Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Learning from Games: The Debate over Role-Play Simulations

Many of us teach negotiation skills and strategy using role-play simulations (RPSs).  These are "paper" games (not computer games) that put participants in assigned roles and ask them to negotiate with one or more counterparts. Unlike the case teaching method pioneered at Harvard Business School (HBS), RPSs not only describe a situation in some detail (General Instructions), but also provide Confidential Instructions for each player.  HBS cases don't come with confidential instructions. We want to ensure that certain negotiation puzzles or challenges will emerge (as each player seeks to achieve the interests spell out in their Confidential Instructions, using the information provided to them). While business school instructors ask students "to imagine" they are the various characters in a real case, RPSs constrain much more tightly what a role player can advocate or accept in a hypothetical situation.  By carefully sequencing RPSs over several days or weeks, an instructor can provide numerous opportunities for students to "try out" a variety of negotiating techniques and build their negotiating prowess. Even though games of this sort have been used for quite some time in numerous settings, including K-12 education, professional degree programs, and military training -- with documented results -- there is a recent backlash of sorts.  I want to summarize the arguments for and against using RPSs to teach negotiation (and other complex skills), and suggest that recent doubts about their effectiveness are misplaced.

The RPSs I'm talking about are based on real cases. (You can download inspection copies for free of more than 100 RPSs from the Clearinghouse of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School along with teaching notes at www.pon.org.)  The Background and Confidential Instructions portray the attitudes expressed by actual negotiators involved in similar situations.  This distinguishes RPSs from other kinds of negotiation exercises that are highly simplified and entirely fictional, like "Win As Much As You Can" or "Oil Pricing." Also, the RPSs I use to teach environmental dispute resolution techniques include scientific information that has been carefully vetted by experts. While we are eager to teach conflict resolution skills, we also want to convey technically correct information about the "systems" or situations involved.  Many RPSs are designed to "fit" a typical 90 minute or two hour instructional window. Others are intended to be played over several days or in segments over several weeks.  Usually, students receive General and Confidential Instructions ahead of time, negotiate during class time, discuss the results (often comparing outcomes among different pairs or groups) in instructor-led Debriefing Sessions, and prepare Reflective Memos analyzing what worked, what didn't work and what they might try next time. Recently, some of us have added video highlights to our Debriefings.  (My colleague, Michael Moffitt, Dean of the Law School at the University of Oregon, has developed very effective software for students to use in capturing and annotating elements of video-recordings of their negotiations.)

The pedagogical assumptions behind using RPSs are spelled out in a range of publications.  Instead of just listening to lectures, students get to try their hand at negotiating in situations like those they will face at some point in the future. In the protected setting of the classroom (or a professional training workshop), students can experiment with unfamiliar negotiating tactics and strategies with little or no risk to their reputations or financial well-being. By having multiple pairs or groups run the same RPS simultaneously, results can be compared during a Debriefing Session. When video of each negotiation is available, students can clearly see how someone else played the same role with the same Confidential Instructions, but achieved a different result. Assigned Reflective Memos are sometimes used to ask students to consider the cumulative results they have achieved over a sequence of negotiation assignments. Sometimes it takes more than one effort to master a strategic behavior. It is important the students get both personal and group feedback from qualified instructors along the way; the experience of an RPS is only relevant if it is combined with experienced coaching.

As compared to lectures, RPSs offer exciting learning opportunities.  Well-designed and sequenced RPSs, combined with feedback from an experienced instructor, can help students master complex skills. The face-to-face nature of RPSs (as compared to on-line self-instruction) emphasizes that all negotiations involve dyadic interaction.  Feedback from someone with whom you just negotiated is invaluable.  Group comparisons during Debriefing Sessions are often where learning solidifies. Students and instructors who have used RPSs for some time, can see clearly that they help students develop confidence and competence in ways that other teaching strategies don't.

The criticisms of RPSs are mostly theoretical. That is, there have been few, if any, controlled experiments comparing the efficacy of RPSs to other pedagogical options for teaching negotiation.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine which student attributes and contextual variables would need to be held constant, and which measures of performance can be used,  to gauge results.  Nevertheless, there are three conceptual criticisms raised in recent publications.  First, games are unrealistic.  Students are under no pressure to behave or perform in a game as they would in "real life."  Second, only if a student repeats the same game many times will he or she be able to master specific skills.  And, by definition, once the results of a game have been debriefed, there is no way to run it a second time.  Third, students learn in different ways, and some might be better off observing real negotiations than playing games.

Some of the people who say that games are unrealistic don't realize how much work goes into developing serious RPSs.  Those of who design RPSs often base them on our involvement in actual negotiating situations, and build on authentic fact patterns and interviews with real-life role players. While it is true that 90 minutes may pose an unrealistic time constraint, we usually zoom in on just one aspect of a negotiation or a conflict situation so that the "work" required in a game can fit the time available.  We do a lot of pre-testing of RPSs to be sure that the average student will be able to handle the assigned tasks.

The question of whether or not student behavior in an RPS mimics real-life negotiating behavior is more interesting.  Most instructors will not base a student's grade on the outcome they achieve in a game.  We want them to take risks and be prepared to fail.  Does this mean that students don't take their roles seriously, or are they inclined to search for easy compromises when there are no real-life stakes o the line?  It may be true in some instances. On the other hand, I have tried offering financial incentives to students assigned spoiler roles in certain games.  I don't see much effect.  In general, as long as everyone can "blame" their Confidential Instructions or the instructor's mandate to do the best for himself in the game that he can, most students seem willing to negotiate aggressively.  By the way, grades are based on the progress we can track in the Reflective Memos along with a more traditional exam aimed at (1) gauging a student's ability to formulate a negotiation strategy given the facts of a situation; or (2) assessing another negotiator's tactics and strategies.

Do students need to play the same game many times before they can master a particular negotiation lesson?  I doubt it. While it would be possible to keep a "fact pattern"constant and hand out slightly different Confidential Instructions for successive plays of the same game, I don't think it is necessary. Debriefings, Reflective Memos and repetition of earlier lessons in a sequence of games appear to me to be sufficient to "lock in" the lessons we are trying to teach. When I encounter students months or years after they have taken a negotiation course, many are quick to recount the overwhelming significance of a particular game that taught them a life-long lesson.

I don't doubt that students learn in different ways. RPSs need to be packaged with assigned readings, introductory lectures, carefully selected case studies, well organized feedback and analysis of scripted start-stop video involving professionally-actors.  But, RPSs -- when presented properly -- add something to a class that no other teaching tool can match. Learning complex skills requires trial-and-error, reflection, adjustment and more trial-and-error. We could send students out each week to undertake negotiations with their roommates, various commercial vendors, or their parents. Unfortunately, this probably wouldn't get past the Institutional Review Board in my university. Moreover, RPSs allow me to guarantee that specific negotiation challenges will arise from week to week.  I'd rather students faced a range of carefully controlled negotiating situations that we can reflect on together. This should not be to the exclusion, though, of other teaching tools.

Finally, Professor Dan Druckman and his colleagues argue that students probably get more out of designing games than playing them.  There may be something to that.  But, you have to master a great deal of negotiation theory to be able to design an effective RPS.  And, then, you've just learned one key lesson.  On the other hand, I don't think designing a single game is a substitute for first-hand participation in the multiple interactions required by a sequence of well-tested games taught by a qualified instructor.

In a subsequent blog entry, I will review the other uses of RPSs, including helping the participants in high-level negotiations prepare for their upcoming interactions


1 Comment:

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