Last month, the Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development at Indiana University Bloomington hosted an impressive online workshop on decolonizing undergraduate teaching. Many scholars have called for the decolonization of international development studies and raised important questions about teaching IDS theory while also adequately preparing students for professional roles in the field. While this work has been ongoing, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and the questions it has raised about international development provides a new opportunity to reconsider educational practices and pedagogies for the teaching of international development studies at the undergraduate level.

I was fortunate enough to present on an interactive role-play course I just concluded teaching at ALU. My presentation for the workshop, “Navigating African Political Economy Through Role Play Simulation,” gave an overview of the political simulation in which my students attempt to rebuild an African economy after the shocks of COVID-19. Below is the description of my session.

It is not a coincidence that undergraduates who play Dungeons and Dragons have emerged as leaders for this course. For this 12-week role-play game, students adopt one of six imaginary societal roles and then work collaboratively to rebuild their fictional African country’s economy after the financial shocks of COVID-19. Students may be politicians, business people, government workers, labor unionists, media outlets, voters, or international interests—each with competing or dovetailing interests. Each week presents a foundational concept to political economy and the instructor gives a relevant crisis scenario, e.g., workers’ strike, coup d’état, environmental disaster, etc.  During our online discussion, students debate, make announcements, and negotiate in breakout rooms named for actual locations where policy-making occurs in Africa. At the end of the session, students vote for which politicians to keep in office and which media sources they trust. After assessing voting, instructors decide what the outcomes would be in the fictional country’s storyline based on accepted theories of typical development patterns. These outcomes, represented in numerical indicators, lead to the following week’s scenario that will then be tackled again. Every other session attempts to solve political and socioeconomic problems arising in response to students’ prior behaviors.

The course’s dynamism lies in part with the secret instructions each student receives privately. Some students have instructions to opt to change political parties, attempt to capture the state, engage in corruption, act as a foreign spy—or not. Students are also allowed to negotiate informally outside of class time. After voting, they explain their decisions in their weekly rationale assignments. In their rationales, students clarify why they did what they did. They outline why they chose to be a perfectly rational actor in their self-interest or place the larger social good at the fore, or why they emphasized short-term rewards or long-term sustainability. The rationales position them to think critically about why other actors approached the goal differently from them. At the end of the course, there are “winners” and “losers” in the game (an idea which the students seem to love).