Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 1, Reducing the Workload

Many of our regular readers on ALPS already use simulations and games in their classes.  But plenty of folks find us because they are interested in learning about new-to-them pedagogies, and want some guidance in how to use them in their classes.  For these folks, we are starting a new series here on ALPS: The Beginner’s Guide to Simulations.  This recurring series will focus on helping new adopters (and those who might want some reminders and encouragement!) work through the challenges of using simulations and games in the college classroom.

Before their first time using a simulation in class, most instructors face one or more of the following concerns:

  1. Creating and running a simulation is a lot of work…
  2. ..for little payoff. Simulations are not a good substitute for the tried-and-true lecture for learning.
  3. The simulation will take up too much time in-class, forcing me to give up coverage of important content.
  4. The simulation might fail, either due to my own mistakes or lack of student interest, and will therefore be a waste of time.

These concerns are largely valid, but not necessarily deal breakers. With more than sixty simulations published just in The Journal of Political Science Education and PS: Political Science & Politics in the last ten years, clearly there are a number of scholars who have found designing simulations to be a worthwhile endeavor.  In the first few entries in this series, I’m going to unpack each of these four concerns and propose some ideas and solutions to move us from fearful to excited about using simulations.

Part One: Reducing the Workload of Using Simulations and Games

Perhaps the biggest concerns we hear at ALPS workshops on simulations and games is that these methods take a lot of time and effort to create and run in class. This is particularly true for instructors who never experienced any simulations or games during their own education.  Many of us are on the lookout for new ways to engage students and help students achieve deeper learning, but simulations and games often face skepticism as the right route.  I’ll tackle that last point in another entry in this series, but for now, let us focus on concern #1: that simulations take a lot of time to create and run.

This is certainly true of SOME simulations.  I had a friend in graduate school who designed his own simulation for his introduction to international relations course.  He spent countless hours on the design, used up a lot of class time to run the simulation, and every week would pour over the decisions the students made, tallying up changes in resources, armed forces, and territory. While this was a well-designed simulation that had a big impact on students, it need not be the example all simulation and game designers follow.

Here are four strategies to try to keep the workload down for your initial forays into simulation use.

  1. Use what is already out there.

There are so many great simulations and games designed for the college classroom.  In all likelihood, the very topic you are considering for a simulation has already undergone gamification and is available for you to use.  Certainly, ALPS has an ever-growing list of simulations, but there are also many commercially available simulations out there with teams of folks available to help you run them.  Check out, for example, ICONS, Reacting to the Past, and Statecraft, just to name a few. There are also many great games and simulations to be found in the pages of our discipline’s three pedagogy journals: Journal of Political Science Education, PS: Political Science & Politics, and International Studies Perspectives.   Journals in related disciplines and those with an interdisciplinary focus also abound: check out Simulations & Gaming, Teaching Sociology, The History Teacher, The Journal of Economic Education, Teaching of Psychology, Theory and Research in Social Education, and many others listed here.

As both a guide and illustration of this point, here is a list of some of the topics covered by simulations  in the last few years of PS, with the authors and year of publication.

Topic Authors and PS Publication Issue
US Presidential Draft Bridge, Oct. 2015
Bargaining Model of War Haynes, Oct. 2015
Dictatorship and Democratic Transition Jimenez, April 2015
City Politics and Development Woessner, April 2015, Rinfret July 2012
John Locke Glasgow, April 2015
US Humanitarian Intervention and Aid Switky, July 2014, Stodden, Oct. 2012
US Presidential Election Campaigns Abramson and Kraitzman, April 2014 and Deitz and Boeckelman, Oct. 2012
Supreme Court Confirmation Process Auerbach, Oct 2013
Adversarial and Inquisitorial Legal Systems Bridge, Oct 2013, Weiden Oct. 2009
Coalition Governments Biziouras, April 2013
Duverger’s Law Smith, Oct. 2012; Endersby ad Shaw April 2009
Economic and Philsophical theorists Ahmadov July 2011
Government budgeting Taylor July 2011
Terrorism Siegel and Young, Oct. 2009


My point is that you can avoid the stress of game creation entirely by using what others have already created and tested.  These games and simulations run a complete gamut in complexity, from the simple, no-preparation ten minute game (like the Classical Realist Hobbes game) to the full-semester, all-encompassing simulation (like Statecraft or some versions of Model United Nations).

Simulation creators tend to be very open to sharing their work, so if the post or article you find is not detailed enough, contact the author for more information. I’ve had folks send me all of their files, role-sheets, and other materials, and I have done the same for my own work.

  1. Adapt, extend, and modify existing simulations and games.

Let’s say that you’ve combed through all the journals and lists and while some games come close, nothing exactly hits what you want to do.  This can be a challenge when you want to simulate something in current events, and the published simulations are out of date.  This is where adaptation and extension come in.  The biggest challenge in simulation design is usually not the content itself–we are all subject experts, after all (or at least, I would hope that is the case for the instructor of record of a course), so designing a scenario itself is usually not the issue.  It is the game mechanics and structure that may not come naturally.  In that case, borrow the latter and adapt or extend the game to meet your own needs.  Take a presidency simulation designed for the 2012 election and change out the actors and crisis events for 2016.  Find a natural disaster simulation grounded in the 2010 Haiti earthquake and change out the scenario for the event of your choice. Sometimes all you need to do is change out the scenario or add a rule change to an existing game to get it to do what you want.

Let me give a couple of examples.  Take the Classical Realism game mentioned earlier.  In this game, students are given a life card, told that the object of the game is to survive, and that they can challenge other players for their life cards by playing rock paper scissors.  The initial version of the game is designed to bring out Hobbesian tendencies in the students, but the game can be adapted and extended with additional rounds of play that focus on other theories.  For example, power can be introduced by making the value of the card itself matter; alliances between students can benefit from working together and trading cards; or even constructivism ideas of identity can come into play if you have students earn points on whether they share cultural connections with other players. In this way, new ideas are introduced simply by tweaking the rules of the existing game.

In another example, we use a fictional-world civil war simulation in some of our workshops.  The original simulation, designed by a student of Victor Asal, had only four actors: the government, the rebels, the rebel-supporting regional hegemony, and the global power.  I added a fifth team to this, a media team, to introduce a communication and public opinion element into the simulation.  Rather than designing a new simulation from the ground up, I just added a new component into a simulation that I already knew worked well.

  1. Design smart

Let’s say that your chosen subject is either not out there or not easily covered through adaptation and extension.  Time to design your own simulation. Luckily, there are a lot of resources out there to help you, such as Simon Usherwood’s website on the subject.  Before you start, here are a couple of time-saving principles to keep in mind.

First, design portable simulations.  Nina Kollars and I just published an article in ISP on this subject.  The idea is to design a structure that can be adapted to meet several purposes at once, either by making sure you can drop in new scenarios easily, or by creating a game that can be used in different classes or on a variety of topics.  In our piece, we discuss a game where students put Goldilocks on trial that works for classes in American politics as well as political theory.  A more well known example would be Model United Nations.  The structure of MUN allows you to substitute in whatever topic of the day is most relevant–meaning that the work of creating the simulation is all up front, and ten years in the future you can continue using the same simulation with no problem.

Another key principle is to keep your learning objectives and outcomes narrow and tightly focused.  If your outcomes are broad: “students will learn basic theories of international relations” then your simulation will need to be really complex in order to ensure that every theory has room for confrontation.  A narrow focus on a single concept or idea, such as Haynes (2015) recent PS article on using a game to illustrate Fearon’s (1994) Bargaining Model of War, keeps the game design process focused and reduces the chance of two many complex elements getting introduced.

  1. Bring in help

A final strategy is to bring in help.  Certainly, consider consulting with other game designers (or the ALPS team) on how to keep the process manageable, but also consider other forms of collaboration.  Many instructors co-design and co-run simulations with colleagues, combining classes and cutting the work in half (although coordination issues can certainly arise).  See for example Zaino and Mulligan (2009), who describe a simulation run across an entire department. Once I ran a model-UN style simulation for an introductory IR course, and asked the instructor of a course on Israel-Palestine to have his students design our crisis scenario.  This cut down on the work for me, and gave those students a great experience.  Other instructors have used advanced level course to both design and run simulations in lower level courses (such as Frombgen et al, 2013).

Hopefully these strategies will reduce the new-to-simulations instructor’s fears of the complexity and time involved in creating a simulation and getting it ready for class.  Another common worry–the in-class time these pedagogies take, and the trade-off in lost content, will be the focus for part two.  Until then, keep gaming!