End Game: Using Games to Understand Competitor Scenarios in the Oil and Gas Industry

What will the future for the Oil and Gas industry look like and is there a way to model it? More generally, what is the future of energy consumption and production? The truth of the matter is that no one really knows and modeling the complexities inherent to a multiple stakeholder game is daunting. Attempting to effectively communicate the ideas, stories and interactions you imagine is even more challenging. So before you add probabilities to your decision tree and ready your Monte Carlo, maybe the best treatment to all your considerations is to play out the different scenarios in the form of a game.

In July 2015, Sandjar Kozubaev, Senior Manager of Futures, Innovation & Strategy in North Highland’s Sparks Grove division, attended the World Future Society’s annual conference held in San Francisco, CA. Together, Sandjar, John Sweeney (a futurist and game designer) and Zhan Li (a futurist and narrative theorist on the topic of using games in futures) taught a master class using a game framework developed by John and his partners at Horizon Labs, called Scenario Exploration System (SES). SES uses gameplay to help organizations think about highly complex sequences and how the outputs might lead to a better understanding of potential futures. Game play can be a powerful way to demonstrate various paths to alternative futures and to easily communicate them.

The game itself is simple, but does require the preparation and facilitation of an expert. Players are grouped into four teams, each representing an agent within the scenario you are modeling. In the case of an oil and gas scenario, the four player representatives could include oil and gas majors, government, consumers and media. Each team assumes the role of the agent, chooses a “last horizon” goal that all player-groups can see and makes decisions based upon what will lead them to that outcome. Therefore, it is best if those playing have some deep understanding or knowledge of the agent they are representing. The game board is a 2×2 matrix with the x and y axes representing a driver or pressure in the competitive environment. The drivers increase in effect (weak to strong, or low to high) from left to right on the x-axis and from bottom to top on the y-axis.

For our oil and gas example, let’s assume that the x-axis represents government regulations and the y-axis represents climate change. In this example, the upper right quadrant would be a scenario in which government regulation and the concern of climate change are both high. The actors are ranked based upon the quadrant scenario, which can be viewed as a kind of power ranking based upon the context derived from the axis. In our upper-right quadrant example, the order could be government, media, consumer and majors. The higher the actor’s ranking the more “resource” tokens they are given. Additionally, these tokens use a high/medium/low division with an associated numeric weight. Players start at the center of the quadrant and make “moves” (using a combination of weighted tokens and “action” cards) outwardly towards five, ten, twenty and further year time horizons. Each move represents an action that a group might take to create its most preferred future. The next group either responds to that action or creates a new action. This sequence of play eventually leads to a long-term future, which can be explained both in terms of the actions that lead to it, but also the relationships and values that each group represented. Most importantly, this process of play reveals hidden assumptions and tensions between the groups and how much influence they have in that world. After players complete one quadrant of the playing field, they repeat the process in other quadrants.


Image Credit: John Sweeney CC 3.0

In the end a tapestry of interactions, moves and counter-moves remain on the board that displays possible paths and outcomes. The game play brings organizations into a deeper understanding of the different agents and their goals, while the remaining board easily communicates the possible paths and outcomes. As a result, organizations can be more active in planning and building preferred futures today.

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