PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: education

Serious gaming with (post) secondary students: civil war at a cégep

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.

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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.

Our innovation

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.

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Figure 2: Blank map, 2018.

The class then adds geographic features.

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Figure 3: Adding geographic features, 2018.

Next, political boundaries and ethnic groups are also added.

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Figure 4: Adding political and ethnic features, 2018.

The map is refined with trade routes and other details.

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Figure 5: Final round of mapmaking, 2018.

He finally prints a map and uses Matrix Gaming Construction Kit (MagCK) tokens and markers to manage the simulation.

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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.

Concluding remarks

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.

 

GMS Journal for Medical Education: Using AFTERSHOCK to teach about disaster medicine

The latest issue of the GMS Journal for Medical Education 35, 4 (2018) contains an article by Simon Drees, Karin Geffert and myself on “Crisis on the game board – a novel approach to teach medical students about disaster medicine,” in which we discuss the use of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game to teach German medical students about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The result of the workshops’ evaluation was very positive. A large majority of participants was overall satisfied with the event and all its components. Almost all participants found the level of difficulty to be appropriate. This is consistent with the findings of other AFTERSHOCK participant surveys, which we outlined in the project description [7], [8], [9], [10]. Although participants in these workshops came from very different contexts (WHO, military), they gave similarly positive ratings regarding their overall satisfaction, the level of complexity and the design of the game. The low-to-medium level of prior knowledge in our survey represents the sort of target audience for which AFTERSHOCK was designed. We saw very engaged participants during the workshops, with small group sizes and enough time for a proper introduction and debriefing being crucial to success. We disagree with the suggestion to distribute the rules beforehand or to perform a “test-run”. Experience in other settings mentioned above suggests that this is not necessarily very helpful: when players are provided the rules in advance they may feel a need to fully master them in advance. Introducing elements of the game as they become relevant during game play appears to work much better. Moreover, a limited degree of initial player confusion and uncertainty is also a valuable teaching tool: the immediate aftermath of a disaster, after all, is also characterized by uncertainty and limited information. Oral and written feedback also highlighted the importance of embedding the simulation within a more extensive course on disaster medicine to complement it with more theoretical background knowledge. Although we are confident that we achieved our main goal of providing our participants with a basic understanding of disaster medicine and humanitarian aid, especially regarding its complexities in practice, we agree with this assessment. It is also consistent with the scholarship on serious games, which stresses both the importance of integrating various course elements and value of debriefing sessions, which serve to highlight and contextualize games-based learning [11].

Conclusion

Board games such as “AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game” are well-suited tools to simulate the complexity of humanitarian assistance. They provide opportunities to apply theoretical knowledge about disaster medicine in practice while experiencing the challenges of a dynamic environment. This and their high acceptance rate among students makes them suitable for use in medical education. To ensure long term learning, simulations should always be accompanied by theoretical coursework and effective debriefing.

GMS Journal for Medical Education is the official journal of the Gesellschaft für Medizinische Ausbildung (German Association for Medical Education). You can find the English version of the article here, and the German version here. AFTERSHOCK is available from The Game Crafter (although at the time of posting they are waiting on some components to arrive before they can fill new orders).

Bartels: Building A Pipeline Of Wargaming Talent

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At War on the Rocks, Ellie Bartels (RAND) discusses “Building A Pipeline Of Wargaming Talent: A Two-Track Solution.” In it she argues the need to educate neophyte and mid-career (war)gamers, and also to educate sponsors, clients and managers about best practices and using games most effectively.

For gaming to help prepare the Department of Defense for the future, different types of wargame education are needed, aimed at different communities. Deep study of games is required for game designers to develop mastery. For those who work alongside these experts, in roles ranging from sponsor to subject matter expert, short courses may be a valuable addition to existing government educational institutions, most notably the military schoolhouses. Building up a new generation of experts, and giving civilian and military partners the tools to ask the right questions and provide information to designers is key to building more high-quality games. Without these pipelines, the existing cadre of designers will not be able to keep up with demand, leaving the department unprepared for the future.

It’s an excellent piece, and well worth reading (and not just because Ellie is one of our associate editors).

2019 International Teaching and Learning Conference

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The 2019 International Teaching and Learning Conference will take place on 17-19 June 2019 in Brighton, UK. The conference sponsored by the Political Science Association, the the British International Studies Association, the European Consortium for Political Research, and the American Political Science Association. The theme of the conference is teaching politics in an era of populism.

This conference aims to provide a forum in which political science educators from different countries and contexts can come together to explore these challenges and share their experiences and teaching practices. We welcome contributions which explore the challenges faced in national, international, or comparative contexts. We also welcome different approaches to understanding populism and the challenges that it may present to political science educators in different contexts.

The rise of populism across North America and Europe in recent decades presents a range of challenges to the teaching of political science and international relations in the universities and colleges. At one level, our curriculum must develop to cover new forms of political activity, the rise of new parties and movements, and new forms of political and government behaviour. But the challenges go beyond simply the content of what we teach. In a political culture in which expertise and established standards of evidence are devalued, political science educators can find themselves portrayed as mere peddlers of opinion and ideology. A range of questions arise, including:

  • Can or should political science education be ‘politically neutral’? Should we nurture values of democracy, equality, and citizenship and, if so, how?
  • How can we support students in developing knowledge, understanding and skills relating to the complex nature of politics, society and government? What role might different approaches to teaching such as simulations, civic engagement and other pedagogies play?
  • What are the challenges of constructing a curriculum and developing learning resources in a period of rapid and sometime dramatic political change?
  • How can we collaborate across different national and educational contexts to support critical learning in political science and international relations? What best practices are there for collaboration in both pedagogical research and cross-cultural classroom experiences?
  • Are there practices or pedagogies from other disciplines that can be adopted or adapted to address these issues?

Guide for Authors/Presenters/Panel Convenors

We welcome proposals for the following categories:

  • Papers. Individual papers reporting research findings, providing a critical account of practice, or assessing the current state of teaching and learning in the field.
  • Panels. Panel submissions should consist of four to five papers relating to a coherent theme. We particularly welcome panels that take cross-national perspectives.
  • Interactive workshops. Proposals to run sessions that provide participants with a structured opportunity to explore a challenging area of political science education in a collaborative session.
  • Short talks. We invite proposals for short 10 minute talks in the style of TED Talks, that present a concise summary of an argument or an idea related to the conference theme.
  • Roundtables. We invite proposals from individuals who would be interested in participating in a roundtable discussion on one of the conference themes.
  • Open stream. To encourage innovative approaches to developing learning, the open stream invites any proposal for an activity that is designed to facilitate critical inquiry addressing the conference theme.

All proposals for panels or workshops should give consideration to gender balance and the promotion of equality and diversity. The standard time for panels and workshops will be 90 minutes.

The deadline for paper and other conference proposals is November 19. You’ll find full submission and registration details at the link above.

Teaching about peace operations

Brazilian members of the United Nation's MINUSTAH mission patrol in Haiti.

Brazilian members of the United Nation’s MINUSTAH mission patrol in Haiti.

A forthcoming issue of International Peacekeeping (2014) features a number of articles on future directions for peacekeeping research, edited by Paul Diehl. My own contribution focusses on teaching about peace operations:
The complex, multidimensional nature of contemporary peacekeeping operations presents particular challenges for teaching about them in the classroom. Teaching should bridge the academic/policy divide, and impart a real sense of the political complications and operational challenges of peacekeeping. Fortunately, teachers can call upon new resources to help address these challenges. These include, in addition to the growing body of scholarly research, practice-oriented materials produced by operational agencies. It is increasingly easy to bring field perspectives into the classroom via the internet. Finally, classroom simulations can be particularly useful in exploring the ‘problem space’ of contemporary peace operations.
As you might expect, I address the potential use of simulations and serious games in the article. You can find the full article here (paywalled), or possibly here (limited free access), but I’ve reproduced the relevant section below:

Games and Simulations

One potentially very effective method for exposing students to the interaction of theory and practice in peace operations is the use of classroom simulations and exercises. In recent years, there has been growing attention to the potential contribution of such teaching tools in the political science classroom.13 The academic journal Simulation & Gaming recently devoted an entire special issue to peacebuilding simulations, suggesting that such techniques could offer particular insight into the ways in which peace might be achieved and sustained:

Through serious games, participants can gain a better sense of the dynamic relationships at work in complex environments, explore good fits and practical solutions, and understand how mistakes occur (often, by making them themselves). These are real skills needed in the real world: In recent decades, policy makers working on peacekeeping and peacebuilding have certainly been faced with the prospects of failure and have been forced to choose between ‘reinforcing success and salvaging failure.’ When games engage multiple participants, the games reproduce some of the political, coordination, communication, and coalition- building challenges that often accompany peace and stabilization operations, especially if a simulation is designed to reproduce some of the organizational silos and bureaucratic politics that exist in the real world.14

Similarly, the Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) project, comprised of several of the world’s largest humanitarian and development NGOs, has emphasized the extent to which humanitarian sector is placing ‘increasing value on simulations as valuable staff capacity, preparedness and relationship building exercises’.15 Professionals who have traditionally designed war games for militaries and governments have also devoted increasing attention to simulating peace and stabilization operations and humanitarian assistance.16

Certainly, simulations (usually in the form of command-post exercises) have long been used by militaries to help train personnel for peace operations. They have also increasingly been used within the UN system over the past decade to teach staff and planning skills, as well as to provide training in other key areas.17 Many of these are set in the fictional country of ‘Carana’, which is also used in modified form for training of members of the African Union’s Standby Force for peacekeeping, stabilization and humanitarian operations.18

While such exercises are rarely appropriate for classroom use as designed, the scenarios and background materials can be adapted for use in other contexts – thus saving a course instructor the work of having to invent a fictional setting from scratch. This, for example, is what the World Bank did in modifying Carana so that it could serve as the setting for a very different course simulation addressing economic planning in fragile and conflict-affected countries.19

Other resources are also available to support role-play and seminar type simulations on issues of conflict resolution.20 Most of these focus on peace negotiations rather than peacekeeping operations, however.

