Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Diplomacy in the Classroom… Full of Political Scientists

I attended the first day of the American Political Science Association (APSA) Teaching and Learning Conference today.

The Simulations track this year was put together by the inimitable Victor Asal, and features some very interesting papers, about which I will report after the conference (and when the official rapporteurs notes are available). However, never one to be idle at a conference, Victor also organized a workshop this afternoon, along with Amanda Rosen on the use of the classic game Diplomacy in the classroom.

Victor and Amanda prepared materials to explain how they teach and use the game in class, but given the time constraints, we actually skipped the presentations and jumped right into playing. There were about 17 of us, which made for mostly teams of two and a couple teams of three (I was half of Team Germany). Somewhat surprisingly, only about five of us had ever played the game before – but that proved to be a bonus when it came to the Q&A about using it as a teaching tool, since several people honed in on how to create time and space in a course to effectively teach students to play the game, and how to balance between students who were naturally good at/inclined to the game and those who struggled more with it.

After two full turns (four rounds of orders) it was almost time to head to the conference reception. Needless to say Austria-Hungary had been basically obliterated, but we had also given a lot of thought to the applicability of this hoary standard of the gaming repertoire to the modern IR or comparative politics classroom. Victor and Amanda interrupted us throughout play with “pedagogical moments” and we had a lively debrief. Some of the takeaways:

  • Formats: Victor and Amanda run it quite differently. Victor uses the game mostly in large classes and runs it during class periods, usually either four full 1:15 classes, or one long intro and then 15-20 minutes at the beginning of each class for the rest of the semester. Amanda does the intro, and sometimes demo rounds in class, but then has students do all the negotiating and decision making outside of class time. Orders are submitted to her at set intervals and she adjudicates using the online version of the game, with a single board where all the students can see the state of play.
  • The nitty gritty: the nastiness of betrayal, double-dealing, and backstabbing in the game is, of course, highlighted as a window into a) realism; b) the deplorable realities out there.
  • Using teams with their own internal roles and decision making rules was discussed as a way to make the game feasible in larger class sizes (e.g. a team of five playing Germany has a Kaiser and a bunch of ministers who get to make recommendations).
  • As mentioned above, balancing for skill and interest level was much discussed. Victor actively participates as a strategic advisor to those teams he feels would otherwise loose interest or be side-lined in his classes – since he can observe dynamics in the room. Amanda adopts several approaches, including offering “Pro Tips” as part of her adjudication roundup after each turn, in which she highlights areas where poor understanding of rules or strategy might have gotten the better of different teams.
  • A variety of grading and assignment strategies were discussed, from reports after each round to assessments of how the overall themes of the game mirrored core theory being taught in the class.
  • The issue came up of what to do with a team that goes out earlier in the game? Those who had used it agreed that re-assigning those students to other teams generally worked well.

The core takeaway though was… it’s fun. If there hadn’t been the prospect of an open bar, I’m not sure some of us wouldn’t have stayed for another turn (I was anxious to see how our conflict with Russia over Warsaw would turn out). It was a good reminder that as we explore the limits and complexities of gaming methodology in many directions, there is still a lot of value to the classics when well applied.

One response to “Diplomacy in the Classroom… Full of Political Scientists

  1. Michael Gardner 25/02/2016 at 5:41 pm

    I just had someone suggest the idea on a Reddit discussion board and I got very exciting since it was clear that it would not require a lot of class time (one period to explain the rules and then maybe five minutes at the end of a class period) for teams to resolve a turn, with one turn per day. I figure that this could lead to a full game being played in a two-three week unit on WWI.

    I was imagining the project being a Project Based Learning sort of assignment specifically with WII that had the learning expectations that:
    *students would be able to describe the principle powers of WWI
    *students would be able to describe the role alliances had in causing WWI
    *students would be able to describe the role nationalism had in causing WWI

    What would you say would be the learning expectations in a government class?

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