Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

ISA update #2


Today at the International Studies Association annual conference in Atlanta started off for me this morning with a panel on Strategic analysis in support of international policy-making . This had nothing to do with simulation/gaming—rather, I was there to deliver a paper on “Here (very likely) Be Dragons? The Challenges of Policy‐Relevant Prediction.” I’m not just a  simulations guy, you know.

The afternoon, however, was taken up with a very stimulating four hour workshop session on Simulations and Games in International Relations, organized by Victor Asal (NYU) and Amanda Rosen (Webster).

Victor started us off with a series of quick classroom games designed to illustrate key conceptual and theoretical issues in international relations. Live or Die is a modified rock-paper-scissors game. He highlighted how the game’s outcome illustrated the problems of cooperation under conditions of Hobbesian anarchy. While everyone could win the game if no one challenged anyone else, typically a competitive dynamic soon emerges. That led into a broader discussion of whether the game highlighted the inevitability of social conflict, or whether the outcome was a function of the game setting and procedures. Subsequent games with modified rules introduced issues of capability, alliance behavior, and negotiation. In another game we  examined single-round and iterative prisoner’s dilemma, with modified pay-off structures and rules.

Amanda stressed the need to focus such games on learning objectives, and to link game behavior with course content.


The flag of our beloved Kubian homeland. Black represents the oil wealth under our noble soil; green indicates our verdant fields and forests, as well as the colour of the dollars we hope to earn by selling our newly-controlled natural resources; blue depicts the No-Fly-Zone imposed over our Ancaram oppressors by Hudson; red recalls the blood of our valiant martyrs; and the white star indicates the bonus points we all lost by failing to agree on a peace treaty.

The Ancaram civil war simulation followed. The group was formed into four main teams: the Ancaram government, the break-away Kubese rebels, the regional power of Potomic, and the global superpower of Hudson. A fifth group represented the media. Our collective task was to negotiate a peace agreement. Individual provisions in the agreement needed the support of the three of the four political teams, while the overall agreement needed unanimous support for the final treaty to be approved.

As a member of the Kubian team, we agreed to demand independence (and build state-like institutions), but we were willing to settle for regional autonomy if that included self-rule, cultural autonomy, control over natural resources, and continued command over our military forces (reconfigured as a “national guard”)—in other words, a model much like the current Kurdish Regional Government. Our strategy to achieve this involved fostering good relations with both Hudson and Potomic, while trying to isolate the Ancaram government. This was relatively successful, in that we obtained support from the two external powers for our goals. Increasing external pressure was placed on the government, including military intervention by Hudson. However our failure to effectively engage the Anacram government meant that they vetoed the proposed peace deal—and, under the terms of the simulation, everyone lost.

Ah well, at least I was able to retire from the Kubian Revolutionary Leadership Council to take up a faculty position in the newly-established University of Kubia.

After this came a distribution game, in which each round saw a diminishing number of resources (poker chips) being distributed among the participants using different decision rules (majority vote, resource-weighted voting, and so forth). This could be used in a classroom setting to spark discussion of international political economy or decision rules in international organizations, for example.

Victor then presented a series of ethical vignettes in which small groups discussed several use-of-force scenarios: searching for terrorists in a village, interrogating a captured suicide bomber, and assassinating a senior member of an authoritarian regime with a high risk of civilian casualties. While these certainly sparked discussion, I was a little worried that, unless handled carefully, they potentially legitimized actions that were in clear violation of the laws of armed conflict.

Amanda reviewed a number of online games that could be used in an international relations course. Most of these were relatively straight-forward browser games, which could be played in class or as homework assignments.

Finally, we had a general discussion of simulation and gaming issue that addressed, among other issues, the challenge of large classes, the depth of briefing material in role-play negotiation games, student motivation and preparation, and other best practices.

It was a very enjoyable workshop with some great ideas and excellent facilitation. Some of the materials have appeared (or will appear) on the Active Learning in Political Science website, and I’ll upload here any others that Amanda and Victor send on.

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