Ludic Gatekeepers and the Unclear Simulation

15 minute read


In early 2014, I began to lay the groundwork for a simulation meant to train crisis management personnel on the growing impact of social media during response efforts. Later, this work would make its way into a proposal submitted on behalf of the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) meant to do just that. Our proposal outlined the need and benefit of a simulation that was created to be engaged in-person, was low fidelity, low technology, and meant for for resource strapped crisis management services in rural portions of the European Union. Simulations like these are invaluable for all manner of training.

As I worked my way through the sizable chunk of literature devoted to simulation, I spoke about my work to Ed Webb. I was curious what he had to say since simulation as a tool in political science was still very much a learning tool. He informed me that he had had a hand in designing a simulation that included the country of Syria and several of its neighbors.

The purpose of the simulation that was to be held in Carlisle, PA was to get military and civilian students from different majors and branches of the military to engage a political crisis together, in opposite roles. In addition to military as civilians and civilians as military, the simulation would feature high-level advisers who had intimate knowledge of the U.S. government duties the simulation would ask its participants to perform.

At the welcome dinner, Ed took the podium and began to talk about what was going to happen during the simulation. He mentioned, rather emphatically, that he viewed himself as a Dungeon Master. I was somewhat shocked that Ed had approached this simulation as one would approach a large-scale game of Dungeons and Dragons. However, as I looked around the room to gauge how people felt about this admission, it seemed that the gravity of this concept had gone over most of the room’s head. After dinner and the initial socialization period for participants, I walked back to the hotel wondering how things would pan out.

Dungeon Masters and Role-play
The term Dungeon Master comes from a variety of games that task a group of people to become characters in a story given a set of rules. A simple reference to make here is the Lord of the Rings. Imagine that players assemble around the table. One player plays as Frodo Baggins; another player takes the role of Legolas whereas others may take on the role of Aragorn and Gimli. With the players set, there is also a need for someone to essentially become Middle Earth itself. That player, the one playing as the world the characters live in is commonly referred to as a Dungeon Master, Lore Master, Game Controller, or Information Provider.

These games (e.g. Traveler, Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, and thousands more) came to prominence throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The designers of games like Dungeons & Dragons or Tunnels & Trolls wanted to create a system of rules through which individual characters (instead of military units) could take actions by themselves. As the war game industry began to collapse under its own weight due to surplus production, the role-playing industry began to thrive as the 1980s began.

These role-playing games were different from their war gaming counterparts. War games place the player as a commander of a battlefield filled with military units. In a role-playing game, players take on the role of a single character (aside from the Dungeon Master). Most interesting, was the dissection of the player from their character. It was here that a relationship formed - that of the avatar and its player. In early iterations of games like Dungeons and Dragons, players reportedly played as themselves in these games. However, this moved to the creation of a character as it seemed as though players who are playing as themselves do not feel any tension because if they die in-game, they are still there in real life (Shick, 1991).

Over time, these types of games have gained a foothold in popular culture. More importantly for the purposes of this report, these games have also entered the world of education. After all, the concept of dissecting one’s self from their individuality fosters empathy through playing as someone else. In addition, exploration of the space those other characters, sometimes referred to as avatars, exist in can be valuable for teaching.

Simulations and Education
In education, the role-playing game has been labeled as the simulation or the role-play (Ebner & Kovach, 2011). In addition, they are also given the label of experiental education-based simulations. Experiment-based education simulations allow players to consider other perspectives than their own as well as experience how their own positions may have to act given unique situations. These types of games are most often deployed in cases like the one Ed was part of – international negotiation.
Alexander and LeBaron (2009) – have begun to outline many of the goals that the international simulation pursues. These include:

  • Specific ideas about a lot of topics.
  • How various strategies can be used and their cultural capital cost.
  • How competition and collaboration can work in situations like these. 
  • Fostering Communication and problem solving
  • Critical Reflection

Many of these skills are difficult to teach directly so the role-play allows students to take on the role of a specific individual in a specific situation. Through the help of the role-playing game and the concept of the Dungeon Master, students can be taught the unteachable aspects of international negotiation.

At the beginning of the simulation about Syria, the students organized into their particular branches (e.g. White House, Department of Defense, etc). At these meetings, I saw students wrestling not only with their own stereotypically held beliefs about their own positions and their particular office. In addition, I saw the players wrestling (and in most cases resolving) their stereotypical beliefs about their opposites (civilian vs military). It would seem that within the first hour, the simulation had already provided significant insight for the players.

The Simulation Begins
Before the official first day of the simulation, the character of the various departments involved with this crisis had already made itself known. The radically short socialization period of each particular branch had become characterized by the so-called ludic gatekeeper or adviser of each department. For example, the participants of various departments immediately started to wrestle with trying to gain control of the crisis response because their adviser essentially told them that they should.

With the help of the ludic gatekeepers, each portion of the various departments were clearly defined. Cultural capital immediately started being sought out. How would each department come to pursue its own agenda? What sorts of compromises would have to be made? What did they have to trade? By the beginning of Day 2 – at the War College itself – all of the players were in their roles and all of the individual groups of players understood what they were supposed to do. The game’s boundaries had disappeared.

As an observer, I made a point to spend time in the controller’s office quite a bit. I placed myself here so I could listen to the discussions the various advisers had with Ed and his co-game master but also so I could hear what Ed had in store for the players.

Whereas a traditional simulation or traditional role-play would look like this:

With the various players circulating knowledge among themselves all the while being filtered and partially controlled by the Dungeon Master, this role-play was structured like this:

The additional layer between the world and the players is perhaps the most significant contributor to the eventual success of the simulation itself. The advisers, themselves playing a role that they had actually held, served as holders of knowledge. It was as if each member of each of the acting groups of this particular simulation had an avatar of that group’s norms and values.

Perhaps more interesting than the role of the advisers are the Dungeon Masters themselves. By filtering all data out through the adviser, by remaining hidden, the “game” portion of this simulation (aka the fact that it wasn’t real) was diminished. Even though the players know that Ed and the control room are handling all the communication, they can only see that control coming from the advisers themselves.

It was difficult to point this out if one was to simply sit in the individual rooms and observe. However, during each confab, whereupon everyone gathered to discuss their findings and plans, the socialization into the various roles the players had been placed into was very apparent.

As the simulation entered day 2, I began to see these entities start to gain life of their own (the players surrendered to the game). I began to take trips to the bathrooms on each floor and sit there for some time trying to observe special deals being made. It was here that I began to hear the participants of the simulations make secret deals and negotiate certain decisions outside of the official channels. The simulation had become so powerful that cheating or unofficial discussions were now being made within the simulation itself.

The ludic gatekeepers, the advisers, had essentially, at this point, socialized the participants fully into the game. The players’ detachment from the Game Masters fostered a sense of individuality and group cohesion in ways that I do not think could have been anticipated or planned for. When the Simulation ended, one thing that stood out was how powerful the participants coming face to face with their preconceptions was.

During the simulation debrief, a concept about how either side of this simulation (military or civilian) were surprised at the demeanor of the other. On the one hand, the civilians were somewhat amazed that the military practitioners didn’t want to send war assets into an area. On the other, the military personnel were surprised that the civilians were more apt to send the military.

Preparation and Rules
Something interesting shows up when one looks at the results of the post-simulation survey. The results looked like this:

  • Q1: How much time did you spend preparing?
  • Q2: How useful were the background materials?
  • Q5: Did your team work well together?
  • Q6: how would you rate your understanding of the rules?
  • Q7: Rate the quality of your individual participation
  • Q8: Rate the effectiveness of the large group summits.
  • Q9 How useful were the team sessions?
  • Q10: How satisfied were you overall?

Q1 and Q2 engaged preparation. On average, we can say that participants prepared for this simulation anywhere between 1 and 5 hours and found the materials they received at least a little useful. This information is unsurprising. What is surprising is Question 6 and Question 10.

Q6 was worded, “How would you rate your understanding of the rules for this Simulation?” While slightly above average, this score on a 5 point scale is the lowest average of all the questions. Pair this with Q10, “How satisfied were you with the overall operation of the Simulation?” and surprisingly, a score of 4.57 indicates an overwhelmingly positive experience. However, given a lack of knowledge about the rules (Q6), how could one be satisfied with the outcome (q10)?

There are two interpretations that can be made of these two questions. First, the simulation was a success but the rules need to be made more coherent and more visible. In fact, there is evidence for this given one participant’s written in comment of, “There were specific rules?” However, there is another interpretation for this.

The second interpretation is that even though this was a simulation, the existence of the game master, hidden behind their ludic gatekeepers maintained their roles, roles they had previously held, so well that they served to give life to the simulation and so it was that the participants had no choice but to engage the situation and not the game. The situation in the simulation, even if it was not simulated, would be somewhat foggy

In fact, I would posit that the reason the simulation worked was a lack of clarity and a lack of presence of the dungeon master. The players had no choice but to continue as though they were doing the job they were just figuring out. This allowed the players to stake out their own rules together and fully immerse themselves not in their roles, but in the crisis itself.

Closing Remarks
In a response to an article in the realm of international negotiation called, “The Death of Role-Play,” the authors remarked that the facilitators of simulations often over-rely on canned materials and rules to communicate what the students are supposed to learn. This has created a situation whereupon simulation has grown stale, if not dead entirely.

The authors propose that those who create simulations think more deeply about what it is their students are doing when they begin to consider how their own assumptions influence the way that roles, hierarchical structures, and power relations interact among the actors in a given situation.
Further, they suggest:

  • A move toward creativity and lateral thinking, and away from the primarily-cognitive workshop environment…;

This is indicative of Ed’s approach to this situation. Instead of approaching it using a manuscript of a simulation, carefully defining the ways and means groups would interact, he outlined a framework through which the participants could:

  • challenge participants to reveal themselves authentically;

In this way, we saw the individuals present at the simulation and not their interpretation of the role. It was the epitome of role-playing. This allowed the participants to:

  • Increase self-discovery through self-participation and reflection;

The scenes I observed in the bathroom indicated that while this was a game, it was one worthy of making back room deals and outside conversations. This made the participants have:

  • More meaningful learning as participants draw directly on their stories, associations, and experiences; and

While we saw a lot of complaints from the military students about how blood-thirsty the civilians were. This created a situation whereupon meaning was created – not for the civilians – but for the military students to reflect on their own existence as a military member.

Finally, this simulation allowed the students to learn:

  • Better negotiation performance arising from engaging emotional and kinesthetic brain centers associated with deep shifts in skills, attitudes and behaviors.

In all ways, the simulation not only addressed the concerns the international negotiation world had about the lessening impact about simulation, it surpassed the “future thinking” and integrated models this literature puts forth.

Alexander, N., & LeBaron, M. (2009). Death of the role-play. Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol’y, 31, 459.

Alexander, N., & LeBaron, M. (2013). Embodied Conflict Resolution: Resurrecting Roleplay-Based Curricula Through Dance. Educating Negotiators for a Connected World (Saint Paul: DRI Press, 2013), 539-567.

Ebner, N., & Kovach, K. K. (2010). Simulations 2.0: The resurrection. Rethinking negotiation teaching, 2.
Schick, L. (1991). Heroic Worlds. A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, Buffalo/New York.