Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

IR theory and virtual worlds

At the Bretterblog, Felix Haas asks (in the original German, or in English via Google Translate) a very good question—why haven’t more political scientists used interaction within massive multiplayer online games to study theories of international relations?

I’m certainly aware of very little work in this area, although one of our recent PhD graduates in psychology, Michael King, did use my annual civil war simulation at McGill to examine possible relationships between personality type and the use of violence. You’ll find a few of his findings here (there’s more in his actual PhD thesis).

For one attempt to connect IR theory and multiplayer online simulation, have a look at the Teaching with Statecraft blog, which discusses how to teach international relations using Statecraft. Statecraft is a multiplayer strategy-and-resource game for classroom use, with a rather Civilization look-and-feel: players develop productive assets, trade, build (and use) military forces, engage in espionage and terrorism, research technologies, and so forth. In many ways, therefore, it is similar to Brock Tessman’s International Relations in Action manual/book-based simulation, but with the greater complexity that a computer enables. It is also different from the Open Simulation Platform in that it is much, much less scriptable, and has most interactions automated through programmed algorithms (rather than having these determined by the moderator). The Statecraft website contains a number of useful suggestions as to how classroom game play can be used to illustrate key theories in international relations, as well examples of course outlines, class lectures, and assignments that integrate the simulation.

While Statecraft is configured as a teaching tool, it seems to me that—provided data is collected from player interactions appropriately—it could also be used as a research tool. Statecraft and similar simulations could thus be used to generate data on patterns of strategic behaviour drawn from repeated play (for example, when do players “balance” or “bandwagon“?) and also used for experimental methods (how, over large numbers of plays, does altering key variables or relations affect behaviours and outcomes?)

At some point—when time allows—we’ll arrange for a trial of Statecraft so that we can report back our impressions.

6 responses to “IR theory and virtual worlds

  1. Swen 06/11/2012 at 4:00 pm

    Once, after the Soviets nuked my carrier battle group in the North Pacific I came very close, emotionally, to push the button (as the US commander in Chief) ….. then slowly realizing what that meant, I came to my senses and back away from that option. A very sobering moment. Still, release for nuclear depth charges was given…. All in a game called 7th Fleet by Victory Games. A game meant for ‘metal on metal’ provided for some unusual depth in experience.

  2. Rex Brynen 05/11/2012 at 1:56 pm

    Ahh, the good old (INS) days at UVic! Under my glorious leadership the Soviet Union intervened in Poland to crush the Solidarity trade union, and threatened to respond to the deployment of US GLCM and Pershing missiles in Europe with a deployment of SS-20 missiles to Cuba. I even brought in a recording of the Soviet anthem and Internationale to play each morning…

  3. brtrain 05/11/2012 at 1:15 pm

    As did I, in the same undergraduate class though Rex preceded me by a few years. I still have a photocopy somewhere of the game manuals. It’s obvious that the field is still a considerable distance away from general acceptance of games as teaching aids, regardless of the technological advances since the 80s (we ran notes back and forth between different rooms and ran off the “newspaper” on an old mimeograph machine, back when we played the INS).

  4. Rex Brynen 04/11/2012 at 9:18 am

    I remember it well, having played the Soviet Union in the INS as an undergraduate!

  5. Swen 04/11/2012 at 9:06 am

    Addenda: the “Inter Nation Game” must of course be the “Inter Nation Simulation”.


  6. Swen 04/11/2012 at 5:31 am

    Really, Really Excellent Question!

    A question to which I would like to know the answer, very much.

    In 1996 I did my Master Thesis on the utility of games in political science education and research.
    Though my tutors humored me they clearly thought I was crazy. Needles to say games were not used in pol sci education.
    Even before I became a student in political science, back in the 1990’s, I played a lot of war games. Often I thought the behavior of my fellow players was a little over the top. Then I went through my political sciences classes and found that their behavior wasn’t strange; it reflected the real world behavior of real world leaders. To me that was a turning point and ever since have been using war games much more seriously.
    The beauty of it all is that it is so very simple to do research on IR through games. One doesn’t need complex or expensive games to do it. In the 1990s there was the VGA Planets game. A game with a good IR setting and equally important all communication was by email. In effect a researcher could remain at his university and still track over hundreds of games, sitting at his desk. With all action, moves and correspondence at his fingertips for analysis.
    What is really strange is that the Inter Nation Game has disappeared from the Pol Sci horizon. A simple but very effective tool for education and research. (Sure, it must be “digitized”, but still.)
    Rex, a very good question. Thank you for asking!


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