A Classroom Competition in Risk Taking

Today we have a guest post from Kyle Haynes, assistant professor of political science at Purdue University. He can be reached at kylehaynes [at] purdue [dot] edu.

Thomas Schelling’s (1966) groundbreaking work on “brinkmanship” explains how deterrent threats are made credible between nuclear-armed opponents. Schelling argued that although rational leaders would never consciously step off the ledge into nuclear Armageddon, they might rationally initiate a policy that incurs some risk of events spiraling into an inadvertent nuclear exchange. Whichever state can tolerate a greater risk of accidental disaster could then escalate the crisis until the adversary, unwilling to incur any additional risk, concedes. For Schelling, this type of crisis bargaining is a competition in risk taking. I use the following simulation to teach this concept:

The simulation begins by randomly splitting the entire class into pairs of students. One student in each pair is designated as Player 1 (P1), the other as Player 2 (P2). At the beginning of each game the instructor places nine white table tennis balls and a single orange table tennis ball into an empty bowl or small bucket. In Round 1 of the game, P1 must decide whether to concede the first extra credit point to P2, or to “stand firm” and refuse to concede. If P1 concedes, P2 receives one point and P1 receives zero points. If P1 stands firm, the instructor will blindly draw a single ball from the ten in the bowl. If the instructor draws a white ball, both players survive, and the game continues to the next round. If the instructor draws an orange ball, then “disaster” occurs and both players lose two points.

If the game continues to the second round, the instructor removes a white ball from the pot and replaces it with another orange ball—there are now eight white balls and two orange balls. It is P2’s turn to decide whether to stand firm or concede. If P2 concedes, P1 receives one point. If P2 stands firm and the instructor draws a white ball, both players survive, and the game continues to Round 3. If, however, the instructor draws an orange ball, both players lose two points.

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More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 2

My original design for this course included a design thinking component organized in two stages. In the first stage, teams applied SCAMPER to California Water Crisis, a freeware board game. Although the subject of water scarcity was quite relevant to the course, the game’s mechanics were not the most engaging. This should have made it easy for students to think of significant SCAMPER-based improvements, but their recommended changes were relatively superficial. The graded writing assignment tied to this activity also left much to be desired.

In the second stage, students were asked to apply SCAMPER to an existing game other than California Water Crisis. Two problems popped up here. First, teams chose very simple games to modify — think Chutes and Ladders (and without even any awareness of its Indian origins or its connection to British imperialism). Second, although I specifically directed them to place the new game in a specific context, like a city, this didn’t happen.

This time around, I’ll be having students play Stop Disasters and Wingspan. Teams will have to apply SCAMPER to one of these two games. Although they both connect well to the course’s subject, neither game is ideal. Stop Disasters is problematic because it is Flash-based. Wingspan requires, where I work, a significant departmental budget outlay of $100 per game, and I have to purchase five of them. Given the dimensions of Wingspan’s box, transporting all five at once could be a problem. The campus building in which I work is not ADA-compliant (my office, perhaps appropriately, is at the top of what originally was the servants’ stairwell).

Instead of selecting something different for the second design round, teams will stick with whichever of the two games they chose for the first round. While students will be free to choose any subject related to the course for the new game they are designing, it will have to be set in the city in which the university is located. I hope to locate some online data visualizations — maps of flood zones, public transportation routes, property tax assessments, etc. — to help students with this.

After the initial SCAMPER-based redesign, each team will play another team’s game. In an individual writing assignment, students will evaluate the games they played according to the game design principles referenced in the same assignment from last year. I will provide each team with the feedback it receives from the other students.

For the next phase, teams will, I hope, use SCAMPER as a means of applying feedback to improve their game designs. Then there will be another round of play testing, with another written evaluation. I might make this second evaluation a mechanism by which teams earn points on the quality of their games, as assessed by other students. That could heighten students’ investment in the design process. I will probably also need to include a means for students to evaluate the work of their teammates on this project over the semester — something I do regularly in my other courses.

The most irregular podcast in the world…

We’re great at many things here at ALPS, but producing regular episodes of our podcast is not one of them.

Sure, we could actually do something about that, but where’s the fun?

Instead, Amanda and I took a moment out of #IntTLC2019 to discuss various things, including how to avoid re-inventing the wheel, what it is we love about using sims, and why more of us should be bringing our students to conferences.

Listen here:

More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 1

The coming fall semester marks the second iteration of my “new” course on economic development and environmental politics. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I am making more changes. The complete original series of posts on how I built the course is here.

I am reducing my learning objectives slightly by eliminating an assignment on market externalities. I might return to the topic in the future, but last year I was not able to do it justice. Given the overall architecture of the course, it fell into the category of “what students don’t absolutely need.” I can keep it in my back pocket as something I can always lecture about at an appropriate time.

I am keeping the meta-prompts for assignments because, in my opinion, they serve as cues to students about the learning objectives. I don’t have any direct evidence that the meta-prompts actually register in students’ minds, but they might help.

