Let’s Play a Game: Student-Created Simulations

04.17_lets-play-a-game_student-created-simulations

Simulations are an opportunity for experiential learning, but faculty who use them usually adopt simulations that they created or found. An alternative is to have students create the simulation themselves as a learning activity.

What advantages do student-created simulations offer? When you play a game that someone gives you, that person tell you the goal and rules, and you must adopt a strategy from those. But when making a game, you need to think about which goals and strategies you want to foster and then create rules that enable those. In this way, you must think much more deeply about the underlying game situation. I had students in my international conflict class create a simulation to get them to think deeply about how different goals and rules of international relations lead to different strategies.


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Simulations are an opportunity for experiential learning, but faculty who use them usually adopt simulations that they created or found. An alternative is to have students create the simulation themselves as a learning activity.

What advantages do student-created simulations offer? When you play a game that someone gives you, that person tell you the goal and rules, and you must adopt a strategy from those. But when making a game, you need to think about which goals and strategies you want to foster and then create rules that enable those. In this way, you must think much more deeply about the underlying game situation. I had students in my international conflict class create a simulation to get them to think deeply about how different goals and rules of international relations lead to different strategies.

Shall we create a game?

The assignment was to develop a game of international politics involving resource competition. The overall goal was to see whether students could demonstrate how a country’s pursuit of resources would inevitably lead to conflict between countries. The class had a small enrollment, and thus students acted together to develop one simulation. An instructor could divide larger classes into groups to create multiple simulations; then the teacher can compare these results to learn about how teams thought differently about international relations in crafting their goals, strategies, and rules. In other words, some teams might craft a game where conflict is the best strategy, while others craft games that encourage cooperation.

“The rules of the game were fairly simple for each team member. To start, all participants were divided up into four teams. Each of these teams had a point on the board that was their ‘starting point,’” LaGrange College undergraduate Karson Troth began.

From that point the teams could decide which direction they wanted to move. Each move placed the team on a new square, and each square concealed one of five different options: corn, oil, water, soybeans, or trivia. If the team landed on the trivia square, they had to answer a trivia question on international conflict. If they answered correctly, they got to go again.

The square could be unoccupied, leading the team to get the resource peacefully. But with a limited number of open squares after a few rounds, student-players realized that they would have to fight to acquire resources if they wanted to win.

In further explaining the game, Troth wrote,

Each of the other squares, containing corn, oil, water, and soy beans, were collected by each team. Other teams could move onto opposing teams’ territory and try to steal the goods from the team. This battle was settled by a game of rock paper scissors. The first team to collect four of each kind of good or all of one of the goods was the winner.

One of the issues we discovered with the simulation is that the student-created game had a limited number of squares for the four playing teams of other undergraduates. To prevail by acquiring all four goods, odds were that a country would have to take another’s resources.

As Jaydon Parrish, a LaGrange College classmate who was also involved in the simulation, noted, players could only win the game by netting all four varieties of resources, would have to attempt to take the territory of others, and could not simply “play nice” (i.e., only going for unoccupied spots), so the simulation led all four teams to conduct a zero-sum gain game. It was interesting that the students did not develop a system of being able to barter for goods, nor did they try to barter during the game. The next time I have students develop an international politics simulation, I may have them consider this option to allow those less inclined toward fighting to negotiate, even bargain, for necessary resources as countries sometimes do.

The game was played with a packed classroom of roughly 40 attendees (with all seats taken) and four teams of 10. All seemed to enjoy the competitive nature of the event and caught on quickly how necessary conflict over resources would have to occur to win the game, especially under the time constraints of an hour (the allotted amount given to us as a cultural enrichment event). “The game went well! The students got really into it. The only challenge was our questions were a little too hard,” said Andrew Cunningham, another LaGrange College student who acted as the emcee of the event.

What worked in the simulation

Most of the students who created the simulation seemed pleased with their efforts, which was a positive. “In my opinion, the game went great, and people got a good sense of what basic international conflict can look like. Some of the questions were a bit hard for some of the students who competed, but other than that, I saw it as a complete success,” Cunningham noted.

Clearly as an initial attempt, the event was effective enough to warrant another try in future classes. First, the student creators appreciated the activity. Second, the participants across campus enjoyed the experience, which stimulated interest in the subject (Shellman and Turan 2006). And third, the game incorporated elements from our class (Asal 2005), such as zero-sum game and resource competition, as well as some degree of realpolitik.

A chance at a better simulation

There are ways to definitely improve the situation. First, Shellman and Turan focus on the need to enhance learning objectives. As Servotte, Ghuysen, and Bragard (2019, 251) elaborate,

Before deciding to integrate simulation in a curriculum, it is first necessary to identify its learning objectives. An institutional assessment of needs could be done by means of a gap analysis, an end-training competencies analysis, learner surveys, etc. Then, learning objectives should be written in terms of KSA (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) that learners are expected to achieve, adhering to the hierarchical progression of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, from the lower levels (remembering and understanding) to higher levels (applying and creating). The acronym SMART for specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time related could also help in the development of measurable and meaningful objectives.

To determine the simulation’s effectiveness, I compared exam and paper grades from before and after the process. Results were mixed. The exam grades dropped by four percentage points on average; it was not a statistically significant amount, though. Half of the students experienced increases, while the other half had decreases in grades. As for the paper grades, these jumped seven points after the simulation on average. Staub and Bravender (2014) recommend an initial reflection and a final debriefing, which might have been more germane to the simulation itself. I will incorporate that next time, for both developers and players.

I also suggest that professors develop student-created simulations but perhaps serve as judges rather than deprive students of leadership. For example, we had three students who were unable to participate in the game’s development agree to serve as beta testers. The nuts and bolts of the game worked, but because the beta testers had taken the class, we did not realize how challenging the questions would be for non–international relations students. Also, a “professor-judge” could provide something for intra-team player decision dynamics and not just inter-team player competition. A professor-judge would have also suggested alternatives to conflict in the game, such as system of resource trade mentioned above.

In conclusion, I recommend that professors enable their students to come up with simulation creations of their own but only with several caveats:

References

Asal, Victor. 2005. “Playing Games with International Relations.” International Studies Perspectives 6, no. 3: 359–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1528-3577.2005.00213.x.

Servotte, Jean Christoph, Alexandre Ghuysen, and Isabelle Bragard. 2019. “When Simulation Should and Should Not Be in the Curriculum.” In Clinical Simulation: Education, Operations, and Engineering, edited by Gilles Chiniara, 247–58. 2nd edition. London: Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-815657-5.00018-8.

Shellman, Stephen M., and Kursad Turan. 2006. “Do Simulations Enhance Student Learning? An Empirical Evaluation of an IR Simulation.” Journal of Political Science Education 2, no. 1: 19–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/15512160500484168.

Verlage, Erik, Sajan Saini, Anuradha Agarwal, Samuel Serna, Ryan Kosciolek, Trevor Morrisey, and Lionel C. Kimerling. 2019. “Web-Based Interactive Simulations and Virtual Lab for Photonics Education.” In Fifteenth Conference on Education and Training in Optics and Photonics: ETOP 2019, edited by Annie-Sophie Poulin-Girard and Joseph A. Shaw. Bellingham, WA: SPIE. https://doi.org/10.1117/12.2523861.


John A. Tures, PhD, is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. The author would like to thank LaGrange College undergraduates Andrew Cunningham, Karson Troth, Jaydon Parrish, Chase Davis, Hannah Godfrey, DeQueze Fryer, Tamino Schoeffer, Daniel Cody, Shedrick Lindsey, Emaleigh Turner, Daniel Cody, Jenna Pittman, and Elijah Rogers.