Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 13/09/2014

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 4)

PAXsims is pleased to present the fourth of five blog posts by David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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Popular Fantasy and Science Fiction

Just as students’ attention span in the classroom is limited and requires breaks in order to refocus, so too with the assignments we tend to inflict upon them outside the classroom. Their sessions with classic IR texts, academic articles and documentaries need to be broken up with other kinds of materials. By offering some popular fantasy or science fiction books and films, we can encourage breaks that still further the IR learning process as opposed to breaks involving reality television or similar drivel. Besides activating the right side of the brain, assignments relating pop fiction to the IR literature can set students on the path of recognizing all kinds of things in the world they experience that link up with the academic theories they are studying. This in turn produces deeper learning and increases the likelihood that they will actually retain more of the lessons from their courses.

The two pop fiction assignments provided here come from the world of science fiction and fantasy, respectively. The two genres are particularly useful for getting students to focus on theory rather than descriptive detail, given that even fairly clueless students will recognize that what year Sauron reemerged to wage war on Middle Earth or which species make up the United Federation of Planets will not be on the exam. Both assignments in this section offer the pedagogic advantages described in the section discussing the Civilization and Stardrive computer games – especially in terms of encouraging students to think about systems and their most important actors. In addition to this, the two assignments discussed here offer a number of additional lessons. Like Stardrive but unlike Civilization, these two assignments have the advantage of fictional societies and cultures, which helps steer students away from explaining international relations behavior through a reliance on stereotypes and political preferences. Before going on to discuss the details of each assignment and in the interest of not receiving hate mail in my inbox, I should insert the obligatory *spoiler alert* here – some readers may wish to watch the Babylon 5 series and read the Game of Thrones books before the rest of this article.


TV Sci Fi Series: Babylon 5

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Any IR theory course with plenty of room for class discussion
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Institutions and Regimes, Systems and Units, 2-Level Games, Constructivism, Allison’s Models 1-3, Realism, Liberalism and more
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Students watch series outside of class and discuss the material in class, with potential exam questions or essay assignments

Babylon 5
ran for five seasons beginning in 1994, with almost all the episodes written by J. Michael Straczynski. Although not well known, the show won numerous awards, including two Emmy Awards and two consecutive Hugo Awards for best dramatic presentation. Assigning Babylon 5 rather than more well-known sci fi such as Star Trek offers the students a more level playing field, since few of the new generation of students are likely to already know the show well. The show is still available via Netflix DVD and Amazon instant streaming in North America, and still shown on regular television in much of Western Europe. For pedagogic purposes, the first two seasons of the show would probably be sufficient given the difficulty of assigning students more than this.

In the hope that none of my students are reading this article (lest they note my failure to follow my own essay assignment directives), I will provide the summary of the show’s premise that I found on Wikipedia:

Set between the years 2258 and 2281, it depicts a future where Earth has sovereign states, and a unifying Earthgov. Colonies within the solar system, and beyond, make up the Earth Alliance, and contact has been made with other spacefaring races. The ensemble cast portray alien ambassadorial staff and humans assigned to the five-mile-long Babylon 5 space station, a centre for trade and diplomacy. Described as “one of the most complex programs on television,” the various story arcs drew upon the prophesies, religious zealotry, racial tensions, social pressures, and political rivalries which existed within each of their cultures, to create a contextual framework for the motivations and consequences of the protagonists’ actions. With a strong emphasis on character development set against a backdrop of conflicting ideologies on multiple levels, Straczynski wanted “to take an adult approach to SF, and attempt to do for television SF what Hill Street Blues did for cop shows.”

I found it somewhat difficult to settle on a limited number of IR concepts dealt with in the show to highlight here, but nonetheless chose a few that I like to use the show to illustrate. The Babylon 5 series actually contains rich and almost limitless material that can be used to illustrate international relations theories, without the encumbrances of cultural stereotypes, political affinities or the very uneven knowledge of human history present in an average class of university students. (I am not suggesting that we remove real history from our IR teaching. An assignment based on science fiction in a class with many different assignments, however, can help engage students who otherwise feel intimidated by their relative and hopefully temporary ignorance of history.) I encourage teachers interested in using the show for concepts not discussed here, from patriarchies and humanitarian interventions to pacific unions and relativism, to consult the aforementioned Wikipedia entry for Babylon 5 – some of the show’s more ardent fans have crafted a Wikipedia entry with very extensive discussion of the series’ plot lines, many themes and parallels to real historical events.

When a class is assigned a season or two of the show, they all have the same reference points with which to discuss the IR theories at hand. The show is also appropriate for students (and professors) unfamiliar with the sci fi genre. My wife, who never betrayed an inkling for science fiction until I introduced her to the show, became enthusiastic enough about it to demand some marathon viewing sessions.

