A few months ago I downloaded a game simulation from PAXSIMS Rex Brynan…. ISIS Crisis. The download contains the game board and all its pieces which is still under revision and development…but… I decided to give it a go with my summer section of Intro to IR students.
First things first…my students are not gamers and they do not know the conditions on the ground regarding ISIS, Syria, Iraq, etc.. So my purpose in conducting the game was to help them understand the sheer complexity of the situation by making each one of them a player in the system.
The role sheets and directions are pretty good but I STRONGLY recommend that the instructor play through the game once before attempting this in class. Ahem…I did not. ONWARD
Too many game pieces.. they often got in the way and confused the students. For the simple points I was trying to make, the teeny game pieces could be thinned out or thrown out altogether. Perhaps great for more advanced strategists to make the game more complex, but at the undergraduate civilian level…. not necessary.
I attempted to have students read up and develop a working knowledge of their role before coming to the simulation day. This simply wasn’t enough. (my bad) A much better plan of attack for next time is to have students write a three page personal history in the voice of their role. This way students internalize deeper history in the first person.
Picking methods for game play. The game kit offers several options for turn taking and scoring. Take the simplest one…get a few dice and get on with it! The students got bogged down in more complex systems. Pick the simplest path.
By the end of hour 1 of game play it was almost painfully clear to each of the actors in the game that there were no simple answers to “getting rid of ISIS.” Most of this is built into the game through the rule structure which is quite cleverly leveraged to the advantage of ISIS (every time a double is rolled by an actor, ISIS gets to go again…muahahahahaha!…sad but true).
The students were IMMEDIATELY dragged into the game. This, despite the fact that they had only light knowledge of the actual politics going on. (Again, my bad)
The game is definitely in its infancy and will likely evolve to even more robust design. I will absolutely teach with it again. Its core structure seems also to be highly portable to other scenarios which is a triple thumbs up!
I’d love to be able to tell you about how you can teach political science using nothing more than Pokemon Go. I’d love it, because it would give some semblance of meaning to the past fortnight, the hours spent hunting down Pokemon and wondering whether I’ll even catch a Jynx.
Sadly, I’m not able to. Not yet.
For those who’ve been living under a rock of late, Pokemon Go is the latest incarnation of the long-running series of games from the Nintendo stable, wherein one attempts to catch a variety of monsters – the eponymous Pokemon. Continue reading →
I owe 100% of the credit for this game to Ashley Rondini at Franklin & Marshall College.
The Game: Word Challenge
Potential Topics: Social Justice, Attribution Error, Levels of Analysis, Methods and Measurement, Bias and Hidden Assumptions
Materials: Envelopes, letters for each team (listed at the bottom of this entry), timer
Prep Time: 5 minutes (mostly cutting squares and putting them into envelopes Play Time: 5 minutes Class Size: 6-100 Debrief Time: As long as you like, this one just keeps opening up the more you look at it. I bridged directly into my lesson. So… 15 minutes debrief and then to lecture.
Today’s post is from Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University.
Many attendees at this year’s APSA annual meeting were given a free copy of Agenda, a board game that claims to be “the culmination of the journey to discover a way for politics and the political games people play to not only be better understood but be fun at the same time.” Initially, I planned to give it a play test with some colleagues and submit a review that touched on the best ways instructors could utilize the game for pedagogical purposes. As it turns out, Agenda is a terrible game. As one play-tester commented, “This board game offends me not only as someone who studies politics but as someone who likes board games.”
In Agenda, players pick one of seven possible “political personas,” each with its own political viewpoints—such as Socialist, Corporatist, Moralist, or Libertarian. Players take turns moving around the board via die rolls, and each square they land on affects their personal resources in the form of votes, money, and poll standing. If they possess the requisite resources when passing an Agenda button, they can enact a “policy plank,” a major policy which their character holds dear. The first player to enact an agreed upon number of “policy planks” wins. While this may seem like a fairly simple setup, the actual rules of Agenda resemble corporate tax codes in their complexity. This brings us to my first point:
Make your instructions simple
I’m no stranger to big, complicated manuals and I’m not expecting literary prose from a game manual, but the manual for Agenda is Byzantine to the point of absurdity. For example, there are seven different categories of cards, all of which receive their own section within the game manual, despite the fact that they all generally do the same things. It took four political science graduate students around 30-45 minutes to get around halfway through the manual, at which point we became frustrated and decided to “learn while playing.”
