Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: January 2011

RPGs: a clear and present danger?

And no, we don’t mean rocket propelled grenades, we mean role-playing games. In a decision last year, the seventh circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled that a Wisconsin prison is free to ban the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons because it threatens prison security. In making their ruling, the judges cited an affidavit from Captain Bruce Muraski (who spent nearly twenty years as Waupun prison’s Disruptive Group Coordinator):

…fantasy role-playing games like D&D have “been found to promote competitive hostility, violence, and addictive escape behavior, which can compromise not only the inmate’s rehabilitation and effects of positive program- ming, but endanger the public and jeopardize the safety and security of the institution.”


…cooperative games can mimic the organization of gangs and lead to the actual development thereof. Muraski elaborated that during D&D games, one player is denoted the “Dungeon Master.” The Dungeon Master is tasked with giving directions to other players, which Muraski testified mimics the organization of a gang.

Indeed, we hardly want to contribute to the scourge of elven gang violence. You’ll find more on the case via Fox News and the Geeks are Sexy blog.


Reacting to the Past news (27/1)

The latest news from the Reacting to the Past folks at Barnard College:

Regional Faculty Conference at Newman University (Wichita, KS), Feb. 25-27, 2011

This 2.5-day regional conference will introduce faculty to two games:Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor, 1587 and The Trial of Galileo: Aristotelianism, the “New Cosmology,” and the Catholic Church. Registration is ongoing.

Visit the conference web page for details


2011 Annual Institute at Barnard College – Program and registration details now available!

The eleventh Annual Summer Institute at Barnard College will be held in New York City on June 9-12, 2011. Please visit the institute web page for further information.

Further details concerning the Institute program, concurrent sessions, and online registration will be available in early February. In the meantime, questions regarding the institute should be directed to Dana Johnson (


Additional Events

March 5, 2011: John M. Burney, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of History, Doane College; and Mark Higbee, Professor of History, Eastern Michigan University. Concurrent Session, ” Facing the Elephant: Overcoming Faculty Fears about Active Learning and Game Playing.” AAC&U Network for Academic Renewal Conference, General Education and Assessment 3.0: Next-Level Practices Now (Chicago, IL)

March 25-27, 2011: Regional Faculty Conference at the University of Georgia (Athens, GA)

July 27-31, 2011: Game Workshops at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Values Education, Elmhurst College ( Elmhurst, IL).

Play the Past

I’ve added a link in the links section to Play the Past, a truly outstanding website “dedicated to thoughtfully exploring and discussing the intersection of cultural heritage (very broadly defined) and games/meaningful play (equally broadly defined).” Although only launched back in September, you’ll already find articles on everything from the use of Civilization-style computer games as historical learning tools, or the process of reconstructing the (fictional) past in the post-Apocalyptic game Fallout 3. They’ve also got a far cooler graphic layout than we do. Give it a visit!


Call for papers: Special issue of S&G on “Simulations and Gaming to Build Peace”


Simulations and Gaming to Build Peace

for a special issue of

Simulation & Gaming: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Theory, Practice and Research


Guest Editors:

Rex Brynen, 
Department of Political Science, McGill University
Gary Milante, Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries Group, World Bank

Simulation has often been used for training and planning armed conflict. However, it can also be used to address and illuminate transitions from conflict to domestic and international peace.

This symposium (special issue) of Simulation & Gaming: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Theory, Practice and Research will examine the various ways in which simulation and serious games can be used to enrich instructional curricula, train practitioners, promote conflict resolution, and generate theoretical and practical insight into processes of war-to-peace transition. We invite submissions from multiple disciplines, perspectives, and methodological or pedagogical approaches. Theoretical reflections, rigorous and critical evaluation of simulation exercises, literature reviews, and conceptual contributions are all welcomed. The topics that might be addressed could include preventive diplomacy; crisis management and de-escalation; conflict resolution; peace negotiations; counterinsurgency, stabilization, humanitarian intervention and peace operations; refugees; ethnic conflict; humanitarian operations; aid, budgetary planning, and post-conflict reconstruction; conflict-sensitive planning; interagency, civil-military, and coalition cooperation; human rights and election monitoring; media coverage, awareness and advocacy—among others.

