Playing at war, pestilence and death (but it's only a model - shh)

Matthew Reisz reports on how serious games offer insights into politics, pandemics and propaganda

June 21, 2012

Simulations and games can be highly effective in helping to teach students about politics and war - but often suffer from oversimplification, a lack of clear purpose or insufficient time to explore issues meaningfully.

These were among the views put forward at a workshop - held at the University of Westminster earlier this month - on the use of games to model everything from the effects of a global pandemic to last year's London riots.

Simon Usherwood, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Surrey, opened the event by exploring "the problems of making simulations work".

He said it was essential to develop an "appropriate level of conflict" so that participants were neither too laid back nor likely to come to blows while acting out, for example, the Middle Eastern peace process.

Philip Sabin, professor of war studies at King's College London, explained that he used games and simulations "to teach students how to understand past military confrontations - and the military how to fight future battles".

It was virtually impossible to analyse conflict without using models, he added, but all had to strike a balance between accuracy and simplicity.

What they could never do was teach people "how to look someone in the eye and tell them to go off and risk getting killed", he said.

Keynote speaker Mary Flanagan, Sherman Fairchild distinguished professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College in the US, who has been designing such games since 1994, said they often had the goal of "moving educational tools out into popular culture so as to help people think more critically".

She referred to one of her games, Layoff, where managers are confronted by details of "workers' personal biographies" to "encourage an emotional response to the human suffering created by the economic crisis".

Pox was also developed in Professor Flanagan's design lab when a public health organisation asked for "a game that would effectively educate about issues related to vaccination".

She said the real challenge was "the subversion of introducing critical games into the marketplace".

When in doubt, she joked, it was a good idea to introduce some kind of "zombie attack" into the design.

Meanwhile, Richard Barbrook, senior lecturer in Westminster's School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages, argued that playing, critiquing and designing games offered an excellent way of "modelling political processes".

Recent students, for example, had come up with a London riots game based on backgammon, he said.

Dr Barbrook has a particular interest in The Game of War, a board game created in the wake of the 1968 Paris student uprising by Guy Debord, the French Situationist, "to teach the strategy and tactics to win the next revolution".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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