When Hobbes Turned Liberal Institutionalist….

This week I returned to my roots to replay another version of Victor Asal’s Hobbes game. One of my favorite things about the Hobbes game is that it can always be slightly altered to introduce new kinds of interaction in the game.

In order to do this you really do need to play Victor’s original game first.

Then, a week or two later…. hand out the cards again. I wanted Wednesday’s interaction to be more akin to the picture of the international system represented by liberal institutional models of interaction. Specifically, I wanted to introduce variation, not simply in terms of individual power levels, but types of potential cooperation.

Tell them, today, the kind of card you get matters. (watch them peer at the front of their card anxiously….see how the people holding aces and kings begin to smile)

Project an image of the hierarchy of poker hands on the board and explain which kinds of hands are better than others. (you will get confused looks from people who have never played cards…don’t linger on this …. just smile and say…. everything will be alright)

The text and images below are from the website pokerstars.com but you can find the image anywhere really.

Straight Flush & Royal Flush


Four of a Kind:

Four of a Kind

Full House:

Full House





Three of a kind:

Three of a Kind

Two pair

Two Pair

One pair

One Pair

High card

High Card

Now… tell them that individual cards can challenge each other. In that case, the higher value card wins, takes the other card, and then the loser sits down.

BUT… they are also free to create pairs, triples, and even complete 5 card poker hands. (I limited them to five…. continue to ignore the people who don’t know cards)

Then…. say…. go!

Observations by Students in Debrief:

  1. MASSIVE VARIATION in behavior from the original game….. some team up and produce collective security others go it alone.

  2. Students who had initially powerful cards (Aces) felt more assured than those who had low number cards. But everyone had an opportunity to collaborate to build a good poker hand in order to feel safer.

  3. Students reported feeling less concerned about relative gains and more interested in absolute gains as they searched for other potential allies.

  4. All the students agreed that the structure of the game more closely aligned with what they imagined the international system to be like: more opportunities for cooperation in many different ways, but still anarchic and fraught with distrust and fear for survival.

  5. Students who had no idea about poker hands were sometimes preyed upon, but most often, were assisted by colleagues with similar cards.

Prior to this exercise the students were unconvinced by the Kupchans‘ work on collective security and the institutionalist perspective. They preferred the ‘pragmatism’ of Mearsheimer and Waltz. After the exercise, the students reported understanding, more clearly, what the Kupchans’ were getting at. I’ll definitely do this again in tandem with the original form of the Hobbes game.

Michelle Allendoerfer: Rational Theory of War II

I used the Fearon bargaining activity outlined in my last post for the first time very recently. Here are my anecdotal observations on its effectiveness.

NapoleonFirst, only one of the four dyads in class fought a war in the initial complete information round.  The other dyads immediately understood why war shouldn’t occur and after some discussion, the warring group got it.  I would have been happy with the success of the game just after that round; in my experience, getting students to accept Fearon’s main premise that a bargaining range always exists is challenging.

Second, students quickly realized that giving me two of their candies (as the cost of war) was undesirable and they’d prefer to reach a deal than lose candy.  I used this to demonstrate that war is rare—most of the time, the sides will reach a deal to avoid paying the high costs of war.  Students have also struggled with this idea in the past and having physical objects taken away as a cost of war really conveyed the message.

During debriefing, I found it useful to walk through at least one “war” and demonstrate how a bargaining range existed.  A lopsided victory is helpful in showing how both sides still would have preferred a deal to avoid war.  Finally, I allowed the students to “negotiate” before the defender had to accept or reject the deal.  This opened up discussion of signaling and the absence of costly signals in the activity.

Although I did not do a formal assessment, student performance on the related questions on the subsequent midterm exam was quite good. The applications in the essay by and large demonstrated a deep understanding of the existence of a bargaining range, issue indivisibility, and how costly signals affect the probability of war.  I’m considering a formal assessment of the activity in the future, but my gut is that it gave the students a better understanding of an abstract theory by helping them internalize its main ideas.

Michelle Allendoerfer: Fearon’s Rational Theory of War

Today we have the first of two posts by Dr. Michelle Allendoerfer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Women’s Leadership Program (wlp.gwu.edu), George Washington University:

Rationality of WarOf the concepts typically taught in an Introduction to International Relations class, Fearon’s rationalist theories of war is one of the most challenging for students.  Getting students to actively engage with these concepts makes them more concrete and less abstract.  There are bargaining activities out there to illustrate the bargaining theory of war, but many treat wars as “all or nothing” — the winner gets the spoils while the loser gets nothing (minus the costs of war to both parties).  I wanted an activity that reflected a wider range of war outcomes in which the loser may end up with some division of the spoils.

I divided my class into dyads made up of two groups.  I made eight groups of 3-4 students (four dyads).  Each dyad gets a modified deck of cards (I used only 2-9 with more cards in the middle of the range), tokens (10 per round), a coin, and a handout.

