Student Power

         Student power is a political aim, and also our name for a game we have played to advance it.  Here it is the first example of what are usually called simulation games, which are coming widely into use.  I won’t give many examples, because most simulations are basically alike. Their principles have been well-described, and are illustrated in Student Power.  In general, a simulation game models a particular social situation or problem as literally as possible and plays it through, to discover things about it or to test out possible problem-solving strategies.

         We can understand most simulations as specialized versions of the game Ecology, in that they include “families” of several “species,” involved in an ecology of interaction.  Some simulations explore the ecology of only one family in its environment; some neglect family exploration for inter-species interaction; some define their families as working teams or as emotional groups.  A more important distinction might be made between a receptive simulation, which explores the characteristic or steady state of an ecology; and an active simulation, which works through an approach to a problem and can be understood as a drama of ecological change, a way of passing from one state to another, which itself may be a base state for further change.  But in practice, as in real-world ecology, this distinction often vanishes.

         As we played it, Student Power was an active game, indeed an epitome of learner activism.  We were working with a group of student leaders and activists on a medium-sized university campus, who had been trying to organize several varieties of educational reform.  We used Student Power to explore both the general ecology of power-relationships which determined the milieu of campus reform, and particular strategies for implementing a particular reform.

         We had two dozen players of various persuasions, a long afternoon to work with, and various rooms at our disposal within the student center, plus the sheer bulk and bustle of its environment.  We used three gamekeepers to run the process and tend its various arenas.  We began by helping the players divide into families representing the major power-blocks: students, faculty, and administration.  Each family needed to include a variety of types.  The faculty were humanistic and technical, young sympathizers and entrenched departmental chairmen.  Administrators of different levels had differing interests to serve and protect.  Among students, those with active reform interest were a minority, and were further divided into radicals, liberals, and hippies.

         A simulation can be speeded up by giving cut-and-dried models for the roles that are to be played within each family, but we preferred to grow our own, for the sake of what players learn in the process.  We helped each family make its own model, commenting on oversights but leaving the final mix, and the way of assigning roles, up to them.  This was a working test of what they did understand about the nature of the campus’ power groups; and so to some extent the players chosen to represent each group were those with the greatest cause or need to understand its workings.  After the families were defined, each continued for a time to discuss the characters and interests of its members, and their conflicts, and to assess the webs of communication and influence among them and between their species and the others. 

         From these assessments, the gamekeepers summarized two kinds of rules for the game – precisely, rules of communication and of influence, which govern interaction among and within groups in any simulation.  Sometimes such rules are left unstated; more often they are supplied by the gamekeepers, formally and completely.  In Student Power we went through a process to define them, because the players had an immediate and essential interest in understanding the real play of these variables in their context.  Rather than give them our own wisdom, which might not quite fit their case, we gave them a form in which to pool their own, and fed their collective model back to them. 

        As they played the game through, they found reasons to confirm or alter their model’s details, arriving at a revised model in the evaluation session that ended the game; and then to test and revise this model in campus practice.  For the sake of the game’s realism and relevance, neither we nor the players could propose a complete set of rules of communication and influence – for not only were these to be discovered, they were to be changed.  Indeed, that was the point of the encompassing game of all their broader work and ours.

         I’ll call the processes of defining the families and of exploring them, phases II and III.  As we played it, there was no formal phase I, though some students had worked with particular faculty and deans, collected gossip, and tried to dope out their responses.  If time permits, any simulation may be expanded to include systematic reading, contact, and imaginative research in support of its players’ roles, either in phase I or during any later phase.  Working during a single afternoon, we had to go with what people knew, which in itself generated a plan for their further study.  More leisurely simulations can get quite elaborate, to the point of ongoing consultation with the people simulated.

         Many simulations begin with phase V, the roles and score being assigned by the gamekeepers.  In our case there was a brief phase IV consisting in a discussion – held earlier, though it need not have been – of what particular student-initiated reform would be most useful to study.  As pragmatists, the players picked a measure whose groundwork some of them had been laying for months -- getting official credit for student-initiated courses. 

         Phase V, the actual game of the simulation, began with the students choosing a strategy to implement this measure, haggling it out among the activist factions while the uninvolved waited outside and read or chatted, and while the faculty and administration discussed from their own perspectives the virtues and politics of the student measure.  In time, the activist students sent an emissary to the sympathetic faculty, asking him to front for their proposal, and suggesting a strategy within the faculty.  They also called in a gamekeeper, to represent to the other students a first series of articles in the campus paper, discussing the issue mildly enough not to perturb faculty and administration.

         From this point on, the score of the game unrolled as a dynamic consequence of its orchestration. Their initial strategy was mild enough, but the faculty sympathizer was more isolated than they had hoped.  Unable to act through his department or existing faculty committees, he sought alliance with a graduate dean, who was himself locked away from effective support by the state of intra-administration politics.  He came back with a plan to organize a few other faculty sympathizers into a legitimizing umbrella, extending independent study credits to people taking student-initiated courses; and sent a gamekeeper to fetch a representative activist to hear his plan.  Until late in the game, he kept his professional distance from students, meeting with them as equals only after events had brought him belatedly to agree with their position on autonomy, and to be in jeopardy of his own career.

         The students were not pleased with the faculty response. Besides being meager and covering at most fifty students, in its insistence on faculty approval of course content it dodged the key issue.  Meanwhile, the student paper, inspired by recent events at Columbia University, had taken the student government to task editorially for not pushing to initiate reforms; and the hippies and radicals had joined forces to offer a “survival school” featuring classes in power structure analysis and auto mechanics. This attracted formerly-uninvolved students, who began agitating for the general principle as they sought for specific credit.

         Reacting, the academic deans issued an edict through the gamekeepers, reaffirming the traditional chains of control of course legitimacy, and the lowly status of the students.  As departmental chairmen girded their loins, a groundswell of student reaction began, inspiring a counter-editorial, a few more courses hoping for credit status, and then a first picket-line before the administration building.  Over-reacting, the president’s wing of administration announced a major innovating program,: a committee headed by the graduate dean, that would administer a limited number of faculty-supervised “independent” courses.  The faculty heard of this second-hand, and on the whole reacted not even to that issue, but to the administrations’s usurpation of their prerogatives.  As front man for these courses, the faculty sympathizer was crucified in his department, and was sent to teach bonehead courses.  With the changed allegiance of the pariah, and in reaction to these courses’ tradition of hopelessness, he began to let some of their students participate in course design, and sought aid in this from the original “student-initiated courses” organizers.

         Meanwhile, the dynamic among students had moved faster.  A boycott was urged of the administration-sponsored courses, and those who disagreed were locked out of strategy-planning.  A sit-in “to dramatize the issue” was organized.  It was so palpably innocuous that the administrative heads debated for quite a time whether to handle it by hiring a consulting firm to run the students though encounter groups as a cure for their “alienation,” before public pressure and sheer tension caused them to call in the cops.  In the ensuing chaos, the educational issue was swept aside in the rush of new issues, except by the methodical administration, who killed their own program by having its committee wait till summer to act on proposals.

         In phase VI, we stepped in actively as gamekeepers, to help organize the discussion.  The kinds of questions that can be asked about any such simulation game cover the several levels and whole range of personal, group and inter-group experience.  What decisions were made, what influenced and constrained them, what were the reactions and effects?  What kinds of interaction did people and groups have, what went well and badly and why?  How real did the model seem, how well did the strategy play, how should these be revised?  What did people learn from this working together?  In our case the topics ranged from power structure analysis to personal jealousy.  It takes some forethought and active skill to gamekeep this phase, to orchestrate a readout-conversation in a way that brings people’s experiences into useful form.  It is well to be methodical. and perhaps to have the group itself define its priorities for learning from the game.

         Simulation games have wide usefulness.  They offer a way to represent any social , economic, political, or cultural situation or issue for study; a way to replay any event of history, or to forecast the future.  In terms of mathematical game theory, and all the varieties of interaction it may be used to describe, simulations are tools to explore what factors affect outcomes, and how they do so.

         Like games generally, simulations are direct vehicles of the imagination. Situated somewhere between primary literal experience and the secondhand-or-worse experience of someone’s verbal or written reports about experience, they are a distinct medium of learning, a terrain whose pedagogy has not yet been much explored. 

         Part of their power lines in the way they summon up the spirit and energies of fantasy, in even so bloodless a game as replaying the Battle of Waterloo with cardboard counters.  Structurally speaking, they are a way of generating and organizing complex bodies of information.  Much of the learning of this Student Power example could have been approximated by a long, thoughtful conversation: but such discussions of complex issues do have a tendency to natter on diffusely, and some magic is served by incarnating them, for the drama organizes what people know with an organic efficiency.  It also engages them more directly and deeply in their learning.  And there is a wholeness involved in the act of making a model together and testing it out.  This is wholest when this produces a model to be tested out in naked social reality; and so I see the most appropriate use of these games, as in Student Power, to be as tools for people trying to make righteous change in dynamic situations, personal or social.

         For the gamekeepers of a simulation, there are all the details of the scenario and the characters, and the time, place, and manner of everything, to work out in advance or with the players.  Many kits for specific simulation games are now available, all are overpriced, and sometimes they are useful.  I am more concerned with the skills of creating or adapting simulations; and in this the cardinal principles are know what information the players need and help them get it, and organization enables spontaneity.  As in Student Power, the interactions of a simulation can run from exchange of symbolic counters (the newspaper editorial) thorough reasoned debate (response to proposals) to flagrant drama (the sit-in, in which the administration-players knew real panic). What styles of interaction to choose is a matter of taste and circumstance.  As gamekeeper, one is always part of the simulation, representing Fate, the forces that intervene beyond control.  To declare a move invalid, to be the roving voice of insight in an ear, to announce an event or crisis to which all the players must respond, either programmed in advance or contrived on the spot to move the game along – all this is part of  the gamekeeper’s role, useful if not abused.

         The differences between simulation games and our games in general are worth summarizing.  Most simulations I read of are games in a narrower sense, concerned with competition and winning, with resources and strategies and systems analysis. Often they are quantifiable, can be played on a board in effect, or through a computer.  They are literal, they are social, and their main emphasis is cognitive.  In contrast, our learning-games tend to be process-oriented, even in their approach to competition. They are symbolic and metaphorical.  They are integral experiences involving many states of perception besides the cognitive, including altered states. They deal on the whole neither with the social nor with the personal (as psychodrama does), but with the social/personal interface.

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