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Daily Archives: 07/09/2014

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 1)

securedownloadPAXsims is pleased to feature the first of five blog posts from David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. Today he introduces the topic—after that,  you can read parts two, three, four, and five.

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Politics as “the struggle for power” surrounds us. We deal with international relations (IR) theory explicitly in courses and publications on the topic, of course. IR theories also implicitly pervade our lives in other ways, however – through games such as RISK and Civilization, popular culture such as Star Trek and Game of Thrones and, of course, simulations. Popular games, films and books can help students understand key concepts of international relations in new ways, deepening their understanding of the material. Recognizing this, the discipline has begun increasingly to discuss more ways to incorporate these kinds of things into IR pedagogy.

Games like RISK, Diplomacy, Civilization and others can be viewed as models. Like all models, they simplify the world and focus on certain relational and structural issues while downplaying others–making them perfect for simpler introductory courses, where the aim is the familiarize students with the basics of international relations as quickly as possible. Popular fantasy and science fiction can also prove particularly useful for getting students to think about levels of analysis and the assumptions we rely upon in IR without getting distracted by cultural stereotypes or political affinities.

This series of blog posts will lay out various ways to adapt these “models” to the IR classroom through experiential learning. Simulations and experiential learning have many proponents in the field (Dorn, 1989; Brock and Cameron 1999; Shellman 2001; Endersby & Shaw, 2009; Loggins, 2009), of course, but detractors (Mandel 1987) criticize the amount of class time they often require and question the extent to which they contribute to students’ understanding of the material. Rather than attempt to resolve such a debate, the discussion here treats simulations, games and popular culture as an add-on to more orthodox pedagogy. All the assignments described here thus include the caveats that they must not require much in the way of class time or large amounts of professors’ time to manage. The principle at work centers on the belief that different people learn in different ways. For students who require more active involvement, creativity and imagination in their learning process, popular culture and games can fill a sometimes substantial gap in the teaching of international relations. Based on assignments I developed for my international relations theory classes over the years, as well as an experimental course focused entirely on IR theory through games, simulations and popular culture that I taught in 2013, the unifying principle is to teach students about international relations theories via the often neglected “right side of the brain.”

While Realist and Neo-Realist IR paradigms and related theories have a plethora of suitable games and pop culture items to rely upon, finding pedagogic “right brain” material to engage with other paradigms and approaches proved a bit more challenging but by no means impossible. While the overview presented here does not intend to provide an exhaustive treatment of available models, simulations, paradigms and theories, it does go over the basic options I have found most useful for introducing students to and engaging them with the international relations discipline. In general, when the models and simulations I discuss here have an essay assignment included with them, I always make it a short one of no more than five pages. As Erikson and McMillan (2014) argue, IR students need more practice condensing their thoughts and immediately focusing on the most important elements of their argument. The overview of options presented here will begin in the next blog post with an examination of two board game possibilities, followed by two computer games , two options from popular books and films, and finally some concluding thoughts.

David Romano
Missouri State University



Brock, K. L. & Cameron, B. J., 1999. Enlivening Political Science Courses with Kolb’s Learning Preference Model. Political Science & Politics, 32(2), pp. 251-256.

Dorn, D. S., 1989. Simulation Games: One More Tool on the Pedagogical Shelf. Teaching Sociology, 17(1), pp. 1-18.

Endersby, J. W. & Shaw, K. B., 2009. Strategic Voting in Plurality Elections: A Simulation of Duverger’s Law. Political Science & Politics, 42(2), pp. 393-399.

Eriksson, J. & McMillan, S. L., 2014. Bravo for Brevity: Using Short Paper Assignments for International Relations Classes. International Studies Perspectives, 15(1), pp. 109-120.

Loggins, J. A., 2009. Simulating the Foreign Policy Decision-Making Process in the Undergraduate Classroom. Political Science & Politics, 42(2), pp. 401-407.

Mandel, R., 1987. An Evaluation of the “Balance of Power” Simulation. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 31(2), pp. 333-345.

Shellman, S. M., 2001. Active Learning in Comparative Politics: A Mock German Election and Coalition-Formation Simulation. Political Science & Politics, Issue 4, pp. 827-834.



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