Unlike most television shows, Babylon 5 contains very ample material for a discussion of levels of analysis (Singer 1961) and two-level games (Putnam 1998). Besides the obvious inter-galactic system level typically present in the sci fi genre, Babylon 5 focuses on the domestic politics of the various species/civilizations in the show. Sometimes ambassadors of the various species on the Babylon station make agreements they find themselves unable to ratify at home, or they make deals on the station that spark unrest on their home planets. Sometimes domestic politics causes the “states” in the system to attempt to ally with external threats rather than balancing against them. When a coup d’état overthrows the leadership of the Earth Alliance, the human staff of Babylon 5 (along with the Mars Colony) declare independence and turn to alien races for protection against their own government – at which point alien races willing to assist typically demand a greater say in managing the Babylon 5 station. The species/civilizations in this inter-galactic system are thus in no way presented as unitary rational actors.

The story of Babylon 5 begins after a devastating war between the Earth Alliance and the Minbari Federation. In the first two seasons, a lot of attention is devoted to how the war originally broke out: a case of mis-communication and unintended displays of hostility, problems which the Earth Alliance later built the Babylon stations to prevent from occurring again. The initial causes of this war fit perfectly with Graham Allison’s (1969) Model 2 and the concept of standard operating procedures leading to unintended outcomes. Upon first contact between the Humans and Minbari, the Minbari ships approached the Earth Alliance fleet with their gun ports open – which is a sign of respect in Minbari culture. Seeing the gun ports open, members of the human fleet followed their standard operating procedures and began a chain of standard procedures for combat that culminated in one of their ships firing on the Minbari without higher authorization. This in turn led to a war of many years which the Minbari were poised to win, until they mysteriously ceased their offensive (we find out why they ended the war short of victory later on in the show). At different points in the series, we also see different bureaucracies in the Earth Alliance (the Psy Corps and components of the military) and the Minbari Federation (the Warrior Caste) pursuing their apparent interest in resuming the war, which fits Allison’s Model 3 account of bureaucracies’ role in producing less than rational foreign policy behavior on the part of states.

In terms of institutions, the whole premise of the show centers upon the key role that the Babylon 5 space station plays in facilitating communication, agreements, agenda setting, the creation of new inter-galactic norms and the overcoming of collective action problems. As the show progresses and its main characters (the various ambassadors and the human officials of Babylon 5) have more and more contact with each other, their identities shift. Several of the main characters go from viewing everything in terms of the interests of their respective species or governments to an inter-galactic equivalent of the cosmopolitanism. Most of their home government’s officials, however, lack the benefit of extended contact and interaction with the other civilizations and thus do not experience the same shift in identity – leading to a situation wherein the agents of Babylon 5 come to increasingly defy the directives of their home government principals as they work towards new norms they have been socialized into (Hall and Taylor 1996). Towards later seasons, the officials of the now independent Babylon 5 station – both human and non-human now – work towards nothing less than a fundamental transformation of their inter-galactic system from one of anarchy into something else.

A final overall and useful theme of the series only begins to be revealed in seasons two and three. Two “elder races” – the “Shadow” and the “Vorlon” – lurk in the background from the very beginning of the show. They are engaged in a cold war against each other, fought via proxies – the younger races (such as the humans) which Babylon 5 focuses on throughout the series. The equivalent of the U.S. and Soviet superpowers, different younger races choose (often unwittingly) to side with either the Shadow or the Vorlons at the same time as others attempt to form a non-aligned movement. Although viewers might initially think the Vorlons are the “good guys” in this account, given that they represent order and law versus the Shadow’s chaos and anarchy, the younger races quickly discover that the Vorlon pursue their own interests rather than anyone else’s. Elevating Law and order above all else can require humiliating obedience and protect the privileges of the powerful. For American students who may have difficulty viewing their own state the way some others in the system might, the parallels here can prove very useful pedagogically.

In terms of assignments using Babylon 5, any number could prove suitable, from essays to simple discussion points or class activities. Since the TV series has five seasons with a total of 110 episodes (each around 44 minutes long), professors can choose which episodes to assign on the syllabus when. In each class or tutorial session, a different student leads a discussion of how the assigned episode incorporates international relations themes or theories covered in the course. Besides the crucial pedagogic feedback such ongoing presentations provide, such an approach has the potential advantage of allowing students to point out issues and themes the professor failed to notice before.


Book Series: Game of Thrones

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Any IR theory course with room for class discussion
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Classic Realism, Systems and Units, Norms and Ethics, Anarchy
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Students read books outside of class and discuss the material in class, with potential exam questions or essay assignments

A-GAME-OF-THRONES-new-HC A Game of Thrones (Martin 1996) is set in a fantasy feudal world where seasons can last for years and power of magic waxes and wanes in different eras. The popularity of the novels and television series probably means that not is required here in the way of synopsis, and the large majority of students will be familiar with the books, the series or both. This has the advantage of using a vehicle that many students will be avid fans of for pedagogy, thereby increasing their engagement with the course material. It has the disadvantage of not leaving every student on a level playing field, however, as a few will be unfamiliar with Game of Thrones and will need to catch up quickly.

The first book or season in the series is probably sufficient to allow for ample discussion of Classic Realism, Machiavelli, the principal units/actors within the system (great houses such as the Lannisters and Starks), anarchy within the system (technically absent given the presence of a king who rules over the feudal houses, but in reality always at play) and regional systems (the Kingdom of Westeros) compared to a global system (something that does not really exist in Game of Thrones given the very limited interaction between Westeros, various island city-states and other continents).

The possibility I found most intriguing with Game of Thrones, which I used in my “Games in IR Theory” class of eight upper level students, involved norms, normative theory and ethics. Although the Game of Thrones world is vicious and cutthroat, the system in Westeros does have its norms – hospitality to guests once you have shared salt and bread with them, political leadership via patrilineal inheritance (except in southern Dorne part of Westeros, where inheritance is matrilineal), forbidding of slavery, feudal obligations of “bannermen” to their lords, and respect for the neutrality of the institution of the Nights’ Watch, for instance. (The Nights’ Watch is a monastery-like order of soldiers protecting the northern border of Westeros by manning a great ice wall there. The Nights’ Watch institution also serves as a useful pressure valve by taking in anyone, whether troublesome second-born sons or criminals, so long as they swear loyalty to the order and renounce their past affiliations.) In the novels and television series, however, all these norms face increasing strain and violations as the kingdom falls into civil war over succession to the Throne of Westeros. The resulting civil war appears also to weaken the kingdom severely, putting its ability to resist external threats into serious question.

The question that naturally arises then has to do with Westeros’ system of ethics, norms and rules for political succession and the extent to which these promote the greater good. Throughout Game of Thrones, a tension between those who follow a Realist ethic of raison d’état (translated as “whatever is necessary to safeguard one’s noble house,” or perhaps “raison de famille”) and those who harbor additional norms such as honesty, respect for the rule of law, regard for the lives of children, and the welfare of the kingdom in general, exists. Those who attempt to follow an ethical code beyond that of self-help seem to come to tragic ends in Martin’s novels.

In order to focus on these questions, the assignment I devised centered on a short essay the students had to prepare addressing ethics in Game of Thrones, followed by a debate. In the debate, students adopt the role of a maester in the book, members of an order of scientists/alchemists whose center of learning is called the Citadel and who try to influence developments in the realm for the greater good, via their positions as advisors to every lord in the realm. Students need to have it made very clear to them that they are to adopt the role of a maester who does not appear in the novels or television series, but is rather a character of their own creation. (I was not clear enough on my directives, it seems, as one student introduced himself as a “whitewalker” ice wraith and another as Daenerys Targaryen, a principal character in the story whom “…the others had better listen to in this debate because I control dragons!” Perhaps it was just late in the semester, a time when everyone’s wits suffer.)

My directives were as follows:

Archmeaster Professor Romano has convened a secret conference of maesters to discuss the political instability in Westeros. The overriding questions the maesters need to address include: “What should be the basis of the reigning political system in the realm? Is the current system of feudal, dynastic rule by inheritance serving the greater good of the realm? What alternatives exist? Which, if any, of the current claimants of the Iron Throne should receive the Citadel’s tacit support?”

Students will each play the role of one of the maesters summoned to the conference and will come prepared to make their arguments.

Each student will introduce themselves and tell the conference where they have been posted for the last several years, followed by a 5 minute summary of their views on the conference’s central questions. Maester Weston will provide a written summary of his position, as he was not able to make the journey from the Lands Beyond the Wall and participate in the conference in person, but one of his ravens arrived bearing his thoughts [Weston had a debate tournament and could not be in class that day, so I had him e-mail his views “from beyond the Wall”].

Following the presentations, all the assembled maesters will debate the issue.

The debate that took place as a result proved enjoyable and at times quite philosophical, but in need of further direction and precision in the directives provided to the students beforehand. I did not want to initially provide too specific instructions, as I wanted to give the students room to address the issues they thought were important in terms of ethics and normative theory. I then wanted them to try and draw parallels to our world, which they did by immediately pronouncing that “Hobbes and Machiavelli were right.” This assignment probably still needs refinement.

David Romano
Missouri State University



Allison, G. T., 1969. Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The American Political Science Review, 63(3), pp. 689-718.

Babylon 5. 1993-1998. [Film] Directed by J. Michael Straczynski. United States of America: Babylonian Productions & Synthetic Worlds, Ltd.

Hall, P. A. & Taylor, R. C.R., 1996. Political Science and the Three New Institutions. Political Studies, 44(5), pp. 936-957.

Martin, G. R.R., 1996. A Game of Thrones. 1st ed. New York: Random House.

Putnam, R. D., 1988. Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games. International Organization, 42(3), pp. 427-460.

Singer, J. D., 1961. The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations. World Politics, 14(1), pp. 77-92.

Wikipedia, 2014. Babylon 5. [Online]  Available at: 5

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