Wargaming In The Classroom

2016-08-27 09.47.36.jpgI had the good fortune to attend a symposium today at the US Army Heritage and Education Center on wargaming in the classroom. Affiliated with The Army War College, it’s only  20 minutes from Harrisburg University, and I’ve been hoping to build some connections there: I’ve heard great things about their work in teaching critical thinking, and I think dialog between their mid-career students and our traditional-age undergrads could be mutually beneficial.

The panel was brilliant:  Peter Perla, whose book The Art of Wargaming I’ve used in class (in “Games In Theory and Society” at Arizona State), Rex Brynen of the PAXsims blog, Jim Lacey of the Institute for Defense Analyses, and James Sterrett, Deputy Chief of the Simulations Division of the US Army Command & General Staff College’s Digital Leader Development Center.

Perla began with a history of wargaming, back to its Prussian roots, quoting extensively from a contemporary book on the subject. My favorite quote: “the game was not on the table; the game was in the minds of the players.” This was a recurring theme of the panel, and of later discussions with the panelists: design elements can easily break immersion. Rex Brynen later noted that things like dice instead of cards as the random-outcome generator, plastic pieces instead of wood or composite, stackable poker chips instead of stack-fail tokens, can invoke unwanted associations, especially in an audience invested in “seriousness,” such as military planners.

Perla listed key elements of a successful (war) game as including uncertainty, complexity, having to make decisions and see their consequences, and dealing with with a conscious and determined opponent. They stir the imagination, sharpen the intellect, and enlighten via synthetic experience. Aside from the opponent factor, this is why I’m passionate about games for education: traditional education does a terrible job of training in decisionmaking in complexity (my subtitle for the Harrisburg University course, The Organizational Mind, that I’m teaching this fall).

Next up, Brynen focused on “worst practices:”

2016-08-27 14.17.00.jpgHe began by emphasizing, don’t do a game in the classroom unless you know why and how it fits with other material – or, don’t do it because “students think it’s cool,” or games are the pedagogical flavor of the week. Games can be used for icebreaking and networking, not just pedagogical ends (one of the games being demo’d was Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, which I’ve used early in the semester as an icebreaker and lesson in applied online research).

Another key worst practice involves not leaving time for debriefing: treating the game as the sole course material and then sending students home. It’s critical to include debriefing and contextualizing, with a further problem of not listening to what players actually got out of the game, rather than what you expected they learned. Having students critique, mod the game, and/or design their own game in response to their experience and their understanding of the subject matter can be an invaluable next step.

Another interesting flaw is in not thinking of player psychology and narrative engagement, related to another, in which players focus on playing the game mechanic rather than the scenario. This is one I’m particularly concerned about in using games to teach international relations and related subjects to game design students. He described manipulating the environment to get players to the analytical/learning objective, including housing teams in different places to force cooperation or a sense of isolation, or simple things like team stickers, flags, and active GM’ing to create a narrative space.

2016-08-27 11.53.14.jpgI played Brynen’s game, Aftershock, and was deeply impressed by (and more than a bit dubious of my ability to replicate) his performance as facilitator, in which he grounded each move by the players in real-life examples in disaster response. First play-throughs in my experience have tended to be mildly frustrating experiences in rules-learning and frustrated flailing: our team learned a tremendous amount and had a successful round – and, importantly, felt great about the experience as Brynen reframed our bad moves as examples of real-life outcomes.

Jim Lacey stressed decisions as the core of gameplay, over interactions, echoing Sid Meier’s definition of games as “a series of interesting choices.” Building on the problem of mechanics as distraction, he suggested the need to be flexible about implementation of a game’s rules in order to get to the desired learning outcome (intervening in a game about the Peloponnesian War, he declared himself Zeus to bestow his favor on one faction).

James Sterrett presented a model of Purpose, Decisions, Interactions. Purpose: where does it fit into your lesson plan – the role of a game at the beginning, middle, or end of term is different. Decisions: what the essence of the thing is, the decisions you want them to wrestle with. From that you start thinking about the interactions. He noted that, as with all models, when you simplify, things will be wrong. “All models are wrong, some models are useful. Trick is figuring out how wrong it can be and still be useful.” The driver for a classroom game has to be actual scenarios, not a clever game mechanic.

