Model Diplomacy: Smart, easy to use foreign policy simulations

Model Diplomacy is a series of free National Security Council simulations put out by the Council on Foreign Relations. Michelle used it in her class last year, and I decided based on her positive experience to try it in my intro to IR class this year.  In this post I’m going to explain the basics of Model Diplomacy, discuss my experience using it, and give my recommendation.  Spoiler Alert: I loved it.

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My Test Run of: ISIS Crisis Simulation

A few months ago I downloaded a game simulation from PAXSIMS Rex Brynan…. ISIS Crisis. The download contains the game board and all its pieces which is still under revision and development…but… I decided to give it a go with my summer section of Intro to IR students.

Counters for ISIS Crisis ©
Counters for ISIS Crisis ©

First things first…my students are not gamers and they do not know the conditions on the ground regarding ISIS, Syria, Iraq, etc.. So my purpose in conducting the game was to help them understand the sheer complexity of the situation by making each one of them a player in the system.

The role sheets and directions are pretty good but I STRONGLY recommend that the instructor play through the game once before attempting this in class. Ahem…I did not. ONWARD

Rough Spots

  1. Too many game pieces.. they often got in the way and confused the students. For the simple points I was trying to make, the teeny game pieces could be thinned out or thrown out altogether. Perhaps great for more advanced strategists to make the game more complex, but at the undergraduate civilian level…. not necessary.
  2. I attempted to have students read up and develop a working knowledge of their role before coming to the simulation day. This simply wasn’t enough. (my bad) A much better plan of attack for next time is to have students write a three page personal history in the voice of their role. This way students internalize deeper history in the first person.
  3. Picking methods for game play. The game kit offers several options for turn taking and scoring. Take the simplest one…get a few dice and get on with it! The students got bogged down in more complex systems. Pick the simplest path.

Awesome Spots

  1. By the end of hour 1 of game play it was almost painfully clear to each of the actors in the game that there were no simple answers to “getting rid of ISIS.” Most of this is built into the game through the rule structure which is quite cleverly leveraged to the advantage of ISIS (every time a double is rolled by an actor, ISIS gets to go again…muahahahahaha!…sad but true).
  2. The students were IMMEDIATELY dragged into the game. This, despite the fact that they had only light knowledge of the actual politics going on. (Again, my bad)
  3. The game is definitely in its infancy and will likely evolve to even more robust design. I will absolutely teach with it again. Its core structure seems also to be highly portable to other scenarios which is a triple thumbs up!


Let’s be criminals! Guest post by Felia Allum

allumFelia Allum (University of Bath)

As a teacher, who researches organised crime in Italy and Europe, I wanted to re-invigorate my teaching approach and reach out more effectively to my students. In previous years, my undergraduate unit ‘Organised crime and democracy in Italy’ has always been very popular with students because of the nature of the topic, it always attracts and indeed, there is now a buoyant community of academics researching this topic.

When I taught this unit I sought to teach my students about the different cultural and economic conditions that surround Italian mafias and organised crime generally, to understand why individuals become mafiosi, what decisions do they make and why? What cultural values shape their world view? What economic activities do they undertake and why? Why do mafiosi seek out politicians and businessmen? But, this form of teaching was very teacher-led with me at the centre, giving out my wisdom. It worked but it was safe and only those highly motivated and enthusiastic students really understood the different debates that I was pressing.

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Cleaning up other people’s mess (in a good way)

3175714614_321ac67ede_bA few weeks ago, I wrote about simulating the Greek crisis. I suggested then that one issue in doing this was the difficulty of carrying things over from year to year in the classroom: students change, curricula change, you never quite know whether it’s still going to be relevant, etc.

As Amanda rightly pointed out in an email to me some time later, you can perfectly well do it, with a bit of thought. So it’s with that bit of thought that I am now doing it.

Last year I created my first online asynchronous simulation for the INOTLES project in which I participate. As you’ll see from the post, it’s a simplified recreation of the East European situation, with a friendly (if ponderous) EU-like structure on one side and a confident (if worryingly so) Russia-like country on the other.

I played this with my students too, with the upshot that the ‘Russians’ produced a surprising success in sealing a deal with the ‘East Europeans’ (largely over a misunderstanding, but let’s not pretend that doesn’t happen in real life too). I put the simulation back on the shelf, mused on what had happened and then basically forgot about it.

