Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

ISA 2016 update #1


This week I’m attending the International Studies Association annual conference in Atlanta. Among the 1,280 panels and roundtables this year, several are devoted to the intersection of games and international relations.

Unfortunately, several of those panels are also scheduled in the same time slot. Consequently today I had to choose between panels on Videogames and World Politics, another on A Look to the Future of Intelligence Education (which included a simulation/gaming paper) and The Role of Simulations in Peace Education. In the end I attended the latter.

The first paper, by Hemda Ben-Yehuda (Bar-Ilan University) and Guy Zohar (Bar-Ilan University) examined “Lessons from Simulations of Regional Crises for the Study of Fanaticism and Peace.”

This study presents lessons from feedback surveys for designing simulations and highlighting the role of fanaticism in world politics. It focuses on nine face-to-face and online simulations of regional crises as an innovative tool to study fanaticism. During interactive exercises, participants confronted fanaticism in historical or current events, mostly on Middle-Eastern topics. Feedback questions guided students to revisit their learning experience covering: (1) Simulation and participant attributes. (2) Cognitive, affective, and behavioral gains in a gradual learning cycle, from preparation, via interactions to feedback. (3) Fanaticism in real and simulated environments. Results indicate that participants identify with their role and team, enjoy and learn but show limited awareness to fanaticism and its challenges. Students see the situation in less extreme terms than it is, regard themselves as moderates and label rivals as extremists. Yet, they view behaviors as a response to extremism, creating a dangerous escalation spiral. Fanaticism is associated with learning but not with accommodation. The way negotiations end appeared unrelated to research variables, with the exception of enjoyment and empathy. The implication for instructors is to employ fanaticism carefully to activate team behavior and advance learning but to remember the limits of control over how rivals conclude simulations.

I had some concerns about the ways in which fanaticism was conceptualized as the central variable here. ISIS certainly fits into that category. In the case of Nazi Germany “fanaticism” certainly drove the behavior of senior Nazi officials and the SS, but the rest of the German armed forces were fairly conventional military pragmatists. The three other examples that were cited—Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran—strike me as ideological but often very pragmatic, with complex decision-making processes that embody a variety of determinants and orientations.

Michael J. Butler (Clark University) addressed “The Holy Trinity? Integrating and Synthesizing Topic, Debriefing, and Assessment in Classroom Simulations.”

Among the pedagogical challenges confronting instructors who design and employ classroom simulations, two of the most prominent and perennial are debriefing and assessment. While an extensive literature on both topics exists, and numerous useful approaches are available, the daunting task of designing appropriate instruments for debriefing and assessment often results in an ad-hoc approach to each. The proposed paper posits two distinct explanations for this persistent state of affairs, drawn in equal measure from the prevailing literature as well as the author’s own experiences designing and employing in-class simulations. First, debriefing and assessment are frequently and erroneously conceived of as discrete considerations—a fragmented approach which works to the detriment of each. Second, both enterprises are frequently designed and conducted without adequate attention to the structure and form of the simulation exercise itself, generating a ‘one size fits all’ approach to both debriefing and assessment that works against obtaining the desired level of precision and specificity. As a potential corrective to these problems, the paper proposes a two-pronged synthetic approach in which the elements of debriefing and assessment are integrated as well as closely calibrated to the simulation topic and setting.

I think his argument that debrief and assessment techniques need to be tailored to the particular design and purposes of a simulation is, I think, spot-on. With regard to the latter, he discusses the “scant evidence” problem that, until relatively recently, simulation users had little to show beyond gut-instinct that simulations worked. There has been greater attention to objective measurement of simulation impact, but doing so remains a challenge. Butler argued that one-size-fits-all methods (such as pre/post-tests, control groups, or multiple game iterations) may be of limited usefulness, and outlined an approach that uses student debriefing to assess the extent to which learning objectives have been achieved.

Daniela Irrera (University of Catania) delivered a paper on “Simulating EU Institutional Dynamics The TwinSim at the University of Catania.”

The paper discusses a negotiation model focused on EU institutional dynamics and designed for students enrolled in Global Politics and European Studies programs. It was experienced by a group of students from the University of Catania and from the University of Liège, as part of a seminar (Twin Seminar), jointly managed by both Universities. The TwinSim scenario was focused on the appointment of the President of the Commission with the largest and participated consensus. Students experienced the inter-institutional negotiation between the European Council and the European Parliament and had to balance the strategies and preferences of political parties and Member State governments. The TwinSim aimed not only at advancing negotiation skills but also abilities to represent a political strategy and develop long-term political agenda accordingly. The paper is divided into three main parts. The fist is focused on major roles played, the biggest political parties within the EP, member States within the European Council and the designated candidate. In the second, the phases of negotiations are described, including hearings and the election of the President by the EP. The third one reports on the debriefing results and debates major difficulties and frustrations as well as achieved results.

I was pleased to see that a key design feature of the simulation was uncertainty and even a degree of chaos. Real policy-making (and politics) is often a rather messy process.

Luba Levin-Banchik (Bar-Ilan University) discussed “Pop Quiz: Assessing Knowledge Retention in International Relations With and Without Simulations.”

In this paper I examine effectiveness of studying international relations with simulations, compared to active learning without simulations. I utilize a pop quiz on four topics, each taught with a different method: (1) simulation and in-class debriefing; (2) simulation only; (3) in-class discussions and an accompanying research essay; (4) in-class discussions only. I review simulation assessment in publications over the past sixteen years, and suggest pop quiz as a novel assessment tool for simulations. I then present the “Iranian Plane” simulation developed to teach decision-making in crisis situations to international relations undergraduates. I analyze empirical evidence on knowledge retention with and without simulations based on students’ performance in the pop quiz two months after the simulation. The analysis shows that learning with simulation and debriefing together not only attains teaching goals set in advance, but does so better than other methods used. Simulation with debriefing was the most effective teaching mode in terms of knowledge retention, simulation only was almost as successful, but learning without simulation was significantly less efficient.

