Online Simulations & Games Using Discord

I mentioned Discord about a year ago as we were all turning to virtual instruction at the start of the pandemic. I want to return to it specifically in the games and simulations context, though, as it has some really useful properties that can aid those instructors looking for a way to run their online simulations. If you are ready to start thinking about how to run Model UN, Diplomacy, or other complex simulations online, you should really consider Discord.

Discord is a social media platform used by gamers, podcasters, and other content creators to connect with their communities. Each group has their own discord ‘server’, a private space that you can only enter with an invitation. Inside, you can create text and voice based ‘channels’ that let you structure conversations by topic. These channels can be open to everyone on the server or private and hidden. As the server creator or administrator, you also have a lot of latitude for customizing settings–such as making something read-only or enabling ‘slow mode’, which prevents any one person from dominating the conversation. And server members can message each other individually or create small groups for private conversation. The text conversation is asynchronous, but it is easy to jump into a voice channel for voice-only or video conversations.

This kind of format lends itself very well to running complex simulations. There are several key needs for running an online simulation:

  • Instructors must be able to review rules and procedures, share documents and updates, and take questions from students, publicly and privately.
  • Students need to be able to post in-character public messages for other participants to see.
  • Students need to be able to post privately to their teammates, if they have them.
  • Students need to be able to send private messages to other students for secret negotiations.
  • Students may need to post files or links, share their screen, or jump onto a quick voice conversation.

It is easy to do all of this in Discord, without the constraints of a standard learning management system/virtual learning environment. By creating ‘roles’ in the server with different permissions, you can divide students by their teams or in-game roles and set channels that only they can access and that can identify them within the server. This makes communication much easier. For example, if you are running a UN Security Council simulation, you can create a ‘role’ for each country in Discord. You might not need to set up private channels for each country if there is only one person in each role, but this allows students to message each other without having to check a list of who is playing what role. They could also have a public channel for making speeches, and another where they upload and discuss the wording on resolutions. If you are running a full UN simulation with many different committees, you can have channels dedicated to the General Assembly and each committee, and private channels dedicated to each country so members of the same team can talk privately and share information. Discord therefore supports simulations both large and small.

I’m using Discord right now to run a game of Diplomacy in my ISA Career Course on Games and Simulations in International Relations (with Victor Asal). There are plenty of online platforms that you can use, but I chose to use Discord because I didn’t know in advance if I would have more than 7 players. Most online platforms don’t allow for teams–but Discord does. Here is what the server looks like:

As you can see, I have a general channel for administrative purposes. I’ve since created a new read-only channel called ‘maps and result’s where I post the outcomes of each game turn along with updated maps. The public channels–text and voice–are open to all players if they want to openly communicate. Italy has made a call for peace and protection of the status quo–but no responses so far! the other channels are organized by country category. Each country has a private text and voice channel open only to their team and the facilitators. They also have a private ‘orders’ channel where they submit orders for their units each turn. I use those channels to adjudicate each turn. If they want to message another team, all they have to do is right-click on the name of the person they want to message (their country name is next to their name) and select ‘message’ and that will open up a private conversation for negotiations. The person-shaped icon in the top right of the screen pops up the list of server members for this purpose. It will also tell you who is online in case you want to invite them into a voice chat.

Running the game this way instead of over email or through an online game system gives me several advantages as an instructor. I can keep tabs on most of the gameplay, although some private conversations I would only see if I’m invited to join them (something you can require if you want). I also have a record after the gameplay of everything that happened, which is useful for debriefing, grading, and assessment. The interface is easy to use, and once students get familiar with it, you can reuse it for different games and exercises throughout your course. I can also allow ‘observers’–people who want to watch but not play. I can give them as much access as I want–for example, I can limit them to read- and listen-only so they can’t interfere with the game play.

I’ve used discord for running an monthly trivia game as well as a 200+ person multi day conference, so I can attest to its robust capabilities. It is free, accessible from outside the US, pretty easy to learn, and has a robust mobile app that make it accessible to students. The main downsides are that the server creator needs to put in a bit of work to figure out how to set up the server to meet your needs, and that the video and screen sharing systems aren’t always reliable. Asynchronous text channels and voice channel work just fine though.

I know a lot of faculty want to run simulations but are restricted by social distancing or virtual classrooms. If you are ready to try something new, try Discord. I have no relationship with the company and am not being compensated by them for this post–I just want to recommend something that I’ve found very useful in my own teaching.