Simulating Stubbornness

Don’t be one (or at least not in a simulation)

We talk a lot on this blog about the beauty of simulations for producing rich and varied environments in which to immerse students. We also talk a lot about how ‘failure’ is usually as valid a learning point as ‘success’ in these games: the inability to reach the nominal objective is a valuable learning moment.

But as I’ve been reading for my other work, I realise there’s a different category of political phenomenon that we have more trouble in capturing: the (pre-planned) impasse.

Let me give you the example that triggered this thought, to illustrate.

As you’ll know – if you live in Europe, at least – Greece’s economy has suffered grievously over the past few years, as a result of the 2008 crisis and (more pertinently here) the strict austerity regime imposed by creditors. The election last month of a radical-left government has since led to efforts to recast that austerity regime into something else.

It would be fair to say that all sides are deeply dug in: the Greeks say the current situation is untenable, the creditors say they won’t wear anything else. As so, after a rather brief meeting last night of finance ministers, there was another failure to agree.

Now my cynical side (yes, I do have one) says that this is all part of the game: you act tough, we act tough, then we reach the settlement we knew we would at the outset, but we can assuage our constituents about it all. It’s a bit the logic of my own austerity game, where heads of government have scope to bluster.

However, from a simulation point of view, it’s actually really tricky to recreate this kind of behaviour. In the real world, actors are not bound to a discrete forum of action, nor to a timetable (although there is nominally one in the Greek case): this means their capacity and willingness to not try for a resolution is greater than normal.

If we were trying to run a game of the Greek situation, then we might have a finance ministers’ meeting, but either we reach an agreement (which might not be very realistic), or we don’t (in which case we have to talk about what happens next). What we probably can’t do is run another meeting, and another, so that we can capture the iterative dynamics of it all, nor the way in which we eventually reach compromise.

In short, politics isn’t built for the convenience of the academic calendar.

So what to do? Three ideas present themselves.

First is to just live with it, and note that a game’s failure to reach agreement is lifelike, but also unrealistic in that real-world actors get many more bites of the cherry.

Second is to try to build in rounds of negotiation into a game. The danger here is that you end up covering the same ground multiple times, and that your players might ‘solve’ the problem early on, in which case you have a bunch of time on your hands (although some crisis could easily be invented to upset things).

Third option is to not try to play out the scenario, but rather to get students to apply their knowledge of negotiation/politics/etc to the real-world situation and suggest ways that the different actors could progress things. Those suggestions might be presented as a negotiation brief or some other forum.

This last idea has some interesting advantages. Most importantly, it forces students to articulate negotiation strategy more explicitly (so you can evaluate it), as well as connecting conventional research with an active project.

Finally, trying this last approach is not site-specific: you can use it with a whole range of political events. I’m sure that a moment’s reflection will bring to mind an example of a political institution or process in your area of interest that isn’t working to its full potential, so use that. Easier than building a full simulation, but still with those elements of active engagement that we like so much.

Game Lecture on European Democracy: guest post from Jaap Hoeksma

The debate about the future of the EU has been dominated for decades by the dilemma whether the process of European integration should lead to the creation of a sovereign state of Europe or result in a Europe of sovereign states. As recently as 2005 the Belgian politician Paul Magnette published a study under the title: What is the European Union?1 In a rare twist of logic the author refrained from answering the question he posed in the title of his book. Seven years onwards Rosas and Armati concluded their widely acclaimed study on EU Constitutional Law by expressing serious doubt as to whether the EU can ever be defined.2

Friedrich Nietzsche should be remembered for giving his successors a sound piece of advice. The German philosopher suggested that, if you encounter a problem which can not be solved, by no means whatsoever, you should turn in into a game.3 Treading in his footsteps I decided to turn the unidentifiable and unsolvable European Union into a board game, called Eurocracy.euro1

On the board, the EU member states are portrayed according to their size with 1 to 4 cities. Players represent political parties competing for power. They embark on a continuous election campaign through the EU. They obtain Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) by winning municipal elections. Other parties landing on the same city may challenge them in fresh elections, which are democratically decided by the throw of the dice. The may also deal and swap cities in order to get entire countries. The first player to command a qualified majority in the European Parliament, wins the game and is proclaimed President of the European Union…..on condition of sufficient support in the European Parliament.

Eurocracy is played with six persons per game. When played in the class room, the winners on each table are invited to engage in a Speech Battle. They have to deliver a speech in which the propose their priorities on taking office. During this part of the event, the other pupils assume the role of the European Parliament and decide which winner will be the ultimate EU-President.

euro2After play, the teacher/trainer/professor invites the participants to engage in a debate about the EU. Is the EU a state or an organisation of states? What are the characteristics of the Union? Are there differences with other regional organisations and, if so, can you name these differences.

By asking and further questioning, the group arrives at the point where the problem must be faced as to whether the EU fits or does not fit in the Westphalian system of International Relations. This moment constitutes the turning point. It depends on the time available how many minutes or hours are spent on the Westphalian system. It forms the basis of the Organisation of the United Nations and underlies the distribution of international justice. Moreover, it sets the rules for the global financial markets. Currencies function on the basis of the Westphalian paradigm.

