Making Simulation Games Work (by Dr. Simon Usherwood)

A guest blog by Dr. Simon Usherwood, University of Surrey (s.usherwood [at] or @Usherwood) as follow-up to the 2nd ANTERO teaching workshop, November 2016

Simulation games are great. Everyone says so. You’ve read lots of pieces saying it. And everyone can’t be wrong, right?

But then you try to do a simulation and it doesn’t seem to quite work. There’s something there, but other stuff seems to get in the way. Maybe everyone is wrong.

How to reconcile this?

The short answer is that the ‘greatness’ is often the source of the problem. The thing that most often strikes people about simulations is the excitement and the engagement that comes from taking part: participants get to be someone else, to lose themselves a bit in the role they take on. It’s great [sic]!

But the point of a simulation game is not the immersion, despite the immersion helping participants get to the point. And it’s that confusion of means and ends that is were the difficulties come in.

Like any learning environment or pedagogy, the first and most important thing is to be clear about what you are trying to achieve, your learning objectives in other words.

Thinking about simulations, there are three main objectives you might be aiming for:

  1. Most prosaically, simulations are useful for building understanding of substantive knowledge. That’s particularly true of complex phenomena, with multiple, interacting and dynamic elements: these are often hard to explore in a classic, transmission model, where you are only present one element at a time. Instead, by thrusting the participant into the middle of it all, they get a much better sense of the situation and the inter-relationships going on, which they can then being back out into their reflection and learning;
  2. Simulations are also, by their nature, great spaces for skills development. As an active learning environment, participants aren’t simply handed knowledge; they have to work for it. Depending on what you’re doing, then participants are using skills of research, synthesis, analysis, presentation and negotiation. And since you’re almost in a group, there’s a whole bunch of inter-personal skills bubbling along too;
  3. Finally, there’s another level of objectives that we might lump together under the heading of environmental development. Part of this is about encouraging personal development, most obviously self-confidence and empathy for others: taking on a role can be a powerful way to disinhibit and encourage reflection. Part of it is about building group identity: the shared experience of the participants can have lasting benefits for cohesion and future collaboration.

Of course, now I’ve just given three big things that simulations are good for, even as I ask you to pick one. The solution is that I’m not asking you to pick only one to achieve, but that you pick one as the central objective, with the other things that happen as bonuses.

This matters because if there’s not a clear primary focus to your simulation, then not only will you struggle to achieve it, but so too will your participants.

Let me illustrate.

Imagine you have the idea to run a simulation of the European Council, because you heard about this guy who did it. And it was great.

You know how the European Council works, so it’s simple, isn’t it? You just do that.

But you have now fallen into the trap of lacking a clear focus.

Maybe you’re interested in the European Council because of its role within the EU’s institutional architecture. In that case, you need to think about how you represent the other institutions.

Maybe you’re interested in it because it’s a classic two-level game, in which case you need to provide opportunity to explore the second, national level.

Maybe you’re interested in how rules of procedure shape decision-making, in which case you need to allow for full use of those rules.

Maybe you’re interested in policy outcomes, so then you might only need a simplified set-up that contains the major players on a given subject.

All of these are valid options, but they each require a different simulation design. And they require you to make choices, because simulations always require some simplification and essentialisation of the real world.

To be frank, this is a pain, but it’s a very worthwhile pain, because once you have your core idea in place, you can build on it.

Starting simple and then getting more complex and ambitious as you go is not only a good rule for simulations but for all pedagogies. Because there are no set rules about how a simulation ‘should be’, you can do as little or as much as you want and no-one can gainsay you.

So, the short version of all this is: keep it simple, keep it clear.

Do that and your simulation will be great, just like everyone else’s seem to be.

Wanted to know more? Check out our discussions during the ANTERO teaching workshop 2016 (click here), or look for other insights shared by Dr. Simon Usherwood: