Saturday, September 04, 2004

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Game and Geopolitical Brinksmanship (an Online Course)

Susan Smith Nash

In a move I thought would be evocative of business or industrial engineering courses that use multiplayer games to simulate market and product competition environments, I decided to integrate an Xbox video game, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, into an online International Relations course, "Geopolitical Brinksmanship." It required a shift of instructional strategy, and it became necessary to clearly define various roles. Little did I suspect that the approach have more in common with the way that the military utilizes games such as Full Spectrum Warrior to familiarize individuals with conditions they may face in battle. It also is reminiscent of how such games help individuals begin to be able to envision scenarios, the potential players, and possible lines of action.

In developing an instructional strategy to achieve course objectives, it was necessary to determine whether or not students should engage in Role-play or Goal-Based simulations. Briefly speaking, a Role-play simulation allows students to enact situations in a safe and supportive environment. Goal-based simulations involve role play, but the focus is less on the context, the people, and their highly customizable behaviors and responses, and more on successfully bringing about incidents or activities that lead to desired end. The "end" of a role-play simulation can occur when time is up. There do not have to be winners or losers. The winning is in the depth, breadth, and relevancy of the interactivity. In contrast, in Goal-based simulations, there are clear winners and losers. For example, winners are those who liberate hostages, destroy documents, secure buildings, and bring back money.

Role-Play Simulations: For the purposes of the course, role-play simulations are more relevant than goal-based ones. Although rescuing hostages, securing the embassy, and destroying top-secret documentation helps motivate students and propels the story forward, it is not the ultimate outcome. The goal is to become familiar with a wide range of issues, which involve national security, political action, economic development, natural resources management, international relations, and psychology. The role-splay simulation environment encourages risk-taking and innovation, as well as built-in "rewards" for creatively approaching issues in order to encourage other participants to "stretch" in their roles. Role-Play simulation, as Albert Ip has pointed out, does not require icons or a graphical interface. It can be totally text-based, which offers certain advantages when flexibility is required.

Goal-Based Simulations: Goal-based simulation also rewards creativity and innovative thinking, but in a way that is more action-oriented (toward an object or series of objects) rather than toward people.

The objective of the course is to develop help learners develop creative problem-solving strategies; the tactics involved working through a series of scenarios in an entertaining and relevant context. Although Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is a shooter game, the fact that it is a multi-player as well as a single-player game reinforces the notion "shooting" is part of the game's "grammar." Shooting is a metaphor for communication; it is a way to involve the non-verbal in an environment (online) that tends to be highly restricted in its communication options. The graphics encourage the players to envision themselves in a certain time and place, and the fantasy-building aspect encourages individuals to not think of themselves as limited by real-world constraints. Although there is a definite down-side to fantasy and the attendant problems of invincibility, when one is trying to encourage unlimited "box-less" thinking, the video game can be absolutely liberating.

Integrative Instructional Strategy:
In order for this to be useful for learners, an instructional strategy needed to be implemented, which included the following:

1---Background reading on the geopolitical issues, general international relations and political science theory, new tactics and equipment
2---Clear descriptions of problems to be solved
3---Suggested problem-solving approaches, ideally collaborative, and using a worksheet so that people can compare approaches
4---A discussion board to post ideas and to share approaches
5---Collaborations / team papers; facilitator has to assign roles; each role has a separate task to then bring back to the group.
6---Synthesizing tasks at milestone points. Short papers that reflect upon what has been accomplished, and which report the innovative approaches used in problem-solving are useful.
7---Diagnostic self-assessments. Reflecting upon successes and less that useful strategies is very useful, particularly in scaffolding, and developing approaches to be used to build on previous knowledge.

The Game:The website describes the scenario in this way:
2006: The U.S. installs a temporary military base on East Timor to train the developing defense force of the "world's youngest democracy." Resistance to the U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia is widespread and passionate, but the threat Indonesian militias pose to East Timorese democracy is deemed sufficient justification. At the same time, the U.S. doesn't mind having an excuse to install active military personnel within easy reach of both North Korea and the largest Muslim population in Asia.

Anti-U.S. resentment comes to a head under the leadership of guerrilla militia leader Suhadi Sadono, acting with the unofficial support of major corrupt factions of the Indonesian government. Suhadi's men attack and occupy the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, taking dozens of civilian and military personnel hostage.

You are Sam Fisher. You're sent in, not to rescue the hostages, but to destroy top-secret documentation held in the embassy before Suhadi's men access it.

Keeping Focus: Probably the biggest challenge in this course is keeping the groups' focus on problem-solving and not lapsing into simply playing the game for entertainment. Instructional strategies need to be constantly refined in order to meet needs and challenges, and to accommodate individual differences between groups and cohorts. Overall, the integration of gaming into online course development proved to be successful.

Useful Articles
Interview with James Paul Gee: "The Learning Game - Researchers Study Video Gaming Principles that Apply to Education"

"Educators Turn to Games to Help",2101,59855,00.html

Random Walk in e-Learning

“Why Study Rome When You Can Build It?”

University of Wisconsin Team Creates Learning Games

Video Games Gaining Clout as Military Training Tool (2000)

Prensky, Marc. Selected URLs and other resources for Game-Based Education, e-Learning and Training Game-Based Education Portal

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