PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 31/07/2021

Review: Schrier, We Are the Gamers

Review: Karen Schrier, We the Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics (Oxford University Press, 2021). 229pp, appendices to p. 252, notes to p. 384, index. $99.00 hc, $39.95 pb, $14.57 Kindle.

In We Are the Gamers, Karen Schrier examines how games can be used to teach about ethics and civics. Games, she notes, “have always mattered and do not need to be legitimized, but the pandemic further showed us that games can serve as publics: as places and communities for learning, for connecting, for problem-solving, and for ethical and civic engagement.”

What follows is a far-reaching exploration of how games can and have been used to address civic and ethical issues. Broadly, the book is divided into five major sections. In Part I, two chapters address the value of teaching ethics and civics, and what it is that should be taught. In Part II, the author addresses games for knowledge and action, asking what knowledge is needed to empower citizens and how games can support real-world change. Part III turns attention to using games for connection and community, and better understanding both ourselves and others. Part IV devotes four full chapters to the development of critical thinking skills. Finally, Part V offers some overall reflections on how to select the right game, how to design supporting and complimentary activities around a game, and how to assess learning. Schrier also considers the possible future of serious games for ethics and civics.

As regular readers of PAXsims will know, I tend to be rather dubious of unbridled and uncritical evangelism for the magic of educational games—serious games can deliver excellent results, but only if they are designed well, used appropriately, and supported in other ways. In each chapter of We the Gamers, Schrier certainly provides enthusiastic discussion, well illustrated with examples, of the good that games can do. However she is also careful to identify potential pitfalls: entire sections of the book are devoted to how fostering communication can have negative effects, and how games may be insufficiently diverse or inclusive, trigger or emotionally overwhelm a player, misrepresent cultures, do a poor job of encouraging critical reflection, or confirm biases—to cite but a few. She also notes how the “fun” of games can itself be problematic. Having identified these risks, she then goes on to suggest how these problems can best be addressed.

The value of her analysis here goes well beyond games designed to teach ethical and civic engagement and would be of value to almost anyone who designs or uses games for learning or analytical purposes.

The book includes several length appendices, which offer sample lesson outlines, a design checklist and toolkit, a summary of key game design principles, and a series of recommendations for designers, educators, and researchers. Some of this is likely to find its way into my own game design syllabus. The endnotes and references are very extensive indeed.

Overall, this is a very readable, yet deeply thoughtful, book on the design and use of serious games. I recommend it highly.

Conducting a multi-week, remote crisis simulation

This article was written for PAXsims by Felipe Cruvinel, a PhD candidate at St Andrews. He is currently writing a thesis on applying data analysis to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He designs and produces wargames and simulations for the school and undertakes tabletop design and hobby gaming in his own time. Find Felipe on Twitter at @FCruvi 


Building on the work already carried out on a simulation in early 2020 (previously described at PAXsims by John Hart), a further simulation, to build on the lessons learned from the first was carried out in February of this year. While seeking to provide students with a practical, engaging, and immersive experience, the reality of the substantial changes that have taken place in the year since due to the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated additional redesign work to carry out the simulation in an entirely online environment. 

Map 1: The Disputed Islands in the Scenario

While remaining within the geographic Eastern Hemisphere, the new scenario was centred on China-Taiwan-US dynamics rather than on the multipolar tensions of the South China Sea. The reduced number of groups and players was leveraged by a new design structure, whereby each Country Team is divided into three distinct “Departments”: Executive, Defence, and Economic (thereby applying a finding of the previous multiweek simulation and the previous one day event). These three distinct inter-team groups provided not only a distinction between responsibilities and capabilities, but further provided a real source of inter-team friction through the use of public and secret objectives. 

