Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 15/09/2014

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 5)

PAXsims is pleased to present the fifth and final instalment in a series of 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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k9388The games, simulations and popular culture discussed here are not the only ones available for teaching international relations, of course. At least three other kinds of similar pedagogic tools I know of have received a good deal of attention in the field recently. Given that zombies appear to pervade popular culture these days, many teachers have begun incorporating assignments with the walking dead. While Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies (2011) offers a very interesting, humorous read that I certainly encourage students to take a look at, zombies fail to liven up IR theory for me. The problem stems from the fact that they are unthinking – they cannot be reasoned with or deterred, one cannot invite them to join an international institution, and their identity remains static – or nonexistent really. As such, the logic of the zombie theme looks more like any natural disaster or epidemic. One might just as easily replace the zombies with Alfred Hitchcock’s birds or swarms of carnivorous frogs (from a film that traumatized me as a child and whose name I no longer recall). The only assignment relating to zombies that really worked for my “Games in IR” class, besides plenty of anecdotal comments during some lectures, is suggested by Blanton (2013:10). Students read World War Z (Brooks 2006) and wrote a short paper using Graham Allison’s (1969) Model 2 “operational roles” and Model 3 “bureaucratic behavior” to explain why the U.S. military’s initial response to the zombies was so inadequate. If I use this assignment again, I will only assign the students pages 92-104 from World War Z (“The battle of Yonkers”), as several complained that the rest of the book was not worth it to them pedagogically.

9780472051823A recent book relating J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954) to IR poses similar problems for me. While Ruane and James’ The International Relations of Middle-earth (2012) offers a lot of excellent and thoughtful material, the irredeemably evil nature of Sauron (a.k.a. “The Dark Lord”) and most of his minions (orcs, goblins and what not) in my opinion does more harm than good to IR theory. Sauron and his minions’ apparently static and uncompromisingly malevolent identity is simply not the kind of complex world I try to help my students understand. Because I want to discourage my students from demonizing “the other” in such ways, I avoid incorporating such fantasy literature and lean instead towards the more ethically complex Game of Thrones kinds of story settings. Some of the most interesting things about IR theory involve good people doing bad things, self-serving actors being cajoled or pressured into cooperating with others, unintended consequences of choices actors make, misperceptions, bureaucracies that fail to produce the results they were created for, and grey ethics. When we introduce a titanic struggle between good and evil, it becomes harder for students to see these nuances and complexities.

The final simulation or IR model that has recently received a lot of attention is the one I have the most mixed feelings about. Statecraft is a simulation developed specifically for international relations students. Students are divided into different countries in a fictional computer on-line simulation wherein they name their states, divide key government posts between themselves (such as “President,” “Secretary of State” and “Secretary of Defense”) and decide what the state’s principle attributes are (“green” or “industrial” for instance, giving bonuses to farming or factory production respectively). They then play through a pre-determined number of turns (typically on a 1-turn a week schedule) wherein they decide what structures to build in their state, what technologies to research, what trade agreements with others to pursue, what spy missions (if any) to launch, what military units to build and what military actions to take (if any). In this sense, the logic is very similar to the 4X computer games described here, but without the “explore” aspect given that there is no undiscovered territory even at the outset of the game. Students have a number of competitive goals to pursue, from being the “safest country” or the “most educated country” to the “wealthiest country” or the “most militarily powerful” country. Naturally, a student whose state is eliminated from the game by military conquest cannot achieve much in the way of these goals. A number of global goals (meaning jointly attained rather than competitive) also exist, such as “ending world hunger” and “the global peace award” (no hostile military actions occur for the duration of the simulation). Students are to be graded on both their effort and participation as well as their success in achieving these goals, as determined by a point system that the simulation awards them. Students generally need at least an hour of class time a week for the simulation, to hold U.N. meetings and organize themselves, while the rest gets done on-line.

I should start by saying that several of the students in my “Games in IR” course really appreciated this simulation. The simulation allows for a degree of complexity and interaction that is hard to get anywhere else without a huge amount of work on the professor’s part. There is ample room to work in any number of IR lessons from the simulation into course lectures and assignments, as this is the explicit intent of the model. I enjoyed watching my students’ U.N. meeting where they tried to organize each state’s per turn food contributions aimed at ending world hunger, and seeing how easy it was for more industrial players to trade their production points to more agricultural states in order to meet the quota they agreed to. The most shocking event in our class simulation occurred when a student who had not built a single conventional military unit in his state began researching nuclear weapons, in contravention of a non-proliferation agreement the class had been discussing.