Until Amanda’s email. There’s no reason why this year’s students can’t pick up where their predecessors left off.

It’s a fictional scenario, with all the requisite information provided. Since it allows for a wide-ranging set of actions, there is no obvious end-point or stable equilibrium. Indeed, one might imagine that some students might take the opportunity to revise the actions of the past, just because they can. Certainly, given the rather devil-may-care approach to a second round of the Hobbes games in class yesterday, that looks like a rather likely outcome.

I’ll quote Amanda at some length here:

Whenever we do a simulation, it tends to be a new run of an old game–how neat would it be to have the simulation just continue, with students acting as the newly appointed representative for that country and having to work with old agreements produced by students who are no longer in power?  I find the idea really interesting, not only for the sense of realism it brings to ongoing negotiations, but also for the real-world skill of having to step into a job vacated by someone else and having to figure out what the prior office holder did and how to incorporate their decisions into your own

Amanda’s last point is perhaps the crucial one: we all have to pick up other people’s stuff and deal with it – it’s a basic stable of professional life – so getting to experience that is a useful opportunity for personal development.

Indeed, in this game the original conceit that it opened with no particular situation is clearly unrealistic, so we’ll learn about path dependency directly.

Amanda’s one concern was about record-keeping: how to capture what had happened, so that we can pick it up again. Well, I’ll admit that this isn’t a big issue in this case. The final agreement reached ran to a full four lines of hand-written text and there was nothing else to share. I’m hoping that this time around we’ll have clearer sight of the next year, so that paper-trails can be left, with all the joys that brings.

As usual, this is all new territory for me, so I’ll be reporting back as we progress.

Simulations: What are they good for?

This is the third (first and second) in my series chronicling my experience working with two undergraduate students to develop a simulation for my comparative politics class. Last week, we had the opportunity to run a mini-simulation for the group. We thought it would be useful to introduce my students to the independent study students and to the idea of role-play simulations. Plus, as it was early in the semester, it was a nice community-building/ice-breaker activity (my students are part of a live-and-learn community, so this is important for us). The program includes a 1-credit evening class, which provided the perfect venue for running this mini-simulation, which one of the independent study students had written for his summer internship. The simulation was not designed to capture anything that we were covering in class.

I facilitated one of the six groups, observed the debriefing session, and read my students’ reflection papers. The experience reinforced the findings of much of the literature on simulations. In particular:

  • Simulations encourage students to make connections and apply course material. Despite not being designed for the class, I was impressed with how the students immediately invoked course material in their discussions without any prompting. They naturally sought to make the connections, even though it was only two weeks into the semester and the simulation was not directly tied to any course content.
  • Beyond knowledge acquisition, simulations are valuable for skills-building. In their reflection papers, many students noted how they had to use negotiation and communication skills in the simulation. Even a simulation that was seemingly unrelated to course content has value for the sorts of skills we hope undergraduates develop.
  • Character buy-in is important. The mini-simulation was exceptionally well written and many of the students surprised even themselves with how invested in their characters and the outcome they became, even in two short hours. This meant students were negotiating (and in some cases fighting) for what their characters would want.
  • And, as we all know, a good debriefing is crucial. One interesting insight that came out of the debriefing was how the simulation encouraged students to think about their cultural (i.e. American/western) bias when considering politics in a developing, African (although fictional) country.

In all, the evening made me optimistic about the success of the long-term simulation we’re developing for the course. It also reminded me of the broad benefits of simulations for applying knowledge and building skills, even when you didn’t intend it.

It’s just a game…

If this means nothing to you, then rejoice.

We talk a lot about the immersive aspect of simulations on this blog: the way in which students become participants, actively taking part in the learning environment and so internalising the material.

However, it’s also important to recognise that this is not without issues, something that I was reminded of with this week’s news about the arrests made in the run-up to the Pokemon world championships. While that case wasn’t directly about immersion, it did speak to me of a problem of perspective and proportion. As much as we amplify the learning, so we also amplify the potential for distress.

I wrote an article some years ago about enhancing immersion, which discusses this in much more depth, but it’s helpful to reprise some of the key messages that flow from that about managing it.

  1. Neither staff nor students should lose sight of the simple fact that the simulation is just that, a simulation. As much as immersion is to be encouraged, so too must be an awareness of the artifice. Beforehand, you might warn students about the potential for getting drawn in. During the game, students can be required to perform tasks that make them step out of their roles (keeping notes and reflections on their actions, for instance). Most importantly, afterwards there must be a debrief, where students are consciously and conspicuously brought back to the ‘real world’. This is also a good point for some discussion about the artificiality of the simulation.
  2. There is a delicate balance to be struck between having too much conflict in a simulation and too little. Conflict helps to generate buy-in, as students have to defend their position and attack others’; it gives a easy way into them feeling that something is at stake. However, if that conflict becomes too big a part, then it colours everything else that happens, including life outside of the game. Similarly, if the impression is that everyone agrees, then students can struggle to get motivated by the topic. Usually, it’s pretty obvious if there’s enough conflict to work, but if you’re not sure, then I find that it’s good to sit with a colleague and talk through the issues with them;
  3. Simulations are artificial, but they still are supposed to tell us something about the real world, so it’s important not to completely box in the experience. This might seem to go against what I’ve just said, but it’s actually an extension of it: discussing the artificiality also requires us to discuss the realism. Certainly, I can say that I have learnt a lot about a lot of people, just through interacting with them on a simulation: not always good stuff, but definitely stuff that helps me to understand them better. The key point here is – once again – context.

In summary, simulations offer us great potential for insight – into ourselves and others – but we have to handle that with care and thought.

Building new layers of student interaction

I’m gonna design you a game that you can’t refuse…

Last week’s good news came on the same day that I was invited to talk to colleagues at the University of Bath about simulations and role plays.

Felia Allum is running a module/course (actually, Bath calls them units, but you know what I mean) about organised crime in Italy and beyond and had won some funding to support the development of a much more active learning approach, using sims. Together with her Faculty’s e-learning development office, Geraldine Jones, they wanted to explore how this might work and to get some feedback on their ideas.

This kind of thing is exactly what I love about my work: getting a specific project into which to input and (hopefully) develop (plus a trip to Bath, which is always good anyway).

As with many of the other projects I’ve had this kind of role in, it’s something that at first (and indeed, second) glance look to be almost impossible: ideas that I would never have come to by myself.

I’ll not talk in much detail about this project – especially because I’m going to get Felia and Geraldine to do that further down the line – but I do what to draw out two really interesting aspects.

The first is their notion that students should design their own games. We know from the literature that teaching is one of the best ways to learn, and in terms of students developing an appreciation of the dynamics involved in the lives of organised criminals, making them create a game is very powerful.

The flip-side, obviously, is that this is rather daunting: I’ll admit I spent most of a morning trying to work how I might do it without much success. Felia and Geraldine’s way around this is rather good, namely giving the students a fairly rigid template of what is needed and what they have to do, coupled to feedback on a draft version, before any actual gameplay.

The second exciting aspect is about how you get students to internalise and understand the pressures that face criminals. The problem is that those pressures are very different to those facing a university student.

It is precisely through the students’ games that they will work towards this internalisation and understanding, but we talked about how an initial nudge might help them on the way.

With that in mind, we looked at starting the module with another game, to set up some tensions – about money, status, loyalty and trust – that might inform what comes later. My thought was that be having a system of credit for each of these factors would set up a clear signalling mechanism to students, which they could in turn build into their own games (thereby helping with the first point about design).

This is something still in development, but once I’ve had a chance to go through the game I pulled together on the journey home, I’ll be posting it up on my simulations website for you all to see.

Even if you’re not interested in organised crime, if you can get to involved in discussions with colleagues about their projects and ideas, then it’s not only good for them, it’s good for you too. I’ve come away from my day in Bath with a whole new set of thoughts and possibilities to explore.

Simulations and Games Index

One request we here at ALPS received at TLC was to create a page that indexed all the various games, simulations, and class exercises that we’ve posted over the years on the blog so that they are more readily accessible for folks.  We’ve gone ahead and done just that–the page, accessible from the home page of ALPS or this link, now has a fairly comprehensive list of everything we’ve covered, plus some we have not.  The various posts are organized by category–American Politics, IR/CP, methods, theory, etc– for your quick reference. Hopefully our readers–whether long time or just arrived–will find the page useful for tracking done an exercise or game on a particular topic in political science.

