This is an excerpt from Signature Pedagogy in International Relations. Download the book for free from E-International Relations.
Political science, and especially international relations, is one of the few academic disciplines where professors can openly discuss mass killing in the classroom, which may seem amoral. Much of this, of course, comes from the questions that drive our research. In investigating why wars begin or escalate, the researcher may be driven on for normative purposes, but the demands of supposedly impartial research have cleaned up our variables in many ways – deaths become dates, not bodies. While this may be necessary for research purposes when translated back into the political world, it may have the unintended consequence that, in the opinion of a policy maker, the full range of consequences that accompany decisions to use force is minimized. This creates critical ethical problems when one of our goals as teachers is to train the next generation of foreign policy makers. In short, how do we teach and train students who may enter a profession where they may ultimately be asked to make critical decisions about the use of violence? This chapter addresses this question by asking how we use simulations in the classroom – which often have a violent component – as a method of developing signature pedagogy for the discipline.
Signature education encompasses the way we train the next generation of professionals in our field to think, act, and act with integrity (Shulman 2005). An important difference between the area of international relations and many of the areas Shulman highlighted (i.e., law, medicine, engineering, etc.) is the total number of people who have ever been placed in executive positions with the power to make foreign policy decisions for a state are very small. As such, it is very unlikely that someone sitting in our classroom will one day personally make these decisions – although they are more likely to be responsible for providing the analysis and reasoning that could help in making those decisions. This assumed distance of the learner from possible future action can result in instructors at times not feeling the burden of developing signature pedagogy on issues of initiating war and violence – these are decisions made by others, we investigate them just.
This gap is increased by the fact that the field of conflict studies relied largely on the collection of secondary event data to produce data sets that are then used to statistically test various hypotheses. This reliance on event data and extensive studies of understanding war, as well as the fortunately speculative foundations of nuclear deterrence theory, resulted in the way we talked about war in our classrooms either being reduced to an easily observable variable (e.g. 1,000 Slaughter dead) or presented in very abstract terms (e.g. the consequences of deterrence based on mutually insured destruction failure). Ironically, these approaches to studying war also meant that an area of research specifically concerned with human harm and death could largely avoid falling under the Institutional Review Boards (IRB) requirements for human subjects. This distancing of the human choice to use violence in international politics from the human bodies that absorb that violence raises serious questions about how we convey these issues, especially if we choose to create simulations in the classroom, that the decision-making process should mimic
Games and simulations in the classroom are a mechanism to achieve the goals of signature pedagogy in our classroom. A well-designed simulation can expose students to the complex decision-making processes that foreign policy actors may face in their work. Games and simulations in class have proven to be effective methods for teaching and reinforcing course content (Asal and Blake 2006; Giovanello, Kirk and Kromer 2013). These activities engage students in ways that traditional forms of instruction often cannot and can help highlight each of the core elements of signature pedagogy – how to think, work, and act with integrity. However, what can be overlooked when designing and implementing simulations in the classroom is the ways in which violent assumptions are often embedded in them and how these can undermine our students’ training on integrity. This problem occurs in two ways: first, through the effects of violent decisions on those involved in the simulations; and second, through the built-in assumptions of classroom simulations, which can make the use of force appear to be a forced choice.
All simulations in the class are designed to be played by humans. As a result, they usually reflect the type of research that would require IRB approval. However, since they do not fall under the federal definition of research (46.102.l), they would not have to go through an IRB process. Just like laboratory experiments on human subjects, most simulations introduce a scenario, treatment, and then a series of decisions that students must make based on their assessment of the situation. These decisions often depend on the decisions of other students in the class – students who do not need to interact with each other in other contexts throughout their day without consequence. Research has shown that participating in these simulations has an emotional impact on these students and that these effects affect how students play the game and see the world (Zappile, Beers and Raymond 2016; McDermott et al. 2007). A simulation that forces students to make decisions about the use of violence can have unintended emotional consequences if they feel uncomfortable about inciting violence against another student, or when they are away from students doing violence against trigger them, feel unjustly treated. A study by McDermott, Johnson, Cowden, and Rosen (2007) showed that men are much more likely to engage in aggressive actions than women. A game that rewards aggression can have unintended consequences for the already difficult gender dynamics in the classroom. As educators, we should think deeply about the long-term impact our pedagogical approaches have on our students’ thinking about the world and work consciously to design simulations that convey the basic principles of the class while doing unnecessary harm to our students and students avoid potential for harm to others.
