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Subject: Diplomacy In the Classroom, Part 2: Kids In Their Own Words rss

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Calavera Despierta
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Back in March of 2009 I wrote an extensive session report about the use of the boardgame Diplomacy in my high school English class, as a tool to bring to light the concepts explored in texts by Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, and to further highlight the dimensions of rhetoric and persuasion that the game brings to the forefront.

Since that time, I have continued to use the game intermittently in my classes, and it has continued to be a great success. As I noted in March of '09, I was nervous about using this game as a teaching experience, because I was afraid it would be nothing more than a fun game for the kids, with no greater meaning to them than the competitions, and no higher connections being made to the course content. Because of this concern, I have continued to refine my pedagogical process and my assessments so that if and when I do bring Diplomacy into the classroom, it is still ultimately about the learning.

Just today we wrapped up a massive Diplomacy unit in my Pre-AP English 10 classes. This year instead of limiting the game to only seniors, I decided to share it with this younger population of honors sophomores. These are the kids on track to take AP Language and AP Literature classes in their eleventh and twelfth grade years and teaching them is like having a class full of Hermione Granger - dilligent, assiduous, playful, passionate, and sometimes just a wee bit too intense. But they have taken to everything else I've presented them with this year, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky to the science fiction of Harlan Ellison, like a pack of goldren retriever puppies chasing a tennis ball. And so I thought, why not? I have a three week gap here at the end - not really enough time to do a full blown novel, and otherwise I'd just be doing short stories and vocab. So I prepped it, I explained it, I put them into groups of seven, and I let them go.

Today, I bring with you the results: Narrative-Form essays that they wrote at the very end of the unit in which they reflected on their experiences.

My only requirement on these essays was that they clearly connect their game-playing experiences with the ideas from class, including at least one literary text we've read this year. I wanted to confirm their learning, but also give them enough room to draw their own conclusions about the game itself, and it's wider implications.

Rather than typing up entire essays here (which are long, occasionally inelegant, and clunky, and hard to decipher in some cases--they are, after all, fifteen year olds), I have excerpted out some of the more interesting tidbits. Please feel free to comment, share your ideas and thoughts, and respond. If we have the time before finals, I will even communicate to them your ideas and thoughts.

I have abbreviated their names to protect their privacy here, but other than that, these are direct and unedited quotes.



STUDENT: KW wrote:

Essay title: "This is the greatest essay of all time, and you know it."

"Hey, Scrivs. I am going to totally ignore the standard essay format here, because lets be honest, that's just another metagame, and we both know it, and we both know you will find my honest, frank, no-b.s. approach far more credible. So here it is, I am going to negotiate with you here about this assignment: I think you should give me a good grade on this essay/reflection thing. I mean, I not only totally won my game and totally defeated and destroyed my opponents (which I could not have done without complete and utter mastery of persuasive rhetoric), but clearly I now know so much about persuasion and metagames and Shakespeare's concept of the metatheatrical that I feel I can safely abandon the standard essay format and just be direct with you. As I am displaying right now with this very sentence. I mean, even by acknowledging to you that I am trying to persuade you, I am persuading you because I am empowering you to allow yourself to be persuaded - the same way a Shakespearean audience allows themselves to be persuaded by the actors (to suspend their disbeleif & etc). Do you not realize how insansely awesome I am? Nuff said..."


[The essay continues in a more serious tone with an occasionally awkward academic exploration of the metatheatrical elements of the board game Diplomacy.]


STUDENT: K B. wrote:

"Day one of Diplomacy. I sat quietly by myself while the rest of my group conversed. They fretted over my lack of communication. SO while I was commanding my fleets and armies [as England] in a relatively neutral fashion, they made alliances to gang up against me. And even though one group member, ahem, constantly saw fit to backstab his allies, they somehow constantly forave him, going so far as to help him to victory in the end. These interactions, believe it or not, relate directly to Margaret Atwood's dystopian society that Offred calls home in The Handmaid's Tale. At one point, Offred muses to herself, 'Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it... Maybe it's about who can do what do whom and be forgiven for it.'


[The essay continues from that point, developing and explaining an argument about Atwood’s quote.]

STUDENT: A G wrote:
In my Diplomacy game, I found most players' credibility, their ability to employ ethos to persuade, quickly eroded. After Casey F. lied multiple times and backstabbed me, everyone realized that they couldn't trust anything she said in the context of the game. This lack of credibility made it impossible to make deals or negotiate with her, since the only thing I could trust was that she would probably lie.

Conversely, I found my own credibility to be my greatest asset in the game. I made sure that I was never dishonest, and didn't backstab a single other player, and I was able to use that point in my persuasive arguments with others during our negotiations. I showed people that they could trust me when no one else was trustworthy, and would even say, 'Look, I haven't lied once in this game, I've been completely open about my intensions, and I haven’t backstabbed anyone. Why would I ruin that now all of the sudden?' This act of establishing and maintaining my rhetorical credibility literally pre-shaped the perceptions others had of me and allowed me to make the right deals in the late game that gave me the win. Had I lied or backstabbed prior to that, there would have been no incentive for people to agree with or help me. People wanted me to win, because I didn’t just play the best, I did so without hurting anyone’s feelings. You could pretty much say, I won both the game and the metagame, which is what you have to do in Diplomacy.

In Shakespeare's Caesar this same importance of credibility is everywhere. Brutus' credibility provided justification in eyes of the Plebeians that Caesar was killed with good reason, indeed it appears to be the only way the conspirators could pull the murder off and not be blamed for being merely powerhungry--and the only way Mark Antony is able to undo this perception later to get his revenge is to directly attack Brutus’ credibility with his ironic ‘Brutus is an honorable man.’ Yet this was only a tactical move on Antony's part. Even he admits, by the end of the play, that Brutus was indeed, 'the noblest Roman of them all.' In this I see something important about human nature that Shakespeare truly understood, and which I now understand after playing Diplomacy: my credibility is a role -- it is not inherently real or a part of my identity necessarily. Instead, I guess I would say it only exists in the perceptions that my audience have of me. I am not necessarily any more honest than anyone else. But like an actor on stage, like Brutus in Rome, I chose to play my game with honor. That honor does not rise inherently from me, but in how others chose to see me. In other words, weirdly enough, it has nothing to do with me. I am only honorable if other people think so.




And finally this one. It’s a bit longer than the above quotes, but I felt like everything I included here is relevant. That said, it may make less sense if you have not read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Briefly, it is similar to the Peter Sellers movie, Being There only with a tragic Russian twist. It’s a novel about a man who is completely innocent, to such a degree that he appears mentally handicapped. He enters the society of the wealthy aristocrats of Saint Petersburg who instantly distrust his innocence and purity and inevitably, through the course of the novel, corrupt and destroy him. Dostoevsky intended this character to be a Christ figure, and the novel itself, given that the Christ character fails to redeem anyone, an existential exploration of atheism and human nature. The book is intended to force the reader to wrestle with doubt, sin, and human cruelty, and hopefully transcend them by rejecting and rebellion against the tragic finale of the story. It’s your typical Russian novel.

The young lady in question who wrote the below essay was deeply affected by the book, and by the game of Diplomacy, and her analysis is a rich connection between these two experiences. While some of the conclusions she draws may seem self-evident to we jaded, veteran adult Diplomacy players, keep in mind that she is fourteen years old, so a lot of what she says is a very very big deal for her.

STUDENT: HD wrote:
The game ‘Diplomacy’ depicts the relationships between human interactions and how they affect our decision making. In just over two weeks, I tested my ability to use rhetorical persuasion, my tendency to put too much trust in others, and I ultimately weighed the benefits and consequences of self-preservation versus moral consciousness.

