Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Game On! at Bishop’s University

Today I attended the Game On! conference on in-class simulation and gaming at Bishop’s University. The event was organized by Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé and David Webster.

The first presentation by Kerry Hull (Department of Biology, Bishop’s University) explored the value of role-playing in the undergraduate classroom. Her simulations put players not in human roles, but rather in the role of biological functions (such as “Enzyme Man”). Such exercises are used to explore relationships, cause-and-effect, and complex regulatory pathways. She discussed a number of best practices:

  • establish trust and community among participants (including the use of Smarties to recruit classroom volunteers);
  • identify roles;
  • link the simulation to concepts.

She noted that physical environment matters, that it is worth repeating a simulation with different actors, and that students should be shown supporting data for the simulation. She also discussed the “too cool for school” problem, whereby games and simulation may seem too childish—but noted that participants generally see the value in the end. IMG_1319

Claire Grogan (Department of English, Bishop’s University) talked about her use of an innovative teaching technique in her course on war and literature. The challenge she faced was making WWI seem relevant to younger Canadian students. She addressed this by assigning each student the persona of an actual member of the Bishop’s community in 1914 who participated in the war, drawing upon the Bishop’s Remembers website and contemporary material from the student journal The Mitre. She wanted the exercise to be more than a lottery whereby students waited to find out what happened to their person, so she researched a rich dossier on each: their photographs, activities, writings, and so forth. This served to increase student identification with their assigned character, making them more real. These individuals were then followed through the war, with students updating their situation every two weeks based on historical records of unit deployments and the battles they were engaged in. Letters, other news, care packages, medals, or death telegrams were given to some students at the end of each class, reflecting the historical record. One particular sheaf of telegrams arrived in the middle of a class discussion of the Battle of the Somme. It sounded a sombre, and very valuable, experience for the class. IMG_1322

After a coffee break, Laurent Turcot (UQTR) made a presentation on digital humanities and Assassin’s Creed Unity. He started by noting that many historians are reluctant to use popular cultural representations of history (such as movies or video games) in the classroom—precisely because they are representations. However, video games often motivate players to learn about history. He was brought in by Ubisoft as a consultant on the game and its treatment of the French Revolution, to supplement their own (non-English speaking) historian in Paris. Specifically, he was asked to brief Montreal and Toronto staff on daily life in Paris during the revolutionary period—and to deliver it all in a single six hour lecture. He focused on a couple of quarters of the city, and offered an overview of architecture and daily life. He also drew up an encyclopedia of key individuals and events. He discussed his loss of control of material once he had produced it, and the risk of game developers using information differently than he intended. He briefly mentioned some of the political and historical debate the game generated in France. Finally, he noted the potential value of using such a game to provide a street-level view of what 18th century Paris looked like. However, there is little financial incentive for large commercial game publishers to produce educational spin-offs, so progress has been slow.

My own presentation looked at the various ways games and simulations have been used in my own classes. After a short discussion of the research on simulations and learning, I talked about:

  • quick and simple games;
  • using commercial games as reading/review assignments;
  • roleplay and negotiation simulations;
  • in-class demonstration games (of the “game show” variety);
  • matrix games;
  • online digital games designed for instructional use;
  • custom-designed boardgames (such as AFTERSHOCK);
  • student-authored games (including interactive stories, as well games on the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war);
  • complex and hybrid games (such as the Brynania simulation and the Syrian refugees in Lebanon simulation);
  • and games as extra-curricular activities.

I concluded with some thoughts on best practices and recommendations for further reading. You’ll find the full presentation here.


AFTERSHOCK with students at Bishop’s University.

Lunch was followed by an opportunity to try out some of the games. I ran a game of AFTERSHOCK, in which the players manage to overcome initial difficulties (and the accidental withdrawal of rescue workers from District 3 at a critical moment) to win the game with a few minutes left to spare on the clock. I also demonstrated the use of matrix games with a few turns of ISIS Crisis.

Overall it was a very good conference, and I’m grateful to the organizers for inviting me!

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