Mekong Dam Simulation, Part 2

Today we have a second guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

In our last post, we described our Mekong River crisis simulation. The assessments that we use for this simulation are designed to reward student preparation and engagement (a detailed breakdown is in this appendix).

Students are initially provided with detailed position descriptions for employment in the organisations to which they’ve been assigned. They are asked to prepare for a mock job interview for that position, which requires them to conduct research and think about their role in the simulation. We have offered this scenario in an applied capstone class, so have required students to identify their own readings and research to be able to fulfil their roles.

Once the simulation begins, students write a weekly strategy memo for the lead member of their organization based on independent research they’ve conducted, an opportunity for them to consider the practical, actionable implications of scholarly work in the social sciences. Students also must also document their interaction with other organisations and the media during the simulation in a reflective journal.

The head of each organization in turn relies on his or her team members to regularly provide advice about the best course of action in the unfolding crisis. If a group suggests a questionable course of action, the instructor uses follow-up questions to prompt students to consider possible negative consequences, e.g. how would investors view a decision to cancel the project?

At the end of the course, students analyze their experience of the simulation in a writing assignment.

The simulation is designed to make it difficult for students to upset the status quo. Local and international NGOs usually must settle for limited gains based on a government’s willingness to placate its critics. While this sometimes leads to frustration and disillusionment for students, it allows them to gain a better understanding of the power disparity between governmental and nongovernmental actors. While students sometimes initially attempt to resolve the crisis by reaching a consensus among all parties involved, they quickly realize that this is impossible due to conflicting interests. While students are allowed to make risky decisions if they are well considered and not purposely disruptive, successfully negotiated political and policy changes in the simulation have always been limited and incremental. 

In past iterations of the simulation, the incumbent Thai leadership has usually been able to retain control of the government and dominate issue framing, in some cases solidifying its position in the process. Thai opposition groups have had to navigate between outright rejection of government policies and a more conciliatory and constructive criticism. Students have learned that political change is difficult to accomplish without a broad anti-government bloc that includes civil society organisations.

Changes at the international level have also been limited, accurately reflecting the shortcomings of the Lower Mekong  governance regime and ASEAN’s commitment to the principle of non-interference. Students’ attempts to amend the 1995 Mekong Agreement have been hindered by states’ competing foreign policy objectives and the strict application of sovereignty. At most, parties have agreed on a controlled and gradual extension of the Mekong River Commission’s supervisory apparatus.

We have identified a few ways in which the simulation can be further improved. Students’ concerns about free riding within teams, while partially mitigated through the use of a team member evaluation tool (e.g. CATME or Feedback Fruits, we used one developed for this class by Joel), have continued. A possible solution could be a “divorce option,” where students would be allowed to “fire” a free riding member. We have also observed that students’ insufficient background knowledge can lead to unrealistic behaviour in the simulation. This could be mitigated by an increased redundancy within groups (multiple students being given the same or similar role) and an added criterion of academic performance in determining group allocation (Joel’s tool for the allocation of students into groups for class assignments has also been used to allocate students into roles for this class). 

Mekong Dam Simulation

Today we have a guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

We developed a six weeks long simulation with three contact hours per week about international competition over freshwater resources of the lower Mekong River. The simulation, which we call the Riparian Dam Crisis, is designed to provide students with the opportunity to build collaboration, communication, and negotiation skills while learning about Southeast Asia. Students are introduced to select theories before the start of the simulation and incentivised to conduct independent research and source other relevant materials to inform actions of their groups throughout. 

The simulation involves a Thai-funded hydroelectric dam project in Laos. Most of the dam’s electricity will be purchased by Thailand. Shortly before the dam goes into operation, a drought reduces downstream water to its lowest level in living memory. This scenario, which resembles the real-life Xayaburi dam a few years ago, reflects competing economic and environmental demands, weak regional regimes for dispute resolution, domestic political considerations, and transnational advocacy networks. Students assume the roles of various stakeholders that must try to achieve specific objectives in an evolving situation, such as the Thai, Lao, and Cambodian ministries of foreign affairs, rural NGOs, the regional Mekong River Commission, Thai political parties, and journalists. For example, the dam has been constructed wholly within Laos’s borders, which paradoxically gives the smallest country the largest say in the simulation’s outcome. Cambodia is the most negatively affected by upstream dams in Laos, but it has limited influence over Laos and Thailand because it is not a participant in the project. Meanwhile Thailand is very susceptible to domestic pressure from interests that either support or oppose the dam.