It should be recognized that games are a central part of the lives of most students and that many games – both video and board – involve players in a continuous stream of violent decisions. Even so, these games are almost universally understood as entertainment and do not reflect the daily reality of the player. Classroom simulations, on the other hand, are not intended to entertain the students, but rather to give them the opportunity to deal with actual decision-making processes and to get to know them. The ultimate goal of these simulations is that the experience or the knowledge gained from it can be used in real scenarios. As international politics teachers, despite the low probability, we should always assume that the students in our classroom might one day be able to make the exact kinds of decisions that play a role in our simulations. This obliges us to take the design of these simulations seriously and carefully consider what possible real-world consequences the game could have if drawn on its obvious conclusions.
As with war data collection, disinfection – by which I mean representing concepts that have been removed from the trauma experienced in performing that concept on you – can be a useful but consistent aspect of simulation design. A common type of simulation follows the parameters found in rational choice models, in which players are asked to force or pick up an opponent who also has identical or similar choices. These simulations usually provide a chance for one of the players to exit the game and declare war. Who “wins” the war is sometimes determined by a coin toss or some other randomization method (see for example Kraus et al. 2008). These are very simple simulations that will help the student work through some of the game theory logic of rational selection models. Since the selection environment is simple, the simulation is easy to explain and play. As with rational choice models, however, they run the risk of minimizing the multilayered and complex war costs.
First, wars are seldom “won”, at least not in the ultimate way captured by a coin toss. A coin toss is predictable as you can calculate the outcome and compare it to the other options available. A player who has a very basic understanding of expected utility theory can easily figure out whether to take the risk of starting a war. For those participants who are mathematically averse, they can still rely on a wide range of social psychological heuristics to help them make somewhat predictable decisions. In the real world, however, these decisions to use force carry both known and unknown risks and costs, and often have long-term consequences that go well beyond the immediate outcome of the coin toss. Underestimating the costs and risks within a simulation can have the unintended consequence of training students to underestimate the risks of war in real-world scenarios – a fundamental win of war but the loss of the peace outcome. Of course, there is also the possibility of over-specifying costs and risks, but the nature of the simplified quotas found in most simulation designs makes under-specification more likely.
The mechanics of a game will affect how the game is played, when and how the decision to use force is made, and the range of possible outcomes. The field of International relations are highly controversial about the likelihood of conflict or cooperation. Many simulations can be used to demonstrate how certain assumptions can lead to certain results. For example, a “state of nature” game is based on a very narrow premise about the state of the world. This premise is of course very controversial, but without a suitable context a participant can leave the simulation and believe that this is how the world actually works. If the real world is not really a “state of nature” game, but behavior depends on the assumption that it is, then there is a high likelihood of inefficient outcomes. The same is true of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, or deer hunting, or any of the other simple scenarios we have developed over time to understand a complex world.
Obviously, a more realistic grasp of the dynamics of violent conflict means asking participants to make decisions for which they may not be adequately prepared emotionally or mature. This problem is reflected in how roles are assigned and how participants respond to those roles. Psychological experiments have shown time and again how directly the participants take on the roles assigned to them. Often times, this role adaptation reflects the extremes of what the participant believes to be the role. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, which took students to a basement and assigned the roles of prisoners and guards, participants reflected on how they embraced the qualities they had thought would have this role. Of course, it is highly unlikely that students have had much practical experience as guards or prisoners. Therefore, their performance in the simulation was more similar to the known tropes than the actual daily behavior of guards or prisoners (Carnahan and McFarland 2007; Texier 2019; Zimbardo 1973). The Milgram experiments, in which participants were asked to give electric shocks to an actor they believed was a fellow participant, also show the effects of forcing participants to behave in such a way as they consider it immoral (Milgram and Gudehus 1978)). Films of the experiment during the implementation show a high level of stress for the participants because they correspond to the instructions of the administrator. A simulation like the wave at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California where a teacher created an in and out group to demonstrate how easily they can be drawn into the behavior of a pseudo-fascist organization to do so had unintended psychological effects as participants were inadvertently forced to think about their behavior in the grossest possible way (Saari 2020). Even with guarding against these high profile excesses, some of the same dynamic can impact in more subtle, albeit similar, ways.
Given the profound impact that situation determinants can have on participants, simulation designers should consider how role assignment affects the simulation and the lessons that result from it. One assumption that should guide our thinking is that participants will gain sympathy for the roles they are assigned – or at least not completely question the underlying moral issues that the role may require. These problems can manifest themselves differently depending on whether the simulation is based on fictional or real scenarios, but they are present in both types of designs. A second assumption is that a simulation specifically designed to create hostility and competitive play among students could cross these boundaries outside of the classroom. This can be especially exacerbated when gender or racial dynamics determine the course of the game.
