Connections Wargaming Conference Notes

In late June/early July I road-tripped to the Connections Wargaming Conference at the Army War College (Carlisle Barracks, PA), along with visiting my mother, twin brother, and sister-in-law in Rock Hall, MD (I gorge on seafood every time I visit them). It priced out cheaper to drive than fly, but I think I’m getting too old to be driving 6 days round trip. My wife had to extract me from my Jeep with a crowbar when I returned home, and my lower back hasn’t been on speaking terms with me since. But I digress!

Although predominantly geared towards the Department of Defense, UK Ministry of Defence, and defense contractors, Connections also features civilian educators (such as this scraggly pigeon), entertainment game designers, and wargaming hobbyists. I attended lectures ranging from game graphic design to social science analytic gaming, the latter of which I’ll expand on in a future post. I also presented on running large classroom games (100 or more students), which I’m also delivering in workshop format at the Serious Play Conference in August (in Toronto). As mentioned in a previous post, Discord is my secret sauce for organizing and running large games, along with having roughly one assistant for every 25 students. So far, my assistant team has typically had a 50/50 split between teaching assistants and student volunteers.

Connections also features game demonstrations and social gaming nights, giving attendees ample opportunity to see new games in publisher pipelines and simply have a good time competing with fellow attendees, leaded or unleaded cold ones in hand.

Ethical statement: when I’m not political sciencing at Colorado State, I write for Mobius Worlds Publishing, a Littleton, Colorado-based roleplaying game design firm. Mobius’s tentpole products are Prowlers & Paragons: Ultimate Edition, a superhero RPG system, and Freedom Squadron, an “ode to GI Joe” setting using Pinnacle Entertainment’s Savage Worlds rule system (I make no personal profit from sharing the links).

At Connections I demonstrated a prototype real-world infantry squad tactical decision game using Prowlers & Paragons (P&P) core mechanics. Core mechanics are the fundamental rules that drive a game. For example, hands are Poker’s core mechanic, and dice modifiers are common RPG core mechanics. Although aimed towards superhero play, the rules can easily be calibrated for human-level performance: think military units, first responders, and experts such as medical, cyber, intelligence, and diplomats. In another future post, I’ll discuss core mechanics, let alone the importance of matching the right core mechanics to a classroom game’s learning objectives.

I’ll go out on a limb and assume that most political science classrooms don’t need to model infantry squads to match course learning objectives. Still, they could model individual political decision-makers in tense crisis scenarios that require immediate decisions.

This was my third Connections and I highly recommend it. The conference welcomes educators with open arms–to wit, I met a college curriculum designer with no military background who was there simply to learn how to integrate games in his curriculum design process. Maybe I’ll see you next year!

Speaking of which, I hadn’t planned on attending APSA 2024, but I received a last-minute invite that I couldn’t turn down. The invite was related to this blog, which you’ll hear more about in a future post. That’s three posts I owe you!

In defence of slides

Yesterday, James Fielder published a blog post here detailing his ‘hate/hate relationship with slides’. I had another piece that I wanted to share today but having read James’s impassioned post I felt an equal surge of emotion – but with a need to defend the slides that make up so much of my working life.

Sigh – life really comes at you fast. One day you’re young and cool and the next you’re dropping everything to write a 600 word blog post defending the use of slides…

But, in my mind at least, slides really are worth defending.

There is an old joke about the (very real) Swiss ‘Anti PowerPoint Party’ that goes something like “Switzerland’s Anti PowerPoint Party has got a cause that could convince millions… just as soon as they find an easy and clear way to communicate their message”. 

Of course, that such a party even exists shows that James is certainly not alone in his hatred of slides. I can see why one might take such offence to them. There are endless examples of people using slides in ways that are wildly off putting, both in terms of design and delivery.

I certainly wouldn’t claim that I am the rare third type of slide-user that James describes as one that ‘builds a New York gallery-esque deck and briefs confidently without superstitiously looking back at their deck like some sort of mythic totem’. I’m fine with the basic templates that come automatically with PowerPoint and don’t want to spend too much time on fancy production. Occasionally, if I feel the content really demands it, I might add a nicely chosen background image but that’s probably as good as it’s going to get.

So, what’s the ‘sell’ with slides? Simply, I think everyone benefits. 

For the instructor, spending time putting together slides for a course means that, next year, when it comes time to teach that course again, you can relax knowing there is something there to turn to and use. Sure, the slides might need a little updating but you are not back to square one. Slides are also a convenient way to pace and structure one’s lectures. It might be great to have the time to rehearse a lecture so slides aren’t necessary but it’s highly unlikely that space will be found in workload models for that.

For the students, the benefits are also clear. Students are often keen to stress some of these reasons – slides are good for taking notes around, they are good for revision, etc. But I also think that there is a benefit of slides that students might not want to fess up to – they are good when the audience stops paying attention. Now, obviously, one hopes that this never happens. But, if and when they do start to daydream about what they’ll be having for lunch, at least they will have the slides to quickly anchor their attention back onto once they’ve decided that it will be beans on toast again today. 

Controversially, I also like using slides in seminars. There aren’t a tonne of them and I don’t rely on them too much. But, again, I find that they are a useful anchor point for discussions. I’ve become even more certain in my use of them in recent years of teaching in mixed-language ability classrooms. I’ve seen that they can be a comfortable point of reference for those that might otherwise feel less confident in their ability to engage. 

So, I’ll put myself proudly in the other faction and declare that I am and shall remain an ardent slidist.

See, what’s not to love?

My Hate/Hate Relationship with Slides

I hate PowerPoint with every fiber of my being, and other slide apps by extension (PPT receives the brunt of my rage thanks to its ubiquity). Slides represent the truncation of critical thinking into pithy bullets and ill-timed animations. Slides are a lesson prep time sink. When people discuss going back in time to change history, I’d make a trip solely to corrupt the original PowerPoint floppy disks and mind-wipe the code from the programmers’ memories.

My 25-year military career exacerbates my animosity–gods, how much time I saw wasted on building perfect decks, only for a colonel to get irritated over an extra space between words despite the otherwise action-packed content.

There is one thing I grudgingly like about slides: ease of embedding multimedia. I do like using figures, images, videos, and audio clips, and a good piece of multimedia says more than any bullet statement.

The problem is that there are only three types of slide writers. The first designs the perfect deck: lush, tactile, sensual, and brimming with effects. But they spend so much time on the deck that they practice neither the material nor the timing, resulting in them reading from the slides and botching their carefully embedded light show masterpieces. If you’re just reading from the slides, I’d rather have an email (albeit I hate email even more than slides, but that’s a story for another time).

The second is clearly a master of the material. They barely need their slides and likely could get by with no slides at all. But society demands slides, so they slap some black Calibri-font words on a white background–perhaps 8-point, full-paragraph excerpts from the source material–and end up giving a TED-worthy talk supported with decrepit slides that look like they were built the night before in a fit of caffeinated madness (and they probably were).

I also lose my mind when bullets wrap to a second line with a single word. 😐

Rarely do you get the third person who builds a New York gallery-esque deck and briefs confidently without superstitiously looking back at their deck like some sort of mythic totem. Yet, just imagine how much time they spent crafting and practicing the slides, time likely better spent on… anything besides slides.

Alas, my students howl every time I attempt teaching without slides. So I meet them less than halfway and under duress by channeling a modified “second presenter” archetype: I first deliver a stage-eating, Sam Kinison rant-worthy version of this post on the third or so day of class, then prepare (let alone reuse) sparse slides with a few key words and illustrations. This pacifies the vast majority of my students, albeit every semester I get at least two feedback notes that say, “I wish he put more on his slides.” That’ll be my grave epitaph.

Even so, I am and shall remain an ardent anti-slidist!

On Mentoring

Believe it or not, I had a career first this semester: a 100% plagiarized paper, down to the typos. And the student admitted it.

It would’ve been so easy to light their paper on fire and file academic misconduct papers, but instead, I asked them why they did it.

The short version: they just gave up.

The longer-ish version: we spoke for an hour, during which I asked pointed questions about their background: where did they come from? Where do they see themselves in 5-10 years? What was their plan to get there? What were their hopes, dreams, mistakes, and fears? What obstacles did they face, and how did they attempt to overcome them?

On paper, this was a plagiarism case. In person, this was a rudderless student who’s in college “just to say they did it, kept awake at night over fears of letting others down, and making a series of escalating poor choices with life-long ramifications, but who also had a journeyman-level trade credential.

I unpacked the trade credential. They loved the work! When I asked if they wanted to still do the trade, they said yes, and owning a business. When I asked why they weren’t tailoring their college experience to meet their goal of owning a trade-specific business? They didn’t have an answer. While I’m of the mindset that an enriching liberal arts education is more than a future paycheck generator, four years incur tremendous time and money commitments for which “just saying they did it” isn’t a well-thought strategy.

My decision:

1) I wouldn’t let them just give up and, in the process, light the rest of their life on fire. They rewrote their paper from a blank page and passed my course.

2) They’re following up with me in the Fall. Yes, they have an official academic advisor, but I want to see their strategy, even if it’s penciled on the back of a napkin. Mentoring includes seeing this through.

I’m hoping I made the right decision.

Not Curving Grades, But “Smoothing the Edges”

I don’t curve course grades; rather, I review every student’s grades one by one in a process I call “smoothing the edges.” I first check to see if the student’s grade is on a cut line, such as 89.9%. I almost always round up and can count on barely two wings the instances where I left a grade tantalizingly and sadly close to the next grade. The common culprit? Not turning in assignments. As in, “if I don’t turn in this paper worth a letter grade, I can still get a B.” I can’t in good conscience reward missing work with a higher grade.

I try to prevent this, though, by reaching out to all students with missing assignments to ensure they get the grade they deserve rather than a grade they’re settling for. I’ll even file grade changes for proactive students and send reminders months later.

Next, I check for three patterns: sustained performance over time, increasing effort over time (low initial grades but finishing strong), and decreasing effort over time (losing steam and/or giving up). Don’t worry–final grading isn’t the first and only time that I look for decreasing effort. Working with these students throughout the semester almost always prevents this pattern from happening.

Finally, I ensure that a single poor assignment grade isn’t dragging down their entire grade. Just this morning I noticed a student who recieved an A on all but one assignment. For whatever reason, the student didn’t perform well on a single major assignment, which brought their entire grade down to a B+. I “smoothed out the edge” and gave them the A.

Returning to the three patterns, the “one bad assignment” is typically random with sustained performers and early in the semester with increasing effort performers. If my mentoring works, decreasing effort students find their center and recover strong. Think a V-shaped pattern: seemingly at the ropes like a prize fighter, getting a talk from coach, and rising to the challenge again. I’ve certainly been there, so I’m always ready with a pep talk.

My nap after submitting grades earlier today was glorious–and I napped with confidence in my students!

Workshop Preparation: The ISA Version!

Next Tuesday, I’m teaching an International Studies Association pre-conference workshop on designing political science classroom games (there’s still room in the workshop if you read this post by 29 March!). My objective: deliver a 4-hour course that includes a block of instruction and hands-on ideation for no more than 30 participants.

I’ve taught numerous classroom game design courses and have developed a stock list of questions to ask before each, as well as a packing list containing dice, playing cards, poker chips, a bag of glow-in-the-dark zombie figures, and other useful game ideation tools. There are few things worse than that clammy, pit-in-the-stomach feeling that haunts the unrehearsed and ill-prepared.

  • What is the maximum number of participants?
  • Who is my point of contact?
  • Am I allowed to email them ahead of time?
  • Where is the room located?
  • How will the tables be arranged?
  • Can I adjust the room arrangement if necessary?
  • Will I have a podium and A/V access?
  • Do I use my own laptop, or is a laptop provided?
  • Can I request locally sourced office supplies, within reason and with my best imploring smile?
  • Did I account for and check off each packing list item?
  • No, seriously… did I account for and check off each packing list item?
  • How early can I access the room before class starts?
  • Who do I contact on-site if I need technical support (if different than the point of contact)?

The better I plan for what I want my workshop to look like, the better I can handle contingencies while still looking cool and collected doing so. 🙂

Chance, Skill, and Grading Classroom Games

An academic hill I die on periodically is being adamantly opposed to assigning grades to classroom games.

A game’s win conditions are based on varying blends of chance versus skill. Pure chance games (such as roulette) are simply bets against which players cannot build effective long-term strategies. Monopoly, for example, is almost pure chance–stripped of the optional auction rules, the most effective strategy for winning Monopoly is consistently rolling a dice score of 7. Barring weighted dice or building a dice-rolling wrist over 10,000 hours, winning or losing Monopoly comes down to the luck of the dice. It might be a good game for illustrating wealth inequality in the classroom (which was the original designer’s intent), but if you grade students based on winning rounds of Monopoly, then you’re grading them based on almost pure, uncut chance.

On the other end are games of pure skill: think Go or Chess. In a game of pure skill, masters will almost always defeat amateurs (note that I said “almost always”). In classroom games based on pure skill–especially without repeat play opportunities–your most prepared students will not just almost always defeat your least prepared students, they will almost always crush them.

A well-designed classroom game leans heavily towards skill, as the game presents students with an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. But to avoid the “crush them through pure skill” problem, the game should include elements of chance. Students should feel as if they can win all the way up to the last minute of class. However, the key remains chance. Students can also still lose at the last minute to a close competitor, even with well-prepared and overall effective strategies. If you grade them based on even a fraction of chance, it has a chilling effect on students taking risks and diminishes their sense of course mastery. Losing without a grade penalty encourages students to reflect on future strategies and thus remain engaged with the material. But with a grade applied? All the students might remember is that they received a B- for the course because “they lost a stupid game.”

Instead, I have my students write short reflection essays (say, 2-3 pages) about the course learning objective that was measured in the game: what the game’s win condition was, their processes for crafting a strategy to achieve it, and how they either overcame obstacles to succeed or what they would change if they failed. You can also use reflection essays for pure chance games, such as the above-mentioned Monopoly, for students to reflect on what the game was intended to illustrate (or ask, “what would you have done differently if you could have applied a viable strategy?”). I’ll do a longer post in the future on debriefings and after-action reports.

All that said, I do know educators who place small point values on their games: negligible for the student’s overall course grade–think 10 points in a 1,000-point course–yet enough to inspire a sense of meaningful competition (particularly useful in games with more than one winner or multiple proportional win-conditions, which encourages students to scrap over every last point. They might lose but still walk away with 5/10 points). Even knowing that, however, I want me student to remember the game’s lesson points, not the game’s grade points.

The Mercy and Consequences of Assignment Extensions

I’ll admit it: I’m a softy when it comes to granting assignment extensions. Yes, my syllabus includes the standard boilerplate that their papers will randomly self-combust for each day late, but in reality, I offer this in-class guidance: I will grant extensions if they request it in person or via a Zoom or Teams meeting, not email. And by “request,” I mean they must explain exactly why they need an extension. I’ll even accept ridiculous reasons if they’re honest with me (think admitting they turned 21 and made poor life choices). But I offer the following advice at the beginning of my course and reiterate it during these student meetings:

  • I ask, “you realize that you knew about the assignment since the first day of class?” Thankfully, I’m batting 100% “yes” responses.
  • I then show them my OneNote project tracker, further reduced to subtasks and due dates. Indeed, my tracker is my browser homepage, so I can’t escape its caress. This includes research projects, entertainment gaming projects, travel planning, a parking lot for unsorted tasks lacking fixed due dates, and every semester course is broken down into topics, readings, and upcoming assignments–and more checklists for building those assignments. The student’s eyes are saucers at this point.
  • I don’t suggest that they follow my plan exactly–rather, I suggest that they simply have a plan. One that works for them and preferably a method that’s easy to update once created. I then tell a few true stories about when procrastinating and failing to plan cost me big time, one event that could’ve completely changed my entire life trajectory if my own mentor at the time hadn’t offered me the same advice.
  • I then note that their extension affects my and/or my teaching assistant’s planning. One student? Eh, no biggie. Multiple? Now we’re filling their extensions like sand into our scheduling rock jars. I want to be fair in timely grading, but I advise that I don’t expect my TAs to burn their schedules accommodating student extensions.
  • Finally, I advise that, although I’ll grant the extension like a squishy teddy bear, my other major concern is that I’m extending the assignment solely within the context of my course. I have no idea what other courses they’re taking, nor do I have insight on those other course assignments. What happens if I grant an extension and it interferes with their other assignments, which leads to a consequential snowball effect much larger than my assignment? I’ve seen it happen: one extension leads to students falling badly behind in their other classes.

So far I assess this method is a worthy compromise. It’s not that many students on balance and they at least comment that they appreciate the mentoring (and one student I’m aware of adopted my planning format).

That said, I’m curious to read your thoughts in the comments!

Meet the ALPS Blog team!

As part of our new ALPS set-up, we’re trying to get out more to meet up with colleagues, talking active learning and sustaining our community.

If you’d like to chat with any of us, then you find a handy list of events we’re signed/signing up to this year below. We’re all very pleasant, friendly types, so you’re always welcome to have a chat.

We can help with all your learning & teaching queries, and we’re also happy to advise on getting published (both here at the blog and elsewhere).

And if you’re not at these events, then we’re only an email away.

Looking forward to seeing you in 2024!

EventWho’s there?
Serious Play, Toronto, 12-14 AugustPigeon
Tacticon, Denver, 22-25 AugustPigeon
UACES, Trento, 1-4 SeptSimon
APSA, Philadelphia, 5-8 SeptAmanda, Jennifer, Pigeon

Create an Authoritarian State!

I run this fun (yet relevant) activity early in my POLS 347: Comparative Authoritarianism course. Divide into teams of ~4 students and have teams create:

  • State name
  • State map with key geographic features
  • Regime type (and be able to define it)
  • Regime positions for everyone on team
  • Regime institutions
  • Election process (if any)
  • Key cultural features that influence politics
  • Economic structure
  • Defense structure
  • Any allies or opponents
  • If stuck in their design, look up actual authoritarian states (but try not to parrot a single state)

Since this is a 300-level course, I’ve found that students have enough general political science knowledge to think through every point, even without knowing specific authoritarian regime types so early in the course. Inveterate doodlers also love creating the map. I give them about 30 minutes, then have the teams brief their state designs. I finally do a short critique and Q&A for each team. For me, this activity works best in a 75-minute course with 40 students, but I’ve run it in 50-minute courses, cutting team prep to 20 minutes (which admittedly encourages a sense of hustle in the teams).

Yes, students will come up with outlandish designs, such as underwater dome cities, economic structures based entirely on creepy haunted doll manufacturing, and states defended by a single, giant robot. But in my experience, students actively think about each item and, even if outlandish, attempt to make their state designs consistent and coherent. By doing so, the teams almost always apply or extrapolate ideas that align with real-world authoritarian regime types. I imagine this will also work in a democratization course, too!