Case Study 3 : PeaceMaker

Chris Goldsmith and Richard Hall, De Montfort University

Up to 24 final year undergraduate students studying Politics and/or International Relations at De Montfort University can take an optional module on Ethics and International Relations in the Middle East. The interplay between ethical concerns and international politics has become more pronounced in recent years in both the theoretical and practical aspects of politics, as evidenced by the debates surrounding the UK Labour Government’s idea of making explicit an ethical dimension in foreign policy. During the module students debate and discuss issues like: the promotion of democracy in non-democratic states; global inequality; Just War theories; conflict resolution; and the politics of identity and difference.

In order to support the students’ recognition of how these theories impact in practice, they are exposed to a series of case studies on politics in the Middle East, including: the Arab-Israeli conflict; the Gulf War 1990–1991; the invasion and occupation of Iraq 2003–2008; and the rise and fall of the Oslo Peace Process. In order to underpin the pedagogy of the module, students play PeaceMaker, a commercial digital game which requires them to take on the role of either the Israeli Prime Minister or Palestinian President. Each player’s objective in the game is to achieve a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The subject teaching team have considerable experience in using simulations and role playing exercises in the teaching of politics and international relations. Drawing on the work of educationalists like John Dewey, Paulo Freire and David Kolb, the curriculum has been designed to combine experiential learning opportunities with more traditional delivery. Throughout the three years of the degree program students are regularly required to apply their knowledge and skills to real-world situations. For example, during the second year module on the Politics of the European Union students spend up to three months participating in a simulation of negotiations in the Council of Ministers. For much of this time they work together developing policy positions, responding to ‘news’ stories and conducting pre-meeting talks via the virtual learning environment. The simulation concludes with a day long negotiation session where the delegations meet face-to-face. Students gain an in-depth appreciation of the dynamics of EU negotiations as well as developing their negotiation, public speaking and listening skills.

Consequently when we came to designing the Ethics and International Relations in the Middle East module, the question of including a further simulation element was at the forefront of our minds. However, there was some reticence to try this due to the highly charged nature of the subject matter. Students tend to be passionate advocates for one side or the other on the Israeli-Palestinian question, which can lead to confrontation in the classroom. Therefore, key learning outcomes for the learners were to appreciate the complexity of the issues that are faced in the region, to raise their awareness of how those issues are perceived differently by both sides and to develop some understanding of the challenges of the process of conflict resolution. The challenge was how to enable students to do this in an inclusive and scholarly way rather than remaining entrenched in their pre-conceived political positions. An approach to active learning within collaborative settings, focused around real-time decision-making was crucial. The PeaceMaker game offered a potential way to achieve this, as students could experience the peace process from both sides of the conflict in a controlled manner. This provided an opportunity that would be much more complex and time-consuming in a more traditional simulation.

The teaching team’s awareness of using digital games in teaching had been raised by workshops that focused discussion on game playing as a means of engaging students. It took a full year to develop a pedagogic rationale for games-based approaches, that would focus upon how digital and non-digital games might be integrated and delivered. The work of Weir and Baranowski (2008) on using the commercial game Civilization in introductory International Relations classes was insightful in highlighting the practice-based design issues.

The first of these was the critical importance of narrative frameworks and providing students with a context for the game before playing it. This would inform the timescale for the game and what the team would expect the students to learn from it. If students had already received lectures on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Middle East Peace Process before they played the game, it was possible that they might treat the game play more as a re-enactment than an experience. Part of the pleasure of playing is experimentation without fear of punishment (or in this case of being wrong, making poor decisions or failure to resolve conflict). If the student had a sense that they were behaving ahistorically, they might feel constrained in their in-game choices. However, playing the game without some prior briefing of the issues might mean that players found it hard to understand the meaning of their actions. Within the game there is a historical timeline that provides a basic overview of the development of the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Students who used it during a trial session found it useful, but others had not even noticed that the option was available. The team chose to use the game before the students had had specific inputs about the Middle East peace process, but they were clearly advised in their instruction to consult the timeline before beginning the game.

Secondly, we had to consider how we were going to structure the actual gaming sessions. Although PeaceMaker cost less than £10 at the time due to the favorable exchange rate, we did not believe that students would pay that much to install the game on their own computers. As a consequence we installed the game on ten computers in a Humanities Faculty Computing Lab. This had the advantage of easily available technical support if anything went wrong, alongside the ability to monitor progress and deal with student queries. However, these rooms are heavily booked throughout the week, so dedicated gaming sessions had to be short, up to one hour in duration, and this impacted on the students’ sense of engagement. In addition, there were problems in resuming saved games due to the configuration of machines over the network.

The teaching team had to design gaming sessions to get the most out of an hour’s play. Students were asked to play in pairs: one to do the onscreen work; the other to take notes about options that they had chosen, rationale for their approach and impressions gained from play. In the game it is quite possible to resolve the issues within an hour (at least on the easy level), but even if they did not succeed in completing a game, they could record their score. The students were then asked to play the game in a second session, taking the role of the other, Israeli or Palestinian, leader.

A central issue for the team to consider was how to assess the PeaceMaker experience. Simulations have been used as a form of real-time assessment in the past. For example, the EU Council of Ministers simulation, which occurs at level two, forms 30% of the module assessment, based upon a substantial number of individual and group outputs that can be assessed. This simulation has the following elements:

  • a day long assessment , where students are split into groups and asked to devise a negotiating strategy for a series of discussions around a contemporary theme of European integration;
  • simulated discussions have included the draft EU Constitution, negotiations on Croatian and Turkish accession to the Union, and debates on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy;
  • the module web site is used to set up and prepare each group’s strategy, and enables each delegate to post a report on a particular aspect of their group’s overall strategy. These are accessible by members of other delegations, and enable students to identify potential negotiating partners or barriers to agreement;
  • the reports reflect the permanent representative stage of European Union policy negotiations and form 15% of the overall simulation grade, and submission is an entry criterion to the group marks awarded on the day of the simulation itself. The remaining 85% is based on group performance.

For the PeaceMaker simulation the learning outcomes focus upon developing a broader appreciation of Middle East politics and a deeper understanding of the complexities of conflict resolution. Therefore, the team decided not to tie a piece of assessed coursework to the game directly, but to use it for formative evaluation.

Students were asked to reflect on a series of questions and post their reflections within an online learning journal on the Virtual Learning Environment, because that was software with which they were familiar. At level three, developing a reflective approach is central as learners move towards independent study and autonomy. The reflections in the logs provide further evidence for students as they prepared for both assessed seminar presentations and a second essay which specifically focuses upon issues that impact decisions made in PeaceMaker, namely: the promotion of democracy in non-democratic states; global inequality; Just War theories; conflict resolution; and the politics of identity and difference. Some students dealt with their relative success or failure as peacemakers, some with what they learnt about the issues, and others about their feelings about the game. These specific examples of reflection and personal learning through decision-making were then discussed in seminars, and focused within a discussion forum where students had to post a maximum 250 word synopsis.

Feedback showed that the game proved particularly useful in the way that students gained a deeper appreciation of the asymmetries of the specific problem. The strategies that work playing the game as the Israeli Prime Minister are completely impractical when you are Palestinian President, so they began to understand the different pressures on the two sides. Students also demonstrated emotional responses to the game, for example anger at terrorist acts or Israeli incursions or frustration at the seeming intractability of the problems. This enabled them to gain added insights into the conflict resolution process. These reflections were then built upon by some students in coursework essays on the subject. Finally some students critiqued the assumptions about the Middle East that were built into the game, particularly the stress on a two state solution.

Overall, using PeaceMaker was a very positive experience for staff and students. Students generally enjoyed playing the game, although some hardened gamers were rather scathing about the graphics, and they certainly appreciated the insights that they gained from looking at the process from both sides. The staff team felt that later discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian problem had been more considered than was previously the case. While student positions on the key issues had not greatly changed, there was more appreciation of the complexity and intractable nature of the problem. This was clearly reflected in coursework on the topic, which was much less polemical than in previous years. The team is now preparing for another run of PeaceMaker and looking at the possibility of working digital games into other modules in the curriculum where appropriate.


Tips

  • You do not have to reinvent the wheel. There may be an off-the-shelf product that you can use or modify to achieve your learning outcomes. It is often a case of how you frame the activity, in the context of reflective learning and personal ownership of the narrative and processes within a gaming situation.
  • De-briefing players is crucial. You need to give students questions to reflect on immediately after the gaming session, which are linked into whole-class o small-group sessions. Specific debriefing sessions connected to written assignments help to focus student evaluation of decision-making and actions.
  • You do not always need to tie the game directly to summative assessment. However, activities should be designed to capture formative experiences, and these should be linked explicitly to summative assessment. For instance, learning journals that demonstrate reflection and application of theory to practice help empower students to take ownership of their learning.