South China Sea Simulation: Part 3

One last post about the South China Sea simulation that I used in my Asia course last semester.  Previous posts are here and here.

Students found it much easier to accomplish different objectives than I thought they would, and as a result I set the rewards too high. Several students managed to earn 200 points in a course with a 1,500-point grading scale.

The most beneficial aspect of the simulation for me, the instructor, was using the debriefing as an iterative design tool. I asked, both in class and in a writing assignment, how well the simulation reflected contemporary relations between countries with competing claims to the South China Sea. Students provided me with a lot of excellent feedback about how to improve the simulation for the future:

  • Clarification about which country had claims to what islands. A table would suffice for this.
  • Students write something about the country to which they are assigned and in the process research the history behind the territorial claims. This would be an easy preparatory assignment to develop — each student writes some sort of memo or position paper, then each team collaborates on a single version, which is circulated among the other teams or presented to the class orally.
  • Account for the relative military and economic strength of each country, and include rewards for trade agreements rather than just for treaties about territorial claims. More difficult to pull off, but possible.
  • Create a more formal environment and employ a moderator for discussion among participants.
  • Better incorporate nationalistic sentiments of the actors — something I mentioned in my last post. Don’t really know how to do this, but . . .

Students thought the simulation ought to last the entire semester, with roles assigned at the beginning of the course. This would enable me to replace the Visualizing Cultures presentations, which suffered from a small class size and students’ inability to deliver interactive presentations, with a sequence of preparatory assignments, negotiation sessions, or both. Engagement with the topic over a longer period of time might result in greater learning. It might also cause students to develop an affiliation and identify more strongly with the actors they are playing.


South China Sea Simulation: Part 2

As promised in my last post, I’m going to talk about the mechanics of my South China Sea simulation, but I’m also going to go in a different direction because of the bombing in Manchester and Simon’s subsequent post.

As I’ve done in the past with some of my other classroom simulations, I created a set of objectives for each actor — in this case Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, the United States, and Vietnam. Each objective was associated with a number of points that contributed to a player’s final grade, but players’ objectives often conflicted with one another — a feature deliberately intended to reflect competing interests and force negotiation. All of the objectives involved which Asian nation-state would be granted sovereignty over which territories. Although I gave actors the option to engage in military action, I specified probabilities that such actions would be successful. For example, an attack by the Philippines against a specific target had a 1:6 chance of succeeding, while acting in concert with U.S. forces had increase the chances of success to 2:3. However, an attack risked involving the Philippines in a regional war, the probability and costs of which I left completely vague. This uncertainty seemed to have beneficially made students reluctant to use military force, unlike my experience with some other simulations.

Given the number of contested islands and overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, the entire set of objectives and payoffs was rather complicated to create, but the complexity forced students to become much more familiar with the area’s geography, which I think was also plus.

I will discuss what went wrong with the simulation in the near future, but I will mention here — and this is what relates to Simon’s post — what I see as a failure that I often witness in my geographically-situated simulations: because of the point rewards, students very quickly become rationally-acting deal-makers. Nationalist and ethnic identities that the simulations are supposed to model quickly get tossed out the window. In the language of simulations, players find it easy to abandon their roles. In the real world, Vietnamese and Chinese policies reflect a strong sense of nationalism, and the two states would never agree so easily on who owns the Paracels. If they did, there would not be a conflict to simulate. Continue reading

The Change All Around, Part 1

The spring semester is about to begin, and as usual I have changed what I will be doing and how I will be doing it. I thought it might be interesting for the dear readers of this blog to learn about some of the factors that will affect my teaching over the next few months. But just to be contrarian, I’ll start in reverse chronological order:

I’ve decided to use Michelle’s technique of placing simulations at the end of the semester when both students and I will be approaching burnout mode. I have done a complete redesign of my comparative politics course, dropping the themes in favor of more traditionally-presented content like the diverse institutional arrangements of democracies. In an attempt to get at this topic, I have resurrected my Gerkhania simulation, but have tweaked it to give it more structure. First, I will assign students roles that have different ethnically-oriented, two-sentence backstories. The class will then convene as the Gerkhanian Commission for National Reconciliation, which has the following tasks: Continue reading

Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

Continue reading

Arts and Crafts day… aka Exploring Global Inequality and Poverty

This is a guest post from Leanne Powner, Visiting Assistant Professor in Government at Christopher Newport University.  Leanne is also the author of the Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide.

To begin my unit on global poverty and inequality in Introduction to International Relations, I asked students to pick a poor country from a list that I provided and use the World Bank World Development Indicators databank to extract information on population, GDP, and GDP per capita, as well as the composition of the national economy (percent from industry, services, and agriculture). We then constructed scale models of the size and composition of the economies out of three colors of crepe paper; they input their GDP and composition data into a Google spreadsheet which calculated the length of the streamers. Students attached the streamers to a sheet of paper showing the country name, GDP, GDP per capita, and population, and we taped them to the board. We compared these to ones I had made showing the US, Russia, and the Philippines (middle-income). This all seemed fine – the US’s was a bit excessive (see below) – until I explained that the scale on their models was 10 times greater than the scale of mine. 20151119_161829Their 29 cm streamer would have been 2.9 cm using the scale for the US/etc ones. I drew this on one of the posters to demonstrate and showed them a model for Ethiopia (a low-income country) on the same scale as the US and Russia.

The difference in streamer lengths was staggering and really gave students a good idea of how relatively wealthy the US is. When presenting the streamers that I had made, I taped them to the bottom of the projector screen and presented them in the order of Philippines, Russia, US. The R
ussia one trailed on the floor, but after taping the US one to the screen, I retracted the screen up to the ceiling…. then rolled the ball of crepe paper all the way to the back of the classroom…. and then all the way back to the front again…. and there was still a pile of crepe paper left on the floor. Ethiopia’s, in contrast, was only about 6″ long. It was an absolutely priceless teaching moment for $3 in dollar-store crepe paper.

The basic spreadsheet, which includes a sheet that calculates streamer length from student data, can be found here. I am happy to share additional materials from this project on request to .

ICONS Crisis in North Korea

Here is a review of the ICONS Crisis in North Korea simulation:

Kim FatheadSubjects: 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.

Applicable readings

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.

Logistical considerations

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.

Materials needed

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.

Instructor preparation

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.

Student 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.

Game play:

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.

Instructor tips

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.

Sample assignments

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.

Good penmanship optional during debriefing
Good penmanship optional during debriefing


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.