Zero Sum Simulations

I’m growing disillusioned with international relations simulations that are, by design, zero-sum. As previously mentioned, it’s currently “simulation time” and I’m running two different simulations. In my upper-level Human Rights course, my students are participating in the Global Problems Summit, which is essentially a mini-Model UN. Although some countries may “win” and others may “lose” with respect to the content of any resolutions based, the nature of the simulation encourages diplomacy and attempts at cooperation and compromise.

In my two sections of Introduction to International Politics, my students are engaged in the International Relations in Action simulation. On the whole, I do like this simulation and think it captures my learning objectives better than Statecraft (which I’ve used the previous four years). The scenarios are interesting and have encouraged the students to think about a number of international situations and appreciate the complexity of international politics.

But, one thing the students have noticed is that many of the scenarios are zero-sum. Countries attempt to earn “objective points” by reaching favorable outcomes in the scenarios. Some encourage cooperation, but many are competitive. For example, in the territorial dispute scenario, for one country to receive its maximum objective points (10) it needs to claim the entire piece of disputed territory. And, for its adversary to receive its maximum points, it needs to re-claim the entire piece of territory. There is no room for negotiations that may, for example, result in a division of territory (which my students immediately pointed out was contrary to what we learned earlier in the semester when we studied Fearon’s Rationalist Explanations of War). A few other scenarios are similarly structured: if one country earns its maximum objective points in that scenario, someone else necessarily loses theirs.

The students are frustrated by the lack of flexibility in the simulation and some have nearly thrown in the towel. Three countries came together and declared war on another without a clear reason, mainly because they were frustrated. We haven’t debriefed yet, but I am interested to learn more about their rationale for this war and how it conforms to our understanding of international relations. I worry that the students have gotten so caught up in the competition for objective points, that the pedagogical value of the activity is overlooked. I hope to address that in the debriefing session next week and bring out some of the learning objectives.

I’m not ready to give up on the IRiA simulation just yet, but am considering ways of structuring it to minimize some of these potential conflicts.

2 thoughts on “Zero Sum Simulations

  1. Part of the problem here may arise from using explicit, extrinsic pay-offs to drive game behaviour, especially when one wants to elicit a mix of cooperative and competitive actions. Of course, “points” provide a quick and visible way of signalling to students what they’re expected to do, and rewarding them for responding to the cue. However, they can also generate an excessive focus on (narrowly-defined) winning, and encourage a sort of “gamer mode” (Frank 2012) play style. There’s also some evidence to suggest that intrinsic rewards may be better at promoting learning.

    For some of my own thoughts on how one can elicit semi-cooperative game play, see

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