Playtesting a university simulation game in a graduate seminar

I’d like to start 2022 on a high note.  After frantically grading impressive student final projects, I thought I could share some of their work from earlier in the fall semester.  Specifically, I’ll describe a teaching game I’ve been developing and that my future of higher education seminar played.  It was a terrific experience.

First I’ll quickly explain the game. Second, I’ll sketch out how play unfolded. Lastly I’ll point to some reflections and potential next directions.

One note: the students generously gave me permission to share the course of their play.  I will not share their names, noting players instead by their roles. A second note: this is a sketch of a sustained and complicated series of game sessions. Much more went on that this single post can convey. My purpose here is not to be exhaustive, but to introduce how the game worked in late 2021.

I: Matrix University

The game is a matrix game. If you’re unfamiliar with them, they are a mix of tabletop and role-playing games. Players represent people or organizations who can make decisions or carry them out within a given situation.  During each turn players attempt to make moves in their roles, writing or talking about their plans.  A referee judges each move to see how they play out.  What makes a matrix game different from many others is that each player not only has to make a case for why their moves make sense, but other players participate in determining if each move works.  The overall result is a kind of collaborative yet competitive storytelling project.

I started making my own matrix game in 2020, a game that simulates the future of a university. Players take on key roles within the institution and each turn represents one academic year.

I envisioned this as a simulation for learning.  Students would study their roles and the rules, then apply what they’d learned previously to play.  They would also research topics that came up during play.  Challenges they ran into could point the way for further study.

I first tested it out on a Georgetown University graduate seminar during fall 2020. You can find more information on matrix games from that link, too.

How I ran it this time: I revised the rules, role descriptions, and campus information, then shared them with students, along with an introduction to matrix games.  I assigned them roles based on what I’d learned about them in the course of working together, either giving them positions which spoke to their strengths or which took them out of their comfort zones.  Here are the roles we used:

  1. University president  
  2. Provost or academic dean  
  3. Chair of board of trustees  
  4. Humanities faculty members  
  5. Science faculty members  
  6. Head of student athletics  
  7. Non-faculty staff, including the VP for information services (IT + library)  
  8. Undergraduate and graduate students

We could have expanded the number of roles in many ways, like adding a social science faculty representative, breaking down staff into different organizations, and so on… but were limited to the actual number of students in the class.

The university in question was fictional, with some goofy details.  It’s named Exemplum University, of course, and this science-heavy school’s sports teams are the Particles. It’s a private, 2nd-tier, mid-Atlantic research campus.  I chose this institutional type because it was close to the students’ experiences, and because it would be generic enough to apply and derive some general lessons.  The 2nd research tier aspect was to set up a plot whereby the president wanted to lead EU into Carnegie 1 status.  It was an American campus because we hadn’t had time in the semester to introduce other nations’ post-secondary situations, and I feared doing so as part of the game might overwhelm them.

In fact, each role had its own goals, relationships with other players, and some secret information, which players could decide to share as they saw fit.  None of these were very creative.  Instead, they were drawn from recent history and with an eye towards being as generic as possible.  For example, the science faculty representative had this in their briefing:

Goals

Primary: to steadily grow your research profile.

Secondary: to increase the number of underrepresented populations in your classes and ranks.  In particular, this means women in fields other than biology and health, plus blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans in general.

And also

Connections to the rest of campus:

-There are some Two Cultures tensions with humanists.  They openly resent the greater share of resources you all tend to receive, especially from outside grants and some high-flying faculty.  Additionally, some of your number dislike certain very political humanists.

I also expanded the random events deck to 65 cards.  This I did not share beforehand, in order to preserve the element of surprise.  The deck was entirely textual and pretty schematic, since I didn’t have time or budget to make the cards look lovely.

Finally, I shared a revised game board, like so:

Exemplum University board_2021 fall t1

You can see that it’s crude, of course, since I’m not a graphic designer nor did I have a budget for same, but it gets across the basic idea: a physical campus and key points of its organization. The parking lot does double duty as the physical parking spaces as well as a mental spot to stash ideas for future consideration. There are also some enrollment and financial metrics to watch. Lots of negative space is there as room for event markers to come, as you’ll see below.

II: The course of play

PREPARATION FOR THE FIRST TURN

As referee/designer/professor I made sure students had a week to read and think about this, while starting to make plans in their roles. I didn’t make any print materials, since some of the students were online (HyFlex classroom!), so instead used Google Sheets to store copies of the board and ready-made markers for events.  During the class period I made sure students could ask questions, then gave them a little pep talk and fired up the Sheet on the projector/shared Zoom screen.  I made sure the random events deck was ready – i.e., a big Google Doc with each card numbers, and a random number generator open in the next tab.

Then the scheming began.

TURN 1: 2023-2024

Each turn had three steps:

  1. Update on university status.
  2. Update on university and world events.
  3. Player Actions determined, stated, and collectively resolved, each either by collective deliberation or by facilitator ruling.  The sequence of players was randomly determined each turn.