During the simulation, student journalists representing two Thai media outlets conduct interviews and create stories targeting different audiences. The simulation’s other stakeholders need to engage strategically with reporters to have their actions framed in a positive manner. 

Thus, there is one constellation of groups that broadly favours pushing forward with the dam, another one that generally wants to halt the dam, and a third whose position is flexible. After an initial feeling-out period, students identify aligned groups and develop strategies to achieve their objectives. Each time we have run this simulation, students have focused on their efforts on preserving or creating a sympathetic ruling coalition in Thailand after they had exhausted other diplomatic avenues. Students have been quite creative in creating novel strategies to achieve group objectives, such as staging mock mass protest campaigns, lobbying global powers, and bringing down Thailand’s ruling coalition with a vote of no confidence.

In a future post, we will describe how we assess student learning from the simulation and how we adapted it over time in response to student experience.

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:

Continue reading “Typologies for Conflict Simulations and Games”

The Marshmallow Tower Game

Along the lines of my last post, I’ve tweaked another game that I have used previously — the marshmallow challenge. My goal was to illustrate how economic development can be considered a collective action problem in which trust plays a key role. Here are the rules of the game:

  • Each team has 18 minutes to build a tower topped by a marshmallow using the materials provided.
  • The members of the team that builds the tallest tower earn 25 points each.
  • A “Red” player secretly placed on your team gets 25 points if their real team wins.
  • If a team correctly identifies its Red player, each team member wins 25 points. Only one guess per team.

The debriefing discussion included my brief description of Rousseau’s stag hunt scenario, and these questions:

  • If one considers the height of a tower as an indicator of a society’s level of economic development, why did some societies (teams) develop more quickly than others?
  • Did cultural values promote trust among team members?
  • What was in each person’s best interest? Were these interests achieved?
  • How did having a Red on your team affect your team’s behavior?
  • Who do you think the Reds were? Why?
  • How does it feel to be accused of being a Red?

At the very end of the discussion, I revealed that there were no Red players.

The class had ten students that I divided into three teams. One team’s tower collapsed when time expired, but none of the teams exhibited a high degree of dysfunction due to suspicions about the identity of its Red player. As usual, I think the game would work better in a class with more students.

The Bandit Game

In an attempt to rectify the failure of my previous classroom game on ethnic heterogeneity, democracy and dictatorship, I created another game that included a loss aversion component. I intended the game to demonstrate the concepts found in Mancur Olson’s 1993 article, “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development” (The American Political Science Review 87, 3). Here are the rules for game’s initial version:

  • Each person gets a playing card and 4 chips.
  • The class is divided into small groups.
  • The person with the highest card value in each group is a bandit.
  • The game has five rounds.
  • Each group’s bandit confiscates 1, 2, 3, or 4 chips each round from every other group member. This decision is made by the bandit. The bandit has to confiscate at least 1 chip from each group member each round, assuming the group member has a chip.
  • After round 1, 2, 3, and 4, each non-bandit gets 1 additional chip if they have ended the round with > 0 chips.
  • The person in each group with the most chips after round 5 earns points equivalent to the number of chips in their possession.

Version 2 of the game has the same rules as Version 1, plus:

  • A bandit can switch to a different group after each of rounds 1-4. The bandit with a higher value card turns another group’s bandit into an ordinary person.
  • The new bandit takes the eliminated bandit’s chips and can keep them or distribute some or all of them in any manner to members of their new group.

Version 3 has the same rules as Versions 1 and 2, plus:

  • Members of a group can eliminate a bandit if (a) they have card suits different from the bandit’s suit, and (b) the combined value of their cards exceeds the value of the bandit’s card. If a bandit is eliminated, the bandit’s chips are distributed equally among the challengers.
  • A bandit can retain control if (a) group members with cards of the same suit as the bandit’s decide to ally with the bandit and (b) the combined value of cards of this suit exceeds that of the bandit’s challengers.

Before play started, I stacked the deck with cards from only three suits because of the small class size — thirteen students are registered for the course, but only eleven showed up. I divided these eleven students into three groups.

For all versions of the game, all bandits confiscated the same number of chips from their group’s members in each round, even though the rules did not specify that they had to do this. In Version 1, one bandit confiscated all the chips from every group member in one round, which ended that group’s game play for the remaining rounds — demonstrating that it’s better for a stationary bandit to extract only a portion of wealth from the populace at any given time. During Version 2, no bandit changed groups, and in Version 3, no one tried to eliminate a bandit.

This game worked better than the last one, but it still needs a much larger number of participants for it to function as intended.

When a Game Fails

An inadvertent update to a 2015 post on the perils of small classes:

I recently ran a game in two classes that I had hoped would demonstrate the effects of ethnic heterogeneity in dictatorships and democracies. The basic mechanics of the game:

The class is split into groups. Each person gets a playing card. Card suit represents ethnicity, though I didn’t tell students this. A card’s numeric value equates to the power level of the person holding it. If someone in a group has a face card, then the group is a dictatorship. The person in the group with the highest value face card is the dictator, who makes all decisions. If no one in the group has a face card, then the group is a democracy, with decisions made by majority vote. The numeric values of the cards don’t matter.

The game is played in multiple rounds, with a greater number of points at stake in each round — I used five rounds, worth 3, 5, 7, 10, and 15 points, respectively. These points count toward the final course grade. In every round, each group allocates its points to its members according to the rules above. If anyone in a group is dissatisfied with how the points were distributed, the person can recruit a cluster of allies who have cards of the same suit to challenge the distribution. In a dictatorship, the challenge succeeds if the cluster’s combined power level exceeds that formed by the dictator’s allies. In a democracy, the challenge succeeds if the cluster’s total power level exceeds that of the rest of the group. When there is a successful challenge, the group has to distribute its points in a different way. Each round had a time limit of just a few minutes, and if a group failed to successfully allocate its points before a round ended, the group’s points for that round disappeared.

Continue reading “When a Game Fails”

Electoral Simulators

A brief post for today — I’m still recuperating from removing half a meter of snow from the sidewalks and driveway after the Blizzard of 2022.

For people who teach voting and elections as part of comparative politics:

The New York Times recently published Hexapolis, a gerrymandering game, on its website. The accompanying example of Austin, Texas, is useful.

Another great tool is Nick Case’s interactive simulation of different voting systems, To Build A Better Ballot.

Empathy isn’t sympathy

My youngest is currently getting stuck into her school’s debating society. Weekly topics range from getting rid of the monarchy to pushing vaccine mandates, with pupils getting dropped into a side at random, and at short notice.

You might well have done the same yourself when you were younger; I didn’t, mainly as I was too busy being awkward and gangly.

The orthodontist has terrible/disturbing taste in art. Discuss.

My daughter really likes the approach, both for the range of topics (which we often end up discussing over the dinner table) and for the reflection it promotes about how to make an effective case.

The other day as we sat at the orthodontist, waiting for a replacement retainer (hers, not mine), we were deep into whether a technocracy was better than a democracy when she raised a concern.

The format of debates requires you to defend a position, regardless of what you believe. So far, she’s not found herself pushing something she strongly disagrees with, but she felt uncomfortable about the thought of it.

Indeed, your beliefs – and any objective facts – count for nothing in formal debating. Yes, you can bring evidence, but it is in compelling presentation and investment in the logic of ‘your’ side that you can usually prevail. Put differently, debating seems to care more for what is convincing than for what is grounded in evidence.

At which point we wave from our PoliSci benches and give a big ‘hello’.

I noted that when I allocate students into my negotiations, I often like to put people in roles that don’t fit their own views, on the grounds that it’s a good exercise in learning to empathise. You might find it axiomatically true that X is right, but there are others out there who (strongly) disagree, so perhaps by trying to put yourself in their shoes for a bit you might better understand where they’re coming from.

But you see already the potential for a replication of the same dynamic as that debating society: maybe everyone focuses on ‘winning’ rather than the empathy.

In the debating society the format is very much focused on that competition, so it’s a real issue. For negotiations, I hope we have more latitude to limit the problem.

Most obviously, I never judge negotiation exercises on who ‘wins’, and often there is no clear ‘win’ available in basic structural terms. Secondly, the debrief that always follows is about process and substance, with consideration of the differing value judgments, how they arise and their impact. And finally there is often a degree of integration: progress towards agreements is usually about finding common ground rather than domination.

However, the orthodontist discussion did give serious pause for thought. In an age when politicians sometimes seem to be willing/able to say anything to gain support/profile, there is a danger that simply giving students rhetorical skills breeds a false impression that all truths are equal and find their value only in how well you speak of them.

Yes, the scientific method does point us towards the essential need for evidence, but maybe this isn’t enough. Empathy cannot be presented as a equivalent of sympathy or of equivalence, but as a tool for improving our understanding of contested spaces and topics, with which we can then work to find more inclusive ways forward, working together.

Maybe I’ll suggest that as a future topic for someone’s debating society.

