Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Game modification as a classroom exercise

In using a game in the classroom, one can play it through with students and highlight the appropriate lessons. You can also challenge them to redesign it in some way, as a way of getting them to research issues and think about what variables and relationships are important in shaping outcomes.

John Gastil used the latter approach in an “extra credit” assignment for a course on terrorism, using Volko Ruhnke’s game Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- . He sent us the following report:

I just finished teaching a course at the University of Washington (UW) titled, “The Dynamics of Terror Cells and Networks.” With a small class of 26 students in the UW Honors program, I had considerable flexibility in how I taught the course, and I opted to include Labyrinth as an extra-credit element. The good folks at the Honors program bought a copy of the game and put it on reserve, and the students read the following on their syllabus:

One assignment already available for double-extra credit (!) is as follows: Play through and create a pair of new and balanced event cards for the board game Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?, which the Honors Program has made available to you in the Honors Library. (You can turn in the “assignment” by way of a Word doc.) This is an assignment you should take on if you are enthused about playing strategy games. It takes a solid two-to-four hours to work through a game, assuming you’re playing with someone who knows the game and/or you read rules in advance for an hour or two. Not for the weak of heart, but well worth it. Note that this is a two-player game, but it includes a solitaire version, as well. (To see instructional videos, enter “Labyrinth Board Game terror” at YouTube.)

The students got so enthusiastic about the game that we scheduled a special evening class session to play through the game—using my own copy and the UW’s to play two simultaneous games. The students did well working in three-person teams on each side of the board, so six students were actively playing at a time on each board. One game ended relatively quickly with a deadly chain of cards leading to an unblocked WMD plot in the US. The other was called after a few hours, with the US regaining its prestige and some momentum late in the game.

In the end, several students opted to create new cards for extra credit, and the best of those (with some slight edits by me) are posted here (click to enlarge). The students clearly had an appetite for creating “game-changer” cards, which is not surprising in retrospect. A more challenging assignment would be to come up with cards that could be more integral to the flow of the game, one that could exist in multiple copies in the deck without upsetting game play. The only real surprise was that none of the cards submitted were about overthrowing governments. Given the appeal of a new Arab Spring expansion deck for Labyrinth, I thought they would make cards in that spirit. Instead, the most popular cards to make were variants on the death of bin Laden.

In sum, I’d say the game added considerable depth to the class for those students who engaged with it fully. As extra credit, it was something I could add without taking up too much dedicated class time. Finally, it was an especially helpful complement to a class that was about the internal dynamics of terror cells, rather than the macro-level politics and strategy of Islamic terrorism.

John Gastil

You’ll find our own review of Labyrinth, and thoughts on multiplayer use in the classroom, elsewhere on PAXsims.

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