PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 31/01/2021

Teaching conflict simulation at McGill: pandemic edition

As regular readers of PAXsims may know, I teach an undergraduate course on conflict simulation each year at McGill University. You can find reports on previous editions of the course here (2018) and here and here (2019). In Winter 2020, of course, the pandemic hit part way through the term—forcing a quick shift to online teaching, and disrupting the various game design teams as many students left Montréal to head to homes elsewhere in Canada or around the world.

In 2021, POLI 452 has been redesigned for remote teaching—which poses certain challenges with something as “hands-on” as manual game design. The course is fully-enrolled again this year, with 44 students.

McGill discourages professors from offering long, passive, synchronous online lectures during the pandemic: they can be tedious for the students and can pose timezone problems for those living outside Canada. Instead, I’m prerecording a major lecture each week, then hosting a one-hour Zoom seminar later in the week to discuss it (which is recorded for students unable to attend). I’m also available seven days a week for individual or group consultation, via Zoom, offering students more flexibility than pre-pandemic office hours.

We are using Phil Sabin’s excellent book Simulating War as our primary course text, together with the UK Defence Wargaming Handbook, selected chapters from Zones of Control, and various other articles, videos, and podcasts.

Students are expected to participate in a number of games to earn simulation activity credits. Usually these take place in person, but this year weekly sessions in Leacock 510 have been replaced with online games via Zoom, Vassal, and Tabletop Simulator. They can also earn credits by attending various online presentations and other events.

In the first month of class, the games we have played include the following:

  • Zombies! (tactical miniatures game, repurposed as a investment/resource allocation analysis game)
  • 1812: Invasion of Canada (board game)
  • Shores of Tripoli (board game)
  • Unity of Command (digital game)
  • Delivering the Needle (online COVID-19 vaccine seminar game/TTX)
  • Refugee response (online roleplay/TTX)

…plus various GUWS and MORS presentations, McMUN (McGill model UN), campus and class speakers, and others. We will be playing AFTERSHOCK, Black Orchestra, Assassin’s Mace, a matrix game or two, and a few others later in the term, and quite a few POLI 452 students will be attending the Connections North conference on February 19-21. Sadly there will be no McGill megagame this year, which is usually integrated into the class as well.

Back in July, James Sterrett and his colleagues at the US Command and General Staff College offered some  some useful advice on distributed wargaming. In the case of POLI 452, I am generally not having students play directly over TTS or Vassal. Instead, I have a technically-savvy student volunteer head up the Red team against my Blue, and the rest of the class joins one side or the other via Zoom (with Discord being used for communication between the two team leaders). In games with no hidden information I simply host the whole thing myself. Zoom works well, is largely intuitive, and the integration with our myCourses (BrightSpace) course support software is excellent.

In non-pandemic terms all POLI 452 students undertake a group game design project. It is challenging to design and playtest a game remotely, however, so this year they also have the option of writing an individual research paper instead. I expeced that most students would be cautious and opt for the more familiar research paper assignment. In fact, indicative of their enthusiasm (and probably in reaction to the isolation of a school year conducted online), over 80% of the class has expressed a preference for the game project. POLI 452 is a conflict simulation course, not a wargaming course, so the proposed topics range from military operations to various other forms of political, social, economic conflict:

  • Imperial succession struggles in the early Tang Dynasty
  • West African kingdoms in the 17-18th centuries
  • WWII German commerce raiding (1940-41)
  • The Tiananmen Square protests (1989)
  • The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (1994-2020)
  • Second Libyan Civil War (2014-2020)
  • Chinese-Indian border conflict (contemporary)
  • Irregular migration to the United States (contemporary)
  • Democratic backsliding (contemporary)
  • Adaptation of low-carbon technology in the US auto industry (contemporary)
  • Conflict on the Korean Peninsula (near future)

Finally, there are the inevitable exams: three online quizzes (multiple choice or similar), plus a take-home final exam in April (short and long answers).

So far, I’m quite happy with it. The real challenge will be the game design projects this year—but students seem to be very keen, and I’ve endlessly reminded them about the need to do their research and develop a first playable prototype as soon as possible, so I’m hopeful this will work out well. I’ll let you know at the end of the term!

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