However, when the distinguishing qualities of the EU are compared with those of states on the one hand and those of organisations of states on the other hand, it becomes instantly clear that the Union is neither a state nor an international organisation. The implication of this conclusion is that the Westphalian paradigm has lost explanatory value with respect to the EU. As it is a general academic rule that obsolete paradigms have to be replaced, the Westphalian paradigm in international relations should also be substituted with a new one. Since the European Union exists of both citizens and member states, the diplomatic perspective of international relations should be replaced with the civic approach of democracy and the rule of law.

From this point of view, the common feature of all EU member states is their respect for democracy and the rule of law. The famous Copenhagen-criteria for the accession of new member states stress that they should fulfil stringent criteria of human rights and democracy. As the essence of democracy is that the citizens are the authors of the laws, which they themselves must respect, it would appear that this principle has also bearing on the governance of the EU. This line of thought leads to the discovery of the Law of Democratic Integration. Whereas the Westphalian system prescribed that the EU should either become a sovereign state of Europe or establish itself as a Europe of sovereign state, the Law of Democratic Integration holds that, if two or more democratic states decide to share the exercise of sovereignty in a number fields with a view to attain common goals, the organisation they create for this purpose should also be democratic.

At this juncture it becomes possible to draft a Citizens’ Definition of the EU. Beyond the Westphalian paradigm the European Union may be defined as a democratic polity of citizens and member states. The distinctive quality of this polity is that the citizens are entitled to participate in the national democracies of their countries and in the common democracy of the Union.

Martin SCHULZ EP President
EP President Martin Schulz happy to show the Citizens’ Definition of the EU!

In conclusion, it may be suggested that the term ‘common democracy’ is of primordial importance for the EU. Whereas the term is void of meaning in the old Westphalian paradigm, it is obvious from the new perspective that the EU is evolving from a common market to a common democracy.

To visit the game and the present author you may go to:

1 Paul Magnette, What is the European Union?, London 2005

2 Allan Rosas and Lorna Armati, EU Constitutional Law, Oxford 2012

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Leipzig 1908

There goes the neighbourhood

Who can you trust these days?

Over the past few months, I’ve been playing an online, asynchronous game with a couple of different groups.

One of these is the INOTLES trainers that I’m training in the use of simulations, while the other is my final year undergraduate students here at Surrey.

As we come towards the end of the INOTLES cycle, I thought I’d finally share my game with you (Neighbourhood Game) and would talk about how it worked.

The game is essentially a simple model of the EU’s Eastern relations, with a three country Union, a big unhelpful country that likes to exert its influence, and a couple of smaller states in-between. In the attached version, I’ve put two players per country, but that can easily be expanded.

The gameplay is very open, with lots of options for activity, coupled to a long period in which to play (using a weekly cycle of posting on a forum).

The aim is to get students thinking about collective action problems in an international context, as well as to cope with the vagaries of online discussion: the INOTLES version has been running with players from six countries.

So how’d it go?

In a word, fitfully.

Online games require a hook, to keep people involved and active. My ability to do this with the INOTLES group was less than with my students (who I see every week for class), but in both cases the level of engagement has been less than with comparable face-to-face exercises. In short, the ability to coerce action is very limited.

That in turn highlights the importance of the game leader in motivating players: if you’re not pushing, then who’s going to do it for you? Again, the online nature of the game means that it’s easy to forget to prod people, and this is something that I’d say needs careful thought.

A second issue seems to be linked to the openness of the game play. Because players can do pretty much anything from writing a terse communique to launching world war 3, I’ve noted a certain hesitancy about doing anything. This ‘jam choice overload‘ problem is well-known in psychology, but raises an interesting problem for us. Too much choice might be inhibiting, but it also reflects the real world, so we might want players to feel inhibited. As always, this will depends much on what you aim to achieve.

Thirdly, while this is a fictional situation, it is also obviously close to the real-world (I took most of the data from real countries). This adds a different dimension to the game, as people apply what they know of that real-world into their actions. Thus Novy Putonova acts rather like Russia, Bigistan like Germany and the Squashed Republic like Ukraine. To be more accurate, people acted like they thought those countries act like. This offers lots of opportunity to get into a discussion about how we understand the real world: are Russians really that sneaky, to take one obvious example? Either way, it opens a door to discussion of the substantive material.

On the level of skills, there is also a lot to think about. How did people work in their teams? How did they deal with each new development? How much did they try to take control of what was happening? How did they cope with some groups being very passive/silent? Again, in all of this, the large range of possible actions meant that there was also a big question about why they chose to do what they did, and not something else?

Next steps

This game has been a trial for me (in at least one sense of the word). It’s been my first effort in this type of game and, as always, I’m not totally happy with it.

On the plus side, players have played, and it’s shown that one can model an international system with some quite simple elements. Feedback to date from both groups has been positive and – importantly – I can see how I would change things in future.

