Gaming Reality History

Teaching contemporary International Relations with in-class simulations is sometimes challenging when the simulation scenario may be radically changed by what is happening in the real world, but that is the challenge my HI3112 International Organisations students are dealing with this week in this terms conference game on the Horn Of Africa/Arab Spring. “Upstairs” literally as well as figuratively, the MA class are dealing with the problems of designing a game which bridges the gap between IR theory and contemporary crises for their assignment.

Assessment for HI3112, International Organisations, has for years been based on the outcome of an in-class simulation run over 2 weeks with some online “secret diplomacy”. Sometimes I use a fictitious scenario, and sometime I use a real world situation, and for this year I opted to go for the latter.  I decided the students would play, apart from the P5, the regional actors from Somalia and Sudan through Yemen, Egypt,Libya and Syria.  The positions were assigned about a month ago, and in the simulation, the students have to demonstrate how they would use international organisations (UN, EU, NATO, AU) to advance their agendas. For practical purposes, I divided the class into 2 duplicate sections to limit the number of participants in the simulation to 20, which is about the maximum if everyone is to get a reasonable chance to participate in a 2 hour class.

Class Whiteboard showing map and notes from Hi3112 Simulation
Class Whiteboard showing map and notes from Hi3112 Simulation

Both sections did well in week 1 this week – the Chinese were successfully inscrutable and held their line on Syria, the US “player” in one game successful raised the question of Iranian nuclear weapons, the Syrian in the other simulation brought up Israeli nuclear weapons. In both sessions the problems  in the Sudan and Somalia were sidelined as the major powers were more interested in Syria. Several of the major power players initial statements were well written diplomatic texts which expressed a great deal of concern, but promised nothing concrete.  Week 1 is usually fairly quiet; which is why I gave two weeks to the exercise.  some negotiation is going on by email and on the discussion forums, and next Tuesday will probably see the real haggling as people try to see how they can come out with something they can sell as a “win”

Part of the challenge of a real-time contemporary simulation is that events move one. In the next session, the students playing government and opposition in Egypt and Yemen have to deal with changes in their situation, and the other powers have to decide if those real world events require any alteration, real or merely perceptual, in their position.  One of the key learning outcomes for the simulation is to get the class to understand how decision makers operate under conditions of incomplete and uncertain information, which is a real applied historical analysis skill, and this year exercise is certainly forcing them to engage with that!.

The other gaming class I’m teaching in at present is the MA course, Hi6046, Understanding International Conflict. In the first half they had a run through the major theories of International Relations. In my half, I’ve argued that just as a theory is an exploratory or interpretative model of reality, a game is also a model of reality. I’m therefore making them write a concept for a game in which the rules model an IR theory by constraining the players actions to conform to that theory. I haven’t set any specific IR situation as the “location” for the game, but I think I will suggest they use the same setting as the HI3112 class as their sandbox for this exercise.

To set them up I’ve fed them some readings – some Robert Rubel articles, Ghamari-Tabrizi and Glick & Charters for background, Brent Sasley on the value of failure, Dunnigan’s wargames book and some more I need to add (they will only read so much, better to have them actually read a small set of readings that ignore a long bibliography.)  I’ve also looked at a bunch of games that attempt to deal with international relations. Compiling that lecture was interesting, and eventually I settled on

Diplomacy (obviously, very realist)

Origins of WWII and Origins of WWI, which are essentially the same game but which do allow, by varying the national objectives, for some interesting scenario building.  Thomas Heaney has a wonderful powerpoint explaining the rules on Boardgamegeek.

Days of Decision III A monster of a game, which represents 14 years of development but which includes some very interesting devices. The very basic “control most of the 67 centers” victory conditions looks very like Diplomacy, but the event cards, the wonderfully non-geographic status display which maps regime ideology and the Political Allegiance Track are all excellent devices which really bear examination. It is probably a bit heavy for classroom ruse, but I think I will certainly look at it again and see if I can make it work as a classroom game for next year.

Mapping Ideology- the Status Display from Days of Decision III
Mapping Ideology- the Status Display from Days of Decision III

Crusades, the  old SPI classic, which is an interesting simulation of trying to fight with a coalition of the sort of willing and very disorgnaised, and has probably the best example of a random events table ever.

Twilight Struggle, the current classic, which is very popular and playable.

Labyrinth, which deals with the GWOT but moves beyond the simple influence and events mechanics of Twilight Struggle to deal with shifiting political allegiances, albeit in a much more simplistic way than DoDIII, and quality of governance, and thefore is moving more twoards a Liberal view if International Relations.

1989, which is not yet printed, and moves into the border between IR games and politics games. it uses the Twilight Struggle methodology to look at the events of 1989, with space on the board to represent not only geographic locations, but also institutions (Church, Universities) and pressure groups (Unions) .

What I’m hoping is that the class will be able to pick some elements of these games, and explore how they can use them to create an IR gaming kit that is informed by IR theory. I did concede that it probably is impossible to achieve this, but the aim is to explore an open-ended problem with no easy solution – I’m teaching  graduate IR, not undergrad algebra!

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