This journey, I have found while reflecting, is quite similar to a novel that I have recently read, and (you guessed it!) it’s The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Although I cannot compare myself too heavily with the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, I can wholeheartedly agree that I did enter Diplomacy with a naïve approach similar to his approach entering Saint Petersburg society in the novel. As Myshkin confronts society’s norms with his ‘idiocy’, Dostoevsky uses this to allow us to search for truth in human relationships, just as I did in my game. This... vulnerability, I suppose, presented opportunities to my opponents to make a judgement call--was my innocence and ineptitude at this game all just an act? In Part II, Chapter IV, the character Ippolit remarks in his suicide speech, ‘As he [Myshkin] never tells a lie, that saying means something. He has a nice smile. I have examined him carefully now; I don’t know whether I like him or not.’ This doubtful report on ‘The Idiot’s’ character reflects the suspicious that arises in society when people are ‘too nice.’ The controversy of kindness often being a form of selfishness, opposed to true altruism, is a common theme in Diplomacy. When I attempted to HONESTLY help another player, even though no immediate benefit came to myself, I can say I did so only to gain an alliance that would help me to victory. This was not pure altruism, and though I did help many people, I reaped the consequences as I, time and time again was stabbed in the back. My false altruism was abused in the same way Myshkin’s true altruism was. The players did not seem to care for my niceness, and in the end, only cared to win. This study in my own human nature is demonstrated by Dostoevsky in Part III, Chapter 5,: 'The instinct of self-preservation is the law of humanity.’ This begs the question: can we trust nice people? Would people behave better on earth if they didn’t see it as difficult drudgery for heavenly reward? I think the only way to accept that kindness is the answer is to disregard the motives and rather focus on the benefits, and this is quite a challenge for those who cannot bear to turn a blind, ignorant eye on their own nature. This, I think is why Diplomacy is just so ruthless. It asks us to face not each other, but our selves, as we really are.

These qualities are all very important and all, but I think this game brought out a true strength of mine: learning to laugh at the absurd (and I mean that in the existential sense, Mr. Scrivner.) The Idiot was a terribly dark and conceptually challenging novel, yet at the end of the day, I think I managed to shed some LIGHT on the deeper, oddly optimistic layers of the novel and the game we played in class. Just as Diplomacy was a little out of my comfort zone (with all the aggression, confrontation, etc) I accepted that my failure was inevitable and had a good laugh. Seriously! It was pretty funny! Although my personal philosophies often fluctuate, I don’t think I believe in Karma at the moment, yet ultimately I’m NOT discouraged by this game like some of my classmates to give up on spreading kindness. I laugh at this too, and at my probably naievete, and I move on from the game knowning that the world is indeed dark and filled with moral ambiguity but this won’t stop me from at least attempting to shine that light.

You might say, ‘What an idiot!’ (Part I, Chapter 8). To which I say, ‘One must have a heart to understand.’ (Part 4, Chapter 3)."


I continue to believe that Diplomacy provides a tremendously rich experience for the kids to meaningfully contextualize many of the abstract ideas we cover in literature - to experience for themselves first hand the subtle and hidden layers inherent in their interactions, and the nature of language as a tool to persuade and manipulate. I think these essays are evidence that they agree, and I am deeply pleased with them. I am also relieved that they are less... cynical than students of previous years. I have really strived to make them experience the unique disillusionments that this game can bring on with a greater wisdom that given what they've learned, their kindness, their need to form alliances in real life, is all the more important. In the end, I think this is what all learning should strive for. So so much of public education is anaesthetizing. It seems to strive to dull the senses, the mind, and the heart of the student. But somehow, in spite and perhaps because of the vicious and intense nature of this game, perhaps because it does not shelter but directly expose students to it, are they awoken to a greater awareness of themselves, the nature of their own power, and the degree of burden or responsibility that they have because of it. It is my privelidge to be a part of it.
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Brian Gee
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An excellent project and some rewarding results in your students' writings. Congrats and thanks for sharing.
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Chris Aylott
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Both they and you have a lot to be proud of. They did some great work with their play!
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So which is more enjoyable? Seeing the games as they are played or reading the essays submitted once the students have finished?
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Sir Loin
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Well done sir.

I've always thought that high school is simply a 4 year day care for selfish and narrow minded kids. The majority of kids are there to socialize and have no real interest in learning.

I have a ton of respect for high school teachers and I don't mean to marginalize your role in developing our youth, but I feel that most kids are uappreciative of the care and personal attention that they actually get in high school. With that said, you've done a great thing by giving them a social experience (something they want) while getting them to think and be analytical about their course work (something they need).
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Calavera Despierta
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newuser wrote:
So which is more enjoyable? Seeing the games as they are played or reading the essays submitted once the students have finished?


Well, given that I try to slow down and give feedback on the essays, and that is a grindly slow and painful process, I would say seeing the games is more enjoyable. zombie
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E Butler
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MScrivner wrote:


Well, given that I try to slow down and give feedback on the essays, and that is a grindly slow and painful process, I would say seeing the games is more enjoyable. zombie


For those who have never been on the opposite side of the desk you have no idea how true those words are.
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LSU LSU
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Calavera,

It looks like your experiment went extremely well. Your students have some really interesting thoughts about interpersonal connections and honesty.

I am going to be starting a job as a university professor in the fall and have thought about games in the classroom. Do you have any thoughts that might be helpful to me?

Thanks.
 
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Agent J
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He's looking real sharp in his 1940's fedora. He's got nerves of steel, an iron will, and several other metal-themed attributes. His fur is water tight and he's always up for a fight.
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He's a semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal of action. He's a furry little flat-foot who'll never flinch from a fray. He's got more than just mad skills, he's got a beaver tail and a bill.
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Also, we only got the good parts here. Thanks for half-sharing!
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Calavera Despierta
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LSUtigers wrote:
Calavera,

It looks like your experiment went extremely well. Your students have some really interesting thoughts about interpersonal connections and honesty.

I am going to be starting a job as a university professor in the fall and have thought about games in the classroom. Do you have any thoughts that might be helpful to me?

Thanks.


Take a look at the link to my original session report at the top of the page - in that session report I address several of those issues and challenges.

However, in general, what I would say is:
1) Technology is your friend. I have a Smartboard in my classroom and can therefore run four simultaneous games.
2) Friends are you friend. That is to say, another teacher, or a grad student you can force to help, or even an enthusiastic and knowledgeable member of class will be ABSOLUTELY necessary to help run things smoothy - you cannot simultaneously be answering rules questions and giving strategic advice and adjudicating orders. You cannot be everywhere at once, and unless you have class sizes of fourteen people, you WILL need help.
3) Stop frequently in the middle of play to have the kids reflect, discuss, and process their experiences, else it really will be nothing more than fun and games.

Hope that helps!
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Jythier wrote:
Also, we only got the good parts here. Thanks for half-sharing!


^ S. Morgenstern would be proud.

Mr. Scrivner, teachers like you make me proud of what our culture has to offer our young people. Thanks for the work and the essays. Good reads, all.
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I really love what you've done with Diplomacy in the classroom. I'm hopefully going to work at a high school this fall were the school is giving every student a computer and we're going to use a new kind of smartboard. May I ask what kind of program you're using to run Diplomacy?

Update: Saw you're original post now and got it all! I'll bring this into my classes for sure (teaching history and politics). I once used the computer game Europa Universalis 3 in multiplay with my students. It was thrilling to experience how they acted in the game.
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Calavera Despierta
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threep wrote:
I really love what you've done with Diplomacy in the classroom. I'm hopefully going to work at a high school this fall were the school is giving every student a computer and we're going to use a new kind of smartboard. May I ask what kind of program you're using to run Diplomacy?

Update: Saw you're original post now and got it all! I'll bring this into my classes for sure (teaching history and politics). I once used the computer game Europa Universalis 3 in multiplay with my students. It was thrilling to experience how they acted in the game.


It's just powerpoint files in Microsoft Powerpoint. If you want to shoot me an email, I can email you the files!
 
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Graham Smith
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MScrivner wrote:
This, I think is why Diplomacy is just so ruthless. It asks us to face not each other, but our selves, as we really are.


This is a fantastic quote, and description of the game. It should be on the back of the box!
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