Finally, Elizabeth Ann Mendenhall and Tarek Tutunji, two graduate students/teaching assistants at Johns Hopkins University, looked at “Ancient and Modern World War Simulations as Supplemental Teaching Tool.”

This paper will examine the benefits and challenges of integrating World Politics Simulation as a teaching tool into an International Politics introductory course. We will be conducting two such simulations designed to be completed in a single fifty minute class session, and which do not require any extra-class preparation from students. Students will be assigned to country-teams and given initial guidelines on which to expand. Half-way through the simulation we will intervene with a critical juncture that the students will need to react to. In one simulation the juncture will reflect an actual historical event, in the other it will be a counter-factual. The two simulations will be on World War One, and on the Peloponnesian War. These two simulations are selected in order to create variance in familiarity with the historical period, socialization time between students, effects of increasing class comfort level, and difference between historically accurate and counter-factual prompts. The simulations will also allow us to examine whether simulations encourage deeper reading of course material. The limited nature of these simulations should also provide comparative insight into the difference between simulations that take up multiple days and those which can be conducted in a single class session.

I’ve often highlighted the value of “quick and simple” classroom simulations that only take up a limited amount of time (two 50 minute classes in this case), and this was a very good example. The game also seemed to be linked very well to the course, reading materials, and learning objectives. The design was simple, used classroom space and student orientation in clever ways, and included some stochastic determination to represent risk and uncertainty (dice to determine the outcome of certain types of moves):

The game implementation for the most part followed our intended game design, however it became apparent that some changes would be necessary to make the game run more smoothly. A few days before section each student was assigned the role of a single actor within a team, such as Pericles or Kaiser Wilhelm.  Students were asked to do the readings with that actor in mind, taking note of the actor’s personality, position, and motivations.  The only assignment that they were asked for was to email the instructor a description of their character’s motivations, the second and third image constraints that they have to navigate, and a strategy for how they intend to behave in the simulation. As facilitators, our pre-class preparation was limited to planning a presentation of the rules, arranging the classroom, and assembling notes about the historical context that might be useful during game play. These notes would include role assignments, maps, the resources and positions of actors, and a list of possible interventions in case the simulation stalled.

Once advanced preparations were made the simulation could be confidently run in a single class session. Before the students showed up, instructors arranged the classroom into islands of tables, each having a placard indicating the political unit of a respective team. To that end having a classroom with movable furniture is advantageous. Students arrive to class without knowing exactly at what point in history the simulation will begin. This was done to prevent students from ignoring earlier parts of the conflict while still allowing alternate outcomes to emerge. In both cases the specific historical starting point was a key turning point that sparked or accelerated the conflict. The instructor begins the class by giving a brief explanation of the rules of the simulation. Following a brief pause for questions, the instructor lays out the historical scenario from which the simulation begins. At this point it may be helpful to call upon students from different teams to give a brief account of their situation at the beginning of the simulation as a collective refresher for the class. With the scenario laid out, the simulation can begin.

After the end of each 5-minute turn, the facilitator may need to restore order to the classroom as students may be spread out among different tables deep in negotiations, alliance making, or planning. A timer with an alarm that is only turned off once all students are back in their seats may be used for this purpose. Students then have a minute to decide on their moves. In the Peloponnesian War simulation moves were publicly declared by students, however because this ended up advantaging teams that went last we moved to the use of action forms in the WW1 simulation. After one minute, the action forms are collected and read aloud by the facilitator, and public moves are recorded on the board. It is helpful to keep track of history so to speak by dividing the board into a table with teams on one axis and turns on another. A public record of the progression of events helps students orient themselves to the developing situation. In parallel instructors keep track of secret orders and plans undertaken by each team on their own sheet of paper. Moves that required an outcome were assigned a likelihood of success and given a roll of the dice before the next team’s move was announced. For example an order to sneak a force of submarines into the Baltic Sea by Britain required a secret dice roll with a high likelihood of success. After all moves are declared and resolved, the instructor declares the start of the second turn and students return to the simulation. The game continues in this manner until the time allotted for the simulation ends.

Jonathan Wilkenfeld (University of Maryland) chaired the session, while Mary Jane C. Parmentier (Arizona State University) and Victor Asal (State University of New York at Albany) served as panel discussants. Following their observations, a more general discussion followed.

There was considerable focus on assessment issues, and the growing emphasis placed on quantitative assessment methods in some of the leading political science pedagogy journals. Victor also raised the issue of how simulation design might shape of bias participant behaviour, and tilt outcomes in certain (theoretical) directions. Was a war simulation, for example, inherently “realist” in its dynamics? I agree that this is a very important point. In my own comments I noted that if student debriefs extend beyond the game outcomes and learning materials to include student critique of the game design itself, there are two potential benefits. First, participants thereby have an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which their actions might be a function of the game design, thus helping to control for possible design bias effects. Second, such an approach encourages participants to think about game design and the modelling of complex phenomenon—something which may be even more effective than simulation itself in promoting concept learning. A third benefit (which I forgot to make at the time) is that such feedback also helps a designer in revising the game design for future use.

All-in-all, a very good session. I look forward to more simulation and gaming goodness at ISA again tomorrow.


One response to “ISA 2016 update #1

  1. Michael Butler 08/04/2016 at 2:48 pm

    Rex, thanks for your careful and most helpful synopsis of the panel. I’m glad you seemingly found it as interesting and pertinent as I did. Kudos to Hemda for organizing, Jon for chairing, and Mary-Jane and Victor for serving as discussants.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: