I have always been a huge fan of games since I was younger. Whether it was a card game, a board game, a video game, a role-playing game, miniature gaming, or even live-action roleplaying, I was doing it. Even as a 40 year old graduate student, I still meet with friends once a week for a gaming night. It is something I always felt connected to and helped me form connections with others. The genre of games doesn’t matter either. It can be fantasy, science-fiction, or historically based. One of my all-time favorites that I experienced early on in school is historical wargaming. I remember playing a game of Axis and Allies during my lunch breaks with some classmates while we learned about World War II history. The game took almost the entire school year to complete. During my undergraduate, I worked at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA. The educational department at the museum used wargaming to help teach history to school groups that would visit the museum year-round. The following comes from their website:

Wargaming has been around for a very long time. The game of chess is a simple form of wargame, first devised in India long ago. Risk and Battleship are other simple wargames. In historical wargaming, participants work with either historical battles, or historical armies in hypothetical situations. In modern wargaming, a battle typically has two applications. In its first (professional military) use, military forces attempt to model hypothetical battles that might, but have not yet, occurred. Often known as simulations, wargames of this type help real military commanders understand potential problems before actual men and material are deployed. In the second (civilian hobby) form of wargaming, real or hypothetical battles from the past are recreated. Participants discover what could have, or did, occur — and why. Participants learn what could have been done differently to change outcomes. Learning from the past can help prevent mistakes in the present. They also have fun, and build friendships, while learning! The National WWII Museum focuses on board or miniatures games, rather than electronic wargames. We do this for several reasons listed below.

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Development of social skills.

Board and miniature wargame players sit across from each other. They see each other and directly interact. Large games involving teams promotes team building, management skills and resource management in a cooperative environment. In recreating difficult military situations, players vicariously gain glory in victory, or suffer dismal defeat in the social setting of the group. As they do so, they develop real human friendships. Game friendships, formed through sharing the hobby, can last a lifetime. Unless playing with someone in the next chair through a shared network, electronic games only provide a limited comradeship through disembodied voices, though possibly from across the globe.

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Development of critical and strategic thinking.

In most board and miniatures games, as in life, players must generate a workable strategic plan to be successful. Games encourage consideration of future challenges, and the best responses, before those challenges occur. In many electronic games, advance planning may not be feasible, as game challenges may remain unknown — and the mission may only involve a body count.

Game scales and probability can be misrepresented in electronic games. Board and miniatures games generally let you know — in advance — the probability of various occurrences in the wargame and put the probability in your hand in the form of dice. Math skills are reinforced by the player’s personal game calculations. This makes the board or miniatures wargame a better historical educational tool. In electronic gaming, computers handle all calculations and probability is located in the device’s random number generator. The player has no idea how easy or hard a function is, unless they reboot to play multiple sessions.

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Electronic first-person shooter games often immerse the player in an exciting, ongoing environment, but single person e-games often provide little understanding of the risks involved beyond the player’s role. The role of leadership can be misconstrued. However, it is true that electronic first-person shooter games more accurately portray the often horrific violence of war. This is abstracted in board and miniatures games, but those do a better job of educating players as to the larger scope of battle. This debate has informed The National WWII Museum’s educational wargame choices; as an institution, we hope to introduce youth to a critical time in world history. We also recognize the desire to involve parents in gaming.

All wargames sacrifice realism for playability, the question is how much — and whether it is acknowledged by the game developers. If a gameplay situation seems questionable in light of reality, it probably is. Learn more and come to your own determination about the accuracy of that game and the reality of that battle.

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Development of creativity.

In miniature games, hobbyists often research the military units they are using, and often try to replicate the paint scheme of the real military unit. They must also analyze (and, in miniature games, build) the map, the roads, hills and other historical terrain fought over. Books, magazines, multimedia and interviews are all used in the discovery process. This process requires patience and creativity — and makes for a better learning experience. It also provides a more complete, and thus more interesting, panoramic overview of the battlefield. Electronic games are constrained by the scenarios and responses programmed into them, thus they generally offer low replay value. Board and miniatures games played against human opponents allow for the creative flexibility of the human mind.

In March 2016, I was in Atlanta, GA for the International Studies Association Conference. I was there to present and to listen to others present research in my field. My mentor and I had just finished lunch when he told me that he had a meeting to get to. I responded that I would see him at the next session we were both planning on going to when he told me that he wanted me to accompany him to his meeting. At that moment, I had no clue that my life as an instructor and the way I taught world politics was about to change.

My mentor and I met the CEO and co-founder of an online simulation called Statecraft. In the world of Statecraft students take the reins of power, becoming presidents, kings, military dictators, Secretaries of State and Defense, intelligence chiefs, and political advisers (among other roles). They are free to use their country’s diplomatic, economic, and military resources to build or to destroy, to work for the betterment of all countries or to focus on maximizing their own country’s wealth, power, and quality of life.

Statecraft has been designed to replicate core dynamics of world politics, so students will face the same challenges, opportunities, and tradeoffs that real world leaders confront every day. In so doing they will gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of world politics and gain insight into a host of critical concepts, theories, and real world cases.

I was excited to begin using Statecraft in my Introduction to World Politics course. I saw the potential for using the simulation to teach concepts in the course. It would either reinforce material that was already taught or allow me to foresee future concepts that needed to be taught sooner rather than later because of what was occurring in the simulation. The simulation is fully automated so the instructor does not need to spend much time preparing for the simulation. The instructor is also asked not to be directly involved in the simulation but to be merely an observer.

I knew ahead of time that  the Summer I semester was only 6 weeks long and the simulation usually takes 7-10 turns to work well. If I were to do 7-10 turns, that meant that the turn periods would have to be short (3-4 days) instead of the typical week per turn model. The other foreseeable issues were: 1) getting the students to stick with a timetable for the simulation that required a quick turnaround, 2) getting the students to submit memos regarding their actions in the simulation on time due to the quick turnaround, and 3) getting the students to read the Statecraft student manual, take the Statecraft manual quizzes, and take the Foreign Policy Attitude Test (this sorts the students into their respective countries) before the simulation went “live.” I was also concerned about the final paper I would assign my students that said,

“Suppose that as a political scientist you were interested in explaining precisely why things unfolded the way they did in your Statecraft world (wars, international agreements, alliances, etc.). How much importance would you attach to each of the factors of geography, starting resources, individual leaders’ personalities and beliefs, foreign policy beliefs, domestic faction demands, the United nations and other international governmental organizations, regime types and attributes, the structure of the international system, norma, and any other factors as causal forces driving these events? Explain why. Conclude by discussing whether or not these factors’ importance in Statecraft accurately reflects their real world importance, and why.”

I first used the simulation in an online version of the course during the 2016 Summer I semester. There were no attacks by one country to another. Although, there was a “United States” like country that threatened to attack other countries if they did not destroy the terrorists within their borders. Overall, the actions in the simulation resulted in peace amongst the countries by the end of the simulation. The students enjoyed the simulation and their biggest complaint was that they wanted more time to play the simulation. There was also some criticism by students that I was not “hands-on” within the simulation and that I referred them to the manual too often instead of outright answering their questions about the simulation. My response, in my head and not to my students, is that I cannot hold their hand in life and in this simulation. They have to make all of the decisions in the simulation and deal with the repercussions of those decisions just like any leader in the actual world. A majority of the students only viewed Statecraft as a game and did not see the learning that was embedded within it. I also think these same students thought that a summer online course would not be as rigorous as one taught in the fall and spring.

I used the simulation again during the 2016 Fall semester. This time, the students had similar yet different reactions. During the Thanksgiving break, one of the countries, Nukehavistan, (that had decided to be a pacifist country when they set up their country attributes) attacked Westeros without provocation. When other students asked why Nukehavistan did this, their leader stated that he played computer games similar to Statecraft and that he was a master of said games and that he was pretty much bored and knew that this would help him “win” the game. Again, some students only saw this as a game and did not see the inherent learning within Statecraft. The attack angered the rest of the countries in the simulation and by the last turn of the semester, nuclear weapons had been launched against Nukehavistan by Nettopolis. All of the students that saw the benefit of using the simulation stated that it made my class one of their favorite classes that semester and during their entire time at Virginia Tech up to that point. I will teach the Introduction to World Politics course again during the 2017 Summer I semester and I plan to use Statecraft again. I am just trying to see how I can make my students’ online experience better, so I am open to any suggestions.

During the last turn of the Fall 2016 simulation, Nettopolis deployed nuclear weapons against Nukehavistan.