Recently, Professor Jeremy Wells of the Department of Political Science at Texas State University—San Marcos playtested the beta version of the PAXsims’ AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game with students in his civil-military relations course. You’ll find their impressions below.The play test even got a mention in the local newspaper, the San Marcos Daily Record—see the newspapers clipping at the end of this blog post. In reading through the account they provide, several things stand out to me. One was his innovative decision NOT to allow the students to read the full set of rules in advance, but rather inform them of what they needed to know as they played the game. This undoubtedly facilitated easing them into the game, and also generated a sense of being temporarily overwhelmed by a new situation, although it may have inhibited some strategic planning. Also, I was struck my the more competitive way his students appear to have initially approached the game. In my own playtests at McGill, students were generally much more cooperative from the outset. This may have been because many were international development studies students, or because they had completed a course with me on peacebuilding. It might also have been a function of having had fuller access to the rules before the game. As the account below notes, the game sets up both collective victory conditions (“Relief Points” indicating how well players are saving lives), and individual ones (“Operations Points,” reflecting the organizational achievements and political capital of each particular actor). Players can all win, all lose, or some may win while other lose. The game described below highlights the importance of logistics infrastructure: if you don’t invest early in opening up the airport, the main roads, or the port, players will soon run into major bottlenecks. This mirrors the importance of efforts by the US to open Port-au-Prince airport during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the disaster upon which the game is largely modelled. I’m pleased at the degree to which the game seems to have revealed to participants the relative advantages different players have, as well as the potential synergies between players. In refining the game, I’m still struggling with two major challenges. The first of these is complexity—is it too complex, or would simplification lose too much of the essential texture? Student comments below mention how complex it seemed at first. On the other hand, one playtester at the Connections UK conference said it had a rather simplified/abstracted “Eurogame” feel to it. The second issue is length of play. At the moment it takes about three hours to play, which is a bit long for classroom use. I’ll be using the game next term as an option activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course. I’ll be organizing that exercise as competition, to see which team is best able to same the disaster-affected population of Carana.
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My Civil Military Relations class played the Humanitarian Crisis Game as a final project for the course. The nine students were divided into pairs playing the Carana, United Nations, and nongovernmental organization sides, while the remaining three made up the Task Force. They played the game over two 80-minute meetings. Each student was required to submit responses to four general questions about their experience playing the game, and three general issues were common across most of the responses: consideration of individual versus overall results, immediate versus long-term goals, and the complexity of the rules of the game. The Humanitarian’s Dilemma The HCG rules encourage players to focus on both Relief Points (RP), which indicate the overall progress in Carana, as well as Operations Points (OP) that tally the individual success of the four teams. That humanitarian aid agencies are driven by competition with other organizations as by helping targeted peoples, regions, and countries is nothing new, but the message still comes as a shock to many. This was definitely the case with the nine students playing the game. EG, half of the Carana government pair, noted that at the “beginning of the game, we often chose the option that would gain us the most individual points instead of choosing what was best for the players as a whole. This later proved detrimental as we realized if we moved our teams to benefit other players our tasks were made easier as well.” One example was the need for security operations as social unrest became in the problem later in the game. The rules discourage the Task Force from initiating security operations, placing the burden on the already-pressed Carana regime. EG added:
It was frustrating that we, the Government of Carana, would exhaust our resources sending teams to security while… the Task Force was not as proactive. This led me to realize how frustrating it must be when a Task Force assigned to a specific disaster-stricken region is not executing its mission properly. As the government of an impoverished country with few resources, it would be incredibly maddening to be working with a Task Force that was not proactively protecting the victims of the disaster. I believe this apathy on the side of the Task Force is because they have no real stake in the issue. It is not their state to defend, and therefore there is less motivation to see the mission of victim protection through.
One of the Task Force members, MH, admitted that the costs of intervening prohibited their desire to engage: “In our coordination with civilian authorities one of the impacts of being the task force was that there was less of an investment in the country and long game, as we knew that we would have to withdraw anyway, distancing ourselves from the country and making it harder to coordinate with other groups when these actions would involve some sort of sacrifice.” Another Task Force member, BP, recognized that thinking in terms of each group’s sacrifice was misleading:
We realized that our supplies weren’t really OUR supplies but everyone’s, as we were all trying to meet the same goal–providing for the people in the districts. Once I got out of the mindset that we were in different groups to compete and realized that we were all essentially on the same team, my goals in the simulation became clearer and decisions became easier.
Of course, as UN member JW points out, this took a relatively long time: “It wasn’t until the end of the game that the Task Force began to work security and do what its job was. And that was only when we really needed it due to the amount of social unrest.” Players were also distracted from the overall operation by the media card and media operations, which early on led players to compete for attention and OP. NGO player TS noticed this early on:
Everyone was concerned only with the district in which the media was present, which is somewhat understandable because all teams need to have good public relations. However, when the teams were concerned only with the district where the media was present, other districts suffered from our negligence, which came to hurt us. We addressed the needs of certain districts before others solely because of the media presence, even though there were many more people suffering in other districts of the city. In a real life disaster, the United Nations and the local government would be doing whatever is possible to make their efforts look the best they can to the media
BP took the lesson a step further, noting the moral hazard caused by the media: “The idea that some groups actually might want to come out on top or with a better image than another group in real life is particularly disturbing as the most important thing should always be to help the people, not worry about how good you look doing it in the media.” The early focus on individual gains had repercussions later on as well though, even as groups began pushing for cooperative efforts. The Task Force especially struggled with this, as MH points out: “The strategy we started out with was building up a lead in OP early in the game; however, as the game developed, we found that this strategy had hampered our ability to meet the needs of the districts and was contributing to the massively negative RP on the field. Moreover, this also created tension between us and other players as later in the game it was harder to convince them to cooperate with us.” NGO player KK agrees that the Task Force hamstrung itself early on: “If one group is not on the same page or not trying to achieve the same goal, the whole response effort will fail; at times we saw the Task Force not being on the same page with the rest of the group and trying to work for themselves and just gain points for themselves, which hurt every team and Carana.” After the first meeting, JW pointed out to me personally that the game portrayed a four-person Prisoner’s Dilemma. As a member of the UN, he had been sacrificing opportunities for individual OP in order to staff Emergency Relief boxes, allowing the other teams to take advantage of Coordination Clusters to distribute resources via the UN. One of the strongest points of the HCG is the inherent Prisoner’s Dilemma. The possibility of individual point-scoring added a dimension to the game often lost in general discussions of complex cooperative efforts. By allowing competition and cooperation to develop organically, rather than as the result of artificial rules or direct rewards, students learn about the rational processes of competition and cooperation. The Shadow of Crisis The students also recognized the difficult balance between immediate emergency needs and long-term development goals in a crisis situation. Logistics infrastructure particularly became the focus after the first few periods when players realized the limits on warehouse space was keeping valuable resources out of reach. By this time, however, the most affected team, the NGO, was generally unsuccessful at getting the other teams to trade supplies for what they saw as expensive infrastructure. Only later in the game did EG recognize the need to invest in infrastructure, despite the easy access to Carana’s supplies:
Another difficulty the Government of Carana faced was knowing when it was the best time to buy logistics infrastructure. Logistics infrastructure pieces could be purchased with any three of our supply chips of different colors, and their purpose was to create more room in the warehouse that other players could move their supplies in for quicker access when it was time to move them to districts. By purchasing logistics pieces, we had to give up three of our supplies, and we were the team with the fewest supplies. We rarely, if ever, made the decision to purchase logistics infrastructure during the beginning of the game, as we could see no benefit to our team directly. As the simulation progressed, we realized our sacrifice allowed other teams with more resources to move their supplies to districts whose needs we could not meet.
The class played the game the first time before the Thanksgiving break in November. I let the class play a second time after the break. Interestingly, the students agreed to put all their supplies toward infrastructure, but this prevented them from resolving any districts early on, and by Carana’s start of the second period, the RP counter dipped below the minimum threshold, immediately ending the game. With plenty of time remaining, they restarted, this time balancing the need for immediate short-term coverage of as many districts as possible with the desire to generate long-term development. This produced a fruitful discussion comparing foreign assistance to institution building in developing countries, adding another dimension to the lessons learned from the game. The Rules A general complaint from the students concerned the complexity of the game’s rules; however, this was not entirely the fault of the game’s developer. I purposefully kept students mostly in the dark right up until the first turn began to push the point that UN member MM writes, “in the very first stages of the game there was so much information that we had to remember. If there was a list of rules and regulations handed as a hard copy to all of the teams then I believe the start of the game can run more smoothly and efficiently.” But this is exactly the situation I did not want to allow. Carana Government member JR added that not fully understanding the rules at first “made it harder to develop a game plan early on.” When crises begin, there are no rules. When situations required explaining the rules or making a judgment, I made the call, but I left the progress of the game and the learning up to the students as much as possible. This also allowed for some mistakes to be made along the way, as KK points out: “The only issues, I believe, arose because we did not have a list of what the actual rules were. At times we would forget rules or just have little mistakes.” My response, when students first asked for a copy of the rules, was that in a real situation there are no rules; I would then tell them to relate the ensuing frustration to that of the responders and victims of real crises. This converted emotional responses to the complexity of the game into another learning experience. Conclusion Overall the students thoroughly enjoyed playing the game while I enjoyed watching them learn not only about crises but how crises and the responses develop. They connected abstract concepts, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and debates over the best means of generating economic and political development, to in-game outcomes and real-world situations. This game is well-suited for courses in world politics, international studies, global issues, international or comparative political economy, and international development. It was also relatively easy to play the game as groups if you have more than four players. The game will definitely be a part of many of my future classes.
Jeremy Wells Department of Political Science Texas State University—San Marcos