I use Statecraft in my political science course. Participants are placed in a global political environment to battle or cooperate with one another. The simulation makes use of a wide range of political elements, from the international to the domestic, the military to the economic. Unlike the game of Risk, the game is not some unrealistic game of conquest where one country always ends up ruling the world. The goals of the players are the same as the countries today: to survive, and even thrive, via smart political and economic decisions.
It was clear from the start that the students became genuinely invested in the game. As one wrote, “In the world of Statecraft, my country, Houstatlantavegas, has become a nearly lost cause… No matter what move I make, the people continue to riot and protest my regime and steal all of my resources besides oil. I guess this must be how some Middle Eastern leaders feel.” (Tures, 2017)
This experience taught me a number of lessons for using online simulations in teaching. First, students must receive incentives for playing the game properly. It might seem as though students will be excited by the mere prospect of playing an online game, but students will not show interest if there is not an incentive for playing the game. The simulation must be tied to the student's grade in some manner. I grade students not on results from the game, but from their level of activity in the simulation, as well as having their journals connect how they play the game to the lessons that they learn in class: the concepts, theories, and analogies to what countries have done in history and in current times.
Second, the material must be strongly connected to what is going on in the classroom or it will feel like a needless detour. I wanted it to reinforce what we studied about the various factors that influence decisions on the political level. For instance, one student noted how it taught him that being a military dictator was not as easy as ordering people around without any consequences. Though he faced no opposition parties or elections, he still had to contend with rioters and revolutionaries, just as our class text explained about the trials and tribulations of authoritarian leaders. Still another discovered that her democracy struggled to organize a draft, but had advantages in education, research, and development, not unlike today's free countries.
One way to solidify this connection between game and course is by requiring students to make reflective journals on what they learned in the game. Moreover, students should be required to state the connection between a game experience and something taught in class. A student in my class wrote about how his trouble satisfying the demands of a certain population represented the concept of interest articulation, which is the view that the governed need to be able to express their interests in order for leaders to know who to create support for policies.
Third, there is a tendency for a professor to provide a lot of “hand-holding” for the students in a game simulation, a combination of coddling and controlling what the students do. But Jaeger (2018) counsels a different tactic. “As a first time user it is best to be a neutral observer or fly on the wall. However, as the instructor gets more and more comfortable with how the sim plays out and their ‘professor powers' (to manipulate the simulation) they may want to start intervening and bringing out specific concepts each week.”
Finally, it is important to get feedback from students throughout the simulation, not just at the end. Students will often see problems at the beginning of the simulation that they surmount and forget about by the end. A simulation can go in a number of unexpected directions, and the instructor will invariably make numerous changes to the activity based on the feedback received in the first iteration.
Perhaps you are reading this, wondering how you might get started. In addition to Statecraft, there's iDecisionGames, which covers a wide variety of topics ranging from negotiation to leadership and ethics, to running an organization. ANSYS has no shortage of simulations for scientists and engineers. And HarvardMedSim's Center for Medical Simulation has several simulations to offer for biology and nursing students. Teoh Mei Lin (2001) has some good suggestions on language simulations. Whatever the subject, one can find a simulation for any class. But it's important to remember the ideas mentioned here on motives for using the simulation, grading students, and getting feedback from them.
Jaeger, Joe. 2018. Personal Email Communique. January 17.
Mei Lin, Teoh. 2001. Simulation in Language Teaching – Its Advantages and Limitations in an ESP Context. MELTA.com. http://www.melta.org.my/index.php/11-melta-articles/173-simulation-in-language-teaching-its-advantages-and-limitations-in-an-esp-context
Tures, John A. 2017. “Shall We Play A Game?” Georgia Political Science Association Conference Paper. Presented at Savannah, GA, November.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College.