Cultural specificities in simulations

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Dated cultural reference, for older readers

I’ve been very out of the office of late, with a short holiday with the family in Istanbul and now with a conference in Oslo. It’s all very cosmopolitan, as you might expect from the European partner in ALPS Blog.

As you’d also expect from me, it’s had me thinking about the role of culture in simulation games. By this, I’m understanding the way in which different cultural experiences play out within simulations.

This matters as a subject because simulations as a fundamental participant-led pedagogy, in which those participants/students create an individual and particular version of a social/political/whatever interaction, using the basic rules that the instructor provides. As such, culture is a necessarily omnipresent feature in simulations, at least in the sense of the participants’ individual characters and experiences.

However, I’m thinking here about something slightly different, triggered by my Istanbul trip.

My previous trip to the city was the first to a place with a strong cultural practice of haggling. Indeed, it was strong enough for me to make my first venture into film-making, with a little piece that records my pitiful first experience of this negotiating method, which I still play to students each year (to their general amusement).

Returning once again – and avoiding that particular vendor – I have been struck by the pervasiveness of haggling as a practice and the shift in approach required for a wide number of social interactions.

The question that occurred to me was what impact does this have on one’s general understanding of the kind of simulations we run, re-creating political interactions?

Precisely because participants are bringing their personal experiences to a simulation, it can sometimes be hard for them to bring the experiences of the roles that they are playing. This can cause any number of problems when trying to recreate a real-world scenario.

To that just one example, when I ran a game that asked students to play different agencies of the US federal government in putting together a foreign-policy document for an in-coming president, they all worked on the basis that all Americans want the same things, and so didn’t really get into the differences that obviously (to us) exist.

A couple of solutions to this present themselves, one inward-facing, the other outward.

When we want to make sure that participants are representing external cultures within our games, then we need to ensure that they have sufficient opportunity to internalise that culture. This is easy in larger games, where you can ask them to produce essays/papers or negotiating briefs that reflect the real-world actor’s dispositions, on which you can provide feedback. In smaller exercises, it’s more difficult, but you could either provide some key points on attitude (rather than policy per se), or else mark out red lines that effectively require a particular approach.

At the other end of the process, we can work with participants to draw out their personal reflection on the impact of their culture on their approach to a simulation. The obvious place to do this is in the debrief and feedback after the game, where we can build on their comments to strengthen their self-reflection.

Again, cultural elements are always going to be part of simulations, both because our participants have culture and because we want them to recreate cultural objects: the key thing is to be alive to this and to help them see how this works.

3 thoughts on “Cultural specificities in simulations

  1. The question of (war)gaming cultures was the primary focus of the Connections conference this year (http://paxsims.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/connections-2014-update/). In my own presentation I argued against the danger of seeing “culture” as a homogenous thing based on ethnic or religious identity–there is substantial evidence to show, for example, that the differences between (say) military officers and students or economists and everyone else are at least as substantial as those between (for example) Turks and Americans. In other words, Turkish and American military officers may behave more like each other than they do Turkish and American diplomats.

  2. Rex – thanks for the points and the link to the blog post. I would completely support the point you make that ‘culture’ shouldn’t be seen as equivalent to ‘nationality’, since the epistemic groups (such as military officers) are going to provide at least as much (and usually more) relevant experience for participants in the sims.

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