12 March 2013

Survival: Using simulations to understand world politics #gbl

We ran SURVIVAL in class today. Four teams of three to four students, without cell phones or other technology, had no less than 30 minutes to read through the scenario description and reach consensus as to ranking 12 items that survived their mid-winter plane crash in the wilds of northern Canada. Granted, it was a little unfair to ask the students to consider what minus 25 degres feels like when it was  70 and clear this morning on campus this morning:

Weather aside, getting the students outside was only one of the many highlights of this simulation. First, its easy to facilitate. Students found themselves working wherever they wanted, trying to cooperate in a crisis situation. As we discussed in the debrief-the second benefit of this simulation, the debrief always goes longer than the sim itself-there are an infinite number of ways to run this simulation. I actually could give the students the preferred ranking of their items-lighter, steel wool, compass, axe, and the rest-and it still would be challenging. This brings up the third, and for me, the most beneficial aspect of the SURVIVAL simulation; it's not about wilderness survival. 



When teaching students about politics, you should always address the concepts of power and interests (of agents) in the context of a given political structure. Regardless of the theoretical or epistemological underpinnings of your approach to world politics, actors do not operate in a fictional state of nature; There is a power and social structure of rules and practices to all human activities. Actors-be they governments, IOs, NGOs, or any variety of other non-state actor-have interests. We can debate the nature of these interests, the degree to which they are socially constructed or not, but these interests and preferences do matter as to the way actors make decisions. Of course, every actor also has different sets of power-however you seek to define it-and this power may vary from context to context. Put another way, actors have a willingness and opportunity (channeling Siverson and Starr, 1990) to participate in what Bull (1977) accurately described as an anarchical society

I tend to operate from a fairly game-theoretical perspective in our class; I actually introduce game theory via Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's TED Talk. While we don't engage in formal modeling in our class, we do spend so much time playing, simulating, and participating in negotiation that we are always thinking about, experimenting with, and reflecting upon the ways in which we define our interests and use our power in a social context. The SURVIVAL simulation creates a social context for students that is unfamiliar. Students experience a different and stressful context where they have to be able to clearly define realities, rules, and other actors fairly quickly. The second aspect of the simulation is for students to overtly identify what their interests are (in this case, it is survival, which means staying warm and getting rescued), see if others in their situation have made similar choices, and assess the degree to which these interests align. If students have correctly understood the structure in which they find themselves (many often don't; the feel that they can walk out 20 miles in sub-zero weather with a map and a compass or ignore the fact that plane's have published flight plans and that help will be on the way) and they can clearly articulate their interests or themselves, then they can participate in negotiation and decision-making exercises about how to prioritize scarce resources in a crisis. Again, the SURVIVAL simulation is not at all about wilderness survival. It's a great way to play with decision making strategies, serve as an ice breaker for groups and teams, and (in our case) launch a new round of Model United Nations preparations for our Security Council simulations in early April.