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?
PSA, Glasgow, 25-27 MarchCathy
PCA, Chicago, 27 – 30 MarchJennifer
ISA, San Francisco, 3-6 AprilAmanda, Pigeon
Freedom to Learn, London, 5 AprilCathy
UCL Education Conference, 17 AprilCathy, Kalina
ECSA-C, Ottawa, 23 – 25 MayJennifer
CEEISA, Rijeka, 18-21 JuneAmanda, Kalina
ECPR SGEU, Lisbon, 19-21 JuneSimon
Connections Wargaming, Carlisle (PA) , 25-27 JunePigeon
UACES, Trento, 1-4 SeptSimon
APSA, Philadelphia, 5-8 SeptAmanda, Jennifer

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!

Hasty thoughts on AI in the Classroom

This morning, I had a great talk with Dr. Elia Elisa Cia Alves and several of her Federal University of Paraíba colleagues about using artificial intelligence tools in the classroom.

Based solely on my observations of colleagues and literature, I perceive a roughly even split between AI adopters and naysayers. I’ll admit that I lean towards the naysayers in that I argue AI stifles critical thinking and effective writing skills. Yet, I know educators who’ve fully embraced AI and teach students how to use it as a tool rather than a crutch. Two examples include critiquing AI-generated papers and students comparing their own writing against an AI revision of their work. I’ll admit this approach is lending me some ideas, such as having students generate an article on a news topic, then providing them an actual news article on the topic and letting students compare the two (this, of course, assumes the article is genuine).

I felt better about using AI in the classroom at the end of the meeting, but with one lingering caveat–large classroom assignments. Even the AI skeptic in me can imagine running an AI-driven activity in my smaller courses (19 and 40 students), but my 150-student courses? I mean, I can barely see the back row of students in those sections without a telescope, let alone trying to imagine wrangling an activity in an efficient amount of time.

This post barely scratches the surface. I’m curious to read your thoughts in the comments and am open to guest submissions on longer treatments! alps@activelearningps.com

Thanksgiving Duck and Running Large Classroom Games

First, what is everyone thankful for this year? Share your comments! 🙂

I’m thankful for my family, working with great colleagues, and the two ducks thawing in my fridge. My wife and I have never liked turkey, and aside from trying turducken (too dry) and goose (expensive duck) once each, we’ve roasted up two ducks every Thanksgiving since 1996. My wife loves post-Thanksgiving sandwiches the best, where she layers duck, stuffing, and cranberry sauce between two thick-cut slices of buttered and lightly toasted bread. The look she gets on her face with the first bite is best described as rated PG-13.

Next Wednesday, I kick off Cold Winter, my end-of-course exercise for POLS 131: Current World Problems (think intro to IR and CP for non-political science majors). POLS 131 sections range from 100 to 200 students, so it’s quite a handful to run even with my TAs and ~2 student assistants. Students form six-person teams early in the semester and design a state, IGO, or NGO using the DIME model (diplomacy, intelligence/information, military, economic). It is straightforward for the state teams, but the IGO and NGO teams must think creatively about how the model fits their structures (for example, economic for an NGO might mean how they solicit donations, and military might mean how they hire security). Aside from using real-world cities for their state capitals or headquarters, the teams otherwise create everything from scratch (albeit they can use real states, IGOs, and NGOs for inspiration).

Discord sreenshot from a previous Cold Winter exercise

During the exercise, the teams react to an evolving international crisis. It’s usually a zombie apocalypse, but I’ve run it with evil robots, too (at some point, I’ll use vampires or werewolves). Why a speculative crisis? It encourages students to think outside the box without preconceived notions and avoids partisanship associated with real-world issues. I know how the scenario starts, but I improvise the rest based on how teams react and apply course concepts. It’s four days of absolute chaos, but feedback from previous semesters suggests that the students love it–it makes the course material come alive.

I use Discord to manage the game, which is fantastic for running large and specific events (in contrast, I don’t like using Discord for day-to-day communication). I set up channels for each team, a news and intelligence channel where I post scenario updates, a request for information channel for teams to ask questions, and a white cell channel just for myself and my assistants. I deputize my TAs and student assistants to adjudicate questions and events as they circulate around the room, which I then add to the scenario. Even with students using Discord, the room is a raucous cacophony of shouting and hustling students.

Students are not graded on their in-game performance; rather, they submit an after-action report essay in which they reflect on their team’s strategies, failures, and successes. This way, they can take risks during the game without worrying about grades.

I’d love to write this up for, say, the Journal of Political Science Education or International Studies Perspectives, but the hard part is conveying the improvisation required. I can teach someone how to build the exercise, but I don’t know how to teach someone how to be a dungeon master (it’s a skill I picked up over many years. That, and I don’t get stage fright). I’m open to suggestions and a co-author on the subject of improv!

Basic Tools for Planning and Designing Classroom Games

Planning and designing classroom games doesn’t require boxes of custom Meeples, fancy boards, or a degree in graphic design. Rather, I recommend having the following stash on hand to help you think through your design:

  • Deck of playing cards: card decks are great! You can use suits to represent teams or events, use cards face down to represent a hidden and abstract map, or use cards as randomizers in the place of dice.
  • Dice: in addition to number generation, you can also use dice as markers with count numbers, using the face numbers (pips) to represent the number of turns left, the amount of resources a player has, and so on. I recommend having at least a dozen six-sided dice and one set of seven polyhedral dice (Fig 1).
  • Post-it Notes and index cards: create simple maps, organize a narrative storyboard, and re-create an abstract layout of your classroom so that you can visualize teams and movement.
  • Whiteboard and plain or graph paper: sketch your game. I recommend plain or graph paper since they encourage using the entire sheet and breaking lines.
  • Pennies: pennies are great as general-purpose markers! They’re versatile despite their size and also have some weight and feel substantial (tactile elements are essential, which I’ll cover in a later post).
Figure 1: Polyhedral Dice. Photo by Armando Are from Pexels

Politics in Worlds that Never Were, Part 1

This semester, I’m teaching a literature course with a mouthful name: Thinking for a Thriving Planet – Environmental Politics in Worlds that Never Were. It’s part of a Department of English Teagle Grant in which ten faculty from different liberal arts departments teach fiction/non-fiction literature courses grounded in their respective disciplines. It was a tremendously fun and insightful course, and I’d been chomping at the bit to teach it again.

I taught a variant of this course at the US Air Force Academy in 2018. In that version, cadets analyzed science fiction and fantasy literature using international relations theory (I also included a block on board games and roleplaying games). For their midterm, the cadets had an open book/open note short essay exam analyzing an excerpt from the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting, which questions such as, how would realism interpret a 20th-level character freely adventuring across sovereign boundaries? And, how does magic in this setting influence the balance of power in this setting? The course culminated in a world analysis paper, requiring students to analyze at least three books in a series. I was also able to get post-Herbert Dune author Kevin J. Anderson and roleplaying game designer Sean Patrick Fannon as guest speakers, and authors Jeanne DuPrau (The Book of Ember) and John Scalzi (Old Man’s War) to comment on cadet papers written on their respective books.

Image by 8385 from Pixabay

For my current class, I was required to focus on environmental politics per the Teagle Grant. One minor problem: I don’t specifically study environmental politics. Too easy–I’ll learn alongside my students! Soliciting the help of my department’s environmental politics scholars–shout out to Bob Duffy, Ryan Scott, Dimitris Stevis, and Marcela Velasco–I assembled a collection of seminal environmental politics paired with six speculative fiction books, plus a book chapter appetizer. Listed below in order of course appearance:

I’d already settled on Bacigalupi, DuPrau, Herbert, Miller, but folks on the Political Scientists Facebook page suggested Stewart and Valenti (and UNLV’s Chris Jensen suggested opening with the Tolkien chapter to ease students into analysis). They also have a similar midterm, analyzing an excerpt from the roleplaying game Shadowrun, and a world analysis paper grounded (pun unintended) in environmental politics. I’m also including a games lesson and two lessons on films.

Another challenge is that, unlike my 400-level USAFA course, this version is 100-level. Whereas my USAFA students already had introductory major’s courses under their belts, my current students were hit with a firehose right out of high school (hence, why Chris Jensen’s Tolkien chapter suggestion was a great idea). I’ve mitigated that by reminding my students that this is a discussion-based course with no right or wrong answers, just poorly organized ones. I also taught them strategies for approaching the material using Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book as a foundation. I think they understand that the thinking is high, but the risks are low now, as they exploded out of their shells yesterday to discuss Dune–I barely had to say or do anything beyond selecting raised hands!

So far, so good, but the midterm will be their next big challenge.

“Keep it Simple, and Plagiarize” (Classroom Games, that is!)

I likely just gave every academic a heart attack!

I’ll assuage your worries. The words are from legendary wargame designer Jim Dunnigan, author of Wargames Handbook. What he meant by those words was that first, use the minimum amount of game mechanics necessary to model your game’s objectives, and second, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to design games from scratch. I’ll discuss objectives further in a later post and focus on design “plagiarism” here.

Game mechanics are the rules that govern player behavior, such as card game hands, using dice to measure chance in a roleplaying game, or dribbling a basketball. Odds are someone’s already designed game mechanics that comes close to modeling your game’s objective. Even the first roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, was born from tabletop wargaming mechanics. Instead of designing from a blank page, borrow mechanics from those other games. Indeed, since game mechanics can’t be copyrighted, you can often download game rulebooks for free directly from publishers.

What this means for you as an educator is that there’s a world of material out there that you can use, mix, and match for gaming your course learning objectives. For example, For my Fall 2019 Comparative Authoritarianism course, I borrowed mechanics from Risk and Pandemic to build a zombie apocalypse game that measured students’ knowledge of different regime types and their expected regime behaviors (assessing games will be another topic!).

Great, where do you learn game mechanics? The best way is to play games (or watch people play), and the second best way is to read rulebooks. I’m lucky that Fort Collins has two game stores where customers can borrow games in the store for free (and Gryphon Games & Comics also rents out games for a few dollars a day, which is nice when games such as Gloomhaven cost $150).

In the absence of a local game store, BoardGameGeek is a fantastic resource. PAXsims is also great for following the professional, training, and education gaming scene. If you want a handy mechanics reference, I recommend Engelstein and Shalev’s Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design (2022).

The holy grail for political science educators, however, is Gaming Political Science, hosted by the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. I imagine Dr. John Filter cloistered away like a gaming monk, gathering games published in the Journal of Political Science Education, International Studies Perspectives, Perspectives on Politics, and so on (I’ll do future posts on games in journals, let alone numerous other resources).