Friday, May 13, 2016

Simulation Games in the Classroom

A few years ago, Dr. James Lacey, professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps War College, contacted me about my series of posts on Thucydides. It was and remains one of the high points in blogging for me. So I wanted to share a recent article of his that looks at the difficulty in teaching Thucydides. While his focus is specifically on the war colleges, I think it's an important lesson for both teaching and history in general. The article is "Wargaming in the Classroom: An Odyssey" at

Dr. Lacey recounts his early experience attempting to teach Thucydides and how the standard teaching approach didn't prepare students to answer questions like “Was the attack on Syracuse poor strategy, or good strategy marred by poor execution?” His recent approach freed up classroom time in order to play a wargame that included economic and diplomatic elements. Out of the five Athenian teams playing the game, four of them attacked Syracuse despite the real-life disaster 2,500 years ago. In explaining their rationale for choosing to invade, the students pointed out legitimate strategic reasons for doing so, something Dr. Lacey notes that the standard approach didn't adequately impart to students. He also shares some of the other games and simulations he chose for other conflicts. Despite students chuckling over the stupidity of European leaders getting drawn into World War I, every time he has run the simulation the armies have arched.

He mentions a few revelations the students had realized after playing these games and simulations, but I'll just share this one paragraph:
At the end of each wargame, students walked away with a new appreciation of the historical circumstances of the period and the events they had read about and discussed in class. And even though all wargames are an abstract of actual events, I am sure that no student exposed to historical gaming will ever again read about the Peloponnesian War without thinking about Sicily’s wheat, the crucial importance of holding the Isthmus of Corinth, or what could have been done with a bit more Persian silver in the coffers of one side or the other’s treasury. Similarly, the next time one of this year’s students reads about Lee and Grant in 1864, they will also be thinking about how the truly decisive actions took place out west. For, as it was during the actual conflict, in every game the students played, Grant’s role was to pin down the Army of Northern Virginia, while the western armies ripped out the economic heart of the Confederacy.

I recommend reading the whole article even though I doubt any of my readers will attend a war college. The lessons learned that Dr. Lacey presents can be used for any history course. For history this year my kids participated in a co-op class that several homeschool parents pulled together. One parent, a former teacher, had the children do an ancient civilization game that the kids loved. In trying to insure their civilization lasted, they had to deal with resource and money constraints and I think they realized the trade-offs rulers/governments have to face when making such decisions. I definitely plan on including such games in our future courses.

If you have experience with any of these types of games or simulations (as a teacher or student), I would love to hear from you in the comments!

Sidenote: Evidently Dr. Lacey stirred up a hornet's nest at other war colleges with some of the statements in his article. If you have time, you may want to check out an article by Professors James Holmes and John Maurer as well as Dr. Lacey's reply in the Comments.

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