Why Simulation Games?

Somewhere in the background to the ideas for Being Society lies a Netflix show called ‘The Society’, in which a group of teenagers find themselves alone and cut off in their hometown, now mysteriously stripped of adults and contact with the outside world. It’s a show that we will certainly discuss at some point on the podcast, ‘Dystopian Fiction Has Been Moved to Current Affairs’. However, what I was left wondering was whether the various teenagers I’ve taught over the years would react similarly to the American high-schoolers in the show, were they faced with such a scenario? That’s how I came upon the idea of simulation games.

Short of being able to construct a town, enclose a year-group of secondary students inside it, and leave them to it while under observation, I had to come up with an alternative. It’s therefore my classroom experience that inspired the way the game was formatted. Simulation games, even simple ones, can work very well for encouraging active learning and independent thought among students. Among the big examples I’ve helped facilitate in the past have been the model UN, business simulations, and mock elections. However, from the classroom debate to explore a challenging topic, through to role play, as a way of teaching mentoring or empathetic co-working, the simulation game and its relatives have been a useful tool throughout my career.

A group of young people in discussion around a table.

Game-playing is something that is familiar to many secondary school children, most obviously in computer and console games, though for some in board game format, as well. Some of these include a form of role-play, others strategy, others creativity. That’s not to say that there won’t be a few eye-rolls in the classroom when the teacher or facilitator presents the idea, but I still think it is beneficial to build on a form of entertainment both familiar to and popular with young people, and repurpose it for learning.

When compared to a lecture, a reading or project assignment, or a traditional lesson, a simulation game offers something distinctive. Prof Simon Usherwood explains these expertly on his website, to which I owe a good deal in the development of my own thinking in this area. He argues that simulation games embody to core ideas. Firstly, they rest on the notion that the world can be modelled using a simple set of rules to encapsulate a given situation. This is crucial to Being Society: although the post-apocalyptic context is entirely fictional, the idea of a society as a created institution subject to change is not. Usherwood’s second core idea asserts that the world is complex, uncertain, and non-linear. Therefore, human interactions may be chaotic, and as such the outcomes to a scenario may differ in ever iteration of a game. This is an equally important lesson for students to learn. There are no right answers in Being Society, although the ideas going into decision making and the outcomes of those decisions are deliberately challenged within the game in order to highlight the challenges that any society faces.

Usherwood lists three main benefits to using simulation games in the classroom, of which the first two feel particularly important. Firstly, simulation games integrate substantive knowledge about a subject with the application of that knowledge in a given situation. With Being Society, I felt that it was important that it was accessible to students from a range of backgrounds and pre-existing knowledge. Therefore, the games can be played by a group of young people whose previous interaction with the ideas is very general, and comes from living within their own society, perhaps questioning it, and possibly learning more about it through lessons such as Citizenship or PSHE. On the other hand, if the students come to the game with a deeper level of knowledge, perhaps through studying Politics, Economics, or Philosophy, then they will interact with the scenarios on a different level, and apply their learning outside of the abstract.

Secondly, Usherwood emphasizes the transferable skills that students can develop in the course of simulation games, such as in research, public speaking, negotiation, and team-work. These are all vital skills to incorporate into learning at secondary school, but are too often confined to debating or public speaking societies, rather than seen as applicable to all. Of course, Being Society can absolutely be offered within a co- or extra-curricular setting, but the point remains that these issues are open and important to everyone, because we are all citizens within our real-life societies.

My ultimate hope is that what begins in a game might transfer into life: not only are we actors within the game world, but also within our real political landscape. Maybe students who have started to think about a better society in the classroom, will apply the same level of thoughtfulness at the ballot box, in grassroots movements, in community action, or in political careers. The very fact that the games are entertaining, memorable, and fun to play, might, I hope, lodge the concepts they explore within the memories of those who play them.

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