Five Minutes to Save the World

A novel partnership between policy experts, game designers, and public radio yields a high-stakes simulation that lets users decide: nuclear attack, or false alarm?

By Jenny Johnston / November 12, 2018

The first words you read when you enter the Nuclear Decisions game ( set the tone for what’s to follow: “You receive information that the US might be under nuclear attack. You have five minutes to ignore or respond to the threat. The clock is ticking. What do you do?” With these words, players enter the game—and get put on the clock—assuming the role of a military officer charged with determining whether nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are, or are not, heading for the US mainland. A mistake in judgment, in either direction, could be catastrophic.

Produced in partnership by the game design firm Playmatics, the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), N Square, and Public Radio International (PRI), the first “module” of the Nuclear Decisions game launched in late May 2018—the result of its own breakneck decision process. Just three weeks earlier, N Square had learned that the season finale of the CBS series Madam Secretary would feature a nuclear crisis storyline that some in the N Square community had helped bring to the show. Ideas were quickly floated for how to convert that moment into an opportunity to draw viewers and others into deeper conversation about nuclear decision-making.

“We knew that there was likely to be a cliffhanger ending, and we assumed it would be that missiles would be coming and you don’t know what will happen next,” says Nancy Gallagher, a public policy expert who heads CISSM and served as a lead author of the game. “We thought, maybe we can give people an idea of the complexities of how we could have ended up in this situation in the first place—and get them to consider what decision-making at a policy level looks like around nuclear weapons.”

Decision Game Module One:
While covering the night shift at NORAD, you receive data from U.S. early warning satellites that several ballistic missiles were just launched from locations within Russia.
Image credit – DoD

N Square quickly built a team around this idea. Playmatics founder Nick Fortugno, a fellow in the N Square Innovators Network, had a history of designing timely and serious games, including a recent experimental news game created with ProPublica exploring the experiences of asylum seekers. Gallagher, who had served as executive director of the Clinton administration’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Task Force, had extensive experience conducting opinion polls and simulations about global decision-making—both efforts geared at understanding and influencing public discourse around nuclear weapons. Together, and with the help of colleagues, they turned their focus to creating a game that would marry their talents and capture the Madam Secretary moment.


For Fortugno, the fact that US policy and operating procedure requires decision-makers to evaluate the verity of a possible nuclear attack within five minutes had to be central to the game. So a ticking clock became a key feature. Given their own time pressures, the team didn’t have the bandwidth to create a deeply multimedia experience—but they also didn’t want to, says Fortugno. “Multimedia wouldn’t communicate the complexity of the situation as well as text,” he says. “We wanted to overwhelm the user with information—to give them the chance to read it, but also to realize just how much information there was, and how complex and even contradictory it was, and how unsure they would feel even after taking it all in.”

In the game, players have access to factual information and advisors with different perspectives to help them navigate each decision—but that doesn’t make their task any easier. Creating that part “tapped into the experiences that I had when I was working in the State Department, trying to put myself in the shoes of multiple people with different political perspectives and think about how they would think about a given question,” says Gallagher.

Decision Game Module One:
The preliminary tracking data suggests the missiles are targeting some of the 399 ICBMs stationed at three military bases (Warren, Minot, and Malmstrom Air Force bases), which span North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Montana. These silos are hardened to protect the missiles inside them, but could be destroyed by a direct hit.
Image credit – DoD

As the deadline approached, the game still needed a host. So the team reached out to Jodi Gersh, head of Public Radio International’s Engagement Lab and also a member of the N Square Innovators Network. Ultimately, PRI agreed to host the game, promote it on the air, and use it as a springboard for enhancing its own coverage of nuclear issues. (Case in point: this new PRI piece about the growing market for personal bunkers, hazmat suits, and emergency rations in South Korea.)

The Nuclear Decisions game launched on time in May—but that wasn’t the end of the game building. Since then, three more five-minute decision modules have been added, with two more still planned. Users play each one in succession, with the choices they make affecting how the story unfolds. Each new module explores a different facet of nuclear policy and how it might contribute to the buildup toward a crisis. “How did we end up with these really vulnerable ICBMs?” explains Gallagher. “Why is it that we don’t have many channels of communication with the Russians? And why do we have this policy that basically relies on other people believing that we’re going to incinerate millions of their civilians?”


Players may find themselves in the shoes of a member of Congress, an average voter, or others weighing dilemmas and making decisions that raise or lower the risks of nuclear war. In all cases, there are no clear-cut, easy, or right answers. “We wanted people to understand it’s not just the president who makes this one really big decision,” says Gallagher. “It’s Americans at any number of different levels, including somebody who works for the military, or somebody who works through the State Department, or civil society activists, or just regular citizens.”

Decision Game Module One:
ICBMs travel at about 15,000 mph, so one launched 6,000 miles away could hit a target within 30 minutes. Current U.S. policy and operating procedures require you to make a decision within five minutes about whether this is a real attack or a false alarm.
Image credit – Sara Santini

The citizens part is important—because actively engaging a broader public in the conversation about the challenges of nuclear decision-making is the game’s ultimate goal. “It’s easier for people to become active on climate issues because they can do concrete things to make a difference, even if it’s changing their light bulbs,” says Gallagher. “It’s harder to think about how you can give people any kind of feeling of agency around nuclear weapons.” But she does see promise in the power of games like this one to spark new public discourse. “My 12-year-old nephew played it, and it led to a conversation with him that I never would have expected about what some of the policy issues were.”

“Telling stories in new ways can itself draw people’s attention and help them absorb your message,” says Fortugno. “With this game, users are agents rather than perceivers—they have to make decisions about nuclear weapons instead of passively reading about it. That kind of agency creates understanding in a way that other things can’t.”

Play the game: