Living Politics: Building a Semester-Long Simulation of International and Domestic Politics

30 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2013

Date Written: January 24, 2013


Students learn by doing, but convincing them to ‘do’ is not always easy. While simulations can be an excellent tool for interpreting, discussing, and experiencing political concepts and ideas, they can only be successful if they engage the classroom. This paper seeks to help scholars construct increasingly immersive, relevant, and educational simulations by developing a conceptual framework for creating and running simulations. It is organized in three parts.

First, it offers a summary of a successful semester-long simulation of political behavior taught at a small liberal arts institution to non-political science majors. This course was organized into two-week thematic Units, which were in turn broken into halves. In the first half of each Unit, students learned in a traditional setting of reading, discussion, and lecture. In the second half, lessons and ideas were applied in weeklong simulations designed by the instructor. To accomplish this, students were permanently divided into groups of five which comprised ‘countries.’ Within these countries, each student was given a specialized role designed to suit their personality, such as military commander, artisan, or leader. These positions correlated to specific tasks within each simulation, as well as specific graded work that was rolled into a portfolio due the close of class. The nature of simulations varied from week to week. Countries were asked to confront a variety of challenges, including tackling domestic tragedies of the commons, designing regimes, attempting to build IGOs, and crafting political ideologies. Simulations were linked so that the outcome of one simulation affected outcomes in another. To heighten student interest and imagination, countries were also forced to contend with an ever-growing viral outbreak that transformed populations into zombies — an accessible proxy for any number of international and domestic crises with which governments regularly contend. By the second week of the course, the classroom resembled an international community — an ideal laboratory to explore questions of ideology, rationality, and strategy. The simultaneously cooperative and competitive aspects of simulations drove students to voluntarily form working groups out of class, develop complex propaganda campaigns, and continue to simulate events via e-mail between simulation weeks. Classroom engagement was extraordinary, student satisfaction very high, and student performance on exams and written assignments superlative.

Next, drawing on analysis of this successful experience, this paper presents a framework for understanding simulation. This framework stresses four elements: accountability, artistry, immersion, and incentives. This paper argues that successful simulation construction is heavily dependent upon properly incorporating these elements into scenario design. First, to help ensure initial engagement, students must be held accountable for their participation in a concrete and measurable way. Second, instructors should recall that simulations require imagination, and that imagination is best fostered through creative artistry in scenario design. Third, simulations are most effective when they are pervasive — everything from instructions, evaluations, gameplay, and classroom etiquette should be conducted within the language of that simulation. Finally, simulation designers are advised to focus upon incentive structures embedded within simulations as a simple but important way to channel student behavior.

Finally, this paper offers perspective on four successful strategies for managing simulations: adaptability, storytelling, consequences, and managing cooperation and conflict. In order to ensure productive simulation flow, instructors must be able to adapt to classroom mood. Some suggestions are offered to help instructors gauge classroom attitudes and adapt accordingly. As simulations progress, storytelling becomes increasingly important to maintain immersion; this paper provides advice on how to convert student work and actions into a cohesive and digestible storyline that is excellent fodder for serious discussion. Further, students are most deeply engaged when they feel that their actions in the simulated world have consequences, and so this paper provides examples of methods that make students feel that their decisions have impact. Finally, this paper offers some advice about managing cooperation and conflict — which, when balanced properly, are important tools to promote engagement as well as topics of learning in themselves.

Keywords: Simulations, ongoing simulation

Suggested Citation

Cohen, Alexander, Living Politics: Building a Semester-Long Simulation of International and Domestic Politics (January 24, 2013). 2013 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Alexander Cohen (Contact Author)

Ashford University ( email )

400 North Bluff Boulevard
Clinton, IA 52732
United States

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