Critically, he noted that educators have to understand that intrinsic motivations are important, not badges and scores. You have to generate a feeling that whatever your side is, its actions and goals are reasonable. Also, they have to address international relations as it is in reality, not the game or movie version that’s all about action. War is a very rare outcome in international relations: your game can’t be about rolling the tanks.

After several questions about the challenges of using games for a military audience, I asked about flipping the scenario – teaching international relations to games design students. The panelists seemed to have fun with the question, and it sparked some great conversation. I’m  co-designing a class on international relations and gaming for the Spring semester  at HU with the university librarian, David Runyon, and I think we’ll have some terrific input and support coming out of today’s session.

2016-08-27 10.00.38.jpgColleagues were interested in my impression of the space for running a games event: it’s really good. There’s lots of parking, access is easy, the room is big and comfortable, and there’s a little cafe next door with not just sugar and caffeine but actual food. Who could ask for more?


A Distant Plain

T2016-07-27 18.00.08.jpghis weekend I prepped A Distant Plain, a tabletop game about counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, for an upcoming collaborative play session. I’d discovered the game from a profile of its creator, Volko Ruhnke, in the Washington Post right around the time the Harrisburg University Library got it in stock.

We did a playtest session, and I was deeply impressed by the clarity of the game mechanics, despite the complexity of the simulation. In that first session we barely scratched the surface of the game’s potential for encouraging serious thinking about the challenges of counterinsurgency and the history of the post-2001 conflict in Afghanistan. I came away determined to explore the game as a collaborative teaching tool for current events and international relations courses. (I’ve set up this blog specifically so I don’t lose insights from those sessions, as I did here)2016-08-14 13.30.01

I also want to practice running games out of the library with remote players/collaborators/instructors. After the first week of the term we’ll be running our first distributed session, with players in Seattle; Phoenix; and Lancaster, UK. Once we get the bugs out of a system, I hope to involve subject matter experts and students, as a more immersive learning environment than the guest lecture.

2016-08-12 17.40.48.jpgSeveral drawbacks to my experience this weekend: I don’t have a table big enough to accommodate the game board and surrounding stuff. Trying to play on the floor, even without my Research Assistant, Counterinsurgency (Rodentia), was uncomfortable and annoying. For solo play, being able to move around the board easily and constantly is important.

While there are rules for solo play, in which the player plays the two counterinsurgency factions (Coalition and Government) with NPC rules for the other two factions (Taliban and Warlords), given my suboptimal playing environment, I couldn’t sustain a game. I just played enough to feel reasonably confident I’ll be able to GM the remote session, given a group of (more than me) experienced gamers.


  • I need to get a card table or equivalent for playtesting at home, or steal back my office’s conference table for playtesting at work (which would have the advantage of no small predators looking to participate).
  • We’ll need at least an hour before the remote session for setup of the game board, let alone setup and testing of our videoconferencing.
  • After one or more sessions with my colleagues, it’ll be essential to run one or more games with students who are less experienced with games and less knowledgeable about the Afghanistan conflict, to judge its utility as a teaching tool in an undergraduate elective course.

Hello, World

I’m back to academic blogging after an absence of nearly four years. I took some time off from blogging to finish my dissertation, then jumped into a tremendously rewarding and busy postdoc in the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University. After losing the better part of a year to illness and injury, I’ve begun work as Assistant Professor, Sociology of Emerging Technologies, at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

2016-06-17 11.00.37.jpgWhile I’ve only been at HU for two months, and our Fall term is yet to start, I’ve had an amazing experience, begun working with some of the most interesting and congenial folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to be associated with, and have become immersed in two areas I’ll be blogging about here.

First, teaching and education technology. HU is a technology university with a mission to teach under-served student populations, in central Pennsylvania and globally. It’s an exciting combination, and I’m eager to document my experiences in this environment.

Second, games studies. HU has a vibrant community of games scholars, with active playtest sessions. I’ll be reviewing games here on a regular basis with an eye to their applicability to the classroom and to other sorts of education.

My third area of blogging, as my friends and colleagues will know, will be rants, or longer-form explorations of topics in technology, politics, and SF/F fandom.

I’ve pulled down the 162 posts on my grad-student blog: I’d prefer a fresh start. Some of those posts are cross-linked to my blog at HASTAC.