To play, each group takes a card from the deck. In all rounds but the first, this information is kept private.  The challenger, selected by a coin toss, makes an offer to divide 10 tokens. I used Hershey kisses because my class is small and motivated by chocolate; anything that incentivizes the students will work, such as poker chips tied to extra credit.  If the defender accepts, the tokens are divided according to the offer and the round ends.

If the defender rejects, the groups go to war by showing their cards. I linked the division of tokens to the margin of victory. For example, if side A plays a 6 and side B plays a 3, the margin of victory is 3 in favor of side A and this corresponds to a 8/2 split of the tokens – this information is on the handout provided to the students. If a war occurs both sides pay the cost of 2 tokens.

A practice round helps get the students going.  An initial practice round where cards are not hidden also illustrates to students the crucial point of Fearon that war is ex post inefficient and should not happen in conditions of complete information.

In my next post, I’ll share some of my reflections on the activity and some notes on debriefing.  Feel free to email me (mallendo-at-gwu-dot-edu) with questions or for a copy of the handout I use to facilitate the game.  I’m happy to share those materials.

Zombie Apocalypse…. survival guide or excuse for defection behavior?


Tonight I get to ask Max Brooks about the implications of seeing the world through a zombie apocalypse. Tune in! 

A standard of IR theorizing is the notion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A zero-sum game in which you can either rat out your partner to avoid heavy costs in exchange for lighter costs, or you can both cooperate and stay silent for a payout to both parties.

This is often referred to as the PD, the Hobbesian world of all against all. It is a survivalist ethic where the suboptimal outcome is better than being caught with the sucker payoff. The scholars on this post frequently create games that reveal this outcome. See Simon Usherwood’s Post

The potential costs of this thinking are often hidden when thinking about a zombie apocalypse. Apocalypse preparedness is about ensuring that you are ready when global infrastructures fail. The Centers for Disease Control actually have a site dedicated to zombie disaster preparedness. However, zombie preparedness it is also strongly linked to survivalist behavior which can then be linked back to the PD and defecting rather than cooperating.

When we use this metaphor of zombies to think about 21st century security issues and global threats is this helpful or harmful? Does the fear engendered in imagining a Hobbesian state of nature accidentally give us excuses to behave poorly…. and if so, is a zombie apocalypse the wrong analogy for thinking about disaster? I previously considered this as a potential critical teaching assignment

BUT….If you would like, tune in tonight at 7:30 on Al Jazeera America’s The Stream….as I ask World War Z author Max Brooks himself what he thinks the limitations might be?

Max Brooks: From disaster fiction to real life preparedness

Methamphetamine in my Pedagogy: Breaking Bad and International Relations

There’s nothing quite like a quick-start to helping our students wrap their minds around perspectives in IR. This tip comes to me by way of Soomo Publishing (educational dynamos who have their heads on a swivel looking for new ways to connect with our students…and music video rock stars). So… Thanks Z!

This link will take you to a series of slides assembled by Dr. Peter LaVenia.


Mental exercises like this are great fun for instructors and students alike. You take the multiple perspectives of the literature and hunt for them in contemporary culture. The classroom applications are multiple. I like to provide students with a common pop text and then ask them to look for the similarities and differences between the thought patterns of IR theorists and the pop reference.

BUT!!!!!   My favorite application of these kinds of exercises is to make students write exam essays in this format.

  • Explain the security dilemma in terms of the Hunger Games (short essay)
  • Of the key characters in the Dark Knight, who would Machiavelli see as the best leader? Explain and defend your choices using quotes from the original text.
  • What might each of the major schools of thought have to contribute to understanding Neo in the Matrix?

Personally, nothing makes grading take-home essays more rewarding than really pushing your students to reach for creative readings of the pop text. It also significantly thins out the grounds for plagiarism.

Throw one of these questions into your next exam and find yourself smiling at observations like: “The hunger games arena is really nothing more than a mirror of the panopticism of the Capital’s relationship to the districts. But in the game realm the notion of survival is reduced to zero sum calculations. Cooperation is futile.”

Also… you can always try Zombies as a generic notion….



Critical reading and thinking Lincoln and Thucydides

This week’s assignment tip is about complementary assignments… I don’t recall when someone gave me this tip but I’m always happy to pass this along.

Not only do we want our students to read for content and argument, but we also want them to synthesize and expand their analysis across texts. Analysis of two separate texts is usually done with CONTRASTING views. That is to say that we select texts that are opposed in position–the “taking sides” approach, but this tends to eliminate the opportunity to synthesize and see connections.

So….Let’s talk COMPLEMENTARY……. This is an assignment of two texts that are seemingly different at the outset, but are ultimately closely aligned.

I’m a huge fan of going ‘meta’ on my students…. helping them to develop their skills rather than focusing too closely on the authority and historical weight of political science writings. This activity is done early in the semester (political theory, freshman writing, political science courses)

Step 1: Have the students read Pericles’ Funeral Oration–this is Thucydides’ telling of the motivational speech regarding war, war death, and how to pay homage to those who fall.You could easily squeeze it in on a segment on political violence or causes of war (rally round the flag effect).