On the down side, engagement has been relatively low (compared to face-to-face) and my input has been more than planned. The inhibition to take more drastic action in either game (they’ve largely been polite and pretty constructive) means that I don’t know how the more radical options might play out.

With my students, I now plan to use our final session before the Christmas break to play the game in class for a couple of hours, to connect it more strongly to the rest of the module, and to let me see how that changes the interactions.

If you’d like to use the game, please do – I’ve popped it up on my other website already. If you’d like to feedback on how it works for you, then I’d also love to hear about that.

Twine 3

Twine ScreenshotTen days ago I posted about using Twine, an open-source program, to involve first-year seminar students in the creation of digital interactive texts. Four days ago I posted a follow-up about rubrics and learning outcomes for the course. Now The New York Times has published a long feature story about Twine, complete with examples like Depression Quest that demonstrate the ease with which the software can be used to create “challenging games about subjects many people would prefer to avoid.”

Building Blocks

Twine BallsHave you ever organized an entire course around a single type of simulation? I decided to do exactly this after hearing Nick Vaccaro discuss the use of digital interactive texts at the 2014 TLC. These texts, which are structured like the choose-your-own-adventure books that some of us read as children, are built with Twine, an open-source software program.

In a new first-year seminar, I’ve assigned three non-fiction books about which teams of students produce Twines. I rotate students into different teams for each book, which means that at three points in the semester they assess group dynamics and evaluate each other’s performance in their teams. These worksheets derive from my initial attempt to facilitate team collaboration with in-class writing exercises and so far they seem to be working as intended — as mechanisms for student self-reflection. On the days that teams’ final Twines on a book are due, each team scores another team’s work according to a rubric, which saves me time.

Overall the seminar is organized to function as a meta-application of its topical content: decision making during disasters. Although no team has suffered the equivalent of a civil war or tsunami, there are a handful of students who rarely say anything in class, whether to me or their classmates. Having announced at the beginning of the semester that what one gets out of college is a function of what one puts into it, I made the deliberate decision not to obsess about their lack of engagement with the social aspects of learning. In this particular case, it’s an easy decision to make: individual writing assignments account for a large portion of the final grade and the students who don’t talk also don’t write, or they write very badly without any effort toward improvement. If they aren’t interested in learning how to learn, there is not much I can teach them.

Logic Model Redux

Tree DiagramLast week I had an opportunity to revisit logic models in my course on economic development, where students are working on team projects. I created an exercise designed to show that logic models are a really just a method of mentally organizing answers to the following questions:

  • Why do the project?
  • What does the project involve?
  • How should the project be done?

At the beginning of the semester, I gave students a guide to logic models and had them fill out blank versions in class. Afterward they discussed their thoughts with teammates to identify requirements for the project and create a general game plan for completing it.

In the middle of the semester, students attended a presentation by Mike Behan of Root Capital. Mr. Behan’s presentation serendipitously included an image of a simple logic model, which inspired me to distribute the blank logic model diagram in class once again. I gave students five minutes to write as much as they could in each of the logic model’s boxes, without referring to notes or other resources. After five minutes, students congregated with their teammates to discuss the boxes that they found difficult to complete.

At the end of the exercise, I told students that they needed to have a clear idea of how the different components of their projects fit within the framework of the logic model. If team members found parts of the model too fuzzy and too ill-defined to quickly describe in writing, that was a strong signal that the project would not succeed and that its design needed improvement.


Response to The Real Thing

Fake CokeTracy Lightcap wrote a great comment on The Real Thing. I’ll respond here. He raises three important points about skill development:

  1. When students are working in teams on a collaborative project, often their first instinct is to separate the project into discrete tasks and assign responsibility for the completion of each task to a different each team member. At the end of the semester, students mash the pieces together to produce a malformed whole. None of the students learn the entire process that the project is supposed to teach.
  2. In courses designed around team-based projects, students might not get enough opportunities to adequately learn any single skill.
  3. The prevalence of (1) and (2) can lead to senior seminar or capstone courses that become experiences in emergency triage. Since students did not develop the requisite skills in their first years of college, the instructor is left to focus on one particular skill used in the discipline that he or she thinks students must acquire before graduating.

Although I haven’t completely solved (1), I do scaffold team projects around initial individual assignments that are intended to improve students’ information literacy and prevent free riders. The assignment I use most often is a variation on the analysis of an academic journal article. I often follow this up with what I call an information synthesis, in which I ask each student to read items in his or her team’s reading list and compare them to what he or she wrote in the article analysis in the following fashion:

  • How does the information relate to your team’s project?
  • What perspectives and solutions do these readings suggest are important to the project?
  • What pitfalls or obstacles might your team encounter as it works on the project?

As for (2), I never make a team-based project worth more than about one-third of the final grade, and the project-related individual assignments like the journal article analysis compose a part of that one-third. The final document that represents the culmination of the team’s work accounts for only five to ten percent of the course grade. An equally-sized chunk of the grade consists of spaced repetition in skills such as constructing evidence-based arguments.

Regarding (3), I know of one colleague whose students finally learn — as seniors — how to generate correct citations.

Links to the entire Real Thing series: