Home » Blog » The immaculate vibes of the Zombie Pandemic Simulation

The immaculate vibes of the Zombie Pandemic Simulation

A few weeks ago, my intro to IR class engaged in my favorite activity of the semester- the zombie pandemic simulation, and, as a great class session always does, it reignited my joy for teaching and learning. The vibes were, as the youth say, immaculate.  

This assignment is adapted from International Relations Syllabus, United Nations Simulation and Rubric by Xiaoye She, with inspiration drawn also from Patricia Stapleton’s Politics of Plague course.  I’ve run this simulation in person and online, at Kingsborough and at Doshisha University, and every semester, it is a huge amount of fun (which disguises the significant amount of learning that happens!).  In my experience, running a simulation requires careful balancing- how can you simplify the incredibly complex real world institution (whether it’s the UN, as in this simulation, or the US Congress in my American Government class) enough that if fits into one class period while retaining enough of the specifics to make it a political science learning experience and not just a reasonably pleasant way to spend an hour and a half?  What is the least amount of preparation that students need to do to be able to effectively participate (so that the largest number of students possible can participate)?  For this simulation, I’ve settled on a country background and policy brief- maximum two pages total.  (For students who show up, but didn’t prepare, they act as recorders and take notes; they are also able to participate in discussion but not vote, like the non-member states at the real UN).  

If I may be permitted the use of a word I’m far too old to be using, it’s important to remember that the simulation is less about the specifics and more about the vibe.  The UN is a fascinating organization, with specific procedures, bureaucracies, and protocols- it takes new diplomats and employees years to learn the ropes, so I can’t possibly expect students to learn every point of procedure in a one class simulation – that is not an appropriate yardstick.  In an introductory class, the unit learning objective is to develop a general understanding of the functioning of the UN, as well as how the relative status of different countries affects what they are able to accomplish at the UN.  I could give a lecture to communicate this general idea, sure, but I find that the active learning simulation generates a much deeper understanding- they get not just the words, but the essence, the vibe if you will, of the UN as a place for international conversation and collaboration.

Because it’s a simulation, the outcome is really up to the students- every one I have run has been different, but they’ve all been great!  Highlights of the most recent simulation include a student doing a closer reading than I did of the assignment sheet (that I wrote!) to calculate the incubation period of Zombie-ism.  Another student, representing a lower middle income country, offered to trade troops for financial assistance, which prompted a third student to comment that that seemed rather colonial (a throwback to our discussion early in the semester of critical IR theory and was a great opportunity for us to discuss that this “rich countries send money, poor countries send soldiers” is actually the way many multilateral peacekeeping operations function).  Participation was active throughout the simulation for every student present (if you have taught a large synchronous online class, you will appreciate how rare and beautiful that is).  Even students who are not poli sci majors, or are usually reluctant to participate in the class, were in it to win it.  

It’s also been a great touchpoint for our discussions going forward for the remainder of the semester- the zombie simulation has come up in our modules on human rights, climate change, and transnational pandemics.  Re-read the end of the chat from the simulation pictured above, and tell me you don’t dig these vibes