Khalid Saeed

Role-Playing Games in the Classroom

Students learn about systems thinking in a new way

October 6, 2017
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At WPI, generating new ideas and reinventing old ones to convey material are common practice, one that’s done by faculty and students alike. Since system dynamics can be an intimidating topic to study, one professor has designed a class to make the concepts more accessible to students.

Khalid Saeed’s new course, Games for Understanding Complexity, aims to teach students the skills needed to address complex problems in their future careers through a unique medium: role-playing games, or RPGs.

As part of the course, students play two or three RPGs and build computer models that drive the behavior of those players as well as the outcomes of the games. The course, run in a laboratory format, has students developing simulation models, and presenting them to the class for feedback and suggestions before their final evaluation.

“The games are built around real-world situations, like service capacity management, supply chains, and commons,” Saeed explains, adding that by participating in the case studies, students will become aware of the everyday decisions they have to make..

Saeed's course, run in a laboratory format, has students developing
simulation models and presenting them to the class for feedback.

By the end of the course, Saeed, Social Science and Policy Studies professor and director of WPI’s system dynamics program, says they will be equipped with improved decision-making skills and the ability to model complex problems.

The course also aims to “cultivate feedback thinking and understand unintended consequences of linear thinking.” Essentially, linear thinking might provide good ideas in theory, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem (Saeed compares them to the beliefs that sales can be increased through marketing efforts, poverty can be alleviated by helping the poor, hunger by setting up soup kitchens, crime by locking up criminals, etc.). On the other hand, feedback thinking aims to understand the paths that cause a problem in the first place, and create policies to help lessen the risks that lead to the problem.

“This component must be delivered through a lively and appealing process,” he says. If student reactions are anything to go by, he’s succeeded.

“I’m amazed at how fast the students learn in this course,” he says, adding that during the four times he’s taught an experimental version of the course, no one has dozed off, and attendance has been regularly high, even when nice weather makes for a tempting skip day. “Some students have successfully applied system dynamics to their junior and senior projects after this one course.”

Mini-lectures about the methodology of system dynamics are interspersed with gameplay and modeling efforts to help students further understand the material. Saeed says that in addition to having fun playing the games, students get to know their fellow classmates through the process.

A key aspect of the class is that it’s flexible. It meets social science requirements, can be considered an elective for a student’s major, or can be taken as part of a major or minor in system dynamics.

“Students from all levels and departments are welcome,” Saeed adds. “I’d especially like to welcome freshmen and juniors to the course so they can consider using the concepts learned in their future work here.”

According to Saeed, the course has already drawn students from a variety of departments, including life sciences, computer science, several areas of engineering, and interactive media and game development.

Games for Understanding Complexity will be offered again in D-Term for interested students.

- By Allison Racicot