Informal Assessment of the Chasing Chaos Simulations 

A few general conclusions about the Chasing Chaos simulations that I’ve discussed previously:

Chasing ChaosStudents found the personal narrative of the Chasing Chaos book extremely engaging. Perhaps this is evidence that biographies and autobiographies should play a greater role in exposing students to unfamiliar people, places, and events. In an end-of-semester survey, students also commented that they thought the simulations were realistic and easy to understand. Some also said that they appreciated the way the simulations gave the entire class opportunities to interact even though each simulation lasted for only one to two class periods.

The briefing memos — in which students wrote about the assigned readings before each simulation — demanded too much creative thinking from students. Students simply never developed the ability to use information I provided to predict a potential future conflict and then recommend a response to it. As Bidisha Biswas and Agnieszka Paczynska note in their worthwhile recent article on teaching policy writing in PS, government agencies value employees who can analyze a situation and justify their recommended response to it in a clear, concise, relevant manner. To better give students practice in developing this skill, the briefing memo assignments probably should present students with a set conflict — perhaps the one described in each simulation’s intelligence report — to analyze and respond to, instead of requiring them to first fashion a hypothetical conflict themselves.

During the negotiation phase of the majority of the simulations, students abandoned their roles, so to speak, to try to achieve a unanimous agreement that would maximize the number of points earned toward their final grades. To me this is a good reason to simply eliminate the bonus-for-unanimous-agreement option. The downside of this change is that a truly competitive simulation in which not everyone can win might produce severe angst among students who have been raised in a culture of “everybody always wins because everybody is special.” On the other hand, students need to be introduced to reality at some point in their lives. In terms of my job security and career advancement, I am relatively well-insulated from the potential complaints of students whose narcissistic delusions of self-worth I punctured.

My last thought also relates to the potential cost to the instructor of using custom-made simulations. Due to declining enrollment and a change in the university’s core curriculum, I have no idea when I will next be teaching the course for which I developed these simulations. If I’m to avoid my labor going to waste, I’m going to have to figure out how to I can use the simulations in another course, which in itself means even more work on my part.

Cultural specificities in simulations

Dated cultural reference, for older readers

I’ve been very out of the office of late, with a short holiday with the family in Istanbul and now with a conference in Oslo. It’s all very cosmopolitan, as you might expect from the European partner in ALPS Blog.

As you’d also expect from me, it’s had me thinking about the role of culture in simulation games. By this, I’m understanding the way in which different cultural experiences play out within simulations.

This matters as a subject because simulations as a fundamental participant-led pedagogy, in which those participants/students create an individual and particular version of a social/political/whatever interaction, using the basic rules that the instructor provides. As such, culture is a necessarily omnipresent feature in simulations, at least in the sense of the participants’ individual characters and experiences.

However, I’m thinking here about something slightly different, triggered by my Istanbul trip.

My previous trip to the city was the first to a place with a strong cultural practice of haggling. Indeed, it was strong enough for me to make my first venture into film-making, with a little piece that records my pitiful first experience of this negotiating method, which I still play to students each year (to their general amusement).

Returning once again – and avoiding that particular vendor – I have been struck by the pervasiveness of haggling as a practice and the shift in approach required for a wide number of social interactions.

The question that occurred to me was what impact does this have on one’s general understanding of the kind of simulations we run, re-creating political interactions?

Precisely because participants are bringing their personal experiences to a simulation, it can sometimes be hard for them to bring the experiences of the roles that they are playing. This can cause any number of problems when trying to recreate a real-world scenario.

To that just one example, when I ran a game that asked students to play different agencies of the US federal government in putting together a foreign-policy document for an in-coming president, they all worked on the basis that all Americans want the same things, and so didn’t really get into the differences that obviously (to us) exist.

A couple of solutions to this present themselves, one inward-facing, the other outward.

When we want to make sure that participants are representing external cultures within our games, then we need to ensure that they have sufficient opportunity to internalise that culture. This is easy in larger games, where you can ask them to produce essays/papers or negotiating briefs that reflect the real-world actor’s dispositions, on which you can provide feedback. In smaller exercises, it’s more difficult, but you could either provide some key points on attitude (rather than policy per se), or else mark out red lines that effectively require a particular approach.

At the other end of the process, we can work with participants to draw out their personal reflection on the impact of their culture on their approach to a simulation. The obvious place to do this is in the debrief and feedback after the game, where we can build on their comments to strengthen their self-reflection.