Interested authors are invited to submit by an abstract (not exceeding 500 words) of their proposed work for initial review, together with a brief CV on or before March 30, 2011. Accepted proposals will then be asked to submit a full paper by July 31.

For further information, or to submit a proposal, please contact Rex Brynen at

Please distribute this CFP widely. For a .pdf copy, click here

G4C’s top 5 social impact games of 2010

Having mentioned the Games for Change contest to selected the top social impact games for 2010 last month, we’ve been a bit slow in posting the results. Well, here they are, and the winner is… Evoke:

It was interesting to see that a game that promotes real-world action and breaks the boundaries of the digital space comes away with the most votes. Supported by the World Bank and designed by Jane McGonigal, this 10 week long game started in March, 2010 and ended on May 12th.

Evoke urged players all over the globe to solve real-world challenges with a focus on helping communities in Africa. Players were encouraged to learn about development challenges, act upon the knowledge they just gained and then use their creativity to imagine a new future for the planet. Every Wednesday over the 10 week game period, new challenges unlocked for players.  Once players accepted and completed a mission, they were asked to create evidence for their work, via blogs, videos and more. Through the narrative of a comic book like story line, players were tasked to complete such challenges as combating world hunger, using renewable energy, empowering women and creating better access to clean water. To better accomplish their goals, players could use “super powers” such as collaboration, courage, resourcefulness and entrepreneurialism.

We weren’t too fond of Evoke, as readers may remember—but congratulations nonetheless.

On a different but related note, the online game Inside Disaster (about survival, humanitarian relief, and media coverage of the Haitian earthquake) didn’t place in the top ten in the competition. I’ve used it as part of my course on peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction this term, however, and I have to say that student reaction has been very positive indeed. Of course, some of the lessons of the game might not accord with the dominant ethos of much of the games for change community, which might explain why it didn’t place higher.

For those of you teaching on issues of development or humanitarian relief operations, it is well worth checking out.

USIP Open Simulation Platform news (21/1)

Skip Cole at the United States Institute of Peace has provided an update on the latest development regarding USIP’s Open Simulation Platform:

Simulation Runs

Already this year we have done a second round of play testing on the simulation “Palmyra.” Some great conversations and ideas were generated by the play testers. I am going to go ahead and set up a ‘playtesting’ email account so that people not actually involved in future  play tests can listen in.

Also, a USIP OSP simulation was conducted done at Virginia Tech! The USIP OSP was used to provide over 30 students and faculty their background and role information.

New Release Coming!

February 7th we will have a new release. Instructors will be able to assign players to roles using just the player’s email address, and resend welcome invitations at any time to any late entrant. Instructors will also be able to see if players have confirmed that they have received their invitations, and players will have a greatly improved chat interface.

If you have any functionality that you want to see in this release, please send an email to


The Peaceconferencing process continues to grow and get more adherents. I have no doubt that soon it will be conducted at High Schools, Colleges and Universities all over the world. [Below] is memo from the creator of Peaceconferencing, Kristen Druker, on its current status:

The beginning of 2011 brings Peaceconferencing a project based learning simulation based on world conflicts closer to its goal of creating an access free website for global youth.  Thanks to the United States Institute of Peace Open Simulation Platform, students in diverse learning communities are using Pea

ceconferencing and its technology interface to see global events as challenges with multiple perspectives and opportunities for positive change.  Students at the Bishop’s School, a private school in La Jolla, CA, where Peaceconferencing originated have organized into peace building teams to problem solve conflicts in Cote d”Ivoire, Sudan, Afghanistan, Israel – Palestine, and North Korea this Spring.  Students at Culver City High School, a public school in Los Angeles County will begin Peaceconferencing in February, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while students at Montessori International College in Buderim, Queensland, Australia will begin new peace rounds in September – October.

Through U-TOUCH.ORG Peaceconferencing will partner up with students in Northern Uganda using their digital wireless classrooms in three locations.  This is part of the dream…. to allow students in war torn countries to use Peaceconferencing for peace building in their own communities and fast track learning through wireless access.  They will start to use Peaceconferencing this summer to problem solve water and land use conflicts.  Finally, Peaceconferencing has been in contact with a high tech high school in Los Angeles for inclusion as a partner school.

The Future

The future looks bright for us, and we want to share that. And If you know anyone interested in helping us code, document, or in any way make the USIP OSP a better tool, please do send them our way!


some thoughts on multiplayer/classroom Labyrinth

In my recent review of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- ? I offered a few early thoughts on the game’s potential use in an instructional setting. I have now had a chance to play around with that, using a volunteer group of my own undergraduate and graduate students. It wasn’t a full test—the games wasn’t fully integrated into a curriculum, it was a diverse group of student testers (attracted by the promise of free pizza and the opportunity to wreak global mayhem), and for reasons of time I didn’t do a formal debrief afterwards. However, it was more than enough to allow me to develop my own thinking on the issue. (If you haven’t played the game you’ll want to go back to the original review to see what it is all about.)

How can a 2 player game work in the classroom?

A key challenge in using Labyrinth in the classroom is that it is a two player game. Engaging students two at a time is hardly time-effective. Conversely, given the need to facilitate, there is no way a single instructor or teaching assistant could manage with ten or twenty games going at once.

We tried things with seven players, four of them playing the US team and three playing the jihadists. On each side, each team member in turn would have control over a two card action phase sequence, although they were perfectly free to discuss and agree upon game play strategies jointly.

As I suspected, four is a little too unwieldy—the interpersonal dynamics hamper card play, not to mention the physical problem of all four players viewing the current hand. Three worked very well. It generated some good discussion, participants stayed engaged, and it was reasonably efficient. What inefficiencies did arise provided an interesting lesson the potential problems of bureaucratic politics or jihadist factionalization, and the importance of cooperation and planning.

Indeed, after the game a number of participants liked the idea of assigning some role differentiation to team members in a future version, to further highlight these aspects. The US team, for example, might be divided between a State Department/USAID player (perhaps given the power to reroll one failed “War of Ideas” die roll during their own action phase), a US military player (able to add a free operations point to any one “Disrupt” operation involving troops during their own action phase), and law enforcement player (able to add a free operations point to a single “Alert” operation within the US or Europe during their own action phase). On the jihadist side, the team might be divided into al-Qa’ida central (perhaps able to reroll one failed plot roll anywhere during their own action phase), and local jihadists in the Middle East/Africa and South/Southeast Asia (able to reroll one failed non-plot roll anywhere during their own action phase, but only in Muslim countries in their respective regions). Alternatively, one could also give the various jihadist players overlapping but slightly different victory conditions.

We also had an eighth participant taking notes through the game, in this case not a student but rather fellow gamer (and game designer) Tommy Fisher. In a true classroom setting one could easily have a couple of student note-takers per game, charged not only with recording the game but also recording their impressions of how the game models reality, and where it differs (and why). In my experience Labyrinth is sufficiently engaging that even non-phasing players and note-takers stay engaged.

All told then, one could involve up to eight students in a single game. If one used a “train-the-trainers” approach, and first pre-played the game with 6-8 students, you could then run a larger number of  subsequent games using these students (plus the course instructor) as facilitators for other groups.

Are the rules too complicated?

As I’ve noted before, one of the problems with commercial off-the-shelf wargames is that they are pitched to hobbyists, not to more normal folks. An inexperienced boardgamer could quickly get confused.

In this particular case I circulated the link to an online copy of the rules to all of the participants in advance. One or two read them, one or two skimmed them, and most of the rest showed up and waited to be taught how to play. I suspect that would be norm in most classroom settings, and it wasn’t necessarily a problem: in many ways Labyrinth is a game that is more quickly learned hands-on than from the written rules. (One could also point students in the direction of the various video reviews on BoardGameGeek for an initial introduction.)

