Making Games As Teaching Tools

Today we have a guest post by Dr. Andrew Biro, Head of the Department of Politics, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at andrew [dot] biro [at] acadiau [dot] ca.

Chad Raymond recently wrote a couple of posts (herehere, and here) about having students create board games based on course content. I did something similar in my Politics of Water class last fall, as a capstone exercise in the last couple of weeks of the course. It was a fun way to end the course, and by inviting high school students to play the games, it gave my students the sense that they really could use games to engage in a teaching exercise.

Students worked in groups of 4-6 to design a board game that incorporated some “lesson” from the course. The course is rather eclectic. Topics include geopolitical conflicts over water, municipal water privatization, engineering mega-projects (big dams), and gendered access to water in the household. This gave students lots of choices, and they produced eight fairly diverse games. Continue reading

Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia:

Simulating the Bargaining Model of War

Dr. Kyle Hanes is our guest contributor this week.  An assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, he describes a game he created to simulate the bargaining model of war.  Full instructions on his simulation can be found in his October 2015 PS: Political Science & Politics article.

The bargaining model of war has become so central to scholarly work on interstate conflict that, I would argue, it should be incorporated into even introductory IR courses. The bargaining model’s logic is intuitive and compelling, but even treatments of it in introductory textbooks rely on formal notation that can confuse or alienate many students. I can still hear the crickets echoing through my classroom as I excitedly asked students to explain why “State B will accept any offer greater than 1 – p – c.”

In trying to cut through this notation to explain the bargaining logic and “incentives to misrepresent,” I would often fall back on the logic of gambling. Misrepresentation is, in effect, bluffing. And even if most students don’t host a weekly card game, the majority are at least vaguely familiar with the logic of bluffing in poker. Why does a poker player make a large bet with a weak hand? Doing so might allow them to win the pot without even having to show their cards. Ultimately, it’s the same reason why states exaggerate their military power or willingness to fight over a disputed piece of territory. Over time, I developed this metaphor into a simple, in-class card game that illustrates the core logic of the bargaining model of war. The game is fun, simple, and engages students directly in the bargaining logic. The game’s rules and parameters are extremely flexible, and can be adapted to highlight different components of the bargaining model’s logic.

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Start the way you mean to finish (and continue)

It’s the middle of the summer and I don’t teach again until late August. But, I am thinking about first days. It’s an important day of class, but it’s easy to treat it as a throwaway class (that’s certainly how most students seem to see it).syllabus

What do you do? Most of us probably do the usual: go over the syllabus (to some degree or another), answer questions, do an icebreaker, and some of us might start teaching (to our students’ chagrin)

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Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 2, Benefits of Simulations

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series aimed at newcomers to using simulations and games in their classroom.  Part 1 introduced the series and focused on how to reduce the workload required in the design and use of these pedagogies.

Skepticism is a pretty standard attitude that we face when trying to convince instructors to try simulations and games in their classes.  Beyond the issues of workload and time that cause new adopters to hesitate, there is a more basic problem: convincing instructors that simulations and games have any place at all in a classroom traditionally dominated by lecture and discussion.

I won’t bury the lede: the ALPS team are all strong proponents of the value of simulations and games in the classroom.  That being said, we are also very aware of the limits of these pedagogies, and one of us publishes consistently on the failures of simulations.  So we are not die-hard true believers. I’m going to focus this post on highlighting some of the benefits of using simulations–such as increasing interaction, engagement, and skill-building opportunities– and then turn to a potential limit–the lack of solid evidence that they improve learning.

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Zendo Revisited: A Simple Methods Game for Large Classes

Zendo is a methods game that is the subject of the very first post I wrote for ALPS back in 2011. Since then, I have used it regularly on the first day of my research methods course.  Among its many advantages is that it helps reduce the anxiety students face on their first day of methods (a well-documented issue; at least six articles in recent years reference this concern) by having their first activity being a game.  The game itself allows students to engage in hypothesis generation and testing and begin to understand issues of generalizability and scholarly collaboration. It is a great introductory activity, but its utility has been limited due to the necessity of purchasing the physical pieces required for play.  Until now, that is! We now have a way of playing Zendo that requires no pieces and works for large classroom settings as well as small.

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TLC 2016: Highlights from the Simulations and Games Track

Most of the ALPS team reunites this weekend for the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Portland, Oregon. As usual, we are all on the Simulations and Games Track, sharing the latest on new games and simulations for teaching political science and discussing principles of design, evaluation, application, and assessment.

A few highlights so far:
–Victor Asal’s ‘Running Game’, which has students race to the front of the classroom facing an increased series of structural constraints (in the form of TAs given a head start). It’s a quick exercise that helps explore issues of structure, rational action, culture, and grievance.
–Michelle Allendoerfer worked with two undergraduates to create a multi-day comparative politics simulation looking at state building in a region of ethnic division and scarce resources.

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Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge

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.

How to Play:

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The Wicked Games We Play: A Review of Agenda

Today’s post is from Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University.

Agenda BoardMany 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.

Agenda MoralistAs 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.

A Quick Exercise on Confirmation Bias and Hypothesis Testing

This neat exercise featured on the New York Times takes a few seconds to play and includes a neat set of examples of how confirmation bias impacts government policy and corporate America.

Basically, you are presented with 3 numbers in a sequence, and asked to guess the rule that governs the sequence. You can enter in any 3 numbers you like, and the system will tell you whether or not your sequence follows the rule or not. When you are ready to guess, you enter it in but you receive no second chances. Apparently 78% of people make a guess without getting a single ‘no’–and most get the rule wrong.

The example in the NY Times is ‘2, 4, 8’. A number of possible rules could come to mind–must contain multiples of 2, or even numbers, or that the number doubles the one before it. The actually rule in this case is even simpler: the number must be larger than the one before it, meaning that ‘4, 8, 16’ works, but so does ‘1, 10, 3593’.

They don’t mention it in the article, but this exercise can adapted to teach hypothesis testing. Used in class, you can put the sequence on the board and have students suggest other sequences, which you then judge as either following or not following the rule. They have to use this information to come up with the right answer.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because one of the very first entries on this blog was about the board game Zendo, which does precisely this, only with physical pieces rather than numbers. I still use Zendo on day 1 of my methods class, and find it a really useful tool for teaching a variety of methodological skills. This numerical version is a great, easy activity to pull out for a quick fix on helping students with their logical thinking.