I did a presentation on We Are Coming, Nineveh! recently for the San Diego Historical Games Convention, discussing both the Battle of Mosul and how it is represented in the wargame design. Here it is for those who might be interested.
The following article is written by Elizabeth “Betsy” Joslyn, a Research Associate for the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division for the Institute for Defense Analysis. Her game research and design has largely focused on great power competition, mis/disinformation, and risk literacy. She received a Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy at American University’s School of Public Affairs. In addition, Betsy served in the Peace Corps in Zambia working as an aquaculture specialist. She recently joined PAXsims as a Research Associate.
In the last decade, the boardgame industry has had an unprecedented surge. The global boardgame market value is currently estimated between $11 billion and $13.4 billion and is projected to grow in just the next 5 years.
One of the driving elements of this surge is connected to the rewarding sense of community and fun that gameplay elicits. In addition, many of us find ourselves slowly crawling out of Gollum’s COVID-cave blinded by excessive computer screen lighting and desperate for some human interaction. Board games have come to the rescue.
To match the demand, there has been an explosion of new games from not only seasoned game designers like Volko Ruhnke and Jamey Stegmaier, but also of new game designers such as Kevin Bertram, founder of Fort Circle Games and Tory Brown, who was empowered by Fort Circles to design the game Votes for Women.
A historical view of wargames and traditional table top games shows us that many of these games were made by men for men and usually feature topics, characters and strategies represented in gendered ways. The recent uptick in game design and game play has given way to more categories and themes, prettier boxes and higher quality game pieces. In many cases, the rules are simpler and there are more offerings that focus on cooperation rather than competition. The result of these significant additions has opened the gaming community, expanding the player base and inspiring topics and themes within the genre of gaming that have not yet been tapped. Despite the bigger game table, your average gaming organization, club, and community still seem to be male dominated.
In a recent review of gender dynamics in boardgames, Tanya Pobuda, foundthat 92.6 per cent of the designers of the 400 top-ranked board games on BoardGameGeek were men. After reviewing 1,974 figures from board game cover art analyses, Pobuda’s analysis showed that male imagery was predominant. Images of men and boys represented 76.8 per cent of the human representation on covers, or 647 images in games such as Great Western Trail (2016) and War of the Ring: Second Edition (2012), compared to 23.2 per cent of the images of women and girls, which represented only 195 of the images counted as seen in games with more gender representation like Arkham Horror: The Card Game (2016) and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015).
All this say, there are still more men sitting at the table than there are women. I recently had the opportunity to interview Tory Brown to discuss her game that was publicly released in December 2022. Votes for Women, a card driven game on the ratification of the 19th Amendment, captures and celebrates the struggle by inviting players to join the suffrage movement, organize support, and campaign for victory across the 48 states in 1919-1920. Tory’s game is highly relevant to the centennial celebration of Women’s Suffrage Movement, but another significant biproduct of a game on women’s rights has appropriately inspired more women to play games.
During our conversation, Tory noted that “for many people, gaming is an escape. It’s a reprieve from day to day responsibilities; an activity to do with friends and peers. In terms of wargaming, it is not a usually a family activity. However, there are many gamers who want to include their loved ones in an activity they love so much. That being said, their wives and daughters might not be as interested in battling (or sometimes playing) Nazis as much as they are.” Rather than using trickery to get new players to the table, it is so much more effective and rewarding to coax new players with a story that they can resonate with and connect with.
“People see Votes for a Women as an entry point,” Tory commented. “Dads especially want to play this game with their wives, with their daughters, with their loved ones. In this way, Votes for Women has become the vehicle that men are using to bring the women in their lives to the gaming table as it hits a sweet spot for people that want to play something a little more complicated than Monopoly and want to play a game on an issue that retains some salience or resonance for them. Votes for Women will expose players to core ideas, concepts, and mechanics in a way that can make other games, like Twilight Struggle by Jason Matthew, more approachable and easier to understand because you’ve already mastered these elements at an entry level.”
Bringing more women into gaming is crucial for two reasons. The first being that diverse players enrich gameplay by bringing different perspectives, and thus creative strategies, to the table. Divergent viewpoints encourage players to challenge biases. Tory added “being tied to tradition creates a bias that can stifle innovation; yet, there is a language to game play and game design.” Tory’s expertise highlights that understanding that language can unlock the ability to take stories that resonate with people resonate and create an educational and engaged experience via games. In theme with the game, a fresh perspective on game design seems to fall perfectly in line with the vision of the suffrage movement in breaking traditional biases and showcasing the benefit of diverse representation.
The second benefit is that a diverse gaming demand will inspire more diverse game designs. As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons we see more male game players is typically because many of these boardgames have been made for men by men. As the player base becomes more diverse, the demand for more diverse games will increase, prompting even more games that cover and address topics and themes that have seldom been explored and that deeply resonate with society.
Votes for Women is so much more than an excellent historical and artistic review of a crucial moment in history. It is so much more than an extremely relevant and educational lesson on campaigning strategies and ratification challenges. This is a story that men, women, gamers, and the gamers to be have joined so that the boardgame torch can be carrying to new heights. If it’s not on your shelf, it should be.
This text is a must read for those using simulations in their classrooms and seeking to demonstrate their utility to sceptical colleagues or institutions. The book is useful in bringing together a range of arguments in favour of the pedagogical contribution of games to classrooms as well as some clears guides of ‘how to’ incorporate games, how to design games and how to tie them to methods of assessment. I think the book also does an excellent job of demonstrating that simulations and games can be used in a range of teaching settings in political science – for example in teaching political theory classes (chapters 4 and 13), government courses (chapters 7, 8 and 10), law courses (chapter 11) and electoral politics (chapter 12) – as well as in the more traditional area of international relations (chapters 14 and 15).
To achieve these aims the text is organised into three parts: pedagogical foundations of games and simulations; designing and teaching games; and conclusions. Essentially, this structure means the editors take a reader through the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of games in the political science and international relations disciplines. A core strength of this approach is in how the chapters speak to one another. For example, Edmond Hally’s chapter (pp.42-55) makes an argument for lengthier and more realistic games for achieving a range of student learning outcomes (SLOs) in particular when games are incorporated into the structure of teaching within modules/units. Hally discusses the relationship between SLOs and games as being either intrinsic or extrinsic to module or classroom, noting that extrinsic incorporation of an abstract game “has a connection to the most basic class SLO – knowledge of course political theories – but never produced any statistically significant learning gains for the final exam.” (p.49) In contract Hally notes that the more realistic role play game produced better overall scores in the final exam and intrinsically connected to more of the SLOs for the course.
David Clayborn and Mark Harvey, acknowledge this conclusion but then argue that shorter games with simpler design may be a better entry point for convincing colleagues who are less convinced of the educational value of games, offering structures for the games and how to simplify them but also lists of prompts or discussion questions . As such this chapter does an excellent job of providing “tips, ideas and visions” (p.71) of how to incorporate games into their courses/modules/programmes. My slight critique here is that this chapter might perhaps have been better at the front of the section of the collection rather than at the end.
Lucy Britt’s chapter on Medicare and lobbying (pp.114-126) is both practical (in terms of how to use this simulation in your own class) as well as providing a grounding for this activity in relation to debates on ‘active learning’ (p.114) and pedagogy. The way this chapter is presented also means that teachers can adapt this simulation to a range of classes and levels (pp.121-122).
Mark Harvey’s chapter on “Taking a Risk” (chapter 14, pp.233-255) is useful in demonstrating the utility of using the game ‘Risk’ for international relations. This chapter as two objectives which it clearly achieves: to demonstrate how to use the game Risk in the classroom (and tie it to learning objectives); and to set out evidence for the contribution of this approach for student learning.
I would argue this book is therefore a must read for those considering using games or simulations in a variety of political science settings. I would also argue that it is useful for anyone already using games who wants to adapt their approach, try different styles of games, deepen, or change the connection of their games to their pedagogy, or even as a discussion text for teaching forums within universities and colleges.
Influence, Inc. Curious Bird, 2022. Game designer: Amanda Warner. USD$11.99 via Steam and Humble, for Mac and PC.
As a political scientist, influence games have always interested me. Information management, message framing, propaganda and disinformation figured prominently in the Brynania peacebuilding simulation and in many of the megagames I’ve designed or helped run. Last year I was involved in several influence games being conducted by or for NATO members, variously swaying elections, undermining democracies, and supporting all sorts of nefarious activities as a leader of the Red team. Most of the matrix games I’ve been involved in—whether exploring the war against ISIS or the dangers of African Swine Fever—have had messgaing and influence as a central game dynamic. Even as I write this review, I’m involved in two game design projects that have information as a central elements: the second phase of the READY project on infectious disease response (which will focus, in part on, risk communication and community engagement), and a newsgathering simulation for CNN Academy.
I’m also impressed with Amanda Warner’s work as a game designer. For those reasons, I was excited to play her latest game, Influence, Inc.
In Influence, Inc. you are a senior executive in advertising/social media firm, seeking to influence public perceptions to support your clients. Some of this is quite benign, for example adding clout to a new product launch. Some of it is a little more dubious, like helping public figures recover from scandals. And some of it is downright nefarious, working for political leaders and governments to defame opponents, undermine (or support) popular protests, and influence elections—often covertly, in a way that provides your client with a degree of plausible deniability. It’s all very Madison Avenue meets Cambridge Analytica.
To do all this, you have access to a network of social media accounts (“online persona” or bots) to insert and signal-boost messages. You can use your team to turn boring press releases and other information into potentially viral content and memes. You can target social media advertising at selected demographics. On the darker side, your “compromiser” can dig up dirt on selected targets, and you can leak information to various media outlets if you would prefer to insert it into the public domain through an intermediary.
Throughout, you’ll have access to information on what content is trending, opinion polling, and the status of petitions. The objective of the game is to earn as much money as possible by accepting and completing contracts within specified periods of time. Be careful which contracts you accept, however, or you might be messaging against yourself!
I though Influence, Inc. was lively, witty, and addressed key elements of modern influence operations and social/media ecosystems. Anyone designing an influence game—including manual ones—would be well advised to play it for inspiration.
I also see the game having potential instructional value as a homework “play” assignment for courses on the media or modern information technology. My only caveat here is that, despite a tutorial mode that explains game controls and options as they become available, some students will feel overwhelmed by the plethora of information, choices, and interface options presented to them—despite everything you hear about Gen-Z “digital natives,” a quite significant proportion of contemporary students still struggle when asked to play an unfamiliar game. Here, I recommend you explain the main interface items in class before sending them off to play it at home. You should also urge students to make liberal use of the pause button to stop the clock as they decide what to do. In the longer term, an instructional guide addressing core game components and interface, key assumptions and game dynamics, and debrief questions to consider after the game is over would be very useful.