Another player discovered his research intentions through a spy mission he launched, and—led by the president of a “pacifist” state (“pacifist” is one of the attributes students can choose for their state – it provides advantages in health ratings and low crime rates, but precludes the building of nuclear weapons or stealth bomber)—all the other players then proceeded to invade and conquer his territory before he could develop nuclear weapons. The student’s state was thus eliminated (it was a source of some ironic humor in the class that the now stateless student was in fact Kurdish). Just before the last turns of the game, however, the president of the “pacifist” state secretly offered to return some territory to the now stateless student if he would share with him the computer password used to control his state in the simulation. Upon getting the password, the “pacifist” student proceeded to complete the other student’s nuclear weapons program and then on the last turn use his state to nuke all the cities of the other players in the game – thereby guaranteeing for himself most of the competitive point awards in the game. The e-mail the “pacifist” student sent to the other players at this point quoted liberally from Thucydides, Hobbes and Machiavelli.

Despite all the excellent points to comment this simulation, however, a few issues make me uncertain if I will use it again in the future. Although I realize that this simulation is primarily aimed at American students, the Canadian in me was not at all fond of all the American-centric titles in the game, from “Secretary of State” (rather than the far more common “Minister of Foreign Affairs”) and the “CIA Program” technology to the “Schwartzkopf War College” building and “Harvard University” program technology. On a more serious note, students repeatedly came to me with technical glitches in the algorithms of the simulation. One example of many involved the students that had chosen the “green” country attribute.

They soon noticed that the promised multiplicative effects for farms from this attribute was actually additive and much smaller than the truly multiplicative bonus students with the “industrial” attribute got for their factories. Another student discovered that he could launch spy missions, then cancel them the same turn and get a refund for the cost of a mission he had yet to pay for. The trick allowed him an endless supply of money in the game. While the tech support I always told the students to e-mail was unfailing quick in responding, the solutions were generally ad-hoc (as in “I just added 200 food resources to your state”) rather than corrections of problematic algorithms. According to around half my students, these problems as well as what they felt were poorly designed rules for military engagements ruined the simulation.

From my own point of view, I found the simulation hard to follow and keep track of. Although from my own computer I remained able to view every message sent within the simulation and every structure built or spy mission launched, the amount of things happening quickly became overwhelming and the interface for viewing it all was not friendly. When I inquired with tech support about comparative graphs or charts to measure the relative progress of different players towards different objectives (something that exists for the 4X games described here), I was told that I should just read the turn summaries that students are supposed to write to explain what they are doing. (A new 2.0 update of Statecraft in now apparently in use, however, which supposedly addresses many of these issues. I have not had the opportunity to review the updated version.) Needless to say, my students were too sneaky or lazy to often tell me what they were really up to (if anything). In short, I felt that I did not really have sufficient knowledge of what was happening in the simulation and why, which in turn made it much harder to grade the students’ participation.

I am thus unsure if I will use Statecraft again. Instead, I will most likely rely on various combinations of the assignments described here. While simulations such as Statecraft may prove fine options for many professors, they generally require a good deal more class time and ongoing attention from the professor than the assignments described here. Simulations created specifically for IR classes also lack the advantage of demonstrating to students that IR theory really surrounds them in their everyday lives. For these reasons, I prefer one or more of the assignments I describe above for my courses.

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.

Blanton, R. G., 2013. Zombies and International Relations: A Simple Guide for Bringing the Undead into Your Classroom. International Studies Perspective, 14(1), pp. 1-13.

Brooks, M., 2006. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. 1st ed. New York: Random House.

Drezner, D. W., 2011. Theories of International Politics and Zombies. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

James, P. & Ruane, A. E., 2012. The International Relations of Middle-earth: Learning from The Lord of the Rings. 1st ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Tolkein, J.R.R., 1954-1955. The Lord of the Rings. 1st ed. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Wargaming at King’s College London

Prof. Philip Sabin (Department of War Studies, King’s College London) has put together a short video that offers an overview of both the recent Connections UK 2014 professional wargaming conference and his own MA module on conflict simulation at KCL.

You’ll even see a brief glimpse of PAXsim’s own Humanitarian Crisis Game being played at 1:32!

Connections UK 2014 presentations now online

Business1If you missed the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London earlier this month, you’ll now find a very full account at the Connections UK website—including details of the “Wargaming 101” session, biographies of all conference speakers, powerpoint slides, downloadable game materials, and recordings of some of the presentations and discussions.

Our earlier PAXsims account of the conference can be found here and here.


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