Multiple and Parallel Worlds: Simulations in Large Classes

For faculty that teach in large classrooms with several hundred students, lecture can seem like the only possible method of instruction. Discussion, let along simulations and games, are seen as better employed in TA-led sections, where the number of students is much more manageable. This may seem especially true for some of the games we discuss on ALPS, such as Diplomacy, which in its classic version is meant for only 7 players, and even in teams becomes unwieldy with more than 21.

At first glance, not the most appealing environment for gaming and role-play. Source.

There are simulations that can work really well in a large classroom setting. A Model United Nations, for example, run as either a General Assembly or split into committees, can be great with 200 students. The same principle holds for any organizational simulation, such as a Model Congress or Model European Union. The Hobbes Game also works regardless of the number of students.

But in other games, 200 students is about 170 too many. Groups are too large, there are high incentives for free-riding, or lots of dead time where students have to wait for others to act. Running one large game in this kind of environment is likely to be unsuccessful, if the game itself is not easily scalable.

Luckily, there is a trick to managing this problem. It involves the use of multiple or ‘parallel’ worlds, where instead of running a single version of the game, you run multiple simultaneous versions, with students split into several smaller groups and each group plays its own self-contained version of game. If you wanted to play Diplomacy, for example, you could bring in several game boards and run 3 or 4 different games at the same time, with a TA adjudicating moves for each independent game. In a UN Security Council simulation, you can run 2 or 3 different security councils, all working on the same issue.

There are several advantages to this. First, it lets you use games and simulations meant for smaller groups in a manageable way, whether during sections or during the main lecture meeting. Second, it lets students see how the same exact starting point can lead to very different results, and allows them to discuss the reasons for those differences (structure? social? individual ability?). It also creates some neat opportunities that smaller versions of the game may not have. For example, in Diplomacy, you could allow teams representing the same country in different game worlds to talk strategy with each other. Students can then see how the same strategy or goals can have vastly different effects depending on the actions of other teams and players.

So if you teach large classes and want to try out a game or simulation in your class, consider the parallel worlds model. It’s a great way to bring some more active components into the classroom!

For more on this, check out Jason Keiber’s paper, “Dividing Up the Game: From Serial to Parallel
presented at the 2013 APSA TLC.