Watch the Skies

I had been looking forward to this day for over two years. The event was originally planned for March 2020, but it was postponed (not once, but twice) due to the Covid-19 epidemic. 

Actually though, I’d been looking forward to it for far longer than that. I think it was around 2016 when I stumbled across a YouTube video on a channel I followed, where the YouTubers had filmed themselves playing ‘Watch the Skies’ and it was there that I heard the word “megagame” for the first time. I knew immediately that I wanted to try it for myself. Six years later, and for reasons which will become clear in a moment, I was dressed like a politician, in a suit and tie (a suit which, alarmingly, seemed to fit a bit more snugly than the last time I wore it, pre-lockdown) and I was checking in at Swindon Village Hall on the outskirts of Cheltenham, in Gloucestershire.   

Megagames, in case you don’t know,  are like a cross between a role-playing game and a board game, with dozens of players all playing the same game, but all with different roles and agendas. ‘Watch the Skies’ is, I believe, the most well-known megagame. In our game, the players (about 50 of us) were split into teams, mostly representing nations and corporations, and between us, under the watchful eye of the expert game controllers (hi John!) from South West Megagames, we ran the world, in an exciting simulation full of drama, tragedy, and intrigue.

My designated role in the game was the Foreign Minister of South Africa, and I spent most of the day in the United Nations Building (well, The United Nations Room) with ministers from other nations, sat around a comically small table, discussing how to respond to a series of international crises.

The UN

Additionally, my team, South Africa, also included a chief scientist, a military leader, and a president. The four of us were all playing very different versions of the game, and I found it nigh-on impossible to keep up with much of what the others were doing. Our chief scientist, Richard, went off with the other scientists each turn to develop new technologies, which I am sure were probably very useful, but I was too busy with the UN to think about much. Our military leader, Diane, was the only one allowed at the world map, where military units were moved around like in a massive game of Risk. Our President, Seb, worked the room all day, speaking to other presidents and dealing with the CEOs of large corporations, as well as handling the world press.

South Africa

In fact, before the pandemic postponements, my team had been assigned to play the nation of Russia rather than South Africa, and we had been looking forward to playing that somewhat sinister country with its powerful military and sense of isolationism.  However, world events in 2022 had propelled Russia far beyond “somewhat sinister”, and so it was decided to remove Russia from the game, and we were allocated South Africa instead. This was the right thing to do of course, but it was a bit of a disappointment to us – South Africa had little wealth, no allies, an insignificant military, and it was one of the few nations in the game that had no veto in the UN. We were the underdogs, and at the start it was difficult to see how we were going to make much of an impact on the game. We decided to aim low, and just try to be a force for good in the world (especially for Africa) and try to get South Africa taken seriously on the world stage.

As it happened though (probably by design, I guess) South Africa did have an important role to play. The way the game worked (well, the way my corner of the game worked) was that in each 30 minute round, a different world crisis was announced by the game controllers; several of these events (e.g. a famine in Uganda, an epidemic in Burkina Faso) were in Africa. Because my team was the only African nation in the game, I had positioned us as the protector of all African countries, and whenever a crisis came up there I lobbied hard for the UN to provide an aid package. I argued that, due to centuries of oppression, the other, richer nations owed it to Africa to fund this package. To be honest they didn’t need much persuading, and I managed to get the resolutions passed without spending much of South Africa’s money, yet somehow still taking credit for it.

South Africa were doing brilliantly!

And then, Nigeria happened.

I think it was in about round four, the UN were informed that a civil war had broken out in Nigeria; I knew that I needed to react decisively. Now, I should mention at this point that, in real life, as a Pricing Analyst for an Insurance Company, I almost never get involved in resolving military conflicts, civil or otherwise. However, I did not let that lack of experience stop me from confidently taking control, and I firmly announced that what the UN needed to do was send in peace-keeping forces to enforce a ceasefire, and to supervise the holding of free and fair elections within the country. The other UN representatives went along with this (I guess none of them had much experience in international diplomacy in real life either), and I was proud to be nominated to oversee negotiations with representatives of the two factions (played by game controllers), which I did. By this point in the game I was feeling flushed with success and drunk on power; I played hardball with both sides and told them that if either side did not respect the ceasefire we would side with the other and destroy them. 

I honestly thought that would do the job – all the other crises so far in the game had been dealt with within one turn, and I saw no reason that this one would be any different. I returned to my team mates and told them I had saved Nigeria and we could probably expect a Nobel Prize (Nobel Prizes aren’t in the game, by the way, but they should be).  In the next turn, as I hoped, we were told in the UN that the ceasefire was holding. However, at the same time, at the map in the other room, the South African defence minister (my teammate Diane) was being told that she was in charge of the newly deployed UN troops there, and that she needed to make a quick decision as to what to do with them. I blame myself for what happened next, as I had not briefed Diane adequately – the truth is that I had not realised she would be asked to do anything, but she was. Diane apparently wanted to come and ask me what had been agreed by the UN, but wasn’t allowed to (something I like to think would not happen in the real world) so she improvised, sided with the insurgents, and attacked the government forces. As you can imagine, this decision greatly upset all the other UN nations, as it was clearly not what we had agreed upon, and world’s press went mad. South Africa were told they could not be in charge of the troops any more, and we were forced to issue an apology and were sent to sit in the naughty corner. For the rest of the day, every claim I made in the UN that South Africa was the protector of Africa was met with a chorus of “you attacked Nigeria!” and it was difficult to argue with them. On the one hand, this was quite frustrating us us – unfairly undoing all of our progress and embarrassing us on the world stage. On the other hand though, it provided the day with one of its most memorable and comical moments, and we were all soon laughing about it.

OMG – I’ve just realised I haven’t mentioned the Aliens yet!

Yes, there was more to the game than just simulating the way that nations interact – there were also UFO sightings, and a constant threat of alien invasion. The clue is in the title of the game really – Watch the Skies – and the website and posters advertising the event had a little picture of a Roswell-style alien on them, making it clear just what sort of game it was. 

Except it wasn’t really that sort of game to be honest – most of us agreed that the Aliens (who were another team, playing in a secret room out of sight) did not play as much of a part in the game as we were expecting. Certainly, from my point of view in the UN, almost all of the issues we had to deal with were of terrestrial origin; nevertheless, the mere existence of alien activity created an atmosphere of paranoia, and simultaneously made the whole thing more fun. It was so much more than just an Independence Day RPG.    

I don’t want to say too much here about what the Aliens’ intentions were, as it would be a spoiler for anyone reading this who wants to play this game in the future (although, it is my understanding that there are several different versions of Watch the Skies, and the role of the Aliens is different in each of them). What I can tell you though, is that my teammate Seb, the South African President, had played this specific version of the game before, and he knew exactly what their intentions were. However, because he didn’t want to spoil the game for the rest of his team, he didn’t tell us, and he left it to us to make most of the decisions regarding the Aliens. Despite this, I think we could all sense which direction he wanted us to go in, and in the end we did go there, and South Africa’s policy regarding the Aliens did turn out to be the best one, earning us plaudits in the debrief at the end of the game.  It could have all gone differently though; in the first few turns, before we had figured out what our President knew, we had tried to pursue a different strategy. That strategy had failed due to some poor dice-rolling by us; if we had rolled a few more sixes early on, we might not have changed course so quickly!

I have mentioned the world press once or twice already – they played a fascinating role. At the beginning of the game I thought of them as being like the controllers – there to help us by providing information and summarizing events every round. However, they were actually a team too, and just like in the real world, they had their own agenda. When corporations started developing new vaccines, the press started to created rumours that there was something sinister about them, and it wasn’t long before nations started to speculate that the Aliens were using them to enable mind control. This turned out to be a total lie, and the world missed out on the benefits of many of these vaccines because people were too suspicious to use them. Does that sound familiar?  Also, at one point, possibly just for their own amusement, the press started trying to cause trouble between South Africa and India, lying to both nations about what the other was up to.

A press conference with an alien

Eventually, the game ended. Or rather, it just stopped. As in real life, there wasn’t a real ending, and there were no official winners or losers, but some teams had clearly achieved more of their objectives than others. There was then a 30 minute debrief, where, to some gasps, cheers, and occasional boos (I’m looking at you China) each team shared their perspectives and explained what their motivations had been. The Alien debrief was particularly interesting!

Overall, the main thing I took away from the game, was an insight into what it must be like to be a world leader. There is so much going on that you can’t possibly keep up with everything, and you have to make huge decisions based on information you don’t know you can trust. The press couldn’t be trusted, corporations couldn’t be trusted, and some nations (still you, China) definitely couldn’t be trusted. I guess I do now have a little sympathy for world leaders. Well, some of them anyway.

At the end of the day, when I went back home to my family (and in fact, for a few days afterwards), the events of the day were still going round my head. Something about South Africa popped up on the news, and I instantly started paying attention, because I thought for a second that I was the person who was going to have to deal with it. Then I remembered I was not a world leader after all, and I felt a bit sad, but also very relieved.

Class of 2022