The April 2020 run of the Brynania civil war simulation was as productive as ever: students negotiated, violated, then renegotiated ceasefires; a shaky UN mission was deployed (with a Security Council mandate rather more ambitious than the resources available to implement it); an agreement in principle on the political future of the country was negotiated between the government and the main rebel group, but with several potential spoilers condemning it; human rights abuses were publicized, and a prominent dissident released; and aid organizations worked together to address critical humanitarian needs.
Now that it is over (and I’ve had a chance to read through all 100+ student debriefs) I thought I would reflect not so much on what happened over seven days (representing seven simulated months) in Equatorial Cyberspace, but rather on the ways in which reality can be distorted through the simulation process, and how that can potentially distort the learning process. The observations I’m making here very much relate to the (large, intense, multi-participant) Brynanian SIM, but many would apply in other contexts too.
Imported preconceptions. Players will inevitably bring their own preconceptions to the simulation. This risks creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where initial misperceptions are reinforced rather than eroded. In the Brynania SIM, I find that some students tend to actually be even more competitive, self-interested, “realist,” and mercantile than are their real-world counterparts because they act upon such preexisting stereotypes.
You can reduce some of this in the briefing notes and in pre-SIM research by the participants, helping them to more fully understand how and why their actor behaves the way it does. However, at times I find it also requires a little bit of a nudge during the simulation, usually in the form of helpful notes from their junior staff (namely me), or in articles in the SIM media that send corrective signals. However, some of it is unavoidable too–after all, if everyone in the class knew perfectly how to build peace (as if such a knowledge was even possible!), there would be no point in having the simulation in the first place. Consequently, the most important way of dealing with this is in my own post-SIM debriefing lecture, where I can highlight what did and did not seem “realistic,” and why—thus helping to assure students learn the right lessons, and not the wrong ones.
Winning. If a simulation looks like a game—and most do—participants want to win. Moreover, they will want to win within the time frame available to them in the simulation, and their risk tolerance tends to grow as the simulation approaches the end because there are no clear consequences “after the game” of reckless behaviour.
In theory, one could deal with this by using the simulation participation grade as a form of incentive/disincentive to shape appropriate behaviour. This is hard to do in a larger classroom simulation, however, where the volume of interaction makes it difficult to monitor and assess everything that goes on. I tend to explicitly warn against the temptation to “game” the simulation in the pre-SIM orientation, and again use staff notes and the media to signal participants when they’re starting to drift out of appropriate role behaviour. Acting unrealistically also has appropriate costs. Aid agencies that are careless or reckless in their spending, for example, have been known to have had to spend much of their SIM time preparing comments for simulated parliamentary or Congressional inquiries. As a last resort, I do have another punishment: the dreaded Cyberian Simsim, a mythical bird that has been known to inflict traffic accidents, become ingested in jet engines, and once caused a cabinet meeting room to suffer a gas explosion. The simulated effect in the latter case was to knock several participants out of the simulation for an hour to reflect on their behaviour while they were “dug” out of the rubble. They got the message.
Closely related to the desire to “win” is the desire to have influence beyond a the realistic capabilities of the role. Not everyone can be a powerful state or a major rebel group. Someone also has to be the smaller actors too, and it is important that students understand that you understand that not all participants will have the same scope to make a difference in peacebuilding. Interestingly, however, while some of the student debriefs bemoaned their lack of political weight, aid money, or potential peacekeepers, two of the most “successful” actors in Brynania 2010 were the small democratic developing fictional country of Concordia (which undertook much of the mediation) and the tiny “Eastern Icasia Freedom Movement” (who managed to win a seat in the Brynanian cabinet and a degree of regional autonomy). In both cases, strategic vision, skill, and effective diplomacy were key.
Personalism. In the real world there is little doubt that personalities, leadership, and personal relationships can matter. Indeed, in peace operations they often matter a lot. It would be difficult to understand the very different transitions in South Africa and Zimbabwe without reference to Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe respectively. In Angola, Jonah Savimbi had a huge effect on the continuation of the civil war, and his death dramatically hastened its end. Peacemaking in, say, Mozambique had a lot to do with the personal characteristics of the UN SRSG Aldo Ajello, and indeed it is hard to think of a case where the skills and quality of the mediator or envoy wasn’t of importance. The fate of Afghanistan may well be determined by the attributes and weaknesses of Hamid Karzai.
The social sciences may be rather uncomfortable with the idiosyncratic and difficult-to-measure impact of leadership, preferring instead to attribute outcomes to more structural determinants. That, however, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter.
In simulations, however, the reverse may be true: the personalities of the participants may over-determine outcomes. The major reason for this, of course, is that the bureaucratic, organizational, political and other factors that shape and constrain collective behaviour aren’t presence in a simulation in which one person may represent an entire foreign ministry, aid agency, or NGO. Compounding this, many or most students come to the simulation with already-established social relationships with other students in the class, which shape their interaction and the flow of information between them (both deliberate and accidental). The post-SIM written debriefs prepared by the class always highlight the role that such personalism plays, and I’m always careful to set it in its appropriate context in my own debriefing lecture.
Sillyness. This is a delicate issue in my own simulation, which has a considerable amount of rather geeky and Pythonesque humour built into it, and a long-multi-year-tradition of certain standing jokes (such as the Simsim birds mentioned above, the Brynanian fondness for bagels, or a host of other items). At times it risks overwhelming the very serious lessons to be learned.
Why include it, then? In this case, it reflects the very specific context of the SIM, in which the participants are senior undergraduates and some graduate students, devoting an enormous amount of time (as much as 100 hours) over one of the busiest weeks of the term to a simulation that only counts for a small portion of their grade. The humour keeps it enjoyable, and 95% or more of the time is both generated and understood by players in ways that don’t interfere with the very serious purposes of it all. It also rather mirrors the real on-the-ground use of humour in peace operations as a coping mechanisms. I wouldn’t allow it, or even need it, in a simulation comprised of professionals, soldiers, diplomats, or others. Indeed, in that case it might only make the whole thing seem rather childish in the eyes of some participants, especially those already predisposed to be cynical about the practical value of simulations as a learning mechanism. However, for this group, in this context, it explains why many students pass up Friday and Saturday nights in the bars, clubs, and other very considerable distractions that surround our downtown Montreal campus to plan coups, peace operations, and humanitarian aid. It also leads to some substantial classroom bonding, as evidence by the frequency with which students mention that aspect of the simulation in either their debrief or subsequent course evaluations.
Still, at times–not often, in my experience–you need to rein it in during the simulation. Once again, I usually do this with staff notes and media cues. Judging from student comments, that usually seems to work.
Previous simulations. In real life, one can’t check alternative histories when decided in a course of action, but in some simulations participants may have knowledge of previous simulation runs. In Brynania, more then a decade of SIMs and a host of student blogs, student newspaper reports, YouTube videos, Facebook groups, and even word-of-mouth means that many participants have some sense of how things have happened before.
I could attempt to control this, but with something approaching a thousand students having taken part in the SIM over the years it wouldn’t likely be very effective: as I write this, Google lists some 1,680 hits on the search term “Brynania” alone. Instead, I treat it all as representing a cross between an oral history of Equatorial Cyberspace and a set of free “lessons learned” reports. Moreover, students are warned not to rely to heavily on reports of past runs, in part because they’re not always accurate, and more so because the dynamics rapidly evolve in different directions in different years due to both actions within the simulation and a changing international environment. I don’t think it really has all that much effect, and none of the student debriefs have identified it as such. On the contrary, if anything, all that data out there rewards students who do their research on the conflict—just like real peacebuilders!