When designing a simulation with a real-world scenario, it is possible that some roles are actors who have committed atrocities. How are the parameters of atrocities handled? Do the game mechanics account for atrocities and, if so, how are the payouts weighted for these types of promotions? If participants can choose to commit atrocities, what is our moral obligation about the consequences for those decisions? If atrocities are not included in the selection, which means the role has been cleaned up, how is it addressed? Similar questions can be raised for simulations based on a fictitious scenario based on real events. While such scenarios offer both more flexibility and constraints on what can be approached, fictional countries or groups cannot be studied and therefore cannot be understood outside the parameters of the simulation itself. As a result, participants may be more inclined to adapt tropes in their role-play approaches. If trope-playing only reinforces existing stereotypes, the student is less likely to develop a deeper understanding of the complex preferences and interests underlying policy making.
These are complex questions that lead to the roots or our moral obligations as instructors. In all fairness, the vast majority of atrocities committed throughout world history have gone with impunity. Often times, these atrocities fueled the strategic goals of those who carried them out, which means they cannot simply be made exogenous to these simulated worlds. Hence, we need to delve into the deeper question of what the educational purpose of the simulation is and what final lessons can be drawn from playing the game. If the simulation doesn’t go beyond “crime payments” or similar types of teaching, should we include students in these scenarios? Without this consideration, the question arises as to whether a simulation can serve as a tool to represent a meaningful signature pedagogy.
The questions raised here serve as a starting point for a wider discussion of how we use games and simulations in the classroom. Their main concern is to think more carefully about how we deal with these activities and to be more aware of the short- and long-term effects they can have on our students. This final section includes some steps we can take now to improve the environment in which we run these simulations, which would be more in line with developing a signature pedagogy for international relations.
Think about how violence is used, who can use it and against whom: Violence is a key component of international relations. It is therefore unrealistic to develop scenarios that exclude the option of violence altogether. However, it may not require students to play this role or be the ones who are violent themselves. This role can be assumed by the trainer or embedded in the scenario. For example, in a simulation that takes place over multiple rounds, violent acts can form the backdrop for the negotiations that take place between players. The players themselves do not choose to use violence or have violence used directly against them, but instead react to “spoilers” who use violence to disrupt negotiations. The important thing is to ask what the violent options of the scenario ultimately teach us. If they are not at the core of the educational purpose of the exercise, then they should not be given special emphasis.
Include students in the simulation design process: A simulation that is simply presented as a given requires little critical assessment from the participant. As students design their own simulations, they begin to question the assumptions underlying the basic gameplay. Having a say in the design of the game can also reduce the emotional impact that role-playing games often produce. When thinking about the roles and interests of the actors, they may be more inclined to question stereotypical assumptions. At least we can challenge them as trainers to question these assumptions. This activity may not actually result in playing the simulation, but the practice can help you come to terms with many of the theoretical assumptions made over the course of the semester.
Leave time for reflection and discussion: Simulations can be intense experiences, especially simulations involving violence. A simulation that involves a level of recklessness in which participants take advantage of one another should not end without a degree. As a trainer, it is important to engage with the participants in the emotionally intense moments that the participants experienced. However, highlighting how easy it was to develop these emotions can shed light on how conflict can escalate and persist in real life.
Be ready to stop the simulation if emotions get too high: sometimes things don’t go as planned, and as an instructor, it is important to recognize when to stop a simulation. When such an event occurs, discuss what happened and how it escalated. After the conversations, the students may be in a better place to return to the simulation. If not, it’s okay to move on. A simulation is only as good as the core ideas it teaches. If these core ideas cannot be implemented, there is little need to move forward.
This chapter looks at some key questions related to simulations that incorporate violence into their gameplay, and links them to the question of whether such simulations are an appropriate tool for signature pedagogy in our classroom. While simulations are useful educational tools as trainers, we need to be aware of the potential implications of these exercises, particularly with regard to the training of future foreign policy makers. In viewing our students as future decision-makers, we need to design scenarios that adequately prepare them to address issues of life and death from both a strategic and a moral point of view. However, we should also be aware of the intense emotional impact these games can have on the students who participate in them. When you are aware of these effects and are adequately prepared to address them, the simulation environment can become a much more useful experience for all participants.
* I would like to thank Amy Eckert for her comments on the first draft of this piece and dedicate it to her memory.
 Of course, this is not universal as there are many courses and textbooks on ethics in international relations. However, these courses often exist outside what can be viewed as more traditional courses in international relations and security studies
 Fortunately, this is changing as we gradually see more methodological diversity within the field, as well as more open discussions about how to conduct both desk and field research ethically (see Hoover, Green and Cohen 2020; Cronin-Furman and Lake 2018).
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