Give it a try yourself!
No shadowy foreign interests, bots, media leaks, or covert funding were involved in the writing of this review.
First, there are stark limits as to what any wargame “not about Ukraine” can teach you about the current war in Ukraine, especially a commercial hobby or entertainment game.
Second, as Nicholas Moran noted in a recent video, it is tempting to draw conclusions based on the images and videos available on social media and elsewhere. However, this is problematic in many respects: not only do they represent only a very small part of what is going on, but most have been recorded, edited, and disseminated in support of various narratives.
Having said all that however, I want to reflect on two sets of “not Ukraine” wargames I was involved in that did generate some interesting insights, viewed in the context of recent events.
The first was a series of tactical miniatures games in 2020 in which I served as umpire. These used 1:285 microarmor, a hybrid, updated set of the old Wargame Research Group “modern” rules, and Zoom to allow distributed play and ground level cameras for “fog of war.” All of them looked at a potential Russian invasion of Estonia, pitting most or all of a Russian battalion tactical group (represented on a 1:1 scale) against Estonian and other NATO defenders. Most of the participants were Canadian or British defence analysts, who look at modern warfare for a living. A central part of the process of what we were doing was trying to understand what was and was not changing in modern high-intensity conflict.
Some things we got right. Even mechanized forces still struggle with woods and mud. The ISR capabilities provided by modern UAVs can be a powerful force multiplier.
Other aspects were prescient: light or dismounted infantry could do real damage with ATGMs, despite explosive reactive armour (ERA) and active protections systems (APS).
Still other things we got wrong. Russian artillery can be devastating, but in our games the Russian military was far more adroit using it in a fluid battlespace than seems to be the case in Ukraine. Much the same could be said about Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. Fundamentally, therefore, we assumed that Russian C4I was far more agile and capable than it seems to be in Ukraine. We assumed that thermal sights, APS, and other systems were more widely installed in Russian armoured vehicles than appears to be the case. We overestimated the availability of other capabilities, such as sensor fuzed submunitions. We also overestimated morale and subunit performance. Finally, like most tactical games, we didn’t model the effects of supply and maintenance.
I also took part, generally as a RED or BLUE team leader, in a series of day- or days-long games last year that looked at influence operations in a “not-Ukraine-but-rather-like-Ukraine” setting. These were undertaken for a serious purpose, namely to explore how one could model messaging and influence, and the effect of non-kinetic operations more broadly, rather than trying to understand any particular country or conflict. The game did this by creating an independent social media community, with participants assigned social, ethnic, and political backgrounds but otherwise free to interact as they wished. The teams then sought to influence this “jury” to advance their favoured discourse and narratives in support of their broader their strategic goals.
Not everything went right here either, but that was expected: the whole point of the exercise was to develop the methodology. Overall I think the designers and sponsors should be proud of what they achieved, which really did generate a dynamic and responsive social media environment.
In these games, a team was most successful when:
they were quick off the loop, getting inside the other side’s informational OODA (decision) loop;
they crafted stirring or witty messages that addressed real grievances, fears, and events;
they targeted different communities with different messages;
messaging was multi-faceted and pushed along multiple channels, but linked to a convincing set of narratives.
influencers responded to, built upon, worked with, and even adopted memes, themes, and narratives that emerged organically within key communities.
In short, what worked looked very much like what has worked for the Ukrainians in the current war, right down to heroic leaders and cute memes. While the dynamics of influence have been changed by the internet and social media, I have been struck that good messaging hasn’t changed that much at all: it would be recognized by the propagandists of WW II, a most every advertising writer or political campaign advisor of the past century. No technology in the world is going to make your influence operation work if the basic messaging is weak.
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.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the value of serious gaming for supporting health sector preparedness and government policy response. Indeed, in my own case, during the past year I have found myself designing games on pandemic-related food security issues, working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Department of National Defence in red teaming Canada’s national vaccine roll-out plans (including a major national tabletop exercise), and I’m currently working with the READY Initiative on digital games-based training for epidemic disease preparedness and response in the humanitarian sector.
All of that is to say that I wish Roll to Save: Gaming Disease Response had been published a year ago, because it is a very useful resource indeed for anyone working in this area. Some of the chapters address general design issues, including the value of serious games; gaming at the strategic (policy), operational, and “tactical” levels of disease response; and important considerations in professional game design. Other chapters discuss particular game designs, addressing topics as wide-ranging as vaccination/prophylaxis; bioterrorism (anthrax, melioidosis); particular epidemic outbreak scenarios (ebola); mental health support; and pandemic recovery (COVID-X). It also contains brief chapters discussing some of the basics of infectious diseases, epidemiology, public health planning, outbreak investigation, and the importance of information, politics, and the media. My only disappointment was the bibliography, which lists some of the sources cited in the book but which doesn’t provide a wider reference to the substantial literature on medical and emergency preparedness gaming.
Above and beyond the very considerable value of this publication for those designing disease response games, it also stands as an excellent example of how serious gaming should be undertaken. McGrady not only has extensive experience in designing and implementing serious games on a wide range of national security and policy issues, but also has keen insight into what works in what context. He thus underscores the importance of designing a game around not only the topic, but equally the game objectives, available resources, participants, and client/sponsors.
The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist.You can read Parts 1 and 2 hereand here.
One of the first impressions was that we were rather overwhelmed by the experience, which is one of the reasons this blog post, long overdue and way too long, did not materialize until at least one academic period had transpired after the main CCM event. However, now that we have gathered our thoughts a bit, we realized that we have probably learned a great number of things so far. For instance:
1. Reasons for creating a megagame on climate change and social transformation
In the literature on learning for a sustainable development, engagement and various pedagogical forms is stressed as key to ensure that learners experience first-hand the dilemmas and difficulties they need to overcome. Furthermore, we noticed that when we pitched the idea of a “Climate Change Megagame”, it immediately piqued people’s interest in a way that acted as an icebreaker and helped us to engage rather diverse groups in conversations. Even though there were practical issues with every single version of the game we have tried, the concept itself has been intriguing enough to make people joining as players or contribute as control team and even contributing to game development. However, to understand exactly which difficulties to subject players, and what type of realistic situations to simulate, has proved to be almost as elusive as real societal transformation.
2. The eternal challenge of playable realism
Serious games always needs to balance between relevance and playability. The activities players engage in, and the type of experience they have, must be of relevance whether it is “realistic” or not. We learned that some types of realism, such as players getting bogged down by managing their daily lives, may not be helpful in ensuring that the resulting experience is relevant to the end goal of understanding dilemmas and options for societal transformation. We wanted the game to offer interesting challenges without directing players too much with respect to what they would want to do. As designers, we can include mechanisms that reflect aspects of reality such as economic capital being vital for investments in infrastructure, say, without going so far as to say that without a growing economy, people would starve to death. We wanted to provide enough context and feedback mechanisms to stimulate discussions and make different visions apparent, without constricting players in such a way that their room for creative discussions and maneuvering would be artificially restricted.
A golden rule for how to ensure players understand the rules well enough to be comfortable about breaking them and understanding just how much freedom they have to negotiate freely probably don’t exist but we understand much better now than before what would count as interesting and relevant challenges compared to “realistic” ones. In our experience minimalism of game mechanics is desirable in order to let participants focus on the content.
3. Recruiting and maintaining a committed and diverse design team
Including more people from the early playtests in game design and discussions made it apparent that it was difficult to ensure equal commitment among all when the game concept changed quite a lot, partly as a result of feedback. Also, we wanted to be open to suggestions about how different groups could contribute to the project, which placed high demands on participants to express clearly what they wanted to contribute to and what they expected. Some of the early contributors who provided invaluable feedback on the game and made it much better in the end still did not feel comfortable joining at the end as the game changed quite a lot between playtests. Though it was necessary to make the changes, it became difficult for all members of the design team to keep up with the ideas for changes that the core group brought forward, especially as we became limited to digital meetings during the pandemic. The take home lesson is the value of a clear aim, participants roles and modes of decision making and communication is increasingly important in a dynamic, explorative project.
4. Going digital
Going digital opened up new opportunities for players from around the world to join and it greatly simplified our ability to collect data on how the game progressed, but also introduced a whole host of new issues. We spent quite some time even after the core game mechanics and graphical elements had been decided to ensure that the digital platform (Miro) could handle all graphical components and the 50 players with decent latency. Therefore, some graphical optimizations were required before the main event took place. For instance, components were merged into bitmaps instead of hundreds of separate graphics components. The communications channel (Discord) was set up very professionally by our Megagame colleague Darren Green from Crisis Games in the UK and that enabled players to have both private and public spaces for communications. Even with such a setup though, some players felt lost between all the channels and the Miro board. Having a technical setup and preparation before the main event, just focusing on the technical aspects of the game would probably have helped some participants who were struggling.
The main event was hosted at a venue where we broadcast everything live from a studio over Vimeo. This worked rather well as a compromise between having only an internal event and only having a studio with professional talking heads but having dual roles as hosts for both the game and the “show” was hard to manage. It would have been better to have studio hosts who could have focused on being hosts. Then again, a digital event that plays out through discussions on Discord and board changes on Miro might not offer enough continuous action for a continuous live show.
5. The importance of good debriefing
The main event was intended to let people experience and reason about the needs for mitigation and adaptation, as in the needs for making changes to our societies that will reduce emissions versus the needs to adapt to climate change we cannot avoid. The primary aim of the debriefing was to capture the perceptions of these potentially conflicting needs, but it became apparent that the participants were mostly preoccupied with thoughts about the game mechanics, graphical elements and direct experiences. A debriefing is very important for a proper learning experience, and for us, the fact that people became preoccupied with the mechanics and graphical elements indicated that these were in fact the objects they thought mostly in terms of directly afterwards. Maybe the game was too heavy on mechanics since it became hard to talk about abstract things such as mitigation and adaptation in direct connection to having played. It would probably have been easier to first address game-specific issues and then later broaden the horizon to comprise the real world.
6. Future development
The project had until this point been run exclusively on a small amount of seed money for a pedagogical project and a lot of personal commitment. We realized that continued work with this require us to leverage our initial experiences and gain access to proper funding for work that could significantly expand on what we have been doing. The game itself is not a goal, it is not even a product that may be finished but at best a way to help us think better, as designers and players, about what a sustainable society may be like. With some luck, we may have a chance to build on all we have learned and enable others to learn as we have about how to move constructively towards a societal transformation to sustainability.
Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.
Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games.
Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change.
A few weeks ago, a number of us at PAXsims had a opportunity to see a demonstration of WarPaths—an online, browser-based application for managing distributed, asynchronous matrix games. WarPaths is the brainchild of Dr. Tom Nagle, a retired US Army strategist and former armor officer.
I think we were all very impressed. The application offers a lot of functionality, from mapping and icons to tools for communications, matrix arguments, and adjudication. Moreover, Tom was also enormously responsive to comments and suggestions. Since recording the walk-through above he has added support for probability polling of participants as well as percentage dice resolution (in addition to the traditional d6s).
Despite the military theming, warPaths has utility well beyond military or POL-MIL wargames—it could be used in any serious game setting where a matrix games might be useful. To this end he now also plans to develop a non-military version on the same principles, but politically/humanitarian oriented.
For more information on WarPaths, contact Tom at the weblink above.
This edited volume provides a vitally important basis that will enable colleagues and students to understand the role of simulations in their teaching and learning. I identify three central contributions of this book:
First, it tackles the transdisciplinary opportunities of using simulations in teaching and learning. The book is divided into three sections: social sciences, natural sciences, and health sciences. Each section explores approaches to how simulations can contribute to the teaching in these areas, however, readers can gain a lot of insights from reading the sections that they may consider to be outside ‘their’ disciplinary home. The accessible writing style makes doing this possible.
Second, the book is honest about what simulations can and cannot achieve in educational contexts and the need for effective management, incorporation and evaluation of their contribution to achieving intended learning outcomes.
Third, the book carefully considers that not all students are the same, all will react to and engage with experiential learning differently. As a result, there are many moving parts to getting the simulation type, the design, the objectives and the outcomes, right.
The book itself promises a lot, especially in terms of its objective to cross-disciplinary lines and to fill a gap (p.2) identified by Ellett, Esperanza, and Phan (2014). From my reading this book makes an exceptional contribution to achieving this objective. Overall, the book treads a delicate line here between presenting the challenges but also the payoffs for teachers and students. I think a particular strength of this book is that the authors haven’t ‘advocated’ but instead adopted a highly practical and pragmatic approach to using simulations in the classroom.
As I am developing a training course on simulations as tools for assessments. To do this effectively, I need to engage with a range of disciplines and demonstrate the utility of simulations to them, rather than inviting them into my research space and asking them to adapt and apply the tools for themselves. This book provides me with a language to be able to start that conversation. The accessible and jargon free writing style is particularly helpful as it will enable me to assign this text as reading for the course participants especially those who have never used simulations before.
A particularly well-considered element of the book is that it clearly acknowledges that games and simulations are not a “silver bullet” (p.32) and it is possible to identify unintended insights. Throughout the book I think there is a considered view that games and simulations are reflective activities, they require the teacher, student, observers and any teaching evaluators to reflect on how the game was designed, run, played, adjudicated and evaluated. I would argue that games reveal to teachers the gaps in their knowledge and show the ability of the decision-making and the adeptness of thinking, in a way that other forms of teaching do not. As a result, like all learning tools and opportunities they need to be well run and selected to match the intended learning outcome (p.89). This binding of the simulation within the course or module is also effectives demonstrated in other chapters. For example, chapter eight by Gentry (pp.135-6; and 138) clearly maps how the simulation activity combines with other homework to enable the students to achieve the intended outcomes.
In considering how to build-in simulations into teaching chapters of the book fairly consider constraints and offer practical and pragmatic methods to manage these challenges. For example, in chapter three, Donohue and Forcese discuss “liberating 40 hours of teaching time” (p.52) and utilising the tools available more effectively. This requires teachers to identify what learning is passive and can be done away from the tutor and what learning is active and needs or is enhanced by tutor-student and student-student interaction. This in itself is demanding and requires more time from teachers, not only in terms of preparation of the simulation materials, but also the jiggling of other course contents to fit.
In other sections of the book (for example by Chamberlain in chapter 7) authors also highlights the physical constraints and potential barriers to running simulations for students of chemistry. The chapter then clearly expresses the requirements for running a simulation for these students (p.117). Again, as in other chapters this exploration of the challenges is then matched with an articulation of potential solutions including some free resources (p.118).
The chapters also consider and highlight how simulations and their assessment can augment and add-value to different programmes. For example, in the chapter on social work the author identifies a limitation in how students are observed in practice and how simulations can contribute to the assessment process, enabling a more holistic approach to evaluating the student’s performance. A central message throughout the book is to provide an awareness of challenges in building simulations into teaching and learning spaces and programmes but matching this with practical and pragmatic solutions to overcome any problems. From this approach, the reader is therefore prepared, and well equipped, to start to incorporate these ideas into their own work.
The book should not be read as being solely a ‘how to guide’, nor a piece of advocacy to convert teachers and lecturers to add-in simulations wholesale to their course. The authors do highlight the strengths and problems of simulations, but they also tackle head-on some of the potential problems of whether the performance in a simulation affects the practice that follows (chapter 14 by Picketts and MacLeod, in particular p.238). The findings of the research indicate that in the simulation the students acted in a ritualised way but when applying the same methods in practice they flexibly adapted to the situation (p.240).
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone considering how to add simulations to their learning environment, but I think it is always very useful for people who have used simulations for years as there are nuggets of gold within each chapter that may enable a different way to reflect on your own practice. The book has certainly given me some new approaches and ideas.
Or, how screwing up as Control can teach you moral lessons.
[Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this game for free in exchange for a review.]
We Come In Peace is a free-form RPG about first contact between two alien species with no prior knowledge of each other’s existance, language, or culture. To enforce that understanding barrier, the game is played without face-to-face communication between the teams. Control acts as a go-between relaying non-verbal messages, redacting anything with too much shared understanding between humans (numerals, icons, facial expressions, and gestures like thumbs up).
In person it’s played with the two teams in separate rooms, passing notes. We played over zoom, using a separate breakout room for each team, Control hopping between the two, and a shared slide deck so the teams could go full-Arrival with their attempts at communication.
The game is an allegory for a hidden scenario that only Control is aware of (until the debrief at the end), cloaked in enjoyable sci-fi buffoonery to keep the players and teams from bringing too much cultural hindsight and understanding to the table.
That means it’s Control’s job to take everything the players say, translate it into the hidden scenario to determine the outcome, and then back into the sci-fi allegory to communicate the effect to the players. Which is hard.
This is a game I learnt to play by screwing up as Control and seeing all my mistakes—and what would have made for better gameplay—in hindsight.
How did we do?
My intrepid space explorers did not start a global thermo-nuclear war, in fact the two sides ended having established a tentative trade agreement and cultural exchange…though one side thought they’d sent a hostage into orbit for four days and the other side planned to abandon their scientist planet-side indefinitely, effectively kidnapping the local…I think it’s safe to say we stored up a bunch of slower-time cultural collision consequences that would have ended badly for one side.
The teams did pretty well at establishing peaceful intentions, starting out sending mathematical sequences and sharing their words for basic chemical elements. We had a brief exchange of charades “we’re going to land our shuttle craft now, on that spot there…” before an historic meeting of both peoples and exchange of gifts. The subsequent trade negotiations almost caused an Incident when the message, “we’re sending two shuttles to harvest resources now, on these spots here and here…” was briefly misinterpreted as “they want us to leave our planet?!!” but cool heads prevailed.
It was interesting to watch the thought-process behind the communications with one team, and then hop across to the other team with the image and see their thought-process trying to unravel the message. The planetary civilisation were keen not to lose their new friends too quickly, so sent a message asking them to stay at least four days. The explorers got the days and the four, but didn’t know what to make of the rest so planned to do a midnight-flit on the third day to be sure of avoiding any unfortunate consequences of over-staying their welcome. That was the biggest misunderstanding we had.
Peace in our time, then?
Secretly we were all a little disappointed we hadn’t at least come to the brink of war.
My first thought was is this what happens when you put women in charge? Instead of establishing dominance, both sides tried extremely hard to understand the other side and understand how they might come across to the other side—gasp, leaders doing the emotional labour for a change…
My second thought was wow, this game is hard to be Control at. I was prepared for thinking on my feet, trying to relate the player actions to the hidden scenario. In doing that, I failed to communicate to both teams the sense of fear and isolation about their situation that should have been motivating a lot of their actions. The stakes of our game were we’ll make friends? when it should have been you face death and/or cultural extinction. The scenario is set up to pivot to that fear if one side opens fire (spoilers: the teams are wildly asymmetric) but neither side came close to aggression, and I really struggled to know if or when I should let on you can basically do what you want with impunity here. In hindsight I should have—but it’s also not that simple.
I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say the allegory is about racism—literally every alien encounter in science fiction is about how we treat people who are different to us.
But the game wouldn’t work with me just saying “haha you guys have all the power here,” because white supremacy and colonialism (and misogynism, and homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc) is fear-based: a fear that the oppressed group would do all the same bad things if the tables were reversed—that slaves would enslave the slave-owners if they were granted freedom instead of just, you know, living free. That women would treat men like chattle and unpaid household/caregiving labour if the patriarchy were dismantled, instead of just, you know, being equals. Supremacy feels precarious.
I didn’t want to dictate how the teams felt about each other. I thought that would be me influencing the game too much. I was trying to let the players decide how to react emotionally—and that was a huge mistake. I failed to communicate xenophobia to the teams: I was too focused on presenting the information neutrally within the allegory—what the equipment translated to—and I failed to account for the system and assumptions present in the hidden scenario that my players simply didn’t bring to the table because of politeness, decent-human-being-ness, Derby House Principles, or the game being majority-women and women being socialised to perform the emotional labour of any encounter.
In effect I ran a game of I don’t see colour.
By not manipulating the teams, our invented worlds didn’t include the seeds of racism to spontaneously generate cultural misunderstanding: both sides were too open to the other side being actual human beings like them, not less-than.
Racism doesn’t happen in a vacuum: people are indoctrinated into assumptions they don’t even perceive as racist. I don’t see colour only works in a world lacking existing injustice.
