Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Active Learning Component using Bloody Big Battles

This semester I am teaching IR 311: War beyond Europe. The course has two goals

1) to familiarize students with 4 key wars that took place in parts of he world outside Europe. These were the War of the Triple Alliance and the War of the Pacific in Latin America, the 1st Sino-Japanese War, and the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.

2) it is a writing intensive course with the goal of imparting to the students the basics of good academic writing (largely based on what I learned in the Little Red Schoolhouse in the University of Chicago).

As part of the course, and in service of goal (1), I had the students participate in one of two active learning components. These were representations of key battles in the War of the Triple Alliance, and the War of the Pacific, Tuyuti and Tacna respectively. I used the rules system Bloody Big Battles, which has been used in other institutions of learning for pedagogical purposes. The system is for historical battles with miniatures (though one can use counters and 2d maps), in the vein of H.G. Wells "Little Wars", though much more sophisticated.

The Tuyuti Scenario Group

The goal of the active learning component was to i) get the students a bit more motivated about the history of this conflicts ii) hopefully hammer in the point that war is a truly costly gamble, were luck plays such an important role, that it is not a gamble worth taking most of the time. Especially since alternatives do exist. The idea is that the students will then write response papers about what they learned from the scenarios. Ideally the games would see me breaking the flow in order to ask questions or make some relevant class point.

But part of teaching is experimenting, and part of experimenting is finding problems. There were three points I came out from:

 1) The Tacna active learning component worked well, primarily because of the straightforward character of the scenario. The Tuyuti component bogged down and frustrated students. Considering the time constraints of class (2 hours and 50 minutes) and preparation time (30 minutes), it is better to prefer straightforward scenarios to more complicated ones. This includes things like terrain, and figure requirements. Consequently expect if you are able set up special sessions, if you are using class time the preference should be for shorter (training) scenarios from the Bloody Big Battles rulebook.

2) It is preferable to have multiple sessions with a few students, than 1-2 large sessions. Tacna saw a group of 5 students participate, while Tuyuti had 12. The 12 was not manageable. It seems like 5-6 is the good number for this type of games, so two to four active learning components per class should work.

3) While you do not need to have the students learn the rules (the professor umpires, and BBB works well will like that), it is useful to prepare some simple explanations of formations, tactics etc. One must also think of it as a class activity, which means preparing intervention points to maximize learning. Thus next time I must do much more preparation work (the combination of political events in Turkey, and just general fatigue for both students and professors did take its toll. As a  result in many ways I used this more as a break and frivolous escape for students then to its full teaching potential).

What about the affect of war-gaming on the attitude of the students towards conflict, and also gender stereotypes? The students participating in my class (and in my previous Military Strategy Class) run the gamut of majors (from STEM to Social Sciences). They also are diverse in their exposure to the cultures of ritualized or regulated violence in modern society (whether computer or other types of game, or through sports team support). Some are more and some are less (a minority have also been directly exposed to actual state violence or the consequences of actual state violence). Finally while the majority belong to the most "westernized" part of the Turkish society, and thus the part more exposed to varieties of feminism, gendered stereotypes did inform the behavior of some of the students towards each other, necessitating intervention (I want to be clear here and say that I am not the most skilled or aware person on this issues, so I have no idea if I intervened the correct way or if the interventions worked).

That said my experience from IR 311, and a bit of the talks I had after these games, does indicate that war-gaming as an education, even in this crude form that I am capable of right now, does lead students to reconsider some points on the use of violence as a political tool. Obviously the use of teams per sides also helps with exposing them to the problems of coordination and cooperation. Thus the krenel of a great education experience is there, I just need to work more on getting it out.

I will definitely use BBB for active learning components again in my courses, as long as the theme of the course can gain from it. And I will definitely teach IR 311. This time with an expansion to the coverage of both Strategies of Violent and Non-Violent Political Struggle. Any ideas for games that can help students understand elements of the dynamics of political conflicts the feature non-violent resistance would be more than welcome.

Furthermore I would like to point out the ideological diversity  in potential war-games. The group of scholars associated with the Class Wargames Project have been for years working on war-games which have the goals of exposing students to radical politics and conflicts which have seen radical social change. The goal is to introduce them to the dynamics of subversion. While my politics are definitely not fully in sync with theirs, the material they have produced is definitely worth looking in, and I am confident at least one of their games will make into my courses as an alternative to my more "conservative" war-games based active learning components.

Finally take a look at the blog PAXsims for more ideas and discussions on these matters.

Pictures and short video from the active learning components 

The Tacna group

The layout of the Battle of Tacna

The student in action.

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