Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gaming political science


Playing the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction Game in POLI 450/650.

Earlier today, students from my undergraduate POLI 450 and graduate POLI 650 (Peacebuilding) courses successfully reconstructed Afghanistan, playing a modified version of the Afghan provincial reconstruction game. The game proved rather easier than the real thing, with the Taliban suffering from bad weather and poor combat performance throughout the first year of the game, and finding it difficult to recover thereafter.


Players allocate resources to key projects.

The Coalition players did very well in allocating resources and cooperating too, which was a major reason for their victory. The Afghan President—who showed a particular fondness for using state resources for patronage purposes— was certainly pleased by the outcome.


The Afghan President announces basks in the approval of his people (and/or the international community). To his right, a local NGO representative hopes everyone has forgotten her decision to prioritize good relations with village elders over promoting greater gender equity.

This same group of very bright McGill University students did encounter some difficulty, however, in mastering the complex stochastic process we used to model combat interactions—namely, rock-paper-scissors.

The game itself was an optional course activity, and fifteen of them showed up on a Sunday morning to play. Most had been up early anyway to watch the Canadian men’s hockey team win Olympic gold—one even showed up in her pyjamas.


Tim Horton’s (McGill).

Tim Horton’s muffins provided an additional incentive. As is well-known, Tim Horton’s has become an essential part of Canadian stabilization operations.

TIM HORTONS INC. - Tim Hortons' Kandahar deployment ends

Tim Horton’s (Kandahar).

This game was one of several that I run in this class. Earlier in the term, another twenty seven students had formed three teams to take part in our first ever Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament, attempting to provide emergency relief to the fictional earthquake-stricken country of Carana.


Players race to save lives in Carana’s capital city of Galasi. Note the heavy investment in logistics (black disks) at the port and airport, as well as the teams assigned to humanitarian cluster coordination as well as emergency field operations. Also note the large volume of food supplies the players have brought with them to the game.

In that case, while all teams earned participation credits for playing, the winning team also received additional bonus points, as did the best team in each category.

Stockpiled water (blue) and medical (red) supplies at Galasi international airport.

Stockpiled water (blue) and medical (red) supplies at Galasi International Airport. Water and shelter (white) supplies can be seen in the distance in the government warehouse at the port.

It is much simpler and less time-consuming to earn participation grades in POLI 450 by taking part in the online discussions for the course, but I don’t seem to have any problems finding gaming volunteers. Indeed, there is usually more demand than there are slots available to play. Certainly the feedback on the Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament was very positive, with students reporting that they found it enjoyable (7%) or very enjoyable (93%), that the game did well (47%) or very well (53%) in illustrating course material, and that it should (100%) be used again in future classes.


A UN player draws the dreaded “clusterf**k” coordination card. Nonetheless, this team would go on to win the tournament.

In addition to these optional games, POLI 450 involves four in-class simulations/games (two quick mini-games to illustrate negotiation theories and approaches, a role-play exercise on the challenges of stakeholder assessment in conflict-affected countries, and an aid project evaluation exercise), one online digital game as a reading assignment, plus the week-long Brynania civil war simulation. They also have the option of writing an interactive online simulation instead of a team research paper for the course.

There are a lot of games and simulations in POLI 450 because the subject matter of the course lends itself particularly well to examination in this way. As I have argued elsewhere:

…despite the proliferation of scholarly and policy materials on peacebuilding, there is often a problematic gap between the theoretical focus of readings and the practical challenges of undertaking such operations in an environment characterized by voluminous and yet limited and often conflicting information, competing national priorities, differing professional and institutional perspectives, bureaucratic politics, and coordination challenges—not to mention the political ambitions and machinations of local actors.

A classroom simulation offers one way of addressing this gap. Simulations can help to illustrate and explore complex policy processes in the classroom, especially those regarding negotiations and international relations.

Similarly, Gary Milante and I have suggested:

Through serious games, participants can gain a better sense of the dynamic relationships at work in complex environments, explore good fits and practical solutions, and understand how mistakes occur (often, by making them themselves). These are real skills needed in the real world: In recent decades, policy makers working on peacekeeping and peacebuilding have certainly been faced with the prospects of failure and have been forced to choose between “reinforcing success and salvaging failure.” When games engage multiple participants, the games reproduce some of the political, coordination, communication, and coalition building challenges that often accompany peace and stabilization operations, especially if a simulation is designed to reproduce some of the organizational silos and bureaucratic politics that exist in the real world.

Thus, games can show how rational (and even altruistic) actors can, when faced with limited information, time pressure, differing organizational or political incentives, act in ways that might have dysfunctional effects.

That being said, however, I use such games much less in my other courses.

In POLI 340—a large enrolment (300 student) intermediate-level undergraduate course on contemporary Middle East politics—I don’t use them at all. Part of the reason for this is the large class size. Part of the reason is that I have a great deal to cover, and I can cover more of it using a lecture format. Finally, there isn’t really part of the course that I think needs illustration or exploration through a game mechanism. I also don’t use games in my POLI 640 graduate seminar on the Middle East (although I have been known to run the seminar a bit like a debating contest at times).

In POLI 227—a very large (600 student) introductory undergraduate course in the politics of developing areas—class size again presented challenges to game-based learning. In this case, however, I do use a game-show format to highlight certain aspects of colonialism and of rural political economy. I have also, on a few occasions, assigned digital games as “book review”-type assignments, or assigned some online serious games as part of the class readings.. I might do this more often if I could find more suitable games to assign, but the number that are playable, intuitive, and address issues of political and economic development in an interesting way is rather limited.

I have also directed some independent study courses that have addressed simulations in humanitarian training, as well as gaming the “Arab Spring.” One current graduate student is considering looking at US “Title X” wargames for her MA thesis.

It needs to be remembered that games while games can be useful, they are not an educational panacea, and they are not automatically more effective than other forms of teaching (a point made here and here, among other many places). Educational outcomes are almost entirely dependent on the quality of the game design, how well it addresses educational needs, how effectively it is integrated with other course material, how well gameplay is moderated, and how effectively the exercise is debriefed. (You’ll also find some discussion of these issues at the Active Learning in Political Science blog, and the issue often comes up the American Political Science Association’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference).

I have an anticipated sabbatical coming up in the 2015-16 academic year. After that I am considering launching a course at McGill on “politics and games,” to explore a broad range of issues from basic game theory and agent-based modelling, to the fundamentals of game design, to the connections between games, politics, and popular culture. At some point I’ll probably invite some crowd-sourced suggestions on what should be covered in such a course, and how—so keep watching PAXsims for a future post on the topic.

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