This kind of needless complexity can mean a quick death for classroom simulations. Any simulation’s complexity should be spread out among students so that the amount of knowledge required of any individual student is relatively low. Agenda places needlessly intricate rules on top of what is essentially a very simple game, necessitating a long and arduous learning curve before implementation.
Make game decisions meaningful
There’s an old web comic of philosophers playing board games that came to mind when playing Agenda. In it, “Camus” declares that Candyland is the “most brilliant game ever made!” Since players in Candyland move along by drawing cards, players lack agency and must supply themselves with narratives about their progress that, given the nature of the game, are patently absurd.
Likewise, players of Agenda have no real agency or need for strategy. A player’s choice of “political persona” has no discernable impact on his or her available options or the course of the game. “Policy planks” also have no significant effect. Once we successfully enacted a “plank,” nothing really happened beyond checking off a box on the back of our character cards. In all, there was no real strategy to the game at all; players just clump around the board hoping to land in the right sequence of squares to end the game.
The entire point of using classroom simulations is to force students to wrestle with dilemmas that resemble real-life political phenomena. In Agenda, players are reduced to dice-rolling automatons who only manage the accumulation of money, votes, and poll standing.
Try to approximate real life
One of the most frustrating aspects of Agenda is the degree to which the game mechanics are based less on politics than the jokes people tell about politics. There isn’t really anything here that approximates reality, and there is little to no explanation of how policies are actually made.
As an example, the Moralist in our game managed to enshrine Christianity as the official state religion as an “agenda plank,” despite the earth-shaking changes to U.S. institutional structure that would have to occur to make that a real-life possibility. Moreover, there is never any explanation as to the actual identity or function of any of the personas. President? Member of Congress? Dictator for life? Agenda won’t tell you. And how does this persona enact a policy? By obtaining more than $1 million in money, 500,000 votes, and more than 50 percent in poll standing. Money for what? Votes in what election? More than 50 percent in what poll? Don’t worry about it, says Agenda.
This is perhaps the most frustrating part of Agenda. Rather than put any effort into mimicking real-life processes, the game seems to be nothing more than a platform for unfunny and potentially offensive jokes about politics. For example, one board square reads “make insensitive remark about rape: lose one million votes.” One card states “You are a member of a minority ethnic group. Lose ten poll points.” These features inhibit understanding by caricaturing different segments of the political spectrum while at the same time obscuring the actual policy process. There is no coalition-building, no log-rolling, no calculation of any kind.
Ideally, classroom simulations and games impart at least some understanding of real-life political phenomena. Game mechanics need not mirror real-life processes exactly, but they should at least give some insight into how these processes work, or what it’s like to operate under the various institutional constraints that actual politics present. By contrast, I think that playing Agenda could actually cause students to know less about politics than they did before going into the game.
Here is a review of the ICONS Crisis in North Korea simulation:
Subjects: IR in East Asia, IR theory, international security, diplomacy and negotiation
Learning outcomes for students
I used this simulation in my course on the comparative political history of Asia. The simulation represented an opportunity for students to:
Gain a better understanding of international relations in Asia.
Analyze multiple approaches to solving contemporary global problems.
Crisis in North Korea is relevant to a number of texts on East Asian politics. Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States, by Alexis Dudden, a book I’ve used previously, would situate the simulation within a wider historical and diplomatic context. IR survey texts, such as the chapters on theory and conflict in Essentials of International Relations by Mingst and Arreguín-Toft,.also apply.
As I mentioned in a previous post about low-enrollment classes, I ran this simulation with only eleven students. The six teams — USA, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea — should have at least three members each, so the ideal class size for the simulation is probably eighteen to twenty-four students. The simulation can probably be successfully run in larger classes, especially if the instructor prepares specific roles within teams for each student to play; for example, defense minister, foreign minister, etc. However, each state functions as a unitary actor in the simulation, so the larger the teams get, the greater the potential for some students to become disengaged, passive observers.