The default of the current system is the reproduction of racial inequality. To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs for white people to be really nice and carry on – to smile at people of color, to go to lunch with them on occasion. To be clear, being nice is generally a better policy than being mean. But niceness does not bring racism to the table and will not keep it on the table when so many of us who are white want it off. Niceness does not break with white solidarity and white silence. In fact, naming racism is often seen as not nice, triggering white fragility.
We can begin by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race. We can attempt to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or through unequal relationships. We can insist that racism be discussed in our workplaces and a professed commitment to racial equity be demonstrated by actual outcomes. We can get involved in organizations working for racial justice. These efforts require that we continually challenge our own socialization and investments in racism and put what we profess to value into the actual practice of our lives.
This takes courage, and niceness without strategic and intentional anti-racist action is not courageous.
I had a conversation at work with a guy who was adamant that he treated everyone equally, and therefore was not discriminating against anyone. In fact he was quite insistant that actively making space for women and minorities in any opportunity was wrong and unfair and though he didn’t say the words, underpinning his argument was the assumption that making room for women and minorities would mean better-qualified men missing out. Underpinning his argument was the assumption that women and minorities could not possibly be as qualified as the men currently taking up all the space.
“Treating everyone equally”—not seeing colour, not seeing gender (or gender identity), not seeing sexuality, not seeing disability—is to deny the lived experience of being black, a woman, LGBT, or disabled: their culture, their value, and the real and tangible obstacles they have faced to get here. The reality is the women and minorities who make it to the wargaming table are very often more qualified and more able than the straight-white-non-disabled-men, because it’s been so much harder for them to get there.
So what can I do about that, as a white person, and someone who supports the Derby House Principles?
People whose careers center on examining and repairing racial inequality tend to say that being willing to see color, and talking about what it means, is one part of how white people can turn their black friendships into something that broadens their horizons on race.
We Come In Peace is a good game. It works well over zoom. We had a real mix of experienced professional to never-wargamed-before players and everybody got into it. The puzzle of how do we even communicate that intention was enjoyable to watch.
The explorer team have some great dynamics going on: it was relatively easy to establish this team’s mentality based on the breifing and sci-fi touchstones. The team breifing’s humour provided excellent direction for the players’ motivation without it feeling heavy-handed.
The planetary civilisation felt less developed in their breifing. I took this to be a reflection of them being somewhat at-the-mercy of the situation, but the fact that they didn’t clearly have a goal to pursue beyond reacting to the demands of the other side made for less interesting game play, or relied on the team to spontaneously come up with a goal in response to the arrival of this alien speicies. I suspect this is why we had a relatively peaceful exchange: our planetary team spontaneously chose the goal of mutual cultural exchange, ie of co-operation. In reality—and in keeping with the hidden scenario—they needed an overriding desire to preserve a clearly-defined way of life to create friction. Even something as simple as the aliens have shown up on a national holiday and we’re busy would have set that train in motion.
The Control guide instructions on the hidden scenario were a little vague: read up on the real-life situation on Wikipedia, and here’s a glossary for translation into sci-fi which is focused on the physical—what sending a shuttle-craft or using sensors really means in the hidden scenario. If the players invoked combat the cultural collision would be obvious. Beyond that it was lacking guidance on how to be the cultural misunderstanding. My best suggestion for how to play Control in this game is to think of yourself as the rogue unit in Arrival delivering the explosives.
This is a game I’ve learnt to play by doing it wrong the first time, and realising that my job as Control is to manipulate the hell out of both sides, to out-right lie to them about the other side’s actions and perceived intentions—because ultimately this is a game about the clash of two different cultures, and when both teams are actually made of humans with the same culture, that clash and wild misunderstanding is not created by pictionary alone; both sides are operating from the same concept of what good intentions look like.
I thought my job was to be a neutral party and see if they do or don’t start a war by accident. I see now my job is to do my best to cause friction at every turn and see if both sides can tell cultural collision (my manipulation) apart from hostile intent.
First of all, let us be clear that there is no typo here: RAND’s recently-published game of strategic resource management really is called “hedgemony” and not “hegemony.” There’s a good reason for that, too. In Hedgemony, the Blue side is preoccupied with allocating scarce resources, investments, and actions to counter challenges from Red. Much of this involves what international relations scholars call hedging: that is, using a mix of military and economic resources to both balance and engage, while trying to avoid costly large-scale conflict.
Hedgemony is a designed to be played with up to six players (or teams of players) divided into two sides. Blue consists of the United States and its EU/NATO allies. The Red side consists of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. The game also requires a White cell (game control, adjudication, and facilitation) of 2-4 persons. A game would typically take a half or full day. You can see RAND’s nice promotional video below
The game sequence functions like this:
Red signalling. Each Red player chooses up to three investment or action cards that they might play this turn. They then brief these possible actions to the Blue side.
Blue investment and actions. Have been briefed on possible threats, the Blue players decide what actions and investments they will make. Although they too have cards, they are not limited to these and may propose other actions and investments (to be adjudicated by the controller). The US will also have to spend resources to sustain its desired level of readiness.
Red investment and actions. Red may now to choose to play any or all of the cards that they signalled at the start of the turn, provided they have adequate resources for this.
Annual resource allocation. Players gain new resources based on the scenario and developments within the game.
In any phase, the White cell may inject international and domestic events, selected from an event deck or crafted for the scenario and current situation. Finally, they summarize the state of the world based on the most recent gameplay, thus setting the stage for the next turn.
Key to the game is the struggle for “influence points,” which largely define success or failure. Various actions (or responses to events and actions) tend to increase or decrease each players influence.
The board is divided into theatre zones, conforming to the US system of combatant commands. Because this is a strategic game focused on national resource allocations and theatre-level capabilities, military assets are abstracted to “force factors.” There is no differentiation of land, air, maritime, cyber, or space assets. However, forces do have a modernization level, which shapes their effectiveness for military operations. The game also tracks national technology levels, as well as certain critical capabilities (such as C4ISR, special operations forces, long-range fires, nuclear capabilities, integrated air and missile defence). There are also special rules for proxy forces.
Hedgemony comes with an extensive rulebook, player’s guide, and glossary, all of which are available as free downloads from the RAND website. There is also a game board/map (27’x36″), markers for forces, indicators for national displays, information displays and place tags for each actor, quick reference charts, and dice. The game materials are generally of very high quality. The force markers are rather small (and with very small printing on them), however. They are also laser-cut and rather sooty—I had to frequently wipe my hands when using them to avoid transferring black carbon smudges to other game materials. If I was using Hedgemony regularly I would probably invest in some plastic chips and laser-printed round labels to make them all a bit more substantial.
At the time of writing, the pandemic precludes a proper playtest: to do the game full justice you really need a dozen people in a room for a few hours discussing resource allocation and strategic options. However, I had the good fortune to take part in a few moves of the game via a Zoom call with the RAND designers and others. I liked what I saw.
Hedgemony is very much a serious game intended to spark thoughtful discussion on strategic issues, rather than a game designed for hobby play. The game strikes a good balance between the structure of a rigid, written ruleset and opportunities for more freeform adjudicated improvisation. If I were running a session I could even see switching to a quick round of matrix game-style argumentation to resolve actions outside the written rules and cards.
You do, however, need controllers and facilitators who know what they are doing. While the action and investment cards are clear enough, some of the resource bookkeeping could get a bit confusing for players, and they probably need to be talked through how the combat adjudication charts works if they have never seen a CRT (combat results table) before, especially given the need to take force modernization levels into consideration. It might be useful if RAND were to post a a “how to” video showing a full turn of game play to help those who are thinking of using it.
For my part, I will certainly be using it in my conflict simulation course at McGill University when we return to regular teaching next academic year.
I’ve seen a few online educational and awareness games about the current COVID-19 pandemic, but Survive COVID-19 is the best so far. Developed by Yein Udaan and XR Labs in India, it presents a series of choices about how to spend dwindling savings to keep your family well, while at the same time minimizing exposure.
Unlike some less-well designed games of this genre, there are no easy or obvious options. The scenario is all too real for hundreds of millions in South Asia and around the world. The presentation is appropriately minimalist, and the music and sound effects contribute to the appropriate mood without being distracting. As one recent research report has found, keeping things focused and simple can really pay off in educational games.
Engelstein and Isaac Shalev have put together what is, in essence, a very useful encyclopedia of the main mechanisms in tabletop game design. The volume outlines no fewer than 194 different approaches, broken down into thirteen different categories:
Turn order and structure terminology
Game end and victory
For each they provide a description and graphic representation of the mechanism and a summary of its strengths, weakness, and game consequences. They also discuss some representative games in which the mechanism is used. Entries are typically 2-3 pages long each, as shown below.
The descriptions are clear and readily comprehensible, even for gaming neophytes, while the discussions offer insight that more experienced game designers will also find useful.
Were this excellent volume a little cheaper I would certainly use it as a supplementary text for my conflict simulation design course at McGill University. I will, however, certainly be using it as a course resource. It is also available as a much cheaper e-book rental format.
On Friday, PAXsims associate editor Tom Fisher and I got together with regular gaming buddy Vince Carpini to try out a few new-ish games that had been sitting on our shelves. Two of these—Planet (2018) and Maximum Apocalypse(2018)—were both excellent, but don’t really have any direct serious game applicability. The other two, however—Construction and Corruption (2017) and Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game (2019)—address an array of issues that we have sometimes explored at PAXsims, namely politics, elections, and public sector corruption.
Construction and Corruption
In Construction and Corruption, three to seven players assume the role of rival contractors undertaking various road repairs in the city of Montréal. Each player seeks to maximize revenue by doing repairs as slowly as possible, but thereby also faces a growing risk of being indicted for corruption. Each turn one player is also elected Mayor, with special powers—or an outsider is elected, triggering investigations. The simple game mechanics don’t really mirror how corruption actually works in public sector tendering, and so I wouldn’t use it to teach about the real thing. However as a trio of Montrealers we had a lot of fun playing it. The ideal group size is probably five.
Pointing is a key part of any game.
Mapmaker is a very simple but very clever game whereby players take turn placing election district boundaries until the electoral map is drawn. The trick is, of course, to build the distracts in a way that will assure your party of victory. The usual gerrymandering techniques—”cracking” districts by spreading out opposition votes to deny rivals a victory and “packing” them by creating a rival-held district with a large number of surplus, wasted votes—both work well in the game, and are indeed the key to victory. Mapmaker works brilliantly as an educational game, which is perhaps why the designers sent free copies to all nine Supreme Court judges in the United States.
Mapmaker underway (those familiar with the game will see we’ve made a slight mistake with the set-up, but it didn’t affect game play).