PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 19/10/2014

Review of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College

MindsonFireReview: Mark C. Carnes, Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). 371pp + index. $27.95.

This volume is partly about the shortcomings of traditional university pedagogy. It is partly about the value of educational games. For the most part, however, it is about the Reacting to the Past series of historical educational role-play games first developed by Carnes and now by a growing number of other educators associated with the Reacting Consortium. The Reacting series includes classroom-ready role-play material for historical and philosophical debates ranging from the restoration of Athenian democracy through to the French revolution, religious debates in Puritan New England, to the independence of India—and much more. Although Carnes’ book devotes only very limited attention to other educational game use, and says equally little about their use outside of history and general humanities courses, it is nonetheless a very lively, deeply thoughtful, and powerful argument for the use of such games in the classroom.

Carnes asserts that role-playing games like the Reacting series sharpen critical thinking; develop writing, presentation, and other skills; and engage students in a way that lectures and readings are often unable to do. Central to his argument is the notion of “subversive play”—that is, playful activities which offer the possibility of upsetting the familiar order. Much of student life, Carnes suggests, has long revolved around joyful engagement in such subversive play, whether through sports competition, video games that immerse the player in fictional and unfamiliar worlds, satirical and “disrespectful” attitudes to authority, or norm-defying social activities (such as parties, drugs, and drinking). Role-immersion games, he suggests, tap into this quite natural human fondness for competition and challenging the established order by enabling students to adopt new personae, struggle to convince others, and thereby seek to change the course of a re-imagined history-in-the-classroom.

The author is able to cite significant research that shows the benefits of the Reacting approach. At times, however, the book’s unapologetic enthusiasm for immersive role-playing means that some potential drawbacks of serious games are glossed over. Most research on educational gaming more broadly shows its benefits are often highly variable or relatively limited. Indeed, because of this, some dispute resolution scholars have even questioned whether  role-play negotiations are really an effective pedagogical tool. Much depends on the game being used, the skills of the instructor/facilitator, and the manner in which it is integrated into broader curriculum. There are substantial opportunity costs to consider: time spent role-playing is time taken away from delivering material through lectures or other techniques. There are also practical constraints—for example, those presented by large classes. Many Reacting-type immersive role-plays take place in medium or smaller classes over several weeks, a luxury not all instructors may have.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book a great deal. Carnes manages to anchor his discussion in a considered critique of traditional educational approach, while making effective use of vignettes, interviews with former participants, and scholarly research to make his points. His enthusiasm is infectious. Even if this book is largely arises from the author’s particular experiences with Reacting to the Past, its value extends well past this to make a substantial  contribution to broader debates on contemporary university education.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 19 October 2014

Ex-IRON-RESOLVE-RCAT-Turn-2-compressed

Using the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset at HQ 3 UK Div Exercise IRON RESOLVE 14. Picture credit: LBS Consultancy.

Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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At his LBS Consultancy blog Graham Longley-Brown has posted a very valuable account of the successful integration manual and computer simulations, in this case as part of the 3 (UK) Division headquarters exercise IRON RESOLVE, using the manual Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset (RCAT) in conjunction with a computer simulation (ABACUS) and automated exercise management system (EXONAUT).

RCAT is an operational-level manual simulation designed for rapid set-up and execution that incorporates best practice from Course of Action (COA) Wargaming, Red Teaming and commercial off the shelf wargames. Mechanisms include options for stochastic and deterministic outcome resolution, but RCAT was primarily used during Ex IR 14 to provide a framework for, and prompts to, SME discussion. All RCAT mechanisms and results are transparent and can be moderated or adjudicated. The primary remit for the RCAT team was to provide the ‘soft’ and non-kinetic effects ‘wrap-around’ to the ABACUS computer simulation that would model movement and kinetic outcomes. However, RCAT went beyond that remit and became central to the exercise control process. References to ‘RCAT’ below can be taken as meaning any (good) manual simulation.

Integration of RCAT with ABACUS and EXONAUT

image002The broad processes required to integrate RCAT into Ex IR 14 are at Figure 1. The detailed processes specific to RCAT integration are broken out at Figure 2 and explained below. Note that the principle underpinning the entire process was that all kinetic combat outcomes and non-kinetic soft events were to be pre-considered at least 24 hours before they actually occurred, allowing the Game Controller (HQ 3 Div SO2 CT6) to shape the exercise to ensure Training Objectives (TOs) were met. The agreed outline events were then coordinated and enacted in real time the following day using the ABACUS computer simulation and EXONAUT events and injects management system….

He concludes his analysis to say:

Manual sims could be used to support future exercises in a number of ways:

1. MEL/MIL EXONAUT scripting week. A two- to three-hour facilitated play-through of the likely scenario(s) would enable MEL/MIL scripters to gain rapid situational awareness of the geography, ORBATs and likely ‘shape’ of the overall exercise. Armed with this understanding of the exercise context they could better prepare EXONAUT injects.

2. Exercise design. A good manual simulation enables consideration during exercise design of aspects such as balance of forces and the identification of key factors, factions and actors to be played into the exercise.

3. Execution. Little preparation is required to use manual sims to support brigade- and divisional-level exercises. The processes described above provide the starting point for future events.

For the full post, see Graham’s blog (linked above).

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The Strategy Page has an interview with veteran wargamer, wargame historian, and Connections conference organizer Matt Caffrey, Wargame Coordinator at the US Air Force Research Laboratory. Matt is currently finishing up a book, On Wargaming, for the Naval War College Press.

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Recently added to the PAXsims links sidebar: Gameology, a blog by Paul Franz devoted to “exploring game design, games as information, and games as art.”

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PAXsims has so far resisted commenting on the so-called #GamerGate controversy that recently engulfed the digital games world, in part because so much of it is so very stupid. Whatever serious issues #gamergate raised about games journalism have by now been lost amid vicious trolling of female game designers/analysts and so-called “social justice warriors” (that is, those arguing for greater diversity and inclusion in the gaming industry, or anyone almost anyone undertaking serious analysis of the social and cultural meaning of gaming).

For coverage of the controversy in the mainstream press, see:

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