Simulation-games? Not as simple as you thought. If you teach mediation, negotiation or other related topics, you’re going to want to read this.


Sometimes, conducting research leads you to unexpected discoveries.

That would be my one-line summary of the experiences leading up to the publication of Games, Claims and New Frames: Rethinking the Use of Simulation in N..., an article I recently coauthored with Dan Druckman, which appeared in the latest volume of Negotiation Journal.

In 2008, Dan and I set out to explore an issue that had tickled each of us – separately – for a long time:

Teaching with experiential activities, and in particular simulation-games and role-plays, has gained widespread acceptance amongst teachers, from pre-school to higher education. What was once an innovative, somewhat kooky approach to teaching social sciences in the 1960s has now become a mainstream method with supporters in every academic field from mathematics to language study.

In particular, use of simulations has been widely accepted (to the point of rarely being questioned), by the negotiation and conflict resolution community. The assumption is, simply, that students participating in simulation-games learn a lot about negotiation.  

While designing simulations to implement this pedagogical approach, though, we always felt as if we were learning a great deal about negotiation through the process of design itself. Might assigning students a task of simulation design be a worthwhile learning exercise in its own self?

We decided to compare learning through simulation-design, to the currently reigning king of the classroom – participating in negotiation role plays. Our choosing this method for comparison is in itself a sign of the reputation enjoyed by role-playing. Dan and I – both avid users of role-play in our own negotiation courses – wanted to compare our new idea to the leading alternate method.

Given that this was our baseline, our surprise, and our learning, commenced with the literature review we conducted on the efficacy of role-playing for learning. Games, Claims and New Frames provides a meta-meta –review of the literature – a review of other reviews which summarized the findings from hundreds of individual experiments (anyone looking to write on simulations should really take a look at this; it will save you a lot of work as you go about your lit review J ). We were surprised to discover that participation in simulation has not been proved to deliver the full package of goods teachers of negotiation have come to expect from them (Games, Claims and New Frames also provides a detail of this rather extensive pedagogical shopping list). In fact, it enjoys no benefit over other classroom methods (such as hearing a lecture) in terms of “How much do students learn regarding the concepts being taught?”, and its main advantage is in the realm of student motivation. Students, as a rule, enjoy role-playing, want to do it more often, feel connected to the class through them, and so on. All teachers know that – and research bears it out.  However – a negotiation course is not a popularity contest. Enhancing student motivation is one important pedagogical aim – but teachers need to carefully choose methods which satisfy other aims, as well. Simulation needs to be used so as to take advantage of its benefits – and in conjunction with other methods which deliver other goods.

So, even as Dan and I were exploring the use of our own new method, we had to rethink larger issues in our own pedagogy to account for the limited benefits to be gained with the simulations we regularly used. Didn’t see that one coming!

Over the past five years, Dan and I have engaged in this process of developing the simulation-design method and considering best uses for ‘old-school’ simulations to replace the more conventional ‘just use it as a catch-all for teaching’. Meanwhile, other strains of critique have been leveled at role-play. Role-play can lead teachers and classes into murky waters for cultural reasons, according to one train of thought. According to another, simulations only enjoy limited usefulness as, for reasons rooted in the science of linguistics and conversational analysis, it can never prepare you for an actual conversations. Games, Claims and New Frames summarizes these lines of critique.

The simulation pot is certainly bubbling, in practice and in academia. Building on our work and observations over the past five years, Games, Claims and New Frames goes on to describe three trains of thought developing from this rethinking of the use of role play: Decreasing use of role-play (and developing new teaching methods), improving use of role-play, and use of role-play in new innovative ways.

What of asking students to write simulations themselves? This falls under the third category. We conducted several rounds of experiments aimed at exploring this notion – with some very surprising findings. If you’re into the juxtaposition between negotiation teaching, simulation-games and social science research (two out of three is enough) you might want to take a look at Onstage, or Behind the Scenes - our article in Simulation and Gaming describing the experiments we conducted (including all the number-crunching and data analysis). However, Games, Claims and New Frames provides the bottom lines of what we discovered.

It’s an exciting time to be into simulations! Dan and I were adding this-just-in material to the article right up to the moment we finalized the text, and I’ve already heard of another three articles dealing with the topic currently in the pipelines for publication. Watch this spot, and I’ll share them when they’re out!


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