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. 

Poverty Games, Part 8: Syrian Journey

There is a new game available today through the BBC (and thanks to Kathie Barrett for the tip!): Syrian Journey: Choose your own Escape Route. This is a typical choose-your-own-adventure style online text game, where you read a situation and make a choice between two or three possible options, see the results, and choose again. In the simulation, you and your family are forced to leave Damascus during the current conflict and are seeing asylum in Europe. The choices you make determine whether you are captured by the authorities, get separated from your family, or get everyone to your intended destination.

Was anyone else obsessed with these in the 1980s, or was that just me?

The game is based on stories of real refugees from Syria, and therefore works as a quick and easy way to get students thinking about what faces refugees in these conflicts. It pairs nicely with Against All Odds, as there are more decisions about who to trust and how much risk to take, and many of the pathways end in complete defeat. In AAO, passing a level means success, so failure feels more like a function of poor player performance; in Syrian Journey, it is your choices that lead to failure, and failure often means death or separation from your family. This creates a real opportunity for reflection. For example, at one point you must decide whether to leave your hiding spot in to get supplies. If you do, there is a chance you will be seen and turned in to the authorities. If you don’t, nothing happens right away…but later on, a crowded boat to Italy capsizes, and if you failed to get supplies, you and your family drown. In another example, you have the option of saving a mother and child struggling in the water, but doing so could cost you your chance of escape from the authorities.

Syrian Journey takes only a few minutes to play through a single storyline of 6 or 7 steps, and ten or fifteen minutes to try all the different options. It is a quick way to introduce students to some of the human costs of the conflict in Syria, or as part of a lesson on refugees and human rights. It could work either as a homework assignment, or as a class activity, with students voting on which option to take.

Previous Entries in the Poverty Games Series:
Part 1: Ayiti the Cost of Life

Part 2: 3rd World Farmer

Part 3: Free Rice

Part 4: Spent

Part 5: Inequality Monopoly

Part 6: Papers, Please

Part 7: Against All Odds

Poverty Games, Part 7: Against All Odds

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.

Previous Posts in this series

Part 1: Ayiti, the Cost of Life

Part 2: 3rd World Farmer

Part 3: Free Rice

Part 4: Spent

Part 5: Inequality Monopoly

Part 6: Papers, Please!


Putin and ObamaThere 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, herehere, 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.

Mission U.S.: Teaching History through Games

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the first annual CUNY Games Festival in New York.  The conference brought together academics and game designers to discuss means and methods of using games in higher education.  For me it was certainly a ‘these are my people!’ gathering and while I enjoyed presenting my own work (on my interdisciplinary World of Warcraft course), the highlight was learning about a variety of games that are available and useful for the college classroom.  Ill be posting about many of them in the coming weeks.

The first is Mission U.S, a series of free online games aimed at teaching American history to 5th-8th graders.    Designed by historians, each of the three games casts you as a fictional character at a crucial time in history–as a printmaking apprentice on the eve of the American Revolution in Boston; as a young slave in 1848, or as a Northern Cheyenne boy in 1866. They are all essentially single-player role playing games.  The major events are set (you cannot, for example, prevent the Boston Massacre) but you are free to take sides and actions as you choose.  For example, in the first Mission, you can choose your words or actions to support the Sons of Liberty, or to remain loyal to the British.

The games are most appropriate for history courses, but could also certainly be used as an out-of-class assignment to inform introductory or niche courses in American Politics.  For example, I always start my introduction to American Politics course with the historical background preceding the Revolution and the creation of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. The first mission could either substitute or complement that lecture, and really set the stage for students to understand the complaints of the colonists and how their experiences informed the writing of those documents.

I also quite enjoyed the gameplay.  Despite the pitch at a younger audience, the games would work quite well for the college crowd.  The interface is easy to use; the gameplay fairly simple but filled with interesting choices that impact the game (the path you choose does matter in terms of options available to you later); and the graphics pleasing.  The games are divided into chapters, which makes it easy to assign concrete chunks to students, and you are free to save the game at any time.  The creators also made educational guides for instructors available, which include lesson plans, learning goals, how-to guides, and cheat sheets.

Again, this is a niche game, and political science professors may find more value in playing it for their own interest and refresher than as an assignment to students.  It may be something to pass on to your colleagues in history–but it also may prove useful in various American Government courses.

Scales of Injustice

ScalabilitySimon Fink discussed the scalability of an EU simulation in terms of its duration. I’m running into a scale problem in terms the number of participants. For the second year in a row, I’m using Statecraft in an introductory international relations course. Last year I had thirty-four students; this year I have only thirteen. The buzz of activity in this year’s classroom is noticeably less than it was last year; however, last year it was obvious that, with teams of five or six students, often one or two students weren’t very engaged in the proceedings. I have seen this passivity happen in other simulations as well.

This suggests that, absent highly-structured roles for individual team members and a clear system of individually-based rewards and penalties, many simulations probably have a sweet spot for group size — perhaps three students per team. If one student is absent, then there are still two others present to collaborate. If all three are present, the group is still small enough for everyone to want to participate and for no one to be able to hide.

Unfortunately I find it extremely inconvenient to wait until I have a firm idea of class size before deciding whether to use a particular simulation. I also don’t want to build a syllabus around a few simulations and then have to discard them when enrollment goes up or down. This makes a simulation’s scalability in terms of number of participants very important to me.

Poverty Games, Part 6: Papers, Please

Papers, Please explores the challenges of immigration from the perspective of a low-income border checkpoint officer in the fictional country of Arztotska.  The player must make decisions about who to let into the country, examining their documents, trying to weed out potential terrorists, and confronting moral dilemmas on whether or not to help those that may lack the proper paperwork but desperately need assistance.  Each day new requirements are set on who can and cannot enter (one day a passport is enough, the next entrants need ID cards and work visas) based on various story elements, and there are multiple endings possible that result from the decisions made by the player.  Meanwhile, you also must consider accuracy and speed: your salary is based on how many people you correctly process, and failure to earn enough will result in being unable to make rent, heat your home, or provide medicine for sick relatives.  In my first time through the game, all of my family members died because I was too slow in processing entrants.  Thus there are numerous competing moral dilemmas: if I incorrectly process someone on purpose, I will help them, but my family will suffer; too many mistakes, and I will earn enough citations to be fired.

As one example: a woman came into the booth and all of her paperwork was in order–she was entering the country to work.  But as she left she handed me a note which indicated that a man behind her in line had tricked her and was forcing her and her sister into prostitution.  She begged me to keep the man from entering the country, even though his paperwork was in order as well.  Keeping him out would earn me a citation and I would not get paid for his processing, so I chose to let him in.  The news report the following day indicated that she died at the brothel. Human trafficking is therefore part of the story as well.

Papers, Please is a neat game, therefore, that will expose students to some of the challenges operating a border and some of the ways in which international relations (between Arztotska and its neighbors) trickle down to everyday life.  There is also the fascinating set of moral quandrays that you face and can raise questions about justice and the law.  It would work really well as a homework assignment prior to a class session on issues of immigration in general, human trafficking, terrorism, asylum, and authoritarianism.

The gameplay has a bit of an upfront learning curve, but then evens out.  I would recommend having students play through a couple of days just to get used to the procedures, and then load a new game to play for real.  The beta version of the game, which lets you play through about 8 days of the 30 available in the full version, is free here.  There is a full version for PC and Mac available for $10 if you want to have students play through everything.

Earlier entries in the Poverty Games Reviews series:

Part 1: Ayiti the Cost of Life

Part 2: 3rd World Farmer

Part 3: Free Rice

Part 4: Spent

Part 5: Inequality Monopoly