Typologies for Conflict Simulations and Games

Fresh off the virtual presses is my latest article, Simulations and Games (SAGs) to Teach Conflict and Political Violence, a literature review in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. In it, I pose several new typologies as I consider the key considerations for instructors who are considering what kind of game or simulation to use in their classes. This piece will be useful both to scholars publishing on SAGs, providing ways to categorize their activities, and also to instructors who are trying to decide what kind of SAG to use in their classroom.

Here are 7 considerations or decision points for choosing a game or simulation, according to my analysis of the existing literature:

Table summarizes the key decision points for choosing a conflict SAG, including: learning outcomes, conflict stage, scenario, roles, time/intensity, mechanics, and reflection. 

Learning Outcomes: These are usually content-based, focusing on teaching theory, the details of specific issues or cases, or the complex nature of conflict itself, or skill-based, ranging from critical thinking, teamwork, and empathy to learning the skills required to engage in negotiation or problem-solving should students come to work in particular jobs in international relations.

Stage of Conflict: Games take place at different points in the conflict cycle, including pre-conflict SAGs that explore the causes of conflict; crisis-response SAGS, where students have to make decisions that could result in war; active-conflict SAGS, where students make tactical or operational decisions within an existing conflict; war termination games that negotiate the end to a conflict, and post-conflict simulations that reflect on the aftermath of conflict.

Scenario Choice: Many SAGs employ some kind of scenario, and these too fall into several definable bins: Historical, Contemporary, Fictional, Representative, and Abstract. Historical scenarios include reenactments, counterfactuals, and other scenarios grounded in real historical events; while contemporary SAGs focus on conflicts of the present or very recent past, including several simulations that are run as real-time events throughout a course. Fictional games use entirely fictionalized scenarios, often drawing inspiration from several sources, whereas a Representative game masks a real-world case as a fictional one, usually by giving a fictional name to a real scenario and only ‘revealing’ its true nature at the end. Finally, the abstract category includes all games that do not use a scenario.

Role Assignment: Here the key considerations are how important it is that students accurately play specific roles at the international, domestic, or individual level; the level of preparation such a portrayal requires for students and instructors; and how to assign roles when you have large classes.

Time Required: Perhaps the most useful categorization in the article, I expand on Rebecca Glazier’s (2011) concept of low-intensity simulations to define medium- and high-intensity simulations, and suggest that future publications of simulations be clear about which category they fall into.

Gameplay Mechanics: the mechanics of gameplay matter a lot in how the game is facilitated and communicated to students. Here I propose three categories: Board-Game style games, which use mechanics commonly found in commercial board games such as boards, cards, dice, defined rules, lack of a facilitator, and the emphasis of powers and abilities over inhabiting a role. Negotiation with Action Rounds, where students negotiate with each other over set rounds under a facilitator’s guidance, negotiating, choosing, and resolving a set of actions, sometimes with the aid of dice or other board-game mechanics that otherwise are not the primary method of gameplay. Finally, Negotiating for Agreement style-games are those where students are trying to create resolutions, agreements, contracts, policy, or some other kind of output and must work together in a open forum to do so.

Postgame Reflection: Finally, while the literature emphasizes the role of the oral and written debriefing, many articles fail to provide instructions on how to do so effectively for their game or simulation. Authors also differ in whether and how they conduct assessment of their SAG, with some using pre-test/post-test direct measurements, others using indirect self-assessments of learning, and still others conducting anecdotal or no assessment at all.

I argue that individual assessment of SAGs is actually not necessary, as even the most well-designed assessments still tend to focus on a single iteration per set of students, subject to the way that particular instructor facilitated the activity. An alternative is to ground a SAG within the literature to show how it serves as a case or example that exemplifies the benefits of using active learning in the classroom. Authors should explain how the gameplay stimulates engagement, or how the scenario materials help build deep knowledge of a case, or how the debrief helps students engage in learning transfer.

Give the piece a read if you’d like to know more, and I encourage those publishing in this space to consider using these typologies to gain a more consistent characterization of games, which can help instructors who are trying to identify or create SAGs for their students.