As previously discussed, in-class quizzes did not work well. Students performed poorly on them, they consumed an excessive amount of classroom time, and they were a pain for me to grade. This time the quizzes will be timed at ten minutes, reside on our Canvas LMS, and consist of machine-graded multiple choice questions. I’ll have immediate feedback on students’ understanding and will be able to revisit subjects as needed. Each quiz is scheduled for the class after the corresponding learning objective has concluded.

In my next post, I’ll discuss changes to the design thinking aspect of the course.

Simulating the International Politics of Gender

Today we have a guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

This semester I am teaching a course on gender and international politics for the first time. The first half of the course examines gender and representation, while the second half explores gender in international politics. I aimed to bridge these two sections with a simulation that I created on child marriage—something currently on the agenda of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and a likely topic at the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) this summer.

Students have been working in groups by regions of the world to expand their knowledge base beyond their own experiences. For the simulation, they became spokespersons for their designated regions. As additional preparation, students read about CEDAW and an excerpt from Women, Politics, and Power by Paxton and Hughes. I did not inform them beforehand of the particular issue that would be discussed as part of the simulation, other than to say that the activity would resemble a communication from CEDAW.

During the simulation’s first class session, students met in their regional groups to research child marriage, making use of GirlsNotBrides.org. Each group formulated a regional proposal for what it would like the full class to discuss in the next two sessions. During these classes, a graduate student and I questioned students about their proposals to ensure they remained faithful to their roles. The ultimate objective was to collectively produce a single proposal to be presented at the upcoming CEDAW.

Based on post-simulation debriefing papers, students had mixed feelings about how little official private information was they received prior to negotiations and how much they had to rely on their own research to formulate a regional proposal. Perhaps as a result, discussion on the first day was a little slow to develop and their proposals were not as well fleshed out as I expected. On the second day, the majority of the students participated enthusiastically (and perhaps chaotically).

One of the most interesting things about this experience for the students was that they failed to come to an agreement in the time allotted. Many of them were concerned that they had “failed” the activity. When we debriefed the following week in class after they had written their papers, many of the students offered interesting insights about the difficulty of creating a proposal on something that they as American college students thought was an “easy” issue. The experience highlighted some of the practical challenges of creating laws that codify gender equality.

Next time, I might provide students with slightly more structured guidelines, but I don’t think I’ll do anything to make it easier for the students to create a unified proposal. I think the challenge and failure were essential parts of the value of the activity.

Perpetual Anarchy: A Game of War and Peace

Today we have a guest post by Matteo Perlini. He can be contacted at
matteoperlini [at] gmail [dot] com.

In a post from August of last year, Nathan Alexander Sears wrote about a simple game he designed that teaches students about IR theory. Based on Sears’s idea, I created “Perpetual Anarchy,” a two-player game where the goal is to maximize the wealth of one’s state. Unlike Sears’s game, mine does not eliminate players or involve diplomacy.

 “Perpetual Anarchy” requires a standard deck of playing cards and paper to record points scored and technological advances. The complete rules of “Perpetual Anarchy” are at https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/273757/perpetual-anarchy.

First Strategic Level

Each state must choose an action every turn: defense, attack or production. The choice of attack starts a war with the other state. Defense allows a player to better resist an attack by the opposing player. Production is an entirely peaceful action that helps increase wealth. The game has weak intransitive preference orderings: it is usually preferred (but not always!) to play defense against attack, attack against production, production against defense.

Defense vs. attack: as in the real world, defending is easier than attacking, so the defender has a bonus in the war (higher probability to win the war), but attacker must pay reputation costs for her belligerence.

Attack vs. production: attacker has a bonus in the war (higher probability to win the war) but she must pay reputation costs for her belligerence. By contrast, if the producer wins, she earns points without reputation costs.

Production vs. defense: both states score, but only the defending state has reputation costs, so the producer generally scores more.

The game is not strictly intransitive because the final outcome depends also on the second strategic level.

Second Strategic Level

States must choose how to allocate their budget across two dimensions: war/peace and long-term/short-term. A player must decide whether to give more prominence to one of the following strategies:

Short-term war: armament allocation helps the player win an urgent war, but the player will not use this allocation in the future.

Short-term peace: wealth allocation helps a player score points during peace.

Long-term war: military technology allocation does not increase the likelihood of winning an actual war, but increases marginally the player’s military efficacy forever.

Long-term peace: civilian technology allocation does not increase the actual points scored by a player, but increases marginally the player’s production efficacy forever.

As an example, a player who chooses a short-term war strategy will be more likely to win if a war occurs and will also prevent the opponent from capitalizing on long-term strategies, because the opponent loses any technology allocations in that turn.

The Pigeon’s Checklist for Classroom Game Design

Today we have a guest post by Lt Col James “Pigeon” Fielder, USAF, Associate Professor of Political Science at The U.S. Air Force Academy. He can be reached at http://www.jdfielder.com.

Interested in designing a classroom game, but have no idea where to start? Being a fan of classroom games, I developed this checklist to help me think through my own designs.  The only checklist items that I think are absolutely necessary are the objective and win conditions, as both are crucial for identifying the concepts you are measuring and providing students with clear and achievable goals. Other checklist items are dependent on your design. For example, if your game is not map-based, then a map and scale are not required, but a game with many pieces likely needs a detailed inventory. Game on!

  • Win Conditions: how the game ends.  Can be competitive (zero-sum) or cooperative (non-zero sum).  Games in which all teams can win are still challenging
  • Objective: what is the specific goal of your game?
  • Number of Players: helps the designer conceptualize the game size and boundaries. 
  • Level of Detail: abstract to elaborate setting.  Increased detail improves conceptual accuracy, but requires significantly more time to develop and play.  Not that abstract games are necessarily easier to design!
  • Inventory: all required pieces and parts to play the game. Be exhaustive, even down to number of spare rulebooks and pencils.  
  • Map or Board: visual display of the gameplay area. 
  • Scale: if the game requires length and volume measurement.  Example: each hex or square equals 1/6 of a mile. 
  • Course of Play: every step for running a game from start to finish. This will be the most detailed portion of the game. 
  • Combat Resolution: determining outcome of players cooperating or conflicting during the course of play.
  • Rewards and Punishments: mechanisms for players to advance or regress based on performance.
  • Measurement: scoring the game.  Can be qualitative (e.g. area of controlled space) or quantitative (number of points).
  • Arbitration: handling rule and player disputes.
  • Feedback: discussing game outcomes and recommended game improvements.
  • Glossary: define key terms.

Recommended Reading:

Asal, Victor. “Playing Games with International Relations,” International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2006): 359-373. 

Dunnigan, James. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2000. 

Macklin, Colleen, and John Sharp. Games, Design and Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley Professional, 2016. 

Sabin, Philip. Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games. New York, Continuum, 2012. 

Iterating Student Game Design

More final thoughts on my heavily-revised course on development from last semester: as explained in Parts 4 through 6 below, I included a scaffolded series of assignments on design thinking through SCAMPER, a method for creative problem-solving. In a debriefing discussion on the last day of class, one student expressed frustration that the game she and her team had built was not graded. I only graded how well students had written their evaluations of other teams’ games. 

I thought this was a fair point, and said so. But my past use of peer review of student-designed games had proven to be useless — teams simply gave other teams’ games full marks regardless of the games’ actual quality.  And I really did not want to get involved in the minutiae of assessing the quality of all the games that students had created.

Then I thought of applying the last phase of design thinking — experimentation and iteration — to the problem at hand, and this plan came to mind:

  • Compress teaching about design thinking and the related preparatory assignments into a shorter period of time (e.g., first half of the semester).
  • Teams of student design games. 
  • Each team plays and evaluates a game created by another team.
  • I provide the evaluations of each game to its creators.
  • Each team then uses the evaluations as feedback to improve the design of its game. 
  • There is a second, final round of game play. This time each team scores the other team’s game against a rubric. The rubric focuses on how well the second version of the game incorporated the feedback on the initial design.

This sequence might satisfy students’ expectation that everything they do must be graded. 

Links to the original series on redesigning this course:

Path dependency in class

A few years ago, I had a student who kept walking out of class.

He did this because he’d decided that, in several of the various negotiation scenarios into which I had placed him, his optimal strategy was to literally walk away from the table.

During the semester, he did this about four times, usually to snippy comments from his classmates.

We talked about it a fair bit, as a group, because I felt it was really useful to unpack the merits and demerits of this approach, which I’d not seen before (or since, for that matter).

I was remembering this case the other day, as my current group of negotiation students once again decided to hold a closed door meeting of principals, kicking out most of the class to the corridor outside.

As one student noted in the debrief: “why does this keep happening? Every time it does, it just really alienates people and makes it harder to reach an agreement”.

And that’s my question here: how and why do cohorts get stuck in patterns of behaviour?

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Ethically Simulating

This post was inspired by a story in The New York Times: a U.S. Marine discovered his daughters reading a “choose your own adventure” book with a chapter about a battle in Afghanistan in which he actually fought. He thought the book presented a superficial view of war and wrote an editorial on the subject. The book’s publisher decided to stop selling it and halt production of four other similar titles.

The story got me thinking about my own teaching. I often place students in simulated environments that in real life are horrendous — such as genocide, civil war, and natural disasters.* I do this because I believe it does a better job than just reading a text at getting students invested in the subject and developing a less-biased understanding of others. In the past these simulations have even included the digital version of choose your own adventure books.  

Yet I probably don’t pay enough attention to the risk that these exercises can come across as trite games completely divorced from reality. On the one hand, I teach undergraduates who in many cases have lived a materially comfortable life within a psychologically-comfortable bubble. Their world is diametrically opposed to the one that I am hoping they are learning about, and that probably gives them far less of an ability to empathize than I would like. On the other hand, my graduate courses are filled with active and former military personnel. Many of them have direct experience thinking through situations that my simulations attempt to artificially replicate.  

Perhaps I should be asking students “Did this simulation respect reality in a way that contributed to your learning?”

*Inside Disaster: Haiti, the death of which I reported in 2015, has apparently been resurrected via subscription-only access. While its history demonstrates the inherent problems of online simulations, I strongly recommend this product.