Again, cultural elements are always going to be part of simulations, both because our participants have culture and because we want them to recreate cultural objects: the key thing is to be alive to this and to help them see how this works.

Online asynchronous simulations – challenges and opportunities

For the past month I’ve been running my first online, asynchronous simulation, as part of the INOTLES project. We’re now coming into the final stretch of the game, so I’m thinking about how it went.

The game itself has a set of states who have to find a modus vivendi between themselves. They look a lot like the EU, some East European places and Russia, but with various things changed, so we don’t just reproduce those places and their relations. Players are given a state, some basic stats and interests and then are left to it. Weekly cycles require everyone to post positions and/or actions by Friday lunch, and if I need to intervene, then I’ll post on Monday morning.

One option I didn’t model…

The practical experience has been rather salutary for me.

Beforehand, I knew that getting participation was going to be the real issue and so it’s proved. The closest participant is about 200 miles away and the furthest is more like 1000 miles distant: teams for states were deliberately mixed up, so anyone playing has had to invest quite some time, just to get their team active. It would be fair to say that not all teams managed this.

I’ve not pushed very hard on this, partly because I have little scope so to do, but also because I’m running this as part of a training trainers exercise, so I want the players to think about how they are going to handle similar situations themselves. It’s a bit jujitsu, but there’s enough there for it to work.

The second big issue has been the asynchronisity/asynchronousness/not playing all at the same time. A week might make sense from the perspective of busy people trying to sort out positions, but it means that in four weeks we’ve not moved very far, or very fast. That reinforces the problems of engagement and participation: without a pressing problem, who’s going to feel a urgent need to react?

And this feeds into a final issue, the very open-ended nature of the game itself.

I’ve kept away from IR-type games, because it seemed like there was a lot I was less comfortable with, plus the notion of trying to capture all that international actors can do to each other was a bit daunting, especially in a made-up scenario. However, colleagues in the project had expressed interest in a sim about the European neighbourhood, so in I plunged.

The paradox seems to me to be that by saying to players that they can do pretty much anything, they end up doing little. Perhaps if I’d limited it to diplomatic exchanges then that might have focused minds some more, but that doesn’t necessarily help in building understanding of the complex interplay of factors. Indeed, I almost feel like using the real-world case would have generated more buy-in, even if it would come at a price of heightened emotional factors.

In short, it’s not easy, building games, especially when you’re trying something new, regardless of how much you’ve done it before.

Once I finish the sim, I’ll debrief the players and use that to inform some redesigning (which is also why I’ve not posted any materials yet). In addition, I’m also getting my students here at Surrey to play the game, all through to Christmas, so I’ve got some scope to try out a couple of ideas on them.

By treating a sim as being in a state of permanent beta, I can live with the uncertainty, and I can plan for it. In part that’s possible because I’m as interested in the process of negotiation and of sims as I am in the substance of the game itself, but it requires a bit of fore-thought and a willingness to adapt on the hoof.

The Real Thing II

Moxie Real Thing 2For my international relations course this fall, I’m introducing a series of brief simulations — two class periods each. I’ve created a preparatory writing assignment that I call the “briefing memo” for each simulation. Here are the instructions:

You are employed by the Humanitarian Information Unit at the U.S. Department of State (HIU). A new President has been inaugurated, and the President’s senior foreign policy advisors want to identify potential areas of conflict around the world. The HIU has been assigned the task of providing these advisors with its assessment of locations that have a history of political and economic instability. Your job is to write a briefing memo for your superiors that does the following:

♦  Analyzes and references the information that is contained in the articles and reports that have been provided to you by HIU staff.
♦  Identifies reasons why conflict might occur in this location.
♦  Explain what form the conflict is likely to take if it does occur.
♦  Recommends in one sentence what the U.S. government’s response should be if conflict does occur.

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 two pages. Sources should be cited within the text rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Eggers, 87)”. The body of the memo should include sub-headings of “Overview” (one paragraph), “Conflict Scenario” (at least one paragraph), and “Recommendation” (one sentence).

I’ve linked these instructions with a sample memo on the course’s website.