A Human Rights Foreign Policy Game

Today we have a guest post from Michelle Goodridge, academic librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University. She can be contacted at mgoodridge [at] wlu [dot] ca.

After a casual conversation about classroom games with my colleague Professor Andrew Robinson, we created a foreign policy simulation for his course, HR 100 Human Rights and Human Diversity. We had two goals for the simulation: first, have students explore why state actors fail to advance human rights domestically and internationally, and second, measure the simulation’s effectiveness in helping students achieve desired learning outcomes.

We modified the International Trade Game by:

  • Orienting the exercise around human rights instead of international trade.
  • Dividing students into three teams of high and middle-income pro-human rights. democracies, two teams of low-income democracies indifferent to human rights, one team of a high-income state that is anti-human rights, and one team representing an NGO.
  • Introducing the political objective of re-election.
  • Creating different winning conditions for each team.

To form teams, students picked one of several different colored t-shirts that we had laid out around the classroom. Each team received a corresponding packet of instructions and resources. I had the role of The Trader who accepted the geometric shapes produced by teams in exchange for political support units. Andrew injected human rights crises into the simulation via PowerPoint. The simulation ran an hour, with defined victory conditions that needed to be met to have a winner. Often none of the teams met its victory condition, which came as a shock to the students, but it helped illustrate the complexity of international relations.

After the game concluded, we took time to debrief the students, and this is when students made robust connections between the simulation and concepts they had been studying. I can only assume this is because verbalizing these responses right after the exercise is easier than writing them down a week afterward.

We attempted to measure the effectiveness of our Human Rights Foreign Policy Game with pre/post test evaluations. The evaluation results were anonymized, coded, and analyzed using SPSS. We found that the richest data came from students’ responses to the evaluation’s open-ended questions. So far, we have run this simulation in six semesters, and we will probably continue to use it in the future because of the high percentage of students reporting that it helped them learn. For more details, please see our article “Objective Assessment of Pedagogical Effectiveness and the Human Rights Foreign Policy Simulation Game,” Journal of Political Science Education 17, 2 (2021): 213-233, DOI: 10.1080/15512169.2019.1623048.

Statecraft in the International Relations Classroom

Today we have a guest post from Eric Cox, an associate professor at Texas Christian University. He can be contacted at e[dot]cox[at]tcu[dot]edu.

Does the online Statecraft simulation improve student learning when used as a key component of international relations classes? I explored this question in a Journal of Political Science Education article through a controlled comparison of two IR course sections taught during the same semester. One section was randomly chosen to participate in Statecraft, the other was assigned a research paper. The primary finding of the study was that students in both sections performed similarly on exams when controlling for other factors.

Statecraft is a turn-based simulation that divides students into “countries” that they govern. Each country must choose its form of government, economic system, and other attributes. Players also choose whether to focus on domestic spending priorities such as schools, hospitals and railroads, or on military capabilities. They must deal with terrorism, the melting of Ice Mountain, pirates, and rumors. The simulation is, to put it mildly, complex. I have been using it for just over a decade.

To try to put the students doing the research paper on an equal footing with those engaged with Statecraft, I dedicated several days of class to instruction in research writing skills and peer review. The students in this section spent roughly the same amount of time in class on their paper as the students in the Statecraft section did on the simulation. Both groups also wrote about the same amount.

At the end of the semester, I compared class performance on three exams and gave students a brief survey on their experiences. The initial findings were surprising: the research paper class did much better on exams but were less satisfied with the research assignment than the Statecraft students were with the simulation. I obtained access to students’ GPA when entering the course, and re-ran my analysis with GPA, whether students were taking the course for a grade, and whether students were political science majors as controls. Once these controls were introduced, the effect of Statecraft went away. The strongest predictor of course performance was their incoming GPA. Students with high prior GPAs made As, B students made Bs, and so on. Academic performance was independent of the research paper or Statecraft assignment. However, students in the Statecraft section showed a strong preference for the simulation over a traditional research paper, and students in the research paper section indicated they would have rather done Statecraft. Subsequent student evaluations have also demonstrated the relative popularity of Statecraft.

That said, my use of Statecraft has evolved, something I discuss in detail in my chapter of Teaching International Relations. Foremost, I dedicate class time to the simulation, and draw examples from the simulation when discussing IR theory, issue areas, and current events. Students have indicated that the simulation gives them a greater appreciation for the complexity of international relations and the challenges leaders face. 

Editor’s note: previous posts on Statecraft can be found here.