Are simulations discipline-specific?

As the result of a couple of writing projects I’m currently undertaking, the question of how discipline-specific simulations are has come into much sharper focus. Indeed, until a few weeks ago the question would have appeared to me to have had a self-evident answer and not merited discussion. However the number of times it has now come up suggest that some discussion might be useful.

Using all my best practice from my negotiation course, I start by putting myself in the shoes of others, who argue that simulations do display disciplinarity. This seems to fall into two categories.

Firstly, there is an argument that simulations are effectively limited to politics/IR. This comes from looking at simulations of assorted political institutions or events and thinking that there’s no real interest for anyone else in looking at such things (except maybe sociologists, anthropologists or business management types). That’s what most simulations are like, so how does it help me?

Secondly, there is the view that simulations do carry across disciplines, but they require fundamentally different approaches. Thus a law moot court is different from a simulation of the UN Security Council and both are different from a civil engineering project to manage the building of a dam. Each is looking at very different things and different materials.

You see a heart, I see gas clouds…

It might not be too much of a surprise for me to say that I disagree with both views.

In large part, this is an issue of nomenclature. ‘Simulation’ is rarely defined as a term and its boundaries with role-plays, games and other pedagogies is usually seen as a long road to no great effect. Thus, we tend to let the sleeping dog lie and hope everyone works it out themselves: like being in love, you know it when you see it.

Sadly, the consequence of this “let’s not discuss the matter” approach is that people actually have wildly different ideas about what constitutes a simulation. Certainly, if you think a simulation has to be of a real-world event or institution, discussing real-world materials, then that will radically limit the utility of the pedagogy.

My understanding of simulations (and the other approaches) is much broader. What ties them together is their effort to draw out some aspect of the real world and use it to create a limited environment within which players/students can understand the complexity of an issue or set of issues. It is that simplification to produce an environment for exploration that marks out the field.

Seen as such, the two view on disciplinarity also starts to look untenable: in all three cases given, there is simplification and scope of reaching a wide range of outcomes, dependent upon the players’ actions.

To see simulations as purely for politics/IR, or even for social sciences, is to lose sight of the need that all disciplines have to create models to test against both the real world and the attitudes of students. Whatever discipline one follows, you have a need to interact with other people (c.f. the civil engineering project) and you need to understand the complexity of phenomena (e.g. in physics).

Simulations do not all look like a Model United Nations, and the more we can understand that, the richer the possibilities of learning more from them will be.