Links to the entire Real Thing series:

Wealth Inequality Game

Here is a game that I recently ran in my class.  This was one of those occasions where I was thinking about how to teach a particular set of lessons, developed the game during the drive to campus, and decided to run it, half-baked as it was.  Despite that, it worked very well. As always, feel free to use and adapt in your classes–just let me know in the comments how it went!  A version of the below post was also recently published in the May 2014 ALIAS newsletter.

Wealth Allocation Inequality Game


This is a very simple game that helps illustrate some important ideas about wealth inequality, voting rules in international financial institutions, and the connection between wealth, merit, and fairness.

In the game, students must decide through discussion how to distribute a resource—a coin worth extra credit–amongst themselves.  In each round, there are a different amount of coins available for distribution, and the rules for distribution change.  At the beginning of the game, there are enough coins for everyone to have one, but they become scarcer as the game goes on, and those with more coins from prior rounds are given advantages that makes it easier for them to acquire coins in later rounds.  Those who receive fewer coins in early rounds are actually silenced in later rounds.

The point of the game is to illustrate how in the international economic system, wealth can beget wealth, and the power is in the hands of the wealthy.  Those who are poor tend to remain poor, and become voiceless in the discussion.  Using extra credit ties the exercise to students feelings about merit and fairness, and helps us explore the role of these qualities in wealth and the behavior of the wealthy.  Due to this, the game can easily be adapted to lessons on poverty, structural inequality, and even the political process of redistribution of income.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Give students a fun and engaging way to explore weighty concepts of global wealth inequality
  2. Provide an application of weighted voting that helps students understand how such rules matter in terms of outcomes.
  3. Illustrate one set of arguments on how rich countries stay rich and poor countries stay poor.
  4. Help students examine their thoughts and emotions about fairness and merit into and use it as a springboard for discussion about the obligations of wealthy states to poor ones.

 Equipment needed: some kind of monetary unit, such as fake coins, poker chips, printed money, etc., but with no value denoted on it.

# of students: tested fine with 20, but is easily scaled by size of the class; in very large classes you might split the students into groups by section to keep it manageable.

 Prior knowledge: none necessary, as this is an organic game (Kollars and Rosen 2013), but should be done in conjunction with a lesson on north-south relations and global inequality.  It can also work easily as an inroad for discussing poverty and inequality on a more local scale.

 Introductory Instructions: Tell the students that you are going to make a certain number of coins available for them to distribute amongst themselves, and that there will be several rounds to the game.  Each coin will have a set value of extra credit (EC) points (I structure my classes to be worth 10000 points so that EC is generally not overwhelming); the number of coins they have at the end of the game will determine how much EC they earn.

 Additional Instructions for the Instructor:  Do not tell students what each round is about; only tell them the rules. After you set the rules for each round, resist the urge to interfere in the discussion. In fact, studiously ignore the students until they have reached a decision for the round and inform you of that.  Don’t answer any of their questions, and don’t help them.  Instead, focus on recording their reactions and arguments so you can return to them for the debrief.

Students may want to redistribute their coins at various points in the game; it is up to you whether you want to let them.  I usually let them do so in between rounds, but not during.

 Gameplay:  The game has four rounds.  At the start of each round, you put a number of coins on a central table, instruct the students on the decision-making procedures, and then tell them the current value of the coins.  Feel free to change the rounds up and adapt to your group’s gameplay.  They always have the option to leave the coins in the common pool.  (You can, if you like, allow this to count as an investment, where coins in the common pool generate new coins for future rounds).

Round 1: Consensus + Plentiful Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = number of students in the class.  Decision on distribution of coins must be by consensus.  Coin value = 5 points of EC each.

Round 2: Majoritarianism + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = # of students/2.  Decision on distribution method must be made by majority rule vote; each student gets 1 vote.  Coin value =5 points of EC each.

At the end of Round 2, record the coin count of each student; this is needed for the next round.

Round 3: Weighted Voting + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available = # of students/2.  Decision on distribution method must be made by majority rule vote; each student gets a number of votes equal to the # of coins they have.  No redistribution of coins is allowed until after the round is over.  Anyone with zero coins at the start of this round has no votes, and in fact is not allowed to talk at all during the discussion. Coin value = 10 EC points each.

Round 4: Absolute Rulers + Scarce Resources

Rules: the number of coins available =# of students/4.  They are given directly to the two students with the highest # of coins; they may choose to redistribute them or not.  They can accept arguments from the other students, but the decision is entirely theirs; the coins belong to them and they can keep them if they wish. Coin value = 10 EC points each.


Following the Steinwachs (1992) model of debriefing, start with unpacking the emotional reaction to the game.  Frustration and anger can flare up during this game, if perceived ‘undeserving’ students get large amounts of extra credit, or if the EC is distributed equally and those with greater need feel slighted.  One the emotions get unpacked a bit, move on to the second stage: analysis.  Ask them about their decision-making process, focusing in particular on how they decided who should get EC—were they committed to equality, to rewarding students who had demonstrated merit (via strong class performance), or to helping those students in need (those who admitted to low grades)?  Did considerations of effort weigh on their minds?  Did some students sacrifice their own self-interest for the sake of others, and if so, why?  The third stage is where you connect the game back to the course material.  In an IR class, you might discuss how the game illustrated the concept of weighted voting, and whether that resulted in desirable outcomes.  Or you could discuss whether their anger at the results should be redirected toward the equivalent actors in the international system (that is, if the wealthy students refused to redistribute their EC, and this made them angry, are they also angry at wealthy states who only redistribute a small amount of their GDP?)  I also found it useful to discuss perceptions of the poor—particularly the commonly held belief that wealthy people have more money because they work harder, and poorer people are simply lazy.

A fourth stage of debrief is always useful in a new game: ask the students what aspects of the game help them understand these concepts, and which don’t, and get feedback so you can adjust the game for future incarnations.

 Adaptations, Applications and Related Exercises:

This game can easily be adapted to lessons in other courses, such as structural inequality, local or national poverty, and decision-making,

You can also run the game by creating fake students, or having students play a role, where the information is very stark and available.  So each player has a given percentage grade in the course which can be openly shared, and students can choose to allocate or not a pool of extra credit to individuals.  You can then also make the allocation pool up from given grades—so a student with a 90% can choose to award 10% points to someone with a 50% if they wish.  The abstract nature of this helps them put into perspective the amount of extra credit being awarded (a grade moving from 50% to 52% is generally viewed as more acceptable than a single student getting 170 points in coins while others only get 10 or 20), and allows us to look at the differences between awarding gains (an extra credit allocation pool) v. losses (where points must be redistributed from those who already earned them).

If using the game for global inequality, a good follow up exercise is the Global Inequality Game in the Jet Wiki, where students attempt to guess at the distribution of global population and wealth.  As that game is more informational, it serves as a nice follow up for this one.


Kollars, N. and Rosen, A.M. (2013) “Simulations as Active Assessment? Typologizing by Purpose and Source. Forthcoming in Journal of Political Science Education 9, 2 (2013).

Steinwachs, B. (1992). “How to Facilitate a Debriefing.” Simulation & Gaming 23(2): 186-95.

The Attack of Dr. X: Collective Security Role Play

Here’s a quick role play exercise that takes about 5 minutes and zero preparation.  Announce to the class that Dr. X down the hall (pick any faculty member, preferably someone they might know or who seems completely non-threatening) has just run into the classroom and randomly tried to tackle a member of the class.  Then ask them what they plan to do about it.  If they hesitate, you can start giving a play by play of what’s going on, and then prompt them again to see if someone is going to intervene.  Usually at this point if not sooner, a student or two announce that they will tackle Dr. X; others might offer to hold him/her down or kick them.  You can continue storytelling–maybe the first tackler gets roughed up a bit. Once five or six students have announced their actions, however, offers dry up as the threat seems to be handled.  Then start quizzing the students who were not quick to act on why–you will get a range of reasons, but at least one student will note that their efforts weren’t necessary.

That is, of course, your in to start a discussion about collective security and the problem of free-riding.  Their willingness to allow other students to handle the threat is exactly the kind of behavior we predict amongst sovereign states in a collective security arrangement, where as long as the threat is handled it is in no single state’s interest to expend the resources for that purpose.

I use this exercise whenever I discuss collective security; usually this is in the context of discussing the League of Nations and why it failed.  Its useful because it is very quick, requires no preparation for faculty or students, and is very effective in making the point.  As an ‘organic’ simulation (see Kollars and Rosen 2013), it allows students to show the truth and practice of the theory through their own actions before studying it formally–thus making them more likely to understand and accept the theory.  Plus, Dr. X can become a villain for the rest of the course, and you can constantly reference him/her whenever you need to discuss ‘threats’ to state systems.


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.