I’d never attended a single Model United Nations meeting, but there I found myself in the gilded halls of Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton. The 25 delegates sat around a long table too crowded for comfort and too large for convenience. From my position on the opposite end from the chairwoman I felt a fleeting desire for a pair of opera glasses and an ear trumpet.
For the duration of the Chicago Model United Nations (ChoMUN) conference I was known as Rev. Melville Horne, a British missionary in the newly established colony of former American slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
My event was a Crisis Committee, in which attendees play the role of historical individuals striving to collectively navigate a series of difficulties. The crisis staff, or the students from the host institution running the scenario, furnished us with biographical outlines of our characters.
I saw the common cause our people held, their similar backgrounds, the friendships they shared, and concluded that this could be nothing other than the cooperative game it was billed as in the guide. My fellow delegates had other ideas.
We were gaveled into order and the first crisis revealed. The delegates began furiously scribbling away. Some of their writing took the form of faddish directives, heedless of long-term threats alluded to in the background guide.
Most of their writing, however, was not for public consumption. Instead, they wrote copious notes to the crisis staff, communicating their wishes to perform secret actions.
I later learned that the standard play in any crisis committee is to recruit spies, assassins, and private militias, even if these actions bear no resemblance to one’s historical background. The real game of MUN is not to play the scenario or even your own character, but to play the crisis staff.
What the delegates were really after wasn’t a solution to the crises that faced their committee, but rather individual titles such as ‘Best Delegate.’
Some universities strongly incentivize their delegates to ‘win’; if they don’t come back with awards, they may lose funding. Who the staff chooses to honor is entirely at their discretion, so, at least in the crisis committees, ‘winning’ means telling the story that appeals most to the staff.
The perverse incentive to be an entertaining delegate distorts the intended cooperative gameplay. Rather than safeguarding a newly-founded colony of former American slaves, delegates instead resorted to elaborate schemes of (fictional) arson, poisoning, and backstabbing to win the attention of the crisis staff.
At the end of the weekend I sat in the same banquet hall where, four days earlier, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken had given us a keynote speech highlighting the importance of cooperation, diplomacy, and institutions of justice for the future of the world. Now I heard the roar of Harvard delegates cheering their victorious fellows, followed by a cacophonous rendition of their fight song.
In my committee, the crisis staff bestowed the highest honor upon the delegate who burned through three different characters after being found guilty of and executed for innumerable crimes. In the end, collective navigation found itself displaced by individual striving. Instead of founding a functioning society, the sum of our efforts over those four days was a sad parable of unbridled self interest.
Collective navigation found itself displaced by individual striving
The chairwoman moved on to announce results for another committee. “Please hold your applause for the end.” Wink. Nod. Only a formality.
I checked in on the K College delegation’s group chat where some people who skipped the closing ceremony nonetheless awaited the results.
“Best Delegate for Nixon’s Cabinet is Melvin Laird.”
“Of f—ing course it was. I called it.”