The simplicity-complexity dilemma

Having been all chuffed with how my EU simulation was received in Prague at EuroTLC, I read Patricia’s post about using doughnuts to model a two-level game with a mixture of admiration and jealousy.

The admiration comes from the elegance of its design and jealousy from the feeling that I’d not come up with something nearly as good.

So, props to Patricia (and hello to my local doughnut vendor), but it also raises an interesting question that was niggling me in Prague and which has been a long-running debate here on ALPSblog, namely the tension between making something ‘realistic’ and drawing out the essence of a situation.

It’s a generic problem for all teaching and learning: we can’t (or shouldn’t) hope to describe and explain every last thing in the world around us, so we use heuristics of theory and extrapolation to provide ‘good enough’ models.

Similarly, when building simulations or games, we’re trying to draw out the key processes and dynamics, to expose them for students to see them more clearly and to then take them back to the building of their understanding of the world.

The difficulty comes, of course, in deciding what’s important and what’s not.

The great strength of Patricia’s exercise is that it’s all about the two-level game: it’s lean on its specificity to doughnuts, so it can be used to illustrate any two-level game.

My game is much less lean (and doesn’t provide any tasty pay-offs), but it does include some other mechanisms that I consider important for my students’ understanding, namely the role of outside parties, the consequences of particular choice and the potential to challenge the entire premise of the activity.

Neither is ‘right’ in its approach, but each stresses different aspects.

To make the point, my session in Prague largely consisted of participants talking about what else they/one could add in to do other stuff. Again, not right or wrong, but different emphases.

These things can potentially be crippling, to both designer and user.

For the designer, the fear of missing something out can mean throwing in too much, especially if you’re relatively new to the process. To takes a degree of courage to stripe things right back to one thing and to accept that it doesn’t do it all.

For the user, the anxiety that you’re not hitting all (or enough) of your learning outcomes might mean a desire to shovel more into a scenario, or to feel you have to play multiple activities, or even to drop them all and stick with the lecture.

The key to unlocking all these is to talk with students. It might not have been the first point you picked up from Patricia’s post, but the post-game debrief is essential: getting students to talk through what they’ve done and then to connect it to the rest of their learning.

It’s here that the process of essentialisation actually becomes a positive help: asking what was and wasn’t realistic about what they did can open up big areas of discussion and debate and invites thoughtful consideration about what else is happening in a given scenario.

Put differently, not trying to do it all helps to point up the things you’re not trying to do.

My core rule in designing activities has long been KISS: keep it simple, stupid. If I can’t be clear about what I intend the activity to do, then I can’t expect anyone else to be clear.

Indeed, by seeking out that core process, I’m also trying to make sense of a phenomenon: to see my students then play that out also helps me to see if my sense is a useful or instructive one.

If you like, this is another example of the value of gaps: rather than trying to do it all for students, by leaving things open we can encourage them to think and develop for themselves. Which is rather the point.