Driven to Abstraction

I’m deeply conscious that after last week’s post about this being quiet time, I’ve since worked non-stop on a big pile of things: first rule of negotiation, don’t reveal your hand.  Consequently, I find myself today in Norway, teaching at the European Integration Summer School at the University of Agder, where I’ve been playing games with a great bunch of students.

One of the greatest pleasures of teaching with simulations and games is the variety of experiences you get to encounter; no two runs of a game are the same.  And that’s been true here too.

As ways into understanding the logics of the EU’s Council and the European Parliament, I played two short games that I had previously designed for my negotiation course.  The first was a two-level game, where countries have to cut public spending, while the second required players to find a qualified majority on values for a pair of issues (essentially a pareto-optimising type activity).

In both cases, the games broadly worked and led into some useful discussion of the institutions concerned.  However, it was also apparent that each game needed some refinement to meet their purpose in this context.

In particular, the second game was too abstract to make immediate sense.  Usually, abstracting is a useful device in such situations, because it removes some of the normative positioning found in political negotiation, as well as forestalling the need to model many more aspects of a given institution.  In this case, rather than set up an entire EP committee, I wanted to bring out the logic of cooperating with others players with similar positions, rather than from the same country, as well as the benefits of organised bargaining.

Instead, I spent a long time answering questions about what was happening, what should happen and the rest.

The solution has been rather simple, now that I’ve reflected on it: make it less abstract.  Instead of Issue 1 and Issue 2 (each of which needs a value agreed for it), it’s now about how much spending on animal research should there be, made up of spending on Cats and spending on Dogs.  This makes much more instinctive sense, my instructions much shorter and hopefully the whole game much more playable.

So two key lessons.  Firstly, always be ready to change your teaching in the light of experience.  Secondly, remember that abstraction is a double-edged sword.

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