ICONS recommends scheduling at least 150 minutes for the simulation, divided into two 75-minute sessions, which is the time frame I used. My students said they felt rushed in the second session; I suspect that trying to compress the simulation into an even smaller block of time risks disaster. Extending the simulation across three 75-minute sessions probably works better; at minimum this allows plenty of time for debriefing.
ICONS costs money. Either the instructor can pay a lump sum to enroll his or her class or students can pay individually. I chose the latter option because I don’t receive institutional support for these in-class experiences and I did not want to bother with collecting money from students. The per-student price was an extremely reasonable $13.
ICONS is housed entirely online, so each team of students needs at least one device with an internet connection. A laptop or computer per student is possibly more effective. The instructor also needs access to the internet on a separate machine during the simulation.
The concise facilitator guide provided to instructors clearly explains how to manage the simulation. The ICONS website is intuitive and easy to navigate. I spent a small amount of time on setting up teams and other administrative tasks. In general, this simulation requires minimal instructor preparation.
Students need to create accounts and pay for the simulation to gain access the ICONS website. They also need to read background information and the role sheet for the country to which they’ve been assigned. All of these documents are only a few pages long, clearly written, and available on the website. Students found the website easy to navigate.
I created an auto-graded quiz on my course website, worth one percent of the final grade, to encourage students to familiarize themselves with the simulation before it began. I also used the ICONS Pre-Negotiation Planning Report, a one-page questionnaire, as an ungraded pre-simulation in-class exercise so students could individually identify goals to achieve and then develop a shared strategy with their teammates. This exercise appeared to be very useful; students wrote detailed answers to the questions on the form.
The simulation begins with an explosion at a nuclear facility in North Korea. The instructor periodically unveils new developments to intensify the crisis. Teams respond to what is happening either through diplomatic overtures — requests to send humanitarian aid missions, the imposition of economic sanctions, and the like — or military attacks. Peaceful actions typically require the cooperation of other states. Most military attacks require the prior approval of the instructor. If a state executes an action, the simulation generates a message describing the outcome, such as “North Korea has accepted the offer of inspectors from Japan.” The instructor determines how the simulation ends: either the effects of the nuclear accident are successfully contained or radioactive contamination spreads across international borders.
Managing the simulation — reading and responding to messages, approving or disapproving teams’ actions, injecting the pre-loaded events into the crisis — requires all of the instructor’s time and attention. I was glued to my computer screen, constantly flipping between the separate feeds for messages and actions.
My standard post-simulation assignment is an essay that asks students to write about which IR theory they think best explains what they experienced in the simulation, but this wasn’t an IR course, so I created this instead:
You are employed as a policy analyst at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Your task is to write an analysis of the recent crisis in North Korea. The analysis should:
1. Assess the response of the U.S. government to the recent crisis in North Korea in terms of its likely long-term effects on U.S. relations with other states in the region.
2. Recommend whether and how the U.S. should try to improve its relations with other states in the region given the outcome of the crisis.
Your superiors are extremely busy and want information that is concise, detailed, and easy to read. The memo must be in single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than three pages. Make sure to support your analysis with examples from the simulation and information from ICONS resources. Documents should be cited within the text rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Country Information, China)”. You are also welcome to use information from readings in the syllabus if they are relevant. There is no need to do additional research.
Extensions and portability options
While actors’ capabilities are fixed throughout the simulation, it is possible to supply information to teams that will likely alter their perceptions of other actors, which adds more of a constructivist element to game play.
At the fifteen minute mark, Japan launched an airstrike against China, an action that did not require my approval. From that point forward, teams repeatedly tried to attack each other, often with nuclear weapons. I disallowed the attacks until the U.S. team ordered a nuclear strike against South Korea — I wanted to demonstrate the effects of not proofreading. The simulation then degenerated into a nuclear holocaust for East Asia. In sum, the game play exhibited by students was unrealistic, and I don’t think they learned much from the experience about international relations in the region.
In the debriefing students noted that outcomes did not enhance or degrade the capabilities of actors, which created the impression of a static environment where actions could be taken without consequences. They thought that the simulation would better reflect the real world if actors obtained tangible benefits each time they achieved intermediate goals. They also expressed a desire for a more extensive menu of options in responding to the actions of other teams.
I noticed the logical disconnect of using a web-based simulation in a physical classroom. ICONS enables people in different geographic locations to participate in the same simulation, but in my opinion the need for and benefits of a computer-mediated environment decrease significantly when face-to-face interaction is an option.
Against All Odds is an online game hosted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that lets players experience what life is like for a political refugee. The game has twelve parts, divided into three sections: War and Conflict, where you play through levels that require you to give up all your beliefs and identity markers in a military police interrogation (or you are thrown in jail indefinitely), choosing which of your many possessions to take with you when you leave (including choosing whether or not to take your dog), and navigating out of the country without being seen; Border Country, which focuses on trying to get asylum and figuring out who to trust; and A New Life, where you have to get a job and go shopping in a climate of suspicion and in some cases, hostility.
There are some great things about this game. Each level only takes a few minutes to play; the entire game can be finished in 30 minutes. The level one initial interrogation is interesting, because you cannot proceed in the game without agreeing to some pretty harsh statements, such as ‘I give up my faith’ or expressing a willingness to give up your language. Students will probably struggle with agreeing to these statements, which can lead to interesting conversations about life in an oppressive environment. Several of the mini-games are fun to play, such as the one where you have to navigate out of town without being seen. You can access any of the twelve levels at any time, which makes it easier to focus on a particular lesson with the students, and each level can be replayed as many times as necessary without penalty. UNHCR also provides a series of web facts, with stories of people who lived through the levels in the game, as well as teaching resources related to the game, although much like the game itself the target audience is younger than college.
There are some downsides. First, some of the levels are a bit too high-handed, such as the ones in the A New Life segment where you have to go from apartment to apartment and learn about your neighbors’ prejudices. Its also frustrating that a single incorrect answer prevents you from directly moving onward in the game (you can always go back to the start screen and choose a later level, but its an inconvenient extra step). For example, one mini-game involves correctly identifying the origin of various inventions like the bicycle, chocolate, gum ball machines, and insulin. A single incorrect answer prevents you from moving on. In one way this is an asset, as replaying it helps you learn, but it’s still cumbersome. Also, the game ends rather abruptly and anti-climatically.
Overall, though, Against all Odds is a pretty neat way to teach students about the plight of refugees, focusing not only on the original oppression that drives refugees out of their home country, but also on the difficulties they face in seeking asylum and building a new life. I would recommend assigning it either as homework the night before a lesson on refugees, or with a small class and access to a computer lab, having them play through a level or two as a class exercise, followed by discussion. This would also work very, very well in an online, hybrid or blended learning environment.
There was some discussion at this year’s TLC spent about the pros and cons of different off-the-shelf simulations, including Statecraft. Here is a synopsis of the comments about it, with the usual disclaimers: this review reflects a non-representative sample and I have no financial connections with Statecraft‘s parent company. Previous posts about Statecraft are here, here, here, and here.
Instructors who had used Statecraft liked the way in which its participants experience the complexities of international relations. Students build nation-states from ground up, which illustrates the interconnection of institutions and interests. The entire process is mediated through simulation’s website so instructor does not have to manage play. However, negative outcomes can overwhelm students’ achievements and make them frustrated (which isn’t necessarily a result too far removed from reality). More problematic is the user interface, which doesn’t allow the instructor to see the real-time status of all the teams on a single webpage. Because the instructor has does not have a full picture of what’s happening in the simulation, even if one is wanted, instructors must refer students to the dense Statecraft instruction manual or online customer support in the event of technical questions.
Statecraft favors students who are familiar with gaming, but the gamers find it badly designed while those who are not gamers can get overwhelmed trying to learn the simulation’s rules. If a few students treat Statecraft as a typical game in which they can rampage through a fictional world and disregard the repercussions of their actions, it can ruin the experience for the entire class. Students also often find the newsfeed to be distracting or irrelevant to game-play. Some students simply don’t engage with the simulation or their classmates, something that is always a possibility with team-based exercises.
Statecraft requires a major time commitment whether it is run during class or outside of it. Instructors have to decide whether the costs of Statecraft make it too expensive given the pedagogical outcomes.