Ethically Simulating

This post was inspired by a story in The New York Times: a U.S. Marine discovered his daughters reading a “choose your own adventure” book with a chapter about a battle in Afghanistan in which he actually fought. He thought the book presented a superficial view of war and wrote an editorial on the subject. The book’s publisher decided to stop selling it and halt production of four other similar titles.

The story got me thinking about my own teaching. I often place students in simulated environments that in real life are horrendous — such as genocide, civil war, and natural disasters.* I do this because I believe it does a better job than just reading a text at getting students invested in the subject and developing a less-biased understanding of others. In the past these simulations have even included the digital version of choose your own adventure books.  

Yet I probably don’t pay enough attention to the risk that these exercises can come across as trite games completely divorced from reality. On the one hand, I teach undergraduates who in many cases have lived a materially comfortable life within a psychologically-comfortable bubble. Their world is diametrically opposed to the one that I am hoping they are learning about, and that probably gives them far less of an ability to empathize than I would like. On the other hand, my graduate courses are filled with active and former military personnel. Many of them have direct experience thinking through situations that my simulations attempt to artificially replicate.  

Perhaps I should be asking students “Did this simulation respect reality in a way that contributed to your learning?”

*Inside Disaster: Haiti, the death of which I reported in 2015, has apparently been resurrected via subscription-only access. While its history demonstrates the inherent problems of online simulations, I strongly recommend this product.

2 thoughts on “Ethically Simulating

  1. I have used similar simulations but start by “priming” the students – sometimes with video, if available, in order to increase their investment in the situation. In addition, I give a warning in advance if the simulation has the possibility of triggering a student as a result of a past experience. My most extreme example of this need is provided by a student who was on the ground during the Rwandan genocide. A genocide simulation was not going to useful to him and I gave him an alternative.

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