The following piece was written for PAXsims by Jano Bourgeois (Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf), in collaboration with Daniel Beauregard.
Can you adapt a complex civil war simulation like Rex Brynen’s Brynania to an audience without specific conflict resolution/peacebuilding training? Is it possible to do it and have them perform it seriously and learn out of it? Those were the questions I had in mind when I decided to try, a few years ago, to introduce a Brynania-like civil war simulation for a cégep (secondary) course.
What is a C.É.G.E.P.?
In the province of Quebec (Canada), there is an intermediate education-level between high school and university. It is called a cégep (general and professional college). For pre-university programs, like the social science program in which I teach, the level is more or less equivalent to first year-university, although the disciplines studied are much more diverse. It is a general training in literature, philosophy, economics, psychology, history and sometimes political science, anthropology or sociology.
To my knowledge, there are no peacebuilding courses at the cégep level. However, there is an end of 2ndyear course named “Integrative activity” that has students apply what they have learned in two disciplines (such as economics, politics, history, anthropology, etc.) in a new context. A former student of mine, now a Ph.D. in cultural studies, once told me that he had read an academic paper mentioning that insurgent leaders had, on average, the equivalent of a cégep education (I never found this paper, if anyone knows about it I would love to get the reference!). For me, this was the trigger: my students could seriously simulate a civil war because they had the same educational attainment as many insurgent leaders (granted, this might not be true and I have no evidence to back me up, but I just needed an excuse to try something like Brynania).
What we do
Basically, the whole thing is a simplified Brynania civil war. There is a fictional setting in which the civil war is waged in a hybrid between roleplaying game and strategic wargame. My setting is called Brébouvie because it is taught at Brébeuf College.
Figure 1: Map of Brébouvie, 2016.
Each student received a role to embody, resources to manage, and objectives to fulfill. Among these roles, we had the cabinet of the war-torn country, various rebel leaders, members of the civil society, neighbouring States, UN Security Council member states, humanitarian NGOs, international and local journalists, etc. Brynania heavily influenced the first edition because I had the opportunity to personify the Minister of Finance of the Brynanian government during my B.A. at McGill. Over time, I adapted the model to my pedagogical needs.
Having run this simulation over the past few years, I must say that students consider it extremely demanding and difficult… and they just love it! For the fall 2017 semester, 53% of the students, in a confidential and anonymous evaluation of the class, indicated that they had a “very high interest” in the course. A usual comment is that it is too much work and way too engaging, but that they would not have it any other way. Eventually, a history teacher, Daniel Beauregard, who also teaches the integration activity course, joined me in this project. He brought refreshing ideas to the practice.
From a pedagogical point of view, my students do well in applying what they learned, especially in economics, political science, anthropology, sociology and history, to conduct credible operations on the ground. At the end of the semester, they must hand in a formal paper to summarize what previously acquired knowledge was useful and how they used it to fulfill their role during the simulation. Most of them manage to make the links between their college training and the actual conduct of a civil war. As a bonus, they learn how to make (or fail to make) decisions in a stressful and imperfect informational environment.
Obviously the depth of the student performance is not as thorough as the one attained with 3rdyear university students: treaties signed do not always respect the Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties, refugee camps management doesn’t go into the specific details of finding the right spot to avoid landslide and freshwater contamination, UN Security Council resolutions use “responsibility to protect” quite liberally. Overall, one has to remember that they are unspecialized cégep students, not professionals.
We tried many formulas for the simulation: in class only, in class and online for 12 hours a day over a 10 days period, email only, using matrix gaming mechanisms, using an actual board to move pieces, using only virtual maps, using a wiki, Moodle, or a blog to share information, etc.
However, our major innovation, the one for which I am proudest, is the way in which we now have the students build the conflict setting.
The idea is to start with a blank map and to add layers of complexity in cooperation with the students. We add natural resources, linguistic and ethnic zones, national and internal borders, religious zones of influence, trade routes, etc. We also write the history of the various states, insurgent groups and institutions present in the zone. We create the political regimes and their institutions, the state and structures of the economies, the relations with powerful States such as Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, etc.
For each element added to the setting, students must justify it using a historical precedent or refer to a social science model or theory. The effect of this procedure is twofold: it forces them to go back to history and what they have learned in different disciplines and it makes the setting easier to understand without long hours of study.
Here is, visually, how my colleague Daniel Beauregard proceeds. First, he provides students with a blank map.
Figure 2: Blank map, 2018.
The class then adds geographic features.
Figure 3: Adding geographic features, 2018.
Next, political boundaries and ethnic groups are also added.
Figure 4: Adding political and ethnic features, 2018.
The map is refined with trade routes and other details.
He finally prints a map and uses Matrix Gaming Construction Kit (MagCK) tokens and markers to manage the simulation.
Figure 6: Printed map with tokens on it, 2018.
I would recommend this practice to engage students in the simulation as soon as the instructor is comfortable with the general way of running a simulation.
Can you adapt a complex civil war simulation like Brynen’s Brynania to a younger audience without specific conflict resolution/peacebuilding training? The answer is a resounding yes.
Is it possible to expect for cégep students the same level of performance as professionals or graduate students? Obviously not.
Is it possible to obtain a serious performance and generate learning? Again, yes without a doubt.
One of the advantages of serious simulations is that it somehow self adjusts to the level of the participants. In my view, it is a powerful and flexible pedagogical tool worth exploring.
Jano Bourgeois teaches political science at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, Montréal.
Daniel Beauregard teaches history at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, Montréal.