More Than a Game: Batten Simulation Center Puts Ideas to Real-World Tests

U.Va. students experiment with different decisions and outcomes during one of Gerard Learmonth’s public policy simulations.

Trial and error is a key component to all innovation, but it is also a costly one. Public officials rarely have the time or the resources to test multiple experimental policies before choosing the one that will best serve their community.

The University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is lifting those constraints with a bold new approach to public policy education.

The school’s recently unveiled Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming prepares students for public life by allowing them to test real-world solutions in a virtual environment.

“We are developing the capacity, in-house, to design realistic, computer-assisted policy models and simulations for a variety of substantive areas ranging from education and economic development to health care, the environment and national security,” Batten School Dean Allan C. Stam said.

Using Batten’s new computer models, students will be able to see how the decisions they make over the course of two hours would impact the community for years to come.

Stam recently hired Gerard Learmonth as professor of policy informatics and director of the Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming. Learmonth is the architect behind U.Va.’s famed Bay Game simulation and also serves as the director of the Center for Large-Scale Computational Modeling for the Office of the Vice President for Research.

In addition to the U.Va. Bay Game – an advanced computer simulation that allows players to take on the roles of stakeholders whose decisions affect the health of the Chesapeake Bay – Learmonth has also helped create a supply chain game for Nike Inc., and a game that simulates the complex dynamics of the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

“Over the course of the next few years, I will develop new stand-alone games for Batten that allow students to test policy outcomes for major public sectors like education and health care,” Learmonth said.

Students will work in small teams for each simulation and test the theories they discuss in class, pitting the success of their solutions against those of other teams. The purpose is to help them see the broader picture and the larger impact of their decisions. For example, students playing the environmental game may find that prioritizing the health of the environment in every policy decision can boost local ecosystems, but might also damage the local economy.

“A lot of times the best outcome is the discussion after the game,” Learmonth said. “To me that is the real purpose of a simulation model: to stimulate thinking, to stimulate ideas, and get people to see the world in a different way than with their initial biases or misunderstandings that were brought up through the game.”

As Learmonth builds new education, economic development, health care, environmental and national security simulations, he is also working with Batten students and faculty to understand how simulations will support existing curricula. Several classes have already experimented with Learmonth’s earlier games.

In each class where Learmonth has run a simulation, students quickly picked up on those real-world demands. He’s watched them learn how to better negotiate and tackle a problem from more than one point of view.

Assistant professor of public policy Eileen Chou was impressed the first time she and Learmonth incorporated a simulation into her “Civic Leadership” course.

“I thought that my students were very engaged during the simulation and they quickly adapted to this different platform,” Chou said. “At the end, they did quite well. I had one student asking me if she could rerun the simulation at home.”

Other schools, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have collaborated on similar simulations that address climate change and other issues, but Batten will be the first to offer a comprehensive simulation curriculum for public policy.

“Our vision is that within the next two or three years, the entire Batten student body will be able to play a large multi-day game as a capstone experience,” Learmonth said.

Just as public officials have to consider multiple social and economic sectors when implementing new policy, this large-scale day of gaming will show how decisions made in one sector can impact another. For example, students working in the education simulation would have to consider how their actions would also affect the policy outcomes for the economic development and health care simulations.

Learmonth and Stam see the five simulations under development as only the beginning. They plan to bring collaborators from across the University into the Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming.

“I’m looking to staff the center with bright, energetic students, because I want it to be a dynamic center,” Learmonth said. “There should be an almost startup-like flavor. We’ll constantly be pushing the boundaries of research and education through simulation.”

As it evolves, the Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming joins Batten’s roster of established and new centers, including the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competiveness (jointly shared with the Curry School of Education), the Center for Health Policy (a collaboration between Batten and the U.Va. School of Medicine), Social Entrepreneurship @ UVA and the new Batten Global Policy Center.

Educational progress at the Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming was made possible by new donations from the Batten family.

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