Day 653 – Just a Game
Years ago, decades really, I participated in an unforgettable high school class led by an excellent teacher, Barry Davis, who as of 2013 was still teaching with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of Uconn Waterbury.
The class, one of the most popular electives for seniors, was Principles of Foreign Policy and resembled a giant game of Risk heavily augmented by Mr. Davis. Sitting here I can’t recall all the details, but suffice to say half the class time was devoted to learning the complex rules before gameplay could commence.
Beyond learning the rules of the game, the initial class time focused on getting students to understand actions had consequences, and those consequences impacted the citizens of our fictitious countries. More than anything else the class taught respect for institutions, law, and human dignity.
Each country had three players: Head of State, Secretary of State, and Diplomat. I’m foggy on what the #2 role was. Maybe it was vice something or other. Suffice to say there were three members of each government. Head of State crafted policy, #2 person managed the business of the state, and the Diplomat ran between meetings with other diplomats from the other countries. He or she literally ran because when the game was underway we took up three separate classrooms and travel time ate precious game minutes.
The “heart” of the game was a giant map. It was huge; I think at least four 4×8 sheets of plywood. The map showed the locations of the world’s armies and other resources. Positions of ships and aircraft and troops and a host of other items were continually updated during game time.
A main feature of the game was time pressure. While it was possible, though discouraged, to meet outside of the class, game time was frozen until the class began, i.e. you could meet and make plans, but only enact those plans during class time at which time other factors may have changed rendering your scheme moot.
Students immediately learned 75% of their time was consumed just running their countries. Tending the economy, paying bills, managing trade, keeping citizens happy, addressing all manner of threats and just keeping up with the paperwork regularly filled game time.
Heads of State could not directly interact with other Heads of State unless at a Summit. Arranging Summits took time and cost resources. Diplomats were a country’s voice, meeting off-site in secure locations where what was said couldn’t be heard by Heads of State.
At the end of each week, again I’m foggy, but I think it was weekly, each country’s paperwork was assembled, handed over to Barry Davis and his assistants, fed into a computer program designed by Mr. Davis, and then on Monday each country received a sociological and economic report.
This report detailed the impacts of the past week’s actions and informed the government where they would be starting for the coming week. Did the economy grow? Did you get stiffed by your neighbor on a trade deal? Are the “Power Groups” of the country displeased by that tax you proposed? Getting the returns on Monday was a huge deal.
Conflicts happened and when they did everything went to hell. Barry Davis was ruthless determining how a conflict would progress and who it would impact. Was the conflict near a trade route, say the Suez Canal or the Straits of Hormuz? If so forget that oil shipment and influx of cash you were depending on. Did you little adventure piss off your neighbor? Did they join the fight against you or maybe cancel that delivery of natural resources you were counting on? Actions carried consequences.
I’m proud to say the two full games I participated in went well. There were conflicts, but they were regional, contained, and brief. I remember sitting in the large music room doing a post-mortem on the just-concluded game feeling a sense of pride that I’d grown my economy, invested in efficiency, and had a high SPG (satisfaction of power groups, a key metric that would get a head of state removed or assassinated).
The class after mine was populated by a cadre of socially popular students I usually stayed far away from. There was one in particular. You know the type, self-assured, not academic but successful nonetheless, confident to a fault. After devoting the time learning the rules the first game session commenced. I should add that many students outside the class, myself included, took interest in what was going on in the game. After only a short time we heard a conflict had erupted and quickly escalated into a full nuclear exchange. Barry Davis was furious. He canceled any future game sessions for the class and assigned them to write an extensive analysis of what happened and why.
I’d learned the popular student had been head of state for the U.S., a difficult role under the best of circumstances, and that the U.S. had initiated the nuclear exchange. I had to find out what had happened, so I found him in the cafeteria during lunch and asked if what I’d heard was true and why on earth would he go nuclear knowing the consequences. “Russia was being a dick and they insulted me and the US, so I did what I had to do.”
“But all you did was end the game and get yourself and the class a fat writing assignment.”
“Yeah, but I destroyed Russia.”
I can’t see Trump or hear his voice and not recall this exchange in the cafeteria of a high school on Long Island decades ago.