Emotion & simulations

Since Chad was kind enough to pick up on the theme of my post last week – emotion’s role in what we do – it’s only polite to return the favour.

Chad’s issue is one that all of us who use simulations encounter. We’re trying to build a more manageable version of the real world, which means selecting particular aspects to focus on, and then our participants go and mess it all up by focusing on some other aspect. Chad’s finding that with the South China Sea, I’m finding it with my parliamentary dynamics game and you’re finding it with something else.

How to deal with this? Basically, in one of three ways.

First option is to drown the students in detail. Chad’s only given his students a handful of things to think about/work with, so it’s understandable that they focus on these. If you’ve got the time and space, then giving them a whole lot more to handle/juggle makes it much harder for them to act rationally.

I used to do this with the big simulations that I ran some years ago (there’s a write-up here, where I had plenty of space in which to tackle very big topics – writing a constitution for the UK, finding a Middle East peace settlement – and could send students out to find out all the intricate detail that these things involved.

Obviously, this only works for some topics and if you have that kind of flexibility. Sadly, in my experience, that opportunity is rarely come by and harder to keep.

Which leads logically to the second option: starving the students. In Chad’s case, that might mean not even giving them what he has done, so that they come to it much more impressionistically and irrationally. If you want a purer example still, then Victor’s Hobbes game is it, since it fundamentally relies on a distraction from rational thought.

In essence, by providing no cues, you’re inviting students to find their own way through the subject. That’s super-handy if you’re time/resource-constrained and potentially too if it’s an unfamiliar subject, as they apply analogies.

The difficulties are two-fold. Either you have a Chad-like situation, where students are so disconnected from the situation that the absence of cues drives them to un-realistic outcomes, or you end up encouraging patterns of behaviour by accident (which is what kept on happening with my parliament game). As a rule, students really don’t like not being told what to go, so they will search hard in what you do give them for ‘clues’, whether or not they are there. The only way out of that particular hole is trial-and-error.

Which leads nicely to the last option: ju-jitsu you way out.

As this blog has shown many, many times, simulations are very portable, and not just in the obvious way of using them to teach the same thing to a different group of students. We’re always using each others’ sims to teach different things to different students: I’m aware of maybe a dozen instances of the Hobbes games, each being used for very different means.

It’s one the reasons I really like this blog: I keep seeing what other people are doing and thinking how it might solve a very different problem that I’m currently tackling. Just as Chad saw a linkage between the Manchester bombing and his sim, so I saw one between it and my students’ ball.

If you like, it’s the core learning process of simulations in another context: you do one thing and it makes you reflect on another.

So if you’re struggling to make your simulation work, why not look around at what others are doing and see if you can get their thing to work for you. If you’re not feeling so sharing-y, then you can also reflect on the other things you do: that’s how I developed the parliament game over its iterations, with its purpose being constructed backwards from what it actually did (which wasn’t what I’d set out to do).

In brief, there’s a lot more freedom to wiggle about on this than you think.