Simulations can either be run face-to-face during class time, or outside of the classroom between classes. The ubiquity of email and Skype, and the relative ease of setting up websites and blogs, means that most university instructors already have available to them all of the (free) communications infrastructure necessary to sustain an out-of-class simulation.21 This can also be used to enable simulations involving students in different locations, or even at different institutions.22 In addition, there are some companies and projects that provide simulation support services, whereby scenario materials and communications are provided within a dedicated (usually web-based) software platform. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the ICONS project, based at the University of Maryland. ICONS offers both pre-packaged simulations (some of which address conflict issues, although not peace operations), and can develop customized scenarios upon request.23

These sorts of simulation approaches are best seen as a sort of ‘technology-enhanced role-play’ in which the traditional seminar-style game is expanded and enriched by online communications and information resources. What about true digital games, however, where the computer itself models and moderates outcomes, or even acts as an artificial intelligence responding to player decisions?

Certainly there has been significant development of such resources within Western militaries, a consequence of both post-Cold War peacekeeping operations and US-led interventions and stabilization missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Peace Support Operations Model (a ‘faction-to-faction, turn-stepped, cellular geography, semi-agent-based model that was designed initially to represent a range of civil and military aspects of Peace Support Operations’), for example, has been developed over the past decade for the UK Ministry of Defence as an analytical and decision-support tool, and has been evaluated and used by other Western militaries as well.24 In the US Department of Defense, considerable attention has been devoted to modelling stabilization operations and irregular warfare. The post-9/11 period has similarly seen the development of serious digital games for the military that seek to train personnel in everything from language skills and negotiation to urban stabilization operations.25

Few of these, however, are available for use outside government. There are some digital games that seek to raise awareness of issues related to conflict (and hence peace operations), but these are generally very limited in scope and intended more as advocacy tools than educational ones useable at the university level. One exception is Country X, a purpose-designed classroom simulation of mass atrocity prevention, used both at Columbia University and to train practitioners in the field.26 In this, participants assume the role of the president of fictional country X, an opposition leader, a Western diplomat, or a subregional representative tasked with conflict early warning. During the game they make a series of policy choices, which may take the country away from – or towards – widespread violence. Another excellent web-based game is Inside the Haiti Earthquake, which provides thoughtful perspectives on the challenges of humanitarian assistance.27

Both Country X and, even more so, Inside the Haiti Earthquake are not sophisticated, AI-based games. Instead, they are more like interactive stories in which actions at one point open up, or foreclose, a range of possible choices later in the game – in many ways, the electronic equivalent of the ‘choose your own adventure’ books that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Several online applications now make it relatively easy to produce interactive e-learning exercises of this sort, whether text-based or including video.28 An instructor could, for example, create a peacekeeping-focused game in which students face the sorts of choices and operational dilemmas encounter by actual peacekeepers, and experience similar sorts of outcomes. Placed in the position of the UN headquarters, for example, how would students react to limited information from a peacekeeping commander suggesting the existence of arms caches and a risk of violence – especially if the scenario were disguised so that it was not initially recognizable as Rwanda in January 1994?29

Alternatively, students can be given the assignment of developing their own interactive stories, exploring the challenges of peace operations and other issues related to civil conflict. Some research evidence suggests that students may learn more from authoring simulations than simply from participating in them.30 In my own classes, students have authored simulations that address such issues as humanitarian negotiations with armed groups; demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of combatants; and survival as a refugee in the Syrian civil war.31

Finally, there are some low-tech alternatives to this, in the form of manual board games that address issues related to peace operations. Peacekeeping is a quick and simple game that challenges several players to each stabilize their country by allocating resources to peacekeeping, security sector reform, social welfare and development of a market economy, while facing the problem of spoilers and violence.32 Players may subvert or aid each other. The Humanitarian Crisis Game places players in the role of the local government, the UN, NGOs or foreign militaries attempting to deal with the aftermath of a major earthquake. Here, the focus is on coordination, logistics and political challenges, while event cards generate realistic operational challenges and opportunities each turn.33 While such games tend to be somewhat abstract, they can be useful for illustrating key concepts and engaging students in a different (and potentially more enjoyable) way than conventional lectures.34 With a little effort, purpose-designed games like this can be designed for particular classroom needs.

Despite the considerable attention devoted above to the value of simulations in teaching on peace operations, several important caveats are in order. It is important to recognize that simulations and serious games rarely teach themselves, nor are they necessarily more effective than traditional teaching methods. Much depends on how they are integrated into broader course content, and the purposes that they serve within a broader pedagogical strategy. Second, and closely related to this, is the importance of simulation and scenario design,35 as well as the actual conduct of the game or simulation. It is important to recognize that all games involve embedded assumptions and models of peace and conflict, which participants should be encouraged to approach from a critical perspective.36 Finally, it should be stressed that debriefing is an absolutely essential part of the simulation process. Indeed, considerable evidence suggests that it is during debrief that much of the actual learning takes place.37

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