Informal Assessment of the Chasing Chaos Simulations 

A few general conclusions about the Chasing Chaos simulations that I’ve discussed previously:

Chasing ChaosStudents found the personal narrative of the Chasing Chaos book extremely engaging. Perhaps this is evidence that biographies and autobiographies should play a greater role in exposing students to unfamiliar people, places, and events. In an end-of-semester survey, students also commented that they thought the simulations were realistic and easy to understand. Some also said that they appreciated the way the simulations gave the entire class opportunities to interact even though each simulation lasted for only one to two class periods.

The briefing memos — in which students wrote about the assigned readings before each simulation — demanded too much creative thinking from students. Students simply never developed the ability to use information I provided to predict a potential future conflict and then recommend a response to it. As Bidisha Biswas and Agnieszka Paczynska note in their worthwhile recent article on teaching policy writing in PS, government agencies value employees who can analyze a situation and justify their recommended response to it in a clear, concise, relevant manner. To better give students practice in developing this skill, the briefing memo assignments probably should present students with a set conflict — perhaps the one described in each simulation’s intelligence report — to analyze and respond to, instead of requiring them to first fashion a hypothetical conflict themselves.

During the negotiation phase of the majority of the simulations, students abandoned their roles, so to speak, to try to achieve a unanimous agreement that would maximize the number of points earned toward their final grades. To me this is a good reason to simply eliminate the bonus-for-unanimous-agreement option. The downside of this change is that a truly competitive simulation in which not everyone can win might produce severe angst among students who have been raised in a culture of “everybody always wins because everybody is special.” On the other hand, students need to be introduced to reality at some point in their lives. In terms of my job security and career advancement, I am relatively well-insulated from the potential complaints of students whose narcissistic delusions of self-worth I punctured.

My last thought also relates to the potential cost to the instructor of using custom-made simulations. Due to declining enrollment and a change in the university’s core curriculum, I have no idea when I will next be teaching the course for which I developed these simulations. If I’m to avoid my labor going to waste, I’m going to have to figure out how to I can use the simulations in another course, which in itself means even more work on my part.

Cultural specificities in simulations

Dated cultural reference, for older readers

I’ve been very out of the office of late, with a short holiday with the family in Istanbul and now with a conference in Oslo. It’s all very cosmopolitan, as you might expect from the European partner in ALPS Blog.

As you’d also expect from me, it’s had me thinking about the role of culture in simulation games. By this, I’m understanding the way in which different cultural experiences play out within simulations.

This matters as a subject because simulations as a fundamental participant-led pedagogy, in which those participants/students create an individual and particular version of a social/political/whatever interaction, using the basic rules that the instructor provides. As such, culture is a necessarily omnipresent feature in simulations, at least in the sense of the participants’ individual characters and experiences.

However, I’m thinking here about something slightly different, triggered by my Istanbul trip.

My previous trip to the city was the first to a place with a strong cultural practice of haggling. Indeed, it was strong enough for me to make my first venture into film-making, with a little piece that records my pitiful first experience of this negotiating method, which I still play to students each year (to their general amusement).

Returning once again – and avoiding that particular vendor – I have been struck by the pervasiveness of haggling as a practice and the shift in approach required for a wide number of social interactions.

The question that occurred to me was what impact does this have on one’s general understanding of the kind of simulations we run, re-creating political interactions?

Precisely because participants are bringing their personal experiences to a simulation, it can sometimes be hard for them to bring the experiences of the roles that they are playing. This can cause any number of problems when trying to recreate a real-world scenario.

To that just one example, when I ran a game that asked students to play different agencies of the US federal government in putting together a foreign-policy document for an in-coming president, they all worked on the basis that all Americans want the same things, and so didn’t really get into the differences that obviously (to us) exist.

A couple of solutions to this present themselves, one inward-facing, the other outward.

When we want to make sure that participants are representing external cultures within our games, then we need to ensure that they have sufficient opportunity to internalise that culture. This is easy in larger games, where you can ask them to produce essays/papers or negotiating briefs that reflect the real-world actor’s dispositions, on which you can provide feedback. In smaller exercises, it’s more difficult, but you could either provide some key points on attitude (rather than policy per se), or else mark out red lines that effectively require a particular approach.

At the other end of the process, we can work with participants to draw out their personal reflection on the impact of their culture on their approach to a simulation. The obvious place to do this is in the debrief and feedback after the game, where we can build on their comments to strengthen their self-reflection.

Again, cultural elements are always going to be part of simulations, both because our participants have culture and because we want them to recreate cultural objects: the key thing is to be alive to this and to help them see how this works.