To show participants how to play, I first spent about 15 minutes running through the basic principles and components of the game, and explaining what the various tracks and boxes on the board meant. We then played through a single practice turn before resetting the board and starting for real. During the practice turn, all cards were laid on the table for both sides to see, and I talked everyone through what their options were and what might be optimal card play under the circumstances. All told, this initial orientation took about 30-40 minutes (including the arrival and distribution of the pizza part way through). If you wanted to orient a larger group, you could do all of this using the open-source  Vassal game engine, the Labyrinth module, and a data projector so that an entire classroom full of students could follow at once. You could also record your own tutorial video for students, and teach them the basics of game play that way. (I’m not sure I would have students play by Vassal, though–you risk having any rules confusion compounded by computer confusion too.)

Overall, I don’t think anyone found the game too complex to play. However, I was facilitating very actively throughout, and I don’t think it would have worked without me doing so. Now that they’ve played it once I think most of the group could—once they reread the rules—play it on their own, without any further assistance.

Was the subject matter problematic?

The post-9/11 “global war on terrorism” is a potentially sensitive thing. Elsewhere, some experienced gamers have expressed discomfort about gaming the subject matter of Labyrinth. In an educational setting it is important to remember that participants might have lost friends or family to political violence, or have them currently in harm’s way in the military or in war-affected countries. They may even have lived through these things themselves. Some aspects of the game might also be politically controversial. Consequently, it would be important to explain in advance what the educational purposes of the game might be in the classroom, and in some cases to give students the option of not participating and instead completing an alternative assignment.

In this regard, my group of participants was rather atypical. They were all volunteers, and enthusiastic ones too.  They were also a rather well-informed group: two of our group are writing their doctoral theses on the Middle East, one of these specializing in resource mobilization by non-state armed groups. More than one person in the room had been around a war zone. The undergraduates all had pretty strong backgrounds in Middle East politics, and all were or had been in my course on peace operations (which briefly covers counterinsurgency). One was a visiting Iranian scholar—after playing a US counterinsurgency official with such ruthless dedication, we’re not entirely sure he can go back now! It has to be said that Labyrinth takes on a particularly engaging tone when one of your jihadists is wearing her usual hijab and another is Jewish (but interviews Hamas members for a living), bilingual Arabic-English puns are being thrown about, and everyone asks if it is a good idea to let the one player who really is Shi’ite roll the dice for “War of Ideas” in (Shi’ite-intolerant) Saudi Arabia.

What happened?

We played a one deck game of the “Let’s Roll” scenario, which normally takes up to two hours to play. However, with initial orientation and rules instruction, pizza, and multiplayer teams it took almost four hours in our case. Since the point of the game was to use it to spark an educational discussion—not necessarily to play the optimum game length—a one deck game worked well.

The game started with Afghanistan under Islamist control. The jihadist side recruited new cells there and moved them out to Pakistan and Central Asia before US troops arrived to overthrow the Taliban regime. Fortunately for the US, not only did the world seem to applaud intervention, but Washington seems to have discovered an Afghan version of Nelson Mandela to lead the new regime. The new pro-American regime tested at fair governance to start with. While this was an auspicious start to the Global War on Terror, it would be the last time a governance test would come out as anything but poor for the rest of the game—a trend that soon faced the US with a growing number of tottering Muslim countries.

The jihadist side responded to US military move by dispersing their cells still further, using a Schengen Visa card to infiltrate two into Europe. Surprisingly, European foreign policies were overwhelming hard throughout the game, meaning the US rarely suffered a prestige penalty from being out of synch with global opinion.

The game in progress, with an ominous build-up of jihadist cells in Pakistan…

As American troops hunted down jihadist cells in Afghanistan, the number in Pakistan slowly started to grow, sheltering in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Assisted by UN Nation Building, the US would eventually get Afghanistan up to good governance—a veritable Switzerland of Central Asia. As they did so, however, terror plots were hatched in Pakistan, bringing it down to poor governance. In Saudi Arabia, the populist but often anti-American broadcasts of al-Jazeera had the effect of forcing the regime away from its previous US alliance.

