20 March 2014

Playing Fearon's Rationalist Explanation for War in IB Global Politics

Today's class marked the real kickoff of our study of armed conflict. Students had pre-reading earlier in the week on both a textbook overview of the discipline (Kegley, C. W., & Raymond, G. A. (2012). Patterns of armed conflict. In The global future: a brief introduction to world politics (5th ed., pp. 172-196). Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning) and a more contemporary survey of issues (Hewitt, J. J., Wilkenfeld, J., & Gurr, T. R. (2012). Peace and conflict 2012 (Rep.). Retrieved We used these readings as a frame for both watching the introductory video on Armed Conflict from the Council on Foreign Relations' Global Governance Monitor as well as a general discussion on the subject. Once this was complete, moved on to the heart of today's classwork; understanding how states or other actors choose to go to war. 

Our gameplay was centered on a simple puzzle; if wars are costly, then why do states (or other actors) fight? Using a deck of cards, some poker chips, and the chance of victory and glory (ironically, I didn't have to incentivize this game with candy or coffee), students played Allendoerfer's game, Fearon's Rational Theory of War. The game is brilliant in its simplicity; students have one card (2-10, kept hidden from others) which serves as their material capabilities. Each student's task then is to operate in and pursue their interests in an anarchic environment; albeit in a very safe classroom. 10 poker chips serve as a set of resources, or interests, or any "wants" that the students may have. Dyadic pairs of students then negotiate about how to divide the 10 chips at their table. If they can reach an agreement, they divide the chips, the iteration ends, and then two new pairs play. If however, two players cannot agree on how to divide the chips, they "go to war" by turning the cards over. The player with the higher card then has the capacity to decide how to divide the pot of chips. This parsimonious version of Fearon's Rational Theory of War can lead to all sorts of variants and extensions, depending on the dynamics of the class. As the students in Year 1 have become fairly adept at modifying game mechanics during play. This took the form of everything from weighting the value of the chips, moving to multi-party negotiations, alliance formation and balance of power, to post-war negotiations over the spoils of war.





Our debrief reviewed Fearon's assumptions, premises, and conclusions as to why states, and by extension other actors, can rationally choose to go to war. Students found that their experiences aligned with the basic expected utility for war; Pa-Ca and (1-Pa)-Cb. Perhaps more importantly, the students made connections between Fearon's conclusions that rational states can fail to reach a bargain and go to war when information about capabilities remains private (uncertain) and issues of credibility between two actors and their own experiences in the gameplay.

I will say that 50 minutes is not enough time to run this game properly. Next year, I will set aside a full 90 minutes to run this game; especially since I want to have the students track their wins and losses, calculate their expected utility for going to war, as well as debrief more formally around Fearon's model for peace: Pa-Ca < X < Pa + Cb

As a matter of extension, students were invited to read both Fearon, J. D. (1995). Rationalist explanations for war. International Organization, 49(03), 379-414. Retrieved from as well as a summary of the article,
Lam, P. (2007). Summary: Fearon's rationalist explanations for war. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from While these are optional readings, I fully expect that more than a few of the 24 students in IB Glopo HL1 will read one or both of these in the coming days.

Special thanks to both Dr. Michelle Allendoerfer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Women’s Leadership Program (, George Washington University and the fine folks who run the Active Learning in Political Science blog for posting and sharing this game earlier this year.