Figure 1: Country and Department Structure for a 12 Player Simulation 

Each department is thus provided with a public and open objective which they may share openly, whether with other members of their team or with other participants within the game. These are meant to reflect real-world stances and policies which states publicly acknowledge and advocate for. Defence and economic departments, however, were also provided with secret objectives. These consistent of considerations and concerns which when addressed, are likely to come in conflict with their own public objective, or with that of the Executive department. The Executive department was not provided with such a secret objective in order to serve as the centre of gravity and pivot point for the team to focus on. Their objective is the state’s objective, and they must rally their teammates in order to effectively accomplish their objective and prevent them from letting their secret objectives endanger more important goals. 

Design Aims and Structure

The primary objective for this simulation was to gather insight on intra and inter-team friction in an international crisis setting. Fundamentally, this iteration on our previous simulation was meant to assess whether the added inter-team friction made conflict and resolution more or less likely. Understanding the processes and challenges of negotiations between disparate group of actors while subjecting them to internal pressures covers the majority of the secondary aims guiding our design choices. Given such constraints and objectives, three country teams were settled on rather than the previous four, in order to avoid stalemates through static alliances or overwhelming advantages.  

Figure 2: Likely Balance Outcomes in a Three Country Scenario

The task of maintaining a dynamic environment is rendered much simpler in a three country scenario given that only likely outcome #1 has to be avoided. Secret objectives conflicting with one’s own public and state level ones were meant to induce internal drift and tension which would make any stable alliance and bloc harder to maintain. Beyond this, the design of the objectives themselves, both public and secret, also made sure to highlight and stress the differences in strategic and political outlook between Taiwan and the United States. 

For the purposes of running and conducting the Simulation itself, MS Teams was used as both a meeting point for general weekly meetings and intra-country meetings, and as a repository and delivery channel for intelligence reports, breaking news, and any additional information or noise to be conveyed by the control team. While we initially began with 12 participants, external factors reduced the total participant count to 10 over the course of the four weeks during which the simulation was carried out. A two-hour bloc from 4pm to 6pm on Wednesday afternoons was settled on as the general meeting time for every week, during which teams were provided with new information and opportunities to communicate in official or unofficial settings within the scenario. Participants were still allowed to carry out actions and communications outside of the general meeting time, and information was received and provided on a 24/7 basis for the first week of the simulation. This information took the form of reports from civilian and state agencies, communications from other states, fabricated news articles and fabricated breaking news videos. A curfew on information provision and new developments was implemented from week 2 onwards to reduce workload on participants. 

Challenges Faced

The central challenge that emerged was that the ongoing process of engaging with and between participants throughout a timeframe of several weeks increases the commitment requirements of both those participating and members of the control team. There is certainly greater realism in such a 24/7 approach, but its demands in terms of time commitment can quickly grow to become unsustainable for both participants and the control cell. As a solution to this particular issue, proper expectation setting is of the utmost importance. Participants must be made fully aware of the time and involvement demands to be expected, and when or how such commitments might change. 

Additional observations were made throughout the course of this simulation will certainly inform future iterations. Behind the scenes negotiations for instance, took place far more frequently than in our previous simulation. It is unclear if this was a consequence of the ease of secret and informal communication in an online environment versus in-person, or because the division of responsibilities, means, and objectives in our structure also incentivizes individual team members to explore options away from their country team. 

The added friction from team divisions and separate objectives was also seen to have an effect on the control team’s role, necessitating far more engagement in order to keep track of various lines of argument and both public and underhanded agendas. It further increases the “black box” of inter-participant discussion which sits outside the control team’s vision, as it is virtually impossible to control every exchange between participants in an informal setting, and it may in any case be undesirable. Establishing that such behind the scenes conversations are indeed acceptable within the simulation boundaries may be a useful preparatory step in the future. 

The final conclusion to be carried forward was that competitive interaction between and within teams improved engagement and participant experience while providing learning motivation. Participants appeared highly receptive to new information and often made their own independent plans for action in both cooperative and competitive methods, while taking the opportunity during debriefing to express their interest in future simulations.  

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