It was then that the jihadists struck, overthrowing the government of Pakistan and establishing an Islamist regime. The US—having just secured Afghanistan—quickly moved troops to overthrow the Islamists and install a pro-American government. As it did so, however, a number of jihadist cells once more slipped out ahead of American troops, and made their way to Europe and Canada courtesy of Clean Operatives. Equally important, three Pakistani nukes went missing.

American prestige was still very high. However, the prospect of a WMD plot using the stolen Pakistani weapons would increasingly preoccupy Washington at a time when it also faced a growing crisis of poor governance in the Arab world and an active insurgency in Pakistan. On top of this, US elections brought a change in US posture to soft—in contrast to the harder line increasingly advocated by European allies.

Twice the jihadists tried to use their stolen Pakistani warheads. A plot in Pakistan itself was uncovered and aborted. A second in the Gulf states was stopped too. The jihadist side decided to recruit and travel, hoping to test enough Muslim countries at poor governance to meet that victory condition. For a  while, however, the closure of the Door of Ijtihad—and the philosophical limitations of Sunni Salafist thought—severely limited jihadist card play (and led to a brief but lively debate as to the relative merits of Sunni vs Shiite legal and political philosophy among the players).

In an effort to match the intellectual sophistication of the jihadist side, Washington reassessed its policies and once more returned to a hard posture (under a new McCain-Palin Administration, perhaps?)

The jihadists attempted to secure a supply of Highly Enriched Uranium from ex-Soviet Central Asia, but failed. They did still have their one remaining Pakistani nuke, however, and this was successfully detonated outside an American military facility in Pakistan. US prestige plummeted to 1.

At this point, the US very much needed to improve governance in Muslim countries—but with their prestige now so low, their efforts at War of Ideas were rarely successful. The last turns of the game amounted to a desperate effort by Washington to raise American prestige and to prevent the jihadist player bringing the total number of poor governance countries up to the number needed to win. Aided by Martyrdom Operations, more successful terror plots in Pakistan and France (the Eiffel Tower, so the jihadists claimed) assured that jihadist funding stayed high and US prestige stayed low. American Special Forces and  Predator drones whittled down a few jihadist cells. Finally, and rather ironically, the conservatism of jihadist political theory tipped the balance as play of the other Door of Ijtihad card undid recent reform efforts in Turkey and pushed it back towards poor governance. With this the jihadist side emerged as the victors.

A learning experience?

Games are rarely self-teaching. Certainly, there might be particular pieces of factual information conveyed. In Labyrinth, this often takes place through the mechanism of the cards, and even more the fuller descriptions provided in the game materials. However, the real learning occurs when you use gameplay as a spark for discussion and as a source of teachable moments and vignettes. Here there are several different ways in which the game might be used.

As is evident from the description above, our multiplayer game of Labyrinth generated a number of outcomes that are highly unlikely, and certainly a great many events that did not occur during the Bush Administration’s GWOT. Arab satellite TV doesn’t really force regimes to break alliances with Washington, even if news coverage may feed (and reflect) popular anger at US policies. WMD (fortunately) don’t fall into terrorist hands quite so easily. Pakistan, while undoubtedly poorly governed and fragile in many respects, is not about to tip into Islamist revolution any time soon.  Afghan development and reconstruction is far, far harder than our game depicted. The game strives to present the worldview of the Bush Administration and al-Qa’ida central in the early 2000s—and neither was necessarily right in the way they imagined things. And, of course, no one has yet toppled the Eiffel Tower…

Labyrinth is, after all, a playable game designed for enjoyable game play, not an unwieldy simulation intended for high-fidelity rendering of complex social and political events. Students should be made absolutely clear on this all along.

However, precisely because it is a game, the divergences between game play and real life provide ample opportunity to discuss the underlying issues involved. What has been the effect of satellite television and other information and communication technologies on politics in the Muslim world (an issue now being hotly debated in light of recent events in Tunisia)? What are the current dynamics of political power and competition in Pakistan? What efforts have terrorist groups made to acquire WMD, and what are the obstacles to them doing so? What are the challenges of building good governance in Afghanistan?

These sorts of discussions, in turn, can easily lead into examination of broader issues as one starts to draw the parallels between game design and social science theorizing or political analysis. In both cases, the designer or analyst is trying to identify the key variables and relationships that shape outcomes. Both designers and social scientists need to decide what is important enough to focus on, and what other aspects need to be sidelined or ignored in the interests of parsimony and clarity. Certainly there are differences too: a game needs to be enjoyable (which is sadly not a criteria for social science theory), and social science ought to have explanatory or predictive accuracy (which is hardly a demand of, say, Monopoly, Risk, or Settlers of Catan). Discussion of how a game designer has chosen to model reality within the confines of the needs of a game can be a prod to encourage students to think about how they might model that same reality, either as a game or as an analytical construct. In Labyrinth there is much to discuss here, notably the relationship between poor governance and political violence, the instrumental uses of terrorism (to destabilize and advertise), and the costs and benefits of American unilateralism.

Finally, there is the extent to which the game reflects issues of policy process and strategic choice. As in any game characterized by resource scarcity (in this case, the value and nature of operations cards held in one’s hand), players face trade-offs and opportunity costs. Indeed, in Labyrinth many of these are built into the game model. Heavy commitment of US troops, for example, reduces the size of one’s card draw in the game—therefore suggesting the heavy cost of military action in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. In every phase one is forced to choose between devoting scarce resources to short term actions (such as blocking terror plots or uncovering and disrupting cells) and those with longer term political and diplomatic effects (“War of Ideas”). Similarly, the jihadists need to balance recruitment, plotting, and the occasional risky effort to topple governments.

As already noted, our game of Labyrinth was not followed by any extended debrief or subsequent lectures, since it was rather more a one-off experiment to try out multiplayer play with a newbie audience. However, as the comments above suggest, it is very easy to think of a great many things one could talk about arising from the game. It is certainly a far more interesting prod to discussion than a set of powerpoint slides.

One could even more easily use Labyrinth as a part of a final assignment for students who have already spent the term learning in the classroom about the issues it addresses. In such a case one would assign the game much as one might assign a book review, asking students to play it through and then reflect on its portrayal of the GWOT. As I’ve noted before, this sort of “review the game” assignment can work very well. It isn’t necessary that the game perfectly model reality, precisely because those game process that are “unrealistic” become a key focus of critical analysis by students.

A final word

As should be evident by the reflections, comments, and suggestions above, using a game in an instructional setting isn’t just about the game. Equally or more important still is how one embeds game play in the learning process and the ways in which it is linked to your educational objectives. How you prebrief, facilitate, and debrief the game is of fundamental importance. Done well, participants can learn a great deal. Done poorly, they may learn very little, or even learn the wrong things altogether.

With appropriate attention to those critical issues, I think that Labyrinth offers many very interesting possibilities.

just so you know…

We just thought you know that, according to one recent project, It’s True: Bloggers Tend to Be Very Physically Attractive People.

OK, so they didn’t photograph us. Still, it’s on the internet so it must be true, right?

JDMS on modelling political interaction in peace operations

The Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology has published an “online before print” article by Paul Strong of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (UK) on “The Peace Support Operations Model: Strategic Interaction Process.” In it he discusses the conceptual and computer modelling challenges of representing factional attitudes and orientations:

Modeling complex social interaction creates a number of challenges for the strategic analyst. Firstly, the fundamental basis of an operational model has to be based on rational and verifiable metrics, but recognize that human interaction in the real world is often irrational and is rarely verifiable. Secondly, the evolving discourse between factions almost always influences the ongoing process of interaction – often creating entirely new modes of interaction as the scenario unfolds. Our solution was to continue to base the Peace Support Operations Model (PSOM) Operational Game on verifiable metrics and create an interaction process designed to include those modes of interaction that are ill-suited to structured analysis and better addressed by processes that can adapt to shifts in strategic emphasis. The PSOM Strategic Interaction Process thus follows the same turn-based design as the Operational Game, but creates a framework for political interaction and the recording of faction intent as the game proceeds.

If you have an online (SAGE) subscription to the journal, you can access the full article here.

“The Gaming Debate” at TSJ

Over at the Training & Simulation Journal, an article by Michael Peck back in the August/September edition on serious gaming (and, more particular, on Jim Lunsford at Decisive-Point)  has provoked quite a debate among readers as to their usefulness in military education and training. Col. John R. “Buck” Surdu asks whether a focus on game interface can obscure important issues regarding the underlying modelling embeded in a simulation. He also questions whether sufficient verification and validation is done on “serious games.” James Sterrett discusses the difference between “big” (and complex) and “small” simulations and games, and the different training niches that they might occupy within the US military. Finally, Jim Lunsford himself replies, arguing that “Serious games are here to stay. When properly developed, fielded, and used, they are a very effective and relatively low-cost way to educate and train.” He also notes, however, that:

Serious games do not constitute a revolution in training and education. They are just a new form of simulation-supported training. Knowing when and how to use them is as important as knowing when and how to use any other existing training tool. In order to effectively take full advantage of their capabilities while recognizing their limitations, we should train our leaders and instructors in their use as part of their professional development. For no matter how good the game may appear to be, the quality of training will always depend on the instructor’s ability to shape learning.

You’ll find the full debate at TSJ here.

h/t: Michael Peck

Simulation & Gaming (December 2010)

The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 41, 6 (December 2010) is now out:

David Crookall’s final article on debriefing, I think, raises a particularly important set of points:

However, what is of far greater concern to me and to the journal, and should be to the field, is what is being done on the learning ground, in the guise of game, serious or otherwise. In these events that we run, one thing that is not being done as much as it should is proper debriefing—that is, the occasion and activity for the reflection on and the sharing of the game experience to turn it into learning. The concern with debriefing seems to have been lost in some recent developments, particularly in some of the work accomplished under the banner of serious games. I have come across books with serious game in their title, but with not a single mention of or reference to debriefing. This gap occurs despite an entire S&G symposium in 1992 being devoted to the topic, guest edited by one of debriefing’s most articulate proponents, Linda Lederman, and containing S&G’s third most cited article (on debriefing), by Linda. It is as if a whole history of scholarship has been overlooked, at best, and sidestepped, at worst. Things seem to be changing, however. Some serious game scholarship is beginning to look at debriefing. Maybe the technological glitz is wearing off and the learning is beginning to shine through.


In my view, we will neglect debriefing at our peril. If we accept the basic idea that the real (solid, lasting, meaningful, and deeper) learning comes not from the game, but from the debriefing, then we as gamers are shooting ourselves and our learners in the foot by neglecting the debriefing phase of the gaming process. For all their wonderful creativity and enthusiasm, some serious and other gamers seem to have forgotten that the learning comes from the debriefing, not from the game. That is putting it starkly, but it reflects a fundamentally crucial part of the learning process involved in the gaming experience. Debriefing is the processing of the game experience to turn it into learning (to paraphrase Dave Kolb).

Others may think somewhat differently and consider that learning has occurred and that “such learning is not dependent on the existence of a debrief. A good debrief, however, allows the individuals who were in the experience to share, cross-fertilize, and to generalize their learnings from and between all who participated in the same experience.” (Joe Wolfe, personal communication.)

However, we are not as far apart as it may seem. First, debriefing is recognized as essential, and second, sharing is common to both views. Some learning often occurs while a game is being played, but deeper lessons are drawn and drawn out in a debrief- ing session.

If we are going to take our serious gaming seriously, and if we wish educational authorities to accept them as a legitimate source of learning, then we need to do it seri- ously, which means debriefing seriously. In many of the games that I run, the debriefing is longer and more engaging for participants than the game itself. It is in the debriefing that my students and trainees really “get serious.” I have said elsewhere, and others too have said it, that game design should start with the place where the participants are going to learn, that is, with the debriefing. At the very least, the debriefing should be a design consideration right from the start.

%d bloggers like this: