In February I attended the International Studies Association’s annual conference, held in Baltimore, MD. At the conference, I had the great fortune to participate in two pedagogy panels which showcased the wide range of techniques that are being used in classrooms all over the world to get students excited about learning International Relations (IR), meet a wider range of students’ learning styles, and improve learning outcomes across the board.
There was some great stuff on offer: Felix Rösch of Coventry University uses a form of dancing called Contact Improvisation in his classes to get students to not just think about IR but also feel about it–the necessity for empathy and trust on the dance floor serves as a way for students to begin reimagining the status quo of world politics). Andreas Aagaard Nøhr and Gustav Meibauer discussed a simple-but-elegant way in which Powerpoint presentations can be turned into Choose Your Own (IR) Adventure stories for students. The diplomacy-focused simulation they presented had our group weighing the pros and cons of serving Icelandic fish head stew at the diplomatic gathering that we had been tasked with virtually organizing!
There were also several presentations about ways to use games and simulations in the IR classroom, something I’m always super excited about in principle but get scared of when it comes time to put it into practice. During the talk, I started thinking about various well-known board games, and how they might be related to IR theories. Specifically, it occurred to me that IR educators might be able to take advantage of a major new trend in the board game world: the rise of cooperative board games.
For a bit of context, consider board games as existing on a spectrum from purely zero-sum games to highly cooperative games where individual victory can only be achieved via group success. Let’s illustrate with a few IR-related board games. At one end of the spectrum might be Risk, which is the board game incarnation of a quintessential winner-take-all, hyper-offensive realism (replete with “the stopping power of water“!). A bit further along the spectrum would be Diplomacy, which I would argue resembles classical realism, with real politik somewhat attenuated by alliances, private and public communication systems, and rudimentary international norms. [Diplomacy has gotten a fair amount of attention from IR educators already – here’s the take of my former colleagues Dave Bridge and Simon Radford.] The next step up might then perhaps be the well-regarded Settlers of Catan, which somewhat approximates neoliberal IR theory: we’ve moved out of the realm of outright warfare into economic competition, but relative gains still tend to outweigh absolute gains. In a great post, Mintaro Oba highlights how players often choose to modify the game’s official rules in order to make certain tactics more or less usable, and also notes how norm violators can be sanctioned by other players. So informally “modding” the game can certainly incorporate some of the key insights of constructivist IR theory.
While Settlers is a great game (I should know, I’m the reigning champ in my family!), it is not the be-all and end-all in terms of board games. One can still climb up a few rungs on our continuum and get to wholly cooperative board games like Pandemic. In Pandemic, a team of 2-4 players must work together to prevent several ferociously spreading infectious diseases from destroying humanity. While each player controls their own avatar and can take whichever actions they wish to combat the plagues, players swiftly learn that the only way in which they will prevail is if they closely coordinate, often down to the level of what means of transportation characters will use to move from one region to another. Typically, 15 minutes or more of intense group discussion may precede a single turn being taken.
In terms of mapping it onto an IR theory, Pandemic arguably showcases several of the features of “epistemic communities.” Epistemic communities are groups of technical experts in a single issue area whose power stems from their collective application of reason and expertise to a given problem. Still, though, I find that Pandemic offers a less useful vision of global politics than do some of the other games mentioned above. This is because the game completely removes power differentials and national self-interest from the gameplay. In the world of Pandemic, all parties are guided by altruism and a desire for the group as a whole to do well… or else the world ends. But recent history has shown us that even when potentially devastating global threats like Ebola/Avian Flu/H1N1 or global warming are taking place, international cooperation still occurs in an overall context of national self-interest. (Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Change Accords is a clear case in point.)
So, are cooperative games not useful in the IR classroom? What if we modified the rules of Pandemic a bit to make it resemble real world politics a bit better? For instance, the instructor could assign each player responsibility for a specific region (just like in current structure of the World Health Organization, which is organized along regional lines) and, unlike in the official version of the game, players would receive individual scores, not a single collective outcome. These individual scores would depend on whether or not the group succeeded in stopping the virus, but with points subtracted for the magnitude of the deaths in the player’s assigned region. We are now in the realm of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s stag hunt, where overall group success exists in uneasy balance with individual incentives. Done properly, our students would have a chance to gain first-hand experience with and reflect upon the wide range of social techniques societies have devised to prevent free-riding in collective action situations.
Who knows, maybe next time I get asked to teach IR 101 my students and I will see what we can get out of playing board games along the IR spectrum!