This week I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation at the Draper Hills Summer Fellowship on Democracy and Development program at Stanford University. Every year, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict gives a series of presentations looking at the role of nonviolent conflict and civil resistance in mobilizing civil society to establish democratic self-rule, strengthen democratic institutions, and hold governments accountable. I was joined by two of my colleagues at ICNC – Dr. Peter Ackerman (Founder) and Hardy Merriman (Senior Advisor).
My presentation looked at a new, teaching and strategic planning tool ICNC has designed in partnership with York/Zimmerman, INC. People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance is a serious, turn-based, strategy game that engages the user in the mental contest of organizing and waging a nonviolent movement.
Presenting a strategy game was a fun challenge because the learning takes place not necessarily by hearing someone talk about the game, but rather playing the game yourself. So how can the game be introduced if no one has a computer on which to play the game? Well, in some cases, it makes sense to talk with people about the game – its purpose, design, and the strategic thinking that is at the foundation of the game play – before they launch into the game on their own. The reason being most serious, strategy games – this one in particular – are not designed with pure entertainment as their primary purpose. Rather, serious games have clear learning objectives that can be applied to the real word, or help the user better understand the real world – and as we all know, the “real world” is not always an action-packed, shoot ’em up, racing experience. Hence, if newcomers to the game were to start playing without any explanation of its objectives, they might very quickly get bored, frustrated, or confused.
This is particularly true when learning about organizing and waging civil resistance. Although the media may portray civil resistance simply as crowds of people flooding the street in protest, there is a lot more to civil resistance than implementing a single tactic. In fact, before any tactical choices are made, organizers of civil resistance must research and analyze the numerous variable that impact how a conflict unfolds – people, places, organizations, regions, resources, tactics – and the various characteristics that determine how those variable act – popularity, loyalty, reaction to fear, etc. It is research and analysis of this nature that is required at the outset of the game, before the user starts making any strategic choices.
I could go more into the game, but it makes sense to just visit the website.
The last thing I will add is that this game has a tremendous amount of potential as a teaching and strategic planning tool. First as an educator, the game provides a new way to teach about civil resistance. Instead of just talking about moments of civil resistance that have occured throughout history, the game now provides a way for students to learn about the strategic thinking that allowed for those moments to occur. It also engages a different part of the brain because the game is not just about reading, but making certain strategic choices based off of what you are learning and then seeing how those decisions unfold. Second, as an activist in or organizer of a civil resistance movement, the game is a great tool to exercise your own strategic thinking and analysis. In some cases you can actually try out different strategic choices in the game, seeing how the artificial intelligence reacts, before implementing a tactic in the real world. Just like any strategic game, the more ways you find out how to lose, the closer you get to actually finding a way to win. Finally, the game provides another great way for researchers and scholars of nonviolent struggles to share their work. The game also has something called a scenario builder, meaning anyone who takes the time to input the numerous variables and their corresponding characteristics into the game, can create scenarios that anyone can play. For example, if you are an expert scholar on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, instead of writing a paper on the topic, a researcher can now use the same information to build a South Africa scenario. This way people won’t just be reading your work, but actually playing your research in a game. Given these potentials, the game’s applications are far reaching. I look forward to seeing it develop, particular as more people start building scenarios and playing the game.