Evetrything I learnt about norms, I learnt from zombies…

I’ve finally succumbed to the virus that is zombie sims. As Dan Drezner has extensively developed, zombies sometimes appear to be as important in IR as realism, but until now I’ve stayed away, mainly because I mis-spent my youth reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica, rather than watching ‘Dawn of the Dead.”

However, after discussion with my class last week, we agreed that we’d play one more game for our negotiation module, so it was an opportunity to do something more ‘fun’ with them, so I bit the bullet and went with a Zombie scenario that’s now up on my How To Do Simulation Games website.

The game is essentially one of disease control, with moral hazards thrown in: what do you do with the infected? how do you balance moving people out of danger with the risk of panic and spreading infection further?

For a game that I’ll freely admit was thrown together in short order, it went well, with different groups dealing with various aspects of a zombie outbreak, here in Guildford. My last-minute introduction of a crisis element, with a map that updates every 15 minutes, also helped to move things along and expose some new dimensions to the game-play, although I would want to think again about how that is used for next time. There was a certain levity to it – with Gary Barlow roped in to front TV specials on dealing with zombies, and nukes being discussed within the hour – but generally there was an interesting discussion that helped pull together much of what we’d covered in the module.

However, one aspect that did emerge was the role of norms and values. As one student put it in the debrief: “if you had just said it was a killer virus, then we wouldn’t have rushed towards killing them quite so quickly.”

Certainly, I did have the impression that the weight of popular culture around zombies (and it was instructive just how very much my students knew on the subject) did have an important role to play. This is, of course, why zombies can be a great learning tool, since they are fun and students have good knowledge of them, in various aspects.

But that weight of knowledge also shapes attitudes and action: one student who was playing on the ‘zombie rights’ sub-group turned out to be viscerally against any such rights, because her extensive knowledge of zombie movies told her that zombies simply couldn’t be trusted, and so have to die. The result was that ‘zombie rights’ didn’t go any further than the ‘right to die’!

Likewise, the willingness of students to kill any and all possibly infected individuals (they decided to cordon off the area and shoot anyone outside, regardless) was also linked to their pre-dispositions to zombies and the lack of realism of the scenario.

File:Foot and mouth disease in mouth.jpgOn the flip side, students did appreciate this aspect to their actions, but still felt that zombies were the way forward. One suggested we use a real disease – such as foot-and-mouth – which instantly brought much negative comment: certainly, I would struggle to enthuse students with the news that this might be the subject (oral blisters not being a ‘sexy’ topic).

So my zombie adventure continues. I’ve refined the game (including my first bespoke map on Google) for the website and I’m planning to move it into the main part of the teaching in the module next year. And so the meme continues to spread, relentlessly…

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