Role-playing game puts U-M, high school students behind the scenes of Middle East conflict

Political posturing, diplomacy, tangled alliances, nuclear intimidation.

Sounds like just another day in high school.

Last fall a group of University of Michigan students worked with high school students from five states (plus Canada and Brazil) in a nine-week simulation of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Going in, some knew more about the conflict than others; real-world sympathies fell to both sides. But regardless of their role, players came out of the simulation with a much more nuanced understanding of not only the conflict, but also the complexity of international politics.

“The kids take on roles that are uncomfortable and new for them, and then they have to work with other characters representing people around the world,” said Livonia Franklin High School teacher Molly David, who’s been using simulations like this one in her classes for 10 years. “They have to toe the line between what they want to get done and domestic things going on at home that won’t let that happen… All those analytical pieces come together, and every year the kids get so into it that they forget it’s work.”

Interactive Communications and Simulations (ICS), an educational gaming group within the U-M’s School of Education, created the Arab-Israeli Conflict simulation and ran five versions of it in the fall semester. That meant five parallel worlds, each inhabited by 16 teams of high school students representing diplomats with a stake in the conflict. On the other end of the virtual exchange, 19 Michigan students – enrolled through either the School of Education or the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies – worked in small teams to guide their high school counterparts toward realistic courses of action in an unpredictable world.

The nine-week simulation becomes more than just a computer game. David’s class was actually studying the conflict in the class while working through it online. But even without that level of immersion, she says the game takes on a life of its own. She’s heard students drop comments “in character” in the hallways and sheepishly admit to checking their simulation before they check their facebook.

franklincrop“To hear my students talk about this situation in such an intelligent manner – to hear a 17-year-old boy say, ‘This is ridiculous. Israel would never agree to a one-state solution because it would mean they’d cease to exist…’ As a teacher I love that,” she said.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict is one of several educational simulations run by ICS. Others include Earth Odysseys, which give students the chance to travel virtually to distant places, and Place Out of Time, a simulation that allows students to play characters from a range of places and times in history. The Arab-Israeli Conflict simulation was actually developed for a U-M political science class in the late 1970s and piloted as an educational computer game in 1983, says ICS director Jeff Stanzler.

Michigan students play the game as either national security advisors (NSAs) or game mentors. The high school student move the game along by submitting action forms, and NSAs help their teams refine those plans, acting as teachers in a class where they themselves are being graded.

“It was really amazing to see how involved and intrigued the high school students get in the simulation,” said U-M sophomore Alex Gatof, a business major who played national security advisor to teams representing Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel (Likud) Israel (Kadima), Russia and Syria. “I think I definitely learned effective ways in which to help direct people working toward their goals, and my own knowledge of the conflict was increased exponentially.”

Meanwhile, game mentors play puppetmaster to an entire simulation, approving actions and writing them into a news report – often with unexpected twists.

“The distance learning environment is not as impersonal as you’d think it would be,” said Maha Alfahim, a U-M junior who was game mentor for the “Blue” simulation. “You actually develop a relationship with the student, and you’re able to give them one-on-one attention. You see mind-to-mind, even though you don’t see eye-to-eye.

“I don’t know the names of the kids on my team, but I would still be able to tell you something about their learning style.”

ICS provides background information on each of the characters, groups and nations, helping students manage characters whose views might be vastly different than their own.

“Take the girl playing (Iranian president) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example,” Stanzler said. “You can appreciate her challenge, trying on the black hat. But the goal is, let’s not play Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the cartoon character, but try to represent him as you best understand his goals to be. She has to figure out how to approach people even though she has this baggage. How is she going to make her interests feel as though they in the interest of others.”

On October 11, the students effectively “closed the door” on the real world and took the decades-old conflict into their own hands. Through private communiqués they formed alliances and plotted arms deals and assassinations. In public they planned peace conferences and professed innocence.

In many cases, virtual violence erupted, and in at least one simulation it spiraled into war.

Alfahim, a political and international studies major – and herself a Muslim from Abu Dhabi – cautioned her teams against using violence, pressing them hard to justify their actions and consider the consequences.

So when the Israeli team attempted to assassinate a Hamas diplomat near the end of the “Blue” game, the attack weakened Isreal’s bargaining position at the ensuing peace conference convened by the Eurasian team.

“I used that to be a learning experience for them, to teach them that violence is not always the answer and show them how such an act affects your domestic positions,” she said.

In the blue game, Israel ended up accepting a single-state solution – an admittedly unrealistic end that Alfahim tempered by making it contingent on a United Nations resolution.

As a native of the region, Alfahim chose the Arab Israeli Conflict class specifically because it offered a deeper examination of Middle Eastern politics where other classes seemed too introductory. She wasn’t disappointed.

“I really did learn a lot,” she said. “In order to teach such a complex topic you have to really understand it yourself – especially when you have to water it down for high school students,” she said. “Being from the Middle East you always get a one-sided perspective of the issue, but being a mentor for the game you have no choice but to familiarize yourself with the positions of all 16 teams.

“Only half of them were Arab teams, so I learned a lot about the Israeli perspective. The things I learned about the other side from this game I would never have been able to learn from reading the news back home.”

Amy E. Whitesall is editor of Explore web magazine. Cover photo was taken by eddiedangerous and is subject to a Creative Commons License.