PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Conference report: games in the teaching of politics, IR, and related fields

Phil Sabin (King’s College London) has kindly allowed me to repost his report below on the recent workshop on “The Use of Simulations, Board Games and Virtual games in the teaching of politics, international relations and related fields,” held at the University Of Westminster on 8 June 2012. The item was originally posted to Phil’s Simulating War Yahoo group.

The picture below (of games made by the staff and students of KCL) is taken from Richard Barbrook‘s Facebook album on the conference.

* * *

The Higher Education Academy workshop I mentioned at Westminster University took place on Friday, and proved very interesting. Around 30 people came (mainly academics from Britain and overseas), and there were 10 presentations during the day.

Simon Usherwood from Surrey University talked about how to overcome common problems with political simulations in politics classes. See his site at: http://negotiating.wetpaint.com/

Frands Pedersen from Wesminster (one of the organisers) then gave some examples based on his modules on Diplomacy and EU Governance. See his very useful repository of political sims at: http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Portal:Simulation_and_Gaming_Archive

Malin Stegmann-McCallion from Karlstad talked about Swedish political sims, especially one on the vexed issue of wolf hunting. A lady from Lund University gave more details from the floor of their own gaming
activities.

The morning ended with an inspirational keynote address by Professor Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth College NY, in which she described her own many projects in gaming and game-based art, all focused on public engagement. She described the use of simple games to get people thinking and to challenge entrenched prejudices about issues like race, unemployment and immunisation. She suggested that the simpler the game, the richer the discussion, and she made the very interesting point that introducing fantasy elements (eg by converting the immunisation game Pox into Zombiepox) often increases the game’s popularity by appearing less earnest and worthy, while still achieving the central aim. For more, see: http://www.maryflanagan.com/writing

The afternoon started with my own introduction to Simulating War. This led neatly into Richard Barbrook’s talk about how they have begun their own BA module at Westminster in which students play and critique board wargames and then design their own simple board games on subjects like the IRA bombings in Belfast or last year’s London riots, based heavily on my own MA option course. See:
http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/SPIR608_Political_Simulations_and_Gaming

Richard also described his continued championing of Guy Debord’s ‘Game of War’, as laid out at:
http://www.classwargames.net/

Our panel finished with a very lively presentation by Russell King from the Royal Free Hospital on his use of games as a training medium in the National Health Service. He ended by getting us to make a decision about freeing up beds in the face of a reported plane crash, with lives depending on us striking the right balance.

The final session began with Nick Robinson from Leeds describing his work on the social and cultural dimension of mass market videogames, and the ‘possibility spaces’ which their virtual words create. His website is: http://www.polis.leeds.ac.uk/about/staff/robinson/

Daphne Economou from Multimedia Computing at Westminster then gave a richly illustrated presentation on how they are trying to create templates which will allow non-programmers to build their own virtual games instead of falling back on the greater design accessibility of board games. The workshop finished with Govinda Clayton from Kent reporting on research to provide stronger empirical support for the alleged effectiveness of simulations as a teaching tool compared to traditional lectures and seminars. This very important research is available in his paper at:
http://www.bisa.ac.uk/files/Permanent%20Files/ClaytonGizelisBISAPAPER.pdf

Overall, the workshop was a great opportunity to get together, exchange ideas, and realise the sheer diversity of the use of simulations and games in education. As Rex and Bill have pointed out here repeatedly, wargames are only one of the many ways in which games are being used educationally, and they are currently very much the poor relation compared to ‘talking games’ and very simple abstract games which make a serious point. (Mary Flanagan, for example, discussed the value of something as simple as a pair of card decks which in combination produced pairings such as ‘female scientist’, with players then having to name someone falling into the category concerned.)

This all has a lot of bearing on the issues we have been discussing already in this group, and I hope that it will spark further discussion, especially when you get a chance to follow up some of the web links I have given above.

Philip Sabin
King’s College London

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