societies can become gripped by a cycle where conflict — and the response to that conflict — dominate the attention of leaders and citizens.

Under pressure, identities and ideologies harden, while grievances are nursed in media and online echo chambers. Policy becomes increasingly reactive, reducing space for prevention.

A similar pattern holds at a global level. According to the UN Secretary-General, policymakers spend too much of its time and resources on crisis management:

“It has proved very difficult to persuade decision-makers at national and international level that prevention must be their priority — perhaps because successful prevention does not attract attention. The television cameras are not there when a crisis is avoided.”

As the World Bank’s Pathways for Peace report demonstrates, conflict — and the humanitarian crises it causes — are overwhelming the capacity of the international system to respond. The world has found itself in the latter, and more frenetic, stages of a game of Tetris.

The shift to prevention, however, requires more than a change in priorities. Leaders must confront their own cognitive biases that lead them to tolerate, or even welcome, intensifying levels of drama and chaos, and the media attention and sense of purpose that they bring.

The ‘Tetris effect’ was named by an early player of the game, who found that it had leaked into his everyday life.

“At night, geometric shapes fell in the darkness… During rare jaunts from the house, I visually fit cars and trees and people together.”

Crisis can similarly re-wire our institutions, and shape the expectations and behaviors of the people who lead them.

Northern Ireland shows how hard it can be to break this pattern. During the peace process, “presidents and prime ministers [had] clear[ed] diaries for the leaders of parties representing a few hundred thousand people.” Once the world’s attention switched away, the same politicians had to focus on the mundane task of sustaining an uneasy peace.

According to Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief negotiator, “our aim was to make Northern Ireland boring again and we succeeded.”

(2) Snakes and (No) Ladders

©British Museum

Snakes and Ladders was imported to Victorian England from India, where it has been played in various forms since pre-historic times (in the United States, the game is known as Chutes and Ladders).

The Indian original — Gyan Chauper — is a ‘game of life’ or a ‘game for yogis’, and aims to impart lessons about fate, and about the role played by virtues and vices. Players progress up the board by a roll of the dice, occasionally hitting ladders that allow them to climb up many levels, or snakes that slide them back down.

According to Andrew Topsfield, Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum, the Indian games tend to be more pessimistic than later Western versions: “they include a lot of snakes and fewer and shorter ladders to aid the upward path.”

This fits our model of prevention. Risks — or snakes — are common and can lead to sudden and dramatic losses, but there are few, if any, ladders that lead to dramatic gains.

Progress requires a steady accumulation of upward progress, combined with the successful avoidance of shocks and crisis — avoid the snakes, and don’t expect any ladders.

Economic history supports this model. The World Development Report 2017 finds that “more secure societies are also more prosperous.” Countries are richer not because they have grown faster than poorer ones, but because they have had fewer episodes where crisis or conflict have shrunk their economies.

They were better at avoiding snakes. They didn’t find ladders that were hidden from others.

The shift from playing Tetris to ‘Snakes and (no) Ladders’ is challenging, with a deficit of prevention found across multiple fields. In health, Atul Gawanda — both a surgeon and a public health researcher — has written of the emotional appeal of ‘rescue work’. He was attracted to medicine by its heroism, by that moment in an operating theater when a patient’s life is saved in an instant.

Acute medical care is dramatic, but it also offers certainty: “you know what all the money and effort is (and is not) accomplishing.”

In contrast, health’s incrementalists “want us to believe that they can recognize problems before they happen, and that, with steady, iterative efforts over years, they can reduce, delay, or eliminate them.”

In health, prevention remains under-resourced and undervalued, but Gawanda believes the incrementalists are slowly overtaking the rescuers in health as they gain increasing ability to monitor health, predict sickness, and undertake “lifelong incremental care.”

We face the same problem for other forms of prevention. Launching the Pathways for Peace report, Jim Yong Kim called on the World Bank and the UN to take “the long view, engaging early to address risks when development policies and programs can achieve the best results.”

Development, humanitarian and security actors must think together to act together, evolving shared models for how prevention works and translating them into closer collaboration at a country level.

But the long view will continue to be crowded out without a change of incentives. How do we reward the slow and patient work needed to build more peaceful and inclusive societies?

David Steven is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, where he works on development policy and the 2030 Agenda, and leads the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies project. Through this project, UN member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and civil society and private sector actors explore the challenge of delivering the 2030 Agenda targets for peace, justice and inclusion. The Pathfinders launched the first Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies at the UNGA meeting in September 2017.