Monday, June 28, 2010

Part 4 -- Why Games? (Teaching Strategic Intel Through Games)

Benjamin FranklinImage via Wikipedia
(Note:  Welcome to all PaxSims and other readers who have been referred to this series.  If this is your first time to the site, you might want take a look at the three previous posts in this series (referenced below).  If you are interested in the other research my students and I have conducted you can look to the sidebars at the right or search this blog using the tag "experimental scholarship".)

"...Life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events...  By playing at Chess then, we may learn: 1st, Foresight... 2nd, Circumspection (and) 3rd, Caution..." -- Benjamin Franklin, The Morals Of Chess
Mercyhurst College has the oldest and largest full time, residential, privately funded Intelligence Studies program in the world.  With 350 students on campus in Erie, PA and 10 full time faculty representing all three major sub-disciplines of intelligence (business, law enforcement and national security), Mercyhurst produces qualified entry-level intelligence analysts with both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Critical to the success of this program (now in its 18th year) is its focus on application.  Like an engineering or architecture program, the goal of the curriculum is to produce graduates who understand both theory and practice and are ready, at an entry-level, to apply this knowledge to real world problems. 

Strategic Intelligence, as taught at Mercyhurst, is the capstone course of this program at both the graduate and undergraduate levels (Note:  At the undergraduate level, the course is referred to simply as Strategic Intelligence and at the graduate level the course is called Managing Strategic Intelligence Analysis.  Both classes are project based but the topics chosen for the graduate class are conceptually more difficult.  In addition, there is more emphasis in the graduate class on managing small groups and on other managerial level tasks such as budgeting and personnel selection.  Given that graduate students come to our Masters in Applied Intelligence program from all disciplines, many of the core concepts are the same in both classes with the primary difference arising in the expectations regarding performance).

The primary purpose of the course is to integrate and apply the knowledge and skills gained in earlier courses while adding the specific additional knowledge and skills necessary to prepare a complete strategic intelligence product. 

The centerpiece of this course is a strategic intelligence project for a real-world decisionmaker.  Previous clients have included a number of US national security agencies and organizations such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Intelligence Council and the 66th MI; law enforcement organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency; Fortune 500 businesses such as Target Corporation and local firms, such as Dispatch Printing; and international organizations including the European Parliament and the Iraqi government.

The intelligence requirements posed by these organizations are as diverse as the organizations themselves.  A sampling of the kinds of questions typically asked of the student-analysts in the class includes:

-          What are the most important and most likely impacts on, and threats to, US national interests (including but not limited to political, military, economic and social interests) resulting from infectious and chronic human disease originating outside the US over the next 10-15 years?

-          What are the likely current best practices or combination of best practices utilized by suburban public high schools with respect to curriculum, buildings and green initiatives?

-          What are the likely causes for objection and consent to the ratification of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty by "states of interest" (i.e. states of concern and de facto states) over the next 5 years?

-          What are the current and future direct threats to an existing global supply chain over the next 12-24 months?

-          What is the current severity and effectiveness of the insurgency in the North and South Caucasus regions (in regards to the quantitative and geographic growth and spread of violence) and how is it likely to change between now and the 2008 Russian Presidential election?

-          Who are the likely innovative users and what are the likely innovative uses of wiki technology over the next two years?

Students rarely have any previously acquired expertise in these subjects at the beginning of the course.  Instead, they have acquired, during their time at Mercyhurst, a set of skills and techniques that allow them to rapidly orient themselves within the domain of the question and to begin to generate meaningful analytic estimates in response to these questions fairly quickly.  This is a good thing as Mercyhurst operates on a 10-week term system and the finished intelligence product is due before the end of the term.

(Note:  For an example of such a product, see .  This product responded to the first of the six questions listed above and was requested by the National Intelligence Council.  You can see their review of the product at

Students on a team working on a strategic project are expected to efficiently organize themselves to accomplish all of the analytic and administrative tasks associated with their project.   The professor in this class provides mentorship, methodological guidance, moral support and, occasionally, small amounts of money to help the team complete the project.  The professor does not, however, provide “answers”.  In short, while the professor may help the students draw the map, the students pick their own path.  The successful completion of a large-scale project such as this is designed to give these students confidence in their skills and abilities as they approach graduation – a second major purpose of the class.

In addition to the project, which takes up approximately 80% of the total time of the course (including time spent both in and out of class), the remaining coursework focuses on three overlapping themes: 

-          Strategic theory
-          The current practice of strategic intelligence
-          Review of previously learned concepts that are particularly appropriate in a strategic environment. 

For the first six years of the course, I taught this remaining 20% using a standard mix of lecture, discussion and classroom exercise.  Despite various tweaks, it became obvious to me that the overwhelming emphasis of the class on the current project – an emphasis that I both encouraged and approved of – severely weakened the impact of the remaining 20% of the course.  Unfortunately, it was in this last 20% where the course materials designed to accomplish the third major goal of the course -- preparing these students for the kinds of strategic intelligence challenges they are likely to face throughout their careers, as well as information important to the success of the previous two goals -- largely lay.

Inspired by the speakers at the Game Education Summit at Carnegie Mellon University in June, 2009 (and, in particular, by Prof. Ian Schrieber’s lecture on Innovative Teaching Through Game Design), I decided to integrate games into the syllabus such that they were the fundamental pedagogical approach for this remaining 20%.

I knew from my own experience that games could be an effective way to learn strategy and strategic intelligence.  I realized that much of my own understanding of these concepts had originated with a variety of wargames and other type games I had either played or designed over the years.  Likewise, these games encouraged me to delve deeper into the literature regarding strategy and strategic intelligence.  It was precisely this type of virtuous circle that I hoped to set up in my own class.

I also knew that there is an increasing body of literature about the effectiveness of games-based learning strategies in the classroom.  Studies have been conducted, the results published and briefed and respected individuals outside the gaming industry have endorsed games-based learning.  Games-based learning even forms a critical component to the US Department of Education’s national education technology plan.  Thus, the hypothesis that a games-based approach to strategic intelligence would be effective does not seem entirely out of line.

Most comments regarding the efficacy of games-based learning initiatives center on the fact that they are "fun" in one of the 14 different ways that researchers define that term.  The fun translates to increased attention to the subject and increased attention, in turn, facilitates learning.

My goals were more ambitious.  I wanted to try to address all three of the major objectives of this course.  First, I wanted my students to improve as analysts, specifically by improving their ability to see patterns and connections buried deeply in unstructured data sets that were confusing, incomplete, of unknown reliability and possibly deceptive.  These conditions are far more common in intelligence analysis than not.  I wanted my students to expand their ways of thinking about intelligence problems -- to develop a flexibility of mind that would help them no matter what kind of problem the world threw at them.  I wanted them to become better at discovering solutions on their own rather than merely getting good at recognizing the “right” solution when it was handed to them.  I expected to see this most clearly, albeit qualitatively, in classroom discussions and, in the one class where implemented, the students' weekly writing assignments.

Second, I also wanted the students to gain confidence in their skills as analysts.  I believed that a learning environment that included relevant games would foster a more creative, exploratory atmosphere and that this would translate into better final products.

Third, I wanted the students to remember not just the experience but also some more general lessons learned that would apply the next time they encountered a strategic intelligence project.  This would be the most difficult goal to measure but I believed that I would be able to get at least anecdotal feedback from former students several months after the classes had ended.

Finally, I wanted to measure student satisfaction with the course.  For this, I would use the results from the Student Instructional Report-II (SIR-II).  There is a good bit of discussion about the value and accuracy of the SIR and other student evaluations of teaching effectiveness among college and university faculty.  It is particularly difficult, I think, to understand these scores in the context of a project-based course, where the survey is administered in week eight but the major learning event of the course takes place in week ten, the last week, when the students present the results of their analysis to their decisionmaker.
Note:  Conversations with several psychologists who study games and game-based learning during the recent Game Education Summit highlighted another important issue in using the SIRs:  These tests were not designed to evaluate alternative forms of pedagogy.  In fact, the only options on the SIR are "Lecture", "Discussion" or "Combination".  It may well be that this tool is wholly inappropriate for evaluating game-based courses.
That said, I had SIRs data from most of the previous classes and, whatever effect the timing of the SIR had on each class's results, the results could still be compared effectively from year to year.  My expectation was that this unique, non-traditional approach, if integrated correctly with the core material of the course coupled with the fun inherent in games would increase student satisfaction with the course.

How, specifically, were games used in class?

Additional Resources:
Several readers have sent me emails and made comments in previous posts in this series about other game-based teaching initiatives. I wanted to compile these into a short list...

InfoChess 3.0 -- A chess variant designed to simulate what is known and unknown in combat
Mike Cosgrave's Wargame Design Class -- Cosgrave lectures in history at the University College Cork (Ireland)
The Cultural Adversarial Game Engine -- At the University of Maryland
Philip Sabin's Conflict Simulation Class -- Prof. Sabin is the granddaddy of them all when it comes to aggressively using games in class.  He has been having his students at King's College London design games since 2003.  His site is an excellent resource.

PaxSims -- Mentioned earlier but worth mentioning again. Very good stuff.

I am certain that I have left many others out --please add them to the comments!

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