Step 2: Have the students mark up the text with the usual notes and outline of the argument. My favorite questions are always in play: What is the speaker trying to do? How is he trying to do it–what evidence? What is compelling?

Step 3: When they return to the next class period have them spend about 3 minutes reviewing their notes and their thoughts. Sometimes you can have them start their discussion in “pair and share.”  Now… here comes he magic…

Step 4: Hand out a copy of the Gettysburg Address and provide a brief explanation of the where and when of this address.

ricks3_142 2

Step 6: Have students do step 2 for the address but in class. You can have them work in pairs or on their own.

Step 7: Open the class to discussion. Have them compare and contrast the two speeches…. and discuss. ***cheat *****… if you want a head start… someone was kind enough to write this Foreign Policy Article.

Then…. watch…. as they start to synthesize…. see across texts…. If you want to expand this activity into a research activity–(a la Chad Raymond’s PBL in the prior posts) do the comparison near the end of class and generate questions for research. Usually you will find a few students asking: ‘Did Lincoln read Thucydides?’ Once you have your questions set, designate groups to return to the next class with answers…. it is a highly portable exercise that can be stretched to fit most courses.

**Analysis…. there’s something important in analyzing complementary arguments in addition to contrasting ones.

1. Specifically, it asks students to look with an even more refined eye at the texts to get under the deep assumptions to see if the two pieces really do agree. It is a much finer discussion with a higher degree of fidelity.

2. The assignment not only bootstraps two wonderful pieces of history into the student’s hands,  but in being complementary it adds a degree of historical timelessness. History does rhyme.

3. Contrasting assignments are less available to students for synthesis which is a skill we want our students to develop. In this sense, while politics tends to be cast as the great debates of history, this notion is somewhat overplayed.

4. Complementary assignments allows the students a basis for building theory and seeing how things are connected rather than isolating them as discreet instances in the human experience.

I’ll be offering a paper on game simulation and complementary and contrasting work  for teaching and learning conference next year (Philly 2014). Let’s hope I get in!

The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered

Last Friday in class a student asked me to explain the causes of the current global economic recession. It happened to be the same student who said the week before that I was turning her into a Marxist (to which I responded “it’s good to be a Marxist while you’re young, because when you’re older you won’t be able to afford it”).

So off I went on a twenty-five minute tangent on the inflationary real estate bubble in the USA, the securitization and outsourcing of bad debt, Greece’s economic collapse, and Ponzi schemes. Although I find such topics to be a lot more interesting than offensive and defensive realism, I was a little perturbed at the time at the unexpected derailment of my lesson plan for the day. I have not yet learned to embrace uncertainty when it comes to class preparation.

But since then I’ve read this piece about campus police beating students at Berkeley.

And this one by a Penn State alum and Iraq war veteran who has completely lost faith in the leadership of his parents’ generation.

I’ve emailed both to my students in the hopes that the articles will get them thinking and talking about something more important that the latest international relations theory.

From the mouths of babies (story books)…

Having finally been forced out of our Greek property so it can be sold off to help sort out the whole debt crisis thing, I’m back in the UK, enjoying the fine weather here.

As part of the long trip back, I had the pleasure of listening to a small number of children’s stories as audio books.  Being a good academic, always on the look-out for new ideas, my pleasure was only increased by thinking about these tales as learning resources.  The format has a number of advantages: they are relatively short and engagingly written; they set up open questions, rather than impose closed solutions; and they are easily shared among learners (pace copyright, of course).

The idea here is simply to use such stories as starting points for seminar discussions, as another way into some key political and philosophical questions. In my experience, beign stuck in a car for some hours listening to the same story several times over is an excellent way to start one’s own grappling with such points.

To take a couple of examples:

  • Is Fantatastic Mr Fox a fascist or a communist? At first glance, he’s neither, with his heroic deeds and putting one over the nasty farmers.  But his final gambit is to have all the creatures live under his rules and within his power: this collapsing of individual freedom under the guise of collective liberty speaks precisely to the heart of totalitarian regimes and offers students much scope to consider such ideas as the propaganda of the deed and othering.
  • What does the Reluctant Dragon tell us about the nature of rules in the International system?  Here we see a number of characters adopting social norms via a logic of approriateness to guide their actions, despite their unwillingness so to do, but it also suggests a higher set of objective values that must be complied with.  As such, it opens up a whole literature about constructionism and realism, as well as the more obvious aspect of hegemony and power.

I won’t pretend this holds good for all such stories (there’s very little to be drawn from Sandra Boyton’s excellent Belly Button Book, for example), but as a more accessible way into political theory and philosophy, it’s well worth a try.

PS: The kids’ birthdays have occasioned the purchase of more titles, which again (although I should stress, coincidentally) underline the idea here.  Treasure Island is an excellent description of the Logic of Collective Action, while Doctor Dolittle has some useful ideas about the importance of empathy and the perils of socialisation.