Au revoir, zombie apocalypse

I guess I should actually be very happy with my students. Yesterday’s final session of my negotiating politics module was an opportunity for them to put all their learning to good use in dealing with the outbreak of a very infectious disease. That one of their number noticed I had written a zombie game for my website reasonably led some of them to conclude that they might be playing just that game.

The team has developed a measured response to the five cases of the new disease

Of course, we were doing pretty much that, even if I had adapted the game to be less zombie-ish, albeit with some bizarre disease pathways. that had been in response to last year’s group getting a bit too involved in ‘how to kill a zombie’ discussions, as I discussed at the time. However, much of the mechanics (and the crisis element) were re-used, in the form that I have now posted here.

I’ll happily admit that there was still much discussion of zombies (plus a possibly statutory reference to the use of nuclear weapons), but not nearly to the same extent as before. In part, this reflected the preparatory work element, that made space for more operational discussions.

However, it was the students’ discovery of the original game that most interested/exercised me. The ‘sit rep’ PPT had been printed out, so at least one group knew what was coming, leading me to throw in some extra cases, but still they were being shaped by the knowledge of the ‘other’.

During the debrief, I asked the students what they thought the impact had been. The one who had originally discovered it noted that in her role as part of the public communications group, she felt that it hadn’t changed much, since it only reinforced her sense that the scenario was extremely unfavourable, whatever they did, possibly to the extent of making it hard to imagine what action might be possible.

Certainly, this was always a latent tension within the game: plans prove to be inadequate, lines of control are breached, and so on. However, that is usually a growing realisation, rather than a starting point and I worry that the discovery made things more difficult than they needed to be.

From this I take a number of lessons.

Firstly, vary your scenarios. If I’d had some more notice of the discovery, then I’d build a very different scenario, with other locations and profiles, so that the participants genuinely have no idea of what to expect.

Secondly, be clear on what you want. Again, yesterday’s discussion was more strategic than specific (at one point, ‘10% of the army’ were conjured up to encircle Surrey!) and there was a temptation on my part to come back with queries. Indeed, a student-led response group, separate from the others, might be a good device for testing such details and inviting further debate and negotiation. This would require more detailed specifications and information and might make it difficult to run within a two-hour slot, but that’s neither here nor there.

Thirdly, zombies are hard to kill, both literally and figuratively. As soon as someone gets up from the mortuary slab, the zombie tropes come crashing in. As with last year, I have mixed feelings about this: it can open several very interesting questions, but it also become a distraction. How you chose to proceed is something that invites careful thought.