The governor of New York was in trouble. With just two days left until the state budget was due, the state senate was refusing to vote on her budget unless key housing provisions were stripped or significantly renegotiated. The senate majority leader in particular objected to the deal the governor had struck with the speaker of the state assembly to eliminate critical tenant protections in the final budget deal, which the speaker had only agreed to after frustrated party members leaked her efforts to slow-walk the governor’s housing agenda. Amid furious backroom negotiations, several hundred activists demanding full tenant protections occupied the state capitol. Chants of “evictor in chief” echoed through the building. On the final day, the governor relented, calling in the state senate leader for a private meeting session to hammer out a deal for an extensive housing package that ultimately included some — though not all — of the provisions tenants called for. The final deal was scrawled on the back of a whiteboard while the governor sipped the last dregs of stale coffee from a withered paper cup.


These scenes could have easily taken place in a real budget negotiation — but they didn’t. 


Everyone involved was sitting in a Midtown Manhattan conference room on a rainy December day, playing a role in a pilot simulation. Participants included state legislators, legislative staff, and advocates and activists from across New York, organized into this exercise by Housing Justice for All, Citizen Action of New York, and the New York Working Families Party, with support from elected officials like Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas. Each participant was assigned a specific role, from elected official or activist to union leader or real estate lobbyist. Over the course of an hour and a half, they played out the budget negotiations, wheeling chairs together, huddling in corners, haranguing one another over policy details, dropping “leaks,” and planning direct actions. The after-action debrief provided an opportunity for deep analysis. Some participants analyzed how pivotal moments might have gone differently. Others reflected on what it was like to see these fights through the eyes of conservative legislators or real estate lobbyists, who have helped kill pro-tenant legislation in the real world.


Simulations like this are common in many fields, with substantial evidence for their effectiveness. Humanitarian organizations simulate massive responses to natural disasters. Public health agencies simulate the impacts of pandemics. Mediators simulate peace negotiations, and government decision-makers simulate global competitions. Practitioners in those fields consider simulations critical tools that prepare them for crisis and strategy, build relationships between diverse actors, and provide an opportunity for participants to practice skills and test systems. 


Although the stakes of our fights are no lower, such simulations are rare in the progressive movement. The difference between winning and losing campaigns, meeting a crisis moment head-on or failing to do so, can mean drastic differences in the lives of those we fight for. Yet too often we base critical strategies for those campaigns and crises on a series of unquestioned assumptions and untested relationships. We rarely take the time to fully think through how our opponents’ motivations might lead them to act or respond to our actions. We assume that the broader conditions that existed when we planned a campaign will hold throughout its lifetime. We write out coalition organizational roles in neat, color-coded tables, but when entirely predictable crises occur, we scramble to figure out how staff from different organizations are supposed to make decisions together and act. 


Simulations are perfect for bringing to the surface — and helping to solve — fundamental issues like these. The first step toward creating a simulation is a design process. Leading up to this particular simulation, the partner organizations went through an analysis of their ultimate goals for the exercise, the assumptions they held, the risks they perceived, and how changes in the broader context might affect their work and goals. For example, participants tended to replicate the framework of past negotiations: three men in a room making all the decisions. Less experienced participants shook loose from that framework, generating more “aha!” moments. This led to much more interesting strategic lessons about what kinds of temporary alliances and “grand bargain” policy proposals might propel housing advocates to greater success. (Since the fight with the real estate lobby is currently taking place in real life, we’re leaving out the specific strategic takeaways from this simulation.) 


Many organizations that use simulations focus on the final result of improved campaign strategy or crisis response. But, when designed well, these exercises have two other important benefits. First, simulations help build relationships between individuals who don’t usually work together. Being immersed in an intense simulation is a bonding experience, helping to forge stronger professional relationships. Second, simulations bring egalitarian values to life. Conventional strategy sessions are dry and hierarchical, oriented around people with higher organizational status, thereby replicating race, class, and gender stratifications. In contrast, simulations are fun and engaging, breaking down hierarchies by mixing simulation roles. In fact, these kinds of role reversals — for example, an activist swapping roles with a legislator — often lead to the most important discoveries, especially when simulating new or fluid contexts.


While they are time-intensive to plan, simulations can be designed to fit a wide variety of stakeholders and goals. Simulations can be run in person or online, in one intense live session or spread out over days, weeks, or even months of asynchronous (usually turn-based) play. They can involve a handful of players in a room, or hundreds spread across organizations and time zones. Some structures, like negotiation games, crisis response games, or red team exercises (in which one team is tasked with finding weaknesses in a plan) are better for testing a specific scenario with clear boundaries. Others, like war games (open-ended exercises dealing with specific conflicts), matrix games (turn-based simulations), or tabletop games (simulations oriented toward discussion) allow for wider-ranging action and unpredictable outcomes. One example is the matrix game that simulation expert and McGill University political science professor Rex Brynen ran in October 2020 to simulate what might happen if the 2020 US presidential election results were actively contested by former president Donald Trump. There were many similarities between this simulation and what actually transpired weeks later, which helped game participants prepare for those possibilities as well as allowing for productive analysis months later about what the simulation got right and wrong about those real events. It is easy to imagine the utility of similar exercises in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. 


The fight about housing legislation is now playing out for real in Albany. Participants are equipped with a better understanding of the breadth of their own roles and of how the interests of other actors intertwine. And they came to that analysis not in their own silos but together with the state legislators, staff, and advocates who will be their real-life allies in the fight ahead. Hopefully, this powerful tool will earn a regular spot in the progressive toolbox in years to come.



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