On turn 1 the first step was mostly reminding students of EU’s status: enrollment, financials, etc.  Then I “rolled” for random events.  The first was the appearance of a new science lab, which had been planned before the game began. This boosted the sciences’ reputation on and off campus.  I showed this graphically, on the game board, with a little marker (see below). The second event involved the federal Department of Education imposing new reporting structures, demanding that universities supply data on financial and learning outcomes.

Students took all of this in, then started talking with each other.  A lot.  About half an hour went by as they argued, planned, and politicked. They hobnobbed in the classroom, on Zoom, in the hallway, and on phones.  I kept a close eye on them, making myself available for questions.  Questions did come: who would I most likely approach for this?  Can I really do that?  At times the classroom was silent but for frantic typing noises.

Then it was time for their Actions.   I “rolled” a player sequence and the president started off, pushing for an expansion to student mental health services while paying for it by cutting back athletics spending. This Action succeeded with much arm-twisting.  The student representative managed to get more student workers included in the expanded mental health workforce.  Another Action came from the scientist player, who convinced everyone to offer a virology program. The stung athletics director offered one more Action, a partnership with Meta (nee Facebook) to get virtual reality gear and training in order to create VR media of play and players.  This succeeded.  Everyone else passed.

TURN 2: 2024-2025

I began by updating the game board:

Exemplum University board_2021 fall t2

You can see some markers from events and Actions, like the new science lab and VR sports.  I adjusted enrollment and financial stats, based in part on randomness and in part on a random event (you’ll see).

But what’s the fiery red box about?  Ah, the players didn’t take any Actions to meet the new federal regulations.  Washington was not pleased and said as much.  (Students were abashed.)

Then I added random events.  The first saw the humanities taking a cultural hit, which reduced their reputation in the world and a little bit on campus.  The second was a new recession.  Hence some of the changes to institutional enrollment and finances.

How did the players respond?  After another round of negotiation and planning, the student player went first, floating the idea of expanded student support services, namely mental and academic counseling. Much politicking followed, with players bringing a good sense of their respective roles to bear. The final Action that resulted was to commence fundraising for an interdisciplinary Center of Excellence, which would include some student workers.  The athletics director successfully won the hire of a new assistant coach, arguing that the lead coach would have to devote more time to fundraising.

Two other Actions were raised, but didn’t succeed: the creation of a major triennial humanities conference and the creation of a new, integrated data sciences unit.

TURN 3: 2025-2026

This began with our update on university status:

Exemplum University board_2021 fall t3

You can see the science lab is still attached, as is the VR sports marker.  There’s now a fundraising box, showing last turn’s campaign is under way.

But now there are two more fiery red boxes!  Ah, the first one is because players failed to take the federal government’s displeasure seriously last turn, so now the Department of Education is threatened sanctions.

The scandal box is from one of the random events, which was a sports scandal.  I shared the full story with the athletics player and the president, then left further information sharing up to them. The gist was local media finding out that the football coach was inappropriately getting favors for student-athletes, such favors including alcohol and the service of prostitutes.  Additionally, there were charges that the coach tried to suborn faculty members to be extra lenient on student-athletes.

The second random event was less lurid, a 75% increase in library material costs.

Student Actions followed.  They resurrected the data initiative from last turn to try addressing federal sanctions.  In response to the sports scandal they launched an investigation. [There were several other Actions proposed but failed; my laptop had serious problems then, so my Google Doc of notes also failed at this point, for which I apologize.]

TURN 4: 2026-2027

We began as usual with a campus update:

Exemplum University board_2021 fall t4

Some of this is now very familiar to both readers and players, like the fundraising, VR, and science lab markers still in place.

Alas, two fiery boxes again!  The feds were not satisfied by EU’s data initiative and want a more expansive operation.  You can also see the coach scandal investigation going on.

Speaking of fiery, the climate crisis hit Exemplum in two different events.  Repeated heat waves swept over campus, causing some water quality issues and heatstroke deaths. At the same time climate pressures drove migrations away from equatorial nations, creating a massive wave of refugees.

In the player Action phase, the student representative led off by proposing water filtration measures.  A lot of politics followed, concluding with a consensus around providing filtration kits to students.  (One of the faculty players encouraged the students to strike if they didn’t succeed; the president’s laconic response was “that recommendation will be hard to forget.”)  Science faculty successfully won using the athletic department’s Meta VR gear for research purposes.  The athletics player convinced faculty to host VR classes.

A lot of energy accompanied discussions about how to deal with the athletics scandal. At one point a consensus emerged to fire the head coach. Then the trustees player threatened to block major donations unless EU kept the (otherwise very popular) coach on.

III: Reflections and what next?

First of all, I was delighted by how deeply students learned and immersed themselves in the game.  The presidential player emitted presidential rhetoric with disturbing skill. The provost learned just how much turns on their job, and how fragile it is.  The trustee leader managed to yank the consensus around in a realistic yet cynical way.

Second, I enjoyed the students’ reflections.  One observed that play humanized institutional structures.  Another saw the structure of the game as making all players equal, even within a hierarchy. They wanted to play more rounds, which was gratifying.  One suggested running the game through a semester, one turn per class.

Third, I was conscious of game design stresses and problems. Practically, depending on a single, wheezing laptop was obviously a problem (fixed by a hard reboot, but still). I underestimated how much time each turn took, and ended up compressing negotiations too much.  I’m not comfortable with how the financial system worked, as students were a bit disconnected from it, discussing money in more abstract terms.  Perhaps I should abstract economics out into a track.

Fourth, as much as we enjoyed Exemplum, research universities are only one slice of higher education.  There should be scenarios for other institutions: community colleges, liberal arts colleges, state universities, arts colleges, and more.

Fifth, I’d like to game out the ways higher education engages the climate crisis.  Should I just build this into event cards, or add more structures?  Would it be better to build a separate game focused on the topic, or weave climate into other scenarios?  I’m not sure, but would love to hear your thoughts.

So what’s next?

I’d like to take “Matrix University” further.  There are a bunch of possibilities.  For example, on Twitter PF Anderson and John Farquhar asked how to replicate this game.

  • Keep developing it with my Georgetown University classes, semester after semester.
  • Develop scenarios for different institutions and nations.
  • Set it up as a public, online game.  Run it either synchronously or asynchronously.  Invite folks to play it for all to see.
  • Run Matrix University online yet privately.
  • Approach publishers to turn all of this into a book, like the Norton Reacting to the Past series.
  • Post all materials online in shareable formats to see what the world makes of it.
  • Host games for academics at workshops or conferences.
  • Boost the design.  Hire someone who actually knows visuals to make things look better. Outsource production of the board, cards, and pieces to produce at least a demo version of a boxed game.
  • Digitize the thing.  Create a computer game version.
  • Make a solitaire version. Here a player would lead Exemplum University (or whichever campus) through years of challenging crises.  The States of Siege game paradigm might be one to built upon.

Much depends on supply (my time and resources) and demand (who’s interested in this? what would they prefer?).  What do you think?

And kudos to my very patient, creative, and smart seminar students.

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7 Responses to Playtesting a university simulation game in a graduate seminar

  1. I envision gameplay here not terribly dissimilar to that of Diplomacy? I don’t know what approach would be best, but it sounds interesting and I’d be happy to help you playtest any refinements.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Steve, that’s not a bad comparison. The difference is Diplomacy doesn’t require a referee, while the Matrix University includes much more detail for roles.

      And thanks!

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    Great description and analysis, Bryan. My suggestion would be to add climate change as event cards, perhaps with significant systemic effects (impact on the whole university instead of one area).

    A few questions: How do you feel about the time you were able to give to the exercise in context? Did the game have enough time to breath given the constraints of class time? Did the game have enough time to evolve given the number of sessions/semester length you were able to give to it?

    The reason I ask those questions is that it might help you figure out other contexts in which you might want to play it out. A one-off conference/university workshop might not be enough evolutionary time for the game, for instance. It might actually be fun to do as a mini-MOOC, perhaps as an adjunct to the Forum (I’d definitely be willing to play along there). Let it run for several months and use its insights for reflection. I could also see several organizations that might want to take this on as an analysis tool. Just some ideas.

    Tom

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good ideas and questions, Tom.

      Re: time, the game had more time this class than it did when I first launched it, and it accomplished its immediate goals. But it did need more time to breathe, as you say. It also needs more plays to evolve.

      Now I see what you mean about a workshop. It would be to *be* the workshop, and that a full day affair.

      As a mini-MOOC… I can see adding some readings to get people going, along with some discussion space for them to explore their roles and the situation before the game begins.

      Which organizations would be interested?

  3. Rachel Rigolino says:

    Sounds great! I would love to have a chance to play it myself 😉
    In Spring 2021, I began using the topic: What is the college experience? with my first-year Composition students. The resulting research reports (they wind up being reports more than research essays) have been outstanding. At first, some students balk about doing research on higher ed issues, but then they realize they can choose a topic that speaks to their own experiences—-from how well res life dealt with CV-19 restrictions to permutations of online learning (what works and what doesn’t). It has been a lot of fun! They start by investigating our website and learning who the administrators are and what their roles are.
    Good luck with taking your game to another level—
    Rachel

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Rachel, thank you so much. That composition assignment is brilliant. Are any results shareable?

      And how would you like to try playing this game – online, say, or at a conference?

  4. Christine Shakespeare says:

    All the way back in 2001 or 2002 I was enrolled in the higher education administration program at NYU and Professor Richard Richardson introduced us to a computer program that simulated a game just like you described.

    Here is a link to an article about VirtualU: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED479247 and I believe William Massy was involved in its creation as well as some folks from U Penn. I remember it to be super clunky and back then there were no DEI angles or environmentalism concerns. But it was a great tool for teaching and learning. See this article too: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/virtual-u/1100-2694634/. I wonder what happened to the game!

    Long